Building new knowledge about natures, ecologies and sustainability: A review article

Book review essay by Gerardo del Cerro SantamarĂ­a

18 Aug 2020, 4:17 p.m.
Gerardo del Cerro SantamarĂ­a

Building new knowledge about natures, ecologies and sustainability: A review article

Grounding Urban Natures book cover

Urban Planet book cover

Ecological Urbanism book cover

Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies, H Ernstson & S Sörlin (eds), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019; 440 pp.: ISBN 9780262537148, £28 (pbk)

Urban Planet: Knowledge Toward Sustainable Cities, T Elmqvist, X Bai & N Frantzeskaki, et al. (eds), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018; 514 pp.: ISBN 9781107196933, £49.99 (hbk)

Ecological Urbanism, revised edn, M Mostafavi & G Doherty (eds), Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2017; 656 pp.: ISBN 9783037784679, €50 (hbk)



The current global condition of materialised risk increases the need to pay attention to looming menaces and threats other than pandemics, most prominently ecological crises. Our current predicament can also intensify the positive reception of analyses focused on issues such as sustainability, ecologies and natures.

Environmentalism is just one of the components of any comprehensive strategy for sustainability, and it is perhaps the one that is receiving most attention (Nordhaus, 2013Stern, 2015), also from the perspective of urbanism. Any conception of sustainability would be rooted in our understanding of urban natures and ecologies, and the theoretical, methodological and epistemological approaches we use to discern the meaning and implications of these ideas.

‘Natural’ means preserving or sustaining the planet and our well-being, and this is particularly necessary in cities. ‘Ecological’ involves the relation of living organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings; it is an essential concept increasingly tied to the urban and studied as such. The three books to be reviewed in this article offer new knowledge about sustainability by interrogating the particularities of urban ecologies and natures from different, distinct angles.

Grounding Urban Natures offers a political-economy approach to urban natures where both the idea of context and the comparative method loom large. Urban Planet explores the fruitful – and increasingly used – concept of complexity and proposes to understand globalised urbanisation as a complex system where knowledge from outside academia is key. Ecological Urbanism is a call for transdisciplinary research in urbanism, echoing (from the field of architecture and design) the idea that no single discipline can expect to meaningfully understand cities and urbanism.

Thus, the books tackle the question of sustainability from three very different analytical perspectives, and, at a time of relentless search for new ways of building urban knowledge, this disparity actually enhances the appeal of reading them together. The three books are edited collections, which will fulfil any reader’s appetite for diversity within relatively unified approaches.

Issues and concepts characterising the mature stage in the globalised urbanisation paradigm (Del Cerro Santamaría and Davis, 2011), such as scales and networks (in the realm of complexity), as well as the role of states, governance and path dependence, are present, in varying degrees, in each of the three books. This would help readers situate these research works on nature, ecologies and sustainability within the ongoing stream of urban scholarship.


Grounding Urban Natures

Grounding Urban Natures is built on several case studies aiming at understanding conflict in the urban socio-environmental realm. The notion of context looms large in this work as a requisite for comparing ecologies in cities in five continents, from San Francisco to Berlin or Cape Town, among others.

Emphasis on ‘context’ is akin to relational analyses stressing ‘glocalisation’ (Robertson, 1995), fragmentation and juxtaposition. This points towards a middle-ground theorising, between the explanatory excesses of universal arguments and the intrinsic limitations of local perspectives. In a certain way, this is the old ‘nomothetic versus ideographic’ debate, which is present in the old idea of ‘the city in cultural context’ (Agnew et al., 1984), and in the highly valuable contributions to urbanism by Anthony King (2015).

Some of the concepts we see in the book are ‘affective ecologies’, ‘making nature’, ‘social ecologies’, ‘ecological democracy’, ‘metro-naturalism’, ‘natural contract’, ‘texturising’ or ‘urban nature regimes’. We also see in this book a reassertion of geography and history, time and space, as an analytical proposal for the field.

The book’s editors, H Ernstson and S Sörlin, provide a masterful introduction where they (1) detail the Western theoretical developments on the idea of urban natures and ecologies (pp. 1–17), and (2) stress the need to utilise insights and perspectives from ‘Southern Urbanism’ for a reconceptualisation of urban natures (pp. 17–24).

