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

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

Many-layered city-nature

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

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

A wider repertoire for doing urban political ecology

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

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

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

 /Henrik and Jacob.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Leading scientists

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

Film and photography as registersThe Film WOKUE - Thumbnail

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

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


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Marnie Graham defended her thesis on Postcolonial Nature Conservation

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

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

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


Summary of the thesis:

Post-colonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration in Urban Protected Areas 

By Marnie Graham, Stockholm University and Macquarie University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving Closer to Nature: Film Project & Intellectual Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

How different groups create knowledge about urban nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the film

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


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

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

Move beyond the comfort zone: three speculative designs

A house spider.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: