Urban Media Ecology: light pollution, gender mainstreaming, urban marginality

Image ©Willem Pont (retrieved from http://www.corius.net/?page_id=47)
Image ©Willem Pont (retrieved from http://www.corius.net/?page_id=47)
  • When I first read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television several years ago I was inclined to agree with the bulk of the thesis presented: the dangers posed by the inherent biases of the television medium, such as the centralization of control and “the walling of awareness”. One of Mander’s arguments that I did not find persuasive was the section on the adverse health effects linked to exposure to artificial light. That part of the book seemed too “out there” for me at the time, though that part of the argument is one of primary reasons I think Mander’s book should be included in the canon of Media Ecology literature. Well, I have since come to consider the artificial light argument as much more plausible. A recent article in The Guardian by Ellie Violet Bramley addressed the work of researchers investigating the potential long-term effects of exposure to urban light pollution:

Because humans evolved in a 24-hour light/dark cycle known as the circadian clock, any light after dusk is “unnatural”, Lockley says. When we are exposed to light after dusk, “our daytime physiology is triggered and our brains become more alert, our heart rates go up, as does our temperature, and production of the hormone melatonin is suppressed”.

Has the way city dwellers live, removed from natural light patterns, confused our bodies? “Not so much confused as shifted: we’ve been shifted later,” Lockley says. “What happens when people go camping? If you don’t have sources of electric light, then you go to bed earlier, shortly after the sun’s gone down, and you sleep for longer.” Every day we don’t go to bed at dusk, we experience what Lockley calls “mini jetlag”.

His colleague, Ken Wright at the University of Colorado in Boulder, conducted an experiment on camping. Wright found that for campers, midnight was the middle of the night: living in brightly lit cities has artificially lengthened our days. “We go to bed later, we don’t sleep as long, and we don’t know of the long-term health impact of changing,” he says.

The decision to look at how men and women used public transit wasn’t a shot in the dark. It was part of a project aimed at taking gender into account in public policy. In Vienna, this is called gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming has been in place in the Austrian capital since the early 1990s. In practice, this means city administrators create laws, rules and regulations that benefit men and women equally. The goal is to provide equal access to city resources. And so far, officials say it’s working.

Vienna has adopted gender mainstreaming in a number of areas of city administration, including education and health care policy. But nowhere has it had more of an impact than on the field of urban planning. More than sixty pilot projects have been carried out to date. As the size and scale of these projects increase, gender mainstreaming has become a force that is literally reshaping the city.

Until quite recently, ethnographic studies of the lives of the urban pariahs in the Americas regularly failed to take into account one simple, essential, fact: the poor do not breathe the same air, drink the same water, or play on the same grounds than others. Theirs is an often-polluted environment that seriously affects their present health and future capabilities, and about which scholars, myself included, have remained silent for a long time. This silence is, as we argue in the book I co-wrote with native anthropologist Débora Swistun (Flammable), another incarnation of what Sherry Ortner famously called “ethnographic refusal.”


The book will come out in the Summer of 2015 and it’s called Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, so you will have to wait! But to give you a preview, the book examines the lives of those living on “the other side” – the invisibilized, the “not talked about,” – of Austin, a thriving, rapidly growing, highly unequal, and segregated Texan technopolis. And it does so by taking an in-depth look at the ways in which individual lives (of an undocumented worker, a homeless woman, a cab driver, a domestic worker, an activist, etc.) intersect with larger social forces.

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