The comparative method they advocate consists of ‘grounding’ and ‘worlding’ urban natures. This means using (1) in-depth case studies, (2) ‘productive geographies’ and (3) ‘conceptual vectors’ so that differences are attended to but not essentialised. This three-fold strategy is deliberately designed to support a more global urban analytical project, in contrast to other comparative approaches, such as Janet Abu-Lughod’s highly effective ‘close comparisons’ strategy (Abu-Lughod, 1999).

To this effect, the comparative strategy in Grounding Urban Natures proceeds by selecting ‘comparators’ relevant to a diversity of urban contexts, instead of comparing relatively similar cities, as in the close comparisons procedure. Cities are not ‘cases’ because what is being compared are processes across cities and countries, not the cities themselves. Substantively, the book explores ‘Unexpected Natures’ (Part Two, after the Introduction), ‘Popular Natures’ (Part Three) and ‘Technological Natures’ (Part Four).

The chapters in ‘Unexpected Natures’ show how ‘urban nature is broader than the fixed things of green space; it is a cultural and biophysical process, including built natures, gardens, parks, weeds, animals, etc’ (p. 25). We can read case studies in New Orleans, Lagos (Nigeria), Pennsylvania and Córdoba (Argentina) showing the breadth of possible conceptualisations of urban natures.

The chapters in ‘Popular Natures’ demonstrate ‘how popular movements have reworked and resignified the values and meaning of urban natures […] and thereby affected who can claim to know urban nature’ (p. 26). Here we read studies about San Francisco, Dalian (China), Delhi and Berlin, all exploring contested meanings of urban natures.

‘Technological Natures’ explores how abstract models of urban nature used in urban planning actually work, and ‘how technomanagerial solutions flow between cities and countries to influence urban planning’ (p. 27). With case studies on Cape Town, Baltimore and Yixing (China), this section highlights the translocal circuits of urban theory.

The Conclusion to the book, by the editors, focuses on how to advance the perspectives that have been fleshed out in the various chapters. These are very diverse but under the common thrust of developing an approach that ‘sustains the multiplicity of urban nature [and] affords and provides space for various ways of knowing and ways of being within and in relation to urban nature […]’ (p. 365).

Ernstson and Sörlin suggest the following paths forward: (1) to engage critically with urban ecology as conceptualised in the environmental sciences; (2) to develop comparative ‘productive geographies’ exploring both the local and translocal character of urban natures; (3) to shift away from anthropocentric approaches to urban natures and account for wider forms of bio-agency; and (4) to draw on postcolonial and decolonial scholarship in order to forcefully prevent Western biases (pp. 378–381).


Urban Planet

Urban Planet advocates a systems approach to the field as understood in the most contemporary notion of ‘systems’. Here complexity implies both a network approach to the urban as well as the building of new knowledge from the bottom up. Also, co-production of knowledge among a variety of parties is key for the book’s authors.

In this reader’s understanding, urban complexity can be said to emerge from the decentralised and self-organising webs, assemblages and networks of transactions and interactions among a wide range of heterogeneous actors, agents and stakeholders. Such webs of interactions typically occur at multiple scales in dynamic, fuzzy, changing and uncertain urban settings. Further, these transactions and interactions of cooperation and competition, informed by serendipity and randomness, highlight the perceptions, choices, decisions and preferences of agents.

Complexity approaches in the social sciences are not new. We find them in world-system analyses (directly inspired by chemist Ilya Prigogine; see Wallerstein, 2013); in the network society approach by Manuel Castells (2009); in actor–network and assemblage theories (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987Latour, 1993); in cybernetics and systems theory (Luhmann, 2012Von Bertalanffy, 1981Wiener, 1964); and in the new materialities approach to urban planning (see Lieto and Beauregard, 2016).

Urban Planet defends the idea of co-production of knowledge between academics and non-academics (practitioners, policy experts, citizens etc.). The book includes four parts, three of which (‘Dynamic Urban Planet’, ‘Global Urban Sustainable Development’ and ‘Urban Transformations to Sustainability’) include chapters authored by academics. The last part (‘Provocations from Practice’) is written by non-academics.

