Nature and the City:
The Political Ecology of Air Pollution,
Urbanization and Sustainability
David Michael Comfort
Summary: Nature and the City
The Political Ecology of Air Pollution, Urbanization and Sustainability
The sustainability of cities in the industrialized world lies at the crux of the
environmental dilemma facing humanity. Patterns of environmental degradation originate in
these places due to disproportionate levels of consumption and the social and industrial
processes necessary to maintain such levels. These patterns are even more egregious
considering that they require large-scale extraction of resources from all over the world and
the fact that these patterns are being replicated throughout the developing world. The
environment in urbanized areas is constructed, degraded and contested through social
processes which are the result of complex, dialectical relations between discourses about the
environment, space, and place and non-discursive material practices. Certain questions
emerge by conceiving of cities as constructed ecosystems. How are cities constructed such
that a particular set of social relations is consolidated and how do these relations transform
and degrade the environment? How do certain environmental issues become defined as
problems and certain practices conceived of as solutions? How do communities resist
environmental degradation and shape their own local ‘environments’? In this book-length
study, I address these and related questions through an exploration and comparison of the
political ecology of air pollution in Los Angeles and London.
Struggles over ‘the environment’ are at the nexus of how individuals and
communities define and construct their communities. I argue that these struggles over the
urban environment are inherently contestations over space and place. By analyzing the
material and cognitive ways in which these spaces are constituted, I will explore how these
struggles operate in a wider arena of power relations. By situating a critique of the origins,
effects and policies concerning air pollution in a broader context, one can view environmental
degradation as the reflection of uneven relations of power which are expressed
geographically. By contextualizing such an exploration of urban spaces, one can gain a richer
understanding of the processes which lead to environmental degradation and how public
policies can be formulated such that they lead to a sustainable and just urban future.
The primary goal of this project is to examine the origins, effects, and responses to
air pollution in two major urbanized areas – Los Angeles and London. I will examine how
environmental degradation is unevenly distributed geographically along the lines of class and
ethnicity within these two cities; explore the role of grassroots organizations which address
environmental issues in their local communities; examine the formation of public policies
directed towards air quality in these communities; and analyze the relation between local-
regional air pollution and globalization. I will present my research findings in a book-length
manuscript and, in addition, prepare a lay version of these findings designed for general
readership. Little work has been conducted which attempts to integrate the themes of
environmental justice, public policy formation, and the origins and effects of environmental
degradation. My project will bridge this gap by relating these themes to the contested nature
of place construction in order to gain a understanding of urban-ecological transformations.
Project Narrative: Nature and the City
The Political Ecology of Air Pollution, Urbanization and Sustainability
Background and Significance
The concept of sustainability has only become prominent within the past decade,
ever since the Brundtland report Our Common Future was published in 1987 and the Rio
Conference in 1992. Concern over the future of the world’s environment and its resources has
most decidedly moved into the public consciousness and onto the agendas of governments,
business and non-governmental agencies. In addition, an alternative paradigm is taking shape
which challenges traditional views of national and global security. This novel concept of
ecological security argues that the main threats to security now come not from individual
states but from global environmental problems such as global warming, deforestation, and
loss of biodiversity, and regards traditional military security policies as serious obstacles to
addressing these problems.
The environmental impact of urbanized areas in the late twentieth century is
immense; they are inherently unsustainable. A host of environmental problems are associated
with cities: high levels of energy consumption, local and regional air pollution with
subsequent health effects, increased greenhouse gas levels, as well as a host of socio-
economic problems. There is a compelling need to address sustainability in cities in the
developing world, yet it is in cities in the industrialized North where affluence compounds
environmental degradation. There is a disproportionate consumption of resources in these
cities which results in a range of local, regional and global environmental problems. Since the
patterns of resource usage and the resultant environmental degradation present in these
industrialized cities are likely to be emulated and adopted in the developing world, these
cities present a suitable location for a study of what constitutes unsustainability.
