urban natures

In the face of urban growth, climate change and natural resource exploitation, the future of cities is currently shaped by an absolute imperative to act. Urban areas have become crucial sites where aspired pathways towards desirable futures are imagined, forecasted and variably negotiated.

Through the lens of «urban future-making», our research training group investigates the key role of urban professionals in these processes. The central question is how, or whether, reflexive and responsible professional agency with regard to urban future-making can be possible under present conditions, in which multiple crises have fundamentally heightened uncertainty and put professional routines and established solutions into question. A key topic of the group is the rethinking of urban nature in the context of urban transformations. Several PhD projects of the Research Training Group (RTG) «Urban future-making: Professional agency across time and scale» engage with this topic, with case studies of Hamburg as well as cities across the globe.

Cities are assumed to become green by using nature for the creation of sustainable urban development. Imaginations of the future green city, thus, play a crucial role in guiding strategies and interventions aimed at the urban built environment. This includes a variety of experiments that involve nature and nature-based solutions as a response to the current challenges of climate change. It also includes new approaches to green building design and passive cooling based on green spaces. More broadly, urban natures are reconfigured in response to the risks and threats posed by sea level rise, flooding and extreme weather events which change the given socio-environmental ordering of the city. These events also pose radical challenges for the maintenance of the existing built fabric and urban infrastructural systems.

Fixing change—
maintenance and repair practices are a sustaining as well as a transforming force that shape urban
natures in mostly
invisible ways.
Lena Enne

Lena Enne’s PhD project addresses the often invisible labor of maintenance and repair around infrastructural systems with a case study of Hamburg’s gas and water infrastructures. Infrastructures resist rapid radical change through their materiality and embeddedness in the urban fabric. Although maintenance and repair of infrastructural systems are crucial for the functioning of our society, they often only become visible in moments of breakdown and failure. The aim of the project is to understand the ambiguity of maintenance and repair practices as a sustaining as well as a transforming force.

The postdoctoral research project by Lucas Pohl addresses sea level rise as a challenge for urban future-making. It engages with coastal cities on different continents already at risk of permanent flooding, where large parts of the urban area will undergo massive changes if no significant political measures are taken to control the water level. The aim of the project is to investigate urban visions with regard to sea level rise: what possibilities are opened up, and for whom, when it comes to adaptation and resilience measures that aim to protect the city’s built and natural environment against rising sea levels?

More specifically focused on the discursive production of urban natures is the PhD project by Alessandro Arlati. He investigates the upscaling processes of experiments involving nature-based solutions as a response to climate change in different European cities. Understandings of nature entail strong cultural dimensions, which are contextually and temporally specific. The focus of the project is on political discourses which frame these «greening» experiments and the influence of European innovation policy in that regard. It identifies ideologies and collective cultural beliefs that underlie the practices of the different actors involved in the upscaling processes.

The PhD project by Thilo van der Haegen takes a look at the specific context of North American cities with a history of settler-colonialism. The project is concerned with understanding the ways in which imaginations of the green city of the future intersect with those concerning Indigenous reconciliation, with a case study of Vancouver. It examines different planned or initiated Indigenous-led real-estate developments in the city which promise building green and sustainable forms of living while also being highly lucrative properties on Vancouver’s housing market.

Today, the importance of natural green spaces and the value of nature experiences for urban dwellers are subject of much debate.

In contrast, Aboli Mangire engages with the context of India and investigates the potential of green spaces and urban nature for improving the mass housing for the urban poor. While the dominant political aim is to increase the number of dwelling units, factors such as the physical effects of housing density, rising temperatures, and extreme weather are not part of the design considerations. The project sets out to improve the methodologies for achieving sustainability of low-income mass housing, with a focus on passive cooling design and the shared thermal, physical, and social benefits of green spaces.

In sum, these ongoing research projects confirm the need of a fundamental rethinking of urban natures: historically, cities have grown and prospered by distancing and protecting themselves and their inhabitants from natural environments and their hazards. Today, the importance of natural green spaces and the value of nature experiences for urban dwellers are subject of much debate. However, making space for nature in cities does not merely imply reorganizing the layout of cities and introducing natural elements through the greening of buildings. More fundamentally, it asks for new imaginaries that acknowledge that urban natures include much more than what is immediately visible, that they are part of global ecologies in complex ways, and that they shape more-than-human histories through timescales which challenge human imagination.

Monika Grubbauer

The Research Training Group (RTG) «Urban future-making: Professional agency across time and scale» is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and jointly organized by HafenCity University Hamburg, Technische Universität Hamburg and Universität Hamburg. Monika Grubbauer is Professor of History and Theory of the City at HafenCity University and spokesperson of the RTG. More information about the RTG and its projects:

Image Information

Alessandro Arlati, Nature for and with cities, Photo: © 2017 AirCam.PRO/

Lena Enne, Naphtaline formation in a 915 mm wide gas tube, Hamburg 1909, Photo: Archiv Gasnetz Hamburg.