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Key note at University of Washington: Re-thinking urban theory and ecological studies from a ‘world of cities’

Screen_Shot_2014-06-05_at_10_34_21-300x211Henrik Ernstson gave a key note at University of Washington on urban ecology and ‘world of cities’. A contrasting key note on a ‘science of cities’ was held by Professor Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute.

The seminar was organised by Professor Marina Alberti at the University of Washington to give input to the reorganisation of their PhD programme on Urban Design and Planning. This is their Annual PhD Symposium with previous speakers such as Charles “Chuck” Redman on Urban Resilience (2013) and John Friedman (2012) on “Reflections on a Life in Planning”.

Below you will find the schedule for the seminar, and after that follows the opening section of Henrik Ernstson’s talk on “Re-thinking urban theory and ecological studies from a ‘world of cities'”. The talk tries out some newly developed ideas around situated urban ecological studies and was aimed to provide a different epistemological starting point — even a counter-point — to that which seems to be implied in a ‘science of cities’. There was a really good discussion afterwards with PhD students, faculty and invited others. Many thanks to Marina Alberti, Robert Mugerauer, Geoffrey West and Jean Rogers in making this great seminar possible.

Overview of the seminar


The 2014 Annual Ph.D. Symposium:
The Centrality of Urban in the Anthropocene: Implications for Graduate Research and Education

presented by the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washingtonco-sponsored by the eScience Institute
Tuesday, May 6th, 10:00 am – 4:00 pmCenter for Urban Horticulture, NHS Hall


10:00 AM Dr. Geoffrey West, keynote speaker
11:00 AM Panel Discussion: Centrality of Urban: Challenges and Opportunities
12:00 Noon Lunch and Poster Session
1:00 PM Dr. Henrik Ernstson, keynote speaker
2:00 PM Panel Discussion: Centrality of Urban: Implications for Graduate Education and Research
3:00 PM Synthesis & Proposals

Excerpt from Henrik Ernstson’s talk

Re-thinking urban theory and ecological studies from a ‘world of cities’

Henrik ErnstsonStanford University, University of Cape Town and KTH Royal Institute of Technology

1. Introduction: from The Anthropocene to a ‘world of cities’

What urges us to meet here today seems to be the intersection between increasing and rapid urbanization, and this under an environmental condition that has been called The Anthropocene, the time in which humanity, as a collective and homogenized ‘force’, acts on the time and spatial scales in what was earlier in the sole dominion of Nature. In the cultural imaginary of the Anthropocene (Paul Crutzen), the human race is placed alongside geological forces, ocean currents and evolutionary processes of species selection in shaping or co-producing the material world.

However, rather than using the Anthropocene as a background to my talk, I would like to challenge or intersect the construct of the Anthropocene with the equally important construct of ‘world of cities” coined by South African and UK urban theorist Jennifer Robinson (2005). The productive inclination that lies in the word combination ‘world of cities’ “offers the potential for a more cosmopolitan form of urban studies”, one that recognizes Accra in Ghana as equally important to study in its own terms, as say Seattle, London or Tokyo. Indeed, urban studies have for long been plagued by a bias to favour urban theory based in and developed for European and American cities. With my background in studying urban ecologies, the ‘world of cities’ does the work to call in the extreme cultural and environmental diversity through which urbanization unfolds as a sociomaterial or socioecological phenomenon.

These processes at a finer-grained scale could be missed, or worse still, be silenced under a research ambition framed by the Anthropocene. Furthermore, the scale of the Anthropocene is not very useful in teasing out how urban ecologies are entangled in all sorts of social and cultural processes, which is the core aim I am trying to address here. It is only, as I will argue, by carefully attending to differences, that we can re-work and re-align urban studies in a ‘world of cities’ and find practices within research, design, planning and activism to intervene or be part of, the becoming of more just and sustainable cities.

Indeed, I have been asked by Marina (i) to “complement Geoffrey’s perspective on a ‘science of cities’ and prepare the discussion for this afternoon. This discussion will center on the implications for re-envisioning graduate education and research” here at UW. Indeed, not all of us can or would like to be enrolled into a “predictive science of cities”, so it seems I have been placed here to act as a counter voice to such ambitions. In her email Marina also emphasized that the seminar will (ii) “start to articulate a new definition of “the urban”’ and what implications for scholarship and graduate education this could have. This leads to questions if educational settings needs to be reconfigured and what research agendas are at all valid in a world of cities.

