Why does everyone think cities can save the planet?

A speculative render of Tianjin Eco City

A speculative render of Tianjin Eco City (source: Surbana Urban Planning Group)

For the upcoming 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Hillary Angelo (from the University of California Santa Cruz) and I have organized a set of sessions responding to the question “Why does everyone think cities can save the planet?”. We received an enormous amount of interest in the call for papers we circulated (nearly 40 submissions!), and we’re both very excited about the final lineup. Date and time is still TBA, but here are the sessions:


Why Does Everyone Think Cities Can Save the Planet?

Session organizers: Hillary Angelo (University of California Santa Cruz) and David Wachsmuth (McGill University)

While fears of global warming and environmental catastrophe loom ever greater, urban areas continue to expand unevenly. And, in the face of environmental crisis and urban crisis, the ideal of the ‘sustainable city’ is increasingly taking a leading role in urban planning and policy discourse. But if the city is to save the planet, who will save the city? And why does everyone think cities can save the planet in the first place? These sessions consider the reasons for, and political implications of, this phenomenon. New ways of conceiving the urban have always been linked to the identification of new “problems” and strategies for urban governance—and to the production of new blindspots and new dynamics of sociopolitical contestation. The same is also true of nature: changing ideologies of nature suggest new understandings of environmental problems and solutions, and provoke new socio-environmental crises. The collected papers examine the interconnectedness of these two propositions by interrogating two sets of ideologies. We ask: How do ideas about good cities and ideas about good natures co-produce the framing of urban sustainability problems and preferred solutions in urban policy worlds? How do organized and everyday politics reproduce urban nature ideologies, and how do they challenge them?

Session 1. New Global Ideologies of Urban Nature

The papers in this session probe the contradictions of global urban sustainability policy by considering the ideologies, visualizations, and political economy of smart, sustainable future cities.

Why Does Everyone Think Cities Can Save the Planet? New Ideologies of Urban Nature in Global Sustainability Politics
David Wachsmuth (McGill University) and Hillary Angelo (University of California Santa Cruz)

Global Sprawl Revisited: Countering the Density Myth, and Making Progressive Policy for a Sub/urban Planet
Robin Bloch (ICF International) and Roger Keil (York University)

The Art of Ideology: Maps, Simulations and Flythroughs in Making the Smart City Fiction
Ayona Datta (University of Leeds)

From Urban Jungle to Good, Green & Beautiful: The City of Tomorrow as a Political Imagery
Markus Hesse (University of Luxembourg)

On the Political Economy of Crisis-Driven Metabolic Transformations in Cities
Vera K. Smirnova (Virginia Tech)

Session 2. Grey Urban Natures and the Promise of ‘Smart’ Technology

This session examines the application of “smart city” policies to solve urban sustainability problems, focusing on the promise of new technologies.

A Smart City Dispositif: Urban Energy Governance in the Smart City
Anthony Levenda (Portland State University)

Urban Atmospheric Control: Nowcasting and the Modulation of Infrastructure
Andres Luque-Ayala and Simon Marvin (University of Durham)

Smart Cities, Renewable Energy and the Not So Smart ‘Urban’
Pushpa Arabindoo (University College London)

Making Room for Water? Contested Visions of Urban Adaptation and Development
Kian Goh (Northeastern University)

Ambiguities in the Sustainability and Growth Politics of Alberta’s Cities: District Heating, Scalar Politics, and Carbon Flows
Aida Nciri (University of Calgary)

Session 3. Green Urban Natures and the Promise of ‘Natural’ Nature

This panel examines the use of public parks, gardens, and other green spaces in the creation of sustainable, livable cities. The papers offer contemporary and historical perspectives on the changing ideologies and geographies of ‘natural’ nature.

From a Suburban Greenfield to an Urban Park: The Case of Årstafältet in Stockholm, Sweden
Liisa Perjo, Peter Schmitt, Lukas Smas, and Moa Tunström (Nordregio)

Property That Was, and Will be Again: The Significance of Cherokee Re-territorialization and Megapolitan Political Ecology in Southern Appalachia
Nik Heylen (University of Georgia)

The Racial Geographies of Metropolitan Nature in the United States, 1850-Present
Kevin Loughran (Northwestern University)

The Parisian Jardins Partagés : Temporary Territories for a Sustainable City?
Kaduna-Eve Demailly (Paris-Est Créteil University)

From Grey to Green: Contradictions of Eco-urbanism at the Industrial Margins in Seattle, WA
Nicholas Janos (California State University Chico)

Session 4. The Environmental Politics of Collective Consumption

This session considers the environmental dimensions of planetary urbanization, and sustainability as a problem of spatial planning and consumption. The papers examine efforts to solve these problems through density and economic development.

