Friday, February 11, 2011

Stepping Forward Into The Future

THE CITY-FORM is a beginning point of departure into a wide-open destiny and not an end-point or climax in human development.  It is a new seed.  Our never-ending objective is to remain alert to the changing conditions of existence.  The goal is to optimize adaptations that are already occurring.  The dilemmas posed by urbanization offer a gift.  The problem will come if we do not see the gift.

Copernicus began to imagine that the sun did not revolve around the Earth and our subsequent actions took a qualitative leap.  Similarly, we are clearly beginning to imagine that the Earth does not revolve around the city-as-island.  What is yet to occur is an eco-literacy that imagines the city as an expression of Earth and as a phase in the Earth’s ongoing evolution.

It is difficult to say what the city might become and it is impossible to know.  Any city is a living entity that is very dynamic and far from stasis.  In the vast context of the cosmos, cities are more like forests and deserts than different, and all landscapes are “attitude containers” or “design containers.”  All landscapes look the way that they do because they express an attitude or “design.”  For example, prairie “design” favors roots over seed production for sustainability.  And when we disrupt the prairie in agribusiness, we create a container that favors a “weed ecosystem” that favors seed production (which we exploit in grain production).  If we believe ourselves to be separate and above the non-human landscape, our urban design will reflect an attitude of apartness that we commonly term “artificiality” and “domestication/tameness.”  And if we believe ourselves to be integral to Earth, our cities will reflect an attitude of “naturalness” and “wildness.”

Regardless of whether we intentionally modify our current vision of the city or not, the city will naturally transform across time.  And yet, if our attitude aspires toward separation, we will compromise our optimization and, as many speculate, risk our own survival. 

To intentionally express a living city “design attitude” in urban actions will be a challenge.  To reach the moon, we had to challenge the belief that we were Earth-bound.  We could do this because we had a new language of the universe rather than a sense of a ceiling of stars.  To affect the city, we have to challenge the belief that we are culture-bound.  We have to look beyond the belief that we are looking out at nature and look from the very real perspective of deep immersion in a vast wilderness.  To aid us, we have this new landscape of the universe and a new language of ecology and we are just barely beginning to delineate.  The new language of the universe expands the frame that we place upon wildness.  And our overall sense of ecology that monitors environmental feedback expands the reach of optimal human life to include more than human beings.  Increasingly and spontaneously and intuitively, we respond from a sense of inclusion in the Earth rather than from a sense of relationship to it, and landscape begins to transform to become the longer inseparable reach of self rather than as a background or a stage-set. 

Since the city immerses us, we do not have the objectivity provided by distance.  With our still-young ecology, we are somewhat like a fish not seeing the river that designs it.  To transform the city, we have to break through the veil of familiarity.  We can “dive” into the activity of the city like we might explore an estuary.  And this exploration will not be alien to us.  Human beings have lived in unbuilt terrains throughout most of their still-new development, and we carry this enduring ember of wildness that knows how to be alert to the conditions of existence.  As journalist and naturalist Henry Beston suggested in The Outermost House,[i] we hunger for the elemental before our senses.  We respond to natural process because we have developed within it and it has shaped us physically and emotionally, and we continue to express it.  This is what is driving a global spontaneous, adaptive turn toward a strategy of residency.

Our hunger for wildness and our longstanding development within the unbuilt landscape is likely already informing our response to modern environmental dilemmas.  If we could begin to catch up both rationally and intuitively with our rapid physical migration to urbanization, we know how to begin to respond.  Interestingly, our now-global cybernetic communication may offer a quantum leap in expanding our new language of ecology.  Interested in natural succession but not graced by the modern vision of ecology and astrophysics, Thoreau perceived wildness within modern man that can carry us forward.  After an inspiring visit to a nearby wetland, Thoreau makes a lengthy entry in his journal on August 30, 1856, where he concludes,
It is vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.  It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us, that inspires that dream.  I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador a greater wildness than in some recess in Concord, i.e., than I import into it.  A little more manhood or virtue will make the surface of the globe anywhere thrillingly novel and wild. That alone will provide and pay the fiddler;…[ii]

But Thoreau sees this inherent wildness or naturalness needing to intentionally integrate with the nonhuman landscape to be optimized.  In the last part of the sentence, he writes, “…it will convert the district road into an untrodden cranberry bog, for it restores all things to their original primitive flourishing and promising state.

[i] Henry Beston, The Outermost House. New York: Viking, 1956 (1928), p. 10.
[ii] Henry Thoreau, Journal, Vol. IX, August 30, 1856 [journal p. 43, in Torry and Allen edition, p. 1063].

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