Irritations and Unforeseen Consequences of the Urban

Irritations and Unforeseen Consequences of the Urban

The Urban Environments Initiative (UEI) held its final conference from 30 June to 2 July 2021, entitled “Irritations and Unforeseen Consequences of the Urban.” The conference represented the culmination of nearly two years of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration involving a network of scholars from LMU Munich, TU Munich, the University of Cambridge, New York University, and several other institutions. 

Inspiration for the theme arose from several previous workshops that all pointed towards the multitude of approaches and outcomes related to planning, making, and living in urban environments and this from a variety of both human and more-than-human realities. Thanks to the ongoing participation of our international network, the conference provided our members with the opportunity to present the results of their in-depth collaborations over the past two years in addition to welcoming new researchers exploring several related topics. The online format also allowed for a highly international crowd to participate with audience members from the Americas to Oceania and many countries in between. 

The three-day conference was structured around three key topics: “Whose Urban ‘Nature’?”; “Making Urban Environments”; and “Openness to or Foreclosure of Futures.” Each of the conference working group panels and open panels are briefly summarized below, followed by some concluding remarks and future collaborative opportunities.

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The conference was held online across a dozen timezones.

Working Group 1:  Un/Known Natures

Raúl Acosta, LMU Munich; Joseph Adeniran Adedeji, FUTA Akure; Maan Barua, University of Cambridge; Matthew Gandy, University of Cambridge; Sasha Gora, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice; Kara Schlichting, City University of New York

For each of the three conference themes, several UEI members (involved in the initiative since its creation in October 2019) formed working groups in order to organize panels for each day of the conference. The first working panel to present in relation to the theme of “Whose Urban ‘Nature’?”  The panel explored how cities act as centres where organisms survive and flourish, countering the assumption that urban areas are in fact separate from “nature.” Moreover, the panel emphasized that there is no single “urban nature” as a host of other-than-human teems within urban environments across varying scales. 

After providing a brief definition of what “urban nature” is – one that embodies diversity and is not simply green or blue areas but constitutes the urban as ecosystem – each member offered an intervention guided by a video or a photo, providing a window into their own research on the topic. The group was divided into three subgroupings, which concentrated on the Known/Unknown, Design/Undesign, and Seen/Unseen of urban nature.

Sasha Gora presented a montage of the waters of Venice’s canals as seen throughout the pandemic and how with the drop in tourism, the color of the water progressively changed, perhaps indicating a surge in the health of the urban waters. She contemplated how color shapes our knowing or unknowing of urban nature and its role in connecting us to urban environments. Joseph Adeniran Adedeji explored the nexus of nature, science, and myth by pointing to Yoruba worldviews within the Nigerian urban context. Nurturing a deep and lasting connection with urban natures, he detailed how the Yoruba spiritually construct nature and the importance it plays in everyday spiritual and material practices. Transitioning to the subtheme of design/undesign, Maan Barua considered the impacts and provocations of design on cities and whether urban environments are indeed products of building (specifically bringing up the example of heliomorphism or design based around solar orientation). However, he countered this with the idea of non-design, of nature emerging along design pointing to the example of macaques utilizing overhead wires as transportation networks. Matthew Gandy continued with a presentation concerning forensic ecologies, pointing to the use of insects and plants as indicators of ecologies. He brought up the example of lichens on buildings that serve as monitors of air pollution and the use of urban insects in order to build up environmental knowledge. But decentering the human, he argues other-than-human geographies emerge and tell us more about our urban environments. The final subtheme of seen/unseen was introduced by Kara Schlichting who highlighted the sensorial experiences of the city, focusing on sound, smell, and heat. She contemplated how people listen to or smell the city and how air represents an essential but unseen aspect of the urban environment. Moreover, considering urban heat islands (pointing to the example of Manhattan), she argued that urbanization created environmental inequities as certain populations were exposed to greater heat exposure depending on neighborhood and building amenities. Raúl Acosta concluded the panel with a consideration of the unseen in the urban environments, specifically pointing to urban microbiomes and their influence on urban natures. He put forward the example of Mexico City’s “Ecoducto,” the first stage of a project aimed at restoring the urban river. 

The final discussion following the presentations further problematized the very concept of “urban nature” and whether we should dispense with the term nature altogether as it has in some cases been commodified in certain urban contexts and has become (or continued to be) a source of inequality.

An aerial view of Mexico City’s Ecoducto running through a busy street. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain. 

Working Group 2: Making Urban Environments: Infrastructures of Power, Resistance, and Negotiation

Sonja Dümpelmann, University of Pennsylvania; Rob Gioielli, University of Cincinnati; Stephan Pauleit, TU Munich; Anindya “Rana” Sinha, NIAS, Bangalore; Katherine Wright, LMU Munich; Amy Zhang, NYU

The roundtable focused on various urban infrastructures and their political entanglements and this from the perspective of several disciplines including history, anthropology, animal studies, and landscape planning and management. The driving question was how various actors and their practices build and shape urban environments. 

