Cities and waters



The suffering of populations, mostly urban, affected by a disaster like the one in Rio Grande do Sul calls for action and also for reflection


The tragedy of the floods in the cities of Rio Grande do Sul forcefully raises the question: what are the manifestations of environmental issues in cities and how to understand them? The suffering of populations, mostly urban, affected by a disaster of this magnitude calls for action and also for reflection. After all, what is the specifically environmental dimension of cities?

The current understanding in this regard still seems insufficient. The environmental dimension of the urban, some say, would be in the presence of nature in the city. This nature, normally associated with rural areas, could also be observed in cities. Or, others say, it is just a “built environment”, because, being unnatural, the environment of cities is pure artifice and nature would be relegated to the countryside. In both cases, this type of response separates the domains between environment and society or, alternatively, sees an environment cut in half – part nature, part social artifice.

Let us try to place the notion of urban environment and its genesis in historical time, trying not to separate environment and society. This is because in the countryside, as in cities, the environment is always appropriated materially and symbolically by different social actors. Certain authors also take care to remind us: this is a problem constructed in a specific historical moment. It was only at a given moment in scientific knowledge and public debate that landscapes, in the countryside as well as in cities, began to be seen from a new perspective – environmental; “Ecology” focused on the way connections are made between parts – between plants and soil, rivers and banks, buildings and hills.

And, above all, for the connections between the different ways of using rivers, lakes, soils, atmosphere, etc. It would be necessary, for example, experts tell us, to broaden our view of cities to encompass the entire river basin in which they are located. The urban issue was, therefore, “environmentalized” through the formulation of new perceptions and interpretations of urban problems, in particular through the attention given to the connections and reciprocal impacts between the different forms of occupation of spaces.

On the other hand, it is not just the issue of the ecosystems in which cities are located, but the set of ideas and concepts through which urban socio-ecological problems and their methods of treatment were constructed.[I]

The notion of “environmentalization” thus emerged to designate the way in which social actors began to evaluate the pertinence and legitimacy of space occupation practices, classifying them as environmentally damaging or environmentally benign.[ii] Thus it was that certain ways of appropriating and using space, in cities and outside them, began to be perceived and identified as generating undesirable impacts on the ecological conditions of existence and work of third parties.


And what would have been the history of this environmentalization of the urban issue? We know that, in its origins, the modern city was understood as carrying a population issue. The statisticians who measured urban facts, in the 19th century, were seen as “population technicians”. They pointed to the population cluster as responsible for the material and moral ills in the city. Malthusian themes then invaded the public debate: the city's sweating and the exhalation of vapors from a large number of men and animals were seen as problems specific to the most populated neighborhoods.

It was in these locations, they said, that the noisy and polluting workshops, the so-called moral pathologies of crime and prostitution, were located. Population concentration unified the material and moral dimensions of the newly known urban expansion.[iii] And even when statisticians verified an unequal distribution of the mortality rate between neighborhoods, the quantitative relationship between the number of individuals and the space occupied by the neighborhood was pointed out as responsible for the inequality in the face of death – the mass atmosphere, the miasmas, the lack of of air…

Other types of concentration processes were not included in the analyzes at the time, in addition to the effects of crowding: little was discussed, for example, the concentration of power over urban space and its resources, nor the concentration of the capacity of certain actors social networks affect – inside and outside cities – others through the impact of their practices on atmospheric physicochemistry, water, soil and living systems.

While capitalism was created together with the privatization of land, which became, from then on, a pseudo-commodity, we are presented with the following question: what would have happened to the other elements of shared use such as water and air? Historian Alain Corbin provides elements to characterize what today we can consider an environmental dimension before la lettre of the urban: in relation to the evils associated with large industry, from then on, he says, technological optimism and the naturalization of pollution prevailed.[iv]

What came into force, in the social uses of water and the atmosphere, were relations of force; that is, the exercise of the power of certain owners to freely dispose of spaces shared by all. Friedrich Engels, in turn, spoke, in a much more general way, of a capitalization of everything: “capitalists appropriate everything, while, in large numbers, there is nothing left but life itself”.[v]

Industrialization, historians say, generated public anxieties. In other words, it brought with it a political problem: the prevalence of a certain private use of non-commercial air and water spaces over other uses. A political issue that was, however, silenced. Acts of force that were naturalized, depoliticized. Given the new scale of operation of productive practices and the concentrated form of exercising power to manage spaces and resources, an unequal social division of the capacity of spatial practices to impact each other was created; in the countryside, in the cities and, of course, between the countryside and the cities.

