Urban ecology is an evolving framework which integrates society and the environment at multiple scales. And while urban ecologists look for commonalities across urban ecosystems, in recent times, there has been much focus on the local and unique contexts which shape the socio-ecological character of each city (Grimm et al., 2015). As such, contemporary investigations of urban political ecology have broadened their purview to focus on how class, culture, gender, race and ethnicity play a role in defining access to natural resources and ecosystem services in the city. Particularly interesting is how social identities and social hierarchies are instrumental in deciding resource access (Pickett et al., 2001), and how they play a decisive role in producing unequal cities where some sections of society have access to healthy environments while others are exposed to various hazardous living conditions (Lawhon et al., 2014). Drawing from Urban Political Ecology and environmental and social justice literature, in this article, I wish to discuss how access to nature, specifically public green spaces and urban forests in cities, is often mediated by social inequalities.
Role of Social Identity in Human-nature Interactions
In their work on the political ecology of uneven urban green spaces in Milwaukee, Heynen et al. (2006) show how race and ethnicity play a role in the way urban trees and canopy cover are distributed in the city. Income inequalities in Milwaukee ensure that only the upscale neighbourhoods of the city that are occupied by white residents are adequately ‘greenified’, while the lower-income localities with their high rates of housing vacancy that are occupied by Hispanics are often devoid of trees. A similar assessment was carried out by Kinzig et al. (2005) in Phoenix. Using median-family income as a surrogate for both economic and cultural status, the authors show how species of plants and birds vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood depending on socioeconomic and cultural status. For instance, parks in the lower-income neighbourhoods had a much lower species richness as compared to the upscale neighbourhoods.
Human beings for a very long time, and more so since their occupation of cities, have associated human-wellbeing with access to nature (Miller, 2005). Yet, it is the privileged sections of the society, as seen in the above examples, who are able to gain access to better quality habitats in the city. These studies show how human-nature interactions and access to crucial resources in the urban are often unjust and call for a more nuanced assessment through the lens of environmental justice. Should social identity really be the yardstick to measure access to better quality nature, especially when it is the poor who most need it since they cannot afford to visit exotic places to experience nature or even create it in their gardens (Kinzig et al., 2005)?
Central to this discussion is also the commodification of nature where nature is made available to only certain sections of the society who can afford or pay for it. The commodification of nature is not something new and finds its roots in the capitalist mode of production that has been adopted by most cities, where cities produce, exchange and consume their environment as commodities (Heynen et al., 2006). In doing so, contestations over nature between different sections of the society are not only inevitable but are also, in most cases, dominated by the more powerful. An interesting paper by Baviskar (2018) talks about, firstly, how societal changes often affect the way in which nature is perceived, and secondly, how ecological changes affect the way in which different actors of society respond to these changes. In this paper, she is referring to the so-called environmentalists – mostly upper-class residents living in the Mangarbani area of the Delhi Ridge. These environmentalists who were once the beneficiaries of nature commodification and who bought residential spaces in the Mangarbani area, several years later are putting pressure on the state government to fulfil its mandate of protecting and preserving the remaining forested area in Mangarbani. Owing to their higher socioeconomic status, these environmentalists use their power to convince the ruling government to evict from the ridge marginalized people who use the forest for their livelihood needs.
While power struggles in studies on political ecology are manifested through class and socioeconomic status, they are also often gendered. For instance, in many countries of the third world, women have mostly been suppressed, and have been victims of unequal power relations between men and women in accessing critical ecological resources (Bryant, 1998). Differential access to environmental and social spaces and unequal control over natural resources between men and women is largely due to their different social and cultural roles, management responsibilities and rights, that are often defined by customary and legal institutions (Fortnam et al., 2019). While this is known to be true in a broad sense, the role of gender in human-nature interactions specifically in the urban needs more exploration.
Analysing the above-mentioned case studies reinforces the fact that the foundations of urban political ecology are built on power relations in human-nature interactions (Robbins, 2012). And this power, which draws its legitimacy from social identity, often decides access to nature – who gets what, when, how and why (Pickett et al., 2001). Through these case studies, we also realize that the social and political aspects of urban ecology are context-specific. Like we can see, not all cities experience the same forms of unequal access to nature. While some cities experience unequal access to nature in the form of class struggle, in other cities, unequal access to nature may be manifested through culture, gender, race or ethnicity.
Since urban ecology and urban political ecology have and continue to be shaped by diverse experiences of cities in both the global north and south, concepts in urban theory also need to broaden their scope of enquiry instead of being overly focused on the global north. There is a need for urban theory to become more contextual and to be based on experiential knowledge because there is so much to learn from research conducted not just in the global north but also in the global south (Lawhon et al., 2014). Such an approach will be crucial for a better understanding of how crucial resources such as green spaces are distributed and accessed in the city, and how the issue of environmental and social justice can be more comprehensively addressed in urban spaces.
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