A core question for us seems to be then: Through which epistemological and indeed ontological foundations can an Urban Cluster of PhD Programs at UW be articulated? That is to say, what ways of knowing, and what practices of world-making should such a program hold dear to its heart? How could it facilitate a balance between predictive and interpretative modes of inquiry; Or perhaps more fruitfully and truthfully posed, how can disagreements between prediction and interpretation be staged and constructively clash against each other in such a program?


Further information about the seminar

The study of cities is gaining a new centrality. Planetary-scale changes pose inevitably new challenges to understand complex interactions among ecological, socio-economic, and political processes that govern urban development. A very diverse and complex landscape of disciplinary studies ranging from ecology to public health, sociology and political science is shifting the focus of a significant component of their inquiry towards the “urban”. The emerging urban centrality gives “urban studies” a new responsibility and offers our field a unique opportunity for leading a long term interdisciplinary research agenda, transforming modes of inquiry, and reconfiguring educational settings.

Geoffrey West is Distinguished Professor and former President of the Santa Fe Institute. He has a BA from Cambridge and PhD in physics from Stanford, where he was on the faculty. West’s interests are in fundamental questions ranging from elementary particles and universal scaling laws in biology to developing a science of cities, companies and global sustainability. His research includes metabolism, growth, aging & death, cancer, ecosystems, innovation, and the accelerating pace of life. He has received many awards and been featured across the media. His work was selected as a breakthrough idea by Harvard Business Review in 2007 and for Time’s 2006 list of “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Henrik Ernstson‘s background lies in system ecology (PhD) and applied physics (MA), but he has developed a core interest in urban political ecology and social movement studies. He is currently Stig Hagstrom scholar at Department of History, Stanford University and was previously at the Stockholm Resilience Center. He is PI of two research projects that combines ethnographic, critical and social network studies around ways of knowing urban ecologies and socioecological movements in Cape Town, New Orleans and Stockholm. Recently he published on urban ecology and African/postcolonial urbanism in Antipode and Regional Studies and leads an book project with studies from Lagos, Rio, Delhi, Yixing (China), San Francisco and Berlin.


Related Reading

From Geoffrey West: Bettencourt et al 2010  ; Bettencourt et al 2007  ; West, Chapter 2 ; Bettencourt & West Nature article

From Henrik Ernstson: Ernstson et al 2014  ; Ernstson et al 2013  ; Lawhon et al 2014  ; Ernstson


Commentary Conferences News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

Emplacing Urbanisms: Relocating Power and Knowledge in Urban Theory

Anthony Levenda reflects sensitively on how Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Urban Political Ecology (UPE) can be related towards the building of a more situated approach to urban political ecology. We met Anthony at the DOPE conference in Kentucky and this is first contribution to the SUPE Commentaries section. Please follow his lead and send in your own reflections by contacting Henrik, Mary or Jon and help build a community around this site. Read more about Anthony and other SUPE contributors here.


Emplacing Urbanisms: Relocating Power and Knowledge in Urban Theory

Urban political ecology exposes the structured relations of power to critique existing socio-environmental, socio-ecological, socio-metabolic process that are the foundations of urban life. In doing so it unpacks and reveals the problematics and contradictions of capitalism, the uneven geographies of urban development, and the contestations on which a radical democratic politics is predicated. But even amongst this critical agenda, there is an apparent Western bias of thought structuring our theory.

These critical urban theories are based on particular ways of knowing, drawn from the thought of, as Mary Lawhon noted this past weekend at the 2014 Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference, “dead white men.” Immediately she called for thinking about a more situated political ecology that builds on the thought of “non-white, non-dead, non-men” in particular urban geographies. It was this point that hit me strongly, and after conversations with Henrik Ernstson, motivated me to draw on my own training to think critically about the importance of placing of knowledge production and what critically addressing this issue may contribute to a situated way of knowing the urban we inhabit, study, and wish to change.

City as Truth Spot: Chicago vs. L.A.

