Thursday, February 10, 2011
The Living City: Being People-Positive
RESTRICTING HUMAN ACTIVITY for environmental gains is ineffective, primarily because it does the opposite; it increases consumption. Limiting human activity to “save the environment” pushes human life toward isolation in culture. The mall becomes of central importance. Portraying people as intruders reinforces a false belief in human life as being outside nature. More fundamentally, and never discussed because it revisions human life as natural rather than as separate and above nature, restricting human activity restricts the rights and wildness of the human species while trying to not restrict the rights of nonhuman life. As a wild event, human life has not only the right but the obligation to optimize human survival. As a species, we have a right to unimpeded self-realization.
Were we to focus on optimizing human life rather than restricting it, we begin to accomplish that which we are unsuccessful in doing through restriction. We begin to improve the quality of nonhuman life as well as human life. This is because we begin to include human life in nature rather than define human life out of nature. To optimize human life as a species, we begin to value actions that integrate human life into the Earth ecosystem. And we find that these actions improve the quality of human life.
When we really begin to be people-positive rather than be people-limiting, we become Earth-positive rather than either Earth-centric or anthropocentric. We are just beginning to move from actions based on beliefs to actions based on direct experience. For example, environmental degradation in the form of degrading feedback requires encouragement for non-human events as aspects of the longer reach of ourselves if we are to optimize both our comfort and our survival.
Now, instead of facing an external environmental problem, we begin to act out of our own deep self-interest to improve the quality of life. The emphasis on people-positive design in Curitiba, Brazil illustrates how we can begin to be both people-positive and Earth positive in an urban setting without being either anthropocentric or Earth-centric. We can be socio-cultural, psychological and creatural because this is what our experience is saying, and we begin to attend to our direct experience or to the changing conditions of existence to first survive and then to optimize. And we begin to attend to our direct experience in the contemporary moment more than ever before because we can no longer live on now-depleted, once vast stored capital in the natural resources of the Earth that let us overlook feedback in a less-peopled Earth.
Habitat is a right for any species. And driven by global urbanization more than by an environmental ethic, urban habitation no longer defines quality as synonymous with comfort. A sense of symbiosis that is both social and ecological offers a durability that is coming to be judged as more comforting because of its sustainability and improved environmental quality than heretofore “comforting” consumption. And “modern” human life is still young in the Earth, is still natural and even wild, and continues to express a sense of “topofilia” or “biofilia” or affection for nature.
In Ecology and Ekistics, Constantinos Doxiadis suggest that urban inhabitants continue to have affection for nature and landscape, and these inhabitants find that cities are not satisfactory for people, and so there is an incentive to amplify rather than diminish local nonhuman events.[i] Doxiadis has suggested that uniformity in urban design may produce a lower quality of life.[ii] And a strong part of this uniformity is the degradation and absence of nonhuman life and landscape. In the face of global urbanization, environmental concerns cannot be addressed by focusing primarily on enhancing unsettled nonhuman landscapes. Curtis White suggests that design must first meet the damage done to the human community, and he suggests further that threats to the human and nonhuman are the same one.[iii] Focus on the declining biodiversity by protecting unsettled landscapes is critical, but it will not be altered without focusing equally on the degrading environmental quality of settled landscapes.
Enhancement of the built environment for urban inhabitants needs to attend strongly to the existing “automatic” intuitive actions of urban inhabitants, or natural wildness of urban life. In the post-industrial city, the optimal urban living space may involved into a porous network of dwelling and activity that creates metaphorically a different city for each inhabitant. And where planning has sought to support this fluid living space rather than design the space, affection for the urban landscape has dramatically increased. What has been lacking in new efforts to support the natural activities of urban inhabitants is a sense of urban space as a natural ecosystem. Sustainability design continues to focus on energy restriction, which is an essential element, but lacks awareness of automatic energy restriction that occurs in the most highly urbanized spaces as inhabitants live in smaller dwellings and reduce transportation to gain quality. There is a natural process of gain rather than restriction and loss that is veiled by a sense of separation from nature and, more importantly, by a misperception of an inability for “civilization” to participate in nature.
