Monday, November 7, 2011

A Letter To The Future

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Where Is The True Jewel, 20"x24, 2006


            You have found these pages, perhaps yellowed and tattered.
Just now as I write, cardinals feed by the window at dusk and cinnamon squirrels dolphin through the snow inside a silence contrived of no perceptible wind and the horizontal and fading Western light of the sun.  A moment such as this seems to me to be that for which we are likely living in any culture in any era.  I pray that such a moment has endured for you.  This seems to me to be the very best of human life, free for the taking, from which we unendingly find the true directive forward.

In my brief turn in time, in my “post-industrial” era that is dissolving dichotomies of opposites, human life has imagined itself to be separate and above the landscape.   Perhaps our era will seem to you to be as shrouded in a veil of ignorance as the pre-literate era that preceded our era had seemed to us.  I suspect that if you continue to exist, your era has perhaps have activated and optimized a wildness that is now only vaguely present in my mine.  It is my belief that you will have continued to carry forward wildness as the enduring preservation of the world.

In my era, we have just begun to discover our first words that say how we are still deep within a landscape that extends into infinities of smallness and largeness, that human life is still very young in the life of the Earth, that this planetary landscape seamlessly includes human life, and that human life remains enduringly wild.  Perhaps this point seems so obvious to you from your pinnacle of the far future.  In my era, such a stance is seen as a delusion.
In my age, we have only just begun to dream that the city is a gift from the Earth, and that it is capable of infolding into the Earth.  We have only begun to dream that the city is moving toward peace with the universe, and that to flower it must open widely to the Earth and to the stars like the wave opens to the longer reach of itself, the ocean.

There are a few among us who are beginning to see the city-form as a prayer that we are making, and not as desolate machine apart.  There are a few among us who are just beginning to see city as a chrysalis that is gathering human life, forming the wings that can carry it into the far future.  Still, we are beginning to comprehend that like a butterfly, the city is not here to endure.  To continue to exist and wildly flourish, it must enduringly become the beyond of itself.  Our task is to flower and to wither and to seed again, to open more than stop, and to be a gate rather than a wall.  The city is a seed, alive, an oasis in the universe and not a reliquary.
The true architecture of human habitation in my era, and perhaps in any era, is cloud-like, effusive—cloud-hidden.  Any city is still a young storm of schemes, a jungle-form of shapes and speech, with seedlings sprouting in concrete cracks and rivers and rivulets, beetles under humus and chickens braising on the grill, children scrawling on paper in kindergartens, a car accident and a nest of birds, and rising energy prices and corroding water lines.  There is no end to the subtlety of any one of its moments and no end to its tale whether it continues in your life to wear the name “city” or not.

A half millennium before me, the exquisite fabric of the late Italian Renaissance seemed to be the top of the mountain of human development.  This sense of being at the pinnacle has plagued human life through the ages.  Each age has presumed itself to be at least the penultimate if not the ultimate of human development.   But the human perspective is narrow and not exclusively unique and apart.  In any era, all of the events of the present moment—the weathers, the words, the exquisite architectures of uninhabited and built landscapes-- are just the wave crest of an underlying oceanus of nature.

Still, I expect that there is an enduring sensitivity that continues to lead human life to imagine that it perches on a pinnacle of sorts, separate and above the world, that makes us genuinely feel as poet, Mark Strand writes, “In a field/ I am the absence of the field.”[i]  And so I presume that whoever reads this letter will have gravitated to it by a “bothered sense” that I have in my “primal” post-industrial age.  I presume that I am talking to someone who has experienced this natural confusion of apartness and inclusion, just as I do when I enter the written words of my predecessors whom I read in my era as brothers’ and sisters’ in arms.

It is my greatest hope that the crow is still with you, and red rock, and especially “tricksters” such as the dandelion that are radical expressions of the sun as well as radical expressions of stars that are, in turn, radical expressions of a galaxy that is lost among galaxies that are, in turn, lost among universes.

Thank you for giving over a few moments of your precious time to these

My very best to you,
Your brother-in-arms,


[i] Mark Strand, from “Keeping Things Whole,” in Sleeping With One Eye Open. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1964; reprinted in Mark Stand, Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, p. 11.

Evolving Wildness

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Blue Fire--Deep Imagination, 20"x24, 2002

“WILDNESS” AND “WILDERNESS” have been longstanding Western references both for a dangerous irrational state and a dangerous wasteland in need of our use to be activated.  Only in the last century have the terms come to represent both a valuable attribute and a complex ecosystem.  But with this dramatic shift, the terms continued to reference something essentially separate from human activity.  And as our use exposed us to overlooked qualities, our contemporary reach beyond the Earth and immediate environmental feedback begins to change these terms to include all human activity.  However, contemporary human life as wild and as occurring within a wilderness ecosystem is not broadly acknowledged.  Associating modern human life with wildness can seem to dangerously distort the meaning of the term and somehow contribute to exploitation of the nonhuman landscape.  However, the proscription of a strong association between human life and wildness may endanger both human and nonhuman life by encouraging the separation from the Earth ecosystem rather than intergration into the Earth ecosystem (and not just integration with, as if separate).   