The working group adopted an innovative format where each speaker first presented a summary of another speaker’s work followed by a few short and poignant questions regarding their work. This was followed by a short reply and then the presentation of the next speaker’s work, which ultimately made for a highly cohesive and collaborative discussion. 

Sonja Dümpelmann started the roundtable off by presenting Rob Gioielli’s work that brings to light the systematic racism that underlines fossil fuel dependency and how it has undermined many efforts to build more equitable public transportation systems across the US. Specifically, he raised the example of Atlanta’s LRT being shut down due to objections by upper class white residents and lobbyists, but highlighted the resilience of black communities and how infrastructure always plays a social role. Rana Sinha followed Rob with a call for reinserting the more-than-human into conversations of urban life. He pushed the group to think about how the more-than-human creates their own urban environments and to consider the ways that they are speaking or reaching out to us. Moreover, he suggested that we question the relationship between humans and nonhumans in cities across the world, and to avoid falling into views that posit cities of the West as the ideal urban model. Transitioning to Australia, Kate Wright brought up the impact of colonization and urbanization on Armidale’s Aboriginal community. Highlighting place-making as an act of resistance towards erasures and violence of settler colonial Australia, Kate brings up the example of the Armidale Aboriginal Community Garden, which serves as both a gathering spot and spatial anchor for the Aboriginal community in the city. Picking up on the theme of urban nature, Stephan Pauleit brought to the fore the concept of urban green infrastructure, which is grounded in an idea that posits cities as socio-ecological systems. Based on four main principles (integration, connectivity, multifunctionality, and social inclusion), urban green infrastructure highlights the social value of urban nature and effectively promotes its right to the city. Moving from trees to insects, Amy Zhang explored how Guangzhou addressed the problem of too much organic waste, something many urban environments face. City officials enlisted the help of an unlikely ally, the black soldier fly in order to help process the waste and to produce food for both livestock and humans. Finally, Sonja Dümplemann ended the roundtable by providing her insights into urban greening across a range of historical contexts and regions, notably through the creation of urban parks, which played an aesthetic role in greening the city. She, however, highlights that such spaces, celebrating for their healing qualities were closely associated with elitist spaces and were often made inaccessible to certain communities. 

The roundtable’s final discussion centered on the role and lifeworlds of the more-than-human in urban environments and what decentering the Anthropos actually means, in theory and in practice. This highlighted the core epistemological and practical problem of more-than-human approaches across disciplines, namely how, if possible, to transcend the human in intellectual work that is essentially done by humans? How do more-than-human spaces benefit humans and vice versa, and how can we recognize one another’s rights within the city?

Central Park, New York City, 1901. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Working Group 3: One and Six Times – About the Modulation and the Expectation of Timescapes

Benedikt Boucsein, TU Munich; Karen Holmberg, NYU New York; Simone Müller, LMU Munich; Talitta Reitz, LMU Munich; Dorothee Rummel, TU Munich; Avi Sharma, TU Berlin

The final roundtable was organized by Benedikt Boucsein, TU Munich; Karen Holmberg, NYU; Simone Müller, LMU Munich; Talitta Reitz, LMU Munich; Dorothee Rummel, TU Munich; and Avi Sharma, TU Berlin; who shared their thoughts on Openness to or Foreclosure of Futures: The Ethics and Politics of Expectation and Modulation. Also working group 3 chose an unconventional format to forge a group debate that benefited from the various disciplinary backgrounds of the presenters who organized their contributions around a single image each and in reference to their co-presenters. 

Time was found to be the focal point debates emanated from and kept returning to. Subsequently, the six contributions were inquiries into the nature of time(s), timescape(s) etc., offering six reflections from multiple vantages based on their authors’ own interest, work, and disciplinary background. With Simone Müller we delved into La Brea tar pits that have seeped up from the ground in Los Angeles for a long, geological (non-human) time period. Surfacing in present Los Angeles, and being the same kind of material that tarmacs its roads, tar seeps into and interacts with human logic and time scales. Simone chose this example to bring to attention the planetary entanglements of the urban space and the diverse temporalities of urban environmental change. Karen Holmberg continued along those lines and expressed her sense of productive irritation about time, given a) that there is never only one kind of time but a mix of natural (e.g. geological) and cultural times that serve as temporal frameworks simultaneously; b) that time always implies change and loss; and c) that, despite the uncertainty inherent to predictions about the future, they remain powerful even when they fail to materialize. Talitta Reitz picked up the topic of failed expectations and points out that cycles of construction and demolition in urban planning are at odds with the assumption that newly built infrastructure will last very long. The demolition of a highway in Portland, Oregon, to make space for a park on Portland’s waterfront serves as an example of how ever-changing values push for new visions for city making. Talitta suggested leaving open space in future planning projects to be occupied by change that is surely to come. Dorothee Rummel took us to large open spaces of another kind, waiting lands, i.e. ground assigned to a larger building project that lies unused until construction actually starts, sometimes for decades. In Nuremberg, Germany, such a waiting land unintentionally provided the perfect habitat for the endangered sand lizard, which demonstrates Dorothee’s proposition to allow such spaces to be intermediately used in ways that are environmentally and socially productive and beneficial. Benedikt Boucsein also critically reflected on planning, in particular on the scenario method that had lost its imaginative optimism and playfulness and became a tool that depicts and perpetuates a conservative realism, rather working against than for a better future. Drawing on the experimental design project “Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp”, Benedikt suggests to revise (rescue) the scenario method by taking into account and seriously the role of nature, different species and social strata. Avi Sharma took us to the ruins of post-world war Berlin wherein he explored the tension between different temporalities that were central to shaping the lives of those that grew up with and admits of rubble. With close attention to the everyday experience of living exposed to the elements, hunger, other-than-human life forms, and the arbitrariness of the economy, bureaucracy, and infrastructure, Avi argues, temporality made productive in this way can help to erode the notion that humans create their lifeworlds (alone) and, subsequently, to tackle the epistemological challenge of decentering the human.