The inherent wild process in contemporary life resists uniform built environment approaches whether then be human-scale pods as in “new towns” or multi-level mass housing. Transforming cities to self-contained communities and neighborhoods and townships as is often proposed as optimal because it prioritizes “human scale.” Meanwhile, urban dwellers, especially in larger cities, create invisible webs of home and resources and social contact that includes human scale and grand scale space.
While it would seem obvious that human scale is crucial in urban dwellings and activity, grand scale efforts also provides a vitality and openness that is important, and this, paradoxically, is an unanticipated positive element of each person’s fluid urban living space. It might be posited that there is a “natural scale” that is a continuum, that continues to be a creatural expression of human life. It is an automatic affection for both the safety of the “hearth” and the “vista” that soothes our distance-seeking eyes. And individuals also vary in their sense of comfort regarding the structure of their space rather than uniformly seek the same living space. The amount of desired dwelling space varies so that diversity of dwelling space in a diversity of city-space (downtown/center, midtown, edge city or exurbia) should be enhanced rather than uniformity. Diversity needs to address habitat needs for age differences (young adults, empty nesters, retirement, family, children).
Overall, living city design attends to residency and therefore promotes inclusion, and inclusion does not exclude nonhuman events. An emphasis on residency drives the use of terms such as integration and relatedness in design. These terms eventually outspread to affiliation with nonhuman processes both within and surrounding the city. This affiliation eventually extends legal standing to nonhuman events in increasing steps out of a growing sense of fundamental economic gain or positive environmental feedback rather than simply out of affection.[iv]
Residency requires a shift in strategy to be less driven toward production as “development” or “progress” and as optimal life. It attends to the “roots” or foundations, not to reduce opportunities but to enhance opportunities. It begins to approach all human life as indigenous to nature, and increasingly in a peopled Earth, indigenous to a local landscape, that will be for the foreseeable future, an urban landscape. Highlighting the new urban phenomenon of residency may explore a sense of becoming indigenous and relating to the immanent landform and surrounding bioregion and existing nonhuman habitat. With the exception of very remote places, human development has been more of a process of migration than of living long term in one place. Cultures replaced by contemporary societies that have been popularly described as indigenous and displaced violently by Western societies often have oral histories that describe violent land acquisition from other societies in an ongoing process of migration, rather than being original to the local place.
The city of the future will move in a variety of directions that blur artificiality and fittedness and that may appear to move away from ecological emphases, but the future city cannot override this fundamental requirement for long-run sustainability. For example, the “ubiquitous city” is emerging as an outgrowth of cybernetic technology. In this cyburbia city-form (e.g., Songdo, South Korea), residential and medical and business and governmental information systems are linked and a “smart card” house key could be used for transactions.[v] Again, “artificiality” that serves residency and integration rather than exploitation is not unrelated from patterns described as natural in primal societies. In a peopled Earth where the predominant human habitation will be urban, the ecological dimension is not overridden and may even be enhanced through these technologically integrative events. The key to optimal eco-design will involve an underlying philosophy that aspires to enhance residency.
A contemporary people-positive focus that is also Earth-positive focus will be a renascent step forward. It represents a transformation from a centric orientation where people and Earth are mutually exclusive events to an integrative orientation where people are an expression of the Earth.
[i] Constantinos Doxiadis, Ecology and Ekistics. [Gerald Dix, Ed.] London: Elek, 1977.
[ii] “entopia,”Constantinos Doxiadis noted in Rene Dubos, The Wooing of Earth, p.118. See also Constantinos Doxiadis, Building Entopia. New York: Norton, 1975.
[iii] Curtis White, The Ecology of Work,” Orion, May/June, 2007. [www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/article/267].
[iv] See, for example, an early argument for legal standing of nonhuman events in Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, Calif.: William Kauffman, Inc., 1974.
[v] “ubiquitous city” [http://en.wikipedia/wiki/Ubiquitous_city].