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Social Polis Survey Paper

Existential Field 5

Cities, social cohesion and the environment

Erik Swyngedouw and Ian R. Cook

School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester
Email: erik.swyngedouw@manchester.ac.uk; ian.cook@manchester.ac.uk

April 2009

This review will consider the nexus between social cohesion, the environment and cities,
with a particular emphasis on new theoretical perspectives, a review of recent research into
socio-environmental practices, policies and politics, and chart key new research avenues. At
first glance, the relationship between urban social cohesion and the natural environment may
sound like a peculiar nexus to focus on. Cities have long been viewed as places where nature
ends and where urbanism begins, a perspective still prevalent today in many urban policy
practices. Yet, cities are inhabited by a magnificent variety of flora and fauna, are built out of
natural resources, produce vast quantities of pollution and effluents, contain mesmerising
conduits for all manner of resource and other environmental flows, and have become central
nodes in the commodification of nature (Heynen et al., 2006b; Hinchcliffe and Whatmore,
2006). It could be argued, therefore, that cities are places where nature and its societal
relations are being intensely reworked. The issues of social cohesion and exclusion are also
important as the production of urban environments is interlaced by uneven power relations
and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. Social cohesion/exclusion become etched into the
particular processes through with nature is reworked through urbanisation. Even a cursory
glance at the contemporary city reveals serious socio-environmental inequalities and a
distinctive lack of social cohesiveness in societal relations with the urban environment.
Consider, for example, the unequal exposure to environmental bads such as air pollution,
inadequate green space and nutritious food that characterize many urban areas. Likewise, we
should look at the often narrow section of people who have access to environmental goods,
people who more-often-than-not possess power, money and white skin. From this
perspective the nexus between social cohesion, the environment and cities is a vitally
important issue.

The paper begins by examining the 19th century and early 20th century antecedents to
urban sustainability from Engels exploration of the English industrial slums to the Chicago
Schools social ecology approach to the city. It will then move on to consider a
contemporary and increasingly hegemonic view of the nexus urban sustainability arguing
it to be inherently flawed through its technocratism and ignorance of social (in)equality and
(in)justice. It will then consider two more sophisticated approaches that emphasize issues of
(in)equality and (in)justice in the urban environment, those of environmental justice and
urban political ecology. The final part of the paper pinpoints four areas of research that
urban researchers must examine if we are to understand more fully the nexus between cities,
social cohesion and the environment.

The Urban Question as an Environmental Issue: 19th and 20th Century Antecedents
Written in the mid 19th century and with exemplary accuracy, Friedrich Engels (1971 [1844])
The Condition of the Working Class in England showed how processes of social exclusion,
uneven socio-economic power relations and the capitalist urbanisation process articulate
with uneven environmental and ecological conditions. He showed how class relations are
shaped and defined by relations of access to and control over nature, resulting in the
production of distinct urban ecologies and urban environmental processes as well as a highly
uneven distribution of environmental bads and goods. Smoke, health, illness, food, light and
air, sex, and dirt were, for him, the tropes through which the socio-environmental insignia
that characterised the urbanisation process and the urban condition in the grand
metropolises of the 19th century were narrated. Not only social commentators commented
on the disturbing consequences of the urbanization of nature, natural scientists, like Jacob

Moleschott (1852) and Justus von Liebig (1855), were also contemplating the myriad ways
through which urban and environmental process interacted. They considered the city as part
of a metabolic-organic exchange of energy and substances between organisms and the
environment. von Liebig argued that the metabolic rift the temporal/spatial separation of
spaces of production and spaces of consumption through the emergence of long-distance
trade on the one hand and the process of urbanisation on the other influenced negatively
the productivity of agricultural land, while exacerbating the problematic accumulation of
excrement, sewage and garbage (and its disastrous social consequences) in the city. This view
would be effectively incorporated by Karl Marx in Capital:
large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing
minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed
together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an
irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism
prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the
vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single
country (Marx, 1981 [1867], p. 949).
Together with the discovery of bacteria and the revolutionary replacement of
miasma-theory by perspectives that focused on these living creatures as the source of
disease, decay and death in public health discourses (Gandy, 2004), late 19th century urban
proto-sociological perspectives would explicitly link processes of social exclusion and social
inequality with urban environmental and sanitary conditions. This insight, together with
mounting discontent of an impoverished working class living in environmentally precarious
conditions and the modernising-civilising desires of an enlightened technocratic elite and
public policy makers, ushered in several decades of concerted attempts to both re-imagine

the city as wholesome and more socio-ecologically balanced and to sanitise the urban
through the mobilisation of a wide range of new technologies, engineering knowledges and
policy practices (Richardson and Chadwick, 1887). The city became engineered as an
extraordinarily complex set of conduits to move people, matter and energy in, through, and
out of the city. The city became, in Paul Virillos (1986) words, a metabolic vehicle. This
proto-ecological-urban transformation would lay the foundations for a new garden city
ideal (Howard, 1902) and attempted to bring a manicured and civilised nature into the city
as pioneered most notably by Frederick Law Olmsted (see Beveridge et al., 1995). On top
of this, it would open up the terrain for an entirely new type of profession, the urban
planner/designer. Considering nature-society relations became, in fact, the trademark
objective of urban reformers in an attempt to produce a more cohesive and socially inclusive
and wholesome city, a sustainable city avant-la-lettre.
Emerging understandings of urban social metabolism, the rural/nature/city interplay
and the intra-urban socio-ecological conditions played an important role in the emergence of
late 19th century urban politics as well as in the emergent disciplines of ecology1 and
sociology (particularly in the contributions of A. Schaffle, A. Compte and H. Spencer (see
Padovan, 2000). Beginning in the 1920s the work of the Chicago School (Ernest Burgess,
Robert Park, Roderick McKenzie and Louis Wirth among others) began to associate ecology
with the city through the notion of social ecology. Although social ecology would later be
criticised for imposing a set of imagined ecological behaviours on human populations, it was
highly influential within urban studies for many decades. Its shadow would linger for a long
time, even in the work of those who radically tried to distance themselves, like Henri

The introduction of the concept is usually associated with the 19th century work of Eugene

Warming and Ernst von Haeckel.


Lefebvre (1974) or Manuel Castells (1972), from an empirical and theoretical understanding
of the city on the basis of an ecological metaphor. Nevertheless, a radical de-naturalisation of
social theory and political practice together with a strict conceptual and practical separation
between the city as a political-economic-social-cultural artifact on the one hand and nature as
a set of organic-physical forces on the other would define most mid-20th century approaches
to the city.
Of course, some lone voices would continue to insist that the urban and the
physical/environmental are inextricably interconnected. Lewis Mumford, for example, wrote
in The Culture of Cities that the city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an antheap. But it is also a conscious work of art (Mumford, 1938, cited in Braun, 2005, p. 636).
A few decades later, Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (Williams,
1975) that the transformation of nature and the social relations inscribed therein are
inextricably connected to the process of urbanisation. He insisted that socio-environmental
conditions within the city are intertwined with socio-environmental transformations
elsewhere. In other words, no matter how far one moves from the city, one cannot really
leave behind the socio-ecological traces through which the city and the urbanisation process
are sustained. Murray Bookchin (1992), of course, also insisted on the intricate and politically
choreographed patterning that fuses together ecological processes, environmental practices
and the urban condition. It is these considerations that led David Harvey to state
controversially that there is nothing unnatural about New York City (Harvey, 1996, p.
Urban planners, designers and architects had, throughout the century, been
beavering away at bringing nature into the city (while remaining blissfully ignorant of the
rampant socio-ecological problems their visions for a harmonious and integrated urbanity

