Archives for category: urban sustainability

When I was starting my PhD, back in 2011, a friend asked “So where are these eco-cities then?” I was a bit stumped. What was it that I was actually studying? Something that didn’t really exist? Would I just be doing a kind of journalistic work, delivering easy critiques of inflated rhetorical claims? Anyway, I soon realised that the more interesting questions lay elsewhere. But I’ve remained keen to find out more about urban developments using this sort of terminology to describe themselves.

Relatedly, I noticed some of the newer local train maps in Kuala Lumpur include a station named ‘Eco City’ or ‘KL Eco City’, sometimes followed by ‘(Coming Soon)’. So, of course, I went to investigate.

It turns out this is a new high-rise development, accommodating a new shopping centre, offices, and residential towers. It’s being delivered by a public-private sector partnership between Kuala Lumpur City Hall and KP Setia (a large Malaysian company, and one of the main backers of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London).

The shopping centre has been open for just under a year, and is still filling up its retail units. But when the connector bridges are open, it will be the third in a row of three shopping centres, making it possible to walk all the way from MidValley to Abdullah Hukum train stations without stepping into the non-air conditioned world outside.

There didn’t seem to be anything evidently ‘eco’ about it at first glance.  The official website casually refers to the new residential blocks as ‘sustainable’ – but that’s about it.  After a little more internet searching, a few more credentials emerged. A press release-style article in the national Star newspaper describes its underlying philosophy of “Live Learn Work Play in an urban setting”, and its aim “to be the country’s first integrated Green development targeting both the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) and US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.” It is certainly well connected to public transport – but also to the multi-laned road/motorway system running all around it. Unsurprisingly, its promoters don’t dwell on the fact that the Haji Abdullah Hukum kampung (‘village’) was flattened to make space for it.

Kampung Haji Abdullah Hukum in 2007 (Photo credit: Two hundred percent, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how should we think about this ‘eco-city’ development? KL Eco-City may not presage a new transformative era of urban sustainability (if anything, it catalyses the structural forces that continue to lead us in the opposite direction). But I think it’s easy to overlook the immense difficulties of getting anything built in the real world – particularly a huge complex such as this. An optimist might argue that it could have been worse: at least they are applying for green building accreditation and investing in public transport.

What interests me, though, is what it says about the trajectory of the ‘eco-city’ concept (and at this stage I would humbly refer you to my recent book chapter on the topic, which is full of further references). The big picture is that an originally radical idea has gradually been compromised as it has entered mainstream thinking and practice around urban development. What you’re left with is little more than the eco-city as real-estate marketing strategy (increasingly only associated with large developments in East Asia): a way of using green credentials to facilitate planning permissions, help shape an urban ‘brand’, add to public acceptability and market value. But what’s fascinating about the KL example is that it barely even tries to promote its green credentials as evidence of its eco-city status.  The eco-city as an almost entirely ‘empty’ label.

And yet this linear story, of a hopeful idea being gradually absorbed into ‘business as usual’, isn’t the only one we can tell. I’d see the eco-city as having always been defined by a multiplicity of heterogeneous practices. Rather than searching for the eco-city as a fully formed urban place, and evaluating what we find against utopian criteria, we can see it as one of many loose labels which come and go, but at least facilitate different types of experimentation and innovation. Some of this innovation may be very modest in its aims; much of what emerges may barely differ from what would happen anyway. It’s not just the case that the hopeful, grass-roots vision of the eco-city has been usurped by the corporate megaproject, but rather than all sorts of varied eco-urban goals and activities continue to co-exist, whether or not they use the eco-city label, or even use the spatial framing of the ‘city’.

In this particular case, it seems a real shame that the KL Eco-City project has (so far) made no obvious attempt to take advantage of one key asset. I think the Klang River, which runs directly beside it, could easily be turned into a more pedestrian- and wildlife-friendly environment – even given the risk (I imagine) of regular flooding. Still, it seems that a group of local residents (the ‘Friends of Sungai Mid Valley’) regularly cleans up the area.

