Sunday, August 14, 2011

Future City: The Impact of Residency

WHAT WILL THE FUTURE city look like?  Can we imagine it?  Will it be a luminous city or a dark city or an oasis of life?  Will the city continue a drive toward exclusivity and separation from the nonhuman Earth community rather than inclusion?  Whatever the city will become in the future, it now is a provocation that offers a threshold of sorts to cross over to a qualitative step in our understanding of human nature and nature in general if we are readied to take it.

Were we to ask what a desert or a forest of the future might look like, to a large extent, their constancy would be more predicable.  This is a measure of their maturity.  It is likely that the city of the future, being young in the history of the Earth, will look remarkably different than it does in the contemporary moment.  And it is this clear leap in what the city of the future will look like, that opens a door for the city to become nearly any possibility, even an oasis of life that mimics a wilderness ecosystem.

The contemporary city-form is so much softer that we allow ourselves to imagine.  The city is a threshold through which we are just beginning to step.  There is nothing rock-firm on the other side.  And yet, global urbanization has not been completely directionless.  The peopling of the Earth and migration toward urbanization as inhabitants rather than as tenants has been a qualitatively positive ecological response in many strong ways as well as continuing to reflect dysfunctional activities.  At this beginning point, we cannot see the end.  We cannot see the future of human habitation with clarity.  As John Hay writes in The Undiscovered Country,
A new relationship between us and the living world is still ahead of us, in what form no one can say.  Who knows how the infinitely complex relationships of the watery planet will realize themselves tomorrow?  It will not be entirely our doing.[i]

A global shift toward the city as the predominant human residence is the dynamic that forms a threshold between the past and the future.  Global urbanization is so suddenly different that it forms a clean threshold like industrialization did in the past in human habitation.  For the foreseeable future, the one thing that seems clear is that the city of the future will be different than before because it will become the predominant residence for human life.  The future city will be home and not just house.  And we will increasingly discover that to be “home” we will be possessed more than we possess.

At times, we have imagined cities to be zoos that domesticate people and nonhuman inhabitants by restricting activity to square meters and concrete.  We have even described cities as prisons.  But human life is increasingly drawn to them in search of opportunity.  While this draw may be, in part, the result of exploitation that depletes the rural economy, the draw is much stronger than this.  It will be important to “green” and make sustainable the smaller rural communities rather than presume that human life will be completely urban.  And yet, for all of their difficulties, cities are a landscape of opportunity and possibility in a peopled Earth. 

To a large degree, the inability to describe the city of the future is due to its function as a residence.  As a place of human habitation, the city will function even less orderly than as a mercantile or sacred center.  The more that a city becomes a residence, the more that there is a “psycho-geography” and a “creatural geography” that derives from the lives of inhabitants and creates freedom, meaningfulness, variability and ongoing exploration.  It is dynamic and automatic and somewhat decipherable, so that it suggests design possibilities, but it is also private and effusive.  In Formulary For A New Urbanism, Ivan Chicheglov described a give-and-take process of an “urban relativity” of “vortexes,” and “currents” that react like an “undertow” against the “fixed points” or physical and ideological restrictions of the built urban environment.[ii]  This psycho-geographic “undertow” is an expression of the ongoing emergence of the city, always remains indecipherable, and is important to acknowledge and explore to understand the city.

Residency shifts the city from an architectural machine to a living process that is ecological and organic and continually changing far more than it is artificial.  It offers an opportunity to be more than a luminous machine or a dark city.   Finding a living city rather than a machine, we have a base to optimize our life in a way that the separable city cannot realize.   The living city is a part of nature rather than apart from nature.  And it is not simply an eco-dream for the city, but something that can be discovered by diving into the contemporary city. 

In global urbanization, we find a rock-solid infinite game like we also find in a forest, rather than a finite game that we might find in a machine or in the past emerging industrial city.  It has an ongoing metabolism that stresses adaptation rather than defense of the status quo.  Feeling that we cannot change who we have become, we begin to discover that change is all we have ever done.  We can acknowledge inherent aliveness and vitality and aspire to support it as design.  Attention can be directed particularly to the soft ambience that underlies the hard ambience (physical construction) as well as acknowledge and explore the organicity of urban architecture.  As residents, the required resilience and desired public health or “quality” will ultimately require the action of affiliation rather than dominion and exploitation.  Finding ourselves inside the world, we act differently that if we find ourselves to be apart.  Accordingly, attention is directed toward optimizing the nonhuman events that are present in the urban landscape to optimize human life.

