About the Conference

About the Conference

This conference will convene scholars to investigate urbanism, nature, and ecological sustainability in Asian cities, with a focus on India. As mega-cities take new shape in India and other parts of Asia, they leave an unprecedented ecological imprint on the countryside around them and on those who live in them. Fecund yet stressed, nature in these cities seems typified by polluted air, unsafe and inadequate water, crowded tenements and decaying neighborhoods, choked highways, and mountains of industrial and consumer waste. Nature is also being reinvented in shining gated communities, urban parks and woodlands, trails and zoos, and growing pet industries that provide new ways of imagining urban nature. The urban environment is marked by a proliferation of life in myriad forms, but its sustainability is suspended in the increasing tensions and conflicts between different classes and social groups that include historical settlers, new immigrants, itinerants, and occasional travelers.

The papers assembled for this conference will explore a range of questions germane to understanding the dynamics of social nature, and aspirations for sustainability, in Indian urban settings. We are interested in the ways that urban social processes intersect with assessments of urban environmental order and disorder in specific cities. We ask, how are relationships between urban environments and urban societies made, and made meaningful? How do biophysical properties, rules, and histories of nature matter in the city? How is the urban environment used to construct social identities and demarcate political spaces?

All these questions, we suggest, can fruitfully be examined through the analytical categories of citizenship, civility, and environmental sustainability. Here citizenship invokes the question of rights, and how it gets formulated and negotiated in law, government and social conflict. Civility refers to the contested realm of style, taste, personhood, and cosmopolitanism in India's growing, and largely urban, middle classes. We are analyzing these two streams of public engagement in specific environmental experiences and ideas about sustainability as it relates to nature conservation, protection, or improvement. We are not, therefore, merely interested in the city and its transformations in the last fifty years, but also in the way that the city as a socio-political entity is continuously re-imagined.

The conference will consist of four panels, engaging cases grounded in India, with a focus on Mumbai and Delhi. The panels are organized along the following thematic lines:

Political Ecology of the City

Environmental research in South Asia has long paid attention to the social worlds, political practices, and natural resource claims of poor or marginalized communities. Scholars of political ecology seek to understand the historical development of natural resources management or nature conservation ideas and practices, often in the context of colonialism. They ask how caste, class, and gender asymmetries may be reproduced or reconfigured in the practice of environmental politics and management. Such work has also examined how changing environments have reshaped the countryside, the forests, and wild lands with their populations of endangered species of non-human life. An established scholarly tradition explores the legal and property regimes that regulate natural resource claims, noting how appeals are issued and mediated. These claims – be they to 'open space,' water, or land – are deeply relevant to urban life, and may resonate in particular ways with questions of citizenship, civility, informality, and equity. More recently, political ecology has come to include the social studies of relevant sciences like terrestrial ecology, forestry, environmental risk, and intellectual property based on place-based knowledge. Such study of expertise can clearly extend to areas like urban planning, architecture, hazardous waste management, and public health engineering that are central to questions of nature and environmental sustainability in the city.

The Civic and the Public in Urban Environmental Conflicts

This line of inquiry seeks to understand the environmental politics and practices constitute a public sphere which includes and excludes different social groups. It asks, what shared sensibilities about urban health, aesthetics, recreation, and conservation are invoked and made operational in the name of urban environmental progress? How do middle class sensibilities constitute ideologies of belonging to the city, and construct 'natural' spaces in the city? Arguably, nature conservation is increasingly linked to regimes of environmental management that require more complex associations of natural heritage with collective identity and individual rights. Three inter-related points may be made in remarking upon these changes under way in urban and rural Asia. First, travel, consultancy, adventure, bio-prospecting, mass-mediated viewing, alternate medicine, and remote preservation or philanthropy, have all become modalities of nature experience that are implicated in processes of identity formation for people involved in these circuits. They construct their own publics and public spheres, mostly in urban settings. As purveyors, consumers, audiences, and advocates with competing visions and strategies, the movements are also internally fractured. Second, conservation is now a subject of popular action, its energy derived from communities cobbled together from these contending publics. These are public spheres that are distinctively ethnicized, classed, raced, and gendered by the regional and historical context of the nature being conserved, or sustainability being pursued. Third, designated in the language of set-asides, swaps, emissions-trading, joint implementation, cultural rights and intellectual property, the spheres in which public contention over nature takes place are simultaneously crafted at many levels that can be nominated local, regional, national and global.

Built Environments and Green Design

Policy prescriptions that aim to reduce the ecological damage associated with the physical form of cities include a range of architectural techniques and building materials associated with 'green' or 'sustainable' design. These techniques, and a related set of sustainability metrics, constitute a global movement to refashion the built form of cities. Although green design ideas and interventions traverse transnational circuits, they are nevertheless enacted in distinctive cultural and political locations. Papers assembled for this panel will investigate the ideas of nature and aspirations for the ecological remaking of cities that inform the theory and practice of green design in situated contexts. They will pay attention to the ways that environmental responsibility is packaged, articulated, and promoted in private and public sectors, and consider how logics of green consumption and green growth intersect with the politics of urban sustainability. Despite its long and varied global history, contemporary sustainable design techniques assume the urgency of the present urban age, marked as it is by the anxieties we referred to in the introduction. In this context, green design assumes an important place among ecologically feasible ways beyond otherwise intractable ecological problems. Here, architectural practice and expertise are critical, as these integrate understandings of ecosystem ecology in the city with design creativity and technique. Yet the architect also works at the intersection of the built form and the societies that inhabit it, raising questions about the relationship between the sustainable built form and the social life its designers aspire to configure. What ideas about the sustainable society accompany ideas and practices of green design?

The Social Lives of Urban Infrastructure

As a particular subset of the built form, road networks, water delivery systems, and other elements of urban infrastructure mediate relations between urban populations and the natural resources they require. But integrated into the materiality of infrastructures are the social and political relations that coalesce, condense, and crystallize around them. We may usefully explore these relations in moments when particular infrastructural elements or networks are designed, moments when they are constructed, and in the ongoing operation and maintenance processes through which they are reproduced. While infrastructure elements and networks may be framed in terms of the services they afford the urban 'public,' they nevertheless have exclusive effects. Through these effects, they produce particular notions of the urban public itself. This panel will explore infrastructure in terms of its social lives – those political and cultural effects that accompany infrastructure in its making and operation. How do cities already marked by stark inequalities 'manage' the social lives of infrastructure?

Please see Program section for presentation titles under respective panels.

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