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Seeing Green: Speculative Urbanism in the Green Economy


As the twenty-first century begins, climate change has become an urban problem. Global urban networks and institutions such as the World Bank point to cities' energy demand and major greenhouse gas emissions share. Simultaneously, they frame cities as a critical source of environmental solutions, through green building, energy efficiency retrofitting, "smart" infrastructure, and other transformations of twentieth century urban geography. And critically, they argue that innovative cities can make these changes profitable, and thereby help propel a technological revolution in advanced capitalism: the development of a "green" economy. Amidst the economic turmoil that followed the 2008 financial collapse, many public and private institutions took up the idea of green economic development as a pathway to economic recovery and twenty-first century accumulation.

In this study, I critically examine the crisis-era development of green economic ideas in the United States, particularly in cities like San Francisco. I focus on new forms of value and unconventional resources being developed for the green economy, from energy efficiency to the "green-ness" of buildings. I examine how the federal government and cities hope to harness this value for transformative economic development, and how financial institutions and real estate developers are pioneering distinct visions of the profits to be made from environmental change and/or its mitigation. Critical resource geography and political economy/ecology offer important theoretical windows into green economic development. I consider how critiques of market environmentalism developed to analyze rural resource extraction can be expanded to analyze a new urban resource geography. I use methods such as surveys of industry and policy literature, participant observation at conferences, historical research, and analysis of financial instruments.

I find that financial institutions and major real estate developers have become driving players in urban greening, even as green collar jobs organizers won governmental support for more economically redistributive visions. Finance is helping transform green building and retrofitting from a niche sector into mainstream real estate and urban development practice, aided by new "green" financial instruments. Simultaneously, financialization threatens to make green urbanism increasingly speculative and exclusionary, and delimits more ambitious federal programs to promote green manufacturing and mass employment.

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