Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Living City: An Overview

THERE ARE TWO major changes that are profoundly transforming contemporary human life.  First, the city has become the predominant global human habitat and global urbanization continues to increase.  And second, the most urbanized person now experiences direct feedback of increasing environmental degradation to the point of being a public health concern rather than as something that is only degrading distant, uninhabited landscapes.  At first glance, increasing urbanization and increasing environmental degradation can make the city appear to be at the vanguard of the destruction of the Earth ecosystem and be self-destructive as well.  However, there is an emerging sense that the “problem” of global urbanization is at the vanguard of nature, and that it is creating an opportunity for integration with the larger Earth ecosystem. 

While urbanization is accepted to be occurring within a natural universe, cities are envisioned as artificial intrusions that have become irrevocably separated from wildness.  However, our most rational scientific measures find human life deeply lost in infinities of wildness, making it increasingly difficult to describe human life as separate from wildness.  And looking with the lens of geological time, there is an emerging sense of the city as being still very young in the history of the Earth rather than over-old and mature.  And in everyday urban life, direct experience of environmental degradation revisions nature as coming inside the city rather than being described as an increasingly distant, shrinking process. 

There is a very new sense of the city as being natural and even wild, not unlike like a young river ecosystem that can seem more deconstructive than integrative.  And perhaps most surprising, there is a new sense that an ecologically adaptive living city is already operant within the ecologically destructive “separable” city.  In fact, there is a new sense of the city-form as being an inherent ecological adaptation to integrate a global human population of billions into the larger Earth ecosystem.

Degrading environmental quality that is provoked by global consumption and waste can appear to distance us from nature.  Increasingly, it is doing just the opposite.  Now in a “peopled Earth,” “nature” in the form of environmental quality is no longer “out there.”  It comes inside the city as it has always done, but it is no longer masked by the capacity of once vast distant frontiers to absorb degradation or at least displace degradation. 

Surprisingly, the degrading environmental quality that seems amplified in the city is not the city-form.  There is a process that is inherent in cities that always “softens the grid” that is environmentally adaptive.  The authentic environmental problem is a longstanding strategy rather than a structure or a place.  Components of this pioneering strategy, such as “separation from nature” and “exploitation/extraction,” now create a global public health problem that is already life threatening for billions of people and that is rapidly degrading the Earth ecosystem.  Pioneering has been a process of natural adaptation, exploiting vast physical frontiers brimming with stored material resources. This longstanding strategy of pioneering that has been successful as measured by population growth and increased lifespan.  But the successful “peopling of the Earth” requires a transformative, renascent shift in strategy to optimize health.

Urbanization has been erroneously envisioned as an expression of this strategy.  However, the global drive toward the city is an intuitive, natural response to meet the changing conditions of a “peopled” Earth.  Urbanization offers a way to absorb the global human population of billions, to then reduce this population and to use resources more efficiently as population density increases.  In fact, urbanization overrides the exploitive strategy and has begun to accomplish functional environmental changes that intentional efforts such as legislation, education and the environmental movement have failed to match.  For example, urbanization reduces the rate of population growth to such a degree that the global human population may be less that it currently is by the end of the 21st Century.  And the city-form can potentially reduce consumption though efficiency as well as effectively recycle waste in ways that are valued by its inhabitants and that optimize human life. 

Combined with an exploitive strategy, the rapid rate of global urbanization, rather than urbanization itself, does amplify global environmental destruction.  Global urbanization is also producing movement toward a new strategy of residency that favors integration with the larger Earth ecosystem rather than it’s exploitation.  Without planning, the everyday actions of urban migrants soften the hard urban grid to reveal an ecologically adaptive process that can be enhanced.  Across time, it is possible that cities might become ecological “arks” rather than separable fortresses that are integrated into the larger Earth ecosystem, that produce rather than consume resources, and that optimize global biodiversity.

Environmental degradation is now accepted to be a priority problem to be addressed in contemporary life.  Increasing priority is directed toward “green” technological solutions to lower the high metabolism of cities to create environmentally sensitive livable and sustainable communities.  This seems rational and appropriate, but it reflects a strategy remains primarily a strategy of separation from nature.  Cities can be environmentally sensitive, but when they are envisioned as artificial intrusions, they are deemed to be incapable of being a natural ecosystem.  Rather than integrate with the larger Earth ecosystem, the solution remains largely an internal technological one.  Cities are sensed to be finite machines created by technology.

Approaching the city as a machine that can be technologically fine-tuned is being challenged.  To “green” architecture and transportation and recycle, and to continue to exploit as if separate will not be enough.  “Green” technological responses will certainly need to continue, but they need to serve a more appropriate strategy.  An exclusive technological response to fine tune an urban machine may look like it is doing something but it can only compensate for degrading quality and may even threaten sustainability across the long run.