In order to situate the concept of sustainability in an urban context, one needs an
understanding of how urbanized areas are transformed ecologically through the construction
and reproduction of a certain set of social relations. There has been substantial work which
examines the material origins and effects of environmental degradation, the discourses and
public policy formation surrounding certain environmental problems, as well as explorations
of uneven exposure to pollutants. However, to properly understand the complex dialectical
relations between the environment and urbanization, one needs to integrate these themes and
situate them in particular historical and spatial contexts. This project will bridge the gap
between these different approaches by undertaking a comparative study of air pollution in
two different urbanized areas in the industrialized North - Los Angeles and London.
In conducting a comparative study of Los Angeles and London, I have selected two
cities which have become recognized as ‘world cities’ and hence, integrated into the
economic, political, social, and cultural processes of globalization. In addition, Los Angeles
and London are cities with extremely diverse populations which are a result of very distinct
histories. In any exploration of these cities, one must take into account the ways in which
these histories have been shaped by the cultural politics of identity and place. It has been
demonstrated that the effects of environmental degradation are distributed unevenly along
lines of race, ethnicity and social class. In reaction, various organizations have mobilized to
address these imbalances and express their sense of identity and desires for the spaces which
constitute their ‘homes’. This study will address the ways in which space and place are
constructed. In addition, this project will examine how public policies are formulated in light
of the importance of place and space as contested terrains.
Goals and Objectives: The main goal of this project is to examine the origins, effects and
responses to environmental degradation in urbanized areas.
The specific objectives of this project are: 1) to conduct research on air pollution in two
major urbanized areas, Los Angeles and London; explore why and how this form of
environmental degradation is unevenly distributed geographically and how this disparate
exposure relates to public policy formation; to analyze the relation between local-regional air
pollution and global environmental problems; and to investigate grassroots movements which
address environmental problems and quality of life issues in their local communities; 2) to
present my research findings in a book-length manuscript and, in addition, prepare a lay
version designed for general readership.
Relation to present state of field and similar work elsewhere: The integration of the fields
of urban studies and environmental studies is nascent; little work has been conducted which
attempts to integrate these two fields, save those which are normative and do not grapple with
all of the elements that might contribute to understanding of the complex nature of urban-
ecological transformations. Substantial work has been conducted on environmental racism
but has not been situated in a theoretical framework. Work has been conducted on public
policy formation on environmental issues but does not relate these discourses to the contested
nature of place construction and the material effects of environmental degradation. This study
hopes to fill this gap by integrating these themes.
Professional Development Goals: I plan to develop knowledge and expertise in the
emerging field of urbanization and the environment. My strong technical and scientific
background provides me with a unique perspective by which to investigate environmental
issues which cross disciplinary boundaries between science and engineering and the social
sciences. This project will strengthen and facilitate my familiarity and proficiency with social
science techniques and methodologies.
Description of Project: This is a book-length study that examines environmental
degradation in urbanized areas in the context of sustainability. Part I describes the
development of my theoretical framework and methodology; part II examines the relationship
between urbanization, the environment and globalization; part III details my plans for an
analysis of public policies towards air quality and urban environmental movements; part IV
details my scheme for inquiry into the discourses of sustainability and ecological security in
the context of urbanization; and part V describes my plans for two case studies of air
pollution in urbanized areas.
Part I - Development of Theoretical Framework and Methodology
I will examine how discourses around the environment, urbanization, pollution and
space relate to the nondiscursive aspects of material practices which produce geographically
uneven environmental degradation. In order to analyze these associated themes concurrently,
I will apply Harvey’s conception of the social process as being constituted of ‘moments’.
These moments are defined as discourse/language; manifestations of power; the ‘imaginary’
– thoughts, fantasies, and desires; institution building; material practices; and social relations
(1996: 78-79). These moments are dialectical–they are constituted as internal relations of the
others, which can be described as translations between one moment to another. In order to
understand the social process, one must look at all the ‘moments’ in their dialectical
relationships. One cannot analyze just one aspect of the social process-discourse to take an all
too familiar example-and expect to understand the totality of this process. By taking such a
dialectical approach, the themes of urbanization, place, pollution and the environment can be
integrated in order to understand the transformations of the material reality of the city.
