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Anyone still here? December 17, 2008

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Hi, I know class is over but I thought I’d post this article because it’s an interesting discussion of EJ and the green movements, etc.  Plus, I really think the artwork in it is incredible.  Anyway, enjoy the holidays!


Concrete and Clay December 12, 2008

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Concrete and Clay has another quality I admire in historical works, which is that it has a lot of pictures in it.  Other than that, it seems to be lacking in terms of its theoretical contributions, it seems, and what the overall scope of the work should be.  There is a wide discussion on theory in the introduction, particularly of the role of nature and capitalism, but a lot of this seems to be subsequently dropped later in the book (or not emphasized enough).  For example, the only discussion of the role of capital in creating those upstate waterworks projects in the second chapter is that it was done so that the city could be a greater site for capital accumulation.  Gandy writes that “urban growth instituted a brutal logic of its own, which necessitated the physical transformation of the landscape”; but the chapter seems to be mostly about the legislative and technocratic battles that emerged in building the Catskills Aquaducts.

Furthermore, the role of nature seems to only make a cameo throughout the book, making only fleeting appearances from time to time.  There seems to be a greater proportion of each chapter devoted to governmentality and ideas of the time than there is not how nature is remade (in this, it reminds me of Don Mitchell’s talk, which only briefly mentioned “violently remaking landscapes” even though that was the title; it was an exciting title, though).   It seems like the book works much better as a discussion for urban planners and how design theories go in and out of fashion at various points than it does of a book that discusses how nature is remade in crafting the city.

That said, I enjoyed the anecdotal style of the writing, and the ways in which the narrative included broad scope (at least in the chapters about waterworks and Grand Central Park) and then moved to more specific instances, retelling the struggles of the Young Lords and Latino and Hasidic communities in Brooklyn.  But I’m not quite sure how the first part (large infrastructure projects) can be explicitly linked to the second part of the book (environmental justice) in an overarching narrative about “Reworking Nature.”  The fact that the book moves from talking about how power to determine the urban enviroment has devolved from technocrats like Robert Moses to, now, empower activist groups is something very obvious, I feel.  Perhaps the last two chapters were added to provide sort of a “feel good,” human-agents-as-resisting-hegemony narrative.  I still like the last two chapters, but they feel distance from the previous two.

A strength of the book, like Cronon’s, was Gandy’s ability to retell the dominant theories and ideas of a certain time.  This is especially evident in the chapter about Grand Central Park, where different visions of what the relationship between nature and the city ought to be like are excavated by his writing.  We are expertly reminded of how these thinkers thought the city could have, and it is difficult for me to not sympathize with some of these egalitarian visions, misguided as they might be.

where is nature exactly? December 11, 2008

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After a brief discussion of Concrete and Clay Trevor asked if he should be expecting an “angry Sasha post.” Upon further review of my thoughts I will attempt to avoid “anger” in my review of Gandy. However I was a touch disappointed. Perhaps the expectations game had something to do with. Concrete and Clay is talked about in the same way as Nature’s Metropolis and while it similarly traces the relationships between a city and its hinterlands it is no Nature’s Metropolis (do I need to cite Lloyd Benson on that one?) 

Concrete and Clay is a very astute urban study the teases out how the problematization of “nature” is still a very key issue in understanding contemporary urban politics. Gandy lays out a broad and ambitious theoretical framework in the introduction (one of those chapters that probably merits a rereading) that suggests that capitalist urbanization is not the same as modernism and that the history of New York is the history of multiple modernities I’m not exactly sure what he means by this, but I think it has something to do with his equating of nature with ideology. That is, ideology is what becomes naturalized (6-7). In this way, the manipulation of nature or rather the contesting visions of how exactly and to what ends nature should be manipulated should not be seen as modern and anti-modern, but rather as competing forms of modernism, that all essentially naturalized certain arrangements of social power. 

This argument is perhaps best explained through his discussion of the Young Lords and the various tactics that were deployed. While they evolved to espouse a socialist agenda, they clearly did not reject the subordination of nature. Instead they offered up a different plan for how it should be organized. 


