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Sarah Knuth

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Sarah Knuth is a postdoctoral fellow at Taubman College. Her research investigates the contemporary intersection of neoliberal urban strategy, new ideas in green economic development and climate change resilience, and ongoing transformations in the global financial system. In places like the United States, making cities energy efficient, low carbon, and resilient means fundamentally reworking existing urban geographies and modes of city building. These radical changes require major upfront investments. Powerful institutions increasingly frame this challenge as a task for experimental finance and the creation of new forms of public and private indebtedness. Simultaneously, they frame it as a massive untapped market for institutional funds in search of novel assets. They describe experimental green fiscal instruments that range from new kinds of municipal bonds to infrastructure trusts, bids to tap into carbon markets, and real estate-tied financial products. In the years since the 2008 financial collapse, cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have been centers for the working out of these proposals. They have developed climate change plans, major initiatives to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and dedicated financing mechanisms. Sarah’s postdoctoral research asks how these instruments are being structured, disseminated, and placed within financial markets, and with what potential repercussions for economic and environmental justice in “financialized” cities.

Sarah’s current project builds on past participatory research on US urban climate change mitigation planning and local resilience, and more particularly on dissertation research she conducted in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Publications are currently available or forthcoming from her work in journals including Antipode, Environment and Planning A, The Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Applied Geography, and Local Environment. Her dissertation explored green economic visions that coalesced around the US urban built environment in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. In it, she argues that finance and major real estate developers have become driving players in urban greening, even as green collar jobs organizers won governmental support for more socioeconomically redistributive visions. Financial innovation is helping transform green building and retrofitting from a niche sector into mainstream real estate and urban development practice. Simultaneously, financialization threatens to make sustainable urbanism increasingly risky and exclusionary, bolstering real estate speculation and green gentrification in wealthy cities like San Francisco while withholding badly needed investment from less “creditworthy” cities and regions.

Dissertation chapters and publications explore questions including: why the United States has experienced more success with building energy efficiency than with other fields of “Green New Deal” development; how green real estate is being sold as a new kind of environmental “resource” and a basis for experimental financial engineering; how unruly materialities and urban geographies obstruct these market environmentalist visions; and how green experimentation in US cities is advancing financial institutions’ emerging global investment strategies vis-à-vis climate change, land, and urban (re)development.