Communicative action occurs is in the moments of discourse and beliefs – the
realms of social life where processes become politicized. As Foucault observes, ‘knowledge
is power’ – discourse cannot be separated from power. Indeed, discourse is a form of power.
Discourses serve to create truths – common sense – which gain their status due to coherence
within the discourse’s own inherent criteria of credibility. These ‘effects of truths’ are
particularly malign because they are linked with institutions which operate as incarnations of
power. This argument can be extended to the other moments of the social process. The
production of environmentally polluted spaces is shaped by hegemonic forces which are, in
Raymond Williams formulation, “a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole
of our living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and
our world” (1977: 110). Conflicting effects from different moments in the social process
result in each moment internalizing heterogeneity and therefore open to contestation. As
Harvey observes, “[c]ounter-hegemonic and dissident discourses . . . erupt to challenge
hegemonic forms and it is out of such contestations that social change may flow” (1996: 89).
The conflicts involved in communicative action–the working out of the political–translate
into a transformation of material practices and social relations through institution building.
Social change does not just occur through transformations in material practices but this is the
realm where politics must converge and change becomes realized in ways that are tangible
rather than imagined.
I will incorporate methodologies from the field of political ecology which seeks
explanations of the topography of ‘politicised environments’. Conceiving of the city of as a
‘politicised environment’ helps to overcome the weaknesses inherent in the human-
environment dichotomy which is endemic in many environmental research fields. By
conceiving of cities as the result of socio-ecological transformations, one can reconcile the
themes of nature and urbanization. Political ecology has focused largely on the uneven
distribution of access to and control over resources on the basis of class and ethnicity. In
keeping with the concerns of political ecology, I will examine decision-making processes and
the social, political, and economic context that shapes environmental policies and practices.
Feminist political ecology attempts to extend the purview of political ecology by treating
“gender as a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, interacting with class,
caste, race, culture, and ethnicity to shape processes of ecological change” (Rocheleau,
Thomas-Slayter, & Wangari, 1996: 4). A primary theme of feminist political ecology calls
attention to gendered knowledge that seeks to challenge prevailing paradigms of scientific
knowledge about the environment and to articulate alternative perspectives on environmental
issues related to personal health and household. A second theme of this approach is the
consideration of gendered environmental rights and responsibilities of control over resources,
quality of life, and definitions of healthy and desirable environments. These rights and
responsibilities are often gendered spatially due to differing domains and divisions of access
and control between public and private spaces. A further theme of feminist political ecology
is the focus on gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism. The involvement of
women in environmental activism has been shaped by their experiences within their
communities and threats to a sense of rootedness and survival, and has contributed to a
redefinition of their identities, the meaning of gender, and the nature of environmental
problems. My project will examine the socio-ecological transformations of urbanization by
combining the multi-faceted approach of dialectics with the insights and methodology of
The principal research methods used will be semi-structured interviews and
discursive analysis of government documents and archival records concerning air and
environmental quality in the greater urban areas studied. In Los Angeles, this material would
include documents related to the 2000 Partnership, its predecessor, the Los Angeles 2000
process, as well as documents related to regional integration and trading of air pollution
credits. I will focus on documents related to transport policy in the greater London area as
well as national goals for sustainable transport policy, including the Road Traffic Reduction
Bill. The interviews will be conducted with local, regional, and state officials in the air
quality agencies, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the State
Air Resources Board and its regional offices in Southern California and The Department of
the Environment, Transport and the Regions in England. In addition, interviews will be
conducted with participants in local and regional environmental and community
organizations, including Mothers of East Los Angeles and Concerned Citizens of South
Central in Los Angeles and Friends of The Earth and the Black Enviroment Network in
England. Questions which will be posed to these members of these organizations will focus
on the impetus for their involvement, how they view the traditional environmental movement,
and their role in their prospective communities. I will examine the discursive formation of
environmental problems and how these processes help to dictate the policies which are
implemented to address these problems.
