How might we interrogate what constitutes the urban if we start with the premise that its inhabitants are not solely humans? What does an expanded understanding of urban life, including nonhumans, offer up for rethinking contemporary urban theory? Responding to these questions, the ERC Horizon 2020 Starting Grant Urban Ecologies: Governing Nonhuman Life in Global Cities develops new perspectives and methods for conceptualizing urbanicity.
A fundamental dimension of contemporary urbanization is its transformation of nature. Industrial animals now make up more than twice the biomass of humans on the planet. Nonhuman animals are vital to livelihoods of the poor in the global South, providing opportunities to eke out livelihoods amidst increasing precarity. Yet, social science engagements with urban ecologies – human relations with nonhuman life and their interactions with the build environment – have received scant systematic attention.
Urban Ecologies generates novel understandings of how the urban is composed, governed and inhabited with nonhuman life. Conceptually, it forges a nascent synthesis between three bodies of thought: posthumanism, critical political economy and postcolonial scholarship that pushes against dominant urban theory and formulations of urban life. The project’s analytical impetus is threefold. Firstly, it draws on more-than-human and new materialist perspectives, to dislodge the anthropocentricism of much urban theory. The alternatives it poses interrogate how social and political life in cities are fabricated through relations with a suite of nonhuman beings, materials and entities. Secondly, it develops conversations between critical political economy and posthumanism. This includes attending to liveliness and the bearings it has on the shape and arrangement of economic activity. Materiality, infrastructure, metabolism and biopolitics are some of the key themes at the center of this conceptual rapprochement. Thirdly, it works against universalizing narratives to situate urban ecologies and to make meaningful analytical distinctions from different cities.
Methodologically, engaging with an expanded urban collective demands going beyond the traditional ambit of the interpretative social sciences. Combining ethology and ethnography, Urban Ecologies seeks to provide richer accounts of nonhuman lives and the bearings they have upon urban governance. Explanatory concepts are derived from comparison, which accounts for variance in historical trajectories of urbanization and its contemporary dynamics. To this end, material, metabolic and political life is refracted through both cities of the global North and those in the South. Working against the notion of a uniform global South, the comparative gesture extends to querying spectacular metropolises through ordinary cities in order to account for difference and heterogeneity.
Taking nonhuman life seriously, drawing different epistemologies into conversation, and building new composites of thought and method, Urban Ecologies strives to develop an urban theory for our times.