In a 2006 paper entitled “City as Truth Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies,” Thomas Gieryn makes the assertion that the where of science, or its “place,” has important influence on the legitimacy and credibility of knowledge claims. Focusing on the Chicago School of urban studies from 1918 to 1932, Gieryn claims that the city was used variedly as a field site—an uncorrupted reality—and a laboratory—a controlled environment providing the ability for generalizations true for other cities.


As a counter, Gieryn discusses the LA School of critical postmodern urban research that claims no objectivity, and rather, has explicit action-oriented, advocatory, and normative research orientations that view the city as neither a lab nor field, but rather a “battleground” where claims, ideas, and meanings are always political and contested. Urban studies draws on the virtues of both lab and field, wherein the city becomes both the object (what) and venue (where) of study, allowing multiple modes of inquiry to make “valid” claims while “creating a discursive situation in which location, geography and situated materialities get foregrounded as ratifiers of believability” (Gieryn 2006: 28). Sites where knowledge claims are made about the city are therefore important to consider for the broader project of urban theory and urban political ecology.

Situating and partiality—not universality—for claiming rational knowledge

Situating urban knowledges, then, should be a central tenet of critical urban theory and of urban political ecology. By situating knowledge, I follow the ideas of Donna Haraway (1991) who argues that knowledge production through scientific inquiry must be reflexive and context dependent, acknowledging its situatedness, taking accountability and responsibility for the knowledge produced.

Donna Haraway


Haraway suggests that our inquiries should embrace “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives; the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity” (1999: 181). If we situate urban knowledge, we critique and question formalized, abstracted scientific inquiry, which is then actually undermined by its idolization and separation from cultural practices of the everyday.

Thus, when we consider how to construct and practice urban theories, we must think about how these knowledges must be situated, not meta-theoretical, a point that many planning and urban theorists have called for, and a point which many political ecologists embrace when performing research using deeply embedded empirical work.

To pluralize and differentiate public ways of knowing

To study the urban, we must also consider the various ways of knowing it, which is intimately tied to experience, space, and place. Scholars in science and technology studies have long dealt with these issues of multiple epistemologies and the emplacement of science, and the implications for authority, legitimacy, and credibility.

Yaron Ezrahi, Shelia Jasanoff, and Clark Miller, for example, have studied the public understanding of science, public knowledges, and “civic epistemologies”—the tacit social and political knowledge that constitutes a part of the fabric of common sense – to pluralize and differentiate public ways of knowing. This opens up pathways to a realization that formal modes of knowledge production (via the scientific method) may not necessarily be better than more tacit, intimate, contextualized and contingent lay knowledges, or what James Scott calls “metis.”

This is especially true when considering postcolonial studies of the urban and of knowledge and practice. Western, or global North, epistemologies are wielded with great power and inequality in the global South, without concern for local populations and often at their expense. Scholars of urban studies and planning such as Ananya Roy, Vanessa Watson, Faranak Mifaftab, and Amin Kamete, amongst many others, have argued for understanding deep differences and conflicting rationalities in influencing urban studies and planning by “seeing from the South” and embracing understandings of the urban influenced by informal practices, post-colonial histories, and geographies of rapid urbanization and spatial fragmentation not under the purview of techno-managerial approaches to planning the city.

If we think about how this impacts the urban and the socio-ecological relationships on which it is founded, we can begin to question just exactly what utility our current urban theories have for thinking through various forms of the seemingly placeless “sustainable” urbanisms that now dominate the ways we plan our cities.

De-pathologize global south urbanisms

Much current research in urban studies tries to understand the competing conceptualizations of urban sustainability, but does not situate ways of knowing the urban, nor do they critically address urbanization as a process that relies on socio-environmental change. If we foreground the claims of “sustainable” or “ecological” urbanisms with Gieryn’s and Haraway’s insight questioning “the who and the where” of knowledge claims about urban sustainability, and if we address the uneven distribution of power and the monopolies on ways of knowing from the global North, then we can begin to unravel the histories, genealogies, and contexts of “sustainable” urbanisms. Then we might engage the various processes that are already emerging in the spaces of exception, marginalization, and informality that we pathologize as global south urbanisms.

By Anthony LevendaPhD Candidate, Portland State University

Gieryn, T. F. (2006). City as Truth-Spot Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies. Social Studies of Science, 36(1), 5-38.
Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians , Cyborgs , and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective’, in Bagioli, M. (ed.) (1999)The Science Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Posts related to this one—here, here, and here.