inflicted on places and people in distant ecologies). Olmsted had already reveled in how the
sanitising and purifying delights of air and foliage would turn parks and green havens into
the new and true centers of the city. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright the gurus of
20th century urban modernism both introduced nature into the city also became a means
of restoring a healthy vitality to the city (see Fishman, 1982). While Le Corbusier advocated a
geometrical symmetry in which regimented green spaces would provide the setting for his
machines for living, Wright pursued a much more organic integration of nature and
building. While both intended to take further the 19th century ideals of marrying nature with
the city as a means of restoring social harmony and achieving wholesome living, their vision
of nature was infused by a particular, romanticised scripting of nature in the city, a scripting
that maintained a strict separation between the human world of the artifact and the physical
world of non-human nature.
The engineers, in the mean-time, had brought clean water, air, light and sanitation
into the houses of most urban dwellers in the global North (Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2000),
while planners drew the contours of new urban expansions that aspired to marry urban life,
the presence of nature, and the interests of rapid urban modernisation. The suburb became
the space where this new socio-environmental assemblage was reworked. Of course, little
attention was paid to the extraordinary energy and other resources required for producing
and sustaining such environmental modes of urban living.
By the late 1960s, the ecological problem became more acutely foreground as a
major political and social issue. A growing recognition that a galloping capitalist
modernisation and urbanisation might have irredeemably detrimental effect on present and
future urban life began to make its mark in scientific enquiry, public consciousness and

political debate. McHargs (1969) seminal book Design with Nature proposed the first
guidelines to ecologise the city, to bring nature squarely into the multiple relations that
structure the urbanisation process. For him, nature is a single interacting system and changes
to any part of it will affect the operation of the whole. Ever since, this systems view of
ecology as a network of interrelated and intersecting processes with all manner of positive
and negative feedback loops would increasingly become the dominant perspective mobilised
to make a case for and create a sustainable or more environmentally-sensitive city
(Haughton and Hunter, 1994). Not surprisingly, these budding attempts to ecologise the city
harked back to largely 19th century conceptions of ecological systems as inherently (or
naturally) balanced and harmonious, and translated socially into a view that scripts a
dehumanised nature as morally superior and ecologically more sustainable than the manmade artifacts of man-made urbanity. Mimicking natures process would not only produce
sustainable cities but ethically more equal and humane ones too. A few years later, a budding
environmental movement, arising around the single issues of nuclear power that was
considered as the emblematic symptom that symbolised the socio-environmental
conundrum and contradictions of the time, and the alarming signals of a rapidly depleting
resource base (as documented by the 1972 Club of Rome report) began to demand a much
more thorough engagement with the environmental question. The environmental question
became increasingly understood as a global one, but in which cities played a decisive role in
shaping the dynamics, however uneven they may be, of global environmental
transformations and problems. This new engagement would require new modes of inquiry
and new forms of imagining the society-nature and, thereby, urban-environment interplay.
However, the advent of an ecological sensitivity coincided with a period of rapid, if
not unprecedented, urban transformation during the final decades of the 20th century and the

beginnings of the 21st century. Cities have witnessed the (re-)opening of inter- and intraurban inequalities and uneven power relations, together with an unprecedented increase in
wealth for an excessively small part of the worlds urban populations. All this amidst
stagnating or falling resource entitlements for the urban poor in both the global South and
global North, the rise of neo-liberalisation, and after 1989, the disintegration of reallyexisting communism and the re-emergence of the polarising inequalities and exclusions
associated with a transition to rampant neo-liberal capitalism. In the mean-time, the denaturalising approach to the city that characterised so much of 20th century urbanisation
theory and practice was replaced by an increasingly hegemonic view that nature/ecology
needs to be taken seriously in terms of designing cities and organising the urbanisation
process (Jenks and Dempsey, 2005; White, 1994). The dominant vision of this new marriage
between city, society and ecology is, of course, sustainability. This vision assumes, if not
stipulates, a necessary and possible harmonious lining of nature, society and economy,
whereby the survival of humankind is predicated upon forging a new relationship with a
nature that seems increasingly out of synch with itself (Haughton and Hunter, 1994). This
vision invokes a romanticisation of nature with nature portrayed as being inherently benign
and harmonious on the one hand and increasingly lost and desirable on the other.
In the remainder of this paper, we shall explore these new directions, in particular
those that pertain explicitly to questions of socio-environmental inequality and persistent
conditions of social exclusion. The theoretical and practical arguments revolve around two
common-place and interrelated, yet strangely disconnected, ontological views about the city.
These views differ about what exactly constitutes the city and to what extent can it be
considered an appropriate geographical object of academic enquiry or a relevant politicaleconomic scale of governing. The first view political ecology in the city focuses on the

socio-environmental conditions as produced and distributed within the city as a bounded

territory. The second view the political ecology of the city considers the process of the
urbanisation of nature, i.e. the political, social and environmental processes through which
nature becomes urbanised (Swyngedouw and Kaika, 2000). The former concentrates on the
citys internal characteristics, its technical, physical, social and environmental connections
and interactions, its institutional configurations, policy prescriptions, design and planning
techniques and procedures, and the social conflict and struggle over environmental
amenities. The latter, meanwhile, views the urbanisation process as inserted in much wider
social, political, economic and environmental networks, sustained by socio-ecological flows
of matter, people, energy and information. Both perspectives will be considered in this paper
and, as we shall see, lead to rather different understandings of the issues of socioenvironmental cohesion and dynamics of socio-ecological exclusion/inclusion. With respect
to the former perspective, we shall consider the burgeoning literatures on urban
sustainability and urban environmental justice. The latter will be considered through the lens
of the literature on urban political ecology.

Urban Sustainability: The Fantasy of Socio-Ecological Urban Cohesion

The mainstreaming of urban socio-ecological concerns during the late 20th century was
marked by a number of emblematic moments, such as the 1987 Brundtland report and the
1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the popularity of a few accounts that showed that the socioecological footprint of cities was indeed truly global (Giradet, 1992, 1999). Albeit highly
selectively, the emergent sustainability argument challenged previous urban practices that
brought nature into the city regardless of the wider ramifications by considering how the


production of urban environments impacted on issues such as global resource use and
depletion, climate gases, soil erosion, deforestation, acid rain, as well as the livelihoods of
peoples in distant places.
As Braun (2005) recognizes, urban sustainability is frequently viewed from two interconnected perspectives. First, perspectives that emphasize ecological rationality, focusing on
the most efficient and effective use of natural resources and the rational socio-ecological
management of urban processes like land use, water, energy, materials and the like. Second,
perspectives that focus on ecological systems relations and the technocratic management of
human-environmental relations, usually through mobilising new technologies, planning
perspectives, design principles and architectural forms. These two perspectives are
occasionally accompanied by a third perspective which recognizes the wider socio-ecological
networks in which the urbanisation process is embedded and the conflicts and compromises
involved in delivering urban sustainability.
As will be argued later in this review, much of the sustainability argument and
practices is sutured by a fantasy of socio-ecological cohesion which can be achieved by
means of the mobilisation of a combination of ecologically sensitive technologies, good
managerial governance principles, appropriate institutionalised modes of stakeholder-based
participatory negotiations, changing consumer cultures and individual habits, and sustained
by a hegemonically accepted growth-oriented neo-liberal market system as the idealised
delivery mechanism. There is an unending stream of literatures that regurgitate this argument
ad infinitum (Da Cunha et al., 2005). Although emphases and orientations vary, they are
ultimately concerned with what can be done within an urban socio-ecological order that is
considered given. Echoing the concerns of many others (see, for example, Keil, 2003; Keil,


2005; Swyngedouw, 2007a), Haughton (1999, p. 233), summarizes the problems with this
approach most eloquently:
A sustainable city cannot be achieved purely in internal terms With the
emergence of ever-thickening and extending patterns of global economic trading,
and increasingly global exchanges of environmental resources and waste streams, it is
futile and indeed virtually meaningless to attempt to create a sustainable city in
The neo-liberalised urban sustainability framework inserts urban environmental
policies within the logics of ecological modernisation which promotes the economic benefits
of reducing environmental pollution and of mobilising more ecologically rational resource
management operations (Gibbs, 2006; Mol and Spaargaren, 2000). It promotes market-led,
technocratic approaches to greening capitalism and almost completely ignores issues of
social justice and the processes of social inclusion and exclusion that run through urban
environments and the very technological advancements they are advocating. Although
contemporary rhetoric of sustainable development in academic and policy circles often
incorporate the social as a supposedly integral part of the sustainable development triad
alongside the environment and the economy (see Whitehead, 2007), its advocates in practice
frequently sideline issues of justice and equality in favour of the requirements and dilemmas
of the economy and the environment (Baker, 2007; Keil, 2007). As Portney (2003, p. 158)
argues, many cities that purport to be working toward becoming more sustainable do not
address the issue of inequality at all. In light of this silence around the issues of social
cohesion and inequality, we need to consider alternative ways of thinking about the nexus
between cities, nature and social cohesion. The next section, therefore, will consider the
literature on urban environmental justice.

Urban Environmental Justice: The Distribution of Urban Socio-Ecological Bads

The burgeoning literature on urban environmental justice focuses directly on the
relationships between social inclusion/exclusion on the one hand and urban socioenvironmental conditions and socio-political practices on the others. Environmental justice
(hereafter EJ) is at once a normative concept and a social movement (or rather a group of
social movements). As a whole, EJ focuses on the differential exposure to environmental
goods and bads experienced by different social groups with a particular emphasis on
environmental bads (Bickerstaff et al., Forthcoming, p. 4). Due to the importance of both
activists and academics in EJ, Sze and London (2008, p. 1332) contend that EJ should be
understood as a form of social praxis, drawing from and integrating theory and practice in a
mutually informing dialogue. The movement itself emerged in the US out of two
emblematic environmental events that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, one that formed in
opposition to the location of toxic sites near deprived communities and another that
protested against environmental racism (Schlosberg, 2003, 2007). The pioneering work by
academic-activist Robert Bullard and a report by the United Church of Christs (UCC)
Commission for Racial Justice acted as the catalyst for a thorough academic engagement
with the EJ movement and concept. Bullards early work argued that hazardous waste
facilities were disproportionately located and deliberately sited in predominately black
neighbourhoods within the US South (see, for instance, Bullard, 1983, 1990). Like Bullard,
the UCC (1987) claimed that across the US, black communities have suffered from
environmental racism a process which the then-Chief Executive of the UCC, Benjamin
Chavis (1993, p. 3) later defined as:


racial discrimination in environmental policymaking... in the enforcement of

regulations and laws... in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic
waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries... in the official sanctioning of the
life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color [and...]
in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental
groups, decisionmaking boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.
To quote Byrne et al. (2002, p. 5), the work of Bullard and the UCC connected
what had previously been largely isolated stories of risk into a racially identifiable pattern of
injustice. Since these formative studies, the number of EJ studies has grown spectacularly
across multiple disciplines. Empirical studies have frequently focused on the citing patterns
of Transfer, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDF) and polluting industries, their social
implications and community resistance to these (e.g. Kurtz, 2002; Sze, 2007). Research has
broadened out in recent years to look at a wide variety of issues from hazardous material
transportation (Schweitzer, 2006) to the unequal protection from socio-natural hazards
(Bullard, 2007; Colten, 2007). Taken together, these studies have contributed towards a reunderstanding of environment and justice, and the importance of race and class within
environmental injustice. These issues will now be considered in turn.
Echoing work in Political Ecology, EJ activists and scholars have sought to
denaturalise the environment, placing emphasis on its social relations and social production.
This is captured by the EJ activist Dana Alston who reasoned that: [f]or us, the issues of
the environment do not stand alone by themselves. They are not narrowly defined The
environment, for us, is where we live, where we work, and where we play (Alson, quoted in Whitehead,
Forthcoming, p. 7, emphasis added). Furthermore, EJ activists and scholars have rejected


notions of pristine nature to examine the urban environment of the black lung producing
workplace, the asbestos clad home, and the smog-laden playground (Whitehead, ibid., p. 8).
The notion of justice has been central to the EJ movement. Debates have arisen
within the academic literature as to what type of justice the EJ movement has and should
aspire to. David Schlosberg (2003) argues that although the literature and movement is
abound with references to justice, they are often vague or imprecise about the forms of
justice they envisage. Developing Iris Marion Youngs (1990) work on the politics of
difference, Schlosberg (2003) suggests that three dimensions of justice are central to EJ:
distributional justice, procedural justice and recognitional justice. In a later contribution,
Schlosberg (2007) adds a fourth dimension of justice: the justice of capabilities. It is
important to examine each dimension in more detail. Distributional justice has long been a core
focus of the EJ literature. It refers to the belief that environmental bads should not be
concentrated in, or nearby, disadvantaged communities but (re)distributed more equally.
This argument, centered on a Rawlsian notion of distributive justice, has received stern
criticism from Dobson (2003) who suggests that calls to redistribute socio-environmental
problems fails to tackle its root causes. Moreover, Lake (1996) reasons that EJ activists and
scholars have over-emphasised distributional justice and played down the importance of
procedural justice. Procedural justice refers to the need for fairer and more democratic
decision-making process and the involvement of disadvantaged groups within this. As
Schlosberg (2003, p. 92) argues: [t]he construction of inclusive, participatory decisionmaking institutions... is at the center of environmental justice demands. For Lake (1996)
this dimension is important not simply because it is more inclusive but also because the
realisation of distributional justice can only take place through a prior incorporation of
procedural justice. Recognitional justice refers to the call for recognition and respect for the