Gary Snyder has written,
Cities and agricultural lands however are not wild.  “Wild” is a valuable word.  It is a term for the free and independent process of nature.  A wilderness is a place where wild process dominates and human impact is minimal. [i]

Widely cited, Gary Snyder’s eloquent definition of “wild” plants and land and societies delineates the popular general definition of wildness.  In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder aspires to define “wild” for what it is rather than for what it is not:
Of animals—free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural
Of plants—self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate
Of land—a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction, and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of foodcrops—food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies—societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation.  Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory.  Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization.  Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of individuals—following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post.  Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent.  “Proud and free.”
Of behavior—fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation.
           Far-out, outrageous, “bad,” admirable.
Of behavior—artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned.  Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.[ii]

Snyder’s definition places wildness largely outside the possibility of being an expression of the city.[iii]  Wild human life is popularly associated with indigenous, First Nation or “Fourth World” localized hunting/gathering societies and to some extent nomadic societies with some animal domestication.  “Wild” characteristics of indigenous cultures generally include:
·      being spiritist/animist-oriented;
·      use of flora/fauna that does not exclusively serve human life [i.e., exclusively cultivated];
·      standing for and equality with non-human events–flora, fauna, place, weathers [e.g., totemism];
·      myth of origin and future related strongly to surrounding landscape;
·      intimate knowledge of bioregion;
·      local social support and social control; and
·      culture designed by place.

Interestingly, while the modern city may not explicitly describe these characteristics as urban characteristics, none of them are automatically excluded from being current or potential characteristics of urban habitats.  Myth in modern creation beliefs or activities or in acute scientific measures of the bioregion and biosphere tend to not be given status as complementing the intimate approach to knowledge by indigenous societies.  And the spiritist and mythic elements underlying modern activities are overlooked.  There is a real sense that modern societies have repressed their “animist” and “shamanic” elements, and this has allowed exploitation of natural resources such as, for example, rainforest timber by the Japanese.

Gary Snyder’s qualities that define “wildness” tend to be associated, for the most part, a place or landscape—to ecosystems that are popularly described as “wilderness.”  These ecosystems are clearly different from settled landscapes, and they are important to the overall functioning of the biosphere.  And in post-industrial life with the peopling of the Earth, “wilderness” popularly describes shrinking remnants of largely uninhabited landscapes.  Further, these remnants tend to be described in Edenic terms, while settled landscapes tend to be described negatively as intrusive and destructive.  However, prior to the industrial age, concepts that describe uninhabited landscapes have described wilderness as dangerous wastelands.  While still weighted with an Edenic quality perhaps due to their increasing remoteness and exotic quality, such landscapes are now described more neutrally as complexly fitted and diverse, and if dangerous, it is because they are indifferent rather than intentionally hostile.  And so, like all concepts, the concepts of wildness and wilderness have never been constant and are always evolving. 

Now, having viewed Earthrise over moonscape revealing the biosphere and having discovered a galactic universe rather than a ceiling of stars, wilderness dynamics make a quantum leap from being the activities of fading remnants to being the fundamental nature of an infinite cosmos.  And in this expanded context, human life continues to be immersed to the point of being deeply lost in wilderness and subject to its demands and even designed by this natural process.  “Wilderness” can now describe biosphere or “Gaia” and the cosmos. 

Traditional environmentalism might argue that to try to extend wildness to include the city might distort the meaning of the term rather than clarify it.  However, the exclusion of post-industrial life from wildness might also be harmful.  Definitions of wildness that make it external to the city can support a lack of attention to natural process in the city, diminished attention to urban environmental health, as well as alienate urban society from environmental values.[iv]  As with efforts to sustain ecosystems that are traditionally described as wilderness, it is crucial to revision cities as being an ecosystem needing ecologically adaptive solutions in a global, biospheric “wilderness” ecosystem.

Gary Snyder suggests that cities are in “the totality of the process of nature”[v] and therefore “natural” in that broad sense, but not wild because cities are “so exclusive…and so intolerant of other creatures.” [vi]  Snyder argues that ecosystems that are traditionally defined as wilderness are places “where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.”[vii]  This is accurate in the sense that the city does not reach the balance found in a longstanding climactic ecosystem.  Accordingly, the city is not a wilderness per se.  However, while not “fully expressed” in a balanced system, the city is young in the history of the Earth, clearly imbalanced ecologically, but likely a wild adaptive response to meet the conditions of existence of the biospheric wilderness.  Wildness and wilderness are not the same things.  Clearly, nonhuman wildness is popularly understood to exist in the city, although it is described as being compromised by dependency.

This statement seems obvious to contemporary urban life, and it has appeared to be important to acknowledge a difference so that wildness is not co-opted to become another form of human “exploitation” of nature.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben clarifies the reality that we have reached the end of a separable nature[viii] if we had presumed that we had not, with the impact of human activity present in the most remote landscapes on Earth.  While the “end of nature” is more provocative, McKibben is really describing the end of wildness rather than the end of nature that is still cosmic in proportions.  McKibben’s idea of “wildness” is the traditional one that describes self-informing landscapes where human influence is absent.  Now, human influence is formally acknowledged to be present everywhere on Earth.

In finding no separable nature that is insulated from human influence, McKibben declares that contemporary human life or civilization is an intrusion upon nature.  He argues the popular belief that civilization is not only damaging natural landscapes but is decimating the core dynamic of nature—wildness—that is crucial to all life across the long run of events.  Specifically, McKibben suggests that human life has created a “post-natural” state,[ix] and is “ending the very idea of wildness…”[x].  In this broadly accepted view that McKibben describes, human life is something that is radically different from the non-human life of the Earth, and is certainly no longer wild.

In Hope, Human and Wild, McKibben defines the contemporary task as one of limiting an environmental damage that we cannot prevent.[xi]  His primary emphasis is upon lessening the impact of civilization upon the non-human landscape to sustain this wild dynamic that sustains unsettled places with both a grace for which many hunger and an economy that we all lean upon but can no longer realize within post-industrial life.  Modern human life has altered the Earth and can only compensate rather than attain a normal natural state or exceed it and be optimal.  This stance is the core stance not only of the environmental movement, but also of the popular ecological sensitivity of the general public.

