Joshua Newell & Joshua Cousins, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Presentation Title: Extending urban metabolism through a political-industrial ecology of water supply infrastructure for Los Angeles




Three 'ecologies' - Marxist ecologies, industrial ecology and urban ecology - have emerged as the primary thought traditions to conceptualize urban space as a 'metabolism.' Some theorize it as stocks and flows of materials and energy; others, as complex, dynamic socio-ecological systems; and still others, as hybridized socio-natures that produce uneven outcomes. Through literature review (1965-2012) and bibliometric analysis, this presentation mapped these scholarly islands and unveiled how disciplinary cultures shape the metaphor. Urban metabolism is proposed as a 'boundary object' to enable cross-fertilization through collective empirical experiment and interdisciplinary friction. Towards this end, a blend of theory and method from urban political ecology and industrial ecology is made by focusing on the water supply metabolism of the city of Los Angeles, which sprawls for thousands of miles across the American West.  Specifically, GIS fused with a traditional life-cycle assessment (LCA) approach to quantify the energy and emissions burden of the various water supply sources and political ecology methods is used to better understand the equity and governance dynamics of the metabolism.  By illustrating how decisions about system boundaries, emissions factors and other building blocks fundamentally shape the end result, this intervention at once destabilizes and grounds the LCA enterprise. LA's water supply metabolism also reflects particular historical circumstances and strategic new paradigms to secure water resources and mitigate emissions. Combining approaches in industrial ecology and urban political ecology yields fruitful insights, such as these, and will extend understandings of the city and its processes.

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • There is a need to deepen the understanding of the multiple dimensions of material and energy stock-flow dynamics.
  • We must move beyond the ‘methodological city-ism’ that pervades urban sustainability research.
  • Scholars should be trained in both industrial ecology and political ecology.