Environmentally sensitive communities are not the same as ecologically integrated communities.  Rather than a finite machine, the city is being explored as having always been and continuing to be an infinite process that is natural and that already has ecologically adaptive features that can be enhanced.  The city is being explored as a natural process and, more specifically, as an ecosystem because this is what both our direct daily experiences and scientific measures are saying.  We experience immediate eco-feedback when we either support or destroy.  And in just beginning to come face-to-face with the environment, we have begun to see some of our own actions as important adaptive responses.  And we begin to discover that the city-form is not primarily architecture, but rather is a process of habitation that essentially designs cities far more than our intentional efforts, and that might be enhanced.

Facing the decline of vast material resources, we begin to open a new natural “frontier” in the process of global urbanization that we have believed to be the antithesis of nature.  We have to invent very little.  We have myriad green technologies that we can tweak and improve.  Our greatest physical technological dilemma involves finding a way to get the technology into the expanding infrastructure in the near future to match the rapid pace of urbanization.  But our greatest design dilemma involves developing our emotional technology that uncovers the longstanding nature of human nature and its contemporary adaptation—the city-form—that has been masked by vast resources now depleted.

The conditions of existence of a peopled Earth transform the fundamental strategy from extraction of material resources to integration with the larger Earth ecosystem.  In our efforts to integrate into the larger Earth ecosystem, we have nothing to recover, nor do we have to return to a previous stage of development.  Throughout human evolution, there have been transformational leaps in our vision and actions when we have uncovered an enduring reality that has been proscribed by our beliefs.

An ecological renaissance is just beginning that aspires toward integration into the Earth ecosystem.  And because it is so profoundly transformational throughout the culture, a renaissance requires time.  The word ecology is still very fresh, and our conscious eco-literacy only barely begins to include human life.  Perhaps the greatest discovery is that people are nature.  Because of beliefs that have centralized human life in nature or even separated human life from nature, the spontaneous migration of human life toward the city has worn the mask of being a flight from nature.  But a dramatic shift in human migration toward the city is itself creating enough pressure to part the veil of our ignorance to reveal this migration to be an infolding of nature, a natural and even wild process.  The city is beginning to transform from fortress to habitat.  While the rate of urbanization grows and global population continues to grow, the rate of population growth is beginning to decline.  Like a wild young, destructive river, the city is maturing very slowly but functionally toward a dream of fittedness.  In the contemporary moment, all human activity is enduringly wild and young.  While difficult to gasp, a sense that cybernetics, plastics, aircraft, industry are wild will reflect an advancement in human perception rather than a backward step. 

Paradoxically, to resolve our environmental problem we need to identify that which is not a problem.  We need to explore the city as we might explore a forest.  We need to look for that which is not wrong in the city—“diving” with a new openness into that which is already ecologically adaptive—and aspire to enhance it.  We shift from a disease or disorder or problem orientation to a health orientation.  We are very good at defining problems, but very limited by our biases when it comes to describing our health.  We will discover that we have the same health goal as the Earth ecosystem—optimization—and that we are an ongoing, inseparable, wild expression of the development of the Earth.

The Living City is an exploration of the beginning of a renaissance in our view of human nature.  It is a vision of
·      urban life as inside a vast biospheric and interstellar wilderness process where wildness is the primary creative dynamic rather than inside a global landscape where wildness is reduced to fading remnants; 
·      urbanization an expression of this wilderness process rather than as separate and artificial intrusion upon nature; 
·      an enduring human wildness as continuing to be the primary design force even in the post-modern era where it has seemed to be impossible;  
·      a people-positive habitat that optimizes human life by integrating with the larger Earth community rather than an Earth-centric model that aspires to restrict human activity as disorder; and
·       an optimal health orientation rather than a political or ideological movement of a special interest.

Hard-edged and listening only to words, the city-form wears the appearance of a glass and steel machine.  And yet, its essence is a fluid softness and vital aliveness rather than a hard grid.  Whatever its ultimate fate, the city flies forward as an expression of the Earth rather than as an artifice.  Beneath its hard appearance, the contemporary city-form offers an opportunity for eco-adaptation.  Integration with the larger Earth community will be a measure of our expanding intelligence and wisdom to uncover an enduring authentic wild state rather than a step back to recover a lost Romantic pastoral.

So come now and step inside the living city, one of the youngest and wildest events on Earth, and relax, and allow yourself to open a gateway where there had not appeared to be one, in a renascent view both of the city and human nature.

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