Ecological Equilibrium and Recuperation of the Urban

‘Ecological Equilibrium and Recuperation of the Urban’ 
-The urban in the age of capitalist urbanism
-Toward ecological equilibrium

*From the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 – Catalogue of the Korean Pavilion (Korean version cover)


The urban in the age of capitalist urbanism

From the 1960s onwards (since WWII or the Great Acceleration,[1] if not the Industrial Revolution), the environmental ecology has significantly lost its stabilized feedback loop, and the social ecology, particularly under the media-dominated consumerist society, has contributed to anesthetizing the free and active will of human subjectivity which is the driving force operating between environmental and social ecologies. In the new millennium, as the neoliberal economy has become predominant in every corner of society, any attempts to restore the equilibrium of the environmental – the social – the mental (human subjectivity) ecologies have often been co-opted or frustrated by the existing socio-political and economic systems. This essay attempts to seek a breakthrough in the rehabilitation of the collapsed ecological equilibrium among the environmental, the social, and human subjectivity, upon which ‘the urban’ is revalorized; ‘the urban,’ in turn, properly generates the ecological feedback loop. This discussion might enable us to reflect the emancipatory potential of ‘the urban’ and the original meaning of ecology(ies), thereby exploring the way in which we could reclaim the space where human and non-human beings co-exist in equity—the free space.

As of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the West, the nationalist vision of the urban process was challenged as neo-Marxist urban theorists, such as Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Manuel Castells, suggested new perspectives through which to analyze the urbanization processes in the globalizing capitalist societies. Urban political economists represented by Immanuel Wallerstein also analyzed the global dimensions of urban restructuring in the 1970s and early 1980s, drawing upon new approaches to the political economy of capitalism, which underscored its intrinsically globalizing dimensions. The ‘world-systems analysis’ mode claimed by Wallerstein was chief among them; in this discourse, he explored the worldwide polarization of economic development and the changing living conditions under global capitalism.[2] Lefebvre, his contemporaries, and the next generation’s experts, have all never conceived of ‘the urban’ as separate from either capital, democracy or the issue of class. In his early critique titled “The Urban Revolution” (1968), Lefebvre also anticipated the ‘generalization’ of capitalist urbanization through the establishment of the concepts of a planetary ‘fabric’ or ‘web’ of urbanized spaces. In other words, he foresaw the planetary urbanization based on the globalizing capitalist economy at a very early stage. It was during the 1980s when capitalist urbanism was consolidated globally as a core concept for urbanism. In the following decades, the 1990s and 2000s, a similar phenomenon emerged significantly in the East Asia and Pacific region. As such, people have not conceived of ‘the urban’ (as im/material environmental ecology) independent of its relationship with the global capitalist system (as im/material social ecology) since the latter half of the twentieth century onwards, more specifically since the rise of the era of post-industrial capitalism, which was impregnated with neoliberalism.









How, then, does the capitalist social ecology affect the physical formation and operation of the urban space? Harvey, in line with Lefebvre’s conception of ‘the urban,’ prioritizes its effect as a socio-political and economic outcome, particularly with regards to economic and class relations and its impact on the formation of the city.[3] On the relationship between capitalism and urbanization, he explicates the cyclical chain relation between the economic and spatial phenomena through the concept of ‘surplus’ in Rebel Cities: “capitalism is perpetually producing the surplus product that urbanization requires. The reverse relation also holds. Capitalism needs urbanization to absorb the surplus products it perpetually produces. In this way an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization.”[4] This perspective of ‘the urban’ becomes a critique of the structural urban problems mainly caused by the capitalist system. In some sense, little effort may be necessary to imagine the connection between the capitalist socio-economic circumstance and its impact on urbanization. What draws our attention to his discourse is that, while relating urbanization to the issue of class, Harvey points out that the question is who takes command and control of the connection between urbanization and surplus production and use. The problematique of urbanization here focuses on the potentialities for emancipatory politics, the ‘possible urban worlds’[5] that inhere within but are systematically suppressed by power relations. Thus, to elicit the various meanings of ‘the urban’ within a specific region, we need to understand not only the changing capitalist systems, but also the way in which shifting political or corporate powers command and control the socio-economic systems in a given society.