disadvantaged communities who suffer from environmental injustice and those who
participate in the EJ movement (Schlosberg, 2003). For Schlosberg (2003, p. 60), [t]he
simple point here is that there is a crucial link between a lack of recognition and the
inequitable distribution of environmental bads; it is a general lack of value of the poor and
people of color that leads to this distributional inequity. Finally, the justice of capabilities is
about re-establishing the capabilities necessary for a healthy, functioning community
(Schlosberg, 2007, p. 72), a dimension that goes some way to counter Dobsons criticism
that EJ ignores the production of environmental problems. Schlosbergs most important
insight, however, is that these dimensions of justice cannot be conceived of or actualised in
isolation. The justice of capabilities necessitates a political focus on distributional justice:
healthy communities require some form of redistribution of environmental bads and goods.
In order to achieve distributional justice and the justice of capabilities, procedural justice and
recognitional justice are necessary.
Moving on, much of the work on EJ has examined whether spatial patterns of
environmental inequality are linked to the issues of class or race. Numerous studies have
used available environmental and demographic data, GIS software and quantitative methods
(e.g. bivariate statistics, regression analysis) to examine the spatial relationships between
environmental problems and population characteristics. From these, several commentators
have agreed with Bullard and the UCCs early assessments that race is the key determining
factor in EJ (e.g. Boone, 2002; Pulido, 2000). Others, however, contend that environmental
inequality is not solely determined by race. Instead, they argue that it has clear class
dimensions with toxic hotspots frequently located in working class communities of varying
racial compositions (e.g. Boer et al., 1997). For Ringquist (2005, p. 223), this seeming
inability to identify the social determiners of environmental inequality has blunted the

legitimacy of the EJ movements demands. In contrast, Downey (1998) believes these class
versus race debates are misguided as neither class nor race-based inequalities operate in
isolation. Instead, they are interdependent with both structuring patterns of environmental
inequality. Therefore, he reasons that studies should examine the interplay between these
two axes of inequality.
Following these debates, a number of recent studies have emerged venting their
frustration with the literatures lack of understanding of how gender relations shape
environmental inequalities and the EJ movement. Amongst other things, these genderinformed studies have shown how women (especially working class and ethnic minority
women) suffer disproportionately from environmental bads; the effect of toxicity on
womens bodies (Knopf-Newman, 2004); how women are marginalised, and even blamed, in
environmental policy-making (Buckingham et al., 2005; Sze, 2004); and the role of women in
the EJ movement (Kurtz, 2007). Clearly, then, class and race are not the sole axes of
domination that shape EJ.
The literatures linking class, race and environmental injustice have received further
criticism. Bowen (2002), for instance, has accused scholars of using quantitative and
qualitative methods that lack rigour and, in some cases, producing studies of low scientific
quality (ibid, p. 5). This, he reasons, means that their claims of racial and class
discrimination cannot be proven until more sophisticated quantitative methodologies are
developed. Other empirical studies some of which has been sponsored by the waste
industry has found limited or no spatial correlations between toxic hotspots and minority
groups (e.g. Anderton et al., 1994; Derezinski et al., 2003). Moreover, others have suggested
that a localitys class or race composition is less important to decision-makers than issues
such as land value, transportation access and workforce availability when deciding whether

or not to locate there (Been and Gupta, 1997). Pastor et al. (2001) counters this by arguing
that one of the key reasons behind the siting of TSDFs in minority areas is that these areas
are paths of least resistance where residents frequently lack the power and voice to resist
the siting. Another criticism of the EJ literature is that many quantitative studies are ahistorical, measuring toxicity and demographics at one point in time. This, it is argued,
overlooks the possibility that minority populations have moved into the locality after the
toxicity had been installed or worsened (Been, 1994; Been and Gupta, 1997).
Pointing to the possibility of minority move-in and the black box nature of the
decision-making process, some scholars and policymakers have suggested that these are not
deliberately discriminatory decisions as there is no intent evident (Been, 1994; Boerner and
Lambert, 1994) This argument is fundamentally rejected by Pulido (2000) and MorelloFrosch (2002) who reason that the focus on intentional, malicious acts of discrimination is
too narrow. Morello-Frosch (ibid, p. 491) notes:
Given the insidious nature of discrimination in contemporary society, intent-based
theories of environmental inequality are over-simplified by limiting inquiry to the most
proximate causes while overlooking the institutional mechanisms and historical and
structural processes that determine distributions of environmental hazards.
As a result, Morello-Frosch and Pulido both stress the structural and more subtle
processes that create the conditions for environmental inequalities. Morello-Frosch
highlights inequalities in the housing markets, the racial division of labour and economic
restructuring as being important factors. Pulido, meanwhile, argues that institutional racism,
or white privilege, is a key structural process creating these inequalities.


In the last few years, studies of EJ have moved beyond the US. In part, this reflects
the mobilisation of EJ campaigns to other places in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and
Australasia (Agyeman, 2002; Schlosberg, 2007; Schroeder et al., 2008) and the rise of
transnational EJ movements and networks (Carruthers, 2008; Pellow, 2007). As Carruthers
(2008) notes, many of these movements do not frame themselves as being an environment
justice movement but do focus on the relationship between social inequalities and the
environment, the key issue for EJ. Moreover, EJ-esque movements are often hybrid
incarnations drawing influences (and, on occasions, resources) from movements elsewhere
whilst emerging from often longstanding localised social and environmental struggles
(Carruthers, 2008). Studies of EJ in Europe have continued with the themes of USorientated work on EJ such as the struggles over toxic sitings and social inequality of
environmental pollution and policy (Davies, 2006; Laurian, 2008). It has also taken on board
earlier criticisms of EJ to (re)consider issues such as the role of women in EJ (Buckingham
et al., 2005) and the (lack of) procedural justice in policymaking (Watson and Bulkeley,
2005). A forthcoming book edited by Agyeman and Ogneva-Himmelberger (Forthcoming)
also investigates EJ movements in Central and Eastern Europe, considering environmental
inequalities during state socialism and following its collapse. Perhaps the biggest contrast to
the US studies of EJ is the qualitative rather than quantitative nature of much of the
European EJ research although a growing number are using quantitative methodologies to
detail the sociospatial patterns of environmental injustice (e.g. Laurian, 2008; Walker et al.,
This internationalisation of EJ research and movements has brought with it
questions of how EJ should be conceived in different contexts. Some scholars have
suggested that EJ needs a universal definition of environment justice. Schroeder et al (2008,

p. 554), for instance, reason that: the core issues at the heart of environmental justice
struggles are universal. The same basic spatial logic applies in all instances some places are
defined as dumping grounds and some are clean; some livelihoods are deemed expendable
and are swept off the land in the name of progress and others are protected via systems of
privileged access. Others are not so sure. In a study of EJ in Canada and South Africa,
Debban and Keil (2004) reason that researchers should view EJ as being situated in
contingent, multi-scalar and often quite different political, social and economic contexts
where calls for justice are frequently based on localised perceptions of justice. As we will
argue later, with the complex internationalisation of socio-environment problems and
movements, and the emerging transnational EJ movement networks, it is necessary to
understand how discourses of justice travel.

