Urban political ecology has over the past few decades matured into a thriving and sophisticated perspective across a range of academic disciplines, policy networks and activist organisations. In this chapter, I argue that there is nonetheless nothing inherently critical or progressive about the current state of ‘Political Ecology’, urban or otherwise, neither as a practice nor as a theoretical perspective. I shall make a case for the need of a ‘Critique of (Urban) Political Ecology’. It is, I maintain, through a ‘Critique of Political Ecology’ that the intellectual gaze might shift to identifying the mechanisms through which new and progressive political-ecological configurations can be forged. The first part of the chapter focuses on a critique of the political ecology of capitalism as an urban socio-physical process. In the second part, the focus will shift to a critique of the discursive-imaginary configuration of the political ecology of capitalism. The conclusion will concentrate on the central importance of traversing the fantasies upon which both the material and imaginary sustainability of the infernal socio-ecological dynamics of capitalism are predicated and that inform much of contemporary environmental or ecological activism. Shifting the gaze in ways that radically re-imagines our view of the socio-ecological situation we are in, I contend, is vital to configuring a strategy and forms of speaking and acting that are performative with respect to enacting progressive socio-ecological transformations.
Many scholars working within urban political ecology have yet to substantively reckon with the ways racial capitalism has formed and continues to shape urban environments. At the same time, the emancipatory possibilities of reparational politics are only beginning to be incorporated into discussions of the future city. Given emergent opportunities for reparations to reframe fundamental questions about urban nature, we mobilise insights from the Black Radical Tradition to consider how reparations can be mobilised to mitigate the uneven effects of climate change in Atlanta and New Orleans, two of the U.S. South’s most historically significant cities. We discuss how an abolitionist framing of Atlanta’s land bank opens up new questions about property-based reparative politics, climate change, and ongoing struggles for self-determination. We relate this case to the emancipatory potential of energy reparations as connected to decarbonisation of the electrical grid in New Orleans where the introduction of solar energy responds to climate change and could combat petro-racial capitalism. These contemporary policy initiatives force us to grapple with the obscene power inherent to white supremist urbanism as well as how colourblind urban theory misses opportunities to produce more just cities. Making the case for reparations and urban political ecology we ask how land and energy policy is being mobilised to reinvest in the Black right to urban life.
The reorganisation of the extractive industries into transnational supply chains has signalled the functional integration of hitherto dispersed elements of social production and brought together natural resources and built environments, as well as city and non-city space, in novel and ever more intricate ways. This demands decentring the process of metabolic urbanisation beyond the predominant role that is usually attributed to cities; specifically, it involves grasping the ways in which the dynamics of capital accumulation taking place across planetary hinterlands are also reshaping urban environments in substantial ways. On the basis of Marx’s theorisation of the circulation of capital – laid out in Volume II of Capital – the paper develops the notion of circuits of extraction in order to rethink the extractive industries from the standpoint of three contradictory, crisis-riven, yet interrelated circulatory systems: a productive circuit of extraction; a commodity circuit of extraction; and a money circuit of extraction. With this the chapter contributes to the development of an expanded conception of extractivism that is rooted in the actual dynamics of production and circulation of raw materials, but that can also illustrate the ways in which the extractive industries are remaking urban, financial, and logistical landscapes in their own image.
The circular economy has become an extremely popular paradigm for socio-technical transitions in contemporary policymaking. Governments at all levels are devising policy programs in different policy sectors – from water to energy, waste to logistics – with the objective to increase material productivity and waste recovery. As a strategy of green-growth, these programs are gaining an unquestioned consensus both among multinational corporations active in the market of secondary materials and local enterprises active in the sector of waste reuse and waste reduction. In this chapter, I will argue that circular economy defines an unfolding regime of ecological accumulation in city-regions that thrive out of the valorisation of urban waste. Previously understood as anti-value in modern capitalism, left to the marginal sectors of the economy and the planet, waste is today becoming a driver and not an externality of urban and regional development. Through infrastructural strategies for integrated material flows, I will show how circular economy establishes an approach to economic development that depends on the perpetual production of waste materials. To do so, I will look at current realisations of circular economic policies in the region of Amsterdam. My analysis shows that this development paradigm unfolds through a ‘wicked’ partnership between three distinct sub-markets that simultaneously compete and cooperate with each other. The micro economy of consumers waste reuse, repair and recycling, the corporate sector of multinational recycling companies investing in secondary materials, and the regional economy of biomass and incineration to produce energy for the city region. As the three bandits of Sergio Leone’s classic, I will metaphorically define this vicious triad of sectors seeking for waste valorisation as the good, the bad and the ugly of the circular economy.
