Who’s SURI now?

More useful academics? What is the world coming to? Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin have written a clear and thought-provoking critique of “Urban Ecological Security”, teasing out its implications and suggesting an alternative research agenda (one that probably won’t be pursued, for reasons similar to what Charlesworth and Okereke have to say about permaculture, of which more later.

Here’s the abstract:

The term ‘ecological security’is usually used in relation to attempts to safeguard flows of ecological resources, infrastructure and services at the national scale. But increasing concerns over ‘urban ecological security’ (UES) are now giving rise to strategies to reconfigure cities and their infrastructures in ways that help to secure their ecological and material reproduction. Yet cities have differing capacities and capabilities for developing strategic responses to the opportunities and constraints of key UES concerns. These include resource constraints and climate change, and consequently these newly emerging strategies may selectively privilege particular urban areas and particular social interests over others. In this article, we focus on world cities and outline the challenges posed by the growing concern for UES. We review the emerging responses that may increasingly form a new dominant ‘logic’ of infrastructure provision, which we characterize as Secure Urbanism and Resilient Infrastructure (SURI). We conclude by addressing the extent to which this new dominant ‘logic’ underpins a new strategy of accumulation or more ‘progressive’ politics by outlining alternatives to SURI, possibilities for shaping SURI more ‘progressively’ and developing an agenda for future research.

They argue that;

in addition to the intensified economic competition between cities under neoliberal conditions of contemporary global capitalism, we are now seeing a ‘race’ to try to ‘secure’ — produce and consume — (increasingly scarce) resources to maintain and enhance economic growth. Where the sourcing and production of oil may have peaked (Leggett, 2005), when conflicts around access to and the organization of water resources abound (Swyngedouw, 2004), where key strategic resources are vulnerable to rising sea levels, and when the relationship between production and disposal of wastes is increasingly contested, the very resources that underpin the economic competition between cities, but which also support the material, social and ecological reproduction of cities, are now the source of the struggle (Keil and Boudreau, 2006): a struggle between economic ‘competition’, particular notions of ‘ecology’ and ‘security’, and the reproduction of cities.

They look at the emergence of ‘urban ecological security’, with catchy sub-headings like “extending critical infrastructure protection into ecological security’ and ‘rescaling ecological security.’
As they say;

Work on new state spaces has not received anywhere near the same attention in relation to environmental concerns as it has with regard to economic activity. To push this further would be to start to ask what would an ecological state look like with ecological protection as one of its foremost regulatory functions (Barry and Eckersley, 2005; Meadowcroft, 2005)? This is a particularly interesting issue given that national states increasingly have strategic, variable and multiple relationships with their territories (Brenner, 2004).

That’s a good question- what WOULD a sustainable Manchester look like in 2020, in 2030? What is our vision of a Concrete Utopia? Hodson and Marvin give useful overview of the whole “World Cities” thing-

World cities are seen as ‘command centres’ of the global economy (Sassen, 1991), where infrastructures of transport, financial markets, and circuits of financial services more broadly, and information and communications technologies constitute connections between and flows through world cities predicated on technological architectures, flows of data, people and goods but also a series of multi-level political and economic relationships between political and economic elites. It is this connectivity and relationality that constitutes the underpinnings of power relationships between world cities and where this connectivity informs the competitive ‘race’ between world cities to attract investment, labour and technological innovations.

Hodson and Marvin outline the implications of all this, and state that their

“concern is that the strategic re-orientation to resource constraints is leading to the development of new styles of infrastructure development that privilege particular spatial and socio-technical configurations of infrastructure around ‘strategic protection’, ‘building autarky’ and developing ‘new global urban agglomerations’ (Hodson and Marvin, 2007a; 2007b; 2007c). In a period of resource constraints and climate change, the world’s largest cities are beginning to translate their strategic concern about their ability to guarantee resources into strategies designed to reshape the city and their relations with resources and other spaces. We argue that there are three emblematic configurations that are being developed in response to UES through world cities: strategic protection, developing autonomy and global agglomerations.”

Yep, that keeps me awake at night too. On the strategic protection side of things, one classic example would be the EcoCities project.

