Urban Environments Initiative: Virtual Workshop Report: Spaces of Living in Transformation—In Times of Uncertainty

A residential view of Naples, Italy. Photo by Bertrand Gabioud via Unsplash

By Carolin Maertens and Daniel Dumas

The Urban Environments Initiative (UEI) is a collaborative venture between the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), the Technische Universität München (TUM), the University of Cambridge, and New York University, and includes members from a variety of other international institutions as well. It is coordinated in Munich by Eveline Dürr (LMU) and Regine Keller (TUM) in association with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC). The UEI’s primary objective is to bring together researchers working on urban environmental issues and related topics from a variety of locales across the world.

Originally launched in October 2019 at the “Urban Environments—International Perspectives” workshop hosted at the RCC, the UEI set out to build on this workshop’s success by considering two in-depth case studies of spaces of living in transformation within Munich, as a means of inspiring discussion amongst the Initiative’s members working in and on various international urban contexts. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, however, the original workshop planned for June was adapted into the one-day virtual workshop on Spaces of Living in Transformation—in Times of Uncertainty, hosted on Zoom, which invited UEI members to present their urban-focused research projects related to one of four themes: Creating/Destroying/Decolonizing Spaces of Living and Extinction, Material and Built Environment, Spatial and Social Justice, Accessibility, and Inclusion, and Belonging and Identity.

Held on 26 June, the half-day virtual workshop brought together scholars across 16 time zones (from China Standard Time to Pacific Standard Time)! Despite the challenges of hosting a meeting with scholars from four continents, the UEI workshop provided members with the opportunity of following up on their initial discussions from the October 2019 kick-off event and to present either the progress on the work they initially presented or new urban research ventures.

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Online gathering of Urban Environment Initiative participants across 16 time zones. Photo by UEI

Recap of Sessions One and Two
As mentioned above, the presentations of both parts of the first session addressed the transformational processes of Creating/ Destroying/ Decolonizing Spaces of Living and Extinction.

Session One/ Part One
The first presentation of the workshop, The Elephant in the City: Of Synurbising Forests and Ethologising Infrastructures by Anindya “Rana” Sinha and Nishant Srinivasaiah demonstrated how wild elephants—finding themselves in increasingly urbanized areas—adapt to human-made changes to their environment through engagement and learning. Driven by curiosity as well as precaution, the elephants carefully examine novelties in their surroundings and eventually accept them as part of the environment with which they are familiar. Pointing out that humans, on the other hand, came to consider elephants predominantly as intruders and competitors who cannot be allowed to stay near, Rana and Nishant advocate for the requirement of humans to adapt, too, to the presence and needs of other-than-human forms of life.

In the second presentation, John Burt, Mary Killilea, and Anne Rademacher explored Cities Making Nature: Unplanned Habitats and New Ecologies in Coastal Cities. Focusing on the case study of Abu Dhabi, they shared how human processes in cities can contribute to the emergence of unplanned natural spaces and nonhuman habitats. While discourse and literature tend to focus on negative implications of urbanization, such as the destruction of natural habitats, in Abu Dhabi, human manipulation of the Gulf coastline unintentionally transformed the often arid and bare environment into highly productive habitats (e.g., mangroves) for a variety of animal and plant species that were not there before. In turn, the emergence of new natural spaces and the arrival of new species sparked human inhabitants’ interest in questions of conservation and protection, fostering forms of inter-species relationships that are new to the place. These findings invite scholars across disciplines to collaborate and rethink theorizing the relation between nature, cities, and social life.

In his presentation, From Oceanscape to Cityscape: Urban Socio-ecological Metabolisms at Eko Atlantic City, Lagos, NigeriaJoseph Adeniran Adedeji attends to another large-scale urbanization project turning coasts into land, shifting the focus to questions of socioeconomic inequality reinforced and amplified by the creation of Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria. Thus, the construction of Eko Atlantic City, which is protected by the so-called Great Wall of Lagos (8.5 km long and 12.5 m wide), on land wretched from the ocean has not only caused immense damage to the coastal environment but also dispossessed and displaced innumerous people. Destined for rather affluent inhabitants from the beginning, Joseph theoretically reframes the costs that accompanied the creation of Eko Atlantic City and afford life(styles) in the city today as energy dissipation of urban socio-ecological metabolisms that are further examined drawing on concepts like class, capitalism, neoliberalism, and authoritarianism.

The final talk of the first half-session, Transformation and Risk: The Urban Coastline of an Active Volcano in Naples, Southern Italy by Karen Holmberg, addressed issues of social and spatial injustice in the face of environmental hazards. Often such hazards are used to justify strict measures imposed on citizens by local authorities. For an example of this in practice, Karen transported us to Volcano Campi Flegrei, located under the western outskirts of the city of Naples and the Bay of Pozzuoli. It threatened to erupt in the late 1960s/early 1970s and prompted authorities to forcefully evacuate thousands of local residents and (dis)place them in temporary housing. Even though the expected disaster had eventually not taken place, former residents of Rione Terra were not allowed to return to their homes. To the contrary, soon after the forceful removal their properties were declared cultural heritage and taken control of by the town hall. Drawing on oral histories of evacuees who describe their experiences as severely traumatic, Karen advocated for accessible science and an inclusionist approach to communicate environmental risks that seriously takes into account a community’s perceptions and experiences.

Session One/Part Two
The first presentation, Promising Plans, Contested Calculations: Sea Changes on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour by Gordon Winder, in the second half of the first session brought us to yet another urban(ized) coastal space—to Auckland, New Zealand, and to the question of how urban environments are being reshaped, rethought, and revalued. In particular, Gordon disentangles competing ethics and subjectivities that have been mobilized by Sea Change, a marine spatial planning initiative that designed a future vision for Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, which poses a stark contrast to previous assessments of the port’s value in terms of its economic capacity. However, despite an explicitly inclusionist approach of the planning initiative that aimed at integrating the imaginaries of diverse stakeholders, the final outcome remaps and remodels Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf as its “Blue Backyard,” drawing implicitly on modernist urban planning practices that date back to colonial and settler imaginaries of proper urban amenities as well as alienation of Indigenous resources.

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A view of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. Photo by Kirsten Drew via Unsplash

In Intensities and Capacities: Forms of Living and Dying in Pandemic Cape Town, Thomas Cousins took us to Cape Town, South Africa, where he and his research partner Zuko Ndamane have carved out the ways in which seemingly unrelated phenomenon like a historical and more contemporary rat plague, the 2017 outbreak of influenza A in chickens and, most recently, Covid-19, are connected by histories of racism, class, and law. Resulting responses to these crises by the state, civil society, as well as residents, have created political economies of food and livelihood that reveal, on the one hand, the extent to which the spatial logic of apartheid in Cape Town continues to prevail today, and, on the other, how contradictory attachments to rights lead to different forms of living and dying.

The presentation Living Architecture and Blue-Green Systems by Ferdinand Ludwig and Friederike Well introduced two approaches in architecture and urban planning that search for ways of both integrating conventional building techniques and materials, and biological matter and systems In Northeast India, Ferdinand researches and documents “living bridges” built from aerial tree roots that span mountain torrents and thus help create social-ecological systems in which human livelihoods depend on these ever-changing structures. Several lessons can be taken from this example of human/plant-made architecture, namely: rethinking and actively approaching (urban) architecture as a process that is never completed and remains uncertain. In this spirit, Friederike provided an update on the blue-green housing “Impulse Project” in Munich that practically explores possibilities to improve urban microclimate by making use of the synergetic effects of water and vegetation.

Session Two/Part One

The second session of the workshop explored the material and built aspects of urban environments. Maan Barua initiated the session with Infrastructural Ecologies, presenting his research on the relation between other-than-human life and infrastructure—relations which he suggested are beginning to mark the configuration and governance of life in urban environments. Two questions lie at the heart of these developing relations: how might we think of the ongoing infrastructuring of other-than-human worlds, and conversely, how might we think of infrastructures as they furnish worlds for other-than-human life. Maan provided the examples of herds of goats clearing brush to prevent wildfires in California and beavers as a means of preventing flooding as cost-cutting resilience and ecological infrastructures, while macaques in India supply street vendors with bananas in exchange for food and water so that the latter may earn a living in urban areas. A possible next step when considering these other-than-human infrastructures would be to widen the current infrastructure ontology to include who or what composes them and to what ends.

In his presentation on Urban Transformation for Climate Adaptation via Green Infrastructure — What does it mean? Stephan Pauleit proposed to focus on the development of urban green infrastructure to make cities places that offer a good quality of life, reduce their ecological footprint, and adapt to climate change. A considerable increase in greening, he argued, demands a fundamental reorganization of public and private open spaces as well as transport in cities. In order to negotiate potential tensions between these possibly competing aspirations, Stephan advocated for a network-governance approach that connects top-down planning and bottom-up civil initiatives and allows to foreground social inclusiveness.

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A parking lot garden in Singapore. Photo via 贝莉儿 DANISTvia Unsplash

Felix Mauch continued the session with his talk Logistical Ecologies. A Singapore Story exploring the history of the city’s logistical expansion during the colonial era between 1848 and 1942. Utilizing logistics as a lens and a method to understand how urban space is produced, Felix outlined the territorial transformation of Singapore into an operational landscape in order to lay the foundation for its large port and intermodal transport network as a central part of the then colonial capitalist market. This in turn required expanding available space on the island by large land reclamation projects and sea-port dredging, which effectively reshaped unruly geomorphologies, pulverised Indigenous ways of life, exploited migrant labour, and removed wildlife. As the colonial sources state, this was all done in the name of improving trade and commerce. As a result, a distinct vision of what urbanization should achieve for certain stakeholders emerged, begging the question of how far we are willing to go to achieve economic development goals.

Landscape, Sport, Environment: On the History of Spaces for Sport in Berlin by Sonja Dümpelmann touched on the topic of the history of sport landscapes, specifically on the intersections of the history of public health, physical and body culture, and the history of urban and landscape design in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Berlin. Sonja’s research poses the questions of how far the development of eugenics and sports science were interested in standardized bodies and established sports landscapes, and how these landscapes and urban design practices naturalized sport activities, which were often related to military training and politics. Using the example of the hippodrome, it was argued that this earthwork was increasingly featured in Berlin’s emerging public (and later sport) parks and recalled the classic Roman aesthetic ideals of architecture and the human body. They also offered a practical urban space that accommodated the conservative gymnastics movement and the burgeoning liberal competitive sports movement. Broadly speaking, sports landscapes that often go unnoticed can actually provide rich insights on the relationship between humankind and the built environment.

Session Two/Part Two

The second part of the final session of the workshop focused on the themes of spatial and social justice, inclusion, belonging, and identity. Rob Gioielli kicked it off with his presentation Beyond Space: Sprawl, Race and Mobility in Postwar America, which discussed urban America’s history of the sprawling form. Rob argued that suburbs have historically been constructed into racial landscapes dominated by white supremacy and carbon-intensive petroscapes, often referred to as “car country,” two elements that are intimately bound-up together. Through the use of thinly-veiled racist zoning policies in the 1960s, white suburbs attempted to keep out black residents. When such policies were overturned by human rights and housing activists, in addition to black homebuyers, often white supremacist homeowners moved further away, thus extending the sprawl 60 to 90 minutes outside of the city center. Rob concluded by discussing the central role of mobility in relation to this issue and how it shapes race and space, highlighting the automobile’s role in cementing distant white suburbs, undercutting the potential carbon-reducing impact of public transit, and how recent Black Lives Matter movements are also connected to protesting the racial profiling of black drivers (and subsequent stops) by police.

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Aerial view of a suburb in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Avi Waxman via Unsplash

With her talk on New York’s Post-Industrial Waterfront: A Lesson in Environmental Gentrification and Environmental Inequality, Kara Schlichting continued the conversation on how infrastructure, socio-economic injustice, and real estate relate to one another. Her case study on absent environmental gentrification of the post-industrial waterfront of the South Bronx, New York City, compared to great efforts invested into turning neighboring Brooklyn’s and Manhattan’s waterfronts into green amenities—hence further increasing its real estate values—reveals how environmentally informed concern for urban coastal nature became a source for capital creation and new forms of structural and spatialized injustice. Instead of parks, the community of South Bronx (largely home to various minority communities) hosts waste management facilities, industrial sites, and transport infrastructure, to the effect of depressing real estate value and increasing health risks.

Amy Zhang’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: The Labor of Scraps in Philadelphia and Guangzhou provided an avenue for thinking about the similarities and relationships in the configuration of labor in scrapyards in these two different cities. Amy’s ethnographic fieldwork relates to paper recycling scrap yards in Guangzhou and construction and demolition scrap yards in Philadelphia, recently reinvigorated by the city’s construction boom. The striving purpose of the project is to think about the similarities in labor and the scrapyards’ relationship to urban ecology. Amy shared a video focusing on her ethnographic work surrounding a lumber scrapyard in Philadelphia marked by its flexibility in terms of its workspace and workforce, which utilizes openness and migrant labor. Transforming scrap lumber into wood chips for mulch, the project provides a glimpse into the city’s post-industrial present, following the story of workers earning a living from trying to make discarded lumber useful again.

In the final talk of the workshop, Food, Cities, and Control: Culinary Panic and Covid-19, Sasha Gora invited us to oyster beds turned into tables on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, where guests gather around what at low tide is a table and at high tide an oyster bed. CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones is an ongoing, collaborative project initiated by the artist duo Cooking Sections in dialogue with restaurants, fisherfolk, and other locals. Over a spread of sustainably produced delicacies, this installation invites guests to contemplate how restaurants are a place to not only restore the human body but also ecology, i.e., the more-than-human body. This art project exemplifies how restaurants, and by extension food production, distribution, and consumption, are deeply embedded in cultural representations and negotiations of power. Moreover, Sasha argued that food is at the core of the current global health crisis as it is linked to our (human) broken relationships with the animals and plants that we consume. As restaurants now slowly reopen, she urged us to critically question how they contribute to our cities, shape our environments, and challenge who is welcome where, with the intention of eventually creating healthier places of belonging for people, plants, and animals.

Next Steps

The online workshop Spaces of Living in Transformation—In Times of Uncertainty, provided the opportunity for members of the Urban Environments Initiative to gather, present their research, and engage in meaningful discussions despite the current travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Touching upon four broad topics, the presentations that made up the bulk of the workshop offered participants the chance to share their research and engage on questions of urban life and environments. It is anticipated that the workshop will lead to future collaborations in the form of position papers, which will serve as the basis for the UEI’s next workshop Re: Thinking the Urban, tentatively scheduled for 21-22 January 2021.

To find out more about the UEI, please visit here.

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