‘Dynamic Urban Planet’ presents ‘leading views, models and new data […] to advance […] the complexity of urban systems and how these interact with politics, justice, health, climate risks and economies’ (p. xxiii). The six chapters in ‘Global Urban Sustainable Development’ examine ‘ongoing conceptual reformulations and more practical initiatives for urban sustainability by harnessing information resources and by engaging key stakeholder groups’ (p. xxv). ‘Urban Transformations to Sustainability’ describes the ‘governance factors shaping social and environmental change in urban areas’ (p. xxvii). The chapters show how city officials and civil society meet sustainability challenges.

The many chapters in ‘Provocations from Practice’ (as many as 36) are written by non-academics and demonstrate the benefits of urban activism, as follows: (1) making better cities requires action, not just knowledge; (2) citizen participation should be key in implementing urban justice and liveability; (3) imagination plays an important role in using art and innovation for the betterment of cities (p. xxix).

This is a valuable start in the process of integration that is needed in urban knowledge production in a multiplicity of disciplines at different research settings and realms of practice. Perhaps a step further in integration would have been to set a dialogue between the academic and non-academic contributors to the book and publish those dialogues. The book suggests that any future urban knowledge production would need to focus on systems, co-production and solutions-orientated analysis.

Other topics surfacing in the book have to do with the need to go beyond the urban–rural divide, the need to meaningfully link the social and the environmental and the need to further integrate the social sciences into any transdisciplinary understanding of globalised urbanisation. This is a salient need in Urban Planet, where political economy does not play a key role.

In this regard, it is helpful to remember that nature, just like economies, is a distant cry from self-regulated systems. Darwin does not celebrate the harmony of nature, but how small differences can suddenly become significant differences as a result of geographical drift and climate change. Something very similar happens in cities as environments of organised complexity.

The lesson here would be to issue a call for analytical transactions between complexity and political economy. We are used to complexity approaches leaning towards highly quantitative procedures, but this need not be the only direction forward, as the work of Edgar Morin (2008) on complex thinking shows. ‘Sensitising concepts’ in complexity science (e.g. adaptability, evolutionism, emergence, randomness and others) can enrich and expand the analysis of power and uneven development.


Ecological Urbanism

While Urban Planet superficially explores transdisciplinarity as a sub-product of urban complexity, Ecological Urbanism is a decidedly vigorous statement for transdisciplinarity in architecture and urban planning from the outset, even if a fully-fledged transdisciplinary methodology is never developed in the book. This oeuvre works as a ‘meeting point’ where the very brief contributions of the many authors show how architecture is integrating other disciplines, including the social sciences, into design thinking (see Davis, 2015).

The contributions of architecture to urbanism and urban studies are well known. Social scientists have benefitted from the understanding of space in the urban realm by architects and, in turn, architects have for a long time tried to understand the architectural project within capitalism (see Del Cerro Santamaría, 2007Tafuri, 1979). The late architect Michael Sorkin, who passed away in New York in March 2020 due to COVID-19, was a major force in blending architectural and social-scientific concerns in his books (see, inter alia, Sorkin, 2018). From a more substantive perspective, a sociology of architecture (both macro and micro) has been developing for some time with some success (see Sklair, 2017bStevens, 2002).

Ecological Urbanism is more ambitious in the gathering of disciplinary interests, from humanities, literature and cultural theory to engineering, biology and computation. A total of 43 contributions (in 117 chapters) are about urbanism and ecologies by authors alien to the field of design. The juxtaposition of contributions is valuable because of the quality of the authors contributing and the huge variety of approaches. Unlike other works trying to infuse design with complexity science in a systematic way (Mehaffy and Salingaros, 2015), Ecological Urbanism focuses on conceptual ties and transactions across disciplines and much less so on specific strategies that would do the job of linking science, design, humanities and other relevant disciplines.

Mostafavi’s Introduction stresses transdisciplinarity as an effective way to move the architectural and planning project forward. He describes sustainability as an essentially transdisciplinary problem and describes the matter of ‘scale’ as a key for architects to reconsider and expand the boundaries and scope of the urban. Mostafavi, a former Dean at Harvard GSD, relies on Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies (environment, social relations and human subjectivity), his concept of ‘ecosophy’ and Lefebvre’s idea of ‘transduction’ (p. 26) in order to begin shaping his transdisciplinary proposal for the design field. Environmental planning and landscape ecology, with an emphasis on biodiversity, would be at the core of such a proposal.

