The dense, but green, city


Swedish cities are grappling with a puzzle: how do you build dense, but green, cities? Urban density is helping Sweden pursue decarbonization to address climate change, but it also creates new challenges related to urban greening. While green space plays important roles in dense cities, it can easily be outcompeted and paved over as pressure on urban space increases.

Sweden has committed to carbon neutrality by 2045 and aims to become one of the world’s first fossil free welfare countries. Some cities in Sweden are aiming to hit the target even sooner. Stockholm, for example, aims to become fossil-fuel free by 2040. Cities are taking different pathways to reach urban carbon neutrality, but they will all need to tackle the same basic facets of urban development: where people live, how people get around, what kinds of energy powers the city, what kind of industry is allowed, and what people consume. Increasing the density of urban development is one key way to put cities on more sustainable footing.

But, dense cities have fierce competition for land use. Areas around public transit hubs, for example, will be targeted for housing development in order to get more people using sustainable forms of transportation, which might conflict with goals to preserve green space in the area. At the same time, nature-based solutions offer benefits particularly well-suited to dense development in Sweden, such as lessening the urban heat island effect, managing stormwater to reduce flooding, and providing recreation opportunities to urban dwellers. Nature is an essential part of a climate changed city.

A dense, but green, approach to cities will mean finding ways to accommodate nature-based solutions into high-density development. There are various models of compact urban development and research has found that some offer more access to nature than others. In addition, designing the same piece of land to play multiple roles mean that it is not necessarily optimized for any one of them, but instead offers a balance between them. Swedish cities are finding that this means that, as projects are developed in cities, discussions about tradeoffs between different sustainability goals are even more important. Nature-based solutions can be a helpful concept to navigate the conflicts between density and urban greening since it is fundamentally about addressing multiple sustainability challenges at once.

As more and more cities pursue zero-carbon, climate resilient development, it will be increasingly important to understand how to pursue dense, but green, pathways.

How Can Plants Fight Drought in Cape Town?

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Cape Town made international headlines earlier this year when officials announced that the city was only weeks away from turning off water supply to household taps due to extensive drought. Although Day Zero was pushed back thanks to dramatically reduced water consumption, climate change means that drought is (and will continue to be) a fact of life for Cape Town. One growing response is to remove water thirsty invasive plant species from catchments in order to increase water supply.

Cape Town’s water supply comes from dams and aquifers fed by water trickling into surface and ground water systems. But invasive plant species have overtaken some of these catchment areas. Non-native species like Acacia trees suck up much more water than the indigenous shrubs and flowers that make up the area’s astoundingly biodiverse fynbos ecosystem. Removing non-native species could significantly increase water supply

South Africa’s Working for Water program has sought to remove invasive plant species while providing employment in clearing vegetation since 1995, but invasive species still choke water catchments around the country. New efforts are starting to be ramped up, including The Nature Conservancy’s Cape Town Water Fund.

The Water Fund draws together water users to mobilize funding and ramp up existing efforts. Work has already begun clearing invasive species from catchments that recharge the Atlantis aquifer, which several communities in Cape Town rely on for water supply. The approach doesn’t just provide environmental solutions, but also economic ones. Plant clearing programs offer job skills training and employment opportunities to communities where very high levels of unemployment are an enduring legacy of Apartheid.

Water resiliency in Cape Town will mean adopting a range of water efficiency and sustainable water supply solutions, including those that take a nature based approach. When it comes to water, invasive species catchment management will be a key part of a climate change adaptation strategy for Cape Town.

Originally published on

Urban Transformative Potential in a Changing Climate

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In our recent article in Nature Climate Change, co-authors and I argue for a new cities and climate change research agenda that focuses on the social, political and cultural complexities of urban transformations rather than a narrowed focus on technological pathways.

The SDGs and CitiesIPCC offer an unprecedented opportunity for urban transformation, but bold, integrated action to address the constraints imposed by economic, cultural and political dynamics is needed. We move beyond a narrow, technocentric view and identify five key knowledge pathways to catalyse urban transformation.

- Patricia Romero-Lankao, Harriet Bulkeley, Mark Pelling, Sarah Burch, David J. Gordon, Joyeeta Gupta, Craig Johnson, Priya Kurian, Emma Lecavalier, David Simon, Laura Tozer, Gina Ziervogel and Debashish Munshi

The open access article is available here.

Call for Proposals: Nature’s New Urban Worlds session at AAG 2019

Naturvation researchers Harriet Bulkeley and Laura Tozer have a released a call for proposals for a session at the American Association of Geographers Conference in Washington D.C. in April 2019.

The session, 'Nature’s New Urban Worlds: towards a critical geographical engagement', will engage with the recent surge of interest in the ways in which nature can be deployed as a means through which to realise urban sustainability and, in turn, tackle global challenges. Through new rationalities for urban development, knowledge practices, and forms of intervention, nature is being used in the forging of new urban worlds. Yet our understanding of how and with what consequences forms of governing, knowing and enacting urban futures through, with and for nature remains relatively unexplored.

The call welcomes the submission of papers that seek to develop a critical geographical engagement with nature's new urban worlds. Abstracts of 250 words should be sent to by September 21st.

See the full call for proposals here.


Discourses of carbon neutrality and imaginaries of urban futures


My journal article "Discourses of carbon neutrality and imaginaries of urban futures" with Nicole Klenk has recently been published in Energy Research and Social Science. The paper examines urban policy documents that are mapping trajectories towards carbon neutral cities. These policy documents are imagining what it might mean to be a future carbon neutral city. We find a few themes in the stories that are told about low carbon governance and urban energy futures.