The dominant practices of large-scale industry and large-scale agriculture thus, in effect, imposed their private uses on the common spaces of air and water courses, releasing unsalable products from the production of goods (waste, effluents, emissions) into them. ) or, in the case of commercial agriculture, deforesting banks and compacting soils, impacting – and eventually compromising – the exercise of other non-dominant spatial practices.

We can call this configuration a “proto-environmentalism” of capitalism – that is, an “environmental” pattern specific to the regime of wealth accumulation that began to operate long before an environmental issue itself had been formulated as a public problem. Certain authors mention what would have been a European “first public environmental policy” when, in 1806, Paris's manufactures were classified into categories of “comfortable and inconvenient”, some being removed from the agglomeration, others tolerated.[vi]

Now, such measures did not exactly treat industries as a source of environmental pollution to be restricted and regulated; Factories simply became the object of spatial policies for locating nuisances.


Let's skip a century: it was in the 1960s that we were able to observe the emergence of social struggles through which the denunciation – as “environmental evils” – of the processes of private domination, in fact, of common spaces, which had been practiced since the beginnings of capitalism; that is, the imposition, on supposedly free citizens, of forced consumption – via waterways and the atmosphere – of unsellable products of commercial production: solid waste, liquid and gaseous effluents.

Questions were also raised regarding the arbitrary management of forests and watercourses by large-scale chemical-mechanized agriculture, with its harmful consequences for food, biodiversity and soil. What we sought to do then was to politicize a previously silenced debate, initiating a process of environmentalization of social struggles that included, of course, urban issues.

Initially, from countercultural social movements criticizing consumerism and the monocultural agricultural model that, we see today, has dramatic consequences on river basins, with flooding of urban areas, mediated or not by climate change; then, by multilateral institutions, UNESCO, HABITAT and the World Bank, with the so-called “brown agenda” regarding the environmentalization of sanitation; finally, by governments, which created their environmental secretariats and ministries, largely in response to social movements and international pressure and with little impact on cities, although, more recently, evoking the need for cities to adapt to climate change .

But, beyond the current uses of common sense, which considers the urban environment as the sum of the issues of sanitation, air and water pollution, waterproofing and soil contamination, in analytical terms, we could also ask: how did it happen? conceptualizing, in a slightly more systematic way, the “environmental dimension of the urban”? How were apparently such disparate processes unified?

Observing the literature on the urban environment, there is an expansion of the conventional urban debate to physical-chemical and biological aspects of the configuration of cities. The authors who have been animating this debate refer, as a rule: (a) to the way in which, in cities, “collective goods, such as water, air, soil” are consumed, transformed and deteriorated; (b) the fact that these collective goods came to be seen as mediators/transmitters of risks of compromising the ecological conditions of life in cities, due to the different social modes of appropriation of which they are the object[vii]; (c) the need to consider social differentiation in the process of socio-ecological change: namely, that urban risks are unevenly distributed; What favors one social group may harm another.

Thus, “urbanized nature would bring together material and symbolic goods crossed by urban social conflicts around its control, configuring unequal spatial patterns of distribution of environmental amenities and evils”.[viii]

Articulating the considerations of these authors, the notion of “urban environment” would designate the space in which urban risks exist associated with the modes of appropriation and consumption of collective goods such as air, water and soil, as well as elements of living systems carrying microorganisms. , viruses, bacteria, etc., through which certain spatial practices (generally of high-impact capitalist enterprises) affect the practices of third parties (generally dispossessed and racialized groups), in the context of socially unequal and conflictual patterns of distribution of damages and amenities urban.

We are, therefore, far from the simple agglomerative population effects of the 19th century, but rather, faced with the undesirable effects of certain spatial practices developed in cities or outside them, but with impacts on them.


The government of the “urban environment” thus refers to the political regulation of unequally distributed risks arising from the dominant ways of appropriating shared and non-commercial material spaces in the city or outside cities, with consequences within them. In fact, it is not just about managing ecosystems, but about regulating spatial practices and the disputes surrounding the definition of which of them carry risks or not and for whom.

In this regard, the concomitance between disastrous floods in cities and the relaxation of forestry codes is striking (the case of Santa Catarina, in 2011, is emblematic of this), indicating the strength of denialism applied to causal relationships and (dis)responsibility risk-generating decision makers. A recent example is that of a councilor from Rio Grande do Sul who blamed trees for landslides, among other nonsense.