Part II - Nature, Urbanization and Globalization
I will dialectically analyze the relations of urbanization and the environment by
conceiving of pollution and the environment as social constructs, by viewing the city as a
constructed and contested ecosystem, and by analyzing the origins of environmental
degradation in terms of the social relations which are consolidated in cities in the context of
industrialization, capitalism, and globalization. I will ground these themes by looking at how
these processes relate to local and regional processes, both in terms of uneven geographical
environmental degradation, the formation of public policies and the mobilization of
grassroots environmental organizations.
In order to properly integrate urbanization into ecological and environmental
analyses, it becomes necessary to dissolve the boundaries between ecological activities and
human actions. The reaction of the deep ecology movement to a sense of loss of ‘wilderness’
and its subsequent idealization of ‘nature’ has led to characterizations of cities as being the
antithesis of nature and human actions as being separate from, and completely destructive of,
‘nature’. In contrast, human actions which result in transformations and constructions of
ecosystems should be conceived of as fundamentally ecological processes. By extension,
urbanization processes should be thought of as ecological processes and cities should be
treated as constructed ecosystems.
I will develop a conceptual framework in which terms such as environment, nature
and pollution are socially constructed and examine how these constructs relate to the
biophysical ‘reality’ of pollution. After all, air pollution and environmental degradation do
have tangible effects upon human health and ecological processes. In Purity and Danger,
Mary Douglas investigates rituals of dirt and cleanliness in daily life and examines the social
basis for pollution beliefs. Mary Douglas’s classic definition of pollution is ‘matter out of
place’ (1993). She argues that debates on pollution are essentially debates on the preferred
social order. By defining certain aspects of reality as pollution, ‘nature’, and certain material
practices as solutions, one seeks to either maintain or change the social order. One needs to
ask why certain aspects of reality are now singled out as environmental problems and what
kind of social relations are being consolidated in the name of protecting ‘the environment’.
As Hajer argues, “[t]o analyze discourses on pollution as quasi-technical decision-making on
well-defined physical issues thus misses the essentially social questions that are implicated in
these debates” (1996: 18).
In order to examine how air pollution is produced on a local and regional scale, I
intend to analyze the ways in which industrialization, capitalism and urbanization have
produced environmental degradation. I will consider the ways in which Giddens and Gorz
have attempted to “integrate an explanation of the origins and consequences of environmental
degradation into a broader conceptualization of the development and dynamics of modern
societies and cities” (Goldblatt, 1996: 7). Giddens has examined the spatial dimensions of
social processes which has enabled him to investigate the sociological nature of urbanization
and globalization and their effects upon environmental problems. To complement the work of
Giddens, I will examine how Andre Gorz has delineated the political economy of capitalism
and industrialization, pointing out its “insatiable appetite for resources, its conspicuous
consumption, and the dehumanizing consequences of technology” (ibid.: 74).
In order to examine how places became constructed and contested ecosystems, I
need to examine how the dialectic of the environment and urbanization consolidates a
particular set of social relations through spatial transformations of these ecosystems. The
production of spatial relations therefore implies a production of social relations. In seeking to
understand how environmental degradation is produced and experienced unevenly, I will
examine how ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ are produced in space and place. I will explore how
‘geographies of exclusion’ are constructed and how these geographies are important in
situating environmental justice movements. By focusing on Foucault’s idea of the ‘micro-
politics’ of power and Lefebvre’s idea of the social production of space, I hope to
demonstrate how bodies are regulated in space through discourses and practices. I hope to
gain an understanding how power is reflected in ‘the monopolization of space’ and the
relegation of others – women, people of color, gays and lesbians, the poor and working class
– to less desirable environments. These voices inhabit the cultural politics of difference –
differences of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. These engagements
suggest that social justice and environmental concerns in cities are inseparable from the
politics of identity and difference.
In order to situate local and regional social-ecological processes in a global context, I
will examine the relations between these processes and globalization. These processes
include discursive moments, such as the representation of ‘environmental problems’, as well
as nondiscursive moments such as flows of capital and labor. These processes can also lead to
the opposite of globalization – fragmentation. Given the generalized nature of academic
discourse on globalization, my research focus will be on how people’s everyday lives are
caught up in processes of globalization. My choice of Los Angeles and London allows me to
investigate how the global is expressed locally within two ‘world cities’ where it is widely
accepted that the “interweaving of global and local development is intense” (Eade, 1997: 3).