While wonderful and logical, wildness and wilderness as separate and disappearing or even as lost or ended may illustrates the immaturity of our eco-literacy.  Even with this explicit separation of most contemporary human life from wildness and wilderness, the terms are also used to occasionally describe attributes of contemporary human life.  In defining “humanism,” Snyder encourages the emergence of an ecological consciousness that would aspire to not alienate itself “from the very ground of its own being—from the wilderness outside that is to say, wild nature, the wild self-contained, self-informing ecosystem and from that other wilderness, the wilderness within…”[xii]  Further, Snyder writes, “wildness gives heart, courage, love, spirit, danger, compassion, skill, fierceness, and sweetness—all at once—to language.”[xiii]  In his directive for “humanism,” Snyder clearly implies that wildness remains inherent in human life and that this wildness is crucial to avoid self-destruction across the long run.  Humanness involves more than human beings.

IN THE GREAT WORK, Thomas Berry offers a dramatic shift in perspective.  It is one that enlarges the context in which we define our terms.  It is a perspective that challenges our longstanding beliefs by looking at phenomena from the very real current state of our knowledge.  Thomas Berry looks at the contemporary moment from the broad perspective of the universe.  And from this perspective, the “great work” of the contemporary moment involves the integration of post-modern life into the larger Earth ecosystem.

With this universal perspective, Thomas Berry defines “wild” as
·      that which is uncontrolled by human dominance.[xiv]
and “wildness” as
·      the ultimate creative modality of any form of earthly being.[xv]
Berry continues,
Wildness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneity of any being.  It is that wellspring of creativity whence come the instinctive activities that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young; to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea.  This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist, and the power of the shaman.[xvi]

At first, “that which is uncontrolled by human dominance” can seem to reinforce a traditional sense of wildness as present only in those events that are separate from human control.  However, in both our degrading environmental feedback and even within our human actions, we begin to understand that much of our experience is either separate from our control or not well controlled.  And now with a still rather new awareness of profoundly vaster context of the space-time—the universe and the dramatic shifts of the conditions of existence as evidenced in geological timeframes, we begin to understand that we are an expression of a still emergent, creative universe and subject to it, and deep within it rather than looking out at it.  There is a new sense that there is something inherent in human life that is never subject to human dominance, and that is creatural rather than cultural.  And there is a sense of cultural expression as capable of being a natural adaptive response that expresses the creatural rather than something largely separate.

But the heart of Berry’s definition looks at wildness as the creative mode of any earthly being inside a vast ongoing creative context.  Wildness is a flow of change or ongoing creation.  Nothing in the biosphere is preserved across the long run.  Human life in any era is creatural, and culture is an expression of the creatural—as a response to the changing conditions of existence--rather than a departure from it.  Like an eagle or a sparrow, we focus on our immanent needs rather than on the needs of other events or on total alertness to our landscape.  But our immanent needs cannot ignore changing conditions such as depletion of material resources. And so in the contemporary moment, there is a shift toward global urbanization as residency that begins intuitively, while continuing to consciously attend to immediate needs.  And human beings, we have an additional wild capacity to become aware of our immanent everyday reality as having very real, non-ordinary longer reach in which our activity extends into events beyond ourselves.  This gives us at chance at optimizing rather than either subsisting or disappearing. 

There is new concern that continuing to describe a pristine wildness creates a distorted image of a nature that has been free of human influence that is reinforced in a post-industrial mass culture of nature shows and stores and zoos.  And this image of pristine nature as external can avoid addressing societal and economic problems rather than highlight environmental problems as integral.[xvii]

Despite the “gray….man-made desert”[xviii] of the city, there is a new sense of nature as including the post-industrial rather than as “other” or “out there” or as external to civilization.  The very new, emerging “literacy” of ecology challenges our longstanding dialectic of self and other, creating a continuum of being so that self is transpersonal, making self-as-landscape a more authentic description of life.  Like all other life forms, human beings are continual, inseparable rivers of respiration and digestion with eloquent, shared macromolecular structures.  The word “ecology” is so very new and, as a result, effusive rather than explicit in its meaning, yet to be filled out in ways that will profoundly challenge our understanding of not ony the city but also of human nature. 
John Tallmadge offers a rare first step into the possibility of an authentic “practice of the wild” that includes “going in” urban life itself rather than a quest that is external to human settlements.[xix]  While disconcerting to his longstanding sense of wildness, Tallmadge writes that there is “more to this matter of wildness than I had ever imagined” and that “To practice the wild meant to step off the trail of received ideas about people and nature, to embrace learning and metamorphosis.”[xx]  Tallmadge suggests there is a new very effusive sense of the possibility that even wilderness—the epitome of wildness—might continue to be created, and that wilderness and civilization might not be opposed to each other.[xxi]  In the future, such self-questioning might seem laughable in the same way that past wondering if mountaintops might have once been seabeds now seems humorous to post-industrial life.

“Going in” urban nature, the traditional sense of the presence of wildness in the city continues to focus on the presence of nonhuman species in human habitation, overriding weathers, and acknowledgement of geological formations and ecosystems such as forest and coastline.  Rarely does a sense of going into urban nature, “go into” either human activity itself or the built landscape to experience wildness.  Going in post-industrial life to taste wildness is a new frontier.  As Tallmadge writes, “None of the nature writers had offered much wisdom for living in cities.  And he speculates further, “Perhaps urban nature remains largely invisible because we lack an appropriate philosophy and vocabulary.” [xxii]  Writing about the broader dimensions and subtlety of wildness and pondering the possibility that wildness remains an enduring aspect of human life that we have failed to articulate, Terry Tempest Williams lyrically comments,
Perhaps the wildness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace.  Wilderness lives by this same grace.  Wild mercy is in our hands.[xxiii]

Wilderness has grown from being a landscape devoid of human activity, from, as Also Leopold suggested, “continuous stretches of country…devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man”[xxiv] to the biosphere and cosmos beyond it.  Civilization is now included in the raw material of a vast wilderness.  And the future hope of the world—Thoreau’s “preservation of the world”—is still, for all life on Earth, in an ongoing wild response to this vast uncompromising wilderness.