On developing ‘autonomy’ they look at the ‘closed city concept –

“Cities have usually sought to guarantee their reproduction by seeking out resources and sinks from locations usually ever more distant and connected through huge socio-technical assemblages. Yet this traditional approach is now being challenged as cities seek to ‘re-internalize’ and ‘re-localize’ resource endowments by creating ‘closed loops’ and ‘circular metabolisms’ as they seek to withdraw from reliance on international, national and regional infrastructures….
“This strategy primarily focuses on an increasing withdrawal and decoupling from national and regional infrastructures by building more ‘self-sufficient’ infrastructures of provision on a city scale. The city is becoming the focus of increasing interest and prioritization by a range of architects and engineers who, we argue, are rapidly populating a new socio-technical trajectory of urban development, the ‘eco-city’ or the ‘closed city’ (de Graaf et al., 2007). The new socio-technical configuration is similar to the concept of the autarkic or autonomous city. Cities strategically prioritize attempts to build greater self-sufficiency through their socio-technical networks by a dual strategy of both actively disengaging from external reliance on national and regional infrastructures and building up local and decentralized systems for water and energy supply, waste disposal and mobility systems. This also envisages an extension of pricing mechanisms, such as congestion or emission pricing zones.”

Ooh, congestion zones. Why not let’s have a referendum on that…
After spending too long on Arup’s probably mythical “Dongtan” project they turn to “the ‘metropolitanization’ of ecological resources’ specifically “metropolitinization: the strategic re-localization and selective glurbanization of ecological resource.

‘Strategic re-localization’ is based on a simultaneous process of the re-scaling of socio-technical infrastructures ‘upwards’ from local experiments and test-beds to more strategic and systemic transitions at the metropolitan level, and ‘downwards’ through active ‘withdrawal’ from existing regional and national infrastructures. Strategies for the development of decentralized energy, water and food systems are increasingly ‘up-scaled’ from individual buildings or technologies, and developed into a systemic transition in the social and technical organization of decentralized infrastructure at the scale of the metropolis as coalitions claiming to speak on behalf of cities attempt to build greater autarky and reduce reliance on external infrastructures and resources.

And glurbanization? (man, that’s one FUGLY neologism)

‘glurbanization’ of ecological resource and infrastructure produces two forms of rescaling as selective networks of world cities work collaboratively to ‘up-scale’ the development of new infrastructure fixes within and between cities, and ‘down-scale’ the fixes developed in world cities into other cities within the national urban hierarchies. World cities are working collaboratively to share ‘best practices’, knowledge and expertise in the development of strategic protection and re-localization of resources as they seek to match the performance of the best cities in terms of recycling, energy independence, water savings, etc. At the same time, recognition of the limits of autonomy, especially in relation to fuel supplies for transportation, means such world cities are collaborating in the development of new global agglomerations of new infrastructures, such as biofuels and hydrogen, as they seek to develop new socio-technical systems that can secure such cities’ future mobility strategies.

Hodson and Marvin then look at what they label the ‘preparatory’ metropolis

Cities seeking to build ecological security are attempting to guarantee their longer-term access to key resources in order to ensure social and economic reproduction. Central to such approaches is a significant shift in response — rather than seeing ecological constraint as a limiting factor in cities’ future growth ambitions, the new logic is to anticipate systemically and prepare strategically for a period of constraint. Consequently, ecological issues become strategic within cities’ future growth strategies as the ability to continue to grow is intertwined with a city’s ability to guarantee the ecological resources necessary to support economic growth. Longer-term questions about the availability, reliability, control, security and costs of ecological resource become central to cities’ own long-term strategies.

There are, they say, three implications from this-
a) cities developing a strategic orientation to resource issues are increasingly using much longer-term timescales in the formulation of their policy and planning priorities.
b) new forms of knowledge, expertise and social interests
are being brought into the strategy development process as cities attempt to develop an understanding of issues where they may lack formal responsibilities and/or any experience. This places a premium on cities’ abilities to engage and enrol new scientific and technical capability with respect to climate change, energy security, resource security, technological change, and understand the implications and options for the economy and place-based priorities.
c) strategies being produced by world cities are characterized by increasingly strategic approaches focused on the managed shaping of systemic socio-technical change in their infrastructures. The key feature of this is that cities are developing their own social visions of the style of reconfiguration envisaged in their networks as they attempt to shift from centralized to more decentralized provision, reduce reliance on external resources or find substitute fuels for mobility systems. Increasingly, such efforts are linked to ‘low carbon’ or ‘post-peak oil’ transitions in the organization of infrastructure.

