Book Reviews: World Cities and Climate Change, Cities and Low Carbon Transitions

Marc Hudson co-editor reads two academic books about climate change. One is merely very good, the second is staggeringly useful to activists, and chunks of it urgently needs translating into youtubes and “bluffers’ guides” and so on. Help wanted!

World Cities and Climate Change: Producing urban ecological security
Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin
Open University Press 2010

Cities and Low Carbon Transitions
Eds Harriet Bulkeley, Vanessa Castan Broto, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin
Routledge 2011
World Cities is a short dense book that looks at the construction of “urban ecological security” as an (elite) response to uncertainty about the water, food, and the physical infrastructure we mostly take for granted in the West. Divided into three sections “Theory, Concepts and Issues”, “Urban Responses” and “Implications, Limits and Alternatives”, it will convey useful thinking tools to academically-trained and/or intellectually self-confident lay people, if they work at it.
As the series’ editor writes in his intro;

“Through an examination of the responses of world cities, with particular emphasis upon London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Melbourne and San Francisco, the authors examine how strategies to secure their material advantage are pursued via particular constellations of social interests, resources and knowledges. Flows of energy, water, waste and people through and within cities are part of politicized processes with varying impacts upon populations and the environment.
The authors state they “seek to understand what it means for a particular class of world cities and associated coalitions of interests to become active in the (re-) organization of planetary ecological resources and what it means to attempt to secure ‘their’ ecological reproduction…” (p. 3)

This involves looking at different conceptions of security – “geo-political, military, resources and so on” (page 10)
The meat of the book, to this reader, comes the third chapter, looking at how “sustainable urbanism and resilient infrastructures” are defined. Sustainable what? For whom? Resilient what? Whose infrastructure – to do what?
As they say (in chapter 5) “World cities and these economic-ecological coalitions are clearly positioning themselves as being the obvious actors and places to address the ‘threats’ of resource constraint and climate change. This we can see as a particular political mobilization of a rhetoric of depoliticization; the result being a particular framing of the agenda as obvious, where these 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.” (page 118)
Aside from the occasional needlessly lengthy sentences (samples available upon request), “World Cities” is an interesting and useful book (the extensive glossary of terms at the end is especially welcome). If I appear lukewarm about it, it’s because the other volume under review – “Cities and Low Carbon Transitions” – inevitably outshines it. It is one of the most important collections I’ve encountered in many years of hacking through the thickets of climate academia, and will be the source of many a MCFly youtube video in the coming months (if you want to help make those, please get in touch –

As befits academics, they do their theory bit first. Part one – “Conceptual frameworks for understanding urban transitions” – consists of four chapters, written by people at the top of their field and on top of their game. First up is the “Multi-level perspective” (MLP) of socio-technical transitions. (“niches, regimes and landscapes”) via Frank Geels, the progenitor of the concept. In the chapter that follows two of the editors, and a colleague, write about the challenges of “Governing urban low carbon transitions.”

They caution that

“Cities are approached either as homogeneous actors that act with a certain degree of autonomy in influencing government choices, or as the space of specific types of innovation. In seeking to understand specific urban responses to climate change, we argue, an alternative account of the city is needed, one that can also take into account the politics of experimentation and of obduracy. To do this they deploy the concepts of “splintering urbanism” and “the uncanny” in the city (where “infrastructure networks are not only contested but also in some way subverted by the everyday practice of actors in the city.” (see Kaika, M (2006) City of Flows).

Aidan While, co-originator of a favourite sociological concept here at MCFly Towers (“the Sustainability Fix”, since you ask), writes – clearly as ever – about “the carbon calculus and transitions in urban politics and political theory” (“urban transitions take place at the intersections between the reconfiguration of state strategy around the political economy of carbon and the restructuring of urban infrastructure systems. By recasting the city as a space of carbon flows, new forms of intervention and practice become desirable, legitimate and even necessary”). Or, more pithily “if urban planners have been described as “doctors of space”, urban managers will increasingly be seen as “doctors of carbon flows” charged with securing a carbon fix within limits set by targets and the cost of carbon.”

Finally, Hodson and Marvin (remember them?) look at purposive transitions, using the MLP (remember that?) frame. They point out that there are loads of questions about how/whether transitions might occur, not least “(1) how pressures are experienced and perceived in a particular city and by whom, and how this translates into a shared understanding of an urban socio-technical transition; (2) the current and historic organisation of infrastructure in relation to a city and the level of capacity and capability to develop and operationalise this shared understanding processually; and (3) the degree of learning that takes place within and about the urban transition.” (p 61) Their table about organisational capability, snappily titled “A framework for active and configurational intermediation” (5.1, page 65) has pride of place on the MCFly dartboard at present).

I know lots of people shy away from “Theory” – and given the tendency of academics to dress up obvious and/or banal observations in grotesque quantities of verbiage that is entirely understandable – but these four chapters should not be skipped.

The second half of the book is given over to “Urban transitions in practice”
Two authors look at the “eco-cities” of Freiburg and Graz, pointing out just how important charismatic, well-networked and well-positioned people are, but also how vulnerable that makes the “radical” changes to changing fashions and bureaucratic resistance.
Two local academics, James Evans and Andrew Karvonen take a clear eyed look at Corridor Manchester in their chapter “Living laboratories for sustainability: exploring the politics and epistemology of urban transition” using the MLP notion of “niches.”
Alex Aylett provides a must-read view of “Municipal bureaucracies and integrated urban transitions to a low carbon future.” Using the concept of “trained incapacity”, he looks at how Durban has coped/not coped with energy challenges.

“At its most basic, trained incapacity refers to a simple argument: through our training, and subsequent professionalization, we are schooled to use specific tools and analytical systems to define and accomplish our goals. These ways of seeing and acting on the world around us can also produce blind spots that incapacitate us when solutions, or even problems themselves, fall outside of these professional limits.” (p 145).

Elephants don’t tap dance. They just don’t.
One of the most interesting chapters for activists will be Alex Smith’s account of being a participant researcher in the Nottingham “Transition Towns” movement. Lessons to be learnt here, but is anyone in Manchester willing and able to do so?
In the final case study chapter, Jenny Pickerill looks at just how difficult it is for social movements to move socially, and help create the sorts of changes that we are going to need in the first century where the bill for our unconstrained burning of fossil fuels starts to be paid.

In their conclusion, the editors point out that while “policy-led responses… take little account of, or fail to engage with, publics in seeking to make urban context amenable to inward investment, competition and business” at the same time the “’alternatives’ … are often guilty of the same privileging in reverse, understandably prioritising local social interests but ignoring the availability of resources and forms of knowledge and technology that may be drawn on from policy contexts and beyond.

It appears everyone has a lot of work to do.

Marc Hudson

Disclaimer: MCFly editors Marc Hudson and Arwa Aburawa have met several of the academics whose work is reviewed here, and will be interviewing them in the coming months. And meeting some of them for points at other pints.

Further Disclaimer: Although this review was written over a month ago, its publication has constantly been pushed back due to more immediately relevant stories popping up. Its publication now, a day before I take part in a day-long academic seminar that involves some of the authors of the books and chapters above, is pure coincidence and not a beat sweetener at all. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.  Marc Hudson


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Book Reviews: World Cities and Climate Change, Cities and Low Carbon Transitions

  1. shakkka says:

    Sounds like something I should get out of the library. If you want a hand ‘translating’ it – I’m gonna have some hours to kill this summer whilst hiding from the Olympics! E

  2. Yasmin Quayyum says:

    Apt point re: elephants not tap dancing…

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