ABSTRACT: By analyzing the discourses in carbon governance texts, this paper identifies visions for the built environment in carbon neutral urban futures and the storylines driving those urban imaginaries. Local authorities have begun aiming for ‘carbon neutral’ transformations, but it is not clear what kind of city will result. Different imaginaries about the futurity of energy will send cities down divergent sociotechnical paths. Using discourse analysis, this paper identifies the storylines underlying sociotechnical imaginaries of urban carbon neutrality among the 17 founding members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is a network of local governments mainly from Europe and North America pioneering deep decarbonization. This paper elaborates on five storylines in urban carbon governance texts: 1. The diverse meanings of carbon neutrality 2. The new economy of carbon control 3. The city as a laboratory 4. Technological fixes and the modern city and 5. Reframing what it means to be a ‘good’ urban citizen. The developing sociotechnical imaginary of urban carbon neutrality is structuring shifts in policy and practice. Trends include a focus on technological fixes and innovation as solutions where private capital is a fundamental partner, as well as reflexivity about the experimental nature of achieving carbon neutrality.

Read the full article here.

CFP AAG 2018: The Urban Material Politics of Decarbonization

Organized by: Laura Tozer (University of Toronto), Sarah Knuth (Durham University), Anthony Levenda (University of Calgary), and John Stehlin (University of California, Berkeley)

Sponsored by: Urban Geography Specialty Group and Environment and Energy Specialty Group

This session explores today's multi-sited movement to frame urban built environments as a central point of intervention for both climate change mitigation and resilience. Today's interventions build on a long history of urban climate change activism and politics that geographers have long been at the forefront of efforts to empirically investigate and theorize (e.g., Bulkeley & Betsill 2005, Rice 2010). However, the bulk of urban geography continues to neglect the importance of urban materiality in climate activism, even as new calculations of decarbonization (often profit-driven) and climate risk transform core areas of scholarly exploration and engaged praxis. These areas include among others urban real estate development and redevelopment, financing, growth machine politics, displacements and injustices. Similarly, critical geographic explorations of climate policy have often been preoccupied with carbon markets, offset politics and policy representations to the exclusion of the embedded materialities of actual decarbonization. As decarbonization unfolds, it becomes necessary to consider the material politics of low carbon transformations, in which retrofitting urban built environments have becoming increasingly central.

This session aims to help fill this gap, building on Bulkeley, Castán Broto & Edwards’s call (2014) to address the material politics of low-carbon transitions, and by Biehler and Simon (2011), Knuth (2016) and Edwards and Bulkeley (2017) in critiquing urban political ecology's persistent neglect of buildings and the political economy of real estate. Particularly, the session aims to place work on retrofitting for climate change mitigation and resilience more firmly in conversation with critical accounts of "green" urban (re)development (Greenberg 2015, Cohen 2017, and others) and to consider the politics of these transformations (Rutherford 2014, Hodson et al. 2016, McGuirk and Dowling 2016). Following this work, we aim to support necessary ongoing discussion of green gentrification/displacement as an outcome of urban property transformations for climate change, but also to consider the other multi-scalar political work that building and real estate-led climate interventions may be doing in the political configuration of cities, in national struggles over energy transitions, in transnational accumulation strategies, in transformations of the real estate development industry, in varieties of urban competition, and beyond.

Interested participants should send abstracts to by September 29th. Participants will be notified of acceptance by October 10th.

Biehler, D.D., & Simon, G. L. (2010). The Great Indoors: research frontiers on indoor environments as active political-ecological spaces. Progress in Human Geography, 35(2), 172–192.
Bulkeley, H., & Betsill, M. M. (2005). Rethinking sustainable cities: multilevel governance and the “urban” politics of climate change. Environmental Politics, 14(1), 42–63.
Bulkeley, H., Castan Broto, V., & Edwards, G. A. S. (2015). An urban politics of climate change: experimentation and the governing of socio-technical transitions. New York: Routledge.
Bulkeley, H., McGuirk, P. M., & Dowling, R. (2016). Making a smart city for the smart grid? The urban material politics of actualising smart electricity networks, Environment and Planning A, 48(9), 1709–1726.
Cohen, D.A. (2017). Other low-Carbon protagonists: poor people's movements and climate politics in Sao Paulo. In M. Greenberg & P. Lewis (Eds.), City is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Edwards, G. and Bulkeley, H. (2017) Urban political ecologies of housing and climate change: the ‘Coolest Block’ contest in Philadelphia, Urban Studies, 54(5), 1126-1141.
Greenberg, M. (2015). “The sustainability edge”: competition, crisis, and the rise of green urban branding. In C. Isenhour, G. McDonogh, & M. Checker (Eds.), Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice (New Directions in Sustainability and Society). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hodson, M., Burrai, E., and Barlow, C. (2016). Remaking the material fabric of the city: ‘alternative’ low carbon spaces of transformation or continuity? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 18: 128–146.
Knuth, S. (2016). Seeing green in San Francisco: city as resource frontier, Antipode 48(3): 626-644.
Rice, J. (2010). Climate, Carbon, and Territory: Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in Seattle, Washington, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4), 929-937.
Rutherford, J. (2014). The vicissitudes of energy and climate policy in Stockholm: politics, materiality and transition, Urban Studies, 51(7), 1449–1470.