During the 1960s and 1970s, in most war-torn [postcolonial] countries, including South Korea, dictatorial regimes took office and endeavored to maintain their power through industrial development—on one hand, under the banner of nationalist patriotism, and on the other hand, feeding a hungry public based on economic logic—while investing most resources in rebuilding the nation’s material urban environment; the process was material in the sense of both the physical cityscape and the economic/industrial conditions. It was literally a top-down tabula rasa urban design as we often see in a work of urban planning following a natural catastrophe.[6] What we problematize here is not the engagement of the government or institutionalized power, including individual designers, with the design of the urban space, but the ways in which such sources of power produced the urban structure that contributes to an increasingly polarized social ecology and deteriorates the feedback loop of environmental-social ecologies as a whole. It is problematic because, as the Cultural and Historical Geographer Matthew Gandy claims, urbanism or ‘the urban’ without social equity can easily fall into neo-Haussmannite programmes of environmental improvement, which rest on the relocation of socio-economically inappropriate settlements from central urban areas to marginal regions. We need to pay particular attention to this matter of command-control of power as it is the very issue directly related to the typical form of gentrification that has been aggravated without any practical solutions in the twenty-first century.[7]

At the turn of the twenty-first century, as the globalized neoliberal capitalism had been consolidated and societies of different geographical regions had been linked by networks—’global capitalism’ and ‘planetary urbanization’ have begun to go hand in hand—relational influences between environmental and social ecologies have become enhanced on a global scale. For example, that the global capitalism experienced regional crises (e.g. North and Southeast Asia in 1997-1998 [South Korea’s financial crisis under IMF-supported programs], Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so forth) before it exploded as a global crash in 2008[8] demonstrates that economic (followed by social) conditions amongst regions have became inextricably intertwined, and thus, every nation can hardly escape the impact of the global market system now. Also, as the economic circumstance has been globalized, new socio-ecological phenomena (e.g. issues related to the lower-income class, unemployment, immigrants, and refugees, or ‘wasted lives’ as Zygmunt Bauman calls them) and environmental concerns—that follow and/or are followed by socio-ecological changes—have developed into a global quandary as well. As such, for over the past two decades, the urban ecology of South Korea has been under the heavy impact of a globalized socio-economic condition. Considering the enhanced timeframe of the past sixty years of the [post-]industrial history of South Korea, the current urban ecology of the country is not only entangled with the globalized neoliberal socio-economic system, but is also layered with the trails of government-led top-down urban planning, which has yet to be ceased; the government or construction corporations are relentlessly demolishing the old existing residences to build a more profitable and gentrified town for the appropriate citizens, and this gated communities armored with reinforced self-protecting security systems prevent the so-called appropriate and inappropriate citizens from co-habiting. Ultimately, the conflated structure of urban planning has incessantly been depriving the society of opportunities to recover the equilibrium between the environmental and social ecologies. Now, we can no longer postpone the local and planetary assignment to find alternatives to finance-dominated power and its system of command and control and recuperate the ecological equilibrium—it could be a task of creation rather than that of recuperation since we have, perhaps, never had an ecological equilibrium before.


Toward ecological equilibrium

There is a paradox in the symbiotic relationship between [global] capitalism and [planetary] urbanization; while the two support each other, the former has gradually corroded ‘the urban’ which is generally regarded as the central notion of city formation and existence, or an im/material community consisting of active, thoughtful, and responsible individuals and their collective entity. In these tragic reciprocal processes, environmental, social, and mental (human subjectivity) ecologies have deteriorated, resulting in the loss of a smooth ecological feedback loop. In fact, however, whether global capitalism and planetary urbanization have damaged the urban ecologies or the damaged urban ecologies have accelerated the former two is ambiguous as they are all complicatedly interconnected with one another. Nonetheless, we attempt to find a clue first by reinstating the original meaning and the purpose of ecology, and the mode of inhabiting the world, thereby shifting or transforming the current operational system of capitalist urbanism.









Etymologically, oikos means household, and ecology pertains to the creation of habitats, both physical and social, where human beings live in accordance with the environment. Ecology is neither about nature nor about the natural environment, but about the ‘mode of relations’ between humans and humans, humans and nature, humans and the socio-economic, political, and aesthetic environment, and human(ity) and the Others. Since the late twentieth century, ecologically concerned scholars and activists have sought a solution to the aggravating ecological disequilibrium by shifting the perspective toward [horizontal] ‘relational’ thinking about the environmental and social ecologies and human subjectivity. They have also emphasized a provocative revision in the understanding of the relationship between humans and non-humans, and suggested it as the essential basis for this project of the great epistemological transition.

