Announcements Learning News Presentations Uncategorized

“Decolonizing Urbanism” Trier Summer University, 6-12 June 2017 (Call for Applications 31 January)

Henrik Ernstson is an invited keynote lecturer at the upcoming Trier Summer University on “Decolonizing Urbanism: Transformative Perspectives”, Trier University, Germany June 6-12, 2017. Deadline for application January 31, 2017. For updated information and application details, see their website

Participants in Decolonizing Urbanism Summer School at University of Trier, 2017.

Trier Summer SchoolCall for Applications:

Trier Summer University “Decolonizing Urbanism: Transformative Perspectives”

Trier University, Germany June 6-12, 2017
The Governance and Sustainability Lab at Trier University is now inviting applications for its 2017 Summer University, which will take place June 6-12, 2017. Applications are invited from advanced doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers as well as from early career professionals working in geography, urban studies, urban planning, political science, international relations, development studies, gender studies, native studies, cultural studies, sociology, ecology and related fields. Participants will explore the theme of ‘decolonizing urbanism’ through a mixture of public lectures, seminar sessions, advanced skills trainings, excursions, and cultural activities. The Summer University will be held in English. The deadline for applications is January 31, 2017.

On Our Theme, ‘Decolonizing Urbanism’

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, nearly a third of the world’s population lived in territories that were dependent on colonial powers. Since then, many territories have found freedom, yet a variety of colonial relationships and physical legacies have persisted, such as between military occupiers and surrounding populations, native and non-native populations, and through the presence of major religious organizations, just to name a few. Moreover, a considerable body of critical scholarship has pointed out that contemporary societies are still inextricably linked to coloniality, defined not only as a historically situated and unjust economic model, but also as a racialized, androcentric, and class-based hierarchy of knowing and being which marginalizes non-western cultures, knowledges, and histories.

Today, the coloniality of knowing, being and power also intersects with the negative and unevenly distributed consequences of global mega-trends such as urbanization and climate change, which raises pressing questions. How has the span of urbanism and urbanization – from the related academic disciplines to the physical places, people, politics, infrastructure, and cultures – been affected by the forces of colonization and coloniality? Moreover, as efforts to deliberately steer societal transformations in the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ and the ‘Urban Century’ are unavoidably related to questions of power and politics, we ask what efforts to bring about social change are needed or already underway. We are interested in established themes in the literature as well as forging less obvious and exciting new linkages together among disciplines, practices, and places.

Structure of the Summer University

Well in advance, a number of suggested texts will be made available to participants in preparation for the Summer University. The actual Summer University will last seven days and will include keynote speeches, panel discussions, advanced skills training sessions (e.g. presentation tips), as well as excursions and cultural activities in the city of Trier, the Moselle region, and Luxembourg. Participants will discuss each day’s keynote lectures, workshops, and excursions together in small groups, forging new linkages between readings made available in advance, the presented ideas, and the inputs from participants. Further, participants will be able work on a sub-topic of their interest that is related to the overarching topic of ‘decolonizing urbanism’. Some relevant examples include:

    • Decoloniality in theory and praxis (for example in research, education and urbanism)
    • Urban imaginaries and the relation between space, power and knowledge in the urban sphere
    • Perspectives for societal transformations in the face of everyday coloniality and accelerating global change
    • The neoliberalization of the city and strategies for realizing alternative visions of urban change
    • The role and transformation of colonial heritage in urban settings

We envision that through this intensive interdisciplinary dialog a joint publication such as an edited volume or special issue will emerge, and time will be dedicated to this effort.

Confirmed Speakers

Below you can find our keynote speakers. Additional speakers will be confirmed over the next months. For regular updates on the Summer University program, please visit our website.

  • Dr. Epifania Amoo-Adare. University of Bonn, Germany, Center for Development Research (ZEF)

Dr. Epifania Amoo-Adare is a social science researcher and educator with over 25 years of experience, working in countries such as Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ghana, Qatar, the UK, and the USA. Dr. Amoo-Adare has a Ph.D. in Education from UCLA and is also a RIBA part II qualified architect. Additionally, she has diverse and post- disciplinary interests in areas such as Critical Pedagogy, Critical Spatial Literacy, Cultural Studies, Decoloniality, International Educational Development, Mobility Studies, ‘Third World’ Feminisms, and Urban Studies.

  • Prof. Dr. Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez. Justus-Liebig-University Gießen, Germany Department of Sociology

Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez studied sociology, political science, and Romance languages in Frankfurt, Lyon, and Quito, Ecuador. She has taught and worked at the universities of Manchester and Hamburg, as well as in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland. Her areas of interest include global inequality and its local manifestations, and the application of a post- Marxist and decolonial perspective on migration, labor, and culture. Her research projects have been realized in part through support from the DFG (German Research Foundation), the British Academy, the EU, and the Ford Foundation. Gutiérrez Rodríguez has published broadly.