I was most impressed by his exploration of water politics in New York. 


What I was frustrated with was what I perceived to be an absence of nature in his explanations or at least an absence of the uncanny aspects of nature, that is, the proliferation of hybrids that escape the modern constitution (See Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern for a discussion of this). While he suggests that the focus on the social construction of space has been misleading in understanding urban nature, I agree with Erin that he seems to explain most of the transformations by referring to capital accumulation. The following quote perhaps best represents the constructivism that Gandy seems to revert to.

The factors that determine the long-term viability of cities and regions rest ultimately not with natural limits, which are in any case largely culturally and technically determined, but with the strategic significance of places within a wider set of social and economic dynamics. (51)

I’m not quite sure what to make of this except to express my disappointment. His curious epilogue  about West Nile Virus is hard to understand in light of this quote. On the one hand he suggests that “the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern are all jostling for position simultaneously” and that “urban nature is a collage of past and present” yet this collage seems to consist of the various constructed or at least symbolically colonized natures. Thus what counts is what is called nature and what is discounted are those things that are “real” – that is, they do stuff – but aren’t recognized. It is easy to see this in the discussion of sanitation. While germ theory had not been developed, germs still were what was making people sick, but Gandy’s story is largely about the sorts of politics that stemmed from a conception of nature that was based on miasma theory. This is important, but I would argue that this is not really the whole story.

Concrete and Clay December 11, 2008

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Gandy provides an enjoyable story filled with interesting historical accounts of the continuously shifting political, economic, and social forces that produce both symbolic and material forms of nature.  Primacy is clearly placed on water for its obvious life-sustaining qualities as the opening chapter sets the tone for the remainder of the book with discussion of how nature can become many different things and be interpreted many ways based on the power structure in place.  I found the story of New York’s continued expansion of its’ ‘ecological frontier’ to be particularly interesting as it stepped-out further and further for more (and cleaner) resources in response to the overwhelming growth of the city’s population.  We see a return to the ‘ecological frontier’ notion later in the book in regards to the seeking out of new (and less politically contested) space for waste disposal.  This reminded me of the ‘ecological footprint’ idea and how this is similar in the way it grows in spatial extent as the urban grows. 

Through a discussion of Central Park’s initial development and usage, Gandy provides an interesting example of how power plays into the socially produced material and symbolic forms of nature.  It is an historical account that plays out as much today in admittedly smaller forms, but the contestation over what nature is or what it should be and for whom it should be produced is constantly playing out across the ‘greening’ cities of today.  Gandy focuses partially on the role of the middle-class not only in shaping the production of nature (parks) in the city but also returns to this idea of ‘middle-class militancy’ later in the book when he discusses the divide between environmental justice movements seen as more radical and the environmentalism movement often comprised of white middle to upper-class citizens. 

As you can imagine, I was very interested in the chapters regarding environmental justice and trash given not only my research interests but also the recent discussions of trash (Sarah Moore’s Oaxac article).  I wonder if someone in Oaxaca knew about the Young Lords’ organized trash barricades!  Again we see examples of not only how environmental justice movements begin to form but also how they often expand their agendas from more than a simple protest or reaction to a particular environmental ‘event’ if you will.  Gandy well-illustrated how so often it is concerns of residents regarding their health and that of their children which provide the impetus for social activism.  The civil rights movement also provided the inspiration and early templates for meaningful activism.  We see in the community of Greenpoint-Williamsburg how such health concerns and long-running perceptions of injustice contributed to the ability of heretofore disparate and divided communities to come together as a unified opposition.  Such environmental justice movements often have deeper goals than preventing one facility being sited near their community.  As Gandy illustrated, their concerns and goals stretched to desires for a greater ability to dictate how their space or community is developed and utilized.  The role of place attachment is enormous in such movements as more recent environmental justice research has shown (Kurtz in particular).

