Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Sketch Of Cities As Wild

TO ESCAPE FORWARD environmentally, the most needed technology to enhance global health will be a “philosophy of care,” an emotional technology, that underlies and determines/guides our actions and our material technology.  We have a plethora of material, physical resolutions.  This “emotional technology” in relation to global urbanization is different.  It involves revisioning the city as an expression of nature. 

As our eco-literacy expands, the important difference between landscapes begins to reveal crucial similarities that are far more important than differences.  The forest and the city share a core strategy.  In Finite And Infinite Games, James Carse describes infinite games as effusive and having no explicit end, no clear boundaries, no clear beginning point, with the intent of the game that of addressing threats to continue.  When viewed as a machine, the city wears the appearance of being a “finite game”—an “end game,” but the city-form is open ended, yes, like a forest or river or desert.

Our longstanding emotional technology approaches cities as over-old to the point of being detached and apart from nature [i.e., “built,” implying artificial, an end-product of civilization], and ecologically dysfunctional.  We tend to view events from an everyday time scale that may look back in time or forward a little more than two generations if that far.  From an everyday perspective, this view appears sensible.  However, seeing things from a perspective of geo-time, our extreme youthfulness in the history of the Earth becomes apparent.  By any measure, urbanization is a fresh event on Earth rather that over old, and immature.  Cities are immature rather than advanced.  While seeing events in geo-time seem impractical and/or philosophical, If we can see that cities are immature and just beginning, we might open a practical, immediate opportunity where before we only seemed to be approaching an endpoint.
As natural events, cities are unpredictable, and this unpredictability is amplified by their immaturity that makes them somewhat incomparable with established “mature” ecosystems such as climax forests and deserts.  For example, we know what an eagle or bear needs for survival, but what the city-form needs is more “naturally” vague.  And this amplified unpredictability is a central element in future urban design because it suggests that design must primarily observe rather than know.  Encountering the “ immaturity” of the city that we had described as being over-old implores us to “dive into” the activities of the city rather than design the city as if we know what is required.  In this sense, we discover a “fresh ecosystem” that we may have overlooked.

It is now broadly accepted that any city is incomprehensible and unpredictable in terms of fully controlling its development.  Go to the “starchitects” or “city planners” that are asked to resolve urban “problems,” and they implore us to first listen before we act.  And because the city is incomprehensible, it has been erroneous to approach the city-form as a machine.  As a result, the fundamental ecological nature of urbanization has been poorly described.  Seeing the city as alive rather than as a machine will point us in directions that we have never allowed ourselves to imagine.  Seeing the city as “alive” can begin suspect that there are elements in urbanization that are “natural” as well as erroneous, so that there may be processes at work that may enhance ecological adaptability or function.  

Finding a “natural process” in urbanization would offer design directives if it truly existed.  Cities have appeared to be so inventive as to be “beyond nature.”  But our best measures suggest that cities have always been very fragile (which is apparent in the archaeological record), and continue to be fragile.  In The World Without Us,[i] a speculation of what would happen if human being became abruptly extinct, Alan Weisman describes the rapid deterioration and impermanence of the “concrete,” seemingly impermeable, built environment.

The terms, “artificial” and “domestic” and “wild” and “culture” and “nature” and “human” and “nonhuman” are terms that describe real distinctions at work in the world.  Modern consumption appears to be artificial in terms of over-serving base needs, with, for example, perhaps 350,000 gallons of water needed to manufacture one ton of rayon, or 15,000 gallons of water being consumed daily by each American both directly and indirectly.  But these terms are, finally, not that desperate.  The terms are not helpful for innovative urban planning when arranged into dialectics of opposites.  Rather than discard them or choose one set over another, there is a value in revisioning these concepts, primarily by expanding them.   For example, there is a very real way in which the artificial expresses the wild.  The “eco-literate reality” is that these terms are on continuums, and are facets of the other rather than mutually exclusive, and interrelated and inseparable.  Appearing to be primarily a “built” environment, human settlements seem to be “hard” and artificial.  But “hard architecture”—built stock—is fluid and overturns at a rate that is similar to the replacement rate of trees in forest succession.  And the real essence of the wild living city is, finally, not hard architecture, but rather, the action of human life itself that continuously “softens” the hard grid.

