THE POLITICAL ECOLOGY OF POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES
I am currently working on a book project based on my dissertation on the political ecology of abandonment in Detroit. Drawing on 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork, the project explores the racial and environmental politics involved in redeveloping a city where 150,000 lots lie “vacant” after decades of industrial decline, white flight, and poverty. My research examines controversial plans to repurpose Detroit’s highest vacancy neighborhoods deemed to have “no market value” as “urban wilderness,” “carbon sequestration zones,” “ponds,” and “urban farms” and withdraw traditional public services (water, street lights, transportation, garbage pickup) from areas where over 100,000 people currently live. I argue that the city’s racialized abandonment is not simply a byproduct of industrial decline but an active process that manifests today through “green redevelopment.” The project offers a theoretical framework for studying both everyday and institutional practices of property making in U.S. cities, which is a critical, yet understudied site at which multi-scale processes—economic globalization, governmental problems, environmental crisis, and racial conflict—articulate. It contributes an empirical understanding of how a green turn in urban planning is reshaping urban land use, governance, and racial antagonisms in a postindustrial context. Finally, it elucidates the alternative spatial imaginaries of urban social movements struggling for community self-determination.
I am involved in an ongoing community-based participatory research project called Uniting Detroiters, inspired, in part, by the Detroit Geographical Expeditions Institute. The project, which received an Antipode Foundation Scholar-Activist Award and a Human Geography Institute Grant, brings together residents, activists, scholars, and students to examine social justice problems in Detroit and develop communication tools, including a “People’s Atlas” and a video documentary about urban governance, planning, and social movements. Wayne State University Press is reviewing our book proposal, Detroit: A People’s Atlas, for which I am an editor. The atlas, which includes maps, essays, poetry, interviews, and oral histories, offers an account of changes underway in the city from residents’ perspectives. The project develops a participatory research model for community organizing and policy advocacy.