SITUATED ECOLOGIES is a platform for research projects and activities that relate to situated and contested ecologies, in particular when viewed through the processes of urbanisation.

Research outputs and themes

research themes

Framing SUPE

Provincialising Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE through African Urbanism  (Available early view at Antipode or open access here) 

Mary Lawhon, Henrik Ernstson and Jonathan Silver

Abstract: Urban political ecology has provided critical insights into the sociomaterial construction of urban environments, their unequal distribution of resources, and contestation over power and resources. Most of this work is rooted in Marxist urban geographical theory, typically beginning with a structuralist theory of power, then examining particular artifacts and infrastructure to provide a critique of society. We demonstrate how UPE can integrate insights in urban geography from Southern theory. Recognizing differences across cities and urban theory in the South, we focus on possible contributions from African urbanism to UPE as but one means for expansion. We begin suggesting what a situated UPE might entail: starting with everyday practices, examining diffuse forms of power, and opening the scope for radical incrementalism. Rooting research in a broader definition of political ecology and starting from theory and empirics in cities of the South can provide new theory and grounds for radical change Keywords: urban political ecology, African urbanism, everyday practice, Southern theory, urban theory.

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Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism: ‘Engaged Theory-Making’ and ‘Platforms of Engagement’  (Forthcoming in Regional Studies)                                                                                                                                                  

Henrik Ernstson, Mary Lawhon and James Duminy

Abstract. As the global South, and Africa in particular, becomes increasingly urbanized, scholars have called attention to the limited explanatory capacity of existing theory. In response, ROY (2009) suggests developing conceptual vectors based on regional histories and contexts that shape cities. Here we identify and develop two such vectors. We suggest that the developmentalist focus of African urban work provides insights into the challenges of linking academic theory with progressive changes in practice, what we call ‘engaged theory- making’. We also suggest that conditions of informality enables ‘platforms of engagement’ — particular modes of organizing towards radical incremental change. Our intention is to highlight strengths of African research, raise critical questions and encourage further work. Key words: comparative urbanism; Africa; urban theory; practice; conceptual vectors; informality.


a) Socio-materialities in the city of flows

This has led us to focus on the role of urban infrastructure systems in African cities as a way to understand the production of urban space and the role of socio-materialities in the shaping of these environments. The research theme is concerned with a critical examination of these dynamics with the aim to consider how these can be shaped to more just and sustainable urban flows. This research theme includes our work across a range of socio-materialities in African urban environments including; urban natures, energy and climate change, e-waste, sanitation and alcohol.

 b) Politicizing African urban environments

Whilst the urban is increasingly viewed as an important site of environmental governance in which to enact progressive social change it simultaneously operates as a site of contestation, struggle and inequality, thereby requiring critical attention by urban scholars working in African cities and linking to debates and engagement with municipalities, social movements and other urban intermediaries. This research theme is focused on examining these controversies across African urban environments, seeking to show the political nature of urban management and to provide detailed accounts of these struggles.

 c) Everyday urbanisms

Achieving the development of theory from the South is of course no small task, but African urbanists have widely proposed to first build an ethnographic understanding of ordinary cities (Simone 2004a; 2004b; 2011; Robinson 2006; Pieterse 2008). This kind of work is based on a willingness to situate research in context, describe before explaining, and avoiding the tendency to jump to policy recommendations. It requires starting with examining everyday practices of African cities rather than starting with a theory of urbanization

d) Radical incrementalism

The process of turning these everyday urbanisms into a radical incrementalism that supports recursive empowerment, as theorized by Pieterse (2008), is critical for understanding spaces of possibility and hope that can multiply instead of evaporate or be placed within a centralized ‘state’. Radical incrementalism is thus a situated, unfolding process which differs over time and across space. This research theme will explore how different urban actors including social movements and wider civil society can develop incremental strategies that challenge inequalities and support improved urban services, solidarities and infrastructures.

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