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“Greening” Spatial Apartheid: Op-ed article on “eco-estates” and urban elite spaces of South Africa

Bruce Baigrie and Henrik Ernstson have just published a critique of “eco-estates” in GroundUp (online magazine) based on an initial study in Nordhoek, Cape Town.


In this piece we do a first analysis of the making of an “eco-estate” in Cape Town and its social and ecological effects. These “eco-estates” enroll and depoliticise environmental arguments to create a “green” life-style choice for the rich. Often placed on pristine land outside the urban edge, these “eco-estates” represent a deeply problematic and pervasive urban development in South African cities. Not only do they exploit “green” arguments, consumes a lot of space—but they also form part of a “geographical escapism” that re-produces spatial apartheid (Ballard and Jones 2011) and what SA historian Premesh Lalu (2009) has called a “settler public sphere,” a public discourse that makes invisible ongoing violence and the wider reality of a country and neighbourhood of deep and racialized inequality.


For the GroundUp version, please go here, which is being reproduced under the Creative Commons licence below. If you like to re-tweet, please consider tweeting this ‘original’ tweet at @rhizomia. To cite this, use:

Baigrie, Bruce, and Henrik Ernstson. 2017. “Noordhoek Eco-Estates Protect the Rich from the Reality of Masiphumelele: Apartheid Geography Preserved behind a Concern for the Environment.” GroundUp, January 23. Accessed from URL:


Noordhoek eco-estates protect the rich from the reality of Masiphumelele

Apartheid geography preserved behind a concern for the environment

Photo of Chapman\'s Bay Estate
Lake Michelle estate, surrounding the water body. The cleared land in the right of the section is part of Chapman’s Bay Estate’s property. Photo: Chapman’s Bay Estate website (copied as fair use)
By  and 

A stone’s throw from the working-class township of Masiphumelele, the Noordhoek mountains are being transformed into exclusive “eco-estates” which preserve apartheid geography just as the Group Areas Act did, write Bruce Baigrie and Henrik Ernstson

It is impossible not to notice the construction of Chapman’s Bay Estate as you drive into the Noordhoek Valley along Ou-Kaapse Weg. Splayed out over the mountain slope beside the road, it boasts stunning views, of mountains, beaches and the suburbs of Noordhoek and Fish Hoek. Wetlands glimmer, some with a fence around them, incorporated for exclusive use of the estate.

Further down the valley, in the largest wetland, the entire body of water has been surrounded by the luxury estate of Lake Michelle and made inaccessible to non-residents. Westward and across the valley, other estates stretch along the slope of the mountain, with more construction on-going.

The sheer scale of Chapman’s Bay Estate has drawn three private developers together, including a family trust. Greeff Properties, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, manages the sales, describing it as another of its “most luxurious and exclusive mandates in the Western Cape.” Future residents, who will pay between R3,5 million and R6,8 million for a property, will enjoy a set of newly built amenities. In late 2015, a Virgin Active gym was inaugurated as part of a new shopping mall, which also boasts of its green credentials. Both the gym and the mall feature as incentives in Greeff Christie’s promotional video for the estate, a video that conspicuously only shows white people, smiling individuals and families, doing activities associated with “the lifestyle that comes with Noordhoek.” As if it wasn’t clear already what demographic is desired and expected to live here, the video continues with animations of what it could be like to walk around and live in these houses, again only showing white-rendered people.

That the estate is intended to exclude is clear. On one of our visits in November 2016, two workers from the security company Innoza are running cabling along the bottom of the 3 metre high perimeter fence. CCTV cameras are being placed on even higher poles to produce live video linked into the guardhouse at the main gate.

For the private security industry as well as the banks and the developers, these estates are lucrative.

The development of the estate, originally known as the Dassenberg Residential Estate, has not been without controversy. Opposed by local civic and environmental groups, the initial application was turned down in 1997, only to be approved by a former ANC MEC Pierre Uys in 2009, during the dying days of his term of office. The new Democratic Alliance MEC, Anton Bredell, refused to challenge the approval, and after initial resistance to a rezoning request, the DA-led City of Cape Town abandoned its opposition much to the dismay of residents of the area, and despite the province’s Planning Advisory Board stating the development should have been “drastically scaled back”.

Residents of the Peninsula and the wider Noordhoek valley now seem to have grudgingly accepted the development, though 20-year-old Shelby, who spoke to us from Sun Valley in November 2016, laments the loss of access to her neighbouring wetland and mountain. The mountainside that her family’s home looks onto has been cleared, while most of the wetlands are sealed off by stainless steel and electric fencing.

These “eco-estates,” often on pristine land lying outside the urban edge, represent a deeply problematic pattern of urban development in South African cities. With sustainability as a paramount goal, how do we understand the social and ecological effects of this type of development?