Perhaps we might argue that this clearing-up activity shouldn’t be left to volunteers. But perhaps this group has sprung into action precisely because the river environment has been further degraded by the KL Eco-City development; perhaps both these activities draw on a growing, broader sensibility that cities can be more environmentally friendly. Clearly, the power relationship between the Friends of Sungai Mid Valley and the combined forces of an international property developer and KL City Hall isn’t a symmetrical one. But I think it’s more generative to start by thinking of all this as dynamically interconnected, rather than only in oppositional ‘good guy/bad guy’ terms.

Section of the Klang River, running beside KL Eco City

Kuala Lumpur, 1 August 2019

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A quick post to announce two new publications.

First, a chapter on ‘Eco-Cities’ in the Handbook of Urban Geography published by Edward Elgar, edited by Tim Schwamen and the late Ronald van Kempen. This outlines the various ways that this term is used, the history of the practices associated with it, and an overview of critical perspectives on it. I haven’t got hold of a copy of the whole handbook yet, but it looks like a fine compendium. Detailed contents can be seen on the publisher’s website.

Second, a short position piece on the question of whether we should colonise Mars. I think about this question through the lens of ‘Martian Rights’, including the rights of Mars itself. This forms part of a collection of themed articles entitled ‘To Mars, the Milky Way and Beyond: Science, Theology and Ethics Look at Space Exploration’, in the journal Theology and Science. You can find it here.

Full references and the abstract for the Mars article are shown below. If you want to read either, but can’t access them, get in touch and I can send you a pdf of the relevant ‘accepted manuscript’ (ie almost final version).

Cowley, R. (2019). Eco-Cities. In Schwanen, T. & van Kempen, R. (eds.) Handbook of Urban Geography. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.725-750. ISBN: 978-1785364594

Cowley, R. (2019). Yes, We Earthlings Should Colonize Mars if ‘Martian Rights’ Can Be Upheld. Theology and Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2019.1632521

Abstract:

I argue that programmes of Mars colonization might usefully be guided by a consideration of “Martian Rights”. I outline four categories of possible rights which would need to be guaranteed, depending on the precise nature of the colonization: those directly transferable from existing human rights, new rights, rights in need of modification, and the rights of Mars itself. Debates over Martian Rights should not be deferred until the technological challenges of supporting human life on Mars have been resolved. Rather, they have the potential to usefully inform the development of relevant space technologies.

London, 5 July 2019

A new publication in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, which I wrote with Federico Caprotti – now available on open access.  You can read it/download the pdf here.

I think of the paper as having two main roots. First, an earlier comment piece by Federico and me, which laid out a series of underexplored aspects of ‘urban experiments’ (the tendency for contemporary projects in cities to be conceptualised and promoted as ‘test beds’, ‘living labs’ etc etc).  Second, an interest which I’ve had since my PhD in the tensions between the long-term goals of sustainable development, and the short-termism of new forms of dispersed governance.

In the new article, ‘smart city’ ideas and practices are positioned as exemplifying the tendency towards experimental urban governance. However, if we accept Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s (2011) well-known thesis, experiments are rarely innocent: here, we argue that the smart city poses a disruptive challenge to the idea that we can ‘plan’ the future.

The article draws on some of the (UK) findings from our ‘smart eco-cities‘ research project, and is part of a rolling special issue of Environment and Planning D, edited by Ayona Datta and Nancy Odendaal.

Details…

Cowley, R. and Caprotti, F. (2018). Smart City as Anti-Planning in the UK. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0263775818787506.

Abstract

Critical commentaries have often treated the smart city as a potentially problematic ‘top down’ tendency within policy-making and urban planning, which appears to serve the interests of already powerful corporate and political actors. This article, however, positions the smart city as significant in its implicit rejection of the strong normativity of traditional technologies of planning, in favour of an ontology of efficiency and emergence. It explores a series of prominent UK smart city initiatives (in Bristol, Manchester and Milton Keynes) as bundles of experimental local practices, drawing on the literature pointing to a growing valorisation of the ‘experimental’ over strong policy commitments in urban governance. It departs from this literature, however, by reading contemporary ‘smart experiments’ through Shapin and Schafer’s work on the emergence of 17th-century science, to advance a transhistorical understanding of experimentation as oriented towards societal reordering. From this perspective, the UK smart city merits attention primarily as an indicator of a wider set of shifts in approaches to governance. Its pragmatic orientation sits uneasily alongside ambitions to ‘standardise’ smart and sustainable urban development; and raises questions about the conscious overlap between the stated practical ambitions of smart city initiatives and pre-existing environmental and social policies.