[i] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 7.
[ii] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1990, pp. 10-11.
[iii] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 7.
[iv] Michael Hough, City Form and Natural Process: Towards A New Urban Vernacular. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1984, p. 2.
[v] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 102.
[vi] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 11
[vii] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 12.
[viii] Bill McKibben, The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989.
[ix] Bill McKibben, “Postnatural,” Aperture, 150 (Winter, 1998)
[x] Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, p. 10.
[xi] Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, p. 11.
[xii] Gary Snyder, Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 1974, p.106.
[xiii] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 3.
[xiv] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 48.
[xv] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 48.
[xvi] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 51.
[xvii] Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
[xviii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 12-13.
[xix] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 123 and 35 respectively fro quotes.
[xx] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 35 and161 respectively for quotes.
[xxi] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 40.
[xxii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 42.
[xxiii] Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. New York, Pantheon, 2001, p. 229
[xxiv] Aldo Leopold, “The wilderness and its place in forest recreational policy,” Journal of Forestry, Vol. 19, (7), pp. 718-721, November 1921.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Longstanding Dreams of the Future City

THE WAYS IN WHICH we imagine the future city reveal our biases more than our insight.  And the way in which we imagine the city of the future strongly influences our current actions.
The positive visual image of the city of the future is that of a luminous city, crystalline, comprised of pristine metal- and glass-skinned towers and interconnecting walkways and a sky bustling with air traffic.  There are few if any trees or green space.  There is no decay and no nostalgia.  Because it is too perfect and too uniform in its design, this luminous image is sometimes negative and suspect.  This is likely because it doesn’t seem to allow for something “wild” in us that we value.  In Ideal Cities, Ruth Eaton writes that the “ideal city” is “marked by the belief that it can ignore natural contextual conditions, often in the name of conformity to universal laws…”.[i]

There is also a predominant negative image of the city of the future, as either a literally darker city or a psychologically darker one as a result of either the repression human expression (e.g., the film Metropolis, 1927[ii]) or an anarchical, apocalyptic collapse into a tooth-and-claw wildness.  The dark city may project upwards in an attempt to escape the limits of the Earth, with most human life suppressed beneath its towers, even layered in castes.  The dark city is often portrayed as complex process of transportation to nowhere except in service of the machine-like city itself.  This reflects our sense of the city as synonymous with congestion and mechanics.  The facades of the buildings are drab, and light is incandescent.  And as with the luminous city, there are no trees.  Overall, the dark city is an attitude container where the architecture is a machine and is the city, and people either function uniformly and monotonously as machine components or live rebelliously and oppressed and preyed upon.  The city of the future is envisioned as either a utopia or dystopia that can only be a fantasy.  Typically, the city is envisioned on a grand scale and complete, intentionally designed rather than participatory and/or random, and as an exclusive cultural product with nonhuman events are largely absent.
In post-industrial life, the luminous city is envisioned as an impossible utopian dream while the dark city is envisioned as a dreaded possibility because parts of it seem to exist and point toward an apocalyptic end.  The darkness is due to both the loss of environmental quality by having depleted natural resources as well as a sense of authoritarian control that emerges and envisions human spontaneity as a life-threatening artifice of remnant nature.  Darkness is also negatively related to “romancing the machine” that favors uniformity as it did in the Italian Futurist Movement in the 1920’s, where affection for the machine transformed into a political philosophy that was Fascist and anarchist and against all tradition as anti-machine.  Darkness also projects a sense of urban space as chaotic and isolating.

The luminous city is positive because it is mechanistic and purposely devoid of “archaic” nature that is unceasing in its efforts to devolve human life, while the dark city is oppressive and is either struggling to keep nature from debasing human life or has destroyed nature, and is reduced to a basic survival mode that remains crude but still machine-like, and that can only deteriorate further toward extinction of human life and perhaps all life.  Both envision diversity and small-scale “messiness” of the actions of individual life as limiting and even destructive, when this “no-design” might be envisioned instead as the functional adaptability of the city.  When dilemmas occur, there is little sense of adapting to nature as advancing human development.  Portrayed at its best, a return to nature is imagined require an abandonment of the city for small settlements, a rejection of technology, and rigid adherence to unchanging rituals to proscribe advancement through technology.

In the last two centuries, the initial transformation to industrialization generated a realistic concern for the appearance of the “dark city” by creating public health concerns due to poor sanitation, overcrowding and pollution.  But in the face of widespread health concerns, the Industrial Revolution also began to enhance public health and longevity in the form of applied sciences.  Specific to the city-form, applied science became the solution, in the form of urban engineering as, for example, described by Eugene Henard for Paris in 1910[iii].

While pollution continues to be an aspect (due now more to congestion and consumption of resources), the “darkness” of the modern city is now described more by characteristics such as higher rates of violence, serving corporate interests that exploit material and human resources, a sense of alienation, and favoring privilege and acquisition that overuse global resources and create a sense of anomie or of an artificial “half-life.”  The dazzling metal and glass city centers have tended to become associated with corporations that have been sensed to be self-serving and that interpenetrate the city but are disinterested in the city.