Sustainability is about a connection between ecological processes and social justice. Chapman’s Bay Estate only glaringly omits any such connections. Rather it exploits “green” arguments of sustainability into its sales pitch. This is clear in another video at the estate’s website. The lead architects from the local practice, Lennard & Lennard, proudly proclaim the “symbiotic relationship” that their design has created with the surrounding vegetation, but they omit for instance the destruction of vegetation and animal habitat that their design requires, and the way a once publicly accessible mountain slope is now fenced in. Surely this should be part of any truthful use of “eco” as in ecological?

The sales pitch also does not mention how the“eco-estate” consumes a lot of space and only provides housing for a few people, increasing the city’s footprint with low-density housing. The perimeter fence will eventually encompass 145 houses or “units” on a 45-hectare plot (only phase one appears to be complete). This means only 13 people per hectare if we assume four people in each “unit”. In comparison, fellow citizens in Masiphumelele, with around 17,000 residents in 2011 on 45 hectares, live with a density of 416 people per hectare – 32 times higher. High density and integrated housing development is crucial for Cape Town’s wider sustainability, but in its promotional video, the “eco-estate” turns low density into an argument to serve its sales. Future residents are promised they will “really have that feeling of space” around them.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate’s green credentials are certainly questionable, both in real material terms, and in the way the self-justifying language of conservation and ecology glosses over and waters down environmental and social justice arguments.

But beyond that, these “eco-estates” also serve as cogs within a wider machinery.

On one hand they reproduce exclusionary apartheid geographies. Using green-washing as part of the process, so-called market forces reproduce spaces just as the apartheid-era Group Areas Act once did, leaving behind residents of townships such as Masiphumelele.

The township of Masiphumelele (bottom), where metal shacks use what little space is available, is often described as encroaching on the wetland’s edge. In contrast, the Lake Michelle estate (top), which is completely built within the wetland and appropriating its heart, figures less in analysis of wetland problems. Aerial photo extracted from City of Cape Town maps

“Eco-estates,” the merging of nature with social exclusion, seem also to tap into a settler colonial mentality which dates back to the early 1800s and is difficult to stamp out in South Africa. Back then, the private garden—and, later, botanical gardens and game reserves—displayed settler identity and evoked a sense of accomplishment and home with the planting of European species imported to domesticate the “wild” African landscape. Fast forward to today’s “eco-estates,” where indigenous landscaping has become popular and replaced European “exotic plants” and which offer a tempting life-style choice for the rich: You are not simply buying a house, but you also protect nature.

But we cannot simply see these “eco-estates” in isolation. Rather, they form part of a wider appropriation of urban spaces by the elites. Authorities, finance capital, architects and security companies are providing exclusionary spaces where elite and largely white top-earners can live out what South African and British human geographers Richard Ballard and Gareth Jones have called a geographical escapism, a highly selective interaction with the surroundings. Moving from their securitised homes to spaces of elite consumption built on their behalf, such as the new shopping mall and the Virgin Active gym complex, they are cordoned off from a wider social geography. This renewed “settler public sphere” makes invisible the wider reality of a country and neighbourhood of deep and racialised inequality. Cushioned by a sense of environmental stewardship, residents can ignore the wider reality at their ease.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate, dressed up in artificially planted fynbos on previously undeveloped land, is part of a deeply troubling post-liberation urban development pattern. Part of our motivation for examining this particular estate was to learn how this happens. These exclusionary spaces and the connections between them are not simply “springing up” as if by chance, or as a “natural” consequence of things we cannot tackle. There are identifiable actors, agencies and institutions involved in their fabrication—from banks, municipalities, government agencies and environmental consultants, to architects and landscape architects who are using their knowledge, skills and “green touch” to produce these estates.

We need to work out how we can use our democratic institutions for more inclusionary urban development where sustainability and ecology is tightly wedded to social justice. We need to follow the lead of so many skilled organisers, activists and scholars of this country, now recently under the banner of Reclaim the City.

The way our cities emerge is not set in stone; what seems “natural” can always be contested and ultimately changed.

Baigrie has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town. Ernstson is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. Both authors write in their personal capacities.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp. © 2017 GroundUp. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.

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STOMPIE: Crafting stories from Cape Flats using Afrikaaps, hiphop and popular theatre

A couple of weeks back STOMPIE was screened on 25 Feb 2016 as a work-in-progress on how to weave together experiences of hiphop pedagogy with popular theatre. This was a ‘South-North’ collaboration around crafting stories from marginalised areas. Next steps being discussed among the STOMPIE Crew is a ‘Garage Tour’ to find STOMPIE Supporters, followed by a tour of High Schools in Grassy Park. Here is a short background to the project that involves The Heal the Hood Project, Mixed Mense Collective of artists, Teater Reflex, and the African Centre for Cities. 

