November 25, 2022

Book Review: Cities in the Anthropocene: New Ecology and Urban Politics by Ihnji Jon


In Cities in the Anthropocene: New Ecology and Urban Policy, Ihnji Jon explores how researchers, planners and the public can develop a bottom-up approach to environmentalism in urban areas, focusing on the cities of Cape Town, Cleveland, Darwin and Tulsa. This book helps establish a new approach to urban research that understands cities as complex environments and emphasizes the importance of collaboration with communities, finds Bouchra Tafrata.

Cities in the Anthropocene: New Ecology and Urban Policy. Ihnji Jon. Pluto Press. 2021.

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In his article “The city we want: against the banality of urban planning research”, Ihnji Jon reflects on the current state of academia and how a space for intellectual exercise is threatened by commodification, the fear of remaining invisible without publications, h indexes, and the obsession with producing “objective knowledge” “. As a young scholar trying to find her way into urban studies, I ruminate on how current knowledge produced within universities affects the communities approached. What voices do we listen to? Why do institutions and academics try to maintain the barrier they have built between research and activism? If cities are complex, why does academia generate “mundane” research? In this regard, Jon mentions The words of Robert W. Lake, calling for a move “from a position of distanced objectivity to a committed attitude of solidarity and empathy” (72).

The current climate situation and the continuing debate between governments and policy makers on the deteriorating state of the planet, in addition to the differences of public opinion, push us to question the approaches of governments on climate issues and to wonder why many have failed to implement the climate. related policies. Jon’s book Anthropocene cities is a call for researchers, planners and the public to reflect on the benefits of a bottom-up approach to environmentalism and to engage the public to assess their local position within an interdependent global system.

Jon’s Fellowship focuses on analyzing a ‘new ecology’ that advocates anti-essentialist environmentalism theory and opposes political discourse that orders the public to foster a coercive relationship between humans and nature. . In its own words, the “new ecology” has attempted to move beyond types of environmentalism that rely on the fetishized understanding of “nature” or “the environment” which unnecessarily creates the boundaries between our daily life (human needs) and ecosystem functions (ecological needs) ”(3).

Image Credit: Photo by Lucas alexandre to Unsplash

The book begins by discussing the politics of scale and how cities can act as frontiers for climate change mitigation. The notion of “scale” remains contested, particularly in environmental governance. The interconnected planetary ecosystem continues to shed light on the limits of tackling climate issues on a national scale, as these issues extend beyond political boundaries.

Moreover, turning environmental problems into “leftist debates” hinders climate change mitigation and obscures the sources of these problems. The ideological turn in the climate debate must be dismantled, because it is a global issue that constantly degrades our daily lives which depends on the state of the environment. As Jon articulates, “proposing a positive reconfiguration of the scale is more necessary than ever, especially for environmental issues that are inherently both local and global” (32).

Jon illustrates the implications of integrating nature and climate change mitigation into planning without making it a case of leftist political engagement across two cities: Darwin, Australia, and Tulsa, United States. The urban policies and strategies deployed in these cities aim to attract different communities whose political positions do not match. This is a phenomenon that Jon calls “pragmatic environmentalism” (34).

Climate-related disasters, including dangerous weather conditions, have affected the lives of the townspeople of Tulsa. The city’s flood history has helped center nature in design, which has led to the creation of ‘pragmatic environmentalism’ strategies: for example, stormwater management systems as well as the integration of greenery, walking and ‘Instagram capability’ in the urban space to attract Millennials, professionals and families.

In Darwin’s case, its tropical climate and meteorological hazards favored the implementation of various projects promoting what the author qualifies as “secularizing nature” (38). This pragmatic approach to nature strengthens the proximity between city dwellers and the climatic hazards that affect their cities. He asks us to think about how we can implement pro-nature practices without idealizing “nature”.

