Book Review: Politics of Urban Runoff – Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City

You may have noticed that, in Manchester, it rains. A lot. What happens after it rains, and the ways that cities deal with that urban runoff, is the subject of this interesting book. It begins by charting the shift from the engineering prowess of humans against that of nature (the ‘Promethean’ approach) to a more ‘relational’ and pragmatic approach. It then looks at a growing group of stormwater practitioners who emerged in 1980s. These experts recognised that the best way to deal with stormwater and urban runoff was … to focus on reducing the volume generated at source. This could be done by considering things like site design, infiltration and treatment strategies.

As the author, Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development, explains: “where conventional stormwater management focuses on the symptoms of large volumes of polluted water, source control goes to the root of the problem to address development patterns and impervious cover that create these large volumes of water in the first place.” He does however, explore the weakness of this new approach and states that whilst they do represent a new mindset, the idea that natural systems and human systems are somehow separate continues to pervade the logic of ‘source control’. The next four chapters explore the issue in more detail using Seattle and Austin as case studies.

One of the surprising aspects of this book is the effort the author puts into describing the cultural and historical impact that springs, creeks and waterways have on a city. I was also interested to see the role that politics (and Karvonen uses politics in widest sense of relations between humans and non-human actors such as waterways) plays in urban runoff approaches. This was illustrated by the relatively strong nature conservation attitude of inner Austinites in contrast with the minimal-action approach taken by those in Hill County in east Austin. Karvonen also manages to weave a seamless narrative which includes the role of government officials, community activists, green campaigners, urban developers and ecologists into the logic behind the specific action taken in each case study.

Indeed in the seventh chapter, the author sets out a comparison of the types of political approaches taken towards urban runoff and argues that civic politics (rather than rational and populist politics) offers a promising starting point for a new form of environmental politics. “Civic politics, with its embrace of the complexities and nuances of human/nonhuman relations as well as its emphasis on engaged citizenship as the basis of constructive relation-building activities, provides an alternative model for reorientating the links between urban residents and their human and nonhuman neighbours.” (p.185).

The book is written in a clear and genuinely engaging manner – so even a complete novice to the topic like me could follow the argument. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in cities and the way that they interact with nature, the cultural role of natural resources and the political motivations shaping the kind of action cities takes on environmental issues. It’s also a pretty interesting insight into Austin and Seattle in terms of their urban development and shifting relationship with nature.

Title: Politics of Urban Runoff – Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City
Author: Andrew Karvonen
Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Date of publication: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-262-01633-9

Andrew Karvonen is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Austin, Texas. And he’s on the Manchester Stakeholder Steering Group too.

Arwa Aburawa
Freelance Journalist

MCFly’s next event: Monday March 5th, An hour of discussion of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from 7pm at the Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount St, followed by general mingling and discussion from 8pm till later (we will adjourn to a pub at 9ish).

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Book Review: Politics of Urban Runoff – Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City

  1. It sounds as if he never, researched the Northern European model, of rainwater harvesting and grey-water recycling to reduce urban run-off, energy usage, chlorine emissions and preserve water supplies?

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