I enjoyed this book quite a bit for the above-mentioned reasons, but I still feel as if there was not as in-depth a treatment of what nature is doing throughout all of these years as perhaps there could be.  As Erin mentioned in her post, perhaps the lack of such treatment by so many is simply the enormous challenges of taking on such a task and avoiding the nature/society duality.  However, Gandy did provide interesting and useful discussion of how social relations produce different material and symbolic forms of nature, I didn’t see much of any examination of how the nonhuman acts or responds to these social relations.    

Cities and Nature are Multiple Entities December 10, 2008

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I wonder if the reason more urban scholars are not incorporating nature into their analyses of the dynamics of cities is not because they truly understand nature to be the antithesis of the urban, but because of the level of complexity incorporating nature as part and parcel of the urban adds.  Doing a study that combines social and environmental sciences while avoiding the nature/city dualism can be really difficult.  Gandy does an excellent job of this, I think.  While I find his book to be primarily about urban development in New York City, he brings nature into his investigation throughout the book.  He shows how the meanings and uses of nature has changed over time, based on the needs of those in power, but also due to advances in science, engineering, and other fields. 


One of my favorite insights of Gandy’s book is his description of natural entities as “multiple entities”.  They are not just material, nor are they just socially constructed.  They are both simultaneously.  And nature is not static, but it changes over time, both materially and semiotically.  Natural entities possess their own biophysical laws and properties through which they influence society.  But in the process of influencing society, they are themselves influenced by society in terms of their political and cultural factors.  One example of this is the transformation in both the use of water by society and the meaning of that water. 


Unlike other authors we have read this semester who point to changes in addressing environmental problems or changed in the ways nature is incorporated into development as responses to changes in public opinion regarding nature and the environment, but fail to look at the sources of the shifts, Gandy discuses what precipitated some of these chanes in public perception.  For example, people became concerned about water systems due to increases in water related illnesses and new knowledge linking sanitation and health, as well as the growing status and professionalization of engineering. 


However, throughout Gandy’s book, the main stimulus for changes in public attitudes toward nature was always shown to be based on what would produce the most money and highest status.  For example, although public opinion toward water had changed, this was not the most important impetus for changing the way water was managed.  Unlike in Colten’s book on New Orleans, Gandy suggests that poor infrastructure and sanitation are not due to incompetence, but to the drive of those in power to accumulate wealth.  Improvements in sanitation and infrastructure were to do changes in what would promote capital accumulation.  Gandy explains that the real push for building a water system was due to city boosters’ perception that “in the absence of a secure water supply. . . the city would lose out to its main rivals and be stymied” (p. 30). 


The story remains much the same today.  Citizens’ desire for environmental protection is influential in the push toward greening cities, but it is the perception urban governances have of the necessity for cities to be “green” in order to compete with other cities that has truly driven this transformation.  Without the growing environmental awareness among the public, greening would probably not be seen as a viable strategy for capital accumulation.  However, based on Gandy’s analysis, without the drive to compete and ultimately to accumulate wealth, greening strategies would be undertaken by cities. 

Gandy video on Mumbai’s water supply December 8, 2008

Posted by scuerda in Uncategorized.
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The following just came through on one of my food listserv’s. Rather timely.

December 7, 2008

Resource: Film “Liquid City” – on water in Mumbai city

(x-post H-Water)
From: Matthew Gandy

“Liquid city”(30 minutes; English, Hindi and Marathi with English

Directed and produced by Matthew Gandy

The tortuous flow of water through Mumbai presents one of the most
striking indicators of persistent social inequalities within the
globalizing metropolis. The documentary film /Liquid City/ explores the
complexity of water politics in Mumbai ranging from the engineering
challenge of transferring nearly 3,000 million litres of water a day to
the city from the jungles, lakes and mountains of the state of
Maharashtra to debates over flooding, privatization and social

The film is based on a unique collaboration between academics and film
makers based in London and Mumbai and combines in-depth interviews with
activists, engineers, local residents and other voices to paint a unique
picture of this vibrant and fast changing city.

