In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Political Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: UPE Progress Reports
  • Journals
  • Foundational Texts
  • Toward UPE’s “second wave”
  • Feminist, Queer, and Decolonial Perspectives in UPE
  • UPEs of Drinking Water
  • Other Urban Waters: the UPE of Non-Potable Water
  • Closing the loop: UPEs of Sanitation and Wastewaters
  • Discards and Pollution: UPEs of Externalities
  • UPEs of Food
  • Producing Nature in the City: UPEs of Green Spaces
  • Sustainability and Climate Change through the lens of UPE
  • Challenging “methodological cityism” in UPE
  • UPE of Electricity

Geography Urban Political Ecology
Natasha Cornea
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0203


Urban political ecology (UPE) is a conceptual approach that understands urbanization to be a political, economic, social, and ecological process, one that often results in highly uneven and inequitable landscapes. Cities are seen not as the antithesis of nature but rather as a second nature, representing the dominant form of living in the contemporary age. Those drawing on UPE reject as false any dichotomy between nature and society. A central concern of much UPE scholarship has been in unpacking the ways that urbanization and cities rely on the transformation of biophysical matter into commodities and tracing the flows of these commodities into and through cities, understood as a metabolic process. Urban political ecologists argue that these processes cannot be understood in isolation but rather are deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic systems that shape the context in which they develop. Thus, a significant strand of research in this subfield has focused on the infrastructural arrangements of capitalist modernity—particularly networked water. UPE scholarship is often characterized by a deeply historical and material understanding of the city and seeks to capture the multi-scalar processes and relationships of power that shape urban landscapes. Reflecting the origins of this approach in Marxist urban geographies, this analysis has often been underpinned by a broader critique of the ways that capitalist production shapes cities in deeply unjust and uneven ways. In recent years, a subset of scholars have been increasingly influenced by post-structuralist understandings of power and seek to illuminate how other forms of social power are (re)produced through the production of socio-natures. As the field has grown, scholars have increasingly applied a UPE lens to the analysis of a range of resources including water, urban greenery, food, waste and other discards, sanitation, electricity, and climate change. This article proceeds by introducing the reader to the field more generally through progress reports, a selection of key early texts, and a section on emerging conceptual and theoretical shifts in the field. The latter part of the article is organized around socio-material objects of analysis, reflecting the deep utility of the field in analyzing concrete environmental phenomena and problems. The review presented here is limited, with a few noted exceptions, to research that explicitly situates itself in conversation with UPE scholarship.

General Overviews: UPE Progress Reports

This set of papers consists of review papers and progress reports rather than research pieces. They provide a good overview of the literature and begin to map conceptual and analytical shifts in this rapidly evolving subfield. The earliest reviews, Keil 2003 and Keil 2005, map the field in its relative infancy and provide a good overview of the conceptual origins of UPE and the early works in UPE and related fields of inquiry, particularly those drawing on Marxist (geographical) thought. The review by Zimmer 2010 already identified shifts in the field toward a greater focus on Southern cities and toward more actor-oriented approaches. In doing so, it foreshadows the emergence of what Heynen 2014 refers to as the “second wave” of UPE, a body of research that engages with more local and everyday scales of analysis, drawing on post-structuralist and post-humanist perspectives. Two subsequent reviews, Heynen 2015 and Heynen 2017, highlight what the author sees as key areas of growth, evolution, and engagement for UPE scholars, namely, a more thorough engagement with ways that race, conditions of postcolony, and indigeneity shape the reproduction of uneven urban natures, and how engagement with feminist and queer perspectives can illuminate further dimensions of inequality and power.

  • Heynen, Nik. “Urban Political Ecology I: The Urban Century.” Progress in Human Geography 38.4 (2014): 598–604.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132513500443

    This report offers an overview of the evolution of the subfield. It identifies the emergence of a “second wave” of UPE theorizing that engages with post-humanist ontologies and addresses important methodological questions (see the subsection Challenging “Methodological Cityism” in UPE) and intersectionality through feminist and post-structuralist approaches (see also Feminist, Queer, and Decolonial Perspectives in UPE). The paper also effectively captures the diversity of the subfield, which has elucidated the plurality of ways that social change and the urban environment are codetermined.

  • Heynen, Nik. “Urban Political Ecology II: The Abolitionist Century.” Progress in Human Geography (2015).

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132515617394

    Heynen introduces the term “abolitionist ecology” to capture the potential for UPE to engage with postcolonial, antiracist, and indigenous theory in order to explore how racialized processes lead to the (re)production of highly uneven and inequitable urban environments. In elucidating these processes, the author sees scope for the identification of ways in which urban nature can be created free of white supremacist logics.

  • Heynen, Nik. “Urban Political Ecology III: The Feminist and Queer Century.” Progress in Human Geography 42.3 (2017): 446–452.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132517693336

    The progress report of Heynen’s article explores the potential for UPE to draw on feminist and queer perspectives to broaden its intellectual horizons toward a more praxis-oriented intellectual project. See also Feminist, Queer, and Decolonial Perspectives in UPE.

  • Keil, Roger. “Urban Political Ecology: Progress Report.” Urban Geography 24.8 (2003): 723–738.

    DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.24.8.723

    This article maps the early emergence of UPE as a distinct subfield and traces the origins of the field. Usefully, it identifies a number of researchers whose work broadly aligns with the key concerns of UPE prior to the term’s introduction, along with a number of its conceptual underpinnings that have been widely taken up in the academic literature.

  • Keil, Roger. “Progress Report: Urban Political Ecology.” Urban Geography 26.7 (2005): 640–651.

    DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.26.7.640

    A follow-up to Keil 2003, this report continues to chart the emergence of UPE. The early dominance of North American and European case studies is evident in this report, as well as the early interest in water and urban green spaces (trees, lawns, and parks). It also points to the emergence of key analytical concepts in UPE, including those of urban metabolism and cyborg urbanism.

  • Zimmer, Anna. “Urban Political Ecology: Theoretical Concepts, Challenges, and Suggested Future Directions.” Erdkunde 64.4 (2010): 343–354.

    DOI: 10.3112/erdkunde.2010.04.04

    This review piece provides a succinct overview of the basis of UPE thought and of key concepts in the subfield. Zimmer foreshadows a number of the future directions that the subfield would take by highlighting the need for: more focus on cities in non-industrial nations; the recognition of the diversity of socio-natural relationships in cities and the presence of a plurality of UPEs; and the potential for actor-oriented and non-Marxist approaches to contribute to theorizing UPE.

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