Leveraging Bogotá: Sustainable Development, Global Philanthropy and the Increased Speed of Urban Policy Circulation
Sergio Montero (Universidad de los Andes)

What Good Is a Low Carbon City if No One Can Afford to Live There?
Jennifer L. Rice (University of Georgia) and Kshama Sawant (Socialist Alternative Councilmember, City of Seattle)

Saving the Sustainable City from Itself: Carbon, Collective Consumption, and 21st Century Urbanization
Daniel Aldana Cohen (New York University)

Is Density the Problem?
Eliot Tretter (University of Calgary)

From Grunge to Glimmer: Building the New Seattle
Keith Harris (University of Washington)

Session 5. Urban Nature Ideologies in Planning and Development Practice

This session examines urban nature ideologies in practice at the level of policy and everyday life. The papers examine planners’ efforts to visualize and operationalize ideologies of sustainable cities, and to come to terms with their inevitable shortcomings.

Title TBD
Alana Boland (University of Toronto)

Hope and Doom on the High Line: Public Art, Climate Change, and the Poverty of Contemporary Urbanism
Julian Brash (Montclair State University)

Spatializing Urban Sustainability: Conflicts and Contradictions in the Governance of the Calgary and Freiburg Metropolitan Regions
Samuel Mössner (University of Freiburg) and Byron Miller (University of Calgary)

Contradictions of Progressive Planning: How Urban Designers Understand Equity in Sustainability, Creative Placemaking, and Resiliency
Gordon Douglas (New York University)

Seeing Is Believing: Design and the Visual Economies of Global Urban Sustainability
John Lauermann (Rhode Island School of Design)

The “In-Between Territories” of Suburban Infrastructure Politics

A new logistics facility in Central Florida, and a potential lynchpin of corridor-wide economic development strategies

A new logistics facility in Central Florida, and a potential lynchpin of corridor-wide economic development strategies

Last night I arrived in Waterloo, ON where for the next three days I’ll be participating in the Global Suburban Infrastructure Workshop at the University of Waterloo. The workshop is part of the ongoing Global Suburbanisms project led by Roger Keil, and has drawn together a number of excellent scholars in the field.

The paper I’ll be presenting on Tuesday is called The “In-Between Territories” of Suburban Infrastructure Politics, and builds on the work I’ve been doing for the last several years on competitive multi-city regionalism in the United States. In this paper I investigate the increasingly central role that certain suburbanizing localities have come to occupy in regional infrastructure development schemes, thanks to their position between major cities along transportation corridors. New scales of networked economic flows require new fixed infrastructures to be realized, and thus also require new economic development territorializations.

The extended abstract for the paper is as follows:

There is a contradiction in the contemporary relationship between infrastructure development and local growth politics in the United States. On the one hand, infrastructure development is commonly understood to be a central policy focus of growth coalitions, since infrastructure provides the material preconditions for new capital investment in localities. The emergence in recent decades of new infrastructure-led development strategies based around trade and logistics has strengthened this focus and supplied new tangible targets for growth politics. But, on the other hand, infrastructure development also challenges the coherence of local growth coalitions, since infrastructure projects frequently exceed the local and metropolitan scales at which such coalitions are preferentially organized (via municipal governments, chambers of commerce, economic development corporations, and regional partnerships).

In this paper I argue that this contradiction has been driving a new form of multi-city growth politics in the US—one which has tended to privilege certain specific suburban development interests. The paper advances two major claims. The first is that “geographical market making”—the extension of effective supply chains and the intensification of circulatory possibilities within a supply chain—offers a structuring principle for new, emerging multi-city growth coalitions analogous to the role of land use intensification underlying traditional local growth machines. The second is that “in-between territories”—suburban jurisdictions located between major growth poles along urban corridors—have become key strategic points in the territorial politics of geographical market making and infrastructure politics more broadly.

The first section of the paper discusses the relationship between the development of the built environment and the local growth coalitions widely understood to be central to contemporary entrepreneurial urban governance. On the basis of that discussion, I introduce the concept of geographical market making, and outline the basic strategic contours of the multi-city growth coalitions which assemble to pursue geographical market making strategies.

I then proceed to argue that geographical market making generates a distinctive suburbanized spatial politics. Where local economic development agendas in polycentric urban regions are driven by infrastructure priorities of the growth poles, specific suburban spaces can emerge as strategically important sites for territorial growth politics. This is thanks to 1) the imperative to unite political-economic interests across the entire regions, and 2) strategic opportunities for siting new infrastructure development along established corridors but outside the major growth poles. I call these sites “in-between territories”, in the sense that their strategic significance arises from their spatial location in between growth poles along urban corridors. But describing these sites in terms of their relationship to nearby major cities is not meant to imply that they are peripheral. Indeed, while in-between territories are spatially “in-between”, they are strategically central.

In the paper I develop this argument through a comparison of suburban infrastructure politics in two sites in the United States: Pinal County, Arizona and Polk County, Florida. Pinal County is a rapidly urbanizing county between the major Arizona growth poles of Phoenix and Tucson. In the last 25 years its population has increased four-fold, from 100,000 residents in 1990 to over 400,000 by the end of 2014. Much of that growth has been exurbanization from greater Phoenix along the main interstate corridor of I-10. Polk County lies along the I-4 corridor in Central Florida, equidistant between Tampa and Orlando. Like Pinal County in Arizona, Polk County has been one of the fastest growing areas of the state thanks to expansion from the two major cities it lies between, although it has grown from a larger base, with the city of Lakeland accounting for 100,000 of the more than 600,000 residents in the county. In the last ten years both the Phoenix-Tucson and Tampa-Orlando corridors have been the sites of new economic development strategies focused on expanding and intensifying the built environment for trade and logistics. And in both cases, the in-between territories of Pinal County and Polk County respectively have become (surprisingly? disproportionately?) central to these strategies.

Since 2010, in the wake of the onset of the Great Recession and the complete collapse of Arizona’s housing-led growth pathways, a group of metropolitan planning organizations in Phoenix-Tucson corridor has been collaborating (as the Joint Planning Advisory Council) to develop a new freight-led economic development strategy. The centrepiece of the strategy is an attempt to create a distributed “inland port” to capture logistics activity from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, and from Mexican maquiladoras. And Pinal County has become the linchpin in this strategy—the “cream filling in the Oreo cookie”, as one of my informants described it—because it has readily developable land located between Phoenix and Tucson and with good connections to two interstate highways and the Union Pacific rail line. In Central Florida, Polk County has played a similar role in corridor-wide planning and development schemes. The distributed nature of Florida’s ports (unlike most coastal states, there is not a single large primate port but rather a range of medium-size facilities) means that the centrally-located Polk County has been an attractive destination for new logistics initiatives.

The paper systematically compares these two cases, and draws out the implications for the future of urban growth politics in an increasingly polycentric and suburbanized urban landscape.

Getting a grip on the vacant housing problem (plus: urban geology!)

Urban geologist? What's that?

Urban geologist? What’s that?

A new City of Vancouver proposal to start addressing the city’s scourge of speculation-driven housing vacancy is in the news. The municipal government wants to comprehensively identify vacant houses throughout the city, building on important work being done by the grassroots group Beautiful Empty Homes but leveraging governmental data (namely from BC Hydro) that the public doesn’t have access to.

I spoke to a number of news outlets about the proposal yesterday, starting with the Vancouver Sun, which focused on the spectre of xenophobia in discussions of Vancouver’s expensive property market. As I argued, though, the major issue here isn’t whether it’s foreigners buying houses or other Canadians, it’s that Vancouver’s housing market isn’t strongly connected to the local economy, and speculators buying properties but not living in them just makes that problem worse:

“The problem in Vancouver is that demand for housing doesn’t have that strong of a relationship with the local economy, which means that prices are out of whack with what people who live and work in the city can afford.”

CTV News Vancouver ran a good summary of the proposal to start counting vacant housing, and paid good attention to the connection between housing affordability and housing vacancy:

“The crisis of housing affordability is also a crisis of vacant buildings.”

