Urban Habitation in Theory and Practice
Detail from Romare Bearden's "The Block" (1978). Source: Harlem World
In "Ecology and Inclusion" I recently argued that ecology — as the study of relations between organisms and their environments — is limited in addressing today's most urgent problems because it rarely includes theory and methods designed to illuminate human behavior. Ecological research explains the impacts of our actions on the world around us, as well as the influence of environmental factors on our wellbeing, but doesn't thoroughly examine how and why these processes take place. Now that the increasing majority of humans live in cities, there is a pressing need for urban ecology that considers anthropogenic problems in detail. To meet this need, I propose incorporating theory and methods associated with cultural landscape, urban political ecology and ecological urbanism into the fold of ecology. While closely related, each represents a different contribution to the study of human habitation, with the potential to help optimize living conditions on earth.
Aerial view of Earth, Texas. Source: Pawling Print Studio
Cultural landscape (Mitchell 1996, Schein 1997, Cresswell 2008) and the related notions of association (Latour 2004) and assemblage (McFarlane 2011) inform a view of cities as ever-changing processes of interaction among human and nonhuman configurations, influenced in large part by communication, perceptions and ideas. This is relevant for urban ecology because it sheds light on how we use resources to expand our capabilities, and how we adapt environments to enhance our quality of life. It can also help make the case for maintaining valued places and practices (Longstreth 2008,UNESCO 2011), not as static entities but as shared heritage to be cared for, learned from and adapted as needed.
Urban political ecology (Keil 2005, Heynan et al. 2006) draws upon association (i.e.,actor networks) as well as critical geography (Bauder and Engel-Di Mauro 2008), political economy (Swyngedouw 2004), urban history (Cronon 1991), social construction (Escobar 1996), environmental justice (Bullard 2005), critical urban theory (Marcuse 2009), right to the city (Brenner et al. 2011, Harvey 2012) and other research paradigms associated with the "social" or "physical" sciences. It focuses on the processes through which cities change, clarifying the need to make these processes more democratic and ecologically responsible.
Ecological urbanism (Mostafavi and Doherty 2010) acknowledges the centrality of politics in changing urban ecosystems, with emphasis on the role of design based on interdisciplinary research. It embraces ambitious plans at the global scale, as well as local initiatives that build tactical momentum toward flexible longterm strategies. It also introduces a re-evaluation of the ethics and aesthetics of urban intervention, attempting to unsettle foregone conclusions of the past.
Incorporating useful elements of cultural landscape, urban political ecology and ecological urbanism can make ecology more attuned to the ways humans experience and influence cities. This is more than a shared analytical framework or conceptual lexicon (Gandy 2008: 567); it means actual integration so that ecologists are equipped to address the full complexity of human environmental relations and help make cities more just, healthy and beneficial to the planet as a whole.
Sustainable Cities Collective