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Capital Sinks: Urban Eco-Resilience In the Face of Capitalist Power Structures

The panelists during the discussion

“What should cities of the future look like?”
This was one of the questions posed by Ashley Dawson, an author and member of a panel on Friday, November 3, 2017 panel, Urban Futures. The conversation, held at the CUNY graduate center, was sponsored by The Center for the Humanities. Kendra Sullivan, the associate director of The Center for the Humanities, kicked off the event by introducing the speakers. The panel also featured architect Catherine Seavitt, environmental activist Mychal Johnson, and urban theorist/author David Harvey. The discussion centered around the current and “extreme” state of cities, the progress that has or hasn’t been made since Hurricane Sandy, and what prospects for radical transformation lie in the cities of the future. 

Ashley Dawson spoke first and introduced his most recent book, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change. He presented climate change not only as an environmental problem but also as an urban phenomenon. Cities are responsible for about 70% of C02 emissions, Dawson reported, and many of them are situated along coastlines rendering them even more vulnerable to the damaging environmental effects of climate change. He cited instances like the recent flooding in Houston and the dystopian action film, Mad Max, as examples of the fight-for-survival mentality that can accompany the environmental and social crises in cities. Dawson’s book tackles questions like “What role does urban planning and design have in securing a future for cities?” and “Could urban movements for environmental and social justice be central to the struggle to avert planetary eco-cide?”

Catherine Seavitt thinks about cities as ecosystems. Her work in re-naturing Jamaica Bay rethinks resilience in an ecological sense and explores how flood-risk reduction and ecosystem enhancement can actually complement one another.  Seavitt underscored how natural systems that are integral to cities, such as bodies of water, can be adapted as part of a flood-mitigation efforsts. Seavitt also highlighted the idea that in thinking progressively about what cities can be, it’s important to back on what they have already been.

Mychal Johnson focused on how the industrialization of the South Bronx has plagued the community, leaving the Bronx’ coastline unprotected. Through his environmental advocacy work, Johnson has seen firsthand the limitations of top-down decision making. The only flood mitigation that does exist in the South Bronx, Johnson stated, is the one created by the community coalition. The industrialization and increase of heavy diesel-truck intensive businesses in the Bronx has led to deleterious health effects on the quality of life such as high asthma and obesity rates, Johnson explained. The South Bronx activist also mentioned how there is no flood mitigation plan to protect the community from all of the harmful developments that have sprung up on the Bronx’ water’s edge, from fossil fuel power plants to waste transfer stations. Jonhnson is currently combatting environmental justice by working on a plan to create a resilient water-front in the Bronx. Hyper-real-estate speculation, gentrification, and high concentrations of developments loom ominously over the Bronx’ horizon as many of their environmental problems have yet to be solved.

David Harvey framed his argument on urban resilience around socio-political structures. “Urbanization is a major way in which capital surpluses are being absorbed at a furious state so that we’re building cities increasingly for people to invest in, not people to live in or lead a decent life in. It’s about investment opportunities and it’s going on around the world,” Harvey contended. Harvey also expressed skepticism at the idea that environmental technologies will “save the day” and hopes to adopt a more systematic approach. He posed the questions: “How can urban strategies get to the root of the problem? Should the environmental movement be 100% anti-capitalist?” Harvey tackled these questions from both a theoretical and a practical standpoint. He suggests that there needs to be a stronger argument as to why capital cannot solve the problem of climate change. The city of future, Harvey argued, should not only mitigate the effects of climate change, but actively reduce carbon emissions.

After these statements, Dawson posed three questions to the panelists.

  1. This is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. To what extent has New York City really transformed itself adequately? What are the successes and what are the failures of the city?
  2. To what extent New York’s effort to climate proof itself can be an important lesson for other cities in other parts in the world, particularly in the global north and global south divide?
  3. What should cities of the future look like? What can we expect, what can we hope for and,what should be militating for?

Seavitt acknowledged that not very many environmental policy developments have been legislated in the last five years since Sandy, andbut was not entirely pessimistic about the future. The architect advocated for slow recovery, because it allows more people to be part of the conversation. She suggested that the city of the future should be viewed as “a living thing, as something adaptable that can merge and move, that can be disturbed and can change state.”

Johnson followed up to Harvey’s comments on capitalism in urban centers by emphasizing the problem of housing speculation. He underscored the idea that commodification of land has bred many issues both locally and globally. Johnson also discussed how poor neighborhoods aren’t being advocated for, and the concentration of activity is centered around wealthier communities. He proposed the idea: “What if housing was also permeable green space?”

Harvey used the case of Ecuador to show how environmental capital doesn’t really “give a hoot” about the environment because the “practice nearly always gets corrupted”. The problem, according to Harvey, is not about having the right strategy but rather getting to the root of the power structure and getting people democratically represented. “We need a broader conception of what the political problem and I think we need to organize around that broader conception.”