  • Dr. Henrik Ernstson. University of Cape Town, South Africa (African Centre for Cities) KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden (KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory)

Dr. Henrik Ernstson spends most of his time at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, while serving as Research Fellow at the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm. He recently concluded a PostDoc at Stanford University and holds a PhD from Stockholm University. He is developing a situated approach to urban political ecology that combines critical geography, urban infrastructure studies and postcolonial and global South urbanism, with a focus on collective action, radical democratic theory, knowledge practices and the co-production of alternative research ‘outputs’, including film and theatre. This includes workshops for younger African scholars in South Africa and Uganda and a PhD winter school at ACC on ‘Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies’ with Dr. Andrés Henao Castro. He is an experienced Principal Investigator with case studies in Cape Town, Kampala, New Orleans and Stockholm with grants from Swedish, British and South African funders. He is currently finalizing two edited book manuscripts and the environmental humanities research film called ‘One Table Two Elephants’, which focuses on the ontological politics of how race, nature, city and history is interconnected in Cape Town.

  • Dr. Noa Ha. TU Berlin, Germany, Center for Metropolitan Studies

Dr. Noa K. Ha is an Asian German urban studies scholar based in Berlin and wrote her dissertation in Architecture (Technical University Berlin) on street vending in Berlin. Her research investigates processes of urban production from decolonial, critical race theory, feminist and queer theory perspective. She is on the board of the council of migration Berlin and Brandenburg (Migrationsrat Berlin Brandenburg e.V.), active in the Asian German network orientation e.V. and a board member of Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA). Currently she is a post-doc at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, Technical University Berlin, and researches the spatial production of Asian diasporas in European cities. She was a scholarship holder of TU Berlin, Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation and an associate fellow of the transatlantic graduate program ‘History and Culture of Metropolises in the 20th Century’ at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (Berlin).

  • Prof. Dr. David Simon. Mistra Urban Futures, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg and Royal Holloway

David Simon is Director of Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre on co- production for urban sustainability based at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden and also Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has vast international experience in research on sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the UK, USA and Sweden. His research in relation to urban areas and climate/environmental change has examined the likely implications of environmental change for cities and their populations, as well as seeking to understand how cities are preparing mitigation and adaptation strategies in response. David Simon has served as specialist advisor to UN-HABITAT on cities and climate change, and was one of only two academics on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s specialist Africa Advisory Group. He has also served on the Scientific Steering Committee of the international Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC) program which is now within Future Earth. He holds a B.A. with Distinction from the University of Cape Town, B.A. (Hons) from the University of Reading, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

  • Prof. Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok. University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands Department of Human Geography, Urban Planning and International Development

Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok is an urban social geographer and planner. She graduated from the Department of City and Regional Planning at Dokuz Eylul University of Izmir and completed her M.Sc. in Regional Planning at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey in 1996. Her research focuses on regulation of urban development and change from different angles. Being awarded by Turkish, Polish and Hungarian scientific funds, she worked as a research fellow in Polish and Hungarian Academy of Sciences until 2000. She has received her PhD degree in Social Geography from the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2004. Dr. Tasan-Kok took up researcher and lectureship positions at the Universities of Leuven (2005-2007), TU Delft, OTB Research for the built Environment (2007-2015), and University College Roosevelt (2011-2014), before taking up her current position in Department of Human Geography, Urban Planning and Inter- national Development at the University of Amsterdam in September 2015.

  • Stokley Towles., M.F.A., MLIS The Evergreen State College, USA Member of the Faculty and Performance Artist

Stokley Towles is a public artist, librarian, and member of the faculty. His work focuses on the relationship of people to their daily working and living environments, be it the publics’ experience on a trail system, the dynamic world of police officers on the street, how patrons interact with the public library, or the environment of a municipal waste- water system. He holds a B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University, USA (1986), a M.F.A. in Art and Photography from the California Institute of the Arts (1990), and a MLIS, Library and Information Science, from the University of Washington (2008).

Learning News Publications Uncategorized

New Publication: Unlearning [un]located ideas in the provincialization of urban theory

A new publication from our Situated UPE Collective was just published in Regional Studies by Mary Lawhon, Jonathan Silver, Henrik Ernstson and Joseph Pierce. It continues our contribution to Urban Political Ecology and Urban Studies.

Photo by Alicia Nijda, Wikimedia Commons
Figure: Photo by Alicia Nijda, Wikimedia Commons.

Postcolonial scholars have argued for the provincialization of urban knowledge, but doing so remains an opaque process. This paper argues that explicit attention to ‘learning to unlearn’ unstated theoretical assumptions and normativities can aid in provincialization, and demonstrate ways in which theorizing entails a socio-spatial situation. The authors’ efforts to grapple with operationalizing learning to unlearn in three different urban cases are described, followed by an articulation of strategies for theorizing which more explicitly acknowledge theory-building’s situatedness as well as points of reflection for developing postcolonial urban theory. The authors argue that this usefully shifts the focus of unlearning from ‘who’ is theorizing ‘where’ towards theory’s unstated norms and assumptions.

Intervention in UPE and Urban Studies

The new paper on “Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” (2016) follows our two previous co-authored papers, in Antipode on “Provincializing Urban Political Ecology” (2014) and in Regional Studies “Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism” in (2014). Together they constitute a theoretical intervention and exploration of Urban Political Ecology and Urban Studies that aims to develop a situated approach to cultural and material politics of urban life that draws a lot of its energies from postcolonial and global South urbanism literature.

