Urbanism and the Anthropocene: introducing the sustainability theme of the Critical Urbanists Blog By Louise Reid, University of St Andrews

On the 16th of October, a group of geologists, climate scientists and ecologists met at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) to decide if we are in the Anthropocene: ‘the new epoch of humans’. Combining anthropo, for ‘human’ and cene, for ‘new’, the Anthropocene marks a new chapter in the history of the earth, highlighting the impact of humans. Human-induced global warming, habitat destruction, species extinction and ocean acidification are some of these key impacts. Despite the lack of official recognition via the ICS, scholars from across many academic disciplines, including the arts and humanities, have already adopted the lexicon and given it considerable attention.

Urbanisation has been widely attributed as having a key role in the advent of the Anthropocene. Over recent decades there has been considerable change in the proportion of the global population living in urban areas. According to the UN, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas, an increase from 30% in 1950. Staggeringly, by 2050 this is forecasted to be 66%, and in 2030, the world is projected to have 41 mega-cities (those cities with more than 10 million inhabitants). Yet there is considerable diversity in the shape, scale and spaces or urban environments.

The relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is complex and evolving. There is a long history of urban areas being key sites for the generation of environmental ‘bads’ through rapid and unplanned growth. How the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene will evolve is difficult to anticipate and will in part be determined by developments in lower-middle-income countries where the pace of urbanisation is fastest. Indeed, as Mark Whitehead has suggested, ‘very little attention has been given to the places where the Anthropocene has been instigated within and orchestrated from’. In short, Mark and others have argued that we need to consider how the Anthropocene and urbanism are co-constituted. A first key issue for the ‘sustainability’ theme of the Critical Urbanist’s blog then, is to bring together pieces which seek to understand how different forms of urbanism have contributed, and continue to contribute to the Anthropocene.

That said, the significance of the environment has long influenced thinking about urbanism, specifically its form and function. To this end, a second key issue for this theme is concerned with responses to the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene. We would welcome, for example, pieces which examine the ways in which governments, local authorities, third sector organisations, environmental groups, businesses, groups and individuals develop policies or strategies to abate and/or mitigate environmental impacts in urban areas. For instance, in their 2010 paper, Hodson and Marvin explored responses to the Anthropocene in an urban context, assessing how developments such as eco-cities, eco-towns and floating cities are premium enclaves excluding those outwith them. As this type of literature suggests, urbanism in the Anthropocene has its own complex set of power relations which also need clearer articulation.

Lastly, a final key issue for this theme is how the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is experienced. Questions we seek answers to are: ‘what is it like to experience environmental ‘bads’ in urban areas (air pollution, environmental degradation, waste etc.)?; ‘how does living in environmentally sustainable places influence us’?; and, ‘what types of future environments are desirable’. As urban areas are largely sites of consumption and waste production, it is important too to understand these phenomena and how they shape human experience. We ought also to be cognisant of the diversity of experience as well as the diversity of environs, and therefore pay attention not only to the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of experience but also the ‘who’. Which populations and social groups are most contributing to or affected by the Anthropocene?  Understanding complex relations of power is critical to this.

Together, consideration of these three key issues will form the basis of the ‘sustainability’ theme of the Critical Urbanists blog. We welcome any contributions which address one or all of these issues and are happy for contributors to interpret these issues broadly. The relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is worthy of significant attention and requires contributions from across academic disciplines, policy and practice – this blog should contribute to such inquiry.

Dr Louise Reid, Centre for Housing Research, University of St Andrews (@louannereid)