SUMANI Trendster Blog: In the City’s Shadows

A meditation on Urban Metabolism, understanding a city’s dependence on its hinterlands.

Hinterland is a German word that translates to “land behind,” often referring to an area surrounding a town or port, which it serves. The concept of hinterland is a foundational component in understanding a city’s Urban Metabolism, a model that tracks and analyzes flows of resources and energy within an urban environment.

Ultimately, in characterizing resource flows within urban settings and acknowledging the reciprocity between city and hinterland, it is vital to locate nature as a formative dynamic condition, essential to the urban system.


Brussels Material Flows

Whether as finite or volatile supply, air, water and the conversion of solar energy into food may each threaten the city. To insure its existence, the city sets out to expand that limitation and to control and standardize that volatility by rewriting nature. The earnestness of urban agriculture advocacy and the promise of resilience offer some evidence of a desire to change those terms, in hopes of offering a kind of negotiated compromise with nature.

image [2]
Brooklyn Grange rooftop garden


A debris-covered street in DUMBO after Hurricane Sandy in 2012

One example of this is present in many parts of Brooklyn, a deeply photogenic borough that may even have the advantage of making the city-to-hinterland relationship visible, as urban gardens provide citizens more opportunities to engage with some of their food sources. This relationship has essentially been made invisible by the achievement of on-demand resource provision, which often represses the urban-dweller’s relationship to the origins of the food and energy he/she uses each day.  

In turn, this visibility may provide an opening in a sustainability conversation, often promoted by technological enthusiasts, to reassert just how fundamental the rhythms of the non-anthropogenic world are in the city’s survival. Flows are particularly evident when they meet the resistant, solid state and at least slightly snobbish spaces of the city. Visible and identifiable are two adjectives that are rarely associated with the city’s perspective on its hinterland.

At the beginning of his seminal essay Luftkrieg und Literatur, W.G. Sebald describes an American-British vision for a re-ruralized post-World War II Germany. This was not just an obscure method to insure that Germany would never again be an aggressor nation, but by 1944, this vision was asserting itself de facto in the shells of the residual German metropolises left in the wake of bombing raids and ground battles.

While the focus on returning to agrarian life may certainly tell us something about the Anglo-American development of wholesome rural life as antidote to the evils of urbanization, it also has a peculiar relevance to questions of urban sustainability.

Conventional wisdom tells us that cities arose in response to the surplus produced elsewhere, which gave rise to trade and promoted the ubiquity of centralized marketplaces, thus giving rise to cities. The city has historically served to gather and leverage what the hinterland produces, as guilds of urban crafts added value to raw materials. This allowed for the monetization of crops and piecework, as well as the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge within cities.

But the story could be told quite differently, as Edward Soya has done in his brief article Putting Cities First. Soya argues that it was actually the rise of the cities that motivated the creation of surplus. In other words, cities did not develop because of the hinterland’s opulence and benevolence, but instead, arose because they asserted their demands on the resources around them.

Bayeux tapestry entitled, Planning the Invasion (scene three), where food and supplies are taken to a boat.
The motivations behind those demands were likely political before they were economic or existential: cities waged war, and war required provisioning. In either scenario, it is clear that cities have never provided the basis for their own carrying capacity, as goods produced mostly came from exoteric sources. The re-ruralized city – a city imagined from scratch as agricultural carrying capacity housed amidst the ruins – might be the only historical exception.  

The history of resources provision – whether heat, water, food or air – is a history of increasingly invisible or abstracted supply. This 1880 German design for a coal space heater speaks volumes: consistent and effortless heat is provided to the room by a vertical bin that continuously feeds the fire. The room occupant is no longer implicated in the tempering of the space she or he enjoys. The bin, of course, does not feed itself. The space next to the heated room, into which the slanted coal bin obtrudes, is occupied by the servants who top off the coal supply.

A worker shovels coal into an industrial furnace.
In this arrangement, comfort has become abstracted and denaturalized through this combination of invisible labor and technology. By analogy, you might imagine a whole city warming itself at the coal hearth, largely oblivious to the ever expanding landscapes on the other side of the wall, or the myriad invisible technology connecting it to them.

Map showing Northeast production areas by food item
Within sustainability studies, cities are often cited for the efficiency of their transportation, housing and supply or refuse infrastructures. Their on-demand relationship to their hinterlands in a globalized world defies this simple conclusion. It would be easy to locate urban metabolism as a study within the long history of rhetoric that describes cities as organisms or bodies, from the Renaissance discourse of ideal city planning to the 18th century’s beginnings of public health and urban reform movements. But as the fact of a global hinterland challenges the viability of simple “sustainability” agendas, we increasingly need to understand how the material flows that construct the city’s forms, practices and regimes have roots that exist without human activity.

Urban Metabolism offers methods to quantify a city’s material flows relative to its spatial, historical, political and social environment. Perhaps the best place to begin analyzing and understanding these flows is by relocating some of the hinterland within our own urban backyards.

– Lynnette Widder
SUMANI Trendster Contributor, 6/7/2016

Lynnette Widder is Lecturer in Discipline in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Masters Program.

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

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