Three Situated UPE paper 2014-2016 small3
Three Situated UPE paper 2014-2016 small3

The arc we are traversing, follows one of seeing how UPE has operated as a crucial discourse to politicise urban environments and urbanisation as a process that transforms ’nature’ into social forms of power. UPE’s contributions have been to understand how the material of the city is configured to maintain and enforce social forms of power, and how urbanisation is part of wider economic, geographical and profit-driven processes.

We have then explored how the ‘image of the city’ has changed through the work of global South urbanists. Theoretically this literature centres around the postcolonial insight that ‘location’, or from where one theorises, is important to take into account when making sense of (new) empirical situations.

When the bulk of urban theory comes from a quite different spatiotemporal situation, an industrialising Europe and North America, global South urbanists helps to be cautious of how far such ‘Northern theory’ is in its reach and how well it can explain practical and empirical situations. This means to re-insert the ‘localness’ of European thought to allow for experiences of urbanization and scholarship from different regions to take hold and influence theory-making. For instance, global South urbanists have foregrounded the important role that ‘informality’ and everyday practices plays in the politics of urban environments and urbanisation. And to depart from the everyday and ‘informality’ is one line of thought we are pursuing, see for instance our new research project in Uganda, HICCUP. This way of working does not mean to set aside ‘wider’ economic and geographical processes, but it means to call for a re-alignment from where one can theorise cities and urbanisation, and extend the ways by which specific geographical and historical experiences can feed into thinking cities, political ecologies etc. This reading of global South urbanists have helped us to “provincialize” UPE, i.e. to re-tune and extend its basic critical project, and it has influenced our work to try to build an extended analytics (with adjoining new methods) through which we can re-think how urban environments are politicised.

In this our latest publication on “Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” we reflect explicitly on what this work of “provincialisation” means in practice for us as scholars, i.e. how do we, in our own empirical projects, de-centre our habits of thought, our training as critical scholars so as to let actual cities and forms of urbanisation that we study—its people, technologies, places and their particular histories etc.—speak into theory.

You can read our three publications here:

“Provincializing Urban Political Ecology”, 2014 in Antipode

“Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism”2014, in Regional Studies

“Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” 2016, in Regional Studies

Also check out our newly funded project: Heterogeneous Infrastructure Configurations in Cities in Uganda Project (HICCUP).

Announcements Conferences News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

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.


Commentary News

SUPE Commentaries—a successful space during 2014 to grow our collective!

We have had thousands of views on our SUPE ‘Commentaries’ webspace during 2014. The contributions have been lively, gratifying to edit and read for the main editors Henrik Ernstson and Jonathan Silver. Contributions have come from various locations and people. Below we feature a selection of contributions.


Importantly, the SUPE Commentaries has hCommentaries1-300x98ad contributions from several outside those that initiated the collective. A quick overview of SUPE Commentaries shows that the SUPE activities—workshops and special sessions—have triggered more scholars to contribute to grow our SUPE Collective. In particular younger and early career scholars have used this space to test ideas, report on their projects and share reflections. For the SUPE Collective this is a good breathing space to share. Please contribute!

After the SUPE Pretoria workshop, one participant, Wangui Kimari used her research experience to reflect on police raids in urban areas in Kenya and Brazil—and the possibility of connecting favela resistance(s). She writes “it is important to recognise that the raids in these two cities are not exceptions and are rather entrenched in the more negative structural conditions that connect both Kenya and Brazil. These oppressions are anchored in the mutually shared politico-economic scaffoldings and unequal socio-natures that establish extreme income disparity, poverty, disease and exclusion, particularly for young people who constitute a significant percentage of the population of both countries. For both groups of youth, in stark contrast to the betterment that they are consistently promised in these periods of democracy and neoliberal fervour, what they face instead, before and after the raids, is huge unemployment, rising costs of living, environmental injustice and “caterpillars cutting down the pillars of houses.””

Erin Goodling, after the Radical Incrementalism workshop in Cape Town took us to Portland to think through how a situated urban political ecology perspective can reshape how we can think about mobilisation in Portland, a Northern “poster child” for the “sustainable city”. She sees that ”several threads that SUPE organizers are thinking through are useful in theorizing how transformative change might happen in Northern cities of relative affluence – with serious racialized and spatialized disparities – such as Portland.”


Anna Zimmer used the SUPE Commentaries after the DOPE special session section to present her ongoing research project with Natasha Cornea and René Véron. They work through the lens of urban political ecology to “question the patterns of environmental governance that develop in small cities [of India where most people live], and the politics surrounding these.” They adopt “a comparative case-study approach to examine four small cities in Gujarat and West Bengal.” Anna Zimmer also gave a reflection on a recent workshop on Indian Ecological Urbanisms organised in Hong Kong by Anne Rademacher & K. Sivaramakrishnan.

Sophie Schramm did like Anna Zimmer and described coordinates for her new research project with Jochen Monstadt on African infrastructure ideals. Their focus lies on “the translation and creative adaptation of circulating urban and infrastructure ideals and models in the African cities Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Accra (Ghana) and Nairobi (Kenya) and the way they shape the respective water and sanitation infrastructure regimes”.


