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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.




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

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

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

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Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities

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

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

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Africa’s Urban Revolution

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

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

Handbook of Urban Theory from the Global South - small

The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South

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

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


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

Edited by Tony Roshan Samara, Shenjing He, Guo Chen 

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


Implosions explosions

Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanisation

Edited by Neil Brenner (2013)

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

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


News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies

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

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

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

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

Overview of the seminar


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

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


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

Excerpt from Henrik Ernstson’s talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further information about the seminar

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

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

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


Related Reading

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

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


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.

Commentary News

Pluralizing or Provincializing Urban Political Ecology? [In a World of Cities]

Henrik Ernstson reflects on the difference between “pluralizing” and “provincializing” urban political ecology.

Screen-Shot-2013-12-02-at-1.12.31-PMIn prompting the contributors to send some bullet points in relation to our special session on “Pluralizing the Approaches to Urban Political Ecology in a ‘World of Cities’”, I made a mistake and wrote the wrong word. In my email, in which I asked them to reflect on how their paper could help to “pluralize” Urban Political Ecology (UPE), I used the word “provincialize” instead. Lindsay Campbell in New York, one of the contributors, observantly pointed this out. Using the liberty of a short blog piece, I reflect on this slippage—on the difference between pluralize and provincialize—as a precursor to our upcoming session at The Dimension of Political Ecology conference (DOPE), Kentucky, USA, 28 Feb-1 March. 

While provincializing has been inscribed in a quite clear tradition of postcolonial critique, in particular by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Provincializing Europe” (2000), the word pluralizing has a less recorded academic usage. In its most straightforward reading, our session is about how one could arrive at a political reading of urban ecologies and urban environments, beyond those approaches already in use. To pluralize then is to allow for more ways of achieving a similar thing, and the word leaves open for debate what methods or intellectual traditions are better than others.

As can be noted however, pluralize stands in relation to certain approaches that are ‘already in use’. In our published Antipode article we hold that the approaches already in use originates from a historical-materialist and (neo-)Marxist tradition, often with Erik Swyngedouw’s seminar article “The City as Hybrid” from 1996 placed as the origin of UPE (as did Nik Heynen at a special session at AAG in 2013). To pluralize UPE thus becomes a tall order, since those writing from a neo-Marxist tradition have already done a great job in effectively expanding Marxist analysis with for instance post-structuralist notions (e.g. cyborgs, actor-network theory, quasi-objects; see e.g. Erik Swyngedouw, Matthew Gandy, and Maria Kaika), and they have explored various forms of power beyond those of class (Gandy (2006) in Lagos for instance; see also Alex Loftus‘ Everyday Environmentalism (2012)). In fact it is the great success of these scholars that has helped to usher in an interest in urban political ecology, and that has attracted us and others to join. How then to pluralize? 

One could for instance take inspiration from within the coordinates of the theoretically more diverse field of political ecology. This field, with a longer tradition of (non-urban) political ecological studies is more heterogenous, including feminist, postcolonial and poststructuralist, and Foucauldian perspectives etc. (see our Antipode article, Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver 2013, or here). To pluralize UPE could also mean to create variations of an historical-materialist Marxist approach, or take this approach into a new setting, a different type of city and allow the particularities of this city to speak back into theoretical debates of urban political ecology. One could aim to demonstrate how for instance (neo-)Marxist approaches might be missing something, or how they could be used in new ways; or how they would need to be complemented in certain ways in order to better render the politics and empirics of this particular city. As we write in the abstract to the DOEP session, “[o]ur own efforts has focused empirically on cities in Africa and theoretically to articulate a situated urban political ecology through postcolonial critique and a focus on everyday practices. But, this is just one path among others and in this session we encourage novel and creative approaches, or the reinvention or ‘hacking’ of established approaches, to participate in building a broad and rich repertoire of urban political ecology.”

Indeed, for all these efforts of pluralizing, and of central concern to our session, is to keep a critical edge and foreground, or pull out what is political about urban ecologies; analyzing who wins/looses, who is allowed to speak and frame urban environments, and what underlying, or networked processes that shape urban ecologies to the benefit of some, and detriment of others. And what ways and collectivities there might be that could produce more equal processes of urbanization.

From the above it seems pluralizing is simply a useful English word to indicate the wish to achieve something through other means. In relation, the word provincilizing has a more particular connotation. It has been placed within a postcolonial critical tradition and when used has often meant to be “speaking from the global South” and to de-stabilize the centrality of “The West” in knowledge production. In our published article (Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver 2013, p. 9) we draw on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2007 [2000]:location 114) term “provincializing” which is not about “rejecting European thought so much as recognizing that ‘thought is related to place’ and that universalist notions of modernity such as justice, democracy and citizenship ‘encounter pre-existing concepts, categories, institutions and practices [in place] through which they get translated and configured differently’.” Thus, to provincialize UPE is to develop a way of framing that is more attentive to place and that can question taken-for-granted ideas in order “to broaden the scope for theorizing with more urban experiences in mind.” In that article we refer to the outcome of this provincialization as a Situated Urban Political Ecology (SUPE).

From this viewpoint then, provinicializing has an origin in the (intellectual) geographies of what we now call the global South and it could be argued that it does not necessarily carry a great difference to how I framed pluralizing above—other means to achieve a similar outcome. Indeed, in the current broader conversations of comparative urbanisms like those that Jennifer Robinson, Anaya Roy, AbdoMaliq Simone, Edgar Pieterse and Colin McFarlane and others are engaging us to have, provincilizing can work as a common currency to think critically about our theoretical constructs, modes of knowledge production wherever we are. An interview between Gautam Bhan and Ananya Roy in CityScapes is also entitled “Lessons from somewhere”, without locating the geographical location of critique in the ‘global South’. In a conversation during the Antipode Institute for Geographies of Justice in Durban in June last year, which I attended with Jon and Mary, Achille Mbembe and Kelly Gillespie argued—standing in (one of) the highest towers of Johannesburg—that what a provinizialization of theory means, is to work out in practice how we can “speak from a place”; or as Jennifer Robinson insists, to take “ordinary” cities (as opposed to “world cities” like Paris, LA or Tokyo) seriously as locations from which to do theory-making, regardless of where they are geographically and physically located in the world. So in thinking with “lessons from somewhere”, to provincialize could certainly contribute in efforts to pluralize, arriving at alternative methods to achieve political readings of urban political ecology.

However, I believe something would probably be lost if we were to take the words pluralize and provincialize to mean the same thing, or produce the same effects. First of all, to provincialize is part of an important history of decentering European thought, or The West as being central in legitimizing and producing (academic/scientific) knowledge (e.g. in physically controlling the printing/editing process by having most journals and academic publishers; in building on the historical traditions of the European Enlightenment etc.). If we were to conflate provinicialize with pluralize, the intellectual tradition from Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, José Carlos Mariátegui, Partha Chatterjee, Achille Mbembe and many others would risk to be flattened, marginalized and de-radicalized, it seems. Guided by my PhD student Marnie Graham, I just read an article by Pal Ahluwalia who cites Said on “the worldliness of theory” and writes:

For Said, theory can be effective only when it is located firmly within the world. He attacks theory which fails to do so on the grounds that for such theory: “there seems to be no contact with the world of events and societies, which modern history, intellectuals, and critics have in fact built. Instead, contemporary criticism is an institution for publicly affirming the values of our, that is, European, dominant elite culture, and for privately setting loose the unrestrained interpretation of a universe defined as the endless misreading of a misinterpretation. The result has been the regulated, not to say calculated, irrelevance of criticism…”

In that sense pluralizing, if usurping the work that provincializing has done, would in fact act as a colonizer and, in taking the place of pluralizing, re-centre the often non-spoken centrality of EuroAmerica. If we fail to speak from locations outside EuroAmerica—and name them as such—the healthy skeptical and subversive tone of provincializing could come to a halt and we would loose the wish and urge to find something new and liberating. The phrase used in the interview between Bhan and Roy of “lessons from somewhere” seems pregnant with the same risk. If the place is not mentioned, if we only talk about the “ordinary” city, we risk reinserting, it seems to me, a certain naturalness or habit by which EuroAmerica is used as the location (without being named) from which to speak of the world. The reasons for this risk are several, but could be as simple as the material conditions of knowledge production (universities, scholars, editors, journals, academic presses etc. are still dominated by EuroAmerica). In collapsing pluralizing with provinicializing, the wider horizon of experiences that a world of cities are filled with, could be cut out.

In preparing for the session, and our SUPE 2014 Year of Conversation, as we so boldly has phrased it, we were quite aware of these tensions. We reasoned, if I remember it correctly, that if we were to use provincialize we would attract less interest, precisely because this word has been inscribed in a postcolonial critical tradition. Potential contributors would think that they cannot participate because they do not consider themselves to be postcolonial scholars, or that they are not sufficiently well-read in this tradition. So we opted for expressing something similar, but something that could be more open and welcoming; pluralizing does this work for us. Indeed, at heart of our SUPE Platform lies a sincere wish to contribute to a broad conversation on urban political ecology that takes a broader experience of urbanization into account, and in which you do not need to be a postcolonialist theorist, feminist, Africanist, Marxist, or Latourian, or whatever. We wish to participate in building a collaborative and supportive community open for conversation to all those interested in understanding the politics of urban ecologies and environments in a world of cities. Still, at the heart of our SUPE Platform lies the incredibly important postcolonial critical impulse (and I will confess that neither am I sufficiently well-read in postcolonial theory, but I am rather a student of it, learning about it primarily thorough its urban studies’ interlocutors). For us, working in Africa, the postcolonial impulse is especially important as it would be impossible to move ahead without acknowledging postcolonial studies.

Ultimately then, the SUPE Platform hinges on the new condition of the world. Indeed, given the greater pace and geographical extent of urbanization there is also a greater variance in how cities emerge and under what conditions urban ecology is treated, shaped and contested. Indeed, for the first time in history we face a ‘world of cities’, one in which more people live in areas classified as urban and who together with institutions, machines, buildings, plants, trees, and animals are the creators of multiple urban cultures and ecologies. Importantly, this new historical moment requires a deepened reflection on how how we as scholars can approach and critically analyze these new conditions. We need to think anew and be constructively skeptical of established theory.

Returning to our session. While the word “pluralizing” opens to a broad family of students and scholars in creating a supportive intellectual environment for experimentation, reflection and innovation in how to pull out the political of urban ecologies, it is also so that the incredibly important postcolonial impulse—and its long history or intellectual labour—returns in our title at the end. We end the session title with the qualifier “world of cities”. Thus, the session urges us to pluralize, i.e. search for alternative ways to achieve political readings of urbanization, but we must do so in a world of cities.

By Henrik Ernstson

Berkeley and Palo Alto, Feb 3, 2014

Note. My thinking on these issues have been done in mutual learning with Mary Lawhon and Jonathan D. Silver and in this short blog piece I am sometimes using a collective “we” inferring Jon and Mary in the text. However, I should be responsible for all that is written here. The SUPE Platform does not have any official principles, but it is viewed by us who initiated it (Mary, Jon and Henrik) as a growing collaborative platform for many to participate in and define.


Ahluwalia, P. (2005). Out of Africa: post-structuralism’s colonial roots. Postcolonial Studies, 8(2), 137–154. doi:10.1080/13688790500153554

Bortoluci, H., & Jansen, R. S. (2013). Toward a Postcolonial Sociology: The View from Latin America. Postcolonial Studies, 24, 199–229. doi:10.1108/S0198-8719(2013)0000024014

Chakrabarty, D. (2007 [2000]). Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Second ed.). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Gandy, M. (2006). Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos. Urban Studies, 43(2), 371-396.

Heynen, N. C., Kaika, M., & Swyngedouw, E. (Eds.). (2006). In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. London and New York: Routledge.

Kaika, M. (2005). City of Flows: Modernity, Nature and the City. London and New York: Routledge.

Loftus, A. (2012). Everday Environmentalism: Creating and Urban Political Ecology. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Lawhon, M., Ernstson, H., & Silver, J. D. (2013). Provincialising Urban Political Ecology: Situating UPE through African Urbanism. Antipode, doi: 10.1111/anti.12051. doi: 10.1111/anti.12051

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Announcements Conferences News

Pluralizing UPE in a World of Cities: 10 Papers @ DOPE session, Kentucky, Feb 2014

We are very glad to have 10 papers from across the world for our special session on “Pluralizing Urban Political Ecology in a World of Cities” at DOPE 2014. DOPE is The Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference in Lexington, KY, February 27 – March 1. The session will gather in-depth case studies with theoretical conversations, from Jakarta, Teheran, Bangalore to New York City. A great start for our year-long SUPE conversation on doing and studying urban political ecology.

The session will mix students and more experienced scholars, theoretical reflection and case studies. Garth MYERS pushes us to seek spatial justice in African cities and with Missaka HETTIARACHCHI we travel to urban wetlands in Kolkatta and Colombo, unpacking the political content of their governing. Lindsay CAMPBELL discusses trees and ‘green spaces’ in New York City, Cameron HU works through the historical ontologies of Jakarta, and Malini RANGANATHAN learns from Bangalore on how to pluralize the state in urban political ecological analysis. Ilia FARAHANI brings an intriguing case study that combines gentrification and metabolism to analyze a working-class neighborhood in Teheran, Alec FOSTER unpacks Philadelphian urban ecologies through the notion of ‘doing identity’, and Mary LAWHON analyses media representations of environmental struggles in South Africa. Joshua COUSINS will present a broad literature review from 1965-2012 on different theoretical takes on urban metabolism. Henrik ERNSTSON opens the session by provincializing Urban Political Ecology through African Urbanism. Our two-part session will be moderated by Henrik ERNSTSON and Mary LAWHON.

The 10 papers in the special session stretches across a world of cities—including a range of urban experiences, and theoretical departure points. It bodes well for an enriching and important conversation.

We are excited and we warmly thank all authors for sending us their abstracts. We hope for a great meeting in Kentucky in February 2014. Below you will find all abstracts including our call for abstracts. The session will be followed by similar sessions at conferences in Johannesburg in March, and in London in August. Below you can read about the session and the papers. Stay tuned! Our 2014 SUPE Platform Conversation has just begun.

Contact for the DOEP Kentucky session is Henrik Ernstson (


Pluralizing the Approaches to Urban Political Ecology

in a ‘World of Cities’

Session organizers:

Henrik Ernstson [1]*, Jonathan Silver [2], and Mary Lawhon [3]

Abstract: Urban political ecology has provided critical insights into the sociomaterial construction of urban environments, their unequal distribution of resources, and contestation over power and resources. Most work is rooted in Marxist urban geographical theory, typically beginning with a historical materialist theory of power, then examining particular artifacts and infrastructure to provide a dialectical critique of society. However, there are numerous theoretical framings and entry-points to unpack unequal oppressive urban environments—and their potentialities for struggle and liberation. In this session, we continue our search for ways to pluralize the approaches to urban political ecology. Our own efforts has focused empirically on cities in Africa and theoretically to articulate a situated urban political ecology through postcolonial critique and a focus on everyday practices. But, this is just one path among others and in this session we encourage novel and creative approaches, or the reinvention or ‘hacking’ of established approaches, to participate in building a broad and rich repertoire of urban political ecology. The rationale is that in a ‘world of cities’ where urbanization works in so varied ways we need a suit of methods and theories to go about the task to unpack, analyze and participate in the shaping of urban environments. We therefore hope to gather a session that can help to envision the continued development of urban political ecology in the coming decade, including developments needed to take on—as scholars and public intellectuals—the critique of urban environments in a ‘world of cities’. We plan to follow-up this special session with similar sessions at the Southern African Cities Conference in Johannesburg in March, and the Royal Society of Geographers in the UK in August, 2014. Please join in this ongoing conversation.

Part 1—”Pluralizing the Approaches to UPE in a ‘World of Cities’”

Paper 1*: Henrik ERNSTSON on Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE Through African Urbanism (with Mary Lawhon and Jonathan D. Silver) [*10 min presentation.]

Paper 2: Cameron HU on Accidental Jakarta: Experiments in Urban Historical Ontology

Paper 3: Malini RANGANATHAN on Pluralizing ‘the State’ in Urban Political Ecology: Insights from Post-Colonial Studies and the Anthropology of State Formation (Bangalore)

Paper 4: Ilia FARAHANI on Vanished in Gaps, Vanquished in Rifts: Social Ecology of Urban Spatial Change in a Working Class Residential Area, Peykan-Shahr, Tehran, Iran

Paper 5: Alec FOSTER on Doing Identity in Urban Political Ecology (Philadelphia)

Discussant: Mary LAWHON.

Format: Paper 1 by H Ernstson will have 10 minutes to present, and then each paper will have 12-13 minutes. All will have 5 minutes for questions. This is followed by a moderated discussion during 20 minutes.

Part 2—”Pluralizing the Approaches to UPE in a ‘World of Cities’”

Paper 6: Garth MYERS on Seeking Socio-Environmental and Spatial Justice in African Cities

Paper 7: Mary LAWHON on Media Representations of Urban Environmental Conflict in South Africa 

Paper 8: Lindsay K. CAMPBELL on Constructing Nature in a Global City: Political, Discursive, and Material Practices of Urban Forestry and Agriculture in New York City

Paper 9: Missaka HETTIARACHCHI on Governing the Urban Wetlands in Developing Cities: A Political-Ecology (with T. H. Morrison, Clive McAlpine)(Kolkata and Colombo)

Paper 10: Josh COUSINS on Islands of Urban Metabolism Research and Prospects for Interdisciplinary Scholarship (with Josh Newell)

Discussant: Henrik ERNSTSON

Format: Paper 7 by M Lawhon will have 10 minutes to present, and then each paper will have 12-13 minutes. All will have 5 minutes for questions. This is followed by a moderated discussion during 20 minutes.


Abstracts of Papers

Paper 1: Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE Through African Urbanism

Mary Lawhon,  Henrik Ernstson*, Jonathan Silver Universities of Pretoria, Cape Town and Durham, and Stanford University (*Presented by H Ernstson

Abstract: Urban political ecology (UPE) has provided critical insights into the sociomaterial construction of urban environments, their unequal distribution of resources, and contestation over power and resources. Most of this work is rooted in Marxist urban geographical theory, which provides a useful but limited analysis. Such works typically begin with a historical-materialist theory of power, then examine particular artifacts and infrastructure to provide a critique of society. We argue that there are multiple ways of expanding this framing, including through political ecology or wider currents of Marxism. Here, we demonstrate one possibility: starting from theory and empirics in the South, specifically, African urbanism. We show how African urbanism can inform UPE and the associated research methods, theory and practice to create a more situated UPE. We begin suggesting what a situated UPE might entail: starting with everyday practices, examining diffuse forms of power, and opening the scope for radical incrementalism. Here we will extend our reasoning by reflecting on new writings and elaborating through case studies what radical incrementalism could mean in practice and what theoretical problems and possibilities it poses.

Paper 2: Accidental Jakarta: Experiments in Urban Historical Ontology

Cameron Hu, University of Chicago, USA

Abstract: This paper reflects on the operation of time in the political ecology of a postcolonial capital. This comes by way of a slightly unfaithful deployment of the analytic techniques of historical epistemology and historical ontology. These techniques — meta-styles of reason most famously deployed by Michel Foucault (1979), and later given more explicit formation and a Wittgensteinian hue by Ian Hacking (2004) — direct our attention to the contingent emergence of forms of life and its reckoning, and to the specific potentialities immanent those forms. Do these and related modes, more often applied to regimes of knowledge and kinds of personhood, have anything to offer the study of cities?  Drawing on an ongoing ethnographic study of “accident” and “catastrophe” and their material and virtual mediations in urban Jakarta, this paper experiments with a a series of temporalizations that emphasize an urban political ecology addressed in terms of event over against those of structure. How might we rigorously approach— for example — the postcolonial urban present as variously made up of a) the labile conditions of possibility for specific scenes of transformations or of repetitive occurrence (cf. Rheinberger 1997); b) an historically-particular set of sensibilities, embodied capacities, habits, or dispositions, and c) the diverse materializations of temporally-embedded ethical projects? These and other questions capture something different of post-colonial urban transformation — they direct our attentions to the the form rather than content of that transformation. Moreover, they quickly refer us back to the historical contingency of our own modes of urban analysis, unsettle the obviousness of their ethical and epistemic commitments, send us in search of their “axial points” (Wittgenstein 1972), and thereby draw theories of the urban into foundational questions of political theory.

Paper 3: Pluralizing ‘the State’ in Urban Political Ecology: Insights from Post-Colonial Studies and the Anthropology of State Formation

Malini Ranganathan, Global Environmental Politics, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC

Abstract: How can our theoretical grasp of ‘the state’ be pluralized in urban political ecology? Drawing from anthropology and post-colonial studies, this paper argues the importance of a ‘state formation’ approach in urban political ecology, thus moving us beyond an approach to state power that has primarily been informed by Marxian historical-geographical thought. By ‘state formation’, I refer to a denaturalized approach to the state—one that is grounded in the heterogeneity of state practices and actors, and is dedicated to demystifying the apparent cohesiveness of the state idea. Too often in urban political-ecological research—particularly in research on urban infrastructure reform and politics—the state is either relegated to the background because if its purported ‘retreat’ in the neoliberal era, or it is portrayed as a unified entity with an internally coherent set of discourses and practices of capitalist accumulation and rule. Rarely are the messy politics emanating from within the state itself broached, or the fact that the seemingly totalizing projects of infrastructure rule are always reworked by ‘informal sovereigns’, ‘shadow states’ and the ‘everyday state’. Through contemporary and historical research on Bangalore’s water supply, this paper deepens and expands the horizon of theorizing related to ‘the state’ in urban political ecology.

Paper 4: Vanished in Gaps, Vanquished in Rifts: Social Ecology of Urban Spatial Change in a Working Class Residential Area, Peykan-Shahr, Tehran, Iran

Ilia Farahani, Lund University, Sweden

Abstract: The article aims to understand the forms and processes of socio-ecological changes following socio- geographical dislocation of workers in a working-class neighborhood (Peykan-Shahr) in Iran. The article integrates theories of gentrification and metabolic rift. Existing studies on urbanization in Iran refute the possibility of gentrification. This study, in contrast, by drawing attention to peculiarities of the capitalist economy in Iran, adapts the basic economic mechanisms of gentrification such as the rent/value gap and the concept of absolute rent, concluding that Peykan-Shahr is indeed in a process of gentrification. The theory of metabolic rift adds theoretical dimensions and complexity to the analysis and provides a richer understanding of the case. Grounded in Marx’s labor theory of value, the analysis shows that by mediating the exploitation of labor/nature by capital through displacing workers from their houses, gentrification in Peykan-Shahr has caused a socio-ecological metabolic rift in terms of labor reproduction and deterioration of labor power. Key words:  Socio-ecological metabolic rift, gentrification, absolute rent, Marxism, labor reproduction, political economy of Iran

Paper 5: Doing Identity in Urban Political Ecology

Alec Foster, Temple University, Department of Geography and Urban Studies, USA

Abstract: While questions of identity have recently proliferated within the wider field of political ecology, unfortunately this has not been extended within the realm of urban political ecology. This research argues that investigating questions of identity can be a valuable approach in efforts to expand the concepts and methodologies of urban political ecology. While the theorizing of environmental identities began with a strong emphasis on Foucauldian governmentality, here inspiration is drawn from more recent work that has highlighted the importance of integrating material, performative, embodied, affective, spatial and narrative considerations of identity formation. Environmental identities are seen as relational, co-constituting both urban subjectivities and material urban environments. A focus on everyday practices is advocated for as a means of understanding the ways in which these complex processes continuously offer up choices of identifications to urban residents, and how individuals make choices between the multitude of subject positions that are available to them. A methodology for examining environmental identifications in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is developed. Multiple in depth interviews, walking tours, and other non-traditional research experiences are proposed as a program for understanding the environmental identifications of individuals participating in environmental activism. Different levels of activism, from park stewardship and tree planting to environmental direct action are chosen to understand how a suite of differential everyday environmental practices interact with the classed, gender, racialized, sexualized, and spatialized aspects of everyday life to produce identity.

Paper 6: Seeking Socio-Environmental and Spatial Justice in African Cities

Garth Myers, Trinity College Hartford, Urban Studies Program, USA

Abstract: Understandings of the relationships between social justice and environmental justice in urban Africa appear to diverge from patterns and processes debated for Western cities and articulated in and around urban political ecology. Grand concepts of socio-environmental justice or spatial justice – to say nothing of race, class, gender, nature, or non-human agency – as developed in the West sometimes are situated uncomfortably atop the everyday life of people in cities in Africa. With empirical illustrations from Nairobi (Kenya), Dakar (Senegal), and Lusaka (Zambia), this essay examines possibilities for rethinking the theorization of social and environmental justice for cities in Africa, building from the everyday consciousness of the popular majorities. Specifically, I will examine the inspiring Marxist and neo-Marxist theorizations of justice in and around urban political ecology for the gaps which appear in them in these African urban contexts, seeking organic alternative articulations from within African urban thought.

Paper 7: Media Representations of Urban Environmental Conflict in South Africa

Mary Lawhon, University of Pretoria, South Africa 

Abstract: There is a growing demand for urban political ecologies to take into consideration everyday understandings of power and contestation over urban resource flows. Media representations are an abundant (albeit imperfect) data source for beginning to understand diverse representations of conflict as they both shape and are shaped by public discourse.  In this paper, I examine stories of urban water from 1994-2013 in the Sowetan, a prominent newspaper with a primarily black readership.  I critically analyse the coverage, including an assessment of what issues are raised, what actors are included and how, what problems and solutions are identified, and how reporting on urban water has changed over the last twenty years of democracy in South Africa. In short, there is a shift from a technological optimism in the immediate post-apartheid moment towards an increase in protest and frustration, however, the analysis also provides deeper insight into how these positions are framed in the public discourse.

Paper 8: Constructing Nature in a Global City: Political, Discursive, and Material Practices of Urban Forestry and Agriculture in New York City

Lindsay K. Campbell, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, USA

Abstract: How are the politics of urban sustainability planning and implementation negotiated in the current era of green infrastructure investments in global cities; whose claims are included in that process; and with what effects on the transformation of urban land and natural resource management practices? This paper centers on New York City’s municipal long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC2030, created under the Bloomberg mayoral administration in 2007 and updated in 2011. From that starting point, it examines the broader network of actors, institutions, discourses, and socio-natural environments that co-constitute urban forestry and urban agriculture.  It explores the ways in which sustainability planning and urban natural resource management occur through a grounded study of ‘actually existing sustainabilities’ (Krueger and Agyeman 2005).  By examining a single city in a relatively narrow period of time, this study holds constant certain political-economic factors and institutional structures that are often examined by Urban Political Ecology.  It interrogates how two different natural resource systems fare in municipal agenda-setting processes.  Empirically, this study reveals the complex, networked nature of sustainability planning and environmental stewardship in a competitive city of the Global North.  Theoretically, it continues the project of ‘re-naturing urban theory’ by bringing a concern with materiality into the study of urban policymaking.  And vice-versa, it brings concepts of urban politics, urban regimes, and networked governance further into conversation with Urban Political Ecology and nature-society geography. Presented as in-depth case studies, findings draw upon semi-structured interviews with 65 subjects engaged in natural resource management in New York City, as well as social network analysis and participant observation of forestry and agriculture actors citywide.

Paper 9: Governing the Urban Wetlands in Developing Cities: A Political-Ecology

Missaka Hettiarachchi, T. H. Morrison, Clive McAlpine, University of Queensland, School of Geography, Planning 

and Environmental Management, Australia 

Abstract: Urban ecological features such as urban wetlands in many developing cities have completely disappeared or undergone irreversible ecological transformations in the last century. The efforts to re-engineer and control these ecosystems have resulted in unforeseen environmental consequences and have extreme negative social impacts. The drivers of these ecological transformations are linked to global political-economic and climatic trends on the one hand, while being shaped by national level government policies, community level decision-making and location specific ecological idiosyncrasies on the other. Therefore, the dynamics of ecological transformation of urban ecological features such as urban wetlands cannot be understood without placing the problem in a broader ecological, historical and geographic context. In this research, we investigated the changing governance and ecological transformations of urban wetlands in Kolkata, India and Colombo, Sri Lanka using a combination of analytical tools from policy studies, political ecology and spatial ecology. The similar pre-colonial ecologies of the two wetlands have diverged widely in the past century through the colonial, post-colonial and post-reform (neo-liberal) periods. Development oriented ‘wetland re-engineering’ policies dominated both cases in all periods. The ensuing environmental change and social impacts disproportionately burdened the urban poor and invoked a multitude of struggles. The recent wetland conservation policies are ineffective and inadequate to mitigate these impacts. However, Kolkata presents a unique example of a successful urban ecosystem use, where a community-based wastewater fishery industry emerged in the wetlands outside the formal governance and institutions.  We conclude that urban environmental sustainability in economically fast expanding post-colonial countries depends more on the struggle for social justice and ecological democracy than further normative conservation policy reform.

Paper 10: Islands of Urban Metabolism Research and Prospects for Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Josh Cousins and Josh Newell, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan

Abstract: Three ‘ecologies’—Marxist ecologies, industrial ecology, and urban ecology—have emerged as the primary thought traditions to conceptualize urban space as a ‘metabolism.’ Some theorize it as stocks and flows of materials and energy; others, as complex, dynamic socio-ecological systems; and still others, as hybridized socio-natures that produce uneven outcomes. Through literature review (1965-2012) and bibliometric analysis we map these scholarly islands and unveil how disciplinary cultures shape the metaphor. We propose urban metabolism as a ‘boundary object’ to enable cross-fertilization through collective empirical experiment and interdisciplinary friction. The research informs broader discourses advocating for epistemological and methodological pluralism.


These two sessions at DOPE is part of the collaborative SUPE Platform’s conversation during 2014.


Announcements News

Just Sustainabilities—A new book by Julian Agyeman

 A new book is out from Julian Agyeman that should be of interest to a broad audience, from urban sociologists, geographers, planners and activists, and their combinations! Read more here.

Screen-Shot-2013-08-08-at-8.38.15-PMIntroducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice
Julian Agyeman
This unique and insightful text offers an exploration of the origins and subsequent development of the concept of just sustainability.Introducing Just Sustainabilities discusses key topics, such as food justice, sovereignty and urban agriculture; community, space, place(making) and spatial justice; the democratization of our streets and public spaces; how to create culturally inclusive spaces; intercultural cities and social inclusion; green-collar jobs and the just transition; and alternative economic models, such as co-production. With a specific focus on solutions-oriented policy and planning initiatives that specifically address issues of equity and justice within the context of developing sustainable communities, this is the essential introduction to just sustainabilities.