Urban Political Ecology

Whereas the EJ literature is primarily focused on the patterns of sociospatial environment
inequality, the urban political ecology (hereafter UPE) literature is primarily concerned with
the political-economic processes involved in the reworking of human-non-human
assemblages and the production of socio-environmental inequalities. These processes are not
backdrops to environmental injustice but actively constitute it and, as such, cannot be
ignored. This section will outline how UPE scholars understand environmental inequalities
and how this can complement the work of EJ scholars and activists.
Unlike EJ, UPE is a school of critical urban political-environmental research
(Heynen et al., 2006b). UPE takes many of its bearings from the wider and more voluminous
academic school of political ecology (for reviews, see Castree and Braun, 2001; Keil, 2003,

2005). Led by the seminal work of Piers Blaikie (1985; Blaikie and Bloomfield, 1987), David
Harvey (1996) and Neil Smith (1984) amongst others, urban political ecologists have sought
to understand the social basis of environmental problems. A number of seminal urban
political ecological monographs have set the terrain of urban political ecology, in particular
Natures Metropolis (Cronon, 1991), Dead Cities (Davis, 2002), Concrete and Clay (Gandy, 2003),
Social Power and the Urbanization of Nature (Swyngedouw, 2004), Nature and City (Desfor and
Keil, 2004), Cities of Flows (Kaika, 2005) and In the Nature of Cities (Heynen et al., 2006a). UPE
has exposed two key popular misunderstandings about the relationship between society and
nature. The first issue is the artificial ontological divide between nature and society that
exists in popular understandings of nature/society. Political ecologists argue that nature and
society do not exist independently of each other, but are intricately tangled often to the point
of blurring. To illustrate this point, some writers have argued that there are few, if any,
spaces of nature which are pristine or unaffected by human processes (think, for instance, of
the global environmental effects of increasing carbon emissions). Furthermore, as Castree
(2001) has demonstrated, capitalism has sought to reinvent and commodify more and more
of what we traditionally see as natural (e.g. seeds, organs, genes). Similarly, UPE scholars
have countered the myth that towns and cities are places where nature stops (Hinchcliffe,
1999, p. 138), positing instead that nature has become urbanised and used in the process of
making and remaking the cities. Drawing upon the work of Bruno Latour (1993) and Donna
Haraway (1991), several UPE scholars have claimed that capitalism and urbanisation are
fundamentally hybrid processes through which social and biophysical elements are
assembled, entangled and transformed, and socionatural cyborgs are produced (see
Swyngedouw, 2006). Rethinking nature and society relations in this way has important


implications for how we think about environmental justice. As Castree and Braun (1998, p.
34) state:
The crucial issue therefore, is not that of policing boundaries between nature and
culture but rather, of taking responsibility for how our inevitable interventions in
nature proceed along what lines, with what consequences and to whose benefit.
A second bone of contention for political ecologists is the Malthusian-influenced
explanations of environmental degradation and resource depletion, which implicate
overpopulation and poor people as the primary cause and culprits. This argument is
vigorously refuted. Instead, it is argued that capitalism is responsible for these ongoing
environmental atrocities. Drawing influence from Marx, scholars such as OConnor (1996)
and Henderson (Forthcoming) have shown that the ceaseless quest for surplus value
compels capitalists to extract and commodify more and more biophysical resources. In doing
so, capitalists and their labourers degrade the very resources that are necessary for
capitalisms reproduction. For many UPE scholars, the notion of metabolism is vitally
important. Metabolism is the process whereby biophysical matter such as water or cows are
transformed into useable, ownable and tradable commodities (Coe et al., 2007, p. 161)
through the exploitation of human labour (Swyngedouw, 2006). Labour is exploited in this
process as they are alienated from the commodities they produce, do not share the profits,
do not own or have control over the means of production, and often suffer poor working
conditions. In this light, the act of metabolising nature is a key process through which
environmental injustice is exercised.
Power, urbanisation and scale are also central to UPE studies and, as we shall
explain, all three provide useful frames through which environmental injustice can be


understood. To begin, UPE scholars assert that unequal power relations are inherently
bound up in the metabolism of nature and, therefore, the urban environment is created by
and embodies unequal power relations (see below). Those in power are able to control who
has access to resources (e.g. parks, water), the quality of these resources, and who can decide
how resources are utilised (Swyngedouw, 2004; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003). Although
the state plays a vital role in shaping these power relations (as we will explain later), class and
other forms of social power are seen as the primary structure of inequality. In contrast to the
EJ literatures foregrounding of racism and increasingly emphasis on patriarchy, UPE studies
have rarely analysed these structures of inequality in depth (or for that matter, heterosexism,
ageism or able-bodyism). The wider Political Ecology literature, nonetheless, has paid more
attention to gender and race relations. Within this, a number of studies have sought to
demonstrate how gendered and racial identities are constructed and performed, and how
these identities influence their access to particular types of knowledge, space, resources, and
social-political process and vice versa (Nightingale, 2006, p. 169; see also Rocheleau et al.,
Urbanisation (that is, the production and reproduction of towns and cities) is
produced through particular forms of metabolism according to UPE scholars (e.g.
Swyngedouw, 2004, 2006). Exploitation and injustice are wrapped up in the making and
remaking of the urban under capitalism. Directly and indirectly, key processes within








deindustrialisation and the development of new urban service sector-based economies alter
the lines of environmental inequality in the city (Morello-Frosch, 2002; Pulido, 2000;
Schweitzer and Stephenson Jr., 2007) (Domene et al., 2005). Environmental inequality
cannot be understood in isolation from these intersecting processes. As well as being critical

of accounts that ignore the urbanisation of nature, UPE scholars also insist that studies
should not overlook the importance of spatial scale in the production of, and contestation
over, environmental injustice (Heynen, 2003; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003). On the one
hand, activists utilise material and discursive scalar strategies (such as lobbying national and
international governments) in order to advance their struggles (Kurtz, 2002; Towers, 2000).
On the other hand, extra-local processes actively shape urban environmental injustices, from
regional government decision-making over waste management to global climate change. As
scales and the relations between scales are socially produced, particular scales can be
empowered or disempowered (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003) (Bulkeley, 2005). Therefore,
local communities can suffer from neglect or be exploited by actors and institutions
operating at wider scales. Likewise local activists and communities can have their abilities to
jump scale curtailed by actors and institutions at other scales. What is clear, therefore, is
that excessively localist readings of environmental injustice are completely inadequate at
understanding the production and contestation of environmental injustice. Further
discussing the nexus between environmental justice and scale, Heynen (2003) reasons that
environmental justice produced at one scale may lead to environmental injustices at other
scales. For instance, the greening of an upper-middle class neighbourhood could accentuate
the unequal distribution of trees across the metropolitan area. Similarly, the production of
environmental justice in one place may be produced through the degradation and
exploitation of places elsewhere.
In summary, then, UPE scholars focus less on the instances of environmental justice
and injustice than their EJ counterparts. Rather it is the socio-ecological production of urban
inequality where emphasis is placed. These approaches are by no means incompatible.
Indeed, UPE can draw upon the insights provided by EJ studies of the experiences and

patterns of environmental injustice to highlight empirically the inequality produced through

urban metabolism. Emphasis on metabolism, urbanisation, scale and power, likewise, can
add conceptual and theoretical depth to the more empirically-driven analyses of EJ scholars.

New and Future Directions

Although many of the ways in which we understand the nexus between cities, social
cohesion and the environment have become increasingly sophisticated, particularly in the
field of urban political ecology, important gaps remain in our understandings of this nexus.
In this section, we will explore four pressing issues that need to be addressed and how recent
developments within the field can be utilised to address these.