 

London, 20 July 2018

 

References:

Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (2011). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mars landscape

I’m just getting the paperwork signed off on a new research project: Lessons from the Eco-City: A Manifesto for Governing Life on Mars. It’s being funded by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Settlement Challenge (set up by the Dubai Future Foundation), and will run until the end of the year.

The governance of future colonies on other planets is a topic which has long fascinated science fiction writers and film-makers.  But I intend instead to begin by drawing lessons from innovative governance experiments on earth. The work will involve an extended piece of desk research, followed by a workshop in December, leading to the publication of a preliminary ‘manifesto’ summarising key principles for the practical governance of space settlements.

More details to come once the project gets off the ground.

London, 12 June 2018

 

Image: NASA Mars Space Exploration Gallery

 

Palgrave Communications

I had a short piece published yesterday in the ‘Politics of an Urban Age’ collection in Palgrave Communications.  It’s a commentary on certain tendencies within urban governance, which point away from strong ambitions to solve ‘big’ social and environmental challenges.  You can read it here on open access.

In fact, it’s part of a trio of comment papers – the other two by Federico Caprotti (on bringing human needs back to the centre of planning), and Simon Joss (on the need to reinvigorate public institutions and public debate).  All three can be found together on the collection webpage.

Future Cities: Renarrating Human Agency

Abstract

The media coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the city of Houston in August 2017 reveals an ‘Anthropocenic’ sensibility, which tends to deny our ability to solve pressing environmental and social problems through strong and direct human action. This sensibility is reflected at city level in new forms of governance, exemplified here with reference to resilience, smart urbanism, and design-thinking. These have in common a cautious, inductive logic of change; their limited imaginations of space and time imply a dispersed sense of human agency. But if these new rationalities are unlikely to yield convincing solutions to problems such as Hurricane Harvey, perhaps there is a need to rethink the dominant framing of the Anthropocene, which underpins them.

Cowley, R. (2018). Future Cities: Renarrating Human AgencyPalgrave Communications, 4, article 41. DOI: 10.1057/s41599-018-0103-y

Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow's World

The newly published book Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World includes a chapter by Simon Joss and me, exploring the role of national policies in shaping local urban sustainability. We compare the aims, processes, and outcomes of four national initiatives launched since the millennium (India’s Ecocity programme, France’s EcoQuartiers and Japan’s Eco-Model City schemes, and the UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition).

Why look at these?  Well, one of our points is that the role of national policies is often underdiscussed in studies of local urban sustainability initiatives. Of course, there are exceptions – but these tend to focus on large-scale, top-down ‘exemplar’ projects which are explicitly driven by central government – for example, Federico Cugurullo’s (2016) analysis of Masdar City in the UAE, or Catherine Chang’s (2013; 2017) work on Chinese eco-cities.  Elsewhere, though, more celebratory accounts of local initiatives may draw too unquestioningly on contemporary discourses around the ability of cities and city regions to take charge of various progressive agendas.  And even scathing commentaries may unwittingly reproduce this discursive framing, by setting up unrealistic expectations of local actors.

I think that keeping the national picture in mind may provide some useful critical perspective. National policies and frameworks do remain rather important – not just as blocks to innovation but also as enabling factors in what emerges at local level. Dismissing this part of the analytical jigsaw may mean that we’re not vindicating the ‘rise of the city’ in the face of the ‘dysfunctional nation’ (Barber, 2014), so much as failing to hold national policy-makers to account.

 

Joss, S. & Cowley, R. (2017). National policies for local urban sustainability: a new governance approach? In Eames, M., Dixon, T., Hunt, M., and Lannon, S. (eds.) Retrofitting Cities for Tomorrow’s World. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.227-246.  ISBN: 978-1119007210.

