Green and Gray: New Ideologies of Nature in Urban Sustainability Policy

Wachsmuth and Angelo 2018, Figure 4

“Green surface, gray substrate” in Masdar City (source: LAVA)

I’m pleased to announce that a new paper by Hillary Angelo and me has just been published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. It’s called “Green and Gray: New Ideologies of Nature in Urban Sustainability Policy”, and it reflects nearly a decade of thinking and research on our part.

In a nutshell, the paper argues that when policymakers, planners and other policy actors talk about “urban sustainability”, they are actually drawing on two quite different underlying ideas about cities and the environment. We call these “green urban nature” and “grey urban nature”. Green urban nature is the return of verdant, living nature to the city—trees, gardens, and postindustrial greening. Gray urban nature is the idea of the city as inherently sustainable thanks to its concentration of people and technology, embodied in urban density schemes, public transit, and energy-efficient buildings.

We use brief case studies of sustainability planning in three global urban contexts (the Ruhr Valley, Germany; Vancouver, Canada; and Masdar City, Abu Dhabi) to demonstrate several different concrete configurations of green and gray urban nature. One of them is what we call “green surface, gray substrate”—substantively high-tech (“gray”) urban sustainability policy which is dressed up with green visual signifiers to help intuitively communicate its environmental content.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

In the past two decades, urban sustainability has become a new policy common sense. This article argues that contemporary urban sustainability thought and practice is coconstituted by two distinct representational forms, which we call green urban nature and gray urban nature. Green urban nature is the return of nature to the city in its most verdant form, signified by street trees, urban gardens, and the greening of postindustrial landscapes. Gray urban nature is the concept of social, technological, urban space as already inherently sustainable, signified by dense urban cores, high-speed public transit, and energy-efficient buildings. We develop Lefebvre’s ideas of the realistic and transparent illusions as the constitutive ideologies of the social production of space to offer a framework for interpreting contemporary urban sustainability thinking in these terms and concretize this argument through case studies of postindustrial greening in the Ruhr Valley, Germany; municipal sustainability planning in Vancouver, Canada; and the Masdar smart city project in Abu Dhabi. We conclude by examining the implications of green and gray urban natures for the politics of urban sustainability.

The final author draft of the paper is freely available to download. The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 22 February 2018.