Tag Archives: Food

Practising urban alternatives

by Jana Wendler, PhD candidate in Geography

There is lots of talk about the need for cities and urban life to become more equitable and sustainable – and there are initiatives and people that already practice alternative ways of living based on such ideas. Often described as some form of experiment, these places currently attract much attention as sites where alternatives are tested, showcased – and ultimately lived. What is interesting here, and what I researched as part of my PhD, is that their ‘alternative-ness’ is not only, and sometimes not even primarily, a direct statement. It emerges from the way the spaces look and feel, and how they are inhabited and performed. They are places that challenge our perceptions and interactions, with subtle invitations to touch, to explore and to think differently about our urban environment.

One of the biggest and best-known alternative areas in Europe is the free town of Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. A former military area next to the central neighbourhood of Christianshavn, it was occupied by squatters 40 years ago and has carved out an autonomous existence ever since. Christiania maintains its label as a “social-ecological experiment”, a term applied by the Danish government in the early 70s as a way of politically managing this alternative space in the middle of the city.

Although intricately tied up with ideals of alternative politics, anarchism and the right to self-determination, the experience of Christiania as a space of alternatives is primarily embodied. What strikes the visitor-researcher are the sights, sounds and smells. There is no traffic noise (Christiana is a car free zone), and the smells of hash (openly available) and woodfire (the main source of heating) are everywhere. At night, the unmarked gravel roads and paths are pitch-black. This sensory expression of being alternative marks the boundaries of the freetown as clearly as the big entrance gates proclaiming Christiania’s non-EU status.

Leaving Christiania: "You are now entering the EU"

Leaving Christiania: “You are now entering the EU”

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

These differences continue much deeper into the daily lives and the homes of the Christianites. Alternative urban life becomes materialised in the self-built houses that spread along the water. These wooden houses are reminiscent of anything from a playground hut to the masterpiece of a skilled craftsman, and they are intricately linked with the people that live in them. Some houses give a physical shape to their builders’ spiritual ideas (the pyramid house), others show their connection to nature and resources (a hut with an open-air kitchen and a compost toilet). They are part of the family history, and people come to be named after their house or vice versa. Often the effects of these open relationships between people and material are quite playful, with bright colours, strange angles and unusual objects. Beyond a different sense experience, ideas of alternative living are practised here through unusual material constellations.

Another example is the Prinzessinnengarten, an urban garden in Berlin, created in 2009 on a brownfield site in the hip but poor area of Kreuzberg. It offers 6000 m² of green against the roundabout and towerblocks just outside its fence, with a café area and many ways for people to get involved. It is experimental mainly in its approach: of seeing what you can do with a wasteland once you allow people to ‘plant’ their ideas onto it, and of asking questions about food, biodiversity and the sustainable city in an unusual setting.

The garden stands as a counterpoint to its surroundings but it remains fundamentally urban: the vegetables grow in colourful plastic boxes and bags because the soil is not usable, the sound of birds mixes with the police siren outside, the label on the garden-produced honey says it comes from “city bees”. This gives it a unique aesthetic and sensescape, and it makes room for interactions that are lacking elsewhere. There are no signs warning visitors against touching the plants; in fact people are encouraged to feel, to smell, to dig. If you order herbal tea, you can choose and cut your own ingredients. During the gardening days, anyone can help shovelling soil, and then harvest their own produce. The interactions with the space are tactile, embodied, direct.

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives


These invitations to explore bring the alternative ideas of the garden to life. The suggestions it makes about sustainable urban life are not proclaimed but practised – by the office worker who tends to his bees in his lunch break, by the volunteers who mix soil and plant tomatoes. They are also expressed in the colours, materials and solutions in the garden, which provide new starting points and practical inspiration. The garden as a space for learning and engagement both emerges from and creates the conditions for new relations between people, plants and materials.