STOMPIE - work in progress on crafting stories from Cape Flats
STOMPIE – work in progress on crafting stories from Cape Flats

STOMPIE is the result of three weeks of intensive collaboration between Emile Jansen (The Heal The Hood Project) and Kent Ekberg (Teater Reflex). They are two pedagogues with long-term experience from working in marginalised urban areas in their respective cities of Cape Town and Stockholm using dance/hip-hop/rap and popular community theatre, respectively. During these weeks they have worked with Leeroy Philips, Stefan Benting and Andre Bozack from the Mixed Mense Collective of dancers, artists and b-boys from Lavender Hill/Grassy Park. On 25 Feb it was showed as a work-in-progress on the “Garage Stage” in Grassy Park for kids and adults.

The focus has been on what it means to tell and craft stories from Cape Flats today and the collaboration also feeds into an initiative by Henrik Ernstson at the African Centre for Cities at UCT on Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies that strives to create and extend the spaces and practices involved in thinking democracy and politics in Cape Town, South Africa & global South cities.

Humour; and Afrikaaps as language of subaltern experience

The play/performance is developed fully in Afrikaaps*, which is seen as a language with its own proper history and genealogy with sounds, rhythms, beats and tones beyond simply being an ‘accident’ or ‘dialect of’ Afrikaans**. This has been explored by Emile and others in the major stage production called Afrikaaps, that played at Artscape and turned into a documentary by Dylan Valley. In STOMPIE, Afrikaaps is mixed with English. But apart from dialogue, the actors use their skills as dance and music artists, to explore a story-line where characters are faced with an important choice that will influence growth, and individual and collective efforts.

The play engages realities of urban living with humour and seriousness. During this work-in-progress session it was clear how it engaged a wide audience from kids to adults that seldom get to see theatre/performances in their own language. This made possible the opening up of thoughts and wider conversations of what it means to grow up, become part and change Cape Town. Afterwards there was a discussion on how to take these practices, stories and lessons-learnt further. Next steps being discussed among the “STOMPIE Crew” is a ‘Garage Tour’ and a tour of High Schools in Grassy Park.

To me, the play explores how to break out of confines, and where agency to change the city might sit, and through what practices that could be done. Language becomes a tool for creating agency, for bringing forth and recognising everyday collective experiences as valid and important, and from where agency can be created. This lies clearly in the use of Afrikaaps, but also in how other registers or languages is being used as in dance, rap, dialogue and story-telling. I look forward in having conversations about this more with people who saw the play, and those who will hopefully see it as it evolves.


* I am adding this video, a link to the documentary film of the on Afrikaaps project:


** Afrikaans has in turn a quite unstable relation to Dutch.

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1 Table 2 Elephants: a film essay about bushmen bboys, a flower kingdom and the ghost of a princess (5 min teaser)

Check out a 5 minute ‘teaser’ of the film “1 Table 2 Elephants” that we are finalising in 2017. Filmed in Cape Town in 2015, it deals with ways of knowing urban ecologies in postapartheid and postcolonial cities. It’s created by Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson, produced in collaboration with KTH and UCT and funded by Formas.

Many-layered city-nature

Entering the city through its plants and wetlands, the many-layered, painful and liberating history of the city emerges as we meet how biologists, hip hoppers, and wetland activists each searches for ways to craft symbols of unity and cohesion. But this is a fraught and difficult task. Perhaps not even desirable. Plants, aliens, memories and ghosts keep troubling efforts of weaving stories about this place called Cape Town.

The film tries to be a vehicle for more general conversations about history/histories, post/de-colonization and the caring for nature, city, people and oneself. Its directed towards a wide audience, from the general public to students and scholars. When ready during 2017 it will be 75 minutes long. Watch the 5 minutes ‘teaser’ below.

A wider repertoire for doing urban political ecology

The film forms part of an effort to build a wider repertoire of practices on how to approach urbanisation, cities and environmental politics, a repertoire we have called Situated Ecologies [1]. This is a multi-faceted approach that includes historical research and ethnographic practices, but also collaborations with filmers, artists, philosophers and designers. We believe these collaborations can help to trouble more conventional social and natural scientific practices, and create different ‘outputs’ or artefacts to facilitate wider, richer and thoroughly political conversations about urban ecology.

This film explores ontological politics and urban political ecology in postcolonial and postapartheid contexts. But it also speaks beyond its own local context. As often through the medium of film, the peculiar—and in some cases, the utter strangeness of Cape Town—becomes something that can travel and be translated. The film tries to be this ‘vehicle of translation’ from one context to another and provides material for discussions about our own cities, lives and collective struggles.

The film will be ready during 2016. Keep checking this space (or @rhizomia or @SituatedEcologies) and we will let you know. We have screened early work-in-progress versions in South Africa, California, Sweden and soon in Namibia.

 /Henrik and Jacob.