Continued emphasis upon difference more than similarity impedes human integration with the larger Earth community.   Our definition of the term “wildness” has referenced qualities of remoteness and the archaic.  Described in this way, wildness can have little to do with modern human life.  However, this sense of opposites is misleading.  Our most rational scientific measures suggest that wildness is the central dynamic—the functional essence—of a cosmos in which we are deeply immersed.  As Geoffrey West argues, “Cities are just like creatures.  They obey the same metabolic laws that govern every organism.”[ii] 

Wildness is how the Earth and cosmos work.  To suggest that modern human life is subject to some other process suggests our immaturity and limits and biases far more than reality and maturity.  We live inside the comprehensive wilderness of the biosphere, that is, in turn, a minute facet of stellar evolution.  This challenges our sense of wildness being restricted to being a descriptor for a complex unsettled ecosystem that has clearly been reduced to a remnant.  It opens the possibility of an enduring inherent wildness in everything.   It implies that wildness is a dynamic to meet the needs of any species—the “needs” of being alive—including  Homo sapiens.  Outr very bodies will change, and leave our immanent bodies behind, and this is because we are both subject to and express the large Earth ecosystem across the long run of events.

By opening the concept of “wildness,” we can find it already operant in urbanization that appears to be the antithesis of wildness.  As an expanded expression of a naturalist, as an “urbanologist” who begins to approach the city as natural, the core wild task of a species is that of alertness and adaptation to the ever-changing conditions of existence can be seen as inherent in the city and as essential for long-term sustainability.  Inclusion of all human activity is the deep, intuitive heart of Henry David Thoreau’s admonition in his essay “Walking” that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” and “Life consists with wildness.”[iii] 

In some very real ways, cities may even fit the heart of our traditional understanding of wildness.  As unpredictable infinite games, cities are like “wild” non-human events.  And cities can be both dangerous to live in and dangerous to the surrounding landscape. 

We might approach cities as unfitted because they are a relatively new event on Earth, rather than because they have evolved beyond a fit with nature.  In geo-time, cities are far too young to have evolved beyond nature.  In fact, cities can be viewed as still-crude, spontaneous efforts to adapt a global human population of billions to the Earth ecosystem that other models of human habitation, while important to continue, would not efficiently support.  

Cities might be unbalanced because they are new adaptations.  Perhaps cities are even biologically neotenic—retaining “juvenile” characteristics—perhaps because plentiful resources have not challenged development to fully mature until now.  It is not the city-form itself that is the ecological problem.  The city is wild and unpredictable.  But the city-from is an attitude container.  And its predominant attitude is a longstanding strategy based on separation and homocentrism—still one of pioneering rather than residency.  But now, the global human population is spontaneously migrating toward the city as a residence as a strategy of survival, and no longer outward from an exploitive center.  Wild, intuitive actions are overcoming nearly intractable beliefs of separation and the centrality of human life in the universe as farcical.   Finally, cities might be understood to not describe exclusive human enclaves.  Seemingly artificial and built and hard, the largest quantitative populations of urban areas are non-human.  And the intensive energy of cities can enhance these nonhuman populations.

In The Landscape Papers, Edgar Anderson writes,
If more naturalists would accept homo sapiens they would turn their attention more and more to the plants and animals with which he spends so much of his life: trees of heaven, squirrels, sunflowers, dogs, dandelions, cats, crab grass, English sparrows, gingkoes, weeds of all sorts.  We would take the time to learn the dynamics of waste lots in the city, of dump heaps, and of city parks.  We would know what is and is not practical in bringing country values into city landscapes.  More importantly, we could acquire a fellow feeling for these organisms with which we live.  We would accept cities instead of trying to run away from them, and in accepting them, mold them into the kind of communities in which a gregarious animal like man can be increasingly effective.[iv]

i Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. New York: Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
ii Geoffrey West, “The living city,” CEOS for Cities, Conversations, CEO blog, 7.17.07,, the_living_city.
iii Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Nature/Ralph Waldo Emerson Walking/Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Beacon, 1981, pp. 95 and 97 respectively.
iv Edgar Anderson, The Landscape Papers. Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1976, pp. 83-84.

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