 

References

Barber, B.B. (2014). If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chang, I.-C.C. (2017). Failure matters: Reassembling eco-urbanism in a globalizing China. Environment and Planning A, 49(8): 1719–1742.

Chang, I.-C.C. & Sheppard, E. (2013). China’s Eco-Cities as Variegated Urban Sustainability: Dongtan Eco-City and Chongming Eco-Island. Journal of Urban Technology, 20(1): 57–75.

Cugurullo, F. (2016). Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: Where Masdar City fails and why. Urban Studies, 53(11): 2417–2433.

 

London, 26 November 2017

I went for a wander around Hammarby Sjöstad, an ongoing residential redevelopment of an old industrial area near Stockholm’s city centre, and widely billed as an exemplar of environmentally friendly urban design. It’s perfectly reasonable to critique the ‘eco’ claims of places like this, either because we think more radical environmental change is needed, or simply as a sort of journalistic or academic game. But, from just walking round as a tourist, I can report that:

(a) the buildings are clearly very high-spec, and interestingly varied;

(b) the communal areas and public spaces are very inviting, and – on a nice summer’s day at least –  full of people;

(c) the people that live here, or were visiting it, are clearly not living on the breadline.

Hammarby Sjöstad 1Hammarby Sjöstad 2Hammarby Sjöstad 3

If we wanted to be critical, then, it might be worth mobilising the charge of ‘eco-gentrification’ (while noting that Hammarby Sjöstad is just south of the island of Södermalm – the most obviously and famously gentrified part of Stockholm).

But I was also therefore curious to see what a less well-heeled part of Stockholm might look like. So I travelled to Husby, at the other end of the city, where riots broke out in 2013. Husby is the sort of multi-ethnic place which the media seems to liken gleefully to the problématiques Parisian bainlieues.

What did I find there? Well, it’s certainly not as pristine as other parts of the city.  But I didn’t get any sense that Husby had been left to rot: it has the appearance of being looked after well, there are plenty of local services, and in places it’s straightforwardly pleasant. On the surface, at least, a far cry from the worst parts of cities in the UK:

Husby 1Husby 2Husby 3Husby 4

 

Stockholm, 22 June 2017

View of Aswan

Aswan

I’ve spent most of the last week at a workshop on ‘Rebuilding Communities for Resilient and Sustainable Development’ in Aswan (Egypt).  A marvellous event – many thanks to all involved in organising it.

So then: resilient and sustainable… Does it matter that these two terms seem to have become inseparable? That sustainability even seems to be increasingly playing second fiddle to resilience?

Policy-makers at least seem happy enough to speak of resilience and sustainability in the same breath. One of our first workshop exercises, however, was to think more closely about how they differ and relate to each other. Our group contrasted the two concepts in terms of time (sustainability as linear; resilience as iterative) and space (sustainability as extensive and global; resilience as inward-looking and local). We agreed that their relationship is not so much hierarchical (with one perhaps being a necessary condition for the other), as fundamentally characterised by mutual tension.

This tension is reflected in their different registers of societal organisation: while sustainability has always been oriented towards state-centric solutions, resilience looks more to ‘bottom-up’ agency. Depending on your perspective, then, resilience usefully fills a gap in the discourse of sustainability; or its rise can be read as problematic evidence of the ongoing ‘roll-back’ of the state. In any case, abandoning the ideal of sustainability in favour of resilience seems uncomfortably close to relinquishing the hope that our formal institutions of representative democracy can ever be revived.

While I tend towards hoping that our institutional democratic life can be revived, I also wonder if this type of ‘anti-neoliberal’ perspective is rather parochial. What does it really mean in places where there is no general assumption, or expectation – or illusion – that the state somehow ‘stands above’ the messy informality of everyday life? Where the state is clearly demarcated from the public only in terms of its elitism or authoritarian capacities? If Egypt falls into this category of place, it is certainly not unique; informal processes seem to dominate the conduct of everyday urban life around the world, including – to an extent not always recognised – in western countries. In fact, I would argue that the question of how sustainability policy-making might better encompass informality is a key one.

