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The environmental challenges of city life: resilience and precariousness

The very notion of resilience, defined as the capacity to recover quickly from shocks, to reconstruct oneself after traumas and to adapt to new situations, situates the study of the ecological dimensions of urban history at the very heart of our project. Since the publication of the seminal works of M. Melosi and H. Platt ‘environmental urban history’ is enjoying a growing interest in the academic sphere as well as among the general public as is demonstrated by the numerous publications, journals, networks and conferences devoted to this theme. The exceptional degree of urbanisation that has occurred in Belgium since the Middle Ages fully justifies a long-term historical inquiry into the relation between cities and their environment, all the more since comparative and encompassing research is wanting. Research does exist in the different universities of the country but remains unfortunately too scattered; therefore, it lacks academic visibility. While developing our project, we set as our fundamental objective to bring together our different expertise and competences by integrating them in a joint agenda. The question of the resilience/precariousness of city life faced with environmental pressures has been chosen as the one we want to address. In the field of environmental history the notion of ‘resilience’ has been utilised for a decennium in order to study and understand the collective actions or strategies taken by societies to resist or to adapt to ‘ecological stresses’ (see the special issue of Global Environmental Change, 16, 2006, n° 3), but it has rarely been used in the context of the specific study of urban history and even more rarely for medieval or early modern cities. Our central question can thus be formulated as follows: ‘how did the cities of the Low Countries respond to ecological pressures, hazards and disasters in the past and which aspects of urban society fostered or hampered long-term urban ecological resilience ?’

This work package will focus on the reactions and re-organisation strategies conceived by urban societies or groups to respond to ‘ecological pressures.’ In this perspective it is important not to reduce this notion to acute crises only (e.g. centennial floods, accidental pollution) but also to use it to describe situations resulting from long-term transformations of ecological conditions (e.g. overexploitation of peri-urban forests, accumulation of waste in the urban space, water pollution). These transformations usually unfold over very long-term periods, the crises only being their symptoms. The answers proposed must thus also be observed in long-term history.

In order to deal with this broad question we plan to organise our work according to three main themes: (1) Resources and Spaces, (2) Flows, Recycling, and Waste, (3) Crises, Disasters and Opportunities. The strong links among the three axes will inevitably be striking.

Research themes

1. Resources and Spaces

In this axis we want to focus on the dynamic relationships between urban populations/spaces and their natural resources by asking what happens in spatial, social and economic terms when a specific resource begins to run out. Amongst the natural resources we will concentrate on these three: building material (timber in particular), food, and the urban commons/non-built space.

2. Flows, Recycling, and Waste

In this second axis we will take advantage of the concept of ‘urban metabolism’ to better understand the material flows existing between the cities and their hinterland and the fundamental changes that occurred in the course of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The concept of ‘urban metabolism’, born in the 1960s, has since then been largely used to characterise the material and energy flows existing between a city and its ‘outside’ world and hence to evaluate their sustainability. Sustainability is defined as a point of equilibrium between the consumption of natural resources by the city and the benefits it provides to its hinterland. This concept has been applied to various geographical areas, various types of flows and various periods but mainly from industrial times onwards (e.g. Barles 2005). It is possible, however, to gain insight into the urban metabolism of late medieval and early modern cities (Galloway et al. 2003; Keene 2009). We will do so by looking at the way they coped with the waste they produced, especially throughout the great economic transitions. Waste management is of course inseparable from the study of recycling processes. Our main target here is to identify the critical moments in this waste-recycling history and the solutions imagined to solve them, sometimes unsuccessfully. Within the IAP project, the joint expertise of the research teams will considerably enhance our understanding of the driving forces, actors and conditions that enabled the amazing but often precarious success of organic waste salvage in the medieval and early modern cities of the Southern Low Countries. In order to achieve the revision envisaged we will pursue a triple strategy.

1) For a better understanding of waste and recycling processes it will be of great importance to look closely at the functioning of rivers within the urban space. Indeed rivers are inextricably linked to the flows of waste (Guillerme 1990). The waste that could not be removed as a commodity or reused in a second life cycle often ended in the inner hydraulic network. Therefore the hydraulic transformations and developments have always had a close relationship with industrial (re)organisation and spatial distribution. 

2) The commodification of urban organic waste in early modern and nineteenth-century Brabantine and Flemish towns and its environmental and economic imprint on the urban hinterland will be investigated through a network approach of both the flows of organic waste from cities to the countryside and the actors controlling these flows – from producers (urban households), traders and middle-men, to consumers (i.e. farmers). 

3) The social, spatial and cultural dimensions of cleanliness and filth will also be investigated through the study of toponymy. As Bram Vannieuwenhuyze (KULeuven) and Chloé Deligne (ULB) are able to demonstrate in the case of medieval Brussels, the cautious study of toponymy can reveal the social topography of the city as well as certain ‘waste practices’ which are not to be found in the written records. 

Since we consider management of waste and recycling behaviours to be a ‘total social and cultural phenomenon’, we will also pay specific attention to the actors (rag-and-bone men, ‘moddermeyers’ or ‘entrepreneurs des boues’ – i.e. ‘mud entrepreneurs/farmers’ –, …), who made these flows running through the city. The link with work package 3 is here again obvious as these kinds of occupations and activities were often denigrated and excluded from the city.

3. Crises, Disasters and Opportunities

Although over the past two decades a lot of case-studies have been carried out on the impact of meteorological, biological or geophysical disasters in cities over time (e.g. Massard-Guilbaud et al. 2002), we still lack comparative insight into which urban policies, institutions, geographical path-dependencies, economic fortunes or misfortunes, really fostered or hampered urban resilience to disaster. To what extent was the present-day ‘resilience’ to environmental disaster in the city fostered by careful spatial planning, by the development of private or corporate insurance mechanisms, or conversely, of public policies, by the externalising of environmental risk to the hinterland or other parts of the world, or to the fragmentation of risk among different groups within cities ? At this point the comparison with pre-modern cities becomes tempting, as the latter were often permeated by risk-avoidance strategies, often deployed through institutions and organisations for collective action (guilds, commons, etc). It remains to be questioned to what extent these strategies enhanced the medieval and early modern urban community’s resilience to disaster, and whether their breaking-up in the wake of industrialisation and political modernisation profoundly altered urban risk-coping strategies. In numerous cases crises and disasters were often grasped as opportunities for some social bodies/groups to reconstruct cities differently… and profitably. This capacity to seize accidents as opportunities for reorganisation is also one of the themes we plan to develop throughout our research. It is indeed one of the dead angles of the historiography of crises.

This axis is quite ‘naturally’ linked to work package 2 (Urban Memories) as resilience to crises and disasters is deeply fostered by the way cities deal with the memory of those crises. It will also share some issues with the interdisciplinary ARC project conducted at the FUNDP on the NIMBY-phenomenon (which is dealing with the perception, the memory and the adaptation of the inhabitants to new risk exposures; C. Payen) and with the project submitted by Bas van Bavel (University of Utrecht) for an ERC-Advanced Grant on the role of institutions in mitigating the impact of historical disasters, 1300-1800.