Posted on: 25 July, 2019
Application deadline: October 10, 2019

Eco-communities in an urban future – Seminar series funded by the Urban Studies Foundation, University of Sheffield, UK

Experimental urbanism

This second seminar is structured around the concept of experimental urbanism as a way to understand and explore how eco-communities can reshape urban spaces. Conceptualising eco-communities as experiments enables the valuing of small-scale and everyday practices, but can also limit the way they are understood as being only discrete interventions into city life, rather than facilitating more fundamental shifts in urban governance and urban living (Voytenko et al.,2016). This seminar seeks to frame eco-communities as broader contributors to debates in experimental urbanism (Martin et al.,2018).

This will be held in Sheffield on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October 2019.

Places are limited to 40 participants, so please register to attend on the event website.

  1. To bring into dialogue two distinct strands of research (future urbanisms and eco-communities) to extend and strengthen understandings of the potential ecological future of cities
  2. To integrate more critical questions about who is shaping these future visions,and therefore who is excluded

Research in future urbanisms and eco-communities have several commonalities of concern, despite investigating these in often very different ways and in different places. Questions as to the value of experimentation, the importance of scale, the necessity of diverse inclusion, the role of citizens in shaping urban futures and the need to explore governance processes alongside developing new everyday practices, are all central to these fields of research. Yet there is little dialogue about these concerns between those researching future urbanisms and those with an interest in eco-communities. There is a clear potential for these fields to contribute to each other. Urban studies has largely ignored the potential contributions eco-communities could make to these debates and eco-communities research has failed to adequately draw upon advances in urban studies to interrogate better experimental and development strategies. It is by creating a space for dialogue between urban studies and eco-community scholars that we can critically explore the ecological future of cities and interrogate who is included and excluded in planning for urban futures.

Future urbanisms research raise critical questions about what constitutes an urban space, often identifying a messier and more complex entity than acknowledged by those seeking to govern it. Recent work critiquing the direction of the New Urban Agenda has also noted the absence of the urban citizen in shaping the future city, and thus a heightened risk of exclusion and marginalisation (Caprotti et al.2017; Datta, 2018). Caprotti and Cowley (2017) have called for a more nuanced critique of experimental urbanisms, questioning their implicit normativity, the way that crisis is evoked as a moment of opportunity, the agency of the experimental subject (in other words whois being subjected to experimentation), the boundedness of experiments, current ahistorical approaches, and non-human agency. Bulkeley et al.,(2018) argue that even in just focusing on understanding urban living laboratories it is clear that urban experiments are diverse in their drivers, forms and dispositions, and that therefore more work is needed in critically expanding the concept of experimental urbanisms. Roggema (2017) has called for sustainable urbanism research to move away from top-down expert designed approaches to acknowledging citizens as design experts, being led more by specific societal demands and the landscapes of particular places, and being more creative in its visions.

Eco-communities research can contribute to these calls for more diverse, critical and grassroots approaches to future urbanisms. At the centre of many eco-communities is the quest to share – resources, objects, spaces, skills, and care (Litfin, 2014). Key aspirations of an eco-community include (but are not always present): a culture of self-reliance; minimal environmental impact and minimal resource use; low cost affordable approaches; extended relations of care for others (beyond the nuclear family); progressive values (for example, towards gender equality); and an emphasis on collectivist and communal sharing. Therefore living in eco-communities is about acknowledging the interdependency of humans with each other and nature, and practising mutual care (Pickerill, 2016). Eco-communities are academically interesting because they are active and dynamic, in constant flux and are therefore spaces of doing, making and creating. However, eco-communities are also problematic. They lack diversity and accessibility. They represent a narrow demographic of the population – often highly educated, white, able-bodied and with a greater proportion of women. There is an expectation that residents need to be physically fit and emotionally resilient (Chitewere, 2018). This ablest approach has created eco-communities that rely on significant manual effort, eco-community living is slow and hard work, and therefore exclusionary. Eco-communities can also replicate, repeat and mirror conventional society in multiple ways (gender relations, the way money is used etc), and rely on state support. It is the lack of diversity and multiple forms of exclusion, represented in an emphasis on building new communities as escapist enclaves in rural areas, that is limiting the potential of eco-communities to contribute to greater societal and environmental change. Bringing these research fields into constructive dialogue, each with their critical questions, contrasting scales of investigation, forms of exclusion, but also their celebration of innovative designs, processes and practices, offers the potential to critically advance understandings of an ecological urban future, and map out new forms of future urbanisms research.