Hodson and Marvin think that there is an element of de-politicisation at work in how emerging coalitions and trans-urban networks are working:

Critically, it appears to us that new sets of social interest groups and stakeholders are being enrolled into these processes. New and opportunistic coalitions of social interest groups at and within the metropolitan scale — city governments, private and corporate interests, in some cases environmental groups — have become active in shaping debates about the development of UES…. World cities and these economic–ecological coalitions are clearly positioning themselves as being the ‘obvious’ actors and places to address the ‘threats’ of resource constraints and climate change. This we can see as the political mobilization of a rhetoric of de-politicization; the result being a particular framing of the agenda as ‘obvious’. This is underpinned by politics, where these ‘key partners’ ‘collaborate’ in constructing their (narrowly defined) agenda of the ‘measurable’ results of their initiatives, where resource security and climate change are framed as economic benefits. SURI provides a strategic framework for organizing all manner of individual city targets around resource constraints and climate change. (page 206)

Hodson and Marvin then turn to the problems with all this-

First, the emphasis on the construction of ‘self-reliant’ cities through decentralized technologies — in the form of renewable energy, biodiesel, grey-water recycling, energy from waste, etc., and the wider metaphors of ‘closed loops’ and ‘circular urban metabolisms’ — actually misses the point that infrastructures and cities are never truly bounded or autonomous spaces. Cities can only expect to build a relative form of autonomy that reconfigures relations rather than provides total independence. While decentralized water production and re-use and energy production may decrease reliance on centralized networks, they still imply interdependencies.

Second, there are a set of outstanding issues about the degree of social and political resistance to strategies designed to construct SURI and to its replication in other urban contexts.
[That is to say, the peasants may be revolting] …. and “critical questions about the capacity and capability of cities and regions lower down the urban hierarchy to develop and implement the type of fixes piloted in world cities around decentralized technologies.”

Finally, there is a wider set of questions related to the points above and, in particular, whether the strategies are really preparatory and anticipatory of global ecological constraints or whether such strategies actually defer environmental costs in time or displace them in space as cities attempt to build the ‘divisible securitization’ of resources.

Pointing out that “SURI claims that cities are attempting to transcend a ‘zero-sum’ game of competition for ecological resources in recognition of the indivisible implications of climate change for all places.” they “are concerned that SURI can often result in the displacement of environmental costs elsewhere. The Port of Los Angeles has concluded an agreement with shipping companies that they transfer to clean fuels (only) when they reach the jurisdictional boundaries of the metropolitan area, so that the port can continue to meet the city’s air quality emission targets.”

They take a look at “exploring alternatives: uneven capacity, social innovation and competing transitions”

In summary then, we would argue that there would be considerable value in subjecting SURI to critical conceptual and empirical analysis. We feel that UES and SURI may signal an important change in how we consider three significant urban debates: first, the issue of whether in urban governance and economies this signals a shift from competitive to eco-competitive city relations; second, within the conventional sustainable cities debate, whether SURI represents a narrowing of the agenda around securitized urban ecologies; finally, in relation to questions around vulnerability of infrastructure, whether SURI now signals a shift to questions around strategic resilience.

For Hodson and Marvin

“The key question we asked at the beginning of the article was: to what extent does this new dominant ‘logic’ underpin new strategies of economic accumulation or more ‘progressive’ politics? Our argument is that it is a very particular and select coalition of social interests that are both creating a context for UES and developing strategic responses through SURI within world cities. In short, we need to assess critically the implications of this new logic in shaping the contours of the emblematic, exemplary and dominant socio-technical-ecological fix for cities in a period of resource constraints and climate change. Accordingly, there are five sets of issues in response to thinking about the consequences of UES (and SURI) that need to be addressed. In doing this, we reiterate our key claims, identify their implications and then outline the contours of a longer-term research agenda around UES.”

