Urban socio-ecological imaginaries: the discourses of urban natures

The discourses of urban natures, their practices and outcomes are crucial to understand urban environmental injustice and inequality:

There is a growing global awareness of the environmental crisis (global warming, new diseases, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, pollution…):



Click here to read a list of topics on which further research is needed.


Urban socio-ecological movements and the struggles for justice

A key theme in environmental justice is the work of environmental justice movements.

According to Agyeman (2005), EJM’s do not propose a progressive socio-ecological utopia. They are:

  • reactionary
  • defensive
  • demonstrating against injustices

Urban political ecology has paid less empirical attention to environmental justice movements and placed more emphasis on questions of intense social struggle (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003):

  • ‘How are socio-natural relations produced?’
  • ‘By whom?’
  • ‘For whom?’

From the ground up (Cole and Foster, 2001), EJM’s can improve the lives of disadvantaged communities:

  • better their consciousness of injustice
  • increase their self-confidence, capacity and expertise (p. 153)

However, EJM’s have only half succeeded in preventing environmental injustice (e.g. many TSDF’s are still built in disadvantaged communities).

It is surprising that environmental justice criticises social structures and injustices but not EJM’s! (Brulle and Pellow, 2005).


Scale and place have to be regarded as contested, in flux and relational (Massey, 2007; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003).

There is a growing interconnection between:

Click here to read all the topics on which further research about urban socio-ecological movements is needed.

Urban political ecology

Urban political ecology (UPE) is a school of critical urban political-environmental research (Heynen et al. 2006b) which complements the view of Environmental Justice:

On the basis of the school of urban political ecology there are three main thinkers:


Click here to read references to some urban political ecology monographs.

The main ideas of urban political ecology are:


To sum up:

However, the two approaches are compatible:

Urban environmental justice

There is an increasing literature on environmental justice (EJ), which focuses on:

But, what is environmental justice

What does environmental justice do?

The concept of environmental justice emerged in the United States:

  • In the 1970s, as opposition to toxic sites near deprived communities
  • In the 1980s, as protests against environmental racism (Schlosberg, 2003, 2007)

The pioneers were:

According to Byrne et al (2002, p.5), Bullard and the UCC connected isolated stories into a racial pattern of injustice.

Since then, there has been an increase in environmental justice studies:

 EJ ‘denaturalises’ the environment: the environment is where we live, work and play (Dana Alston, quoted in Whitehead, forthcoming, p. 7)

 EJ does not consider nature as ‘immaculately clean’: ‘black lung producing workplace’, ‘asbestos clad home’, ‘smog-laden playground’…

 What does EJ understand by ‘justice’? References: vague and imprecise (David Schlosberg, 2003).

Schlosberg (2003, 2007) describes four dimensions of justice, (developing Iris Marion Young’s 1990 work on the politics of difference):

1. DISTRIBUTIONAL: Environmental bads (re)distributed more equally (instead of concentrated in/nearby disadvantaged communities).  

  • This is the main approach of EJ literature.
  • It is based upon Rawlsian distributive justice

Criticised by:

  • Dobson (2003): redistributing socio-environmental problems fails to deal with root causes
  • Lake (1996) EJ activists and scholars have given too much importance to distributional justice and not enough  to procedural justice

2. OF CAPABILITIES (added 2007): Fairer and democratic decision making process with  involvement of disadvantaged groups

  • Schlosberg (2003, p. 92): inclusive, participatory decision-making institutions is at the centre of EJ demands.
  • Lake (1996): Important because:
    •  more inclusive
    • necessary for distributional justice

3. PROCEDURAL: Recognition and respect for:

  •  disadvantaged communities who suffer from environmental injustice 
  • EJ movement

(Schlosberg, 2003). P. 60: crucial link between lack of recognition and non equitable distribution of environmental bads. General lack of value of ‘the poor’ and the people of color that leads to distributional inequity.

4. RECOGNITIONAL: Re-establishment of the capabilities necessary for a healthy functioning community

(Schlosberg, 2007, p. 72) Counters Dobson’s criticism that EJ ignores production of environmental problems.


Much EJ literature has examined the main reason for spatial patterns of environmental inequality


But this has been extensively criticised:

Click here to read academic references examining women’s disproportionate exposure to environmental bads.

Critical analyses of literature on environmental justice has showed that environmental justice does not only depend on race and class.

Environmental justice literature has also been criticised because of:

  • Lack of rigor. Low scientific quality. Race and class discrimination cannot be proved (Bowen, 2002)
  • Limited or no relation between toxic spots and minority groups (e.g. Anderton et al, 1994; Derezinski et al, 2003 and more, some sponsored by the waste industry!)
  • When decision makers decide where to locate a toxic spot, land value, transport access and workface availability are more important than class or race (Been and Gupta, 1997)
  • TSDF sit in minority areas because they offer less resistance: they lack power and voice to resist (Pastor et al, 2001)
  • Minority populations may have moved there after the toxicity had been installed or worsened (Been, 1994; Been and Gupta, 1997)
  • Discriminatory decisions are not deliberate (Been, 1994; Boerner and Lambert, 1994). They result of structural and more subtle processes that create the conditions for environmental inequalities (Pulido, Morello-Frosch). Click here for further academic reference supporting the ‘non intentional’ theory.

In the last few years, literature on environmental justice has experienced two trends:


European EJ studies have developed the same themes as US studies (Davies, 2006; Laurian, 2008) but therre are some differences:


Forthcoming: studies about EJ movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Agyeman and Ogneva-Himmelberger)

Is there a need for a universal definition of EJ?