The Socio-Ecological Circulation of Urban Metabolisms: (Hybrid) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities
The urban political ecological approaches explored above illustrate how the city and
urbanisation more generally can be viewed as a process of de-territorialisation and reterritorialisation of metabolic circulatory flows, organised through social and physical
conduits or networks of metabolic vehicles (Virilio, 1986). These processes are infused by
relations of power in which social actors strive to defend and create their own environments
in a context of class, ethnic, racial and/or gender conflicts and power struggles. Under
capitalism, the commodity relation and the flow of money attempts to suture the multiple
socioecological processes of domination/subordination and exploitation/repression that
feed the urbanisation process and turn the city into a metabolic socio-environmental process
that stretches from the immediate environment to the remotest corners of the globe (Kaika
and Swyngedouw, 2000). Metabolism is not confined to the boundaries of a city but involve

a complex process of linking places, and the humans and non-humans within these places, in
uneven and contingent ways. These often deeply unjust networks through which cities and
their inhabitants are linked with people and places elsewhere have begun to be revealed in
recent work on the transportation of e-waste, household recycling and redundant ships from
the cities of global North to those in the global South (Buerk, 2006; Pellow, 2007).
Circulation and metabolism have become increasingly popular and theoretically
advanced lenses through which to understand a series of interconnected, heterogeneous
(human and non-human), dynamic, contested and contestable processes of continuous
quantitative and qualitative transformations that re-arranges humans and non-humans in
new, and often unexpected, assemblages (Gandy, 2004; Swyngedouw, 2004). Such lenses
permit grappling with the social and the physical in non-dualistic and deeply political ways.
The modern city becomes viewed as a process of fusing the social and the physical together
to produce a distinct hybrid or cyborg urbanisation (Gandy, 2005; Haraway, 1991). Cyborg
metaphors, in particular, are valuable ways in which to understand these urban assemblages,
as Matthew Gandy (2005, p. 28) details:
The emphasis of the cyborg on the material interface between the body and the city
is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the physical infrastructure that links the
human body to vast technological networks. If we understand the cyborg to be a
cybernetic creation, a hybrid of machine and organism, then urban infrastructures
can be conceptualized as series of interconnecting life support systems. The modern
home, for example, has become a complex exoskeleton for the human body with a
provision of water, warmth, light and other essential needs. The home can be
conceived as a prosthesis and prophylactic in which modernist distinctions between
nature and culture, and between the organic and the inorganic, become blurred.

Natures and cities are always heterogeneously constituted, the product of actants in
metabolic circulatory processes. Metabolic circulation, then, is the socially-mediated process
of environmental-technological transformation and trans-configuration, through which all
manner of actants are mobilised, attached, collectivised, and networked. These relations are
invariably infused with myriad configurations of power and social struggle that saturate
material practices, symbolic ordering and imaginary visions. Urbanisation, in fact, is a
process of geographically-arranged socio-environmental metabolisms. It is mobilised
through relations that combine the accumulation of socio-natural use and exchange-values,
which shape, produce, maintain, and transform the metabolic vehicles that permit the
expanded reproduction of the urban as a historically determined but contingent form of life.
Such socially-driven material processes produce extended and continuously reconfigured,
intended and non-intended spatial (networked and scalar) arrangements. These are saturated
with heterogeneous symbolic and imaginary orders, albeit overdetermined (Althusser, 1969)
by the generalised commodity form that underpins the capitalist nature of urbanisation. The
phantasmagorical (spectacular) commodity-form that most socio-natural assemblages take
not only permits and facilitates a certain discourse and practice of metabolism, but also,
perhaps more importantly, naturalise the production of particular socio-environmental
conditions and relations (Heynen et al., 2006b).
Empirical research has begun to explore the assemblages, power inequalities and
injustices wrapped up in the metabolism of cities (see, for instance, Desfor and Keil, 2004;
Gandy, 2003; Kaika, 2005; Swyngedouw, 2004). However, we believe further consideration
of the metabolism and circulation of cyborg cities is necessary. On the one hand, it will
reveal further the contingent, constantly shifting and deeply uneven power relations and
injustices wrapped up in its production. On the other hand, it will help us think critically

about the types of cities we want to live in the future, and what metabolisms and circulations
make up these urban utopias. Such a research project requires unraveling the complex,
shifting and power-laden social relationships that operate within cities, and how these are
mediated by and structured through processes of ecological change. As part of this, future
research must examine how the urban is constituted through socio-ecological metabolic
flows (such as energy, CO2, water, food, gas), sustained by a series of technological
infrastructures and social, political and institutional support structures, and how these are
wrapped up in the production of highly uneven socio-ecological configurations. Not only do
we need to map, chart, analyse and understand the socio-ecological metabolism of cities, past
and present, we also need to critically imagine the metabolised socio-ecological relations that
would operate under the more radical utopian alternatives for instance, of a post-carbon
communities (e.g. Heinberg, 2006; Hopkins, 2008) that are beginning to emerge. As part of
this agenda, research must pay attention to the networked relations that stretch beyond the
contemporary city to different scales and places (urban and rural), as well as those extraurban relations that are being proposed (explicitly and implicitly) in urban utopias. How,
might we ask, will a post-carbon city affect its inhabitants and, just as importantly, what will
its ramifications be people in places elsewhere?

Neo-liberalising Urban Environments

The state plays a pivotal role in the process of environmental injustice. Whether deliberately
or not, it helps shape who is exploited, ignored, rewarded and listened to, and how this
privileging is exercised. It also has considerable power to exacerbate, displace or alleviate
existing socio-environmental injustices or create entirely new ones. Many EJ and UPE


studies have briefly highlighted the role of formal state institutions and actors as decisionmakers in, for example, the decisions about where toxic facilities should be located or how
non-renewal resources will be utilised. Studies by Donahue and Lavelle and Coyle (1993)
have also shown that while state laws can be highly discriminatory (e.g. allowing some
groups and not others access to environmental resources), the enforcement of these laws can
be just as discriminatory, if not more so (e.g. less rigorous enforcement of environmental
protection laws in minority communities). These insights aside, the varied role of the state
and the practices of governance are somewhat under-researched in the EJ literature and, to a
lesser extent, its UPE counterpart. We argue that studies need to take on board insights
offered by political economic studies of state restructuring, and the expanding literature on
neo-liberalisation in particular, in order to fully understand the role of the state in
environmental injustice.
Across European towns and cities in context-specific ways the aims and means of
the state appear to be undergoing neo-liberalisation (Da Cunha et al., 2005). As part of this,
the state at various scales is downplaying collectivist and welfarist commitments while
focusing more and more on speculative, competitive projects that seek to bring inward
investment, jobs and enhanced business profitability to the locality (Brenner et al., 2005;
Smith, 2007). Studies in political ecology have shown how environmental management in
Western Europe and North America increasingly revolves around neo-liberal strategies
most noticeably privatisation, commercialisation and commodification which seek,
ultimately, to open up new avenues for capital accumulation (Bakker, 2005; Castree, 2008;
Himley, 2008). A number of studies have begun to bring these insights together by
examining the neo-liberalising dynamics of urban ecological politics in European cities.
Vincent Bal, for example, teases out how roll-out environmentalism fuses with the