Historically, the late 1960s was the decisive moment when like-minded experts from diverse fields called for an alternative worldview to the white straight male dominated vertical structure. Eco-feminist scholars, such as Verena A. Conley, read the events of 1968 in France as a turning point in ecological awareness; she claims that “the de-centering of the subject, gained by the labors of structuralism and poststructuralism, leveled hierarchies and shifted a vertical vision of the world toward a more horizontal one that places on the same surface both multiculturalism and ecology.”[9] For her, in post-1968 France, “ecology takes on the double meaning of being at once a natural and social concern aimed at measuring habitability.”[10] In the disciplines of architecture and landscape, the broad application of the notion of ecology to the spatial realm dates back to a similar period; landscape architects and artists, such as Robert Smithson, experimented with the natural environment and its relation to other beings. Afterwards, architects and artists have continued the practices on the relational aspects between humans and natural or artificial/built environments, while contemplating the relational feedback loop among environmental – social – mental (human subjectivity). Meanwhile, besides conceptual approaches, practical acknowledgement of the relationship between the environmental and social ecologies emerged decades later when urban issues, particularly housing problems including gentrification, had become extremely serious. More recently, ‘engagement’ resurged as one of the key alternatives to the immanent problem of inhabiting; it was imbued with the hope that it could help restore the community-led habitat generated by active and responsible subjects.

Ecology, especially its relational aspect, perpetually reminds us of our ethical responsibility to the present moment of space and to the accumulated historical space—synchronic and diachronic axes of inhabiting. In this vein, we need to reconsider the fact that ecology is grounded on philosophical conceptions of ethos and habitus. First, ethos in Greek originally means ‘accustomed place,’ ‘custom,’ or ‘habit,’ equivalent to the Latin mores. Thus, it also forms the root of ethikos, which means ‘moral, showing moral character.’ Throughout history, conceptions of ecology have developed and expanded to refer to the human and non-human behaviour in the environment, or the ways of mapping human beings’ relations to the physical and social environments. Gilles Deleuze has developed the idea of the ethology and defines it as “the capacities for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing.” In the sense that any beings exist only through reciprocal influences within a net of relations, we can say that ecology is a matter conditioned by sociabilities.[11] Second, in ecological thinking and approaches, setting up a diachronic axis (the temporal) is as crucial as establishing a synchronic axis (the spatial) and, for this, it is helpful to employ the concept of habitus most notably explored by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu defines habitus as an embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history; however, he conveys that it also has an ‘active presence.’ It involves having a sense of one’s place or placeness within the accumulated cultural and personal experiences a human being carries in relation to the power structure that shapes such time-spaces.[12] By adding the temporal dimension to ecology, the notion of habitus helps us to understand the habitat not merely as a physical space composed of certain moments of time, but as a space that consists of individual and collective histories and memories—this may be the reason why many people are reluctant to exchange their old residence, no matter how shoddy it is, with financial compensation for a whole-sale style of urban regeneration or redevelopment. Simultaneously, this implies the point at which we need to consider ecology from the ethical viewpoint.

Ecology or ecological thinking concerns not only the habitat per se, but also our way of inhabiting the world, or the way in which human beings relate to the habitat. So, location is not a simple background upon which things just exist, but is constitutive of the inhabiting processes operated by the subject’s constant relational transactions with other elements. While Conley writes that ecological thinking offers a better ‘way of inhabiting the world,’ another adept Lorraine Code adds that ‘inhabiting’ is an active, thoughtful practice that is socially, affectively, and responsibly engaged.[13] More significantly, the idea of ecosophy, the term that Félix Guattari developed in The Three Ecologies (1989), represents the ethico-political articulation of the three ecological registers—environmental, social and mental ecologies—and suggests it as a potential way to resolve the problems of global capitalism and planetary urbanization.[14] In short, ethical anawareness of the current problematique of inhabitation is more than essential becauseonly upon this acknowledgement can we develop potential tactics to achieve ecological equilibrium in its entirety.

However, as is always the case, there are pitfalls of which we should be cautious. First, since we had begun to realize the degradation of the environment and actively react to it at the turn of the twenty-first century, the term ecology has often been confined to the love of nature or to the bio-chemical cleanliness of the natural environment that had been contaminated throughout the past century. Without much consideration for the relationship between the social and human subjectivity, the ecological concern is regarded in a narrow sense and is being altered into ‘environmentalism,’ a concept that serves proper citizens who are presumed to fit capitalist urbanism; we now experience a distorted emphasis on the natural environment that has resulted from the ideology of ‘environmentalism.’ In other words, even after the half-century history of industrialization and urbanization, the urban regeneration of South Korea, under the changed banner of ‘environmental friendliness,’ still focuses on the visible amelioration of the natural environment, more often annihilating the socially marginalized. Second, the ecological disequilibrium in mid- to higher income developing countries, including South Korea, has not been much of a concern within ecological discourses, compared to that of lower-income countries. Under these circumstances, ecological disequilibrium and the distorted understanding of ecology have become more deeply rooted in and veiled by visible socio-economic advancement (especially the building of spectacular smart cities in the case of South Korea) and political democracy; we should also guard against the fact that political democracy does not necessarily guarantee the equity of social ecology. Third, in the neoliberal urban context, the power of command and control is much less visible than in the past, as the subject of urban planning has shifted from the government to corporations or [corporatized] individuals. Such invisibility has prevented us from realizing these problems, further deteriorating the disequilibrium of ecologies and even destroying the ecological feedback loop.