By ‘encompassing informality’, I don’t mean just improving living conditions for the marginalised or reducing ‘corruption’. Rather, I argue that there is a need for more direct acknowledgement in sustainability planning that real cities are held together by informal relations, and characterised by unpredictable, emergent and often transgressive public behaviour, as much as by compliance with formal regulations and dominant norms.

However, I’m not certain that this need is satisfied by the ways in which informality has been embraced in recent years as a source of inspiration for policy-makers and built environment professionals (ranging from the romanticisation of the self-organising principles of the slum through to the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the west, and the adulation of ‘swarm’ or ‘hive’ intelligence). In practice, such thinking typically seems normatively underpinned by a goal of efficiency which necessarily excludes predetermined definitions of right and wrong. There would seem to be only a fine line between taking inspiration from informality on the one hand, and purposefully slumifying our collective future on the other.

 

Aswan, 16 December 2015

 

 

Design after planning

Might it be possible to go beyond the limitations of liberal-modernist policy-making and urban planning if we start thinking of governance at different scales as a process of design?

If you find this sort of question interesting, you may want to consider submitting an abstract for a one-day interdisciplinary conference we’re holding at the University of Westminster on Friday 5 February, 2016.

We have three confirmed keynote speakers – Filip De Boeck (KU Leuven), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick) and Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester), and plan to have three panels on:

  • disaster and risk design
  • designing with emergent urban systems
  • resilience versus sustainability

To find out more, or to sign up for updates, please visit the event website.

We have not yet released tickets for the event, but there will be no charge for attending (or registration fee for speakers).

London, 5 November 2015

UPDATE 5 APRIL 2016:  videos from this event are now online: https://designafterplanning.wordpress.com/videos/

 

Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation cover

A few months ago, I saw a call for contributors to a ‘book of blogs’. The idea was to create a “collection of short blog posts crowdsourced by, and from, our networks of social scientists working on sustainable urbanisation issues”. The editors – Jenna Condie (University of Western Sydney) and Anna Cooper (University of Salford) – were hoping for at least 50 contributions of up to 1,000 words, with no particular restrictions on content within the overall theme. It seemed like a good initiative, and I was curious. So I signed up, dutifully wrote my bit, and the whole thing has just been published.

In the event, more than 120 people from around the world agreed to take part, and the book has ended up containing around 70 short pieces. There is a varied mix of contributions – mostly I think from early-stage researchers, but also from established academics – grouped together into 11 sections: ‘Definitions of Sustainability’, ‘Urban Governance’, ‘Engaged Citizens’, ‘Urban Divides’, ‘Movement and Mobilities’, ‘China’, ‘Making Places’, ‘Environment’, ‘Low Carbon Futures’, ‘Alternative Economies’, ‘Digital Futures’.  The whole process took seven months from the original call up to publication.

Co-editor Jenna Condie reflects on the experience in the final section of the book: “The ‘traditional’ communication platforms of email and the mail lists of international organisations have realised this book into being. Without those networks, the range of posts would have been narrower and the contributions less varied. Whilst mail lists are great for sharing information, they function less well as dialogical spaces. We need more social online spaces to get to know one another given that we are located across the world, living great distances apart with many interests in common. The web presents a wealth of opportunities for networked researchers to create environments for dialogue, discussion, and research. Still, researchers need to want to get involved in those online discussions by putting their identities ‘out there’, and in turn, reap benefits from doing so.”

Will it succeed in its aim of encouraging dialogue? Blogs seem to work well as half-way houses for writing, without the pressure of peer review: they are public enough to make you put effort into what you write, and the process of writing helps you clarify your thoughts.  I admit that I get lots of ideas from other people’s blogs, but I’m concerned that I pilfer these rather than enter into dialogue with their authors. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read or take seriously what’s written in a blog; perhaps they are more useful for the writer than anybody else. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with this.

There’s a link to the pdf here, or you can read it as an e-book from a link here.  A print version should be available soon as well.

8 August 2015, Cornwall

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