This is part of a piece of work I did for a ‘Social Theory in Planning’ module run by my supervisor Jamie Gough, which I’m looking to develop for publication during any spare moments over the coming months. The essay looks in detail at the relationship between nature and society embodied within an emerging literature on ‘ecogentrification’, a term I use to encompass several writers’ research into the phenomenon of gentrification through sustainable urban development – a process I’d suggest is becoming increasingly prevalent.
This won’t be forming part of my PhD thesis, but was part of the thought process which led to my overarching topic of ‘political ecologies of urban resilience’. Below are just the introduction and categorisation of ecogentrification I use for the paper, but it gives an idea of what it’s about. Any comments are welcome. I’ll add the next section when I’ve done a bit of work on it, hopefully within the next month or so.
There are references at the bottom for those of you with library access, but I’ll just point to the two Noah Quastel articles mentioned, which are available for free on his Academia.edu page.
From ecogentrification to urban enclosure
Recent years has seen the growth of a new body of gentrification research, which largely focuses on how sustainable urban development (SUD) policies have facilitated and concealed – intentionally or otherwise – processes of gentrification. The literature, which appears to be exclusively situated in the US and Canada, variously conceptualises this phenomenon as ‘environmental’ gentrification (Pearsall, 2010, 2012; Checker, 2011; Curran and Hamilton, 2012), ‘green’ gentrification (Ceaser, 2010; Gould and Lewis, 2009), ‘ecological’ gentrification (Dooling, 2012, 2009) and as ‘political ecologies’ of gentrification (Quastel, 2009; Quastel et al., 2012). Others have not named it as such, but have rather written about gentrification in association with SUD (Bunce, 2009; Dale and Newman, 2009). Concentrating their studies particularly at the neighbourhood level, these scholars are concerned with the uneven socio-spatial consequences of dominant SUD policies for structurally disadvantaged residents and groups, and ways in which this process is actively resisted. While there are important differences in the literature which will be excavated over the proceeding pages, for the purposes of this essay I will simply refer to this body of work as ‘ecogentrification’.
Since this work necessarily operates at the intersection of social, economic and environmental policies at the urban scale, society’s relationship with nature is of central importance. An adequate account of these relations is essential in both analysis and in formulating potential strategies and paths towards more socially just urban futures. In this essay I claim that much of the scholarship on ecogentrification fails in this regard. In particular, it problematically remains focused on the local (built) environment, where it sees nature as purely socially produced. This challenges the narrative of SUD – which sees a separate and external nature simply in terms of resources and commodities – with which ecogentrification is associated, yet it grants no autonomy or agency to non-human nature outside of society. Dooling’s (2012, 2009), Quastel’s (2009) and Quastel et al’s (2012) use of urban political ecology, however points to far more complex socio-ecological entanglements. Urban political ecology tends to disavow more simplistic Cartesian separation of nature and society, instead viewing socio-nature as an inherently dialectical process of co-production. Furthermore, I would argue that this conceptual framework can provide more useful contextualisation of multi-scalar socio-natural processes taking place in the age of the Anthropocene, and the growing focus on urban resilience in response to climate change and resource constraints.
In order to make this argument I split the essay into three sections. In the first section I explain what is meant by environmental gentrification by those authors who have used the concept to critique SUD policies. In the second part, I define three approaches to the relationship between society and nature, which I believe relevant to the topic of environmental gentrification. In the third section I identify how these concepts have been deployed in cases of environmental gentrification, before making an argument for an urban political ecological approach, as the framework most adequately capable of addressing the complex and multi-scalar relations at work in cases of ecogentrification.
Gentrification research has been a well-established discipline within urban studies for several decades now. It attempts to identify and make interventions in the uneven and unjust socio-spatial impacts – specifically the displacement of working class communities and marginal social groups to make way for middle and upper class spaces of consumption (be it residential, commercial or cultural) – of urban development (see for instance Marcuse, 1985; Smith, 1996; Atkinson and Bridge, 2005; Slater, 2006; Lees et al., 2010). The specific sub-field of ecogentrification has emerged relatively recently over the past five years. While there are important differences within this literature, I argue that there are six interrelated commonalities and tropes to be drawn out which define ecogentrification.
Firstly, ecogentrification research is concerned with the gentrification of certain neighbourhoods, as a result of, or facilitated by, sustainable urban development (SUD) policies. This rests on an assumption that SUD has taken a specific form, through the selective prioritisation of economic growth over social equality. Secondly, this prioritisation, it is argued, is concealed beneath a specific environmental rationality which purports to be universally beneficial. The environmental rationality is that in its built form, the neighbourhood be ecologically functional. This maybe conceived locally in terms of ‘liveability’ for residents, and/or in its minimal impact on the wider environment, up to the global scale. Thirdly, within the framework of SUD, the ecological functionality of neighbourhoods has become an object of middle and upper class consumption and status, reflecting the particular interests, priorities and values of middle class consumers.
These in turn have particular negative socio-spatial consequences. A fourth characteristic of ecogentrification is that it leads to the displacement and/or exclusion of working class communities and marginal social groups and residents from newly ‘green’ neighbourhoods. This may for instance be due to rising real estate prices making rents unaffordable, from state-sanctioned clearances and demolitions of former working class housing, or through the privatisation and securitisation of redeveloped neighbourhoods and public spaces. Fifthly, and connectedly, the benefits of SUD in terms of environmental goods – such as green space, access to good public transit, energy efficient buildings – become concentrated in middle and upper class areas of residence and consumption. This perpetuates socio-spatial and socio-economic inequality and/or the ecological vulnerability of working class communities and other socially marginal groups. Lastly, the other side of this coin is that environmental bads of production – in particular polluting industries and their emissions – will be increasingly displaced and located in peripheral neighbourhoods of working class communities and marginal social groups, resulting in negative ecological externalities in those areas.