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“Grounding Urban Natures” book project at ASEH Conference in San Francisco this week

This week Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin from KTH, UCT, Stanford and Princeton* are organising a special session around their book project Grounding Urban Natures at the ASEH, American Society for Environmental History Conference in San Francisco, March 12-16, 2014. The book project gathers studies from 10 urban areas on different continents and aims to ground discussions of how urban natures are re-worked across various cultural and political settings, and in different historical times.

ASEH Conference 2014 SF


At ASEH four chapters will be presented by Joshua Lewis on a study from New Orleans, USA, Lisa Hoffman on Dalian city in China, Lise Sedrez on Rio de Janeiro and Henrik Ernstson on Cape Town (the latter chapter is co-written with Andrew Karvonen with material from Seattle). Professor Richard Walker from UC Berkeley will serve as discussant, but he is also another of the chapter authors in the book. See venue and schedule for the session below.

Grounding discussions of urban nature in a ‘world of cities’

A general aim of the book is to learn from different disciplines and places in order to ground a broader conversation on how to research, debate and contest the histories and futures of urban natures.

More particularly the aim is to theorize how to approach and understand urban natures in a ‘world of cities’, i.e. start developing a cross-cultural theoretical repertoire  for critical urban environmental studies at a historical moment when urbanisation unfolds more rapidly, in multiple ways and across various cultures, while intertwined with an ecological crisis. This begs us to engage critically with inherited academic frameworks originally developed in the West.

The book project does this through letting younger and experienced scholars from various disciplines reflect on various conflicts, projects and technologies that involve urban nature in cities where they have been working, including China, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, and the USA, spanning together a time period from early 1800s to today. These accounts demonstrate the multitude of actors, institutions and ideologies involved in re-working urban nature, from state bureaucracies , popular movements to slum dwellers, but also how the materiality of non-humans and their dynamics—including floods, sand dunes, animals and deltaic coastal systems—interact with social and political projects.

Using this rich empirical material, the aim of the book is also to critique discourses that simplify urban environments into abstract models including for instance, social-ecological systems thinking, ‘green urbanism’, ecological footprints, and ecosystem services.  



*)  Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin are at KTH’s Environmental Humanities Laboratory, but currently works at Stanford University and Advanced Studies in Princeton, respectively. Henrik Ernstson is also visiting scholar at University of Cape Town.

[toggle title=”The Session at ASEH—paper abstracts and description “]
Thursday, March 13 Concurrent Session 2, 11 – 12:30 pm

Grounding Urban Natures—Traveling the World to Re-think Histories and Futures of Political Ecologies
Panel 2-G: Mission II (Level Four)

Co-Chairs: Henrik Ernstson, University of Cape Town and Stanford University, Sverker Sörlin, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Comments: Richard A. Walker, University of California, Berkeley

5 min Introduction and overview of international book project by Henrik Ernstson

Joshua Lewis, Stockholm University; Tulane University
The Disappearing River of New Orleans: On the Systemic Enrollment of Urban Ecosystems
12 min + 3 min for (one) question and answer

Lisa Hoffman, University of Washington
Assembling Nature in the City: Volunteering for the Envi- ronment in Dalian, China
12 min + 3 min for (one) question and answer

Lise Fernanda Sedrez, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
The Flooded City: Urban Disasters, Vulnerability and Memory in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires in the 20th Century
12 min + 3 min for (one) question and answer

Henrik Ernstson, University of Cape Town & Stanford University, Andrew Karvonen, University of Manchester
Tracing the Political: Reworking Urban Natures in Cape Town and Seattle
8 min (no questions)

30 min Discussion with 10 min commentary by Richard Walker and then 20 min open questions from the audience.


Paper abstracts and session summary:

 1. The Disappearing River of New Orleans: On the Systemic Enrollment of Urban Ecosystems

Joshua Lewis, Stockholm University and Tulane University.

