Interview with 2018 Addams Article Award Recipient Hillary Angelo

CUSS Newsletter, 2019 Winter, Vol 32, No 1

Interviewers: 
Kyle Galindez, University of California, Santa Cruz 
Steven Schmidt, University of California, Irvine

Hillary Angelo, “From the City Lens Toward Urbanisation as a Way of Seeing: Country/City Binaries on an Urbanising Planet.” Urban Studies. 54:1,158-178. (January 1, 2017)

What motivated you to study this particular research topic?

The motivation for my broad research project— nature in cities, or the relationship between urbanization and perceptions of nature in cities— grew directly out of my employment history prior to graduate school. I worked for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for a number of years, where I was fascinated by people’s passionate/ obsessive love of parks and green spaces, and the question of why this should be the case. Though I did not intend to make nature a topic of my scholarship, those questions were clearly on my mind when I began doctoral research! This particular paper grew of out some explorations about the implications of arguments about “planetary urbanization” (more on that below) for social theory.

What theoretical debates interest you the most, and how do you see your research contributing to them?

I am currently engaged in two sets of debates (or at least two growing areas of research) in interdisciplinary urban studies, one about “planetary urbanization” and the other about urban environmental politics and the politics of nature in cities.

The first is an effort, spearheaded by Neil Brenner among others, to shift the research object of urban studies from its traditional focus on cities as sites to include an expanded conception of urban processes of objects of analysis.

The second is a variety of work being carried out in the wake of broad acknowledgement that “nature” in all its forms, is central to cities, and thus urbanists must also consider the natural, ecological, and perceived-to-be-natural elements of urban environments in their research. This includes work in urban and environmental sociology, as well as urban studies and geography, on the politics of parks and green public spaces, urban agriculture, green gentrification, and green urban branding.

I see my work as offering a distinctly sociological contribution to both of these areas, in that it brings disciplinary insights from historical sociology, environmental sociology, the sociology of knowledge and morality to bear in these interdisciplinary discussions. For instance, “planetary urbanization” has tended to be more focused on larger scale transformations of landscape and political economy. The article that received the Jane Addams award was part of my ongoing effort to elaborate the stakes and implications of a “planetary” view of urban processes for urban social analysis (and here, specifically regarding perceptions of, and theorizations of, people, spaces, and things traditionally considered “urban” or not-urban).

What surprises did you find as you conducted your fieldwork/study?

Well, the article is theoretical rather than empirical, but I was surprised to find parallel subdisciplinary trends in urban political ecology, American urban sociology and postcolonial urban studies. When I started writing it I was most familiar with urban political ecology, and was most used to seeing city/nature binaries invoked (reflexively or not) in cases where the main effort was to figure out how to inscribe “nature”, or the environment, into self-consciously “urban” analyses that may have once restricted themselves to “social” aspects of the built environment.

But in the process of developing the argument I began reading more widely and realized that other urban subfields were facing similar problems—for instance, work on “amenity migrants” or “rural gentrifiers”. It seemed to me that we were all turning somersaults trying to figure out how to handle objects of analysis that scrambled categories long thought of as relatively uncomplicated, unchanging, and unproblematic, and dealing with questions like: How would/should one actually describe cosmopolitan people dramatically affecting spaces outside of cities? How would/should one actually work outside of city/ nature or other city/notcity binaries, even once their limitations and problems were acknowledged? I became quite obsessed with the Journal of Peasant Studies, some pieces from which are cited in the article, because the journal’s whole reason for being seemed to be called into question by these changes, and so many articles were dealing directly with these questions in their empirical work.

Where do you see your work going in the future?

Lots of places! Right now I am completing a book manuscript on urban greening that offers a historical and empirical demonstration of some of the arguments presented rather abstractly in this article. Urban greening is conventionally depicted as a reaction against “the city,” and classically the slums, density, and public health problems of the industrial metropolis. The book traces 150 years of greening in Germany’s Ruhr Valley—a place where these conditions were absent—to explore how and when nature came to be perceived as a good in cities, and the impact these understandings have had on urban politics and urban transformation.

I’m also currently working on a collaborative project on contemporary urban sustainability planning that extends the concerns motivating the book project into the present. David Wachsmuth (McGill University) and I have just published an article on representations of nature in urban sustainability planning, and are completing a lengthy piece and special issue on the topic of “Why does everyone think cities can save the planet?” that examines the reasons for, and political implications of, sustainability planning’s urban turn.

Beyond these projects I have several in exploratory stages…one on infrastructure and sociology, with Craig Calhoun, that seems like a departure from these topics but really extends my interest in how material forms we live with — whether large-scale infrastructural systems or representations of nature like parks — literally shape social life. Since moving to California (and buying a car) I have been doing a lot of “nature tourism” in national parks and the American West, and contemplating a project on public lands. And I am also involved in a project with Eric Klinenberg (New York University) on the “social life of climate change” that seeks to characterize the social organization of climate change as a public moral issue today.

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