The Production Of Urban Natures

The importance of the social and material production of urban nature has recently emerged as an area of importance within historical-geographical materialist and radical geography (Benton 1996; Braun and Castree 1998; Castree 1995; Castree and Braun 2001; Gandy 2002; Grundman 1991; Harvey 1996; Hughes 2000; Keil and Graham 1998; Smith 1984; Swyngedouw 1996; 2004a,b; Desfor and Keil 2004). This presents an important departure away from the agrarian focus of much environmental history (see Worster 1993). While there is an important body of literature that focuses on urban environmental history (see Tarr 1996; Hurley 1997; Melosi 2000), urban political ecology more explicitly recognizes that the material conditions that comprise urban environments are controlled, manipulated and serve the interests of the elite at the expense of marginalized populations (Swyngedouw 2004a). These conditions, in turn, are not independent from social, political and economic processes and from cultural constructions of what constitutes the "urban" or the "natural" (Kaika and Swyngedouw 1999; Kaika 2005).

The interrelated web of socio-ecological relations that bring about highly uneven urban environments as well as shaping processes of uneven geographical development at other geographical scales have become pivotal terrains around which political action crystallizes and social mobilizations take place. The excavation of these processes requires urgent theoretical attention. Such a project requires great sensitivity to, and an understanding of, physical and bio-chemical processes. In fact, it is exactly those "natural" metabolisms and transformations that become discursively, politically and economically mobilized and socially appropriated to produce environments that embody and reflect positions of social power. Put simply, gravity or photosynthesis is not socially produced. However, their powers are socially mobilized in particular bio-chemical and physical metabolic arrangements to serve particular purposes; and the latter are invariably associated with strategies of achieving or maintaining particular positionalities and express shifting geometries and networks of social power. This social mobilization of metabolic processes, of course, produces distinct socio-environmental assemblages. This book addresses exactly this mobilization and transformation of nature and the allied process of producing new socio-environmental conditions. Roger Keil (2003:724) has recently summarized urban political ecology (UPE) as follows:

[T]he UPE literature is characterized by its intensely critical predisposition; critical is defined here as the linking of specific analysis of urban environmental problems to larger socio-ecological solutions. This necessitates, as a minimum, some modicum of indebtedness to radical and critical social theory. It is no coincidence then, that the emerging field of UPE has many of its multiple roots in the intellectual traditions of fundamental social critique: eco-Marxism, eco-feminism, eco-anarchism, etc. It is also, however, indebted to a neo-pluralist and radical democratic politics that includes the liberation of the societal relationships with nature in the general project of the liberation of humanity.

Nature and humans are simultaneously social and historical, material and cultural (Smith 1996; 1998a; Castree 1995; Haraway 1997). While an understanding of the changes that have occurred within urban environments lies at the heart of political-ecology research, they must be understood within the context of the economic, political and social relations that have led to urban environmental change. It is therefore necessary to focus on the political economic processes that bring about injustice and not only on the natural artefacts that are produced through these uneven social processes (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2000). The material production of environments is necessarily impregnated with the mobilization of particular discourses and understandings (if not ideologies) of and about nature and the environment.

The social appropriation and transformation of nature produces historically specific social and physical natures that are infused by social power relationships (Swyngedouw 1996). Things like commodities, cities, or bodies, are socio-metabolic processes that are productive, that generate the thing in and through the process that brings it into being. Social beings necessarily produce natures as the outcome of socio-physical processes that are themselves constituted through myriad relations of political power and express a variety of cultural meanings (Haraway 1991; 1997). In addition, the transformation of nature is embedded in a series of social, political, cultural, and economic social relations that are tied together in a nested articulation of significant, but intrinsically unstable, geographical configurations like spatial networks and geographical scales. Indeed, urban socio-ecological conditions are intimately related to the socio-ecological processes that operate over a much larger, often global, space.

Engels (1940:45) spoke to the complexities inherent to these socio-ecological relations when he suggested that "[w]hen we consider and reflect upon nature at large.. .at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away". The notion of "metabolism" is the central metaphor for Marx's approach to analyzing the dynamic internal relationships between humans and nature that produces socio-natural entanglements and imbroglios referred to by Engels. In the most general sense, "labouring" is seen exactly as the specifically human form through which the metabolic process is mobilized and organized (see Swyngedouw, this volume). This socio-natural metabolism is for Marx the foundation of, and possibility for, history, a socio-environmental history through which both the nature of humans and of non-humans is transformed. To the extent that labour constitutes the universal premise for human metabolic interaction with nature, the particular social relations through which this metabolism of nature is enacted shape the form this metabolic relation takes. Clearly, any materialist approach insists that "nature" is an integral part of the "metabolism" of social life. Social relations operate in and through metabolizing the "natural" environment and transform both society and nature.

Under capitalist social relations, then, the metabolic production of use values operates in and through specific social relations of control, ownership, and appropriation, and in the context of the mobilization of both (sometimes already metabolized) nature and labour to produce commodities (as forms of metabolized socio-natures) with an eye towards the realization of the embodied exchange value. The circulation of capital as value in motion, then, is the combined metabolic transformations of socio-natures in and through the circulation of money as capital under social relations that combine the mobilization of capital and labour power. New socio-natural forms are continuously produced as moments and things in this metabolic process (see Grundman 1991; Benton 1996; Burkett 1999; Foster 2000). While nature provides the foundation, the dynamics of social relations produce nature's and society's history. Whether we consider the production of dams, the making of an urban park, the re-engineering of rivers, the transfiguration of DNA codes, the making of transgenic cyborg species like Dolly the cloned sheep, or the construction of a skyscraper, they all testify to the particular social relations through which socio-natural metabolisms are organized. Socio-ecological "metabolism" will therefore be one of the central material and metaphorical tropes that will guide the case-studies and other analyses presented in this book.

Political ecology, then, "combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:17). Furthermore, Schmink and Wood (1987:39) propose that political ecology should be used to explain "how economic and political processes determine the way natural resources have been exploited". While these broad definitions lay a sound foundation from which to begin to understand urban political ecology, these concepts are in need of further elaboration and expansion (see Forsyth 2003). The processes of urbanization, while implicit in much geographical research, often tend to simply play the role of backdrop for other spatial and social processes. While there has been work done that helps us consider the spatial distribution of limited urban environmental resources (Gandy 2002; Swyngedouw 2004a), there does not exist a framework through which to systematically approach issues of uneven urban socio-ecological change, related explicitly to the inherent spatial patterns the distribution of environmental amenities take under urban capitalism. Such a framework is an important step towards beginning to disentangle the interwoven knots of social process, material metabolism, and spatial form that go into the formation of contemporary urban socionatural landscapes (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003). This book seeks to present urban political ecology as a theoretical platform for interrogating the complex, interrelated socio-ecological processes that occur within cities (see also Kaika 2005).

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