Facts about “1 Table 2 Elephants” : Created by: Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson. Produced by: Telltales Film in collaboration with KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Photography: Johan von Reybekiel. Sound: Jonathan Chiles. Funded by: Swedish Research Council Formas. Production coordination: Jessica Rattle and Nceba Mangese. More info:


[1] This is a blog post and not a scholarly text, but to outline some of the inspirations behind ‘situated ecologies’, I can mention: Donna Haraway’s crucial work on situated knowledges from 1988; Urban Political Ecology and its use of socio-natures, cyborgs and its interest in emancipatory politics (Erik Swyngedouw, Matthew Gandy); postcolonial and decolonial scholars (e.g. Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty); global South urbanism (AbdouMaliq Simone, Ananya Roy, Jennifer Robinson and others); and work on ontological politics, material semiotics and actor-networks (Isabelle Stengers, Sarah Whatmore, John Law, Ann-Marie Mol, Bruno Latour). 

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“Somos Sur” :: The need to think, analyse and act from the South—and hip hop as radical democratic practice.

“Somos Sur” is a rap and hip-hop song by Chilean-French artist Ana Tijoux. To me it insists that this world needs thinking, analysis and action from the South. 

The song vibrantly also features Palestinian-British rapper Shadia Mansour and provides hip hop and rap at its best—constructively angry; ruthless in speaking back to power. But also in joining dots; rhythmically it enfolds and unfolds wider geographies of solidarity. So, in solidarity with the people of Gaza, listen to it!

Somos Sur, Hip Hop and Cape Flats

“Somos Sur” also speaks through its registers of rhythm and movement to our own academic project around situated urban political ecologies (SUPE)—and to southern urbanism; and in making use of experiences and intellectual traditions from ‘the elsewheres’ of this world in order to assemble departure points for critique and radical democratic practice.

The song links directly to what I have learnt from my meetings with Capeflatsian hip hoppers Emile YX? and Mixed Mense. Their hip hop and pedagogic work in Cape Town can certainly be described as a democratic practice in that it shifts how, and who can speak into the future of Cape Town.

Over the last couple of years I have reported on how their hip hop performs deep differences to call into being the possibility of agency and new imaginaries of democracy, in spite structural oppression. See for instance my texts on their performance at Princess Vlei, in the magazine Urban Wetlands: South Asia; and here in conversation with Emile at Stanford. Their hip hop has flowed into my critique of ‘ecosystem services’ and other technologies of de-politicisation that environmental discourse is often wrapped up in (listen to this argument in my webinar from Portland State University).

Hip hop as tool of critique and pedagogy: documentary from Cape Town

In regards of what hip hop can do, as a practice to critique and engage structural oppression, I can here mention a recent documentary film about the Cape Town hip hop scene created by US-based Kareem Alston.

The film features the many nationalities of hip hoppers in Cape Town that share their talent and devotion to hip hop as a tool of critique and pedagogy. It goes a long way to animate discussions how  democratic practices can be developed from the felt sense of equality, and not from handed down ideas of simply voting every fourth or fifth year. As such of course it revives the deep democratic experiment and tradition from Cape Flats of the 1980s when United Democratic Front and other collectivities developed street-based direct democratic practices in the height of onslaught and struggle (see for instance writings by Jeremy Seekings). Another contribution from the film is that it shows how Cape Town is worlded across the continent through these hip hoppers. (30 min long.)

In solidarity: Palestinians, Mapuche and Capeflatsians

So, listen to “Somos Sur” in solidarity with Palestinians, Mapuche, and Capeflatsians. As my friend Oddveig wrote to me in fighting spirit when recommending “Somos Sur”, herself latina living in Cape Town, “doesn’t this just make you happy!”

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Conference at Stanford: “URBAN BEYOND MEASURE: Registering Urban Environments in the Global South” 8-9 May 2015

Dr. Henrik Ernstson and Dr. Jia-Ching Chen are organizing an ambitious conference at Stanford on the meeting between environmental scientists, global South urbanists and STS scholar on the “Urban Beyond Measure: Registering Urban Environments of the Global South”, May 8-9, 2015 at Stanford University. Included is also a session on film and photography as environmental humanities response to registers these urban environments beyond measure. Read more on our website.


The processes of urbanization in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America are occurring at the fastest rates in human history. In the context of new cities, ‘megacities’, informal and illegal cities, what people think of as cities—our assumptions about how they develop, what they look like, what they provide and how—is changing in response.

However, there are limits to our methods and theories in understanding these emergent cities. The registers we use to map, measure and code the city into intelligible data only capture certain aspects. In many regards, our scientific means of framing the city and how it is changing is in a process of catching up, leaving us with a sense of the urban beyond measure.

In this regard, a meeting between science and urban studies is crucial in order to develop interdisciplinary methods and knowledge, and thinking across disciplines. The conference gathers leading environmental scientists and global South urbanists and political ecologists.

