MSc Environmental Governance

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Metabolic Manchester

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG70481
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


Manchester is the birthplace of modern industrial capitalism where fossil fuels, economic production and urbanisation became indelibly fused together. Indeed, the carbon economy first emerged in Manchester, alongside its associated environmental consequences, most notably climate change, which, as a global society, we must continue to contend with today. Coal was transported into the city using a new canal system, which powered the factories that spun raw cotton, shipped from across the world, into finished textiles for international markets, and distributed along an expanding railway network. Industrial production also required the large-scale migration of workers into the city from surrounding rural areas, followed by inner-city housing, water supply, sewerage, waste, electricity and other networked services. The industrial revolution was characterised by the intensification of urban circulation and metabolic exchange, where infrastructural systems increasingly mediated the relationship between the city and its hinterland. Explored by geographers, environmental historians and political ecologists for decades, the concept of urban metabolism concerns the forms and flows through which cities and their human landscapes transform the ecologies that surround and underpin them, at both local and global scales.

Manchester therefore offers unique opportunities for the exploration of urban metabolism; how resource flows become embedded, locked-in and concealed in the urban form, and how these flows can in turn be visualised, problematised and reconfigured in more sustainable, equitable ways. Through lectures and a series of day field trips, this course unit will apply a ‘metabolic lens’ to Greater Manchester to understand how material flows and infrastructural systems make modern networked cities possible, which are dependent on the constant input and output of energy, matter, capital and people. There is growing interest in the making visible of resource flows that service the city, to bring them into question by exposing their hidden subterranean workings. The course unit will introduce students to what a metabolic perspective offers analytically, reconceiving the city as a process rather than a site. Different theoretical frameworks that can be applied to urban metabolism will be outlined, evaluated and contrasted to reveal how they ascribe to different principles, concepts, assumptions, worldviews and normative positions. It will be demonstrated that theoretical frameworks offer a particular way of seeing phenomena, in this case urban metabolism, which has political as well as practical implications for study.


The unit aims to:

Trace, historically and geographically, the environmental flows that permeate and service Greater Manchester, locating them in a wider social, economic and political context

Examine how resource flows link the city region to a broader hinterland across multiple scales, implicating different sites, infrastructure and actors

Familiarise students with the Greater Manchester region through a series of day trips to locations relating to energy, water, transport, waste and green space

Discuss the concept of urban metabolism and how it offers a distinctive, novel way of conceiving the city as a socio-ecological process

Consider the ways in which theoretical frameworks shape our understanding of metabolic processes and how they are based on contrasting principles, assumptions and objectives

Reflect on the purpose of a theoretical framework when undertaking project work and how it relates to research design, strategy and methodology

Teaching and learning methods

The unit is delivered through two-hour sessions in the run-up to the field trips, typically composed of a lecture and seminar / workshop component, and a series of day field trips structured around the Greater Manchester region. Trips will explore key sites for exploring metabolism in the region, including both rural and urban locations, historical and contemporary sites. Students will explore sites of key importance to understanding the socio-environmental flows that underpin the city and the region. Trips will be led by course conveners as well as local experts, activists, organisers, and community-members.

Seminar activities include discussions, debates, and practical exercises. A high level of participation is required from all students throughout the unit. Wider reading around the themes of the lectures is expected. Formative feedback will be given during lectures and seminars. The course is supported by a dedicated Blackboard site.

Knowledge and understanding

• Become familiar with the Greater Manchester region and its resource base and environmental issues.

• Evaluate how different theoretical frameworks shape our understanding of phenomena.

• Articulate the implications of considering Greater Manchester through the notion of urban metabolism.

Intellectual skills

• Understand the role of theory and concepts in relation to research and academic critique.

• Formulate structured and reasoned arguments.

• Relate theoretical arguments to empirical evidence.

• Interpret and evaluate academic literature in respect to urban environmental processes and issues

Practical skills

• Trace and delineate the hidden flows that constitute urban centres and visualise them in an engaging, revealing way.

• Make links between academic ideas and real-world social, environmental and economic issues.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

• Self-direct their own learning.

• Work effectively in teams.

• Communicate clearly and concisely.

Assessment methods

Assessment task


How and when feedback is provided

Weighting within unit (if relevant)



Assessment 1: Visualisation of an urban metabolic process through a combination of text and images (e.g. maps, photographs, infographics, diagrams, geospatial technology). Designed for a non-academic audience.




A3 page, 500 words of interpretation


Verbal feedback on the field course and written feedback through Turnitin, in line with university policy





Assessment 2: Written evaluation on how a theoretical framework can be applied to investigate the chosen metabolic process, with key concepts, proposed contribution, research strategy and potential methods outlined.


1500 words


Written feedback will be provided within 15 working days of submission through Turnitin, in line with university policy





Recommended reading

Adams, R E. 2019. Urbanization and circulation. London: Sage.

Amin, A. and Thrift, N. 2017. Seeing like a city. Cambridge: Polity.

Barles, S. 2010. Society, energy and materials: the contribution of urban metabolism studies to sustainable urban development issues. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 53 (4): 439 – 455.

Castán Broto, V, Allen, A and Rapoport, E. 2012. Interdisciplinary perspectives on urban metabolism. Industrial Ecology, 16 (6): 851-861.

Cronon, W. 1991. Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dobraszczyk, P. and Butler, S. eds, 2020. Manchester: something rich and strange. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fischer-Kowalski, Krausmann, F and Pallua, I. 2014. A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth. The Anthropocene Review, 1 (1): 8-33.

Gandy, M. 2004. Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city. City, 8 (3): 363 – 379.

Gandy, M. 2014. The fabric of space: water, modernity and the urban imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Graham, S. and Marvin, S. 2001. Splintering urbanism. London: Routledge

Heynen, N, Kaika, M, and Swyngedouw, E. 2006. In the nature of cities: urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism. London: Routledge.

Kaika, M. 2005. City of flows: modernity, nature and the city. London: Routledge.

Kennedy, C, Pincetl, P and Bunje P. 2012. The study of urban metabolism and its applications to urban planning and design. Environmental Pollution, 159 (8/9): 1965 – 1973.

McFarlane, C. 2013. Metabolic inequalities in Mumbai: beyond telescopic urbanism. City, 17 (4): 498-503.

Newell, J. and Cousins, J. 2015. The boundaries of urban metabolism: towards a political-industrial ecology. Progress in Human Geography, 39 (6): 702 – 728.

Peck, J. and Ward, K, eds. 2002. City of revolution: restructuring Manchester. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Tarr, J A. 2002. The metabolism of the industrial city: the case of Pittsburgh. Journal of Urban History, 28 (5): 511- 545.

Wachsmuth, D. 2012. Three ecologies: urban metabolism and the society-nature opposition. The Sociological Quarterly, 53 (4): 506 – 523.

Wyke, T, Robson, B. and Dodge, M. 2018. Manchester: mapping the city. UK, Birlinn.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Fieldwork 35
Lectures 8

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Mark Usher Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Contact hours:

Preparation sessions (x4),

Five field day trips (Mon – Fri)

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