And the famous five are… (drum roll please)

“First, in response to UES, we are witnessing an increasing ‘metropolitanization’ of resource security and responses to climate change, which involves the strategic re-localization and selective glurbanization of ecological resources…. our concern is that strategic interest in new forms of autarky based on withdrawal from and by-passing of national and regional infrastructure potentially leads to the creation of an archipelago of interconnected ‘self-reliant’ islands of world cities…. Critically, we need to ask what this means for the by-passed places, the new peripheries constructed by ‘enclosure’ and the ordinary cities of the North and global cities of the South. The implication is that such cities simply‘make-do’ or ‘improvise’ with their restricted resources and constrained capacity as world cities establish themselves as ecologically secure spaces.”
Fortress Europe and devil take the hindmost and all that…

Second, at least in aspiration, this new style of ‘preparatory’ and anticipatory policy making appears to have new key components, which include long-term timescales, new expertise and the claim of radical systemic change in infrastructures. Yet we have relatively little understanding of what this actually means in practice or what consequences emerge from this style of policymaking. What is ‘intended’ to be shaped in the long term? Critical for us is that such longer-term timescales and ‘locked-in’ socio-technological trajectories around SURI then may lead to the shaping of other social, economic and spatial plans and priorities that are designed to prioritize and protect world cities. We are concerned that such shifts privilege particular types of technical knowledge, tightly delimiting what is considered relevant knowledge and expertise. More widely, we are concerned about the limits of the social interest groups involved in constructing new social visions for systemic change in infrastructure and, in particular, the claim that new eco-models — the resource-neutral eco-region being developed in Thames Gateway or the new eco-city developments — are simply replicable in other national and international contexts.

Translation- in the stampede for “new” and “tough” the poor might get ignored and shat on from a great height. And the model used to shit on other people in other countries.

Third, it is emerging coalitions and trans-urban networks of city governance, corporate and environmental groups that are producing these ‘new fixes’. Large cities’ political elites, corporates and environmental groups are positioning themselves as the ‘obvious’ actors and places to address the ‘threats’ of resource constraints and climate change…. Critically for us, our concern is that there are particular material and economic interests that enable new coalitions of city-government, corporate and environmental groups to develop around this agenda.

Ooh, the rooms where this will be decided will be full of rich white men and a smattering of women.

And fourth, this role out of the SURI model may come up against stiff resistance…For us, it is world cities that are positioned as emblematic places ‘producing’ the exemplary fixes; is it intended that these are then replicated and ‘consumed’ in other contexts? Our concern is that a particular pathway is established by SURI in which alternatives are ‘locked out’. At the same time, there are wider questions about the political tensions, conflicts and social resistance to SURI that are likely to emerge if it is imposed on different social contexts.

Fifth and final, all this focus on SURI is crowding out the alternatives-

“Alternative responses to UES other than SURI — for example transition towns, relocalization networks — need to be made more visible and critically interrogated…. how do they compare and contrast to SURI, are there alternatives or can hybrid solutions be developed? Central to this would be an understanding of constructing responses based on other principles, such as fair shares, mutual interdependences and the styles of socio-technical solutions these would imply.”

Fair shares? How did such a value-laden concept creep in to what is supposed to be a Scientifical Paper?? Bless ’em…

Having quoted large slabs of Hodson and Marvin, it’s perverse but fitting to close with a quote by another pair of useful academics. It’s on the subject of Transition Towns, and its cousin “permaculture”

Permaculture (Mollison, 1988) as a technical system may be less affected by these difficulties than more industrial approaches because it is, in effect, a system where individuals (and communities) apply a virtue of prudence (even wisdom) in order to minimise stress on the earth, but maximise material welfare or even happiness through a broader virtue scheme including moderation. That permaculture is not industrial, and that it would be difficult for industry (rather than small businesses) to make profits by promoting it, is arguably one key reason for the lack of adoption and awareness of permaculture.”
page 126 of Charlesworth and Okereke

Charlesworth, M and Okereke, C. (2010) Policy responses to rapid climate change: An epistemological critique of dominant approaches Global Environmental Change

Hodson, M and Marvin, S (2009) Urban Ecological Security: A New urban paradigm? International Journal of Urban and regional research 331, 193-215.


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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