By contrasting Bruno Latour’s attention to “negative feelings that are generated by individuals” (40) with Spinoz’s ethics on how doing good makes us feel good (41), Jon underlines the importance of practices that promote care, instead of feelings of obligation and authority. In fact, city-wide pro-environment projects – such as integrating greenery into streets, reducing parking lots, low impact development initiatives (LID) (especially on-site rainwater treatment), the green energy transition and the installation of attractive facilities in different neighborhoods – can change the discourse on climate issues. They also invite different communities to participate in pro-nature ethics, because our quality of life depends on the state of the ecosystem. Jon linked these initiatives to the Deweyan philosophy which shows how valuing the experiences of the public can be used to build bridges with the ordinary, instead of relying solely on theories and ideologies (71). This approach centers people’s daily experiences and establishes engagement with different communities.

Another hot topic the author addresses is how we can approach climate change, environmental sustainability and urban inequalities through the same prism, without marginalizing communities that experience socio-spatial disparities. Jon is studying this question in two different cities: Cleveland, United States, and Cape Town, South Africa. These two cities suffer from poverty and socio-spatial segregation. Cleveland is one of the cities in the Rust Belt that suffered the legacy of the financial crash and industrial decline of 2008, which created housing inequalities and socio-economic instability (77, 86). Cape Town’s history and apartheid policies created a spatial divide between white settlers and non-white citizens and forced the latter to live in informal settlements, without access to clean water, sanitation, energy or socio-economic opportunities (94, 97, 102).

Jon emphasizes the role of environmental justice theory, which studies how a green policy agenda can reinforce socio-economic inequalities (81). Environmental institutions and climate change social movements, especially in the West, are demonstrating how whiteness continues to dominate these spaces and how environmentalists and activists should question the climate justice they advocate for. Socio-economic precariousness and urban segregation are colonial and the history of white supremacy is still visible in the post-colonies. Recognizing this offers a chance to re-imagine inclusive and equitable development policies.

The final chapter of the book explores how the theory of social complexity can inspire environmental action. Referring to Manuel DeLanda’s work on the materiality of cities and relating them to Deleuzian assembly theory, Jon explains the role of interaction between different individuals, how it generates group identity and how it affects group members. In Jon’s words: “placing interaction effects at the heart of understanding social entities can relieve us of the ontological contradiction between” having a group identity (which is the soul of the whole) “versus” respecting / recognize individual agency and heterogeneity ”” (114). Additional elements essential for recognizing the complexity of social entities are understanding the history of interactions that have occurred between individuals and establishing practices that account for heterogeneity (116, 117, 119). Planning with / in complexity can push decision makers to consider varieties of social entities and practice inclusion.

Jon asks how cities can ‘inject their pro-environmental ideas through an abstract machine, using the powers of the imagination, narratives, expressions or poetic devices that can inspire people rather than forcing them to pursue it. environmentalism ”(135). Jon draws on various examples that illustrate how creative projects work to change dominant narratives, including the New York Timesfrom the series “Modern Love” which describes the multiple forms of “love”. Through these, Jon calls for a change in planning and storytelling in urban studies (143) by embracing the “habit of tolerance” (158) and the complexity of storytelling in cities.

As I continue to reflect on the practices of inclusion and exclusion within and outside institutional walls, Jon’s book helps set the mood for establishing a new approach to urban research. It links the philosophy of pragmatism, climate change mitigation and urban planning. It defines cities as complex environments where inequalities are reinforced by systemic marginalization, and where local / global governments can advocate for pro-environmentalism through a bottom-up approach. It encourages us, researchers and practitioners, to examine the usefulness of the theories produced in the academy, to collaborate with communities and to be attentive to their stories and needs.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Bouchra Tafrata
Bouchra Tafrata is a researcher and host of the In Praise of the Margin podcast. She obtained a master’s degree in public policy from the Willy Brandt School of the University of Erfurt. His research dissects the international political economy, socio-spatial inequalities and urban governance.