Jonathan Silver reflected on water shut offs in Detroit and compared resistance strategies with those from African cities. In another piece he pondered the meaning of Smart cities across urban Africa, which included the fear of the use of “riot drones” developed in South Africa after Marikana to quell urban mobilisations. Earlier he had argued in another piece that carbon financing for African cities is flawed and often fails to support sustainable and just development. Earlier, James Evans had focused on boda-boda motorcycle taxis in Uganda to ask how current thinking in mobility studies often fails to acknowledge effective modes of transportation, which nonetheless needs to be critically assessed. Marnie Graham reflected with her supervisors on doing PhD studies at Stockholm and Macquarie Universities in Sweden and Australia, with critical human geography field work on urban nature conservation in Cape Town. Mary Lawhon used her teaching to reflect on how differently different students in her classroom in Pretoria think about ‘the city’, depending on what social class or part of the urban area they are from. She surfaces the many problems that arise when we work as educators across different experiences of ‘the urban’.

Anthony Levenda, after the SUPE special session at DOPE, contributed to the SUPE Commentaries with a sensitive reflection on how Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Urban Political Ecology could be set in effective communication to ‘emplace urbanism’ in both North America and developing countries. He draws on Thomas Gieryn’s 2006 paper on ‘city as truth spots’ where Gieryn instead points to the “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.” He cites Haraway 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.“”

Henrik Ernstson reflected on the difference between “pluralizing” and “provincializing” urban political ecology, arguing that the dividing line goes between the level of postcolonial critique applied. He also reported from a wetland in Cape Town on how colonial and apartheid memories can destabilise established expertise in nature conservation and natural resource management, and in another piece developed some coordinates for the use of film in Situated UPE work.

Please follow their lead and send in your own reflections by contacting Henrik, Mary or Jon and help to grow our SUPE Collective.




Commentary News

Revanchism and Resistance Through a SUPE Lens

Erin Goodling takes us to Portland and helps us think through how a situated urban political ecology approach can help theorize the dialectic of revanchism and resistance in a so called “sustainable city”. And in this post, Neil Smith is meeting AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse!

In multiple venues, situated urban political ecology (SUPE) organizers Henrik Ernstson, Mary Lawhon, Jonathan Silver, and colleagues build on Ananya Roy (2009) (and others’) claim that urban theory can and should emanate from the Global South. The authors address the question of how new theories generated in/from/of the Global South might be enacted, pushing back against the trend of forcing Northern-generated theory into a Southern context. Specifically, they ask how urban political ecology approaches can be expanded to account for not only a broader set of cities (Lawhon, Ernstson, Silver 2014), but – especially pertinent to my own research – also a broader array of people and practices in these multiple urban contexts.

This Portland mural depicts one imaginary of what the so-called sustainable city can and does look like (for some). Artist: Sara Stout. Source: Author.


I take inspiration from this question in thinking about how my very nascent dissertation research in Portland, Oregon (U.S.) might also draw on and generate contributions toward a situated urban political ecology. Portland is a city that not only sits squarely in the bowels of Western planning rationale (Watson, 2003), but that generates and exports much of the Western planning tradition’s accepted practices and assumptions around ‘sustainability’ planning. This transmission happens through institutions such as First Stop Portland, which invites delegations from as far as Kenya, Thailand, Japan, Colombia, and China to interact with Portland business leaders, professors, planners, and City officials in an effort to spread Portland’s sustainability acumen far and wide.

Portland is therefore an easy city to critique. Not surprisingly, paradoxes hide in the walls of LEED-certified buildings, and hypocrisies lap at the banks of the Willamette River every time a hard rain comes through and the sewer system overflows. One of the most profound contradictions in Portland is around ‘environmental gentrification’ (Checker, 2011): as low-income community groups make environmental improvements, property values rise and the cultural character of the area changes, and those lacking purchasing power are pushed out.

Although various stories of sustainability’s contradictions remain incredibly important to trace out, merely describing the ways that the sustainable city becomes completely inhospitable and unaffordable to low-income households and communities of color lacks the teeth needed to disrupt its oppressive operations.

I see a situated urban political ecology that is as attuned to structural critique as it is to everyday practices, such as drinking water, growing food, and sleeping, as one lens through which to better understand how transformative change might come about at different levels and scales.

I build on Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver’s (2014) thinking about how “everyday practices as city-making”, “power as situated and distributed”, and a “situated critique of city-making” yields a theory of change that more readily embraces the notion of “radical incrementalism” (Pieterse, 2008) – rather than systemic change of a less concrete nature (see diagram below). This is a powerful and very relevant concept for not only the cities that Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver mention (e.g., Lagos, Cape Town), but also cities like Portland. But in making this assertion, I also take cues from James Ferguson (2012) to be weary of thinking in “hemispheric terms”; rather, Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver have inspired me to, again in Ferguson’s words, “[defamiliarize] habitual ways of thinking.”

‘A simplified overview of Urban Political Ecology as currently practiced (left side) and a situated UPE (right side).’ Source: Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver, 2014.


I currently work with two grassroots coalitions working to make socioenvironmental improvements that first and foremost benefit the groups’ marginalized constituents. The first group is a coalition of four neighborhood-based organizations carrying out a variety of community development initiatives – from workforce training to affordable housing development to culturally-specific education. Leaders have initiated a campaign to help current residents – largely low-income and people of color – stay in the neighborhood as property values and housing costs increase, and are currently working to build an organizing base.

Marking territory in a rapidly gentrifying Portland neighborhood. Source: Author.


