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Public PhD Defense of  Jana Hrckova on Follow the Dust: Centering Polluted Natures in Warsaw

CEU building
Friday, June 25, 2021, 10:00 am – 12:30 pm

Defense Committee:

Chair: Xymena Kurowska, Department of International Relations and the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations, CEU 

Supervisor: Daniel Monterescu, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU  

Internal examiner: Viola Zentai, School of Public Policy and Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU  

External examiner: Zsuzsa Gille, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

In winter 2016/2017, a series of smog fits forcefully opened a public debate about air pollution in Warsaw, Poland. Set against the backdrop of the environmental concerns amounting to a crisis, the dissertation examines ways in which urban natures became a focus of urban politics. The realization that the city suffers from significant pollution initiated a process of destabilizations in the urban space and beyond, prompting a re-evaluation of the mode of development in the past decades. Drawing on an ethnographic research spanning from 2016 until 2020, this dissertation showcases different dimensions of the urban natures, mapping the intricate connections between the air and the land in the city as well as the pushes and pulls to assert control over their different materialities.   

As the causes of pollution have been deeply intertwined with the rapid growth in Warsaw, the dissertation follows the process of ‘repair’, both in terms of contentions surrounding the toxicities and the environment and an examination of Warsaw’s position as an aspiring global city. I show how the turn towards the urban natures revealed some of the old inequalities in the city and produced new ones; highlighting how the hierarchies have become inscribed in the urban processes. Providing an analysis of spectacular greening projects, the thesis highlights the ‘spectacle of repair’ as one of the authorities’ responses to the crisis, exploiting the tension between the visible, tangible and therefore manageable natures on the ground and the invisible free-floating air. Facing the diffuse and largely unseen risk, the air and the land in the city have been mobilized and afforded novel meanings and a sense of intimacy. This is explored through an examination of the new citizen science networks that navigate the pollution by striving for spatially embedded, intimate knowledge, but also through a story of a disappearing historical green ventilation system. It is examined how infrastructures and their materialities can mirror and drive the forms of political claims, such as a demand for more public control over planning and a halt to development.    

The study thus provides a critical analysis of politics of green infrastructures framed by struggles over urban natures. The thesis also contributes to wider debates within the political ecology literature by proposing novel understandings of restoration policies amid environmental crisis. The examined processes are embedded in unique histories of the region, going beyond the period of the post-socialist transformation and providing an analysis of its aftermath, namely the consequences of the embrace of neoliberal policies.