dynamics of urban entrepreneurialism and neo-liberalisation tactics in Manchester, SaintEtienne, Nantes and Leicester (Bal, 2008, 2009a, b).
Rather than being viewed as a uniform, fully actualised or coherent political project,
scholars have conceptualised these changes as being messy, geographically diverse, pathdependent, amorphous, unstable and processual. It is a geographically and historically
variegated process rather than a monolithic end state: neo-liberalisation rather than neoliberalism (Brenner et al., 2005). While Smith (2007) argues that towns and cities in Central
and Eastern Europe (CEE) are undergoing an uneven and path-dependent process of neoliberalisation, no studies to date have explicitly considered the neo-liberalisation of societalenvironmental relations in CEE. Although a small number of studies have explored the
marketisation, privatisation and selective democratisation of CEE national environmental
policies (e.g. Pavlnek and Pickles, 2000; Whitehead, 2007), these studies need to be
complimented by research into the nexus of urban neo-liberalisation and environmental
(in)justice in CEE. Such studies must also pay close attention to the production of
environmental inequalities pre-1991 and the influential legacies of totalitarian market
Studies have also shown that a key aspect of neo-liberalisation is the highly selective
pluralisation of the state, whereby new non-elected officials, experts, and private actors are
being incorporated into the governance, delivery and financing of public policies.
Nowadays public-private partnerships are commonplace governance bodies while nonbinding voluntary standards are increasingly prominent forms of industry self-regulation
(Guthman, 2007; Swyngedouw, 2005, 2009a). Although these new forms of governance are
dressed up as being less insular and top-down, they have been criticised for excessively
empowering businesses and business elites and negating issues of democracy and

accountability (Swyngedouw, 2005). Even when marginalised groups are involved, their
involvement is frequently tokenistic, the subjects for debate limited, and their abilities to
radically alter decisions almost non-existent (Swyngedouw, 2007a).
Clearly then, neo-liberalisation has implications for environmental justice. It could
hypothesized that neo-liberalisation is widening rather than resolving environmental
injustices in our towns and cities, making it more difficult for minority groups to have equal
access to good quality environmental resources or for procedural equality in environmental
decision-making to be achieved. As yet, we do not really know. Empirically grounded studies
are needed to test such a hypothesis, and to see how the nexus of neo-liberalisation and
environmental (in)justice is actualised in different urban contexts. As part of this, the socioecological implications of neo-liberal technologies and strategies such as auditing, joined-up
policymaking, urban spectacles, place marketing and gentrification should be critically
analysed. Following Doolings (Forthcoming) study of ecological gentrification in Seattle,
work needs to be done on the nexus of gentrification and the urban environment. This
should include critical studies of the greening of state-sponsored gentrification through
eco-housing, sustainable communities and the green marketing that is produced alongside
these eco-(re-)developments. Studies should also consider whether urban green space is
being redeveloped and reclaimed for the gentry through the exclusion of disadvantaged
groups such as the homeless and the poor a process that Dooling argues is taking place in
Seattle. The social injustices, displacements and rhetoric that are wrapped up in this
environmental policy demand our attention.


Urban Socio-Ecological Movements and the Struggles for Justice

A key focus of the EJ literature is the ways in which people from disadvantage communities
in various localities have formed, or joined, movements to struggle for environmental justice,
inclusion or equality. As Agyeman (2005) points out, rather than taking a progressive stance
that outlines a vision of socio-ecological utopia, these movements have overwhelmingly
taken a reactionary, defensive stance, demonstrating against existing or proposed injustices.
Through case study research, the EJ literature has examined the formation and evolution of
movements, their translation of grievances into repertories of action, their collective
identity politics, and their influence on the targeted mechanisms of injustice. The UPE
literature has focused less empirical attention on these movements but insists that how
socio-natural relations are produced, by whom and for whom are subjects of intense social
struggle and contestation (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003).
In their book, From the Ground Up, Cole and Foster (2001) argue that involvement in
an Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) can improve the lives of disadvantaged
communities in several ways. It can enhance their consciousness of the processes and
patterns of injustice, as well as increasing their self-confidence, capacity and expertise
(p. 153). However, they readily admit that the struggles of EJMs have achieved at best mixed
results in terms of their core goal: preventing environmental justice. To take one example,
many toxic facilities continue to be built in disadvantaged communities despite being subject
to intense protest from EJMs. What is striking about the EJ literature, however, is the lack of
criticism directed towards the EJMs rather than the social structures and injustices they are
faced with (Brulle and Pellow, 2005). Further research must ask difficult questions about
EJMs. For instance, have movements developed agendas and alternatives that if
implemented would simply act to reproduce or relocate injustices? Have they misunderstood

or overlooked any environmental injustices? How inclusive are these movements? Are these
movements goals co-opted by more powerful bodies and, if so, how and why? Why have
some movements dismantled or failed to achieve their goals? Why have certain
disadvantaged communities not developed EJMs? What unequal power relations run
through these movements and how does it influence their operations? These questions, of
course, are suggested as way of better understanding these movements rather than as a
means of undermining or belittling those who participate in such movements.
On top of a sporadic engagement with the social movement literature, the EJ and
UPE literatures have rarely engaged with the Geographies of Social Movements (GSM)
literature. At its core, the GSM literature considers the importance of spatiality in the
emergence and performance of social movements (see, for instance, Leitner et al., 2008;
Miller, 2004; Nicholls, 2009; Routledge, 2007), and we believe that engagement with this
literature can provide more nuanced understandings of how the relationships between
ecological conditions, urban politics and social movements operate. Understanding the
spatialities of socio-ecological movements is essential because they are socio-spatial
manifestations operating in and across particular places and scales. They cannot be
understood outside of their positionality in particular socio-spatial contexts (Leitner et al.,
2008). As noted earlier, work in UPE and political economy more generally has
demonstrated that social movements engage in scalar strategies such as jumping scales and
discursively framing their plight as an issue at one scale or across multiple scales.
Furthermore, these movements are embedded within a shifting political terrain in which the
power of, and relations between, political scales are being continually reworked. Like scale,
place is also important to the dynamics of social movements. For Nicholls (2009, p. 80),
peoples sense of place influences their normative evaluations of what battles are worth

fighting for, what battles are best left to others, who to cooperate with, and who to dispute.
Questions, therefore, need to be asked about how those involved in producing, receiving
and contesting environmental inequalities view place (e.g. their workplace, community,
house) and how this influences their willingness to pollute, exploit, struggle, persist and so
on. Much EJ and UPE research has demonstrated how the physical environment of place
(e.g. factories, sewers, housing) influences the day-to-day inequalities that communities are
faced with. However, little is known about how these physical environments can act as
facilitators or barriers to collective action (Leitner et al., 2008). To understand the
geographies of urban socio-ecological movements, we therefore need to view scale and place
as being contested, in flux and relational (Massey, 2007; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003).
A small number of studies have pointed towards a growing interconnectedness of
place-based urban socio-ecological movements and a supposed internationalisation of
environmental politics (e.g. Carruthers, 2008; Faber, 2005; Pellow, 2007). These studies have
provided valuable insights but more research is needed on how and why such movements
alter, expand, or rescale their spatial focus; how and why their structures, tactics and
discourses are replicated by groups in other places; and how and why they liaise and share
resources with other groups. We also need to understand how meanings and values are
constructed and contested within these trans-local and trans-national networks (Miller,
2004). How, for instance, are one groups understandings of gender/environment relations
projected, evaluated and reworked when they engage with groups in place elsewhere? To
what extent have these meanings and values been universalised and, if so, how do
communities in particular places ground these universalised meanings and values and with
what implications? Following Routledge (2007) we also need to ask difficult questions about
the uneven power relations, disagreements and fractures within these networks. Of course,

research must not forget those groups who do not engage with, or rarely engage with,
groups elsewhere. After all, many urban socio-ecological movements remain locally-based
and inward-looking. It could even be argued that they are primarily preoccupied with
removing environmental injustices from their backyard, showing less concern about whose
backyard they may be relocated into. Therefore, following Massey (2007) we should also
consider how socio-ecological movements perceive other places and communities, and how
this influences their responsibilities to, and liaisons with, these distant others.

