Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Urbanologist: A New Naturalist

The urban landscape offers a listening point for a new naturalist—an urbanologist—where heretofore there was a hard inorganic wall.

IN MODERN LIFE, we have two cities in each city—the one we perceive based on our beliefs and the one in which we might dwell.  We have the separable city that we believe in, and we have the ecological habitat in which we concretely live.  It is remarkable that we find it difficult to envision the city as an ecological event. Our illusion of “two cities” is like the Zen admonition stating that we see two moons, with our image of the moon veiling the living moon.  Immersed within an oceanus of nature, we have become astonishingly capable of believing that we look out at nature. 

To authentically design especially in the face of global environmental dilemmas, we need to see where we are before taking a step.  As we did not imagine air as a substance until very recently, we need to look at the city “impossibly,” to encounter what is it that we proscribe from our awareness.  As Thoreau did on Mt. Katahdin when he came to the realization that human life was “not the highest thing in nature, but merely one—admittedly important—part of it,”[i] we are beginning to ask,  “Where am I at?”  Then a gate begins to open that produces a renascent leap in human development.

Imagining post-industrial life as continuing to be an expression of the ongoing development of the Earth can seem to be the epitome of Romanticism.  It can also be criticized as a dangerous white-washing of the ecological destruction to fragile unsettled ecosystems that are in need of our attention and protection.  And yet, the absence of identity with the larger Earth ecosystem might perpetuate and even accelerate human activity that is destructive to both the unsettled landscape and public health.  In the face of very real scientific measures, maintaining a vision of post-industrial life as apart from nature may be the epitome of Romanticism. 

To shift from what we believe to that which is, we need to enter the dynamics of the the city.  What we need to do is be curious, and wonder about, and listen for grace in the city instead of approach it as a known and over-old phenomenon.  We find wildness, for example, in a river because we go looking for it there and anticipate its presence there.  Whether we resist it or not, our still-young experience of ecology has begun to tatter the veil we hold before the city.  When we begin to approach the city as we might approach a river, we begin to approach the city as if it has something fresh to offer us rather than as something completely known.  In the city, we stand to discover natural process at its core in a way that is not unlike our revision of unsettled landscapes from inactive wastelands to creative ecosystems. 

We might approach the city as we now approach a field of wild grass, creatively and more open-ended and without presumption that we know and understand it.  As we have tried to be naturalists in unsettled terrains, we might go now as new form of naturalist—as an urbanologist, a term that is still open and not restricted to planners or to something that is only cultural or psychosocial.  As urbanologists, we might begin to do something new, to include the human life in our subsequent accounts of the “natural history of the city” rather than simply describe the nonhuman events—flora and fauna, climate and geology. 

We cannot authentically design for an “eco-city” by attempting to solve a technological puzzle that is in need of our invention.  While it is natural and essential to be inventive, the city-form is already an eco-city in its most built form that is alive and responsive.  We can realistically go as natural species sapiens, which is to say, as that which we inherently and enduringly are, as “Earth tasters” [Homo, from the Indo-European root of ghom, from ghthm, a reference to Earth, earthling, and sapiens, a derivative of the Indo-European root of sab, a reference to taste].

We have responded environmentally to the city as if it were static and even more negatively as if it was a necropolis—a city of death—when environmental feedback now immediately and persistently presses back on us, saying urban space is habitat, Habitat, HABITAT. In imagining the term “city,” we might begin to associate it with the term “habitat.”  In the negative environmental feedback provoked by our consumption, we directly taste our inseparability in a way that we never did in the early industrial city when the world seemed to be an open frontier.  Our natural and very curious migration into now-diminishing vast physical frontiers can turn our curiosity toward a new frontier opening all around us.   Encountering this new frontier, there are positive adaptive features in urbanization, ranging from general features such as a reduction in the rate of population growth to personal experiences of human activity “softening” the hard infrastructural grid.  We would then begin to talk from the vision of continuums of habitats ranging from uninhabited to settled, rather than mutually-exclusive opposites of unsettled habitats and settled non-habitats.  Shifting to explore the city-form as a habitat would reveal a richer diversity of non-human urban habitat that would be expanded as well as challenging us to begin to look at human habitation as being on a continuum. 

As if entering a river ecosystem or prairie ecosystem, we aspire to explore the inherent, automatic, spontaneous design that is occurring in the city-form.  We begin to look for a process that is diversifying and softening urban space, and to consider enhancing this rather than impose a design on the city.  And we also explore the adaptations of nonhuman flora and fauna to urban space.  In their “Airoots” blog, Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove explore creative ways of beginning to experience the city and uncover automatic design.  They describe the “grid” of the city as the master plan and the “gutter” pushing against the lines of the grid.  They write of “the primal quality of New York. …It is this quality that seeps through its grid all the time and treats it for what it is—a convenience—not the maker of its identity.”[ii] 

Srivastava and Matias describe an approach to “experience” Tokyo--“the largest urban agglomeration” and “also the deepest”—by “diving” into its “depth” that is comprised of population and architectural density, signs, information, culture and history.  They describe Tokyo as dense and intense, yet quick and fluid.[iii]  They describe a functional process of automatic urban design in Tokyo as a “default model” that occurs globally and that is especially evident in developing countries, and that developed outside the planned center.  For example, urban planning in Tokyo developed the city center and provided transportation and water supply beyond the city center where it “defaulted” to local self-reliance.[iv]  Along with “diving,” there is the description of the draining of the city that refers to going under the city into the archaeology and topology/geology that is described as “driving” the city. 

A growing number of internet “blogospheres” devoted to urbanism and urban architecture explore in a more effusive, naturalist sense of the “edges” or architecture and urbanism.  They also aspire to coordinate conferences to revision urbanization, and interface with specific planning and architectural websites or are produced as exploratory websites of academic programs.  Whether biased or even inaccurate at times, the critical eye of this new widespread “urbanology” is to be something sought out as we encounter this new global urbanism and aspire to expand our urban eco-literacy.

[i] Robert Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, p. 183.
[ii] Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove, “Manhattan gutter space,” [www.airoots.org].
[iii] Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove, “Tokyo diving,” [www.airoots.org].
[iv] Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove, “The Tokyo Default Model,” November 17, 2007 [www.airoots.org].

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