Finally, as pictured in the screen cap at the top of this post, Global News bestowed on me the dubious title of “UBC Urban Geologist” in their newscast. No doubt this is some cutting edge new subfield in the discipline, but alas not one I am actually acquainted with.

See more: Vancouver looks to gather data on vacant homes; Vancouver to count empty housesWebsite could be in the works to identify vacant homes in Vancouver

Municipal mergers in Metro Vancouver?

Should Vancouver municipalities merge? (theprovince.com)

Should Vancouver municipalities merge? (theprovince.com)

Over the weekend, The Province ran a front-page story about a new opinion poll suggesting strong public support for municipal mergers in Metro Vancouver. I was interviewed for the piece, and spoke about the decades of austerity and fiscal tightening city governments have been subjected to, and the wastefulness of economic competition between municipalities:

“The more separate municipalities you have competing over jobs and investment within a single metropolitan region, the more corporate giveaways you see, and the fewer benefits communities actually achieve.”

See more here: Residents have big appetite for merging of cities in Metro Vancouver

The metropolitan owl of Minerva

9783837620436_720x720Urban Studies recently published a review I wrote of Thick Space: Approaches to Metropolitanism (Transcript Verlag, 2012).

As I say in the review, the book is frequently fascinating, but seems torn between a retrospective analysis of the metropolis as a vital historical urban form and a desire to project that form onto current (arguably post-metropolitan or at least non-metropolitan) processes of urban change. The result is that the book is something like a metropolitan owl of Minerva:

The book begins with the observation that ‘it is hard these days to ignore the growing buzz about metropoles’ (p. 9). Is that true? Is the buzz growing? A careful reading of the last decade of urban studies would suggest instead that it is a new set of polycentric and unruly urban forms – megalopolises, mega-cities, megaregions, city-regions, mega-city regions and the like – which are ascendant, and which indeed are actively transforming yesterday’s metropolises into something new and not yet properly understood. Hegel famously observed that the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk. Thick Space may be the metropolitan owl of Minerva, shedding retrospective clarity onto an urban phenomenon even as the latter evolves beyond recognition.

The full text of the review is available at Urban Studies.

Urban Entrepreneurialism in an Era of Growth Coalition Instability

What does urban entrepreneurialism look like if we get away from the global cities?

Can we take a less global-city-centric approach to urban entrepreneurialism?

The annual meeting for the Association of American Geographers is coming up in a few weeks, and I’m getting my paper presentation prepared. The talk I’ll be giving is part of a paper session titled “Revisiting Entrepreneurialism: The Logics of Urban Governance in Systemic Crisis”, and looks like it will be an interesting set of papers.

My contribution is “Urban Entrepreneurialism in an Era of Growth Coalition Instability”, and here is the abstract:

A key premise of urban entrepreneurialism is the ubiquity of local growth coalitions—the fact that a coherent group of local elites is able to assemble to advance its common place-bound interests through market-oriented governance strategies. And indeed, much of the explanatory strength of theories of urban entrepreneurialism derives from the historical unity of cities in the Global North both as common labour and property markets and as institutional arenas for local politics, a unity which has traditionally given rise to strong local growth coalitions. But in this paper, I argue that this unity is disintegrating, and is giving way to conditions of endemic growth coalition instability. Despite the persistence of imperatives towards local entrepreneurialism, local elites are increasingly forced to look for new institutional configurations to address the regulatory problems they encounter at the local scale, and the result is a proliferation of governance strategies at multiple spatial scales. This paper explores the contours of growth coalition instability through a comparison of emerging multi-city economic partnerships uniting growth coalitions across multiple cities and regions in the United States, and concludes by taking stock of what we might term a new “post-city politics”.

The session is Thursday, April 23 at 8:00 AM in Skyway 272, Hyatt, East Tower, Blue Level.

I’ll also be a panelist later that day on a similar theme: “The Entrepreneurial City Reconsidered: New Agendas and Diverse Geographies”. The panel is Thursday, April 23 at 1:20 PM, also in Skyway 272, Hyatt, East Tower, Blue Level.

Finally, I will be a discussant for one session of a multi-session extravaganza on “The Urban Political at a Time of Late Neoliberalism”, organized by Theresa Enright and Ugo Rossi. My panel is called “Repoliticizing the Urban Political”, and it is Thursday, April 23 at 5:20 PM in Columbus G, Hyatt, East Tower, Gold Level.