Urban Socio-Ecological Imaginaries: the Discourses of Urban Natures

(In)justice and (in)equality in the urban environment cannot be understood without
reference to discursive practices and their intertwining with material practices and outcomes.
Three important and inter-linking claims have been made in the more radical literatures on
sustainability, discourse and the post-political condition which are pertinent to the nexus of
cities, social cohesion and the environment. First, Nature and its more recent derivatives, like
environment or sustainability, are empty and floating signifiers (Swyngedouw, 2009b).
Second, there is no such thing as a singular Nature around which an urban environmental
policy or environmentally-sensitive planning can be constructed and performed. Rather,
there are a multitude of natures and a multitude of existing, possible or practical socionatural relations. Nature becomes a tapestry, a montage, of meaning and equivalences, held
together with quilting points (or points de capiton) through which certain meanings of Nature
are knitted together, much like the upholstery of a Chesterfield sofa (Stavrakakis, 1997;
Swyngedouw, 2009b; iek, 1989). Third, the obsession with a singular Nature that requires
sustaining or, at least, managing, is sustained by a particular quilting of Nature that


forecloses asking political questions about immediately and really possible alternative urban
socio-natural arrangements
In part due to the growing global awareness of the environmental crisis,
contemporary representations of Nature have become more acute. The Real of Nature, in
the form of a wide variety of ecological threats (global warming, new diseases, biodiversity
loss, resource depletion, pollution), has invaded and unsettled our received understandings
of Nature. This has forced yet again a transformation of the signifying chains that attempt to
provide content for Nature, while at the same time exposing the impossibility of capturing
fully the Real of natures (iek, 2008b).
These radical arguments are structured by the fundamental belief that the natures we
see and work with are necessarily imagined, scripted, and symbolically charged as Nature.
These inscriptions are always inadequate, they leave a gap, a remainder and maintain a
certain distance from the natures that are there materially, which are complex, chaotic, often
unpredictable, radically contingent, historically and geographically variable, risky, patterned
in endlessly complex ways, and ordered along strange attractors (see, for instance, Lewontin
and Levins, 2007; Prigogine and Stengers, 1985). This means, quite fundamentally, that there
is no Nature out there that needs or requires salvation in name of either Nature itself or a
generic Humanity. There is nothing foundational in Nature that needs, demands, or requires
sustaining. The debate and controversies over Nature and what do with it, in contrast, signal
rather our political inability to engage in directly political and social argument and strategies
about re-arranging the socio-ecological co-ordinates of everyday life, the production of new
socio-natural configurations, and the arrangements of socio-metabolic organisation
(something usually called capitalism) that we inhabit. The notion of urban sustainability and
sustainable planning/development have symptomatically become the hegemonically and

consensually agreed metaphors to signal the ecological quandary we are in (Swyngedouw,

2007b). Indeed, one of the key signifiers that has emerged as the pivotal empty signifier to
capture the growing concern for a Nature that seemed to veer off-balance is, of course,
This scripting of Nature permits and sustains a post-political arrangement sutured by
fear and driven by a concern to manage things so that we can hold on to what we have
(Swyngedouw, 2007a). This constellation leads Alain Badiou to insist that ecology has
become the new opium for the masses, replacing religion as the axis around which our fear
for social disintegration becomes articulated (but also from where redemption, if the
warnings are heeded, can be retrieved). Such ecologies of fear ultimately conceal, yet nurture,
a conservative or, at least, reactionary discourse/message. While clouded in rhetoric of the
need for radical change in order to stave off immanent catastrophe, a range of technical,
social, managerial, physical and other measures have to be taken to make sure that things
remain the same, that nothing really changes, that life (or at least our lives) can go on as
before. Is this not the underlying message of, for example, An Inconvenient Truth or of the
report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the
human consequences of global climate change? Both these narratives, in their very different
representational ways (popular/populist on the one hand, scientific on the other), urge
radical changes in the techno-organisational management of the socio-natural environment
in order to assure that the world as we know it stays fundamentally the same (iek, 2008a).
This sentiment is also shared by Frederic Jameson when he claims that it is easier to
imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism (Jameson, 2003, p.


The discursive framing of Nature as singular and in need of saving together with the
simultaneous post-political arrangement has enormous implications for inequality and
injustice in the city. It could be reasonable argued that they rupture hopes for environmental
justice, whether that be procedural justice (through the removal of real debate and dissensus)
or the justice of capabilities (through blockading potential pathways to building a more
socially and environmentally just society beyond the current status quo). As yet, research has
yet to fully delve into the complex linkages between discourse, post-political management
and environmental (in)justice. More research is therefore needed on this issue. It is necessary
to ask questions about what visions of Nature and what socio-environmental relations are
being promoted; what quilting points are being used and how they are being stitched
together; and who are promoting these visions and why. Future research must also look at
what issues and whose voices are being silenced in the process and how these discourses are
competing with, altering and being altered by other alternative discourses. In this respect,
research also needs to consider the discourses of the more radical voices such as those of the
environmental justice movements or the post-carbon protagonists. As part of this, it must
critically examine how they portray nature and socio-environmental relations in the past,
present and the utopian/dystopian future.

This paper has considered the important nexus between cities, social cohesion and the
environment. It has critically overviewed a number of approaches through which this nexus
has been considered by academics and non-academics, most noticeably those of urban
sustainability, environmental justice and urban political ecology. It has argued that while
urban sustainability is fundamentally flawed suffering from technocratism and an

ignorance of the social the approaches of environmental justice and urban political ecology
hold significant merit. A fusion of these two approaches can offer a deeper understanding of
the processes and patterns of environmental injustice and exclusion. Such a fusion,
nonetheless, must place considerable emphasis on the citys positionality in wider political,
economic and ecological processes and networks. Ontologically, it must be a political
ecology of the city, not a political ecology in the city. Nevertheless, a simple fusion of the two
approaches as they stand is not enough. As this paper has shown, four key areas in which
further research are necessary if we are to get a more nuanced understanding of this nexus.
The key areas for future research can be summarised as follows:
1. Research into the metabolism of past, present and future cyborg cities, focusing on
the shifting power relations and inequalities within these transformations and the
extra-local networks and processes that constitute urban metabolism;
2. Research into the linkages between urban neo-liberalisation and environmental
injustice, and the dynamics and ramifications of neo-liberal urban environmental
projects such as ecological gentrification;
3. Research into the geographies of environmental justice movements and the
contradictions of operationalising and networking such movements;
4. Research into the relationships between discourse, post-political management
arrangements and environmental (in)justice, together with critical research into the
visions of, and marginalisation of, alternative discourses.
Following this four pronged research agenda, we believe, can bring new life into
political ecological and environmental justice research. We also believe that it can help
stimulate a critical and political rethinking of the types of city-natures that we want to be
living now and in the future.

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