Leading scientists

Leading environmental scientists and social scientists participating includes, Anne Rademacher, Awadhendra Sharan, Alisa Zomer, Angel Hsu, Garth Myers, Malini Ranganathan,  James Ferguson, Jason Corburn, Jenna Davis,  Stephen Luby, Perrine Hamel, Timothy Choy. Keynote addresses will be given by Sarah Whatmore and Susan Parnell.

Film and photography as registersThe Film WOKUE - Thumbnail

In the evening of 8 May there will also be  Knowing Urban Environments through Photography and Film
Film screening: ONE TABLE TWO ELEPHANTS: A FILM ABOUT WAYS OF KNOWING URBAN NATURE by Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson.
Film screening: KAPITAL CREATION: CHASING THE CHINESE DREAM by Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald
Photographs: CHINA’S COUNTERFEIT PARADISE by Matthew Niederhauser

This is a conference organized and moderated by Henrik Ernstson (Stanford University) and Jia-Ching Chen (Brown University) under the Urban Beyond Measure initiative at Stanford Anthropology. 8-9 Levinthal Hall at the Stanford Humanities Center.


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Marnie Graham defended her thesis on Postcolonial Nature Conservation

Marnie Graham successfully defended her PhD thesis at Stockholm University on “Postcolonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration” on the 27th of February 2015. Her study is part of our “Ways Of Knowing Urban Ecologies” project in Cape Town where she has studied nature conservation and collaborative arrangements at the Macassar Dunes.

By framing the site and nature conservation practices as embedded in colonial and apartheid legacies Dr. Marnie Graham uncovers how such legacies both continue into the present, but also when they are negotiated and transformed when people from different backgrounds meet. Her study includes analysis of how nature conservators are elaborating new identities and methods in becoming nature conservators in a post-apartheid and post-colonial urban setting like Cape Town. Based on empirical work in Cape Town, her thesis develops a more general approach on how to handle and understand the intersection between conservation and urbanization, in particular in cities of the Global South.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE) lead by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. Her supervisors have been political ecologist Dr. Henrik Ernstson at KTH and human geographer Sandie Suchet-Pearson at Macquarie University in Sydney.


Summary of the thesis:

Post-colonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration in Urban Protected Areas 

By Marnie Graham, Stockholm University and Macquarie University

Nature conservation has a lengthy, contested history throughout much of the colonial/settler world. In South Africa during the colonial and (defacto colonial) apartheid eras, conservation was marked by exclusion and dispossession of colonised peoples, and state and elite control of land, resources and knowledge. These inequitable processes were underlined by normalised and racialised ideas and relations to nature, conservation, knowledge and protected areas. In the post-colonial, post-apartheid era, theories and practices of inclusive, devolved, and people-centred approaches have emerged around protected area management, referred to collectively as co-management.

Seeking in theory to redress historical relations between conservation authorities and colonised lands and peoples (Dressler et al. 2010), co- management arises as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The post-colonial refers to the era after the (highly contested) end of colonial rule, but also to the prospect of embracing de-colonising approaches to nature conservation (Adams and Mulligan 2003). Post-colonial nature conservation thus attends to both “the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism” (Loomba 2005: 16). In South Africa and other colonial/settler nations, colonial conservation practices and ideas continue to find expression in post-colonial nature conservation, including in co-management.

This study brings novel insights on post-colonial nature conservation through attention to co-management processes in urban protected areas. In particular I consider co-management processes in cities of the Global South, which face rapid urbanisation and informality, intense spatial and social inequalities, and

increasing socio-cultural diversity. My literature review demonstrates how this intersection of nature protection, increased urbanization and collaboration is vastly understudied in the Global South within human geography and natural resource management disciplines. Particularly lacking are in-depth empirical analyses of actually existing collaborative nature conservation arrangements, which situate such attempts within colonial, apartheid and post-colonial relations.

The empirical focus is on Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat nature reserves in Cape Town, South Africa, where municipal conservation authorities collaborate on conservation initiatives with community representatives who come from expansive adjacent informal settlements and racially-segregated apartheid-era townships. Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation, I draw on the perspectives from diverse participants in these collaborations to interrogate the (post)colonial condition of collaborative urban nature conservation at Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat, while striving to expand my analysis more generally to be speak into the growing literature on Southern cities (Robinson 2011; Parnell and Pieterse 2014).

Through this analysis emerges complex, ambiguous and contested relations to urban nature, urban space, conservation, knowledges, participation, stakeholder identities, and collaboration. On one hand, neo-colonial practices of exclusion and control are embedded in policy and management regimes, in spite efforts of collaboration and participation. This manifests in conservation science, knowledge production, environmental education, tourism initiatives, and in ‘stakeholder’ identity constructions. On the other hand, my research also demonstrates how those involved in collaborations, from civic representatives to conservation managers, challenge colonial conservation notions and practices, and that these spaces of collaboration can re-work and contest neo- colonial notions and practices.