Or the well-known press campaign saying that favelas should be removed due to their definition as an “environmental problem” in cities.[ix] Now, precarious housing is, in reality, one, among many, manifestations of the unequal pattern of distribution of urban environmental risks. Empirical evidence shows, by the way, the validity of a discriminatory logic for locating risk-bearing equipment, with black, indigenous and low-income populations being exposed, in a more than proportional way, to their environmental impacts, as well as to the inegalitarian dynamics of the land market, unequal distribution of sanitation infrastructure, insufficient access to safe housing, etc.

The situations of environmental inequality thus configured are those, therefore, that express processes of concentration of power, on the part of agents of dominant spatial practices, to impact third parties – the promoters of non-dominant spatial practices – and not be impacted by them. For this reason, large corporations, including urban real estate companies, justify, on a discursive level, environmental licenses that are not very judicious, the relaxation of standards and the regression of rights. Harmful impacts and risks will be allocated systematically, in a more than proportional way in the spaces occupied by dispossessed social groups.

In parallel, the condition of vulnerability experienced by dispossessed and racialized groups results from the subtraction of their conditions of resistance to the imposition of harm, including climatic conditions, when unequal power relations prevail in the spatial dynamics of location and urban mobility. The condition of vulnerability thus expresses the fact that the State fails to ensure equal protection for all its citizens – such as defense against floods, heat islands, landslides, etc.

In academic debates surrounding the definition of the object of study in the discipline of Environmental History, certain researchers called on their colleagues not to deal with cities, as they are supposedly an expression of culture, foreign to the object of nature. Defenders of the relevance of the theme of the urban environment replied, in turn, that it would be impossible to study nature without taking into account what two centuries ago represented its greatest challenge: mass urbanization and industrialization.

Excluding the city as a cultural construction, they say, would also imply disregarding the fact that agrarian landscapes are also such.[X] We could add one more argument: the existence of environmental inequalities in the distribution of urban risks indicates that the management of the cities' environment is an unavoidable and specific political issue. Consequently, if we want to guarantee environmental protection for everyone and avoid critical situations like those that shook the cities of Rio Grande do Sul, it will be necessary not only to take care of the maintenance of hydraulic structures built along water courses, but also to regulate spatial practices. urban and extra-urban areas – in this case, the large deforestation monoculture – through laws and norms that are resistant to denialist efforts to make it more flexible, dismantle and set back.

* Henri Acselrad is a retired full professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] Brand, Peter “Environmental Construction of Urban Bienestar. Case of Medellín, Colombia”, in Economy, Society and Territory, vol. III, no. 9, 2001, p. 1-24.

[ii] However, do not confuse the notion of “environmentalization” with what some authors call “urban ambiance”, referring to the way in which, in cities, environments are created, sensations and atmospheres are organized according to an Ecology of the sensitive; JP. Thibaud, The becoming environment of the urban world,Redouble, 2012, 9, p.30-36.

[iii] Louis Chevalier, Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses; Pluriel, Paris, 1978 []

[iv] A. Corbin. The perfume and the miasma, the smell and the imagination, Fondo de Cultura Económico, Mexico, 1987 []

[v] F. Engels, The Situation of the Working Class in England, Global ed., São Paulo, p.36.

[vi] A. Guillerme, AC. Lefort, G. Jigaudon, Dangerous, unhealthy and inconvenient – industrial paysages in banlieue parisiennne XIX-XX siècles, ed.Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 2004

[vii] P. Metzger “Urban environment and risks: elements of reflection”, in MA Fernández (org.), Cities at risk – environmental degradation, urban risks and disasters, La Red, 199; MC Nunes Coelho, “Environmental impacts in urban areas – theories, concepts and research methods”, in AJTGuerra – SB; Cunha (org.), Urban environmental impacts in Brazil, Bertrand, Rio de Janeiro, 2001, p. 19-45.

[viii] E. Swyngedouw and N. Heynen Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale, in Antipode, 2003, pp. 899-918.

[ix] Criticism of this perspective is well developed in R. Compans, The city against the favela: the new environmental threat. Brazilian Journal of Urban and Regional Studies, 9(1), 2007.

[X] G. Massard-Guilbaud, Pour une histoire environnementale de l'urbain, Urban history, 2007/1 (no. 18), P. 5 to 21.

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