Provincializing Urban Political Ecology through African Urbanism

Last week we organized a special session at the the RGS-IBG Geography conference in Edinburgh. The theme was on "Urban Political Ecology through African Urbanism" (abstract here). The 'we' was Mary Lawhon, Jonathan Silver, Suraya Fazel-Ellahi and myself Henrik Ernstson and we had several other presenters, including Maarten Loopmans and Vanesa Castán Broto. Unfortunately Garth Myers had to decline just before the conference. Now I just wanted to report on our own contributions in this session, and shortly on the other. 

Expand UPE through Africna urbanism  (co-written paper)

In our co-written paper we draw attention to that Urban Political Ecology (UPE) can be expanded to allow for more urban experiences to speak into theory through a closer reading of how scholars have written about cities in African and the global south. Based partly on postcolonial critique of knowledge production, African urbanism, or global south urbanism, there is a case to be made to expand and rethink how UPE can be translated into a research practice in cities of the south, and beyond. For instance, a focus on the everyday and closer attention to how cities are made to work in the global south, helps to open up the category of power within UPE. In the paper we draw upon scholars that has taken global south cities as places for theory-making, like AbdouMaliq Simone, Ananya Roy, Jennifer Robinson and Edgar Pieterse (see image). We write in our introduction in our paper the following:

We suggest that drawing on situated urban theories in the South is one way through which to “provincialize” UPE. In this paper, we draw on recent work in African urbanism to show how this widens the lens of UPE and allows for a greater diversity of urban experiences to speak into UPE theory, providing new research questions, theoretical insights and possibilities for progressive change. [...] We believe that a provincialized UPE will provide for better theorization and clearer grounds from which to effect progressive, socially just change in cities in Africa, the South and beyond. Specifically, we suggest that this new framing opens space for understanding and developing a radical incrementalism based on, connected to, and drawn from the actual socio-environmental conditions and situated ways of knowing  African cities.

Ways of Knowing Capetonian urban nature: Getting at the Political through Material Semiotics (my paper)

The network performing biodiversity
mapping in Cape Town - civil servants,
computer, algorithm and historical
records of biodiversity. 
In my own paper I draw upon actor-network theory, or material semiotics, to describe three different ways of knowing urban ecology or nature in Cape Town: a) through mapping biological diversity where the value of green space becomes the 'counting of the number of different species you can find'; b) through building a 'business case' for nature using an ecosystem services approach; and c) through in-place ways of knowing at Princess Vlei where civic-led ecological rehabilitation and popular struggle to protect green space muddles the binary between Nature and Culture.

While the former two, I argue, perform an a-historical and therefore a-political knowing of nature, the latter reinscribes the objects of knowing - like fynbos plants or ecological processes - within the particular histories of the places where these objects are found. I write in the manuscript presented:
[...] the political lies not just in the distribution of ills and benefits from such ‘ecological’ or ‘material’ elements like trees and water, but also in how these elements are known, and who appropriates the knowing of these elements, and their interconnections. Indeed, central to this paper are the ways by which urban ecologies are known, and who can claim to be in the know of urban ecology. The political concern lies in that knowledge, and the processes through which certain ways of knowing is made legitimate, also controls how expertise is being distributed in society, and who has voice, and who is silenced, in the quest for how urban natures should be organized, protected and produced. 
Through a description of how these ways of knowing are made in practice - using computer programs, algorithms, presentations at City Hall, or through planting and protest - relations between things are stabilized into network that perform certain ways of knowing.

Where lies the political at Princess Vlei and Bottom Road...
Jaques Ranciere
Using this in relation to the ongoing struggle to stop a shopping centre at Princess Vlei we start understanding where the political lies in that type of struggle - it is not just about the politics of how to use space, but also who has the right to speak into the future of nature, and the future of the city. Drawing upon Erik Swyngedouw and Ranciere and Dikec, I write in the conclusion:
In historicizing nature, and in realigning fynbos with memories of oppression, I believe the tracing of ways of knowing can lend itself towards a discussion of the ‘proper political’. As Erik Swyngdouw (2009) stated in a recent paper:

The police refers to ‘all the activities which create order by distributing places, names, functions’ (Rancière, 1994: 173). It suggests ‘an established order of governance with everyone in their “proper” place in the seemingly natural order of things’ (Dikeç, 2005: 174).

Erik Swyngedouw
The ‘proper political’ seems to be animated when the “established order” is disturbed, when some-bodies claim voice where before the police order only recognized noise. In this sense, the Bottom Road network seems to be involved in an effort to ‘change the order of things’, to shake up the police order of who can claim to be in the know of Capetonian urban nature; to shift the notion of where valuable nature can be ‘found’, and who can take care of it. But also, what ‘nature’ is, and how it should be rendered as something that can be symbolized and spoken about—as the ‘counting of different species’, the cataloguing and quantification of ‘services’, or as embedded in a history of oppression. 
Thus, although their are various discussion on the status of actor-network theory in the study of urban ecologies, I find it rewarding to engage ANT approaches. I am especially interested in pursuing Annmarie Mol and John Law's notion of material semiotics and link this with the political philosophers brought into this discussion by Erik Swyngedouw. Judging from the RGS-IGB conference, this is an area that is brewing and it is exciting to be part of it.

The other contributors in our session

Vanesa Castán Broto and Adriana Allen presented on "Habitat and Habitus". The interestingly set Heideggers notion of dwelling, taken up by anthropologist Tim Ingold, in communication with Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus and practice. This creates a way to explore both biophysical change and practice in their case study of urban agriculture in Accra. Maarten Loopmans and Sarah Luyten used a Polyaninan framework to understand urban agriculture in Ogagadougou and Dakar.

More will come from this line of work of setting UPE in communication with African urbanism and postcolonial theory as Mary, John, Suraya, me and others take this further. More generally, the conference was a great experience and I will need to come back to report more fully.