The imagined future of the city—the dream of the city—has never been to be a dream of the Earth.  When human life becomes ecological in the environmental dream of the future, the city is more likely to be envisioned as a disappearing destructive machine.  The dominant dream of the city has been to rise above environmental demands or “the limiting Earth,” even to the point of eventually literally escaping the Earth.  In modern public perception, an “eco-city” is an oxymoron.  The term, “organic” is nearly synonymous with the term “anti-urban,” and anything approaching the organic in the built environment of the city is typically described as problematic, even though it may be participatory and valued were it to occur in rural and primal societies. 
The present day city that will become the future city is typically not described as a “landscape” or as a “habitat” or “ecosystem.”  The city-form is popularly thought of as a built environment that can be modified to resolve dilemmas.  The key design locus is “infrastructure.”  The city is defined as a “house of culture,” rather than as biotic or ecological.  The city is not typically described as an aggregate of living beings, both human and nonhuman.  Thus, the environmental directives for the future involve focusing on the built environment by enhancing the efficiency to reduce waste as well as by enhancing the built human scale of the city—dwellings, workplaces and transport—to make the city “livable.” 
The exploitation of vast stored material resources reinforced a sense of the fundamental nature of the city as a material invention that was capable of rising human life above nature and eventually the Earth itself.  And yet, throughout its development the city has never attained its aspiration to be separable from nature.  The city has always seemed to be restricted by the “organic” deterioration of its infrastructure and by it’s too rapid population growth that prevented its escape from nature.  Now with the peopling of the Earth that depleted the stored capital of the Earth and that is increasingly urbanized, the dream of separation is all but gone.  And degrading environmental feedback in cities, global impact on all unsettled landscapes, and scientific measures that lose cities deep in nature appear to turn the city into a sinking ship rather than into an ark of escape.

Inside of a souring dream of human life above nature, there is an effusive new sense of post-industrial life inside nature as the optimal way forward.  This same environmental feedback and scientific measures also appear to turn the city into an ecological process that is a step forward in human development and the development of the Earth.  The first glimpses of inherent adaptive features that are emerging in our measures of global urbanization suggest that our view of separation may be real yet narrow and facile.  Somewhat uncomfortably but full of promise, all of our terms now open to continuums that seem less bounded.  Even something quite set such as “human scale” is fundamentally wide open.  Now, urban “human scale” melds many scales that range from intimate through public space as well as including uninhabited space both within and beyond the city.  Post-industrial human scale can even be “trans-city,” involving living in more than one city, as well as global, to feel optimally “human.”

While we are beginning to experience the contemporary city differently, our dream for the future city has aspired to marry infinite dynamics of ecology with the finite dynamics of the machine.  Emphasis is placed on the “mechanics” of greening the architecture and decongesting transportation.  Correct but incomplete, the inefficiency of our buildings has become the focus.  Yes, our buildings use 12 percent of our water, produce 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, are the source of 65 percent of our landfill waste and consume 70 percent of our electricity.  And yes, we demolish rather than deconstruct to recycle materials, and we have deemphasized utilizing renewable materials.[iv]  Thus, our buildings and our autos and our infrastructure of electrical grids, water delivery, waste, highways and streets seem to be the focal point for sustainability.  But urban sustainability needs to examine the underlying heart of its dream.  For example, sustainability does not mean the same thing in an urban area as it means in an eco-vill where the technology serves an underlying organic theme. 

An inflowing and out-flowing urban “metabolism” is still primarily an engineering dilemma of  “intake and exhaust.”  We become our words, and while “sustainability” feels brand-new, our responses are reactive and limiting.  The city is not envisioned as living ecosystem or habitat.  We design to sustain a “finite” urban infrastructure that we define as nearly the antithesis of an ecosystem such as forest or marsh or prairie that we define as open and infinite and unpredictable.  We focus on the the built environment in the face of consistent observations that the fundamental dynamic of the city that ultimately directs it is open and unpredictable.
Our longstanding dream of separation is being sorely tarnished by our most rational scientific measures that lose us in nature, and by our migration toward cities and the changing requirements of long-term residency, and by degrading environmental feedback.  This is beginning to drive a new association with the ecological, wherein the city is sensed to be something natural and organic.  Global urbanization is doing something that is beyond our intentional design.  As we begin to “inhabit” the city and the city begins to become a “habitat,” we begin to observe habitats, even built environments, as events that are generated by a living community rather than tenants dwelling in a machine.

The predominant force that is opening a new vision of cities as natural is a direct experience of intense environmental feedback to which inhabitants must “adapt” like nonhuman species do to sustain as a species.  Having appeared to be chaotic and seemingly having little to do with adaptation, our migration to the cities is beginning to suggest functional or adaptive dynamics rather than be chaotic and dysfunctional.  Our sense of the term “sustainability” begins to require an effort that is more than material technology, more than the modification of machine parts to insulate human life from environmental demands.  And the term “landscape” is beginning to be more inclusive and overlaying systems rather than a patchwork, describing both the built and unbuilt terrain as different but subject to similar conditions rather than as mutually exclusive.  From the fairly recent recognition of landscapes such as mountains and deserts as complex and dynamic rather than wastelands to a still vague sense of the city-form as more than a wasteland, there is a new sense of all landscapes being “eloquent” and capable of being optimal.

In the emerging dream of the future city, there is the possibility of the city as an oasis of life, both human and nonhuman.  We have no future models for this possibility, even as an impossible utopian vision.  Our predominant environmental models of the future would dissolve the city, and envision the future city as a plague of sorts on human progress or as a necessary evil, or as an escape vehicle to an ultimate destiny beyond Earth at best.

