Commentary News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies Uncategorized

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

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


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


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

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


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

Apartheid geography preserved behind a concern for the environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary News Projects TLR Waste Uncategorized

Waste management in Cape Town: understanding responsibility and labour

Kathleen Stokes reflects on waste management and political ecology in Cape Town. Kathleen is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Manchester with a research focus on community responsibility and labour in waste management. She is part of the Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish Project, which is run in collaboration between the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester and Florida State University.

TLR project in Cape Town SAWhile attending the ACC’s winter school on democratic practices, I was fortunate enough to meet with a range of people involved in Cape Town’s waste management system. Through these discussions, and my own encounters with the city’s sites of disposal and decomposition, I was struck by the variety of imperatives driving waste management, and the relations between people whose livelihoods depend on the sector.

Managing rubbish is a complex affair in any city. In Cape Town, the municipal government is responsible for waste management services, and informed by legislation and policy imperatives from national and provincial government. Within the context of rapid urbanization, enduring inequalities, and state promises of universal service provision, municipal strategies have tended towards neoliberal strategies of contracting out, public-private partnerships, and cost recovery. In addition to contracting service responsibilities out to businesses, Cape Town’s municipal waste management service also looked towards residents to play their part.
As part of its strategy, Cape Town has launched public education and engagement campaigns like Waste Wise, which seeks to raise public awareness of waste reduction and encourage residents to start and help with community schemes – such as local compost to school recycling schemes. In recent years, this programme has focused on supporting Green Zones, designated neighbourhoods that receive support to pilot a holistic approach to community waste education and engagement. While the project has been on hiatus since 2014, some follow-on activities appear to be underway in Green Zones and other parts of the city.

Such initiatives profess a positive impact amongst residents, and align themselves to discourses of empowerment, job creation, and sustainable communities. However, they do not exist in a vacuum. If we understand waste management to be a sort of lively infrastructural assemblage (for instance, see Amin, 2014 and Graham & McFarlane, 2015), we can appreciate that community responsibility is undoubtedly related to formal provision of services, and the practices of informal waste collection. What happens to waste, who is contributing their effort, and how is their labour valued?

Over 2017, I will look more closely at Waste Wise and other initiatives promoting community responsibility for waste management in South Africa’s cities. By investigating changes to waste management in areas involved in such schemes, I hope to understand what transformations have occurred to the everyday functioning of waste management, and to the livelihoods of whose who those labour is keeps the frontlines going.

As this project unfurls, I am left with more questions than answers. Still, focusing on the relationship between community responsibility and worker livelihoods can provide us with a better understanding of how value and labour are manifested within the processes and dynamics of urban waste management. Drawling upon a SUPE lens, I will frame my research by integrating urban political ecology with neo-Marxian, post-colonial and South African understandings of labour, infrastructure and livelihoods. Most of my research will take place over 2017. Fortunately, I am supported by my supervisors and colleagues in the TLR project. As this time draws nearer, we are making final preparations and continuing to review the discourses, policies, and practices shaping waste management in different urban contexts across South Africa.

As ever, my colleagues and I hope this process will be of interest to others. If you would like to hear more, or have any comments or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (kathleen.stokes(at)

Thank you to Dr Henrik Ernstson, staff and colleagues at the African Centre for Cities and KTH Stockholm for supporting my participation in the democratic practices winter school. Likewise, thank you to the University of Manchester and the ESRC-DFID Poverty Alleviation Fund for their support of my PhD.

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).

News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

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.

Learning News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies Teaching

Guatemalan cities and urban political ecology: Report from research visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guatemala City_DSC8982_2
View over high income residential areas of Guatemala City. Photo: F Castillo 2014.


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

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

Saludos desde Guatemala!

Announcements News

Workshop: Radical Incrementalism & Theories/Practices of Emancipatory Change

This workshop examines ideas of radical incrementalism across our towns and cities. It seeks to explore theories and practices that can support emancipatory change across urban regions through the power of urban dwellers to challenge poverty, oppression and unjust environments. Such actions and processes take place within and beyond the state and suggest important ways to evaluate prospects for socio-ecological equality across infrastructures, everyday life and the wider urban condition. 


This workshop is part of a series of conversations that form a collaborative investigation into developing situated ways of undertaking urban political ecology. Each session focuses on different dimensions of critical approaches to urban theory and brings together scholars from different disciplines whose work explores critical understandings of processes of socio-ecological urbanization. We have 17 confirmed participants who will provide a series of keynotes and shorter provocations to support the open debate nature of the workshop.

Speakers include: Malini Ranganathan (American University, Washington D.C.), Mark Swilling, University of Stellenbosch, Edgar Pieterse (ACC, UCT), Laurence Piper (University of Western Cape), Andrew Charman (Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation), Jonathan Silver (Durham University), and Henrik Ernstson (ACC, UCT).

The workshop starts at 14.00 on Thursday 23rd of October with an afternoon session and keynote by Edgar Pieterse. This is followed by a full day of workshop sessions between 9.00-16.30 on Friday 24th of October, covering the following themes: “Outlining a radical incrementalism in theory and practice”; “Articulating a radical incrementalism”; “Experiments across infrastructures”; “In and beyond the state”.

Main organisers is Henrik Ernstson and Jonathan Silver with support from Edgar PieterseErin Goodling (Portland State University) will function as rapporteur for this workshop. This post is cross-posted from African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town and please go there for details on venue, how to participate and readings. There are still some seats available for students and scholars.

The workshop is an initiative by the Situated Urban Political Ecologies Collective (#SUPE) and the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. It forms part of SUPE Year of Conversation 2014.



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.


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). 



Commentary Conferences News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

Emplacing Urbanisms: Relocating Power and Knowledge in Urban Theory

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


Emplacing Urbanisms: Relocating Power and Knowledge in Urban Theory

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

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

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

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


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

Situating and partiality—not universality—for claiming rational knowledge

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

Donna Haraway


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

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

To pluralize and differentiate public ways of knowing

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

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

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

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

De-pathologize global south urbanisms

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

By Anthony LevendaPhD Candidate, Portland State University

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

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