The second group is a collective of community of color groups, Native American organizations, homeless activists, conservation organizations, and environmental justice organizations that are invested in the outcome of Portland’s Willamette River Superfund site cleanup. The collective aims to ensure that remediation will benefit those that currently use the waterway for subsistence fishing, as a home (either on small boats or along its banks), and for historical and present-day spiritual and recreational purposes. As the river receives more attention from the City and developers eyeing its banks as future condominium sites, police clearances of those camping along the banks of the river or sleeping in boats converted to homes have ramped up. Members of this collective are evolving their thinking about how to resist these sweeps, as well as more widespread displacement that may come down the line as the river becomes less toxic.

A boat-house on the Willamette River, just across from downtown Portland. Source: Author.


As I mentioned, I am only in the very beginning stages of this research. But anecdotes so far lead me to hypothesize that several threads that SUPE organizers are thinking through are useful in theorizing how transformative change might happen in Northern cities of relative affluence – with serious racialized and spatialized disparities – such as Portland.

First, Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver draw on Simone’s (2004) notion of “people as infrastructure” to argue that material relations in cities of the Global South are less stable and universal than assumed by (Northern) urbanists; rather people provide the networks. There is therefore less of an imperative to pay attention to hard infrastructure as in classic urban political ecology treatises, because pipes and roads are only partially responsible for how cities actually work. While this angle might give some clues for what is happening in cities such as Portland, the urban poor makes up an (increasingly) smaller fraction of the population and therefore accounts for proportionally fewer of the overall material flow vectors in this particular city.

But for the two areas of Portland where I am working, infrastructure looks much different than in the vast majority of the city; people, indeed, make up much of the networks that make these particular places ‘livable’. Moreover, coalition leaders discuss how crucial such people-centered networks will be for resisting displacement in due time. So, although the everyday practice portion of Lawhon, Ernstson and Silvers’s (2014) thinking does not necessarily help us explain how Portland currently works on a large scale, it can nevertheless help understand how it works in small pockets, and how it could work more broadly – that is, it helps establish a theory of socioecological change that is situated in a particular place, while remaining conscious of broader structures and trends.

Everyday practice is the second SUPE theme relevant to my work, particularly in how the two coalitions described above ascribe political meaning to everyday actions. The first group is organizing around access to childcare, green space, and housing as key concerns around which to build a base of support. The second has explicitly articulated resting as a radical act, as a means of organizing and fighting for a right to central city space at municipal budget hearings and beyond.

I do not mean to romanticize elemental necessities of human life, nor to fall into a “trap of essentialism in reverse” (Bayat, 2010), attributing undue importance to ordinary behaviors. But it is nevertheless notable that everyday practices remain at the heart of the organizing strategies for these two groups.

A poster made by Portland activists, asserting their right to sleep and dream. Source: R2DToo Facebook page.


Finally, Edgar Pieterse’s (2008) notion of “radical incrementalism” very much seems applicable in these two cases. Building on Pieterse (2008), Henrik Ernstson (2013: 2; and in review) explains that:

[Radical incrementalist acts are those] by which residents, citizen associations and popular movements of the marginalized and poor choose to engage the state on a project-by-project basis to achieve incremental institutional changes to achieve a longer-term progressive transformation of the state. This field of antagonism and collaboration is not merely an arena of ‘service delivery’ and redistribution of material resources, but a shift in competencies and re-coding of the city administration. (Henrik Ernstson, 2013: 2; in review)

One change (among many) that hints at radical incrementalism for collective members of the group working on the Willamette River cleanup involves a resting station that several unhoused individuals set up on a vacant lot in a prominent section of downtown Portland. For three years, developers, neighborhood associations, and city council members have fought tooth and nail to have the ‘dreamers’, as they call themselves, removed. This group has essentially forced City leaders to acknowledge that their model of self-run service delivery works for far more houseless individuals than the shelters set up by social service agencies, and a nearby municipality has contracted with the resting station’s leaders to help them set up something similar.

I am excited to continue thinking through how a situated urban political ecology approach can help theorize in a more coherent whole the dialectic of revanchism and resistance in/of the ostensible sustainable city, especially as some pollination between the two coalitions I discuss here unfolds.

I am open to suggestions, comments, questions, critiques, and collaborations as this work evolves! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch at I thank Henrik Ernstson for helping to catalyze this thinking in a workshop we put together in Portland in April, and I look forward to many future SUPE interactions.


Works Cited

Bayat, Asef, 2010. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Checker, M. 2011. Wiped out by the ‘greenwave’: Environmental gentrification and the paradoxical politics of urban sustainability. City & Society, 23 (2), 210—229.

Ernstson, Henrik, 2013. Situating ecologies and re-distributing expertise: The material semiotics of people and plants at Bottom Road, Cape Town. [working paper, submitted to IJURR on 12 August 2014]

Ferguson, James, 2012. Theory from the Comaroffs, or how did you know the world up, down, backwards and forwards. Fieldsights – Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Online, February 25, 2012.

Lawhon, Mary, Henrik Ernstson, and Jonathan Silver, 2014. Provincializing urban political ecology: Towards a situated UPE through African urbanism. Antipode, 46(2): 497—516. [Open Access.][Video Abstract, 3 minutes.]

Pieterse, Edgar, 2008. City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development. London: Zed Books.

Roy, Ananya., 2009. The 21st-century metropolis: New geographies of theory. Regional Studies, 43 (6), 819-830.

Simone, AbdouMaliq., 2004. People as infrastructure: Intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture, 16 (3), 407-429.

Smith, Neil, 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.

Watson, Vanessa., 2003. Conflicting rationalities: Implications for planning theory and ethics. Planning Theory & Practice, 4 (4), 395-407.



Commentary News

Ecologies of Urbanism – Engaging diverse urban ecologies of Asia

Anna Zimmer gives a reflection on a recent workshop organised by Anne Rademacher & K. Sivaramakrishnan at the Hong Kong Institute for Humanities and Social Science, 9-12 June 2014.

Last week, I participated in the stimulating workshop on Ecologies of Urbanism with the subtitle ‘Cities, towns, and the places of nature’ organised by Anne Rademacher & K. Sivaramakrishnan in Hong Kong, who recently also published an edited book with the title Ecologies of Urbanism in India.

Ecologies of Urbanism. Edited by Anne M. Rademacher and K. Sivaramakrishnan.

Now, back at my desk here in Delhi, I use the SUPE Commentary platform to reflect on this exchange from the perspective of the aim of creating a more Situated Urban Political Ecology. This reflection is necessarily partial and personal and does not do justice to the workshop as a whole but is intended as a way to share my current thought processes.

Entanglements of nature and identities

One convergence of the many papers centred on the entanglement of social identities and urban nature. This was expressed in a row of presentations, including the cultivation of the self in urban parks to express resistance to the secularisation of urban spaces in China (presented by Anna Greenspan and Francesca Tarrocco); the iconic role of large mammals in creating specific city identities (Frédéric Landy); the devotion to different deities through the protection of forested hills in Jahazpur, India (Ann Gold); the intent to produce socialist and urban citizens through visible water infrastructure in Vinh city, Vietnam (Christine Schwenkel); the distinction between different informal citizenship statuses through water infrastructure in Manila (Deborah Cheng); and the differentiation between class A and class B immigrants in the abysmal housing conditions in Rangoon (Rajashree Mazumder). But also how the Birla’s, a business family in India, build simulacra of nature in the form of concrete caves or parks to improve their social standing and widening their social networks (Kajri Jain), and my own contribution on how reputation can be built through ‘giving one’s name’ to urban parks through public-private partnerships in Navsari, India.

All these varied processes demonstrate how urban nature is an integral part of the ways urban dwellers build identities, express subjectivities, create reputation, and resist ascriptions or prescriptions regarding interaction with nature. While the question of identities might be only one of the various layers that motivate certain projects, as Kajri Jain reminded us in the discussion, it is a powerful one that has only just started receiving attention in UPE (but see, Truelove 2011; and Ernstson 2013).

Fundamentally, and as demonstrated by the presentations, these nature-identity entanglements rest on day-to-day practices such as practicing wushu, patrolling urban forests, and washing clothes at a public fountain. This confirms the fruitfulness of using everyday dimension of interaction with, and production of urban ecologies, one theme the SUPE Collective equally pursues.

Navsari in India. Photo by Anna Zimmer. Political projects and urban nature.

At the same time, the discussions in Hong Kong focussed on the way political projects are inscribed in urban nature. We heard about socialism in Vietnam and China; urban restructuring along class lines in India; colonialism in Hong Kong; and immigration control in Burma. This inscription is not free of contradictions. One example was the contradictory role of the subway/metro as a means of urban transport. In Calcutta in the 1980s it symbolized socialist progress, while in Delhi in early 2000 it was showcased as marker of neoliberal growth.

Often such political projects are expressed through specific aesthetics, and we discussed aesthetics of ‘wilderness’ in colonial Hong Kong, the monumentality of certain environmental projects like fountains, or animal sculptures, as well as current ‘beautification’ drives in India (the timeliness of which was confirmed on my arrival back home in Delhi with the newspaper headline on the 18th of June stating that Delhi was “the first stop for beautification exercise” of the new Modi government. This prompts obvious but important questions: Which nature is showcased? Which aesthetics are realised in planning and architecture? These questions have been addressed in Urban Political Ecology studies of Norther cities (see for instance Quastel 2009; Hagerman 2007; Gandy 2003), but have not been tackled sufficiently in non-Western cultural and social contexts so far.

Connections across space and time

One powerful picture that emerged in the discussions was presented by Rajashree Mazumder as the ’72 hours’—the revolutionary short time the steam ship needed to connect Calcutta and Rangoon in the 1860s. The steamship as such became a metaphor for something essential within the workshop: a powerful reminder of the connectedness of urban ecologies to “multiple elsewheres” (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004)—and, one might add, “multiple elsewhens”. It served as a reminder of how historical and contemporary layers of urban ecologies are all connected to other places through practices, circulating knowledge and people, material ‘stuff’, inspirational ideas, and even spiritual links. And how these endless layers of relations complicate, and enrich, our reading of the current moment and specific cities. (One might also argue, that so do future layers when future plans for places shape the present moment).

Barddaham in India. Photo by Anna Zimmer.

