Los Angeles: behind the smoke and cameras

I first visited Los Angeles in the summer of 2019.  LA exists in our imagination, long before we get to visit the actual place. The LA that existed in my head was a picturesque, salad-eating, movie-making holiday utopia. However, like many American cities, I found the reality to be much less polished and glamorous than stereotypical cultural representations might have you think. The city feels like a patchwork of disparate communities, bound together by geography, a vast urban sprawl that fits within LA’s borders. The city has a population just shy of 4 million, whereas the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area contains over 12 million people living there. Flying into LAX, the extent of the urban transformation of this part of California becomes clear. You descend into what looks like a cubed desert, with rows and rows of streets spread out as far as the mountains in the distance.

Palos Verdes Peninsula - Wikipedia
Figure 1 : A birds eye view of LA county

This blog hopes to explore the ways in which people, water, air and waste flow through this city, and the different impacts that these urban flows have on LA’s inhabitants.

Figure 3: Smog in LA

As I write this, 90,000 people have been evacuated from the Greater Los Angeles Area as strong winds continue to fuel the annual wildfires in Orange County. LA currently suffers from the highest levels of air pollution seen ‘in a generation’, and what has been described as a ‘20 – year drought in The West’ continues to increase pressure on groundwater resources. This is happening amidst the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, described by some as the ‘largest civil rights movement in history’. But, how is this all related?

Figure 2: Western drought conditions, LA Times

Enter Urban Political Ecology

In its simplest form, Urban Political Ecology is the study of how cities, natural environments, and politics, interact to form the urban environments in which we live. Environmental conditions shape the politics and the social fabric of a city, invariably forming a ‘hybrid’ of both the natural, and the unnatural within the city (Latour, 1993:10). The way power dynamics alter the ways that ecological challenges are felt by our cities, will be the central theme of my exploration in the weeks to come. 

This introduces us to the idea of an urban metabolism.

Urban metabolism describes the circulation of chemical and biophysical materials in and out of the city. It is a way of looking at how water, waste, people and air flow through urban space. What challenges do they encounter? How are they transformed by the city? How do they themselves transform the city?

See you next week!


Latour, Bruno, Bruno. Porter, and Porter, Catherine. We Have Never Been Modern / Bruno Latour ; Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Swyngedouw, E. and Heynen, N., 2003. Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale. Antipode, 35(5), pp.898-918.

2019 [online] “The West is in an expanding 20-year drought that a ‘March Miracle’ will do little to change.”, Los Angeles [online] Available at: <https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-19/the-west-is-in-an-expanding-20-year-drought-that-a-march-miracle-will-do-little-to-change&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

2020 [online] “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History”, The New York Times. Available at:<https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020]

2020. [online] “California wildfires prompt 90,000 to evacuate in Los Angeles area amid powerful Santa Ana winds”. The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/10/26/california-wildfire-risk-santa-ana/&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

2020, [online] “Los Angeles suffers worst smog in almost 30 years”, Los Angeles Times. Available at: <https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-10/los-angeles-had-its-worst-smog-in-26-years-during-heat-wave&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020]

2 thoughts on “Los Angeles: behind the smoke and cameras

  1. Hey Kesia, this introductory blog lays the foundations for your future blogs perfectly. The interconnections between UPE scholars such as Swyngedouw and relevant contemporary issues such as wildfires in LA and BLM Protests provide an interesting initial look at what is to come. Perhaps one potential consideration may be a brief comment on Jenny Price’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Seeing LA’, as this too intertwines UPE and LA.

    Liked by 1 person

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