Matthew Gandy is Professor of Geography at University College London and
Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. His research focuses on urban
infrastructure and landscape with recent work in India, Nigeria and the
USA. His publications include /Concrete and clay: reworking nature in
New York City /(MIT Press, 2002) and “Learning from Lagos” in /New Left
Review/ (2005).

The film was developed in collaboration with PUKAR and was funded by the
Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The film is available from the UCL Urban Laboratory, Department of
Geography University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP


Enquiries to natalie.warner@ucl.ac.uk

The “in’s” and “out’s” of the city December 4, 2008

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The (unintended?) theme of this week’s readings is closely related to Tim Cresswell’s conception of inspace/outspace, where power dynamics of where to locate garbage and how livability is defined says a great deal about a city.  Once again, we are dealing with what is conceived of as “acceptable nature” – green waterfronts – and “unacceptable nature,” an obvious example being garbage.  The spatial development of city is never far removed from these societal processes.

I enjoyed the end of Hagerman’s piece about urban waterfront redevelopment in Portland when he begins to explore the meaning of the new landscape in relation to what it was, especially of the “legacies of oppression and pollution and the history of workers and residents.”  When read in conjunction with Maria Kaika’s discussion of the City of Flows, the idea of how to write about urban landscapes can be tied to the history of what was once there.  The abrupt erasure of an old landscape with a new one informs us of what is “in” and what is “out”; what was once considered emblems of progress and modernity – industrial smokestacks pointing towards the heavens and water networks snaking through the city – is suddenly passe at a later date.  However, this method seems to say more about the humans themselves than it does about re-engaging nature, something we’ve discussed about in class.

A former friend of mine once opined about how these livability ratings in Houston (my hometown) generally rated sections of the city that were inhabited by middle to upper-class white residents as being more desirable than other sections, especially those where minority residents tended to cluster.  In other words, the parts of the city that were rated as “more livable” correlated with the proportion of residents who were white and upper middle class (one part of the metropolitan area – The Woodlands – was described as being racially diverse even though the only know minority population there is a small, small concentration of Asian Americans). Of course, these ratings took a lot of these livability factors into account that Hagerman brought to mind, but they also utterly masked the social processes behind how these livability factors were unevely distributed throughout the city.  I think Hagerman is right when he says that the livability discourse is something not easily divivded along conservative/progressive debates since it is seens as a rather objective criteria not subject to critical analysis.

The idea of an unevenly distributed urban landscape plays well with the two pieces about garbage, but I suppose the idea that marginal urban residents having to live a waste-infested locales in the city is not something new.  So, in one sense, it is not surprising that urban squatters in Nairobi and indigenous populations in Oaxaca have to deal with the refuse from wealthier parts of city.  Would the garbage have been dumped near wealtheir parts of the city, given the gross disparities in income in those two countries?  I had a hard time seeing whether these case studies were useful because they were exceedingly particularlistic (that is, they represented something different than the norm when we theorize about such issues, especially as related to envirnomental justice) or whether they are just interesting stories to tell that valorize an existing theoretical model.  Perhaps what is new is the urban ecological perspective, which has the ability to unearth the private-political coalitions that benefit from constructing and maintaining the city in a certain way, especially in how space is utilized.

Burying or Burning the ‘dirty’ (memories or garbage) December 4, 2008

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I found Hagerman’s piece to be useful in providing a deeper assessment of urban change than simply stating gentrification has occurred.  The way in which nature and an ‘ideological landscape’ is discussed and presented serves the goals of particular actors in positions of power.  I liked this piece because of the discussion regarding how certain memories and/or histories can be disregarded or removed when re-constructing a space.   These forgotten memories not only include environmental pollution but also ‘legacies of social conflict and labour unrest.’  Hagerman ultimately explains that what started out as a particularly well-received plan for ecological restoration of the waterfront, has now turned into a quest for more residential housing for elite citizens.  Memories, histories, and already marginalized populations are further removed or hidden from the imagined landscape.  The notion of ‘livability’, which continues to play a prominent role in the development discourse and rhetoric offered up by cities, is an interesting notion as it is entirely subjective as an idea but is applied by cities and planners in a very concrete formulaic fashion, where livable means expensive, close to ‘nature’, and ‘clean’.  Hagerman makes a good point about how the old industrial processes as well as homeless populations are pushed out of the area rendering it more ‘livable.’  I see this as creating a picture where we end up with these landscapes overlain by interpolated degrees of ‘livability’ with a finite amount of total livability across the space.  If one area, the waterfront in this case, becomes more ‘livable’ another area then suffers a decrease in ‘livability’ as industrial processes and marginalized populations are shifted around according to the whims of urban planners and preferences of the elite. 


I also found it interesting how Hagerman described green images as being these symbolic and material representations of hope.  I had never encountered such a discussion so I thought that was quite interesting.  One aspect of the piece that I am unable to grasp is when Hagerman says the following: ‘the result is a denial of the social context of the industrial economies that shaped these landscapes.’  I understand what he means but I’m not sure how Hagerman would provide for an acceptance and accounting of the social context.


I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the Njeru piece alongside Moore’s piece in order to look at urban political ecology with respect to garbage or waste in the global south.  I found both to be very interesting as they both illustrated the complex challenges and political-economic roots of the two different trash problems.  They both dealt with the poor to non-existent provision of sanitary services and the political-economic forces stemming any wider spread, more equitable, provision of those services.  The Moore piece was particularly interesting to me because of how the location of the marginalized population with respect to the landfill became not only a source of feelings of inequity but also instilled a sense of power among the residents which drove them to block access to the landfill and protest in a very visible fashion.     




“Ecological Disneylands” December 3, 2008

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I found Hagerman’s portrayal of Portland’s waterfront redevelopment initiative as an  ecological Disneyland very interesting.  While I think his examination of the projects that he seems to dismissing is not thorough enough to make this claim, it is an interesting perspective.  He says that rather than truly being ecological restoration as is claimed, these projects can only make this assertion on a symbolic level.  The visible industrial contamination was removed, but the ecological restoration is more of a façade that will “divert from the reality that substantial public money is facilitating the development of primarily elite residential housing” (p. 293).  Hagerman notes that instead of the expansive greenways and riverbanks restored for salmon that were proposed, there have only been two small parks built, neither with access to the waterfront.  Instead, they provide “symbolic access” through water features that, after complaints that too many children were playing in the water, had their access restricted.


Nature, in the waterfront redevelopment projects, is staged in a way that will relieve people’s anxieties about the damaged environment and smooth over contemporary social conflicts.  Hagerman clearly illuminates the interrelationships between the city, nature and social power.  He shows how symbolic landscapes are used to frame redevelopment discourse and to displace ecological and social problems.  For example, the decommissioning and scrapping of obsolete ships, once a common activity along Portland’s shoreline, now occurs in countries that cannot afford to be concerned with environmental impacts.  And low income housing and services and shelters for the homeless in these once marginal waterfront areas find themselves on the defensive, forced to legitimize their continued presence in an “improving” neighborhood. 


Arguments about nature are clearly not a-political.  I liked this article, but I was a little bit disappointed in the way he just threw in a little bit of theory about power – that it’s not all top down, without giving any examples or discussing what kind of potential this holds.  I was left asking is there anything positive here?  Or is there any potential for positive social and ecological change?



Links for Dec. 1 December 1, 2008

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  • Out of New York, a proposed park will cover over what has got to be the best-named landfill ever: Fresh Kills.
  • Another park plan, this one covering over part of the Hollywood Freeway in L.A.
  • Mayor Villaraigosa of L.A. wants to generate 10% of the city’s electricity from solar power and to produce the solar panels locally.
  • Toronto gains more pedestrian access to its waterfront.
  • On a somewhat different note, the DMZ continues to provide the best wildlife habitat in either of the Koreas.