Global Urban Environments: Approaches and Perspectives

Global Urban Environments: Approaches and Perspectives

By: Simone Müller. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU Munich 

Send it on a Caribbean Cruise 

In the 1980s, there were four things a city could do with its urban waste “burn it, bury it, recycle it, or […] send it on a Caribbean Cruise,” said New York City Mayor, Ed Koch, mockingly. Philadelphia sent its municipal incinerator ash to destinations in the Bahamas, Panama, and Haiti. New York to Belize, Cuba, and Mexico. Baltimore deliberated about the Dominican RepublicLos Angeles, finally, had its eye on Guatemala and the PhilippinesFrom Europe, these particular garbage cruise lines traveled across the Mediterranean from Lisbon to Angola, from Paris to Morocco, or from Naples to Nigeria. Cities all over the northern hemisphere seemed to be lining up for the “next big thing in municipal waste disposalits export to the Global South. This globalization of a city’s waste metabolism, however, not only marked the externalization of municipal hazards wrapped in new challenges for environmental justice, but also created one of two forms of what I call global urban environmentsGlobal urban environments signify both the worldwide reach of urban hinterlands facilitated through cities’ entanglement in international networks of trade, infrastructure, and communication, in addition to a seemingly global universality of environmental challenges cities are facing. Their study invites urban and environmental historians to join forces to assess and extrapolate the role and importance of cities in processes of global environmental transformation.  


Global Urban or Global Environmental? 

Combinations of global, urban, or environmental themes—making it primarily global urban or global environmental—have in the past decade emerged in both urban and environmental history as thriving new themes that re-scaled scholarly occupationUrban historiansonce obsessed with the scale and identity of one particular cityor street eventurned to study cities as nerve centers of long-distance connectionsIn environmental history, its planetization took off after 2008 with the first mentioning of the Anthropocene, the study of which has since seen an excessive boom.  

In both fields, this re-scaling waas much a response to historiography as it was one to real-life challenges and their political framings. From an environmental perspective, land formations, wind patterns, and geophysical phenomena had never paid attention to borders; neither did volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, or tsunamis. With Bhopal in 1984 and Chernobyl in 1986scholars had also come to understand that human-made environmental catastrophes could not be territorially contained. From an urban perspective, the past decade brought the advent of the urban ageIn 2007, the United Nations announced that for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. With this putative crossing of an imaginary threshold, the city became the “universal form of human settlement” and the “urban question” moved to the center of intellectual life. The simultaneous globalization of both urbanization and environmental degradation has made cities both “front lines” where planetary environmental crises were most dramatically experienced as well as techno-social arenas in which potential responses were pioneered turning cities into the key governance entities to usher in global (environmental) transformation. 


Studying Global Urban Environments 

Both fields of inquiry, global urban and global environmental history should be brought together through the study of global urban environmentsThe historical study of cities’ global metabolism and the universality of challenges due to planetary environmental degradation can bring important insights into the global reach of cities, the interplay of global and local responses to environmental degradation, and the role cities can play in global environmental transformationKey to studying global urban environments is the analysis of the quality and nature of connections between urban centers and the global environment.  

First, we need to understand the qualitative shifts in global urbanity in its changes over time. New York City’s export deal with Belize, Philadelphia’s with the Bahamas and Panama, Los Angeles’ with Guatemala, Naples with Nigeria, or Lisbon’s with Angola. The story of cities’ expanding radius for waste disposal in the 1980s exemplifies the possible reach and structure of global urban environments and illustrates how international trading, infrastructure, and communication networks allowed cities to impact and extract from environments hundreds and even thousands of kilometers from their urban coreThe observation of city’s global metabolism, however, is not a phenomenon unique to the late twentieth century. Similar dynamics were already at play more than a hundred years earlier facilitated through railroads, steamships, and telegraphs. As William Cronon showed in Nature’s MetropolisChicago was already in the nineteenth century heavily dependent on grain, lumber, and cattle from destinations many hundred miles distantSimilarly, Jim Clifford traced how the origin of many consumer goods in nineteenth-century London, such as soap, candles, bread, margarine, marmalade, leather shoes or wooden furniture, originated from raw materials imported from Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Peru, Brazil, Spain, West Africa, India, Ceylon, and New Zealand. In fact, the continuous growth of London’s industrial economy and population, according to Clifford, relied heavily on environments outside of Britain. While the technologies of steamship, railroad or telegraphy certainly made global trade in natural resources easier and faster, we can find similar patterns already with the ancient Romans relying on a relatively long-distance timber trade in the Mediterranean or similarly the Dutch importing wood for their cities from the Baltic region in the sixteenth century. If we want to understand the role cities take on in creating, let alone, mitigating global environmental degradation, we need to understand the quality and historical changes of global urban metabolism and cities’ respective relationships to their “hinterlands.” 

Second, we need to historicize and deconstruct the notion of a global universality of environmental problems that cities face. On the one hand, the global waste trade exemplifies how structural similarities played out in cities in industrialized countries in the 1980s. New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Rome, Naples, Paris or Frankfurt all had the same, or at least very similar waste disposal problem. They all faced the challenges of limited disposal sites, of growing opposition to opening up new disposal sites, and of rising disposal costs based on the two previous aspects mentioned. On the other hand, these cities solely represented the Global North while creating a waste problem for localities in the Global South. Their export schemes of municipal solid waste down South rather became an expression of the ruptures of global connectivity and global environmental justice than of the universality of a global waste crisis. In the context of global urban history, scholars from the Global South in particular, such as Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong, have written against the totalizing tendencies of global metropolitan studies, arguing for greater attentiveness to the rich diversity of what they call “worlding cities.” They argue that frameworks like capitalism, colonial history, and postcolonialism elide the heterogeneous experiences of places and people. In their line of argumentation, we could discuss the international trade with urban waste as a symbol for a plethora of urban waste crises and an epiphenomenon of global universality. At the same time, what brings these waste crises into existence and determines their build-up and their solution, is their entrenchment in specific local dynamics. 



Climate change, sea-level rises, long-range atmospheric transport of pollutants on the one hand and massive urban growth in addition to growing urbanization on the other hand put before us that cities in their global environmental entanglement, global urban environments, are important objects to study. The question of what role cities can and should play in the creation and mitigation of global environmental degradation offers a unique opportunity for urban and environmental historians to join forces and to participate in important societal debates beyond the academic ivory tower. Historicizing cities’ global metabolism and deconstructing the universality of environmental challenges can bring important insights into the quality of cities’ global reach, the interplay of global and local responses to environmental degradation, and through that the role cities can actually play in global environmental transformation.  


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Cover image: Tanker outside of Onne, Port Harcourt Nigeria. Courtesy of Ayotunde Oguntoyinho via Unsplash.