“What Is to be Sustained?: Towards a Critical Theory of Urban Sustainability”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 6:15 PM
Room: 302
Oral Presentation
Miriam GREENBERG , Sociology, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA
We live in a time when the need for urban sustainability has become a new common sense. We daily witness confirmation of the famous prediction made by Henri Lefebvre that our planet is becoming progressively urbanized, as well as more crisis-prone (Lefebvre, 1970). Urban sustainability appears to many the logical, if not inevitable response. Yet for all its ubiquity and broad acceptance, the concept remains largely uninterrogated.  My paper will discuss a theoretical framework for analyzing and advancing a more critical use of the term. I first argue that there are multiple urban sustainabiltiies in circulation and competition today, and that to distinguish amongst them, we must identify the particular urban environment(s) each deems worthy of sustaining—whether non-human environments (including natural habitats and ecosystems); human environments (including social, cultural, and built environments); and/or the competitive environment for capital.   Second, using archival, textual, and institutional analysis, I demonstrate how these discourses are rooted in distinct epistemologies, whether “vernacular,” “ecological,” “justice-oriented,” or “market-oriented.”  I argue that through market-oriented, post-crisis urban redevelopment and green city branding, market-oriented sustainablity discourse is becoming dominant. (Greenberg, 2014) Finally, drawing on case-study research from a multi-campus University of California research project I direct,  I analyze how such discourse develops and is contested in particular urban-ecological spaces, with a focus on iconic city-regions of Northern California like San Francisco, Berkeley, and Silicon Valley.  The birthplace of “ecotopia,” “eco-city,” “whole earth,” and “Google Green,” Northern California has played an outsized role in the proliferation of sustainability discourse since the 1960s, and with this a global “sustainable urban imaginary.” Yet through urban redevelopment, this local discourse becomes increasingly market-oriented. Thus now is an opportune time, and Northern California an opportune place, to critically examine longstanding struggles over the question of what and who is to be sustained.