The book includes 12 parts that could be reclassified into four main themes: concepts, practices, cases and technologies. Even if the introduction hardly mentions how complexity can help the transdisciplinary project in design, many of the contributions do address this issue in summary form. Several chapters address the issue of compact cities (chapters by Glaeser, Fainstein, Crawford and Forman) and how urban environments can promote ecology and sustainability more effectively than non-urban environments.

The book benefits from the participation of highly respected authors in many fields. Within architecture and design, the book includes contributions by Rem Koolhaas, Rafael Viñoly, Herzog & De Meuron, Toshiko Mori, ARUP and Iñaki Ábalos. Cultural theorist Homi Bhabha writes about sustainability in Mumbai. The late sociologist Ulrich Beck writes about inequality and climate change. Bruno Latour summarises his well-known thesis that we need to ‘go back to Earth’. Susan Fainstein invites reflection on ecological justice. Edward Glaeser points out that much of the difference in carbon usage across space comes from basic forces such as space and density. Jeremy Rifkin describes how some architects have adopted his ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ approach.

The Ecological Urbanism project deserves attention because it can lead to a more detailed understanding of the ties between sustainability and transdisciplinarity. The practice of transdisciplinary research faces formidable challenges. The integrative and holistic transdisciplinary attitude, which fosters the understanding of complexity, may never produce a shared instrumental canon. Transdisciplinarity, however, fulfils an important role by raising awareness of the need to co-create knowledge in the interstices between disciplines. Ecological Urbanism is a valuable contribution in this direction.



Scholars such as Leslie Sklair and Bruno Latour have pointed out that, in spite of all the risks to the environment, the human species seems to continue ‘sleepwalking’ on the Anthropocene (Sklair, 2017a). The problem is not only ontological, that is, a deficiency in perceiving and grasping risks and their consequences. The problem is also epistemological, triggered by faulty or increasingly irrelevant analytical approaches to critical issues and fields of endeavour, such as urbanism.

The three books reviewed here implicitly or explicitly share this viewpoint, and all contribute to fostering both ontological and epistemological debates within the field. They respond to current debates and objections about the validity of traditional ontological and epistemological positions in the face of radical and rapid transformations worldwide.

The disparity of approaches in the three books could lead us to think that they are mutually exclusive and, thus, incommensurable. However, readers can in fact consider using them simultaneously as valuable heuristic tools in their conceptual and methodological box.

In different ways, the three books explicitly criticise current perspectives on cities and urbanisation, and the homogenising aims of some global discourses regarding urban natures and ecologies. Each advances a new way forward: comparative-historical analysis (Grounding Urban Natures), complexity science (Urban Planet) and transdisciplinarity (Ecological Urbanism).

Grounding Urban Natures is, among the three, the work that most centrally explores how to conceptualise socio-environmental issues by going beyond the nature–culture dichotomy, an effort akin to conjectures developed by contemporary ecological theorists such as Timothy Morton (2019) and the new materialisms being developed within urban planning (Beauregard, 2015). Urban Planet is bold in proposing new avenues, even outside academia, to reformulate urban knowledge, and is particularly successful in presenting complexity as a defining feature of urbanism. Ecological Urbanism is effective in calling for a radical reformulation of design theory and practice along the lines of transdisciplinary research, a direction that we see expanding in the near future (Del Cerro Santamaría, 2020).

The three books entice readers to relativise and question the ‘planetary urbanisation’ approach by suggesting new realms to be considered in any study of urban ecologies. For a truly comprehensive approach, sustainability research would need to factor in the importance of towns and land, as Forman does in his contribution to Ecological Urbanism and his other publications (Forman, 2019).

An issue for urbanists would be how to integrate in their analyses ex-urban perspectives while going beyond the rural–urban divide and placing ecology and sustainability at the centre of research. Rather than ‘the city’ or ‘urbanisation’, would the notion of ‘megaregion’ provide a forward direction and a focal point for research and knowledge organisation in the field?

The three books reviewed here are important for anyone interested in learning how to meaningfully design research on ecologies, natures and sustainability that overcomes the nature–culture duality. They will appeal to scholars and students willing to broaden their perspectives on urban knowledge production and analysis. They forcefully contribute to understanding and sustaining urban natures and ecologies in innovative and fruitful ways.



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