In the following discussion, special attention was given to the unforeseen of the consequences of human and more-than-human (inter-)action and intervention, which demands to understand them as inherent part of planning, leaving consciously space for unexpected outcomes within the larger urban metabolism. However, what about the negative unforeseen consequences, like pollution? Planning has been largely a highly fragmented and ad hoc process – shaped by ad hoc capital, resources, visions and knowledge leading to the unforeseen, although not unforeseeable, consequences of climate change. A planning perspective that seeks to reach further ahead in time and that understands itself as ongoing rather than aiming-at might open a new road.

May Day march amidst the post-war rubble in Berlin, 1946. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H28756 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Open Panels

In addition to the UEI Working Group panels, three open panels were held in order to invite a variety of external participants to the conference. 

Open Panel 1 continued the conversation around the theme “Whose Urban “Nature”?” featuring Heiko Conrad and Susanne Fehlings, who took us to the neatly planned and built gardens, parks and forests (formerly) surrounding the Armenian capital Yerevan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and their own decay, the gardens became and continue to be contested spaces and spaces for contestation, a symbol for (new) ideologies, ruination and a new interest in environmental protection. With Nazli Songülen we traveled westwards to the royal gardens of Ottoman Istanbul of the eighteenth century and gained insights into how changes in land use and in the distribution of land initiated a process of urbanization that has been too readily credited to Western-inspired modernization of the nineteenth century.

Relating to the theme “Making Urban Environments,” Open Panel 2 featured Diego Molina who explored the ways cities constitute floristical islands, and how flowers and other plants were used as a means of spreading ideas of empire. Sneha Gutgutia brought us to the informal settlements of the Balmiki Dalit community in New Delhi and how pig rearing is being used as a means of production, subsistence, and religious practice. Finally, Patience Adzande considered the impacts of urbanization on Indigenous peri-urban communities using Makurdi, Nigeria as a case study, pointing to both the negative impacts of natural degradation and the communities’ capacity to adapt.  

Finally, Open Panel 3 turned to the theme “Openness to or Foreclosure of Futures.” Jamie Wang introduced us to two projects of “eco-futurist imaginaries” from Singapore, namely water processing technologies and urban farming, that seek to address uncertainty about the future based on the vision of a particular future and inherent solutions. In so doing, however, they do not only partly fail but foreclose possible alternative futures. Travis Klingberg brought to attention the fascinating case study of Panzhihua, Sichuan Province, a city wherein the ecological transformation process from resource extraction to a sustainable “Health Land in Sunshine” takes place, however, only in some, marginal places while industrial extraction is continued. Finally, Eeva Berglund shared with us the story of successful protest and creative intervention by artists, local residents and other activists against Helsinki’s new City Plan of 2016 for the Vartiosaari island, which was to be “developed” into a high-end, “green” neighbourhood on the costs of its unique natural and cultural heritage.


“Irritations and Unforeseen Consequences of the Urban” brought together members of the UEI and external scholars engaging with the urban from different locales and disciplines. Ultimately, the main goal was to culminate two years of continued collaboration and present this shared research with a wider audience. Its innovative working group panels format enabled engaging roundtables with short individual interventions often guided by a single visual component, which in turn led to broader discussions with the entire group. By focusing on the themes of Whose Urban Nature, Making Urban Environments, and Openness to or Foreclosure of Futures, each day attempted to highlight key debates facing both theorists and practitioners of the urban coming from such fields as Animal Studies, Anthropology, Architecture, Environmental History, Geography, Landscape Architecture, and Planning. 

The UEI officially comes to a close as of 1 August 2021, it is anticipated that the network fostered since its creation in October 2019 will lead to additional collaborations and projects. The UEI website will remain active and any future opportunities or projects will be publicized via this site

Thank you to all UEI members and presenters, and we hope to see you again soon!

Cover image: Overlooking Hong Kong. Source: Julian Tong via Unsplash