The buildings of Christiania and the plant boxes of the Prinzessinnengarten give us a glimpse of different ways of being urban, and of ways in which such alternatives can be tried out. They speak of the connections people form with their immediate surroundings, and introduce alternatives not based on any overarching idea of the sustainable city, but on direct embodied, material interactions. The spaces allow people to give a material expression to their values and visions. They encourage further experimentation by leaving loose ends, by juxtaposing ideas and by asking the visitor to take an active stance. They are also fun, interesting places to be – adding a playful element to the challenge of finding urban alternatives.

The fieldwork in Christiania was kindly supported by the Christiania Researcher in Residence (CRIR) project. More information on the research: http://greenplaylab.co.uk

Garbage, the City and Sustainable Transitions

via flickr by Editor B

via flickr by Editor B

by Sally Gee, David Evans and Elvira Uyarra.

At certain times of the year, ‘rubbish’ can replace the weather as the go-to topic of light and polite conversation.  Christmas is certainly one of those times that we start to worry about the scheduling of bin collections, debate whether or not it is possible to recycle wrapping paper and revisit the time honoured predicament of just how to get rid of that Christmas tree (we are firm believers in putting it outside until it goes brown and dealing with it later!) Of course, rather more fundamental anxieties come to the fore as we confront the consequences of our own material abundance – and gluttony! It is probably no accident that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers chose the middle of January to launch its report – and startling figures – about the amount of food that we waste[1].  Yes, even during record-breaking levels of rainfall and a particularly unpleasant cold snap, rubbish, waste, garbage, excess – call it what you will – is something that friends, neighbours and colleagues appear to be talking about. Maybe this seasonal vogue will pass, maybe it won’t but for some of us – waste is something that occupies our thoughts throughout the year. Although the effective management of waste is deeply un-sexy and almost invisible in the day-to-day running of things; the ‘water cooler’ chattering mentioned above holds some clues as to its significance. I mean, think of the inconvenience and mild irritation that unfolds when bin collections are delayed or rescheduled during the holiday period. Now imagine what would happen if taken for granted infrastructures of waste collection and disposal were to disappear for good and its place, we were left with overflowing bins. Just how big a step would it be to civil unrest, a decline in public hygiene and outright chaos? Our point is this: waste and its effective management is critical to the economic, social and environmental welfare of cities, and as such is an exciting topic for academic research.

The development of appropriate infrastructures of waste management are intimately linked to the growth of cities, and it is at the urban level where challenges associated with waste collection (including recycling), disposal (e.g. landfill shortages) and treatment (e.g. incineration) are most clearly felt. But cities also play a critical role in shaping infrastructures more generally. They can provide the scale, institutional arrangements (including intermediaries) and political leadership to enable transitions towards more sustainable forms of waste management. Sally Gee and Elvira Uyarra have recently conducted an in-depth case study on the emergence of a recycling-based waste infrastructure in Greater Manchester that tries to understand the various dimensions (institutional, political, governance, social and technological) underpinning the transformation of urban waste infrastructures. In the course of this research, they have developed close contacts with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) and other key stakeholders in waste policy both at the national and local levels. From the case study it emerged that one major challenge for waste practitioners is managing the dynamic relationship between household practices and the physical waste infrastructure. The active participation of consumers and households is key to the transformation of waste infrastructure. Yet understandings of household behaviour are seldom informed by understandings of what people actually do ‘behind closed doors’.  Indeed, research exploring home consumption, material culture and everyday life rarely ‘talks’ to waste policy and research. David Evans has recently finished a project looking at the everyday waste practices of Manchester households and reached the conclusion that bins are fascinating, not least because they signal the importance of understanding what goes on at the intersection of domestic spaces and public systems of waste management.

