Making visible the hidden cogs of the urban nexus

On the steep hills on the outskirts of Lima, slums like San Juan de Lurigancho are ever expanding. As roads and shacks are built on steep slopes, residents face the constant risk of rock slides and landslides. Often there is no infrastructure – no water, few roads and no electricity – to service these areas. Water is trucked in and filled into tanks but the trucks don’t come every day, so people have little water for drinking, washing and cooking.

Image of a person climbing a dusty road in San Juan de Lurigancho, a slum on the outskirts of Lima.
Washing clothing in San Juan de Lurigancho, a slum on the outskirts of Lima. Credit: Andrea Moroni. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tenants are making the urban nexus every day on these hills. “Women and men are constructing the nexus materially and immaterially by struggling to access water, energy and food in the unjust conditions they face” says Adriana Allen, from the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL. “People are the infrastructure carrying resources through the area,” she said, by using the ‘staircases’ – the nickname for the foot paths running up the hill – to get their food, water and energy home.

She was speaking at a Nexus Network workshop on the interaction between water, energy and food provision for sustainable cities, at the University of Sussex on 12 – 13 May. How cities can provision water, energy and food sustainably is a challenging question that few cities have found answers to. The workshop aimed to explore the question by “developing an understanding of social, cultural, environmental and economic dynamics of provisioning food, water and energy for and by urban inhabitants”.

Every city’s footprint goes well beyond its boundaries as cities rely on other areas to produce much of the food, water and energy they consume and to create land for housing. Lima’s ever-expanding slums are encroaching on the Lomas Costeras – special ecosystems of algae, lichen, mosses and ferns which grow during the high mists and drizzle of the winter months on the Chilean hills facing the sea. “The Lomas are disappearing” said Allen, “but they are part and parcel of the infrastructure of the city.” They provide the green cover essential for recharging the cities’ aquifers and regulating the climate, so they are crucial for the city’s inhabitants, but are undervalued.

The lomas and people’s own back breaking work to carry resources up and down steep hills are the ‘invisible’ forces that give people access to, for example, water. Allen wants to “make visible those hidden cogs of the nexus” that otherwise get overlooked.

The energy and carbon costs necessary for producing a plate of food are often “hidden” too. Each plate of food is accompanied by another “ghost plate with all the food wasted on its journey,” says Emily O’Brien, from the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, a non-profit organisation that helps people learn to cook, to eat a healthy diet, to grow their own food and to waste less food within the city of Brighton and Hove.

The University of Sussex lies on the doorstep of Brighton and Hove, a city of approximately 275,000 people, which is hemmed in by the sea and by the downs, chalk hills that run along the south-eastern coast of England. Approximately 70,000 hectares of productive agricultural land is necessary to produce enough food to feed the city’s population, and the food produced on that land requires approximately 750,000 barrels of oil and almost 625 million tonnes of fresh water. In all, this generates an estimated half a million tonnes of greenhouse gases [PDF].

O’Brien has been helping to develop a food poverty action plan for the city which sets out a more sustainable and fair vision for the city’s food system, and which also aims to address the underlying issues around food poverty, such as housing costs, and food and fuel inflation. Over a ten year period food prices have increased by 47% in Britain since 2003 (compared to 22.1% in Germany and 16.7% in France), according to this All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry.

Of course Brighton and Hove face a number of constraints to make their food production more sustainable including a shortage of available farming land, the high cost of land in the city and cuts to local authorities, which in turn limits the scope of local community-run urban food growing projects.

New areas of urban nexus research

Michael Keith, and Co-Director of the University of Oxford Future of Cities programme talked about potential areas of urban nexus research and funding alliances at the conference. He suggested that social scientists should consider internationally comparative urban issues that go beyond the ‘global north and south’ and think about the city in new “material and cultural” ways. He cited as examples, John Urry’s paper, on four urban futures that could occur in UK cities to produce different outcomes: high-tech, digital, liveable, and fortress city, where the rich live in fortified enclaves. He also said that Universities are increasingly expected to think about the locality of the university.

The Community University Partnership Programme (CUPP) does just this, providing seeds to develop “mutually beneficial partnerships” between Brighton University and its local community. David Wolff, Director of CUPP, talked about the importance of trans-disciplinary alliances to help groups living in urban contexts to “articulate problems”.

Seeing environments at different scales and in new ways

Working closely with local communities, researchers and local communities together can uncover the interconnections between food, water, energy and their environments in new ways. For example, Allen uses participatory mapping and timeline techniques to help local communities move beyond what “people say and do” to a more “reflexive and nuanced” understanding and analysis of their environment. Mapping “a reality that people thought was familiar” helps them “see things at a different scale.” They see “different realities” and how decisions on one scale might be irrational at another, says Allen. For example, people think that by building better ‘staircases’, or paths they will increase their control over the nexus – the interactions between their resources and with the environment. But, ironically, the staircases increase the likelihood of further land speculation and slum expansion, which, threatens all of Lima’s inhabitants’ long-term access to those resources.

It struck me on a ‘walkshop’ through Stanmer Park that there are many other hidden realities to find. “I was thinking about the wonder and fascination that English botanists must have felt as they walked through an Indian forest with 700 species,” said Dunu Roy as we took a pause on our walk through Stanmer Park, Brighton. “In contrast, the forest we are walking through only has about seven or eight species of forest”.

Roy, who is the Director of Hazards International in Delhi, commented on how British colonials, newly arrived in India and excited by the rich biodiversity of flora, set up Botanical Gardens around the country. Scientists would then collect specimens, draw them and then send them back to the UK to be classified. “This represents to me how academic knowledge is created,” said Roy, “by creating categories of knowledge.”

Of course these categories led to the reification of certain knowledge, in this case western, scientific knowledge, over the local names and knowledge about the plants held within the sub-continent. His comments served as a pertinent reminder of the risks of such processes, especially given that four such “categories” are listed within the mission statement of the Nexus Network, which says it aims to create “new connections in food, energy, water and the environment.”

But I also wondered, to expand the metaphor further, whether we are currently only looking at a few species – a limited number of interconnections – in only one forest. How many other urban nexuses are out there waiting to be understood and learned from?

Nexuses of the Urban: Interactions between water, energy and food provision for sustainable cities 

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