It is clear that while the contemporary city may be fundamentally adaptive, the city-form and the process of urbanization in its current form is likely more dysfunctional than functional.  As residents, it is evident that our strategy must change dramatically to improve and optimize our life.  And yet, it also begins to seem possible that global urbanization is occurring as a functional adaptation that offers an “ark of health” to the peopled Earth rather than as a completely destructive process.  Just as destructive industrialization improved life expectancy and general human health, the city offers a crucial, important pathway as a contemporary habitat for the billions of human beings that other forms of habitation would not absorb efficiently in the foreseeable near future.

In the global transition to urban residency and our emerging sense of inseparability, there is this emerging sense that global urbanization may be a process of integrating human life into the larger Earth ecosystem.  And begins to make reasonable the heretofore impossible—the idea the city might become an oasis for life.  As Theodore Roethke muses in Straw for the Fire, we “move among mysteries,” and so we need “more people who specialize in the impossible.”[v]

It can seem “obvious” that the global urbanization will utilize an ecological footprint or demand on Earth resources that is beyond the capacity of the Earth to provide.  But functional global changes have begun to occur almost in opposition to intentional efforts, perhaps amplified by rapid changes in global communication.  In a just a few decades, the term “ecology” has become public and popular.  Stewart Brand writes, “We know the image of the earth in space set in motion the ecology movement.  It was a year later, in 1970, whereas before that there was not really an ecology movement.”[vi]  Now, our most rational view of any landscape is a view of the universe at various magnitudes.  And this vastly expanded view of time and space is provoking a transformation in how we view human nature. 

Historically, as cities became mercantile centers and diversified control of resources from rulers to broader classes, they provoked a renaissance in our view of human nature.  For example, the economic autonomy afforded by mercantilism in the Italian Renaissance replaced a sense of fatalism with a sense of free will and self-determination.  Now, intense environmental feedback opens awareness of participation in a larger ecological context.  Rather than negate self-determination, an ecological perspective continues to encourage self-determination as an expression of wild alertness to the changing conditions of existence.  It expands human identity to include the larger landscape as an aspect of self.  Landscapes that once seemed apart from us and only neutral stage sets needing to be used to be activated are now understood to be inseparable, and not only active but shaping us, and so are an aspect of our identity. 

We have spoke of landscapes as possessions, and we have cultivated a sense of ownership and control that has fostered exploitation.  And now in a peopled Earth, we begin to directly experience the danger of this self-centered view as ultimately self-damaging.  “Ecology” begins to part the veil to reveal that each of us is on loan and possessed by landscape rather than possessing it.  We are finding that we are not authentically distanced by ownership. 

In an ecological dream of the city, we do not have to invent a way back to nature.  This is one of our remarkable new discoveries.  On all fronts, our measures state that we have never stepped outside nature.  The “urban wasteland” has never ceased being ecological.  And our view of cities is transforming, just as we deserts and mountain ranges from wastelands to dynamic and complex ecosystems.  Wilderness is transforming from isolated remnants to the biosphere and cosmos.  And James Lovelock suggests that the rural agricultural landscape that we have envisioned as far more ecological than the city due to “stewardship” can be described as a more destructive process than the city has been to date.[vii]  Still, seemingly denuding the Earth as Lovelock suggests, our destructive industrial agriculture also function naturally as an expression of species favoring a grassland ecosystem to favor the grasses and to practically sustain a peopled Earth through an anticipated transformation that will gradually reduce the global human population.

To enhance our design efforts, it might be helpful to begin to open the range of our thinking about the city of the future, regardless of whether it might become ecological or not.   As designers know well, the built environment—and finally, any environment—is an “attitude container” that is an accretion of either intentional or unintentional, subconscious design.  Places look the way that they do for a reason, sometimes for the wrong reasons.  Barriers between staff and clientele in fast food restaurants may expedite exchange that is desired, while schools might be hard surfaced for cleaning rather than be designed to optimize learning.  And so we can challenge ourselves to step beyond the obvious popular attitudes being conveyed.  

We can explore the city as something that might be functional rather than dysfunctional.  The oldest city might be imagined as young in the Earth and just beginning.  Each city might be imagined as being global and not just local, without having to become one global city or Doxiadis’ “ecumenopolis.”  We might imagine the city as alive or as wild.  The city might be imagined as synthesis and oasis.  A city might be imagined as a process rather than as a structure—as an adventure or as a chance, or as energy.  A city might be imagined as a gathering and not primarily a built environment.  The city might also be imagined as a threshold where human life crosses over from one condition to another, as a trigger-point for a renaissance in human development.

[i] Ruth Eaton, Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)Built Environment. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2007, p. 10.
[ii] Metropolis. 1927 [Fritz Lang, Director, Berlin, Germany: Universum Film (UFA)]
[iii] Eugene Henard, “The cities of the future.” In Royal Institute of British Architects Town Planning Conference London 10-15 October 1910, Transactions, (London: The Royal Institute of British Architects, 1911): 345-367 [].
[iv] Adam Hammes, “Build smarter to save energy, reduce waste, promote health,” Des Moines Register, May 27, 2008.
[v] Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke 1943-63. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974 [1968), p. 183 and 185 respectively.
[vi]  Stewart Brand, “The clock of the long now, A talk with Stewart Brand,” [].
[vii] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 144-145.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Future City: The Impact of Residency

WHAT WILL THE FUTURE city look like?  Can we imagine it?  Will it be a luminous city or a dark city or an oasis of life?  Will the city continue a drive toward exclusivity and separation from the nonhuman Earth community rather than inclusion?  Whatever the city will become in the future, it now is a provocation that offers a threshold of sorts to cross over to a qualitative step in our understanding of human nature and nature in general if we are readied to take it.

Were we to ask what a desert or a forest of the future might look like, to a large extent, their constancy would be more predicable.  This is a measure of their maturity.  It is likely that the city of the future, being young in the history of the Earth, will look remarkably different than it does in the contemporary moment.  And it is this clear leap in what the city of the future will look like, that opens a door for the city to become nearly any possibility, even an oasis of life that mimics a wilderness ecosystem.

The contemporary city-form is so much softer that we allow ourselves to imagine.  The city is a threshold through which we are just beginning to step.  There is nothing rock-firm on the other side.  And yet, global urbanization has not been completely directionless.  The peopling of the Earth and migration toward urbanization as inhabitants rather than as tenants has been a qualitatively positive ecological response in many strong ways as well as continuing to reflect dysfunctional activities.  At this beginning point, we cannot see the end.  We cannot see the future of human habitation with clarity.  As John Hay writes in The Undiscovered Country,
A new relationship between us and the living world is still ahead of us, in what form no one can say.  Who knows how the infinitely complex relationships of the watery planet will realize themselves tomorrow?  It will not be entirely our doing.[i]

A global shift toward the city as the predominant human residence is the dynamic that forms a threshold between the past and the future.  Global urbanization is so suddenly different that it forms a clean threshold like industrialization did in the past in human habitation.  For the foreseeable future, the one thing that seems clear is that the city of the future will be different than before because it will become the predominant residence for human life.  The future city will be home and not just house.  And we will increasingly discover that to be “home” we will be possessed more than we possess.

At times, we have imagined cities to be zoos that domesticate people and nonhuman inhabitants by restricting activity to square meters and concrete.  We have even described cities as prisons.  But human life is increasingly drawn to them in search of opportunity.  While this draw may be, in part, the result of exploitation that depletes the rural economy, the draw is much stronger than this.  It will be important to “green” and make sustainable the smaller rural communities rather than presume that human life will be completely urban.  And yet, for all of their difficulties, cities are a landscape of opportunity and possibility in a peopled Earth. 

To a large degree, the inability to describe the city of the future is due to its function as a residence.  As a place of human habitation, the city will function even less orderly than as a mercantile or sacred center.  The more that a city becomes a residence, the more that there is a “psycho-geography” and a “creatural geography” that derives from the lives of inhabitants and creates freedom, meaningfulness, variability and ongoing exploration.  It is dynamic and automatic and somewhat decipherable, so that it suggests design possibilities, but it is also private and effusive.  In Formulary For A New Urbanism, Ivan Chicheglov described a give-and-take process of an “urban relativity” of “vortexes,” and “currents” that react like an “undertow” against the “fixed points” or physical and ideological restrictions of the built urban environment.[ii]  This psycho-geographic “undertow” is an expression of the ongoing emergence of the city, always remains indecipherable, and is important to acknowledge and explore to understand the city.

Residency shifts the city from an architectural machine to a living process that is ecological and organic and continually changing far more than it is artificial.  It offers an opportunity to be more than a luminous machine or a dark city.   Finding a living city rather than a machine, we have a base to optimize our life in a way that the separable city cannot realize.   The living city is a part of nature rather than apart from nature.  And it is not simply an eco-dream for the city, but something that can be discovered by diving into the contemporary city. 

In global urbanization, we find a rock-solid infinite game like we also find in a forest, rather than a finite game that we might find in a machine or in the past emerging industrial city.  It has an ongoing metabolism that stresses adaptation rather than defense of the status quo.  Feeling that we cannot change who we have become, we begin to discover that change is all we have ever done.  We can acknowledge inherent aliveness and vitality and aspire to support it as design.  Attention can be directed particularly to the soft ambience that underlies the hard ambience (physical construction) as well as acknowledge and explore the organicity of urban architecture.  As residents, the required resilience and desired public health or “quality” will ultimately require the action of affiliation rather than dominion and exploitation.  Finding ourselves inside the world, we act differently that if we find ourselves to be apart.  Accordingly, attention is directed toward optimizing the nonhuman events that are present in the urban landscape to optimize human life.

And as we begin to live more as residents, we begin to approach being indigenous.  “Indigenous” primal societies have been more migratory than we tend to acknowledge.  Primal societies have been essentially migrants who populated the Earth, and who often replaced other indigenous human groups only a decade or so before being identified by literate cultures as “first” inhabitants of a particular landscape.  Their success and subsequent population growth often drove members or whole societies to continue migration and abandon the local place.  And with success, they adopted exploitive strategies to sustain successfully expanding populations that we now attribute almost exclusively and erroneously to modern civilizations.  But the longer they remained in a place, residency developed an affiliation and intimacy with nonhuman and elemental processes.  

For all of our modernity, residency is essentially our new-old process as we step into the future.  In the post-industrial, unlike in the rather recent past, we have no vast remaining physical frontiers.  Having peopled the Earth, we will have to do something that we really have never fully accomplished throughout human development—indigenous residency.

Ultimately, our sense of being “post-natural” may be the epitome of our longstanding, illusory dream of separation.  In futurist speculation, “post-humanism” or “trans-humanism” refer to an extension of the longstanding vision of separation in which human life becomes more integrated with the machine, and might be described as even less natural by becoming less biological.  It is apparent that human development will always involve leaving ourselves behind, just as our deep ancestry did to become us.  But this process is a natural response to meet the changing conditions of existence.  In this ecological sense, human life always involves more than human beings.  In this context, even our machines are natural expressions, as will be some degree of integration with both the machine and the larger Earth ecosystem that is an astonishing self-informing “computer” in an ongoing developmental process. 