Nature/culture and challenges of ontology

As might be expected, the discussion also touched upon the topic of the nature/culture dichotomy, with Robert Peckham’s paper on the co-creation of large plantations with the expansion of Hong Kong to improve water availability; Frédéric Landy’s paper on transgressions of leopards from an urban national park into Mumbai; and the mentioning of the model of Uttar Pradesh in India as an “agropolis”. All these contributions questioned the necessity or helpfulness of the terms urban, rural, and nature. Ontologically the most challenging piece was the one by Anna Greenspan and Francesca Tarrocco, exhibiting the Chinese notion of ‘cultivation’, which extends across the human body to nature. Daoist paintings that depict the human body as a landscape, criss-crossed by rivers and cultivated by ploughs, expressed the irrelevance of the boundary between humans and their surroundings. To me, this chimed with my reading at the same time of Sarandha Jain’s book In search of Yamuna. Reflections on a River Lost (2011, Vitasta Publishing). Here, she mentions the Indian philosophical approach of ‘advaita’ or one-ness (literally: non-twoness). Advaita holds (to say it shortly, and with risk of being extremely simplistic) that the self/atman and the supreme reality behind the material world/brahman are one and the same. This notion of one-ness contrasts with the Hindi term ‘pariyavaran’ or environment that, as Ann Gold reminded us entered the discourse at least in Jahazpur first through the school textbooks in the 1990s. How such a perception of one-ness can forward our thinking on urban political ecologies, for example when investigating how nature is perceived and valued or how nature enters processes of identity-building and shapes subjectivities, remains however to be elaborated.

Labour and practice

One topic we missed out almost completely in the workshop (as noticed by Christina Schwenkel in the discussion) was the voices of those who actually build urban nature. Exploring the different forms of labour as a means of engaging with urban nature directly, and the theoretical insights and forms of knowledge that such labour generates could and should be an integral part of UPE inquiries and yield important new perspectives (as e.g. Alex Loftus (2007) showed in the Southern African context).

However, Himanshu Burte’s paper on Bhuj (India) offered the much-required link towards political practice and echoed the concern of SUPE to offer alternative means of engaging and altering urban political ecologies. His distinction between ‘experts in residence’ and ‘airborne experts’ resonates with the importance of place or groundedness for theory making as well as urban practice that is of concern in the project of provincialising UPE (see Henrik Ernstson’s and Anthony Levenda’s reflections in this commentary section).

In our discussion afterwards that I had with Himanshu in the plane journey home, we touched upon his idea of craft values (elaborated on in his book from 2008, Space for Engagement. The Indian Artplace and a Habitational Approach to Architecture, Seagull Books). This idea expresses the concern that even the best-intentioned interventions will necessarily have unwanted outcomes if the way we implement them is not anchored in the same human values that drive these interventions in the first place. The alliance of NGOs active in the “Homes in the City” project in Bhuj relies for example on consensus building for taking decisions. This stands in contrast to majority democratic procedures of casting votes, which would risk to disrespect desires and aspirations of minorities.

Consensus building,recognized as a difficult, arduous but in this project, a worth-while political process, can act as a stage for negotiation (and it does not refer to post-political consensus, as critiqued by Erik Swyngedouw, 2009). This, in turn, influences urban ecologies directly as well as indirectly, as all involved actors change slowly and gradually through the process of ongoing engagement with each other. Although recognizing that I am perhaps overly optimistic here, the process of growing mutual respect can furthermore lead to the empowerment of marginalised actors. Such a consensus-orientation in practice contrasts with theory-building that rests first and foremost on the conceptualisation of the politicised urban environment as a conflict ridden arena for struggle. How this tension can be fruitfully maintained is something we have not been able to address yet. It speaks however to Mary Lawhon, Henrik Ernstson and Jonathan Silver’s ((2013)) argument that radical incrementalism has to be considered a serious option for ways forward.



Ernstson, Henrik. 2013. Re-Translating Nature in Post- Apartheid Cape Town: The Material Semiotics of People and Plants at Bottom Road. Vol. 4. Actor-Network Theory for Development Working Paper Series. Manchester: Centre for Development Informatice.

Gandy, Matthew. 2003. Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City. Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press.

Hagerman, Chris. 2007. “Shaping Neighborhoods and Nature: Urban Political Ecologies of Urban Waterfront Transformations in Portland, Oregon.” Cities 24 (4): 285–97. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2006.12.003.

Lawhon, Mary, Henry Ernstson, and Jonathan Silver. 2013. “Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE through African Urbanism.” Antipode 46 (2): 497–516. doi:10.1111/anti.12051.

Loftus, Alex. 2007. “Working the Socio-Natural Relations of the Urban Waterscape in South Africa.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31 (1): 41–59.

Mbembe, Achille, and Sarah Nuttall. 2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16 (3): 347–72. doi:10.1215/08992363-16-3-347.

Quastel, Noah. 2009. “Political Ecologies of Gentrification.” Urban Geography 30 (7): 694–725. doi:10.2747/0272-3638.30.7.694.

Swyngedouw, Erik. 2009. “The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (3): 601–20. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2009.00859.x.

Truelove, Yaffa. 2011. “(Re-) Conceptualizing Water Inequality in Delhi, India through a Feminist Political Ecology Framework.” Geoforum 42 (2): 143–52.



What a publishing year for URBAN THEORY! Necessary books 2013-2014.