Abstract. Urban ecologies resist our conceptualizations. We know them through the hazards they generate – like flooding and disease, and also through the benefits or services they can generate – like the aesthetics of parks and gardens, and their capacity as effective metabolizers of human and industrial waste. The enrollment of these ecologies into the process of urbanization generates new and novel dynamics for the various entities involved. Biogeochemical materials, the shifting genetic codes that assemble them as organisms, and the complex ecological relations that constitute their systemasticities are intertwined and materially interpenetrated with particular dynamics of human life and socio-political organization as they are manifest in different cities. Grasping these processes as a unity, narrating or modeling entire “urban systems” is but one approach to explicating these relations and dynamics. This chapter embarks from particularity, clarifying the origins and production of a key piece of New Orleans’ urban infrastructure that, despite its invisibility, was for many decades at the social, political, and ecological nexus of a cityscape that was simultaneously spatially expanding and sinking. This chapter explores the life of the “disappearing river” — an enormous concrete drainage siphon that was necessary for the city’s port and drainage system to operate simultaneously. I describe how the siphon emerged as a way to resolve the contradictions inherent in conflicting modes of urban governance and modernist engineering that sought a dry, sanitary, and yet still navigable, urbanized delta. Until they fail, water infrastructures like the siphon can disappear from public concern — but even in their invisibility they are territorializing new material flows and ecological processes. The siphon altered the spatial extent of pre-existing drainage basins and patterns of ecological disturbance – it was an actor in the unraveling of ecological relations and forcing their reorganization around technologically-mediated parameters of nutrient loads, toxicities, turbidities, salinities, and flow rates. Through the siphon’s history we gain understanding of how contemporary struggles over flood protection, urban green space, community autonomy, and ecological restoration are playing out in an deltaic ecosystem that is driven by more than just tidal flows and alluvial flux.

2. Assembling Nature in the City: Volunteering for the Environment in Dalian, China

Lisa Hoffman, University of Washington – Tacoma

Abstract. Drawing on interviews and participant observation with individuals volunteering for the environment in Dalian, a large port city in northeast China, this paper engages concepts of intersections, assemblages, and networks to make sense of such practices. It focuses on one ethnographic moment in particular: weekend outings to do environmental volunteering (e.g., pulling invasive weeds, picking up garbage) and considers the ways that such events draw on public political theater from the Maoist era (e.g., red banners), contemporary reformulations of Confucian notions of benevolence and responsibility, and anxieties related to transnational exchanges that have brought ” invasive”  species to this city. This suggests that multiple open systems are intersecting and being enrolled in such practices, including Maoist and Confucian definitions of responsibility; NGOs and state work units; and transnational geopolitics and plant and animal species. The paper briefly reviews the recent emergence of volunteering and environmental nongovernmental organizations in China, and argues that Dalian is an especially interesting site for this case as it has marketed itself as a green city.   Environmental volunteering, the paper argues, did not then just appear with  environmental problems  in the city, but is indicative of complex assemblages and networks of subjects, things, and political rationalities, which exhibit temporary linkages as well as more stable apparatuses and social forms. These processes shape urban subjects, spaces, and local knowledge about the city, as well as the meaning of a ” healthy environment”  in the city.

3. The Flooded City: urban disasters, vulnerability and memory in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires in the 20th Century

Lise Fernanda Sedrez, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Abstract. This chapter studies the dynamics of floods, city management and memory building in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro over the 20th century. The two capital cities were the showcases of national urbanization projects in the late 19th century and early 20th century, competing for the prestigious title of “Paris of South America” – which made their vulnerability to periodic floods even more embarrassing for the local elites. Buenos Aires is quite flat and Rio de Janeiro is famous for its hills, and yet both suffered the frequent invasion of waters in their boulevards, often leading to large-scale evacuation and loss of lives. In this paper, I argue that although the natural landscapes of the two cities were quite different, their relationships with these not-so-natural disasters were very similar, be it in the urban policies that amplified the impact of heavy rains, or in the response to the disaster, or in the construction of events and places of environmental memory, i.e., areas in the city which are more associated to floods, or specific, dated floods which remain in the memory of the residents as paradigmatic of their co-existence with the disaster. I select three different periods to look at the floods: the early 20th century (for the urbanization projects), the 1940s (when both cities adopted modern professional bureaucracies to deal with urban plans, under very centralizing governments), and the 1960s/1980s (when the cities were sprawling mega-cities).  The chapter highlights how floods are natural, social and historical events, and how these critical episodes disrupt the ordinary rhythm of the cities, unveiling the inequality and vulnerability of urban societies. In the moment of crises, historically constructed social tensions surface to plain sight, and different social groups, such as the state, religious institutions, poor or wealthy flood victims, renegotiate the occupation of urban spaces.


4. Tracing the Political: Reworking Urban Natures in Cape Town and Seattle

Henrik Ernstson and Andrew Karvonen, University of Cape Town and Stanford University; and Manchester University.

Abstract. Urban nature in the twenty-first century city is intimately connected to the governance and politics of particular places and spaces. In this chapter we trace the popular reworking of two physical sites, the Princess Vlei wetland in Cape Town and the Longfellow Creek in Seattle, to reach a surprising but valuable comparison of how politics of urban nature can play out. In particular we trace how these sites, their ecologies and histories shapes platforms of engagement, and how how they reveal where and how lines are drawn of who can speak for urban nature, and how speech can be acquired, and silenced. While a radical form of civic environmentalism helps to understand how deliberative processes in Seattle can muddle the roles of ‘laymen’ and ‘experts’, this analytics seems insufficient to understand what is at stake in Cape Town. Here arenas of deliberation is paralleled with events that stages deep differences on how to understand urban nature—not into violence, but in interviews with journalists, in rap songs, and in staged public events. The colonial and apartheid history of the city haunt the ordered procedure of deliberation and demonstrates how the deliberative governance regime that aims to enroll Princess Vlei into its reach, struggles in doing so. We therefore turn to postfoundational political thought to analyze the proper political as when a re-distribution of expertise around ‘urban nature’ might be possible. When put together in a comparative account, the chapter helps to discuss a much broader range of how popular reworkings of urban nature can be approached analytically and politically. While the historically contingent relations that come together in Seattle seems to suggest that a more deliberative approach is sufficient, those in Cape Town seems to require rupture and dissensus.


Session title: Grounding Urban Natures—Traveling the World to Re-think Histories and Futures of Political Ecologies

Organisers: Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin

Abstract for session: With increasing urbanization and ecological crisis, ‘the urban’ have become the site of increasing attention for understanding problems and finding solutions. This has created simplified policy models that circulate the globe to get inserted into practice—iterations like the ‘resilient city’, ‘green city’, ‘eco-city’, or notions of ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘ecosystem services’. Grounded research that articulates and analyses the history and contested character of urban natures, is however severely lagging behind, and we have few answers on what this present ‘greening’ of city agendas mean from a critical, historical, and world-wide perspective. Who wins, looses, gains voice, or is silenced? And how is the notion of ‘urban nature’ reworked across the world? This session gathers authors from an international book on ‘Grounding Urban Natures’ that fills a gap in urban environmental history and political ecology. It gathers environmental historians, anthropologists, sociologists, cultural geographers and political ecologists with studies from all continents, including emergent big cities like Lagos (Nigeria), Delhi (India), Dalian and Yixing (China); Cape Town (South Africa) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil); but also ‘old world’ cities like Berlin; and US cities, San Francisco and New Orleans. Each chapter provides a rich narrative on how urban nature has been reworked over time and mobilized for different social, political and ideological purposes. The aim is to learn from these varied disciplines and case studies to ground a broader academic debate in the decades to come on how to research, debate and contest the histories and futures of contested urban natures. The session includes presentations of chapters, and notes on an emergent synthesis. The discussion will be geared at how this project undermines simplified models of ‘urban nature’, while radically grounding urban environmental history and political ecology discussions in the multitude of urban experiences that our urban world offers. More info:

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Staging difference at Princess Vlei. “You can bet they struck a deal at the vlei” (Part 1)

Henrik Ernstson takes a look at a cultural mobilization against a backdrop of contestation in one part of Cape Town. This Saturday, on September 28, 2013, Emile YX? and his multiple crews of dancers and rappers will again mobilize to stop a shopping mall from being built at Princess Vlei, a park and wetland in Cape Town, South Africa. Just as they did for the first time a year ago on June 16, 2012 on Youth Day.
Save the Vlei - Concert by Heal the Hood 20130925
Since their last appearance, Emile YX? and the group Mixed Mense has released a collection of songs all tuned into struggle. One soft-singing tune with hard-spoken words will most certainly be popular at the Vlei on Saturday. 
“Save Princess Vlei—No Mall” is a song in direct defense of the Vlei where the lyrics melts memories of apartheid geographies with a proud Coloured, Khoi and Black identity to create a voice that points out how strongly loaded with politics and deep difference Capetonian urban nature inherently is:
“They again attend to mall and rape us. From our legacy and common ancestry. Here they plan to concrete away our memory. The enemy, a dictatorship disguised as a democracy, a corporate mockery stealing people’s property.  […] Stolen land is what their wealth is built on. That Africa owes them is so damn wrong. […] You can bet they struck a deal at the vlei.”
Some might feel that this is too harsh of a framing of Princess Vlei. Or that it is just a simple rap song, lyrics put together to gain a few rhymes. But this way of loading Princess Vlei with a content beyond plants and ‘biodiversity’, or even the matter of a shopping mall or not, has been with this mobilization since its beginning. 

Loading Capetonian nature with political content

In my own research since 2007 on the mobilization around Princess Vlei, I sensed the same ‘loading’ of political content as in the rhymes above in an early conversation with Kelvin Cochrane at 10 Bottom Road. Kelvin Cochrane has since 2005 voluntarily coordinated, with neighbors and conservation managers, to create the Bottom Road Sanctuary on which the ‘Dressing of the Princess Vlei’ project was modeled. He referred to the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town and said:
”Don’t come tell me there’s Kirstenbosch. We need to bring the [nature] reserves closer to the people. Let them interact and let them find that peace and tranquillity. You know, that has been my fight. Has been from the day we started at. Bottom Road, like I’ve always said to you, it’s only the alpha; it’s not the omega of things.”
Kelvin insists here, and others with him, often by nodding up the mountain to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, that the current order of things, the dominating logic of engaging and talking about Capetonian urban nature is not addressing the “imbalance” after apartheid. The current order seems more preoccupied with activity of counting species and protecting areas already deemed as having ‘biodiversity value’.
Emiley YX June 16 2012 On stage from film
Emile YX? and Mixed Mense performing at Princess Vlei, Cape Town on June 16, 2012.


In that sense, Bottom Road Sanctuary became a ‘blueprint’ to test if plants and fynbos could carry the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed during apartheid. Could fynbos be used to “dignify spaces”, to “correct imbalances”? Could it destabilize and rupture who could claim to be in the know of urban nature? Could it demonstrate how Capetonian urban nature is also about a history of displacement and forced removal? Could Princess Vlei be part of staging difference? Could it be made—beyond ‘bridging divides’—to tell a much broader and deeper story of a city whose geography and identities are shaped by colonialism and apartheid?

Reformatting the grammar by which to understand the city

These are quite troubling questions for many, but also troubling questions for many of the decision-making processes that are used to organize Cape Town and other cities in liberal democracies. Oftentimes conflicts are taken into participatory processes lead by consultancy firms who dutifully enumerate the ‘stakeholders’, note their opinions, and submit a report to the city. In this case, the report resulted in December 2011 that SPELUM, the special committee on land use, recommended that Cape Town better stop the plans to develop a mall, which the city’s councillors also supported. Of course, we know what happened—the decision shifted ‘spheres’ of governance and the Western Cape Province went ahead and supported the building of the mall in April 2012. This is where the obvious conflict is still standing. 
But, how about the political content of Princess Vlei? In inspiring at least me, Belgian-Britain geographer Erik Swyngedouw wrote in 2009 about the political:
“The political arises when the given order of things is questioned; when those whose voice is only recognized as noise by the police order claim the right to speak, acquire speech. As such, it disrupts the order of being, exposes the constituent antagonisms and voids that constitute the police order and tests the principle of equality.”
Whereas to build a mall at Princess Vlei is about politics. Something which can ‘be handled’ by participatory processes and the ‘intervention’ of the Western Cape Province. The proper political, on the other hand, are the acts that questions the given order of things and represent attempts to re-format the grammar by which we understand and perceive the city.

