The Urban Revolution That Isn't: The Political Ecology of the New 'Urbanology'

By Davidson, Kathryn; Gleeson, Brendan | Journal of Australian Political Economy, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Urban Revolution That Isn't: The Political Ecology of the New 'Urbanology'


Davidson, Kathryn, Gleeson, Brendan, Journal of Australian Political Economy


The Industrial Revolution, including the ascendance of computer technology, has remade essential elements of human culture and relocated human life. In 1800, when James Watt's patent for his steam engine was only 25 years old, only 3% of the human population lived in urban areas. By the end of World War II this had risen to 30%. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, for the first time as many humans were living in urban areas as in rural communities.

There is, of course, a perfectly good reason for this population shift. Agglomerations of humans are dynamic. So much human interaction inspires new ideas and a greater acceptance of them; it spurs intellectual growth and a tolerance for novelty and change. There is a critical human mass, able to support a wide range of arts and sporting activities. Cities generate both numerous and various jobs. And, because of the advantages of scale and proximity, there are efficiencies of cost in the delivery of services, such as education and healthcare, which are expensive to deliver in more sparsely populated rural areas. Cities, in short, are a useful, indeed powerful, form of human organisation. They have proved rewarding in many ways to our species.

Cities symbolize human achievement, therefore, but also the human predicament. Their growth parallels the growth of technologies, of the human population and the blossoming of a culture that is now fraught with as much danger as promise. There are now over 400 cities worldwide with a population greater than one million. Over 19 are already dubbed 'megacities', with populations up to 23 million. Below their dazzling beauty--and many cities are places of tremendous history, charm and style--there is a fetid underbelly of waste, pollution, physical deterioration, crime, inequity and social injustice (Hamilton 2010: 1; Swyngedouw 2009: 603; Lowe 2009: 49; Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003: 900).

The increasingly manifest failure of urban planning to address the mounting ecological and social crises confronting human urbanisation suggests a need to rethink conventional approaches, institutional systems and the level of resources dedicated to human development (Harvey 2012: 78). The size and number of large cities alone is now drawing the attention of academics and the general public to urban planning. Threats to the city from climate change and the threat from such large conglomerations of the human organism to the environment inspire critical thinking about human prospects at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century.

One response to the rapid urbanization has been the arrival of the new urban literature which we and others (e.g. Bush 2011) term 'urbanology'. Its most discussed example is Glaeser's (2010) bestselling Triumph of the City (also Brugmann 2009). The term invokes a longer, largely North American tradition of popular urban commentary that has eclectically mixed expertise with opinion in what are often provocative statements about the human urban experience. Its latest manifestation choruses the dawn of a human 'urban age'. Recognising the indisputable ecological stresses generated by urbanization, these new urbanologists advocate sustainability as critical to urban planning. However, from a critical social science perspective, as recently articulated by Sayer (2009), it is apparent that the new urbanology, while avowing sustainability, is freighted with the assumptions and norms of neoliberalism which progressive thought holds destructive to urban progress and well-being (Hodson andand Marvin 2010: 9; Harvey 2010: 77,and 2012: 3).

Neoliberalism is a concept and a political project that has been influential, not to say ascendant, in recent decades, certainly in the Anglophone world since the late 1970s (Harvey 2010: 16). There is, arguably, much that needs to be done in terms of explaining its workings and legacy in the fields of urban planning and urban political ecology, itself a fairly new academic discipline. …

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