My intention is not to suggest that people’s lives are shaped entirely by the global city but
rather they are participating in a dialectic of global processes which can be analyzed in
specific contexts – London and Los Angeles.
In order to situate discourses of local and regional environmental degradation into a
global context, I will examine how certain environmental issues have become globalized.
This ‘globalization of the environment’ is problematic and tends to distract attention and
resources away from local and regional forms of environmental degradation. The discourse
which has developed on these issues is deficient in its consideration of power relations,
cultural identity and moral choices. Sachs views the transformation of this type of
environmentalist discourse from an oppositional force to one of domination in its promotion
of strategies to “manage nature and regulate people worldwide” that becomes “wedded to the
dominating world-view” (1989: 16). Mirroring Beck’s concept of the risk society, Sachs
alludes to the boomerang effect of environmental risk as being the logic by which the North
entreaties for global environmental pacts which “paves the way for worldwide surveillance
and management” (ibid.). The framing of environmental problems in terms of being global in
nature can be at odds with local environmental situations. Global resource planning
rationalizes the protection of ‘nature’ in terms of the world political economy, whereas local
conservation efforts protect the ‘environments’ in which people live and work.
Part III - Public Policy and Urban Environmental Movements
What constitutes an environmental ‘problem’ is defined as such according to
organizations and individuals who have interpreted the results of scientific investigations and,
by their actions, present the issue as requiring attention and exposure. All of these processes
occur in the realms of power, discourse and space. I want to relate how these processes are
contested by local actors as they strive to define and create their own environments in the
context of racial, ethnic, gender and class discrimination.
Environmental Justice Movements
Castells observes that environmental movements have ‘control over space’ and an
‘emphasis on locality’ as major, recurrent themes. Castells stresses that technological and
economic globalization is being challenged by “expressions of collective identity...on behalf
of cultural singularity and people’s control over their lives and environment” (1997: 2). In
addition, I intend to look at the work of David Harvey in his formulations of struggles over
the environment as being, in essence, political and economic in origin. As Harvey states,
“[e]cological arguments are never socially neutral any more than socio-political arguments
are ecologically neutral. Looking more closely at the way ecology and politics relate, then
becomes imperative if we are to get a better handle on how to approach environmental/
ecological questions” (1996: 182). Struggles over place and identity are not simply
contingent upon the structures of power inherent in the city itself or even to global processes
that express themselves locally. These politics are intrinsically bound up with the political
and cultural landscape of the city but are also constituted by the broader histories and
manifestations of colonialism, imperialism, migration, and discrimination and segregation
along the lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality. I will consider how environmental
movements define themselves in relation to place and time. As Castells observes, “Struggles
over structural transformation are tantamount to fighting for historical redefinition of the two
fundamental, material expressions of society: space and time” (1997: 123).
Environmentalism racism as a social process is produced both through discursive
forms of racism, material practices of housing segregation and institutional manifestations of
power which locate environmental hazards in predominantly ethnic neighborhoods. Bullard
documents the role that racism plays in environmental planning and decision making which is
reinforced by political, economic, and legal institutions (1994). Racism, according to Bullard,
“influences the likelihood of exposure to environmental and health risks and the accessibility
to health care” (ibid.: 17). This is compounded by the fact that the most polluted communities
are often those with crumbling infrastructure, capital flight, deteriorating housing, inadequate
public schools, chronic unemployment, a high poverty rate and an inadequate and overloaded
health care system. Housing segregation, urban development and the ‘spatial configuration’
of communities are influenced by social, economic, and industrial forces which, in turn, are
influenced by public policies undertaken by governments – local, state, and national.
