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 (henrik.ernstson@stanford.edu).


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. http://www.situatedecologies.net/supe/events2014