In my analysis of how nature conservation is re-worked and challenged at Macassar Dunes, I pay attention to the institutional and contextual constraints of the collaborations. The focus is however also on interpersonal relations amongst people and between people and nature that occur in-place at the conservation area, and in the adjoining spaces of the townships and informal settlements. Attention is paid to the often ad hoc, informal and deeply inter-personal relations that develop through the collaborations, and which are challenging conservation practice in profound ways. The relations formed in and through collaboration are informing from the ‘bottom-up’ what post-colonial nature conservation practice could be, but also how colonial legacies and tendencies ‘slip’ into these interpersonal relations.

By necessity, this analysis requires engaging difficult questions of race, identity, informality, poverty, insecurity and diverse ways of knowing urban nature through the collaborations. It is these themes that permeate the analysis and bring novel insights into the practice of urban protected area co-management as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The thesis is composed of an Introduction, Literature Review, Methodologies and Conclusion chapters, together with four manuscripts prepared for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Supervisors: Henrik Ernstson, KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, and Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Macquarie University.

Co-supervisors: Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm University, and Richard Howitt, Macquarie University.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE).

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Moving Closer to Nature: Film Project & Intellectual Conversations

The 26th of February, KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory held the roundtable conversation Moving Closer to Nature. The discussions centred around researching and thinking about nature, capitalism and situated ways of knowing. This post is re-blogged from KTH Environmental Humanities website published on 2015-03-16. For more information read the film project site here.

In this conversation, political ecologist Henrik Ernstson (KTH) invited Michael Adams (Wollongong University), Dan Brockington (University of Manchester) and Bill Adams (Cambridge University) to reflect, using their own empirical research, on how research, theory and thinking about nature have changed over their active careers. Central to the conversation was to move closer to nature to better understand its political content in a world where the pressures to codify nature to serve capital as a service, a product or a consumerist experience, is paralleled with a need to re-understand nature as profoundly intertwined with us. Indeed, we could have called this meeting ‘Nature in tension: between simplification and situatedness’.

The Roundtable Conversation was filmed. The conversation is part of an environmental film project between Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson at Telltales Film and KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory and part of Henrik Ernstson Formas-funded research projects on Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies and Situated Ecologies. Similar conversations will be filmed at two other meetings organized by Henrik Ernstson during 2015, the conference Urban Beyond Measure: Registering Urban Environments of the Global South at Stanford University 8-9 May, and Rupturing the Anthro-Obscene: Political Possibilities of Planetary Urbanization, co-organized with Erik Swyngedouw at KTH in Stockholm, 17-18 September.

For more information about this project, follow our project website  and other ongoing projects for situating ecologies.  Heland and Ernstson area also working on another environmental film project based in Cape Town.

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An environmental film project in Cape Town: “Ways of Knowing Urban Nature – The Film”

Swedish filmer Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson report on their film project in Cape Town that deals with knowledge and urban nature. Filming will take place in Cape Town in January and March, with planned screening at the Urban Beyond Measure Conference: Registering Urban Environments of the Global South at Stanford University in May 2015. The film is also an effort to reflect upon how film and the camera can be part of a research process. The project contributes to broader efforts in the Environmental (post)Humanities to build on the tradition of film as document, art and tool. The project website is here.

How different groups create knowledge about urban nature

The-Film-WOKUE-ThumbnailOur film takes an interest in how different groups create knowledge about urban nature, thereby shaping the future of the city, its ecology, and its meaning to the people of the city. The story starts with grassroots in Cape Town and their work to rehabilitate the Princess Vlei wetland, which has also come to address the city’s history and apartheid legacy. The film continues and follows other groups. In particular we aim to follow municipal biologists and ecologists who have developed and fought to protect ecological functions and the biodiversity of the city in face of development pressure at a broader scale. By describing the work of these different groups, and the city from their perspective, we want to surface how different values and knowledge of urban nature is articulated and become part of public debate.

While biologists might rely on scientific methods, databases, algorithms and maps to bring urban nature into public debates, residents have organized campaigns, planting activities with school children, and performed hip hop songs and circulated slave legends that ties urban nature to the history of the city. The film is interested in understanding the generative differences by which groups approach and give value to urban nature. But also aspects of how scientific and popular knowledge might disappear when decisions around urban nature is to be taken.

The decision-making processes we use seems to have difficulties to maintain the very textured and detailed knowledges that there is about urban nature, from scientific understandings of fynbos and wetland ecology, to intimate feelings of affect and care for urban nature. Indeed, beyond the registers of knowing that different groups use—beyond what can be measured, or what can be expressed in popular struggles and campaigns—lies a silence about the significance of urban nature, its complexities.

The film is about how knowledge about urban nature is performed, and how it matters

The topic is of general relevance for urban contexts world-wide, not least for rapidly growing cities in the developing world. In this context, Cape Town stands out with its high levels of biodiversity, its unequal and demanding development challenges and its apartheid history, which makes Cape Town an important city to understand. It also follows that any film about knowledge production and nature protection will encounter and make visible the always present, but sometimes obscure connections between knowledge, nature, democracy and power. This increases the value of the film as a discussion material in public debates, higher education, and in research.

The film is planned to have its premiere on the scientific conference Urban Beyond Measure: Registering Urban Environments, at Stanford University, 7-8 May 2015.It will be used as discussion material in Cape Town, as well as other cities of the Global South, and in teaching at the University of Cape Town and the KTH Environmental Humanities in Stockholm.

About the film

 “Ways of Knowing Urban Nature” is the working title of the film adaptation of an ongoing Cape Town research project funded by the Swedish Research Council (FORMAS). It is a collaboration between Principal Investigator Dr. Henrik Ernstson at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town and the film director Dr. Jacob von Heland from Telltales Productions, and the former also affiliated to the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. For questions, contact Jessica Rattle (jess.rattle[AT] or Henrik Ernstson (henrik.ernstson[AT] Filming is planned in Cape Town 18-30 January and 9-16 March 2015.


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Guatemalan cities and urban political ecology: Report from research visit

Fernando Castillo, biologist and urban ecologist at the Centre for Conservation Studies and University of San Carlos de Guatemala, was invited to work for a week with Henrik Ernstson at Stanford University this May 2014. He here reports on his trip and how it lead to a proposal on urban political ecology in Guatemala.

I did a short Research Internship with Dr. Henrik Ernstson at Stanford University this May 2014. I knew about his work when I read some of his articles and his webpage In Rhizomia. After some emails in which I asked for advice on urban political ecology, we instead came to arrange a full week for me to visit him to exchange ideas on urban political ecology in Latin America, and how Situated Urban Political Ecologies could play a role in formulating a research project for Guatemalan cities. The longer term aim is to contribute with research from Latin America and Guatemala, and provide material to Guatemalan debates on urban ecology and environmental justice.

Guatemala City_DSC8979_1
Photo of working class and informal settlements in Guatemala City. Photo: F Castillo 2014.In preparation, I used the literature from the course Urban Ecology as Science, Culture and Power and we started my visit by discussing ideas behind political ecology and urban ecology. Authors like Swyngedouw, Heynen, Pincetl, Norgaard, Ernstson—and his papers with Silver, Lawhon and Duminy—were used as a means for reflection. A strong commitment to read an apply epistemologies from the south was one of the things we considered more relevant for urban political ecology in Africa and Latin America. (falta lo de la reunion con otros profesores)

Based on this I started to develop ideas on how to apply this knowledge in the context of Guatemalan cities, which we discussed throughout. I developed this further into a discussion document at my home institution in Guatemala that has lead towards a research framework entitled “Applying Political Ecology in the Urban Landscape: Towards Urban Environmental Justice and Urban Sustainability in Guatemalan Cities”. With other colleagues we have recently submitted a proposal based on this framework and we are hoping to gain access to funds to start this project (Lets hope we get the funds!).

Together with Henrik (and his Chilean wife Andrea), I also translated two of his papers into Spanish (Social production of ecosystem services; and Ecosystem services as technology of globalization, with S Sörlin) with the aim to publish these in Latin American journals to have more readers of this part of the world gaining an interest in critical perspectives of the urban environment and urban political ecology in particular. (Avisaremos cuando sepamos más de esto!)

Even in a short time like this, these kind of exchanges, which includes ideas, experiences, literature and commitments can shake your ways of thinking and increase your sensitivity to other contexts that could strength your own work. I think the broader research effort around Situated Ecologies and Situated Urban Political Ecologies is very much about this—to listen and (re-)translate how we understand ecology and politics in different contexts and areas. And then tie them together again in our conversations.

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View over high income residential areas of Guatemala City. Photo: F Castillo 2014.


I would like to thank Henrik for his patience and advice and also the funding he could provide for this exchange through the Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies project, funded by Swedish Formas (grant number: 250-2010-1372).

I hope we can continue our situated and yet cosmopolitan efforts for trying to understand cities in the South, their complexity and their different shapes and connections to urbanization processes, while also developing practices towards environmental justice in the city.

Saludos desde Guatemala!

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Tactical Symbiotics: Design interventions among spiders, pollinators, and phobias

Designer Martín Ávila reports on his project Tactical SymbioticsIt suggests designs and uses speculative philosophy to investigates human/non-human relations to explore alternative approaches to ecological complexity and ecological crises. He will visit his co-worker Henrik Ernstson on an upcoming trip to Cape Town in December.

Move beyond the comfort zone: three speculative designs

A house spider.


During 2014 I have worked in Argentina and developed three sub-projects called Doomestics, Dispersal Machines, and Spices/Species. These projects  are organized around questions such as: What if individual households would become parts of a decentred industry that capitalises on humans’ negative emotions to certain animals? What if agricultural machines would maintain the diversity of local ecosystems, helping birds and insects pollinate and fertilize, while producing food for humans? What if we could develop affection for insects and parasitoids that participate in the lifecycles of domestic plants? The projects are design-driven and uses speculative philosophy to make explicit alternative versions of the present or near future. By focusing on relations between humans and natural-artificial systems, the projects strives to de-centre anthropocentric viewpoints to become a platform from which to provoke a possibility to reimagine everyday life.

Doomestics work with the tension established by the ecological need (if we are to maintain biological diversity) to cohabit with beings that are perceived as dangerous, undesirable or disgusting. Among them, spiders, scorpions and bats, to name a few. The project stages a series of products that make these beings visible and integrate them in different ways to everyday urban life. Alternatively, projects conceive them as “products”, for example by creating the possibility to value them as “biological pest controls” or through their potential to become products and by-products of different industries (as in sanitation, food, or material development industries), while exposing our fear, our phobias and our tendency to reject them.

A kit to make a spider house
Spiders’ domestication kit.
Dispersal models.

Dispersal Machines proposes interventions in agricultural systems that most humans have no direct relationship to. This include machines working in the countryside and semi-urban areas, affecting vast ecosystems but invisible to the urban dweller. The project will conceive machines that complement, supplement and/or maintain the activities of beings that participate in different natural processes such as the dispersion of seeds or pollen, or the secretion of nutrients to the soil.

Spices/Species addresses an intimate level of human relationship with nonhuman beings. This concerns plants eaten as food or used for medicinal purposes and the ecosystem functions they perform through forms of symbioses with, for example, insects and parasitoids.

The projects sketch and engage a diversity of responses that range from the intimate, to completely detached human-nonhuman relations. They still have in common that they affect the diversity of, and our relationship to, urban and agro-ecosystems. By confronting us with alternative realities—and alternative emotions, feelings and shivers—the project aims to open up new, and perhaps surprising ethical and moral dimensions to revalue and re-evaluate our present relations with non-humans. Although still early in the project, this may lead to “product-services systems“ based on the biological role of insects or arthropods in sanitation, or an affective ecology akin to those we have with domestic pets.

Response to ecological crisis: tactical symbiotics vs. ecosystem services?

The three projects form the base for the wider project Tactical Symbiotics. This means to search for tactics that through cooperation and/or togetherness with non-humans reinforce the interdependence between cultural and biological variation and diversity. In my discussions with Henrik Ernstson, we try to use ‘tactical symbiotics’ to investigate and propose something beyond the now oft-repeated mainstream responses to our planetary ecological crisis, which often sort under terms like “ecosystem services” or “natural resources”. These responses seems to squarely originate from within an anthropocentric viewpoint and they put distance between the human and non-human, so as to calculate this relation as a grand total, often expressed in numbers. These responses to our grave ecological conditions could  be viewed as akin to what Michel Foucault referred to as a strategy, as part of a general and generalisable ‘answer’. In relation, we find inspiration in how Michel De Certeau spoke of tactics as practices that evade strategies of power. Or even how tactics can find autonomy through the terrain of power: “The space of a tactic is the space of the other” (de Certeau, 1984: 37). A tactic moves close to the other, and finds surprising responses or ‘answers’.


Tactical Symbiotics consequently takes complexity very seriously, but tries to approach it and get to know it through a different register than the accountable and strategic. The project uses design, biological/ecological science and speculative philosophy and it strives to move beyond contemporary ‘answers’ or ‘solutions’.

While being very practical in its execution and exploration, the project also searches for an ethical, political and perhaps more discomforting position from where to understand our contemporary situation and ecological crises.

Institutionally, and as part of the project’s own tactic, it travels from a design school in Sweden, to a biological science centre in Argentina, to an urban research institute in South Africa. Tactical Symbiotics explores complexity from a different origin to search a different response to our ecological crisis.

During the month of December, Dr. Martín Ávila will visit Cape Town to work together with Henrik Ernstson at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. His project contributes to the project Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies. A longer trip is planned for late 2015 to develop the project further.

Tactical Symbiotics is part of Dr. Ávila’s postdoc research project as a three year grant by the Swedish Research Council. The project is a North-South interdisciplinary collaboration that relates Konstfack (the School of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm) with the Multidisciplinary Institute of Vegetal Biology of Córdoba, Argentina, and Henrik Ernstson’s project at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Read more at Martín Ávila’s webpage.

Drying cockroaches.
Crushing dried cockroaches for analysis.
Scorpion in UV light.