The Urbanization Of Nature Socioenvironmental Justice And Uneven Geographical Development

In line with seeking out a synthetic understanding of urban environments, we must point out that the social forms of urban change have been of primary interest within urban geographic research (Gober et al. 1991). This work, however, neglects the fact that the processes of uneven deterioration that accompany urban socio-economic restructuring also contribute to changes in the ecological forms of urban areas more broadly. While environmental (both social and physical) qualities may be enhanced in some places and for some people, they often lead to a deterioration of social and physical conditions and qualities elsewhere (Peet and Watts 1996; Keil and Graham 1998; Laituri and Kirby 1994), both within cities and between cities and other, often very distant places. A focus on the uneven geographical processes inherent to the production of urban environments serves as a catalyst for a better understanding of socio-ecological urbanization.

Issues of social justice have also explicitly entered ecological studies, most visibly through the rubric of the environmental justice movement (Wenz 1988; Bullard 1990; Szaz 1994; Dobson 1999). As a result of the political mobilization that has occurred around many environmental issues, the environmental justice literature has evolved through political praxis and focuses on the uneven distribution of both environmental benefits and damages to economically/politically marginalized people. Because it comes from praxis as opposed to theoretically driven academic research, it provides a distinctly different context through which to understand urban human/environment interactions (see Bullard and Chavis 1993; Di Chiro 1996). Because it is a movement rather than a research program per se, it must explicitly appeal to a broad coalition of either environmentally minded or social justice minded groups, thus promoting the widespread dissemination of the struggles endured. However, although much of the environmental justice literature is sensitive to the centrality of social, political and economic power relations in shaping process of uneven socio-ecological conditions (Wolch et al. 2002; MacDonald 2002), it often fails to grasp how these relationships are integral to the functioning of a capitalist political-economic system. More problematically, the environmental justice movement speaks fundamentally to a liberal and, hence, distributional perspective on justice in which justice is seen as Rawlsian fairness and associated with the allocation dynamics of environmental externalities. Marxist political ecology, in contrast, maintains that uneven socio-ecological conditions are produced through the particular capitalist forms of social organization of nature's metabolism.

Henri Lefebvre reminds us of what the urban really is, i.e. something akin to a vast and variegated whirlpool replete with all the ambivalence of a space full of opportunity, playfulness and liberating potential, while being entwined with spaces of oppression, exclusion and marginalization (Lefebvre 1991 [1974]). Cities seem to hold the promise of emancipation and freedom whilst skilfully mastering the whip of repression and domination (Merrifield and Swyngedouw 1997). Perpetual change and an ever-shifting mosaic of environmentally and socio-culturally distinct urban ecologies—varying from the manufactured and manicured landscaped gardens of gated communities and high-technology campuses to the ecological warzones of depressed neighbourhoods with lead-painted walls and asbestos covered ceilings, waste dumps and pollutant-infested areas— still shape the choreography of a capitalist urbanization process. The environment of the city is deeply caught up in this dialectical process and environmental ideologies, practices and projects are part and parcel of this urbanization of nature process (Davis 2002). Needless to say, the above constructionist perspective considers the process of urbanization to be an integral part of the production of new environments and new natures. Such a view sees both nature and society as combined in historical-geographical production processes (see, among others, Smith 1984; 1996; 1998a; Castree 1995).

From this perspective, there is no such thing as an unsustainable city in general, but rather there are a series of urban and environmental processes that negatively affect some social groups while benefiting others (see Swyngedouw and Kaika 2000). A just urban socio-environmental perspective, therefore, always needs to consider the question of who gains and who pays and to ask serious questions about the multiple power relations—and the networked and scalar geometries of these relations—through which deeply unjust socio-environmental conditions are produced and maintained. This requires sensitivity to the political-ecology of urbanization rather than invoking particular ideologies and views about the assumed qualities that inhere in nature itself. Before we can embark on outlining the dimensions of such an urban political-ecological enquiry, we need to consider the matter of nature in greater detail, in particular in light of the accelerating processes by which nature becomes urbanized through the deepening metabolic interactions between social and ecological processes.

Urban political ecology research has begun to show that because of the underlying economic, political, and cultural processes inherent in the production of urban landscapes, urban change tends to be spatially differentiated, and highly uneven. Thus, in the context of urban environmental change, it is likely that urban areas populated by marginalized residents will bear the brunt of negative environmental change, whereas other, affluent parts of cities enjoy growth in or increased quality of environmental resources. While this is in no way new, urban political ecology is starting to contribute to a better understanding of the interconnected processes that lead to uneven urban environments. Several chapters in this book attempt to address questions of justice and inequality from a historical-materialist perspective rather than from the vantage point of the environmental justice movement and its predominantly liberal conceptions of justice. Urban political ecology attempts to tease out who gains and who loses (and in what ways), who benefits and who suffers from particular processes of socio-environmental change (Desfor and Keil 2004). Additionally, urban political ecologists try to devise ideas/plans that speak to what or who needs to be sustained and how this can be done (Cutter 1995; Gibbs 2002). In other words, environmental transformations are not independent of class, gender, ethnicity, or other power struggles. These metabolisms produce socio-environmental conditions that are both enabling, for powerful individuals and groups, and disabling, for marginalized individuals and groups. These processes precisely produce positions of empowerment and disempowerment. Because these relations form under and can be traced directly back to the crisis tendencies inherent to neo-liberal forms of capitalist development, the struggle against exploitative socioeconomic relations fuses necessarily together with the struggles to bring about more just urban environments (Bond 2002; Swyngedouw 2005). Processes of socio-environmental change are, therefore, never socially or ecologically neutral. This results in conditions under which particular trajectories of socio-environmental change undermine the stability of some social groups or places, while the sustainability of social groups and places elsewhere might be enhanced. In sum, the political-ecological examination of the urbanization process reveals the inherently contradictory nature of the process of socio-environmental change and teases out the inevitable conflicts (or the displacements thereof) that infuse socio-environmental change (see Swyngedouw et al. 2002a).

Within this context, particular attention is paid in this book to social power relations (whether material or discursive, economic, political, and/or cultural) through which socio-environmental processes take place and to the networked connections that link socio-ecological transformations between different places. It is this nexus of power and the social actors deploying or mobilizing these power relations that ultimately decide who will have access to or control over, and who will be excluded from access to or control over, resources or other components of the environment. These power geometries shape the social and political configurations under and the urban environments in which we live.

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