Acquire speech

The moment of disrupture, as Erik Swyngedouw implies, is tied to when the “police order” is exposed and challenged. This points beyond the act of giving voice, as in ‘stakeholder dialogues’ or ‘Environmental Impact Assessments‘ from liberal political theory. Rather, the political enters when the established order is disrupted and when, temporarily at least, this rupture reconfigures the order of things so as to format the sounds of the speechless into intelligible speech—to “acquire speech”. 
“Her tears flow down from Elephant Eye. Heartbroken our Princess continues to cry. Lies of peace are once again being broken. Undressed and raped, her wounds are re-opened.”
The rap song that stages a deep difference in relation to Capetonian nature, the reference to the elite spaces of Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, and the filling of fynbos with memories of oppression at Bottom Road, are not dimensions easily handled in participatory processes, or even perhaps in a World Design Capital bid that needs to fit the clarion call to ‘bridge the divides’ of the city [1]. 
Rather the staging of the proper political is about insisting that the city of Cape Town is different depending on who you are, and where you come from. The immediate hope and urge to overcome such differences might not be what Cape Town needs. But maybe what it needs are practices that stages difference, making antagonistic readings of the city clear and debatable so at to push these deep differences into the political process of the city. Here Princess Vlei plays a role in the way that such practices are being developed, expressed and longed for. 
“Awoken is the common ancestry in us all. That primal call that makes humanity stand-tall. For all to see the oneness of our legacy. Before the division of the Apartheid mentality.”
For those that have the chance, head for the vlei on Saturday and think about the city and its many environments. And think about what type of political practices are needed to stage and make valid the differences across the city. Is Cape Town governable through the inherited practices of urban planning and decision-making? What else can we do? How can we live with the proper political and how can we let deep differences influence the organization of the city?
Henrik Ernstson (PhD)
Henrik Ernstson has been working with people of Grassy Park since 2007. He is a researcher and Visiting Scholar at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town and is currently on leave and works at the Department of History and African Studies at Stanford University, USA. Writing in his own capacity, this is the first part of an essay on difference, people and the environment in Cape Town. For background material, see his texts and publications here (onetwothreefour, and five). He also leads various research projects and collaborations, see more at Situated Ecologies. For a longer interview with Erik Swyngedouw on the proper political, see this clip.
Homage to the Princess at Youth Day June 16, 2012, Princess Vlei in Cape Town. At this Youth Day, which commemorates students killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprising, the increasingly coherent campaign to Save the Princess Vlei had reached a clear point of maturation. The persons and organizations behind the Princess Vlei Forum had attracted support to resist the building of a shopping centre, and instead continue the rehabilitation of this wetland and green space towards a biodiversity rich and well-working public open space. Emile YX? and Mixed Mense warmed up the audience with young talented dancers, and earlier a priest, an imam, and a Khoi chief, had all given their blessings. Even the regional leader of South Africa’s largest labour union COSATU, Tony Ehrenreich gave a speech for saving Princess Vlei, a wetland and green area in Cape Town. This year Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the vlei to give his support on September 2, 2013.


Endnote:[1] A very interesting process is ongoing through the Princess Vlei Forum (PVF), the campaign organization set up in 2012, and their ‘design bid’ to develop a public participation process in relation to the World Design Capital 2014 for Cape Town. While I played a part in writing a preliminary outline, journalist and writer Bridgett Pitt, with a past in the 1980s the anti-apartheid Grassroots Community Newspaper, has played a major role. It was ‘selected’ by the World Design Capital committee and has attracted professional designers and artists, including colleagues at the African Centre for Cities. However, since the whole framework of the World Design Capital is to ‘bridge the divides’ of the city, which obviously Princess Vlei could play into since it has gathered people with different languages, racial/ethnic groups, and works across the culture/nature divisions, this framing could also force the deep differences that I am writing about here off the chart of what is possible to do with such a ‘design bid’. In negotiating the wishes of the World Design Capital, deep differences needs to be negotiated and refigured into something less disruptive, something more ‘constructive’. But I might be wrong. Can we ask for subversive urban design? An urban design that aims to place among us the differences that proper political procedure needs to work with and through? That can participate in the staging of difference? If possible, it would be something akin to radical democratic design—or why not, “urban design from Cape Flats”, capeflattian design. Maybe, Princess Vlei can serve as a serious experimental ground for this—together with other spaces of Cape Flats, and similarly marginalized spaces of Cape Town. More on this in my next part of this sequel of essays.