Urban theory is in a state of excitement—and undergoing change! Several edited books are coming out that tackles uneven development across the globe, and the planetary transformation that urbanisation is driving. Here is a selection.

For any one interested, this selection provides a wealth of empirical material and theoretical insights that will be part in framing urban debates in the decades to come. Note also that three of the books is from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, which is a great sign of how this young centre is coming together. There are certainly more books, but these represent a good start on your reading adventure:

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Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities

Edited by Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone (ZED Books, 2013)

In regards of theory-making around urbanisation and urbanism, perhaps the most important contribution from this book lies not in that it speaks or works from Africa (and cleverly avoids saying this in the title), but the various voices that are drawn into the conversation about how to understand and approach the city. Apart from the usual suspects of the academics and scholars, we here also have activists, architects and artists that are here speaking into urban theory. We need to multiply the voices that can speak into theory—this book starts this in an important way. It is a palimpsest, unruly, effective—rupture.

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Africa’s Urban Revolution

Edited by Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (ZED Books, 2013)

This gathers important scholarly texts from different parts of Africa. Impossible to live without if we are to grasp the urbanisation evolving in Africa and beyond. Need to read more in this one.

Handbook of Urban Theory from the Global South - small

The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South

Edited by Susan Parnell and Sophie Oldfield (Routledge, 2014)

This seems to be an extremely important book for us. It is big with with over 50 chapters! The seven first chapters captures the incredible important debates that are unfolding among the broad community of urban theorists—from Jennifer Robinson’s attempt to produce new ‘productive geographies of comparison’ for “global urban theory”, to postcolonial urbanism from Anaya Roy. And they don’t agree—but still form a peer-supported community to which we can all contribute. See my previous blog post on ‘pluralizing’ or ‘provincializing’ urban political ecology that touches upon these debates between Roy and Robinson.


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Locating Right to the City in the Global South (2013)

Edited by Tony Roshan Samara, Shenjing He, Guo Chen 

The book is an extensive and serious effort to rethink Henri Lefebvre’s notion from the 1970s of the “right to the city” from cities and experiences of the Global South. Here is a book review in Urban Studies.


Implosions explosions

Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanisation

Edited by Neil Brenner (2013)

This book explores, as it says on the back cover: “the radical hypothesis” by Henri Lefebvre in 1970 “of the complete urbanization of society”. As he argued, this would require “a radical shift from the analysis of urban form to the investigation of urbanization processes.” The aim of the book is to assemble new “analytical and cartographic interventions that supersede inherited spatial ontologies (urban/rural, town/country, city/non-city, society/nature) in order to investigate the uneven implosions and explosions of capitalist urbanization across places, regions, territories, continents and oceans up to the planetary scale.”

There are certainly more new books. But this is a start.


News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

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


News Teaching

Urban Political Ecology in African Cities Workshop [Pre-notice]

*PRE-NOTICE* Details regarding application deadline and available funding will be provided as soon as possible (late May). In the meantime, we wanted to circulate this notice with existing dates and details for your planning!

Urban Political Ecology in African Cities Workshop

University of Pretoria 22-26 September 2014


WHY? As cities become increasingly significant to development and environmental crises at multiple scales, there is a growing need for research that can both contribute to theory and practice. We use the term “urban political ecology” to emphasise a particular approach to considering the city across a number of themes, ranging from more traditional environmental issues (such as climate change and air pollution) to urban flows (such as sanitation and electricity provision). Like many other scholars, we believe there is a need for a more explicitly political approach to these topics that draws attention to the winners and losers as cities continue to change. 

WHAT? A 5 day workshop to discuss critical approaches to urban environmental research, drawing on recent conversations in the literature about theory and methodology. This workshop is aimed to support new ideas, research collaborations and grant applications and provide an opportunity for discussion and in-depth engagement around these issues. The workshop will include presentations by participants and established scholars, discussions, and exercises for developing critical political lenses into existing research topics. We will also have targeted discussions on establishing research partnerships, funding applications, and academic publication. Screen-Shot-2014-04-25-at-09.29.59-300x221

WHO? We envision that the workshop will include 15-20 emerging scholars, 2-3 established scholars, and the organising team. Applicants should have some experience in conducting research and academic publication and an interest in further international engagement. Preference will be given to participants from underrepresented categories (race, gender, nationality, etc).

COST? Some funding has been secured to subsidize the cost of the workshop. Further applications are pending, and it is our hope that we will be able to cover the majority of costs for participants. More information to follow.

HOW? Send us a short email noting interest to ensure we send you the forthcoming application details, deadlines and funding information.

For more information and suggestions, email us at (you find more about us here):

  • Dr. Mary Lawhon, University of Pretoria (marylawhon[AT#!]
  • Dr. Jonathan Silver, Durham University (j.d.silver[AT#!]
  • Dr. Henrik Ernstson, University of Cape Town (henrik.ernstson[AT#!]
  • Dr. Joseph Pierce, Florida State University (jpierce3[AT#!]

For more reading and to learn about the broader collective involved in these approaches, please browse the Situated Urban Political Ecologies website. Read for instance about our earlier workshop this year, and our ‘Pluralizing Urban Political Ecology’ special session at DOPE in Lexington (and an upcoming one at RGS in London). 



Conferences News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

“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: