Ecology Modernity And The Postindustrial Metropolis

Urbanization has now become synonymous with the globalization of economic and cultural life. In 1900 there were no more than a dozen cities in the world with more than a million people and agriculture remained the dominant economic activity except for a relatively small number of industrialized nations. By the end of the twentieth century, however, over 500 cities had populations exceeding 1 million people and over half of the world's population was urban. The contemporary "urbanization revolution" dwarfs the experience of nineteenth-century Europe and North America yet is distinct from this earlier transition in a number of critical respects. The so-called "brown agenda", which dominated the rancorous UN environmental summit held in Johannesburg in 2002, reflects the scale of the public health challenge facing contemporary cities but the current housing and sanitation crisis has originated in a fundamentally different context to that of the nineteenth-century city. These rapidly growing cities in the global South reflect an urban dynamic which is unrelated to the classic paradigms of city governance and planning whether in the sprawling slums of Sao Paulo or the construction frenzy underway in China's Pearl Delta. It is increasingly difficult to talk in terms of any general or identifiable model for urban development as each element takes shape within its specific context and parameters. The place of technical expertise has been superseded by a new entrepreneurial vista ranging from the most precarious slum settlements to the latest generation of immense skyscrapers that dwarf those of twentieth-century Europe or North America. The scale and complexity of this global urban transformation militates against any teleological extension of past experience and necessitates new insights into the urban process. The need to connect policy deliberation with the establishment of effective and legitimate forms of urban governance remains as important now as it was in the past but such arguments can no longer rely on either the scientific logic of public health advocacy or rationalist conceptions of urban space promoted by a coterie of technical experts.

The gathering critique of modernist planning and design from the 1970s onwards has fostered new intersections between urban design and the bio-physical sciences. In the place of a cogent critique of the inequities engendered by capitalist urbanization we find a growing engagement with socio-biological ideas such as "defensible space" which were eagerly incorporated into critiques of public architecture and urban design. Increasing emphasis on individual property rights and demands for fiscal independence from the urban poor gradually coalesced around a new kind of urban agenda exemplified by the latest surveillance strategies and the rise of gated communities. These developments have intensified the ambiguity of urban nature as both an inherent element within a functional public realm but also as a means to enhance property values as the management of hitherto public spaces has been increasingly taken over by quasi-public agencies or private foundations dependent on the whim of individual or corporate benefactors.

The post-war crisis in the rationale and impact of urban planning has been a central element in the ecological critique of modernity yet a closer inspection of urban environmental discourse reveals the innate ambiguity of "ecological politics" as the basis for any progressive response to urban problems. The emergence of anti-nuclear movements in Europe and the environmental justice movements in the USA reflect a very different appropriation of ecological and environmental discourses to the reactionary anti-urbanism of the past. The impact of urban environmental disasters such as Seveso (1976) and Bhopal (1984) as well as the chronic ill health experienced in the poisoned cities along the US-Mexican border and other toxic locales has spurred a new synergy between the politics of social and environmental justice (see, for example, Hofrichter 1993; Hurley 1995). Though these radical political challenges to militarism, industrial negligence and the productivist logic of consumer capitalism share important elements with the ecological critique of modernity they nonetheless embrace a more dialectical, inclusive and culturally determined conception of nature.

The return to nature in the post-industrial metropolis also denotes a conscious rejection of the kind of aridity engendered by the concrete landscapes associated with technological modernism. The understanding and utilization of urban eco-systems has become more sophisticated to embrace a more holistic conception of the interaction between bio-physical processes and urban society. The development of new approaches to "ecological restoration", for example, marks a self-conscious attempt to recreate the bio-diversity of ecosystems that preceded the growth of the industrial metropolis in order to foster a different kind of synthesis between nature and culture. In the case of river channels, for instance, we can find examples of ecological restoration efforts which not only add aesthetic interest to the landscape but also contribute towards improvements in flood control and waste water treatment to produce a post-industrial or late modern synthesis between advances in ecological science and new approaches to landscape design (see Gauzin-Muller 2002; Gumprecht 1999).

These developments have in part been fostered by the return of nature to postindustrial cities so that the inner areas of some formerly industrial cities such as Baltimore, Detroit or Pittsburgh have taken on an increasingly Arcadian feel. In the photographic essays of Camilo José Vergara, for example, we can observe how inner urban areas have been reclaimed by nature through a mix of abandonment, neglect and structural change to produce "green ghettos". "In many sections of these ghettos", notes Vergara, "pheasants and rabbits have regained the space once occupied by humans, yet these are not wilderness retreats in the heart of the city" (1995:16). The growing presence of nature within former industrial landscapes can be conceived as a kind of urban entropy whereby the distinction between human artifice and ecological succession becomes progressively blurred. In the literature of J.G.Ballard, for instance, the fragility of the modern city is repeatedly portrayed through a tendency towards dilapidation and decay. In the post-industrial landscapes of Ballard, Iain Sinclair and other authors we find that elaborate highway interchanges, hi-rise apartments and other characteristic features of the twentieth-century city take on the form of urban ruins set amidst a complex palimpsest of new social and technological structures (see Davis 2002; Picon 2000). A similar topographical trope of urban decay is also reflected in cinematic representations of the post-industrial metropolis. In Terry Gilliam' s 12 Monkeys (1995), for example, we encounter a post-apocalyptic Baltimore that has been taken over by elephants, lions, spiders and other organisms. This eerie spectacle is hardly an example of ecological restoration but rather a futuristic zoopolis where urban space is controlled by animals rather than by human beings. The post-industrial metropolis, and its cultural representations, is suggestive of a very different kind of city to that of the nineteenth-century metropolis but it is a city for which we are still searching for an appropriate conceptual vocabulary. The characterization of urban segregation in terms of "ecological zones" by the Chicago School of urban sociology, for example, has more recently been reworked, albeit somewhat ironically, for example, in Mike Davis's exploration of the "ecology of fear" in contemporary Los Angeles. The nineteenth-century metabolic insights of Karl Marx and Justus von Liebig have been reprised in order to provide a counterfoil to the functionalist emphases of "industrial metabolism", "ecological footprints" and other static conceptions of the modern city (see Swyngedouw 2004a; 2004b). And the dystopian genres of monstrous urbanism originating in romanticist reactions towards the nineteenth-century industrial city have been widely appropriated within more savvy examples of science fiction cinema and literature as a means to provide allegorical critiques of contemporary social and political developments.

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