Human designs are adaptive responses rather than activities that separate us from nature, and that design us.  Human activities that have seemed to separate us worked naturally and successfully when we had vast material resources to exploit.  That which designs us is not internal, but rather the vast ongoing cosmic landscape in which we are lost.  Rather than being post-natural, human life remains enduringly indigenous, and needing to remain wildly attentive to adapt to the changing conditions of ongoing creation to sustain as a species.

Now, in the contemporary moment, integration rather than migration has now become our way forward.  This integrated residency will also have to do something that is new.  Rather than simply join in a relationship with the large Earth community, optimal human habitation will have to express the operating Earth dynamic and become an oasis of life, both human and nonhuman.  If we imagine the city of the future to be hard architecture, this oasis cannot occur.  But if we imagine the city to be living and adaptive, an eco-oasis will become a possibility.   

The city offers an opportunity not only for survival but also for growth and choice.  That which has seemed to be the antithesis of nature is coming to be understood as a natural adaptation that can express the wild eloquence of diversity and fittedness.
In The Undiscovered Country, John Hay writes,
Missing a free exchange between us and the waning riches of the earth, we invoke the wilderness.  But this is wilderness still, in our blood, where the water runs and the leaves as shaking.  This is our only house and its provision.  Home is the universal magnet. Even the wanderer whose only goal is money on the run requires it sooner or later, feels it as an imperative. Home is not only our dugout, our room, our building, the place we need so as to know one another, but it is the center where hemispheres cross, the winds collide, where world life has its lodging.  Home is the mortal body where opposites meet and find each other.  We could not survive our own anarchy if life did not insist on affinity.  The searching for it never lets up.  There are no neglected corners, in spite of appearances.[iii]

With global urbanization, we are just beginning to open an old language with a new key. We are describing something that is fresh, and just underway, and yet, primal and enduring.  Our first new words are still simple and effusive, but we know in our hearts what they are trying to say.  We have begun to feel like we belong to the Earth even though it might not have been our intent.  And it is a rewarding feeling of coming home, in the sense of coming inside vast support.  We begin to experience of sense of never having been apart.  And we begin to sense that our use has never been unnatural, but it has been incoherent and largely deconstructive and immature, using and disregarding with too little admiration and wonder. 

Our literacy is not a step out of nature that separates us forever.  Our literacy remains a subtle, wild listening point that is Earth-made and continues to express Earth and cosmos through the facets or currents that we name modern human life.  The city calls to us like the forest and desert, and aspires toward becoming the essence of any landscape, that of eloquence.  Without really knowing it, this is what we have never ceased moving toward.  This is our high human quest, and it will never be completed.  With the city, we have been given a great challenge, and a new chance in a peopled Earth.  It is another face of Earth that has been masked by our limits.  Not an island as we have long believed, the city is an ecological adaptation that can flower into an oasis of life. 
Where is the "city" going, if it is authentically "living?"

Now in a peopled Earth, the city of the future is already expressing its wildness far more than its tameness.  The destiny of the city lies in its maturation as a wilderness ecosystem that integrates with the larger Earth ecosystem.  While this can seem to be an impossible stretch and a Romantic eco-dream, it is likely the practical destiny of the city.  It is the way that the Earth and cosmos work.  It is astonishing but reasonable to presume that the global human population is capable of being less at the turn of the century in 2100 than it is now.  The key dynamics of biotic wilderness ecosystems—diversity, fittedness and complete recycling—are possible in cities. 

Given our most rational measures, the destiny of any ecosystem is most likely one that evolves or advances [not devolves] into a wilderness ecosystem.  And a wilderness ecosystem can have many forms, including human technologies.  An advanced culture would have a high eco-literacy that would expand human identity to integrate with the larger Earth ecosystem rather than exclude it.  And it would do this because the enduring conditions of existence are, paradoxically, ongoing creation.  The key dynamic of the universe is ongoing creation, and the key quality for biota [those events occurring in landscapes capable of having macromolecules such as the Earth] is wildness.  Wildness is not something shrunken down to distant remnants but rather the central operating factor in the biosphere and the cosmos.  And wildness is alertness and response to eco-pressures that would result in mutations such as your writing explores.  As awkward as it seems due to our longstanding strategy of exploitation of resources as a natural middle step for human evolution, cities are more ethological events [driven to appear and evolve as evolutionary responses] that artificial.

Ultimately the advent of new strategies renders the reliance on a traditional city/manufacturing base/etc. rather obsolete.  Technology advances but serves an identity larger than a specific species as in John W. Campbell’s 1937 short story, “Forgetfulness.”[iv]  A synopsis of Campbell's story might go something like this: A pre-colonization expedition by a group of advanced humans visits a lush, semi-primeval planet, and encounters a race of peaceful and simple inhabitants.  These apparently simple-minded denizens know little about the ancestors that built a tremendous set of ruins near-by, a city and spaceport slowly being recovered by the jungle, with records and artifacts of an impressive interstellar empire.  Eventually, the obnoxious visitors push the locals too far, and then realize that these 'primitives' have actually evolved far beyond them, building anything and everything they need from scratch, converting matter-to-energy readily.  Who needs permanent structures and vast collectives when you have finally achieved a rational, thriving harmony with nature?

[i] John Hay, The Undiscovered Country, p. 12.
[ii] Psychogeography [  See also, Ivan Chicheglov, Formulary For A New Urbanism: Sire, I Am From Another Country.London: Psychogeographical Association, 1997.
[iii] John Hay, The Undiscovered Country, p. 171.
[iv] John W. Campbell, “Forgetfulness” in The Best of John W. Campbell. New York: Ballentine Books, 1976.