Eco-Communities

Inclusive, Creative and Self-Provisioning Approaches for an Ecological Urban Future

Professor Jenny Pickerill
University of Sheffield
RESIDENTIAL RESEARCH PROJECT: AUGUST 2019

Abstract

Making our cities sustainable for an uncertain climatic future is a central focus of urban studies. Sustainable urbanism (also called eco-urbanism), experimental urbanism and postcolonial urbanism are all types of future urbanisms. Future urbanisms’ research, in different ways, examines what governance, infrastructures, materiality and social practices are required to radically transform urban spaces (Hodson and Marvin, 2010; Caprotti et al., 2015; Joss, 2015). There is also considerable research examining the processes of these transformations – the how of necessary social, political and economic change (Karvonen et al., 2018). Concurrently, but distinct from this research, is a growing body of work on ecocommunities, intentional communities and utopian studies (Litfin, 2014; Jarvis, 2014; Sargisson, 2012). Eco-communities research is also examining how people are generating new ways of living, often through self-building, self-provisioning, and self-constructing offgrid infrastructures (Pickerill, 2015, 2016).

The first goal of this residency is to bring into dialogue these two distinct strands of research (future urbanisms and eco-communities) to extend and strengthen understandings of the potential ecological future of cities. Future urbanisms needs work on eco-communities to think more expansively and creatively about urban ecological futures, to incorporate more emphasis on collective self-organised initiatives, to more critically engage in issues of scalar diversity and global examples, to examine more actually-existing examples and explore the interdependencies of everyday needs (housing, livelihoods, education, consumption and production). The second goal is to integrate more critical questions about who is shaping these future visions, and therefore who is excluded. This draws upon important work on the role of children in future urban design (Horton et al., 2015; Christensen et al. 2017), of women and non-white communities in fostering urban resourcefulness (Derickson et al. 2015), and on marginalised others, such as those with different bodily (dis)abilities (Bhakta and Pickerill, 2016).

The Research Idea

Eco-communities are spaces with shared concern for social, economic and environmental needs and of collaborative, collective and communal housing and living. Eco-communities research has explored the creation of ‘concrete utopias’, the prefiguration of building alternatives in the present and resisting, subverting or opting out of capitalism. Eco-communities have focused on creating alternative forms of homes, livelihoods, infrastructures, production, and education.

Overlaps between future urbanisms and eco-communities research is most evident in work on experimental urbanisms, where the creation of community economies, repair shops, local food growing schemes, and community gardens have been examined. Existing research has tended to focus on small-scale alternative bundles of practices that signal postcapitalist possibilities. Yet eco-communities work calls for greater attention to be paid to the interdependencies and interrelationships between the social, material, political, economic and environmental activities of these alternatives.

Eco-communities bring to future urbanisms a clearer focus on collective self-provisioning for all needs in bounded places, and on how these practices are operated at diverse scales. Eco-communities, despite being examples of actually existing alternatives, remain incomplete, partial and sometimes problematic. Recent work has started to critically engage in interrogating questions of class, race and ethnicity, and (dis)ability (Chitewere, 2018; Argüelles et al., 2017). However, research on eco-communities has rarely had an explicitly urban focus, instead treating them as rural, ageographic or detached from their surroundings. Future urbanisms would aid eco-communities research in examining forms of exclusion and their cause, and the process of incorporating more eco-communities into urban spaces.

Background

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, ablebodied 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.

The Focus

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 ecocommunities 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.

Theoretical Novelty

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 who is 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.

Methodology

As the fields of eco-community research and future urbanisms do not currently overlap, this residency is deliberately structured to bring invited participants into direct conversation. The 5 day residency will be divided into 2 themes: Urban eco-communities, and diversifying the future city.

On the first day of each theme there will be a keynote presentation by an expert in that field and then 3 respondent speakers. The second day of each theme will be participatory and discussion-based. It will begin using participatory methods to collectively identify areas that participants want to discuss further based on the previous day’s talks. The aim is to find points of debate, overlap and, hopefully, areas of potential knowledge exchange. There may be difficulties with the mix of research foci and speaking across a varied set of theoretical (and possibly disciplinary) perspectives. Therefore participants will be encouraged to explain the terms they use and unpack existing assumptions. Key ideas will be collated and discussed further, summarising emerging points of agreement and disagreement and an agenda for how to move forward towards the co-writing of the intended outputs.

The final day will be used to outline the collaborative journal article output and to determine the content of the edited book. This will involve discussing carefully how to write across these disciplinary gaps and create an agenda for future research in this field.

Work Plan

The 5 day event will be structured by two key themes:

DAY 1: Theme – Urban Eco-communities, will begin with a 45 minute talk by Professor Chitewere, an expert in intentional communities and eco-villages. There will then be a response by Jan Blažek, Prof. Dr. Tim Freytag and Professor Joshua Lockyer. The day will be concluded by Professor Jenny Pickerill identifying some emerging themes and contentions.

DAY 2: Theme – Urban Eco-communities, using participatory methods, facilitated by the PI, the group will collectively identify areas that they want to discuss further based on the previous day’s talks. These themes will then be used to structure the day’s conversation. If there are more than 4 themes identified then the participants will split into groups. Each participant will be asked to summarise their thoughts from the day.

DAY 3: Theme – Diversifying the Future City, will begin with a 45 minute talk by Dr Ayona Datta, an expert in postcolonial urbanism and diversity. There will then be a response by Dr Residential // 1725 Claudio Catteneo, Professor Jenny Pickerill and Kirsten Stevens-Wood. The day will be concluded by Professor Jenny Pickerill identifying some emerging themes and contentions.

DAY 4: Theme – Diversifying the Future City, this format will mirror Day 2.

DAY 5: The final day will be used to outline the content of the publication outputs.

The intention of the residency is to engage in dialogue and collaboratively produce two outputs: an edited book and a journal article.

Outcome

By using the residency to build towards two key outputs (an edited book and a journal article) it is intended to act as the start of further long term funding and writing collaborations.

(1) The edited book on Urban Eco-Communities: Another Life is Possible, would bring together critical reflections on the future of eco-communities, based on the discussions and debates in the residency. The idea is to draw upon ideas developed in future urbanisms to reflect on future directions in eco-communities and vice versa. This would identify solutions to some of the troubling existing problems in eco-communities (such as current exclusions, limited geographic locations, and their relationship to the state and climate change policies), and identify strengths (grassroots self-organisation, self-built infrastructures, consensus decision-making practices etc) that could be drawn upon in future urbanisms research and initiatives. To be proposed to Pluto Books to ensure an affordable paperback publication. Contract secured by September 2019, final draft to be submitted by March 2020.

(2) A journal article critically interrogating lessons learnt from future urbanisms in diversifying participation to existing studies of urban eco-communities, to be submitted to Urban Studies, by August 2020.

It is intended that by bringing these scholars together, who have not previously worked together and in writing publications which should be agenda setting, that future collaborations in grant funding applications and other networking outcomes will be generated.

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  • Professor Tendai Chitewere, San Francisco State University
  • Professor Joshua Lockyer, Arkansas Tech University
  • Jan Blazek, Masaryk, Czech Republic
  • Dr Alexander Vasudevan, University of Oxford
  • Dr Anitra Nelson, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
  • Professor Jenny Pickerill, University of Sheffield