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.

When It Comes to Sustainability, We’re Ranking Our Cities Wrong

It’s been two weeks since the publishing of my commentary with Daniel Aldana Cohen and Hillary Angelo in Nature on the limits of current urban environmental thinking, and the response so far has been terrific. We argued that policymakers and researchers need to expand the way we define and measure urban sustainability in both social and spatial terms, and while this argument won’t be surprising to critical urban scholars, our goal was to boil it down to its most accessible and intuitive formula.

Building on this goal, I recently sat down with Vanessa Quirk from Metropolis Magazine to unpack some of the arguments we made in Nature, including the idea that the current “leaders” in urban sustainability policy such as New York and San Francisco only look like leaders because we do a very poor job of properly capturing their broader environmental impacts.

Part of the reason why wealthy cities are so wealthy is not that they removed themselves from global manufacturing, but that they occupy a very privileged position there. The banks are located in New York, the same banks that finance all the factories. It seems pretty unjust to say, “Look at how successful New York’s been at reducing carbon emissions” when New York is the center of all the global activity that pollutes other parts of the world. New York has exported its pollution. That’s partly why we say that a lot of sustainability gains actually turn out to be “regressive redistributions.”

We also discuss the difficulties with ranking or comparing cities’ environmental performance. Even if good consumption-based measures of carbon footprints were common, I argue, we’d still have intractable problems of how we define cities and regions:

If we’re comparing cities, we have to compare whole regions. You don’t just look at the city, because the city boundary is a historical accident. We look at the whole urban region that’s all functionally interconnected.

But the problem is that the way that these are defined really varies across place. Even just within the United States, the census bureau defines urban regions based on counties, but if you look at the southwest the counties are huge. But in the northeast they’re tiny. Even just within the U.S., where statistics are really good, it’s very hard to compare cities. If you look at it internationally, forget it. At the end of the day the problem is we don’t have the data to do a good job of comparing cities. Period.

The entire interview is available at Metropolis Magazine, and the original commentary is available at Nature.