In local communities across the United States, people of color, the poor, women,
migrant farmworkers and industrial workers have been challenging environmental
degradation in their communities. These struggles can be thought of as an extension of the
social movements that arose in response to the urban and industrial forces that came to the
fore in the last 100 years in the urbanized areas of the United States. Gottlieb demonstrates
the importance of gender, ethnicity and class in the formation of social movements in the
United States and how such an analysis is crucial to a proper understanding of the
contemporary environmental movement. The environmental justice movement is radically at
odds with both traditional forms of environmentalism and the recent formations of
environmentalism which Hajer terms ‘ecological modernization’. It attempts to couple
concerns for environmental inequalities of the marginalized and impoverished with a “search
for empowerment and personal self-respect”, (Harvey, 1996: 386) making explicit
connections between social justice and ecological concerns. Urban environmental movements
draw the connections between zoning, transportation, sanitation and quality of life. This
reconceptualization of what constitutes environmental problems mobilizes “a revolt against
the association of ‘pollution’ in its symbolic sense of defilement and degradation with
dangerous social disorder and supposed racial impurities of certain groups in the population”
(ibid.: 387). Miller, Mallstein, and Quass demonstrate that urban black women’s experiences
and concerns cause them to define ‘environment’ differently and are often the first to notice
and respond to alterations in ‘their’ own environments – their local communities (1996). The
importance of place in environmental justice movements has been bound up with images of
community. This focus on community and place, on children and on participation and access
to power has created a different conception of environmentalism. This is in stark contrast
with ideas of environmentalism being associated with issues of wilderness preservation and
management of resources.
Power, Public Policy and Science
I will examine how public policies promoting air quality are produced; how
scientific discourses about air pollution and environmental degradation are produced; and the
processes by which this knowledge has become increasingly relied upon in the formulation of
public policy. Looking at evidence that the production of scientific knowledge is deeply
embedded in politics and culture, Jasanoff describes how “[s]cientific knowledge...is a social
construct in the sense that it is contingent on human interactions and susceptible to the
multiple influences of economics, ideology, culture, and political interests” (Jasanoff in
Hampson and Reppy, 1996: 175). Indeed, the problematization of environmental issues can
be ascribed partially to their identification by the scientific community. Jasanoff offers an
possible explanation for the appearance of epistemic communities as resulting from the
machinations of powerful actors that would “impose a particular vision of natural and
political order on the rest of the world” (ibid.: 194). She asks how can the scientific
community, which is deeply implicated and embedded in particular political and economic
formations, provides an independent mechanism to address the environmental destruction
resulting from these formations. The members of such communities are “more likely to
perpetuate than deeply challenge the political structures to which they are tied by bonds of
reciprocal legitimation” (ibid.: 194).
Hajer investigates environmental policy-making as ‘the socially accepted set of
practices’ which address environmental degradation. Hajer’s argument is that we have
entered a regime – ‘ecological modernization’ – in which environmental problems are
conceived of in terms of fundamental flaws in modern society, yet suggests that
“environmental problems can be solved in accordance with the workings of the main
institutional arrangements of society” (1996: 4). Hajer examines the problematic nature of the
emergence of ecological modernization in the Netherlands and Britain in a study of the
formation of public policies towards acid rain. Hajer asserts that all framings of the
environment are ‘story lines’, whether they portray ecological modernization as ‘institutional
learning’ or a ‘technocratic project’, and advocates engagement with a cultural politics which
reveals the social and cultural consequences of adopting any particular ‘story line’. Such an
engagement would expose the political issue of democratic control over technology and
scientific expertise, their purposes and their limits.
Part IV. Sustainability and Urbanization
The concepts of sustainable development and sustainability arose due to the dilemma
of whether our technologically-based world economy can be sustainable in the face of what
are presented as environmental constraints. Redclift and Woodgate argue that the concept of
‘sustainable development’ is an attempt to bridge the impasse between economic growth and
environmental protection, which can be seen as contradictory objectives (1994). They echo
Nash’s view that societies come to value nature and wilderness more as their industrial
development destroys it. The discourses surrounding these terms can lead to conceptual
inflation – they have become ‘plastic words’– in which the terms can take on all sorts of
conflicting and competitive meanings. Hence, these terms have come under fire from several
different quarters. Critics ask ‘what is to be sustained?’ Is it is simply–in the definition of the
World Bank–“development that lasts”? (1992: 34) Sustainability, in order to be a coherent
concept, must imply that we sustain and not destroy processes which are interrelated –
ecological processes, cultures and ways of life.
The suspicion is that the sustainable development is a ruse which seeks to sustain
hegemonic processes which lead to the destruction of cultures throughout the world. Indeed,
there is the danger that even those who might be opposed to these processes falling into the
trap of uncritically accepting and advocating certain practices which are billed as sustainable.
Wolfgang Sachs argues that advocates for sustainable development can readily become ‘eco-
developers’ who simply expand the purview of the free market “by surveying the broad range
of life-supporting factors in order to assure the sustainability of the long term” (1995: 13).
Escobar makes an connection between the “scientific gaze of the nineteenth-century
clinician” and the practitioners of sustainable development. For Escobar, “the globe and its
problems have finally entered rational discourse . . . as the medicine of the pathological led to
a medicine of the social space . . . so will the ‘medicine of the Earth’ result in new
constructions of the social that allow nature’s health to be preserved. This new construction
of the social is what the concept of sustainable development attempts to bring into place”
For critics who are sceptical of the sufficiency of sustainability, it too readily denotes
stasis or, at best, dynamic equilibrium. These critics argue that sustainable development will
be overwhelmed by increases in population and consumer demand – sustainable development
itself is not sustainable. The dynamic of the capitalist society depends on the continuous
discovery and creation of new conditions for the appropriation and consumption of resources,
rendering it in opposition to all configurations of sustainability.
I will address questions of ‘meaning’, ‘conceptual basis’, ‘policy’ and
‘implementation’ associated with the environment, sustainability and sustainable cities. The
development of policies aimed at sustainability enlarges the process whereby some lofty but
ill-defined ideas in the cause of environmentalism become operationally useful. It will be
necessary to examine the relations between theory and advocacy on the one hand and policy
and practice on the other. Sustainability is not tightly bound either as a concept or in social,
economic and political contexts. Sustainability has a dialectical relationship with discursive
and nondiscursive political economies. These relations require explorations and exposition in
both historical and conceptual scope to establish meaning, principle and relevance.
Chapter 7 of Agenda 21, entitled Promoting Sustainable Human Settlement, argued
that countries should incorporate an environmental outlook in reviews of their policies,
institutions and programs. It promoted the ideas of institutional partnerships, citizen
participation and innovative approaches in urban planning and development. It stressed the
need for creation of international networks among cities to promote ‘good practice’ and
‘good governance’. For sustainable cities to be a useful concept, one needs to consider what
is inferred by its opposite. Sustainable cities are not economically self sufficient cities; they
are not paradigmatic expressions of low technology or simple organizational form and their
economic processes will sometimes encroach upon exhaustible resources, but with more
reflexivity than in the past. A sustainable city will express its sustainability in terms of policy
making, in institutional reform, and in the growth of appropriate technology. All of these
practices will be expressed in a wide range of interdependent public policies and economic
activities. Environmental policies cannot be bounded; there are in a complex dialectical
relationship with other social, economic, cultural and political processes.
Part V. Case Studies - The Political Ecology of Air Pollution
Los Angeles - Purity and Pollution in the City of Angels
The Los Angeles Basin consistently has the worst air quality of any major city in the
United States due a combination of high levels of vehicular usage, a large number of
industrial sources and certain geographical features which trap pollution emissions within the
basin. Long-term exposure has been shown to cause permanent lung damage among life-long
residents. Air pollution and the formation of public policies directed towards air quality in
Southern California has been studied extensively (Grant, 1995 and Fawcett, 1990). However,
no work has attempted to integrate the origins, effects and regulation of air pollution in Los
Angeles, the mobilization of grassroots environmental organizations, and broader theoretical
conceptions of the construction of space and place. Therefore, Los Angeles is a suitable
choice for a case study of the relationship between urbanization and the environment.
The complex of specialized agencies managing local and imported water, air quality,
and other regional environmental problems has a long history reflecting local concerns with
these problems. There is a division of planning and regulatory activities by environmental
medium which developed as ad hoc responses to the problems and limits of urban growth in
Southern California. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) mandate
is for regulation of stationary sources of air pollution whereas the State Air Resources Board
(SARB) and its regional offices address the problem of mobile sources of air pollution.
Regulatory separation of industrial and mobile sources of air pollution has diverted attention
to the relationship between environmental degradation and land use patterns. Agencies have
frequently accepted the dominant models of economic development and growth while
attempting to accommodate mandates requiring pollutant reductions but have often failed.
The limitations inherent is this structure and outlook of environmental regulation has led to
political mobilizations which reflect elite concerns about limits to local economic growth and
popular concerns about the quality of life. I will focus the formation of policies at political
and governmental levels which are directed at integrating environmental regulation and
regional economic growth, including the 2000 Partnership and it predecessor, the Los
Angeles 2000 process.
In addition, I will examine the work of grassroots environmental justice
organizations in Los Angeles such as Concerned Citizens of South Central and the Mothers of
East Los Angeles which arose in response to the planned siting of incinerators in their
respective communities. I will do so in the context of the struggles for clean air and
accessible public transport on both a local and regional level in California. This research into
local environmental justice movements has to be placed in the context of the tensions and
possibilities implicit in an understanding of Los Angeles as being a city of ‘difference’. This
entails a more inclusive and complex analysis of mobilizations which challenge attempts to
commodify ethnic cultures, regulatory control of space and the sustained accumulation of
capital by commercial enterprises indifferent to local concerns.
London - The Impure in the Big Smoke
Air pollution in London still constitutes a major problem despite the fact there have
been dramatic decreases in some emission levels in the last 50 years. In January of 1998, the
UK Government Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants stated that air pollution
hastens the death of up to 24,000 people a year in Britain. The City of London was once
enveloped by thick, yellow-green smogs during the autumn and winter months. Large
amounts of suspended particulates and sulphur dioxide from hundreds of thousands of coal-
burning households combined with emissions from thousands of industrial plants. These
sources conspired to produce some of the most noxious smogs known in the history of
industrial cities. Insidious smog episodes in the 1950s triggered a series of policy initiatives
which encouraged the conversion of heating appliances to smokeless fuels. In addition, shifts
in London’s industrial base resulted in a dramatic decrease of industrial air pollution
emissions. Beginning in the 1980s pollutant emissions from vehicles increased rapidly due to
changes in the nature and location of employment. Commuters grew reliant upon the car as a
means of transport. These changes encouraged transport policies which produced road
networks with the result that shopping centres and other facilities were located further away
from residential areas.
It has been generally accepted that one cannot examine the air pollution problems
caused by vehicles in isolation. One must look at the issues of land use and transport; issues
which cut across a range of spatial scales. Only recently has the British government begun to
recognise the limitations of its transport policies. This was due largely to the the ensuing
uproar and mass mobilization directed against the construction of the M3 extension across
Twyford Down. In addition, non-governmental agencies generally play a more direct role in
local and regional politics than in the United States. Therefore, I will examine national
organizations which have been campaigning for transport policies and land rights, including
Friends of the Earth and The Land is Ours. In addition, I will look at local community groups
in east London, as well as alternative formations of environmental groups such as the
Womens’ Environmental Network and the Black Environment Network.
In the period since the end of the British Empire, London and other British cities
have experienced the migration of former colonial subjects into the heart of the former
empire in search of opportunity. In the past two decades, east London has experienced two
kinds of urban transformation: gentrification and large-scale redevelopment proposals. In this
setting, immigrant struggles over belonging, over the meaning of ‘home’, take place in the
context of an urban governance and planning system which have not yet incorporated urban
policy responses to, or recognition of difference. The involvement of immigrants in
community organizations, such as in the Spitalfields neighborhood, has provided a
demonstration of the viability of a politics of difference to express the objectives of a local
ethnic community as well as the capacity of communities to redefine their 'environments',
envisioning their own future as active partners in local economic development.
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