This concluding chapter summarises the main debates in the book and discusses them in the context of emerging new publications in the field of UPE. It ends with a speculation on the question of whether an integrated UPE research and policy agenda is possible?
A disease outbreak is an emergent product of social and ecological processes. To more fully understand disease outbreaks and their response, we must therefore consider how these dual processes interact in specific locales within the context of an increasingly urbanised world. As such, in this paper we examine the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak and its response in West Africa by adopting the lenses of two approaches that are usually treated separately – namely, urban political ecology (UPE) and urban political pathology (UPP). The UPE approach sheds light on how the material/biophysical basis of the EVD outbreak was influenced by the socio-political-economic and vice versa. The UPP approach gives us insight into how the EVD response was influenced by broader socio-political-economic forces, particularly the historical legacy of colonialism. Through the adoption of this dual lens we are able to gain greater insights and a more comprehensive understanding of the EVD outbreak and response in West Africa.
In the past two decades, urban sustainability has become a new policy common sense. This article argues that contemporary urban sustainability thought and practice is co-constituted by two distinct representational forms, which we call green urban nature and grey urban nature. Green urban nature is the return of nature to the city in its most verdant form, signified by street trees, urban gardens, and the greening of postindustrial landscapes. Gray urban nature is the concept of social, technological, urban space as already inherently sustainable, signified by dense urban cores, high-speed public transit, and energy-efficient buildings. We develop Lefebvre's ideas of the realistic and transparent illusions as the constitutive ideologies of the social production of space to offer a framework for interpreting contemporary urban sustainability thinking in these terms and concretise this argument through case studies of postindustrial greening in the Ruhr Valley, Germany; municipal sustainability planning in Vancouver, Canada; and the Masdar smart city project in Abu Dhabi. We conclude by examining the implications of green and grey urban natures for the politics of urban sustainability.
In recent decades, the field of urban studies has neglected the question of the hinterland: the city's complex, changing relations to the diverse noncity landscapes that support urban life. Neil Brenner and Nikos Katsikis argue that this ‘hinterland question’ remains essential, but must also be radically reimagined under contemporary conditions.
As climate change threats to urban centres become more alarming, cities are proposing ambitious plans to adapt to climate impacts. These plans are increasingly subsumed within urban development projects, and embedded in global flows of capital and networks of environmental governance and planning. And yet, scholarship on urban adaptation has tended to approach the city as an analytically bounded territory, neglecting interconnections across space and processes of globalisation, urbanisation, and geopolitics. This chapter extends theories of relational geographies to explore how emerging conditions of urban adaptation to climate change and globalised urban development inform and revise our understanding of urban socioecological change. Focusing on the global links of Dutch water expertise, and tracing relationships within and between Rotterdam, New York, and Jakarta, it illustrates the formation of global-urban networks – the multiscalar, multilevel connections through which capital, knowledge, and influence flow. It probes the ways in which these networks emerge to mobilise ideas and influence across geographical scales and political boundaries, driven and defined by interrelated factors including economic relationships, historically defined situational relationships, and interface conditions including narratives of culture and environmental urgency. The findings explain how processes of urban socioecological change are mediated through global-urban formations that are transhistorical and relational; how situated and positional struggles are part of generalised political economic and environmental processes; and how biophysical, ecological limits are invoked and wielded as part of contested urban struggles.
While the imaginary of modern infrastructure remains prevalent in many places, it is increasingly coming into question, being replaced by other ways of imagining, building and governing infrastructure. In this chapter, we first consider what exactly is ‘modern’ about the ‘modern infrastructure ideal’ and how this relates to ongoing concerns with modernity as an imaginary of the world that is. We then examine two cases of infrastructure that work beyond modernity, teasing out some of the logics that shape how they work. In Kampala, we show how a new sanitation technology handbook works to legitimise onsite sanitation, offering users a decision-tree through which to consider a range of sociotechnical options. While there is homage paid to user heterogeneity, the handbook primarily focuses on the implications of environmental and technological heterogeneity. In South Africa, we consider the opportunities that arise through infrastructural labour that operates beyond modern conditions and the ways in which waste picking enables autonomy and serendipity. Broadly, we suggest the limitations of uniform services in contexts where nature, homes and residents are heterogeneous and the limits of standardised jobs for everyone in contexts where unemployment is high and individual socioeconomic conditions are unpredictable. Our argument here is not to romanticise already existing infrastructure, but instead, to contribute to teasing out an alternative imaginary that might shape ways of thinking beyond modern infrastructure. We call this a ‘modest’ imaginary, and suggest serendipity, autonomy, and heterogeneity play an increasingly important role in infrastructural configurations in an uncertain world.