Through various discussions of our respective projects, we realised that ‘waste’ might just provide a useful hook through which a range of academic perspectives (from urban studies, innovation studies, material culture, the sociology of consumption etcetera) might be brought together to address a practical and real-world problem. And so an idea was born. With the generous support of cities@manchester and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, we have been able to get our heads together and start thinking this through. We recently organised a workshop ‘Urban waste transitions: connecting innovation, infrastructure and households’[2] to involve other experts and stakeholders in our discussions.

In the morning Professors Frank Geels, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin gave fascinating talks on how to conceptualise and understand the governance of sustainability transitions at the urban level.  Professor Nuno Gil complemented this ‘macro’ analysis with insights into the development of infrastructure and its relationship to the wider socio-technical system.  All speakers emphasised that innovation in complex systems is protracted, spatially embedded and contested. They also reflected on the challenges of governing sustainable transitions.  These presentations invited pointed questions about how these insights, tools and perspectives might be turned to the analysis of waste.  In the afternoon, it was time for the ‘wasters’ (if only there were a better collectively noun for people who specialise in waste!) to take to the stage and bring us up to date with what’s happening in waste scholarship and waste management.  Professor Nicky Gregson argued that ‘waste’ is not open to obvious or static definitions but an outcome of socio-economic processes, and emphasised the efforts to marketise outputs of resource recovery processes where waste becomes a commodity to be transacted.  Reflecting on this Professor Catherine Alexander explored the classification and re-classification of waste, highlighting the importance of challenging waste categories and understanding what they include as well as exclude.  She argued that the current focus on “bankable” volumes of waste collection redirects attention away from waste reduction and the reality of household processes.  Dr Tom Quested from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) discussed immediate policy issues and emphasised the importance of problem-orientated and multi-disciplinary research to support policy makers in their efforts to affect change.  John Bland (Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority) shared the GMWDAs experience of governing a sustainable waste transition in Greater Manchester involving not only the construction of new physical infrastructure in a complex political, organisational and economic environment, but also the authority’s efforts to promote behaviour change in households.  The speakers all reflected on the questions posed by the presentations given in the morning sessions and the ways in which these perspectives might be extended (or not) to waste.

A number of insights came out of this lively and well attended workshop.  Different speakers tackled different aspects of this dialogue and demonstrated the complex interconnections between innovation, infrastructure and consumption practices – and emphasised the spatial, temporal and economic dimensions to sustainable urban waste transitions.  There was unanimous agreement that technology and society are inseparable, and although this may appear obvious, it challenges some popular perceptions that transforming systems is merely a matter of matching supply and demand, or that sustainable transitions are simply a matter of technological fixes and/or straight forward changes in household behaviours.

This workshop was the first step in what we hope is an on-going process, helping us to identify gaps in research, as well as questions of academic interest and policy relevance.  So watch this space!  As Christmas festivities fade to a distant memory and our attention turns to failed resolutions for the New Year, tidying up the garden (including that brown Christmas tree) and the steady munching of Easter eggs.  As you struggle to remember which bin to put out this week, or how to fit all that cardboard into the cupboard under the sink; spare a thought for how your waste is created, who collects it and where it goes.  There is a whole system out there (and you – we all – are part of it) transforming waste in a variety of ways; some of which are more sustainable than others.

[2] http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/events/sci/urban-waste-transitions

Uyarra, E. and Gee, S. (2013) Transforming urban waste into sustainable material and energy usage: the case of Greater Manchester, Journal of Cleaner Production, at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006403 .

Gee, S. and Uyarra, E. (2013) A role for public procurement in system innovation:  The transformation of the Greater Manchester (UK) waste system, Technology Assessment and Strategic Management (in press).

Evans, D. (2012) Binning, gifting and recovery: the conduits of disposal in household food consumption Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(6): pp. 1123-1137

Evans, D. (2012) Beyond the throwaway society: ordinary domestic practice and a sociological approach to household food waste, Sociology 46(1): 43-58

Evans, D. (2011) Blaming the consumer – once again: the social and material contexts of everyday food waste practices in some English households Critical Public Health 21(4): 429-44