In addition, when we think about the public/citizen-centered space as opposed to the space established through top-down urban planning, special caution is required in using terms like the ‘public’ or ‘citizen’; the ‘public,’ in the political realm of democracy, seems to encompass ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ transcending any socio-economic eligibility. Within the context of a high capitalist urban system, however, it has almost always excluded certain classes of people for their inappropriate value of production and consumption. Especially in the neoliberal economy system, mainly corporate engagement in the public domain has privatized parts of the public realm (either physical or immaterial space). For example, privatized-public spaces owned by corporations are generally perceived as public spaces because they allow for the public’s access; this, however, could produce a confused understanding of public/civic space as one that permits the public’s access and activities, shrouding how they exclude certain inappropriate population for the sake of the clean and secure image of the space, actually for the limited pseudo public/citizens. This is the point where we often forget the fact that public/civic space is not only the one that serves ‘for’ the [disembodied] public, but also the one built ‘by’ the [embodied] public’s engagement based on individual human subjectivity.

To overcome the historic remnants of government-led, top-down urban planning and to protect the public’s subjective power from being co-opted by corporate systems, we can no longer postpone revising our acknowledgment of the relational aspects among ecologies and the rehabilitation of the damaged feedback loop of the environmental – the social – the mental (human subjectivity). To the rehabilitation of the severely ravaged ecological equilibrium, horizontal awareness of the inhabiting (ecological thinking)—the holistic relations or the mode of making relationship between humans and non-humans—must be prioritized, and the task of revitalizing a subject who can produce and practice a socially thoughtful and responsible engagement with our ‘inhabiting’ is more than urgent and crucial. Only then can we recuperate ‘the urban’ that is grounded on spaces that are created by public/citizens’ own engagement, and on [free] spaces that do not allow any political, social, and economic exclusion.


Jeong Hye Kim

English proofreading: Diana M. Linton



  1. According to a set of 24 global indicators, or ‘planetary dashboard’, published in the journal Anthropocene Review (January 16, 2015), the ‘Great Acceleration’ in human activity refers to the era from the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 to 2010, and the subsequent changes in the Earth System. Particularly the last 60 years have seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind (, accessed December 12, 2017).
  2. Immanual Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).
  3. When claiming for the right to the city (RTTC), Harvey clarified that the urban issues are inseparable from the capitalism, and re-emphasised Lefebvre’s argument four decades ago that the revolution in our times has to be urban (David Harvey, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution [New York: Verso, 2013 (2012)], p. 25).
  4. David Harvey, Rebel Cities (2013 [2012]), p. 5.
  5. David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 403-438.
  6. See Jung-Mok Sohn, The Stories of Seoul Urban Planning, I, II, III, IV, V (Seoul: Hanul M Plus, 2016 [2003]) and Hong-Bin Kang, “The History of the Transformation of Urban Space of Seoul and Urban Policy I: Managerialist Approach,” Research on the Urban Policy of Seoul (Seoul Institute) Vol. 7, No., 6 (1999), pp. 13-23.
  7. Matthew Gandy, “From Urban Ecology to Ecological Urbanism,” Area Vol. 47, No. 2, p. 152.
  8. Regarding the urban roots of capitalist crises, see Harvey, Rebel Cities (2013 [2012]), chapter 2.
  9. Verena A. Conley, Ecopolitics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 26.
  10. Conley (1997), p. 110.
  11. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: practical philosophy, trans. by Robert Hurley (CA: City Lights Books, 1988 [1970]), pp, 125-126.
  12. Pierre Bourdieu, Logic of Practice, trans. by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992 [1980]), p. 53, 56.
  13. Conley (1997), p. 114 and Lorraine Code, Ecological Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 7.
  14. Guattari expresses it as Integrated World Capitalism (IWC). Although he does not explicitly explain political-economic circumstances around the IWC, it is interpreted as a form of global capitalist economy based on advanced technologies and highly commercialized media and network (Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies trans. by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton [London and New York: Continuum, 2000 (1989)]).

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