And as we begin to live more as residents, we begin to approach being indigenous.  “Indigenous” primal societies have been more migratory than we tend to acknowledge.  Primal societies have been essentially migrants who populated the Earth, and who often replaced other indigenous human groups only a decade or so before being identified by literate cultures as “first” inhabitants of a particular landscape.  Their success and subsequent population growth often drove members or whole societies to continue migration and abandon the local place.  And with success, they adopted exploitive strategies to sustain successfully expanding populations that we now attribute almost exclusively and erroneously to modern civilizations.  But the longer they remained in a place, residency developed an affiliation and intimacy with nonhuman and elemental processes.  

For all of our modernity, residency is essentially our new-old process as we step into the future.  In the post-industrial, unlike in the rather recent past, we have no vast remaining physical frontiers.  Having peopled the Earth, we will have to do something that we really have never fully accomplished throughout human development—indigenous residency.

Ultimately, our sense of being “post-natural” may be the epitome of our longstanding, illusory dream of separation.  In futurist speculation, “post-humanism” or “trans-humanism” refer to an extension of the longstanding vision of separation in which human life becomes more integrated with the machine, and might be described as even less natural by becoming less biological.  It is apparent that human development will always involve leaving ourselves behind, just as our deep ancestry did to become us.  But this process is a natural response to meet the changing conditions of existence.  In this ecological sense, human life always involves more than human beings.  In this context, even our machines are natural expressions, as will be some degree of integration with both the machine and the larger Earth ecosystem that is an astonishing self-informing “computer” in an ongoing developmental process. 

Human designs are adaptive responses rather than activities that separate us from nature, and that design us.  Human activities that have seemed to separate us worked naturally and successfully when we had vast material resources to exploit.  That which designs us is not internal, but rather the vast ongoing cosmic landscape in which we are lost.  Rather than being post-natural, human life remains enduringly indigenous, and needing to remain wildly attentive to adapt to the changing conditions of ongoing creation to sustain as a species.

Now, in the contemporary moment, integration rather than migration has now become our way forward.  This integrated residency will also have to do something that is new.  Rather than simply join in a relationship with the large Earth community, optimal human habitation will have to express the operating Earth dynamic and become an oasis of life, both human and nonhuman.  If we imagine the city of the future to be hard architecture, this oasis cannot occur.  But if we imagine the city to be living and adaptive, an eco-oasis will become a possibility.   

The city offers an opportunity not only for survival but also for growth and choice.  That which has seemed to be the antithesis of nature is coming to be understood as a natural adaptation that can express the wild eloquence of diversity and fittedness.
In The Undiscovered Country, John Hay writes,
Missing a free exchange between us and the waning riches of the earth, we invoke the wilderness.  But this is wilderness still, in our blood, where the water runs and the leaves as shaking.  This is our only house and its provision.  Home is the universal magnet. Even the wanderer whose only goal is money on the run requires it sooner or later, feels it as an imperative. Home is not only our dugout, our room, our building, the place we need so as to know one another, but it is the center where hemispheres cross, the winds collide, where world life has its lodging.  Home is the mortal body where opposites meet and find each other.  We could not survive our own anarchy if life did not insist on affinity.  The searching for it never lets up.  There are no neglected corners, in spite of appearances.[iii]

With global urbanization, we are just beginning to open an old language with a new key. We are describing something that is fresh, and just underway, and yet, primal and enduring.  Our first new words are still simple and effusive, but we know in our hearts what they are trying to say.  We have begun to feel like we belong to the Earth even though it might not have been our intent.  And it is a rewarding feeling of coming home, in the sense of coming inside vast support.  We begin to experience of sense of never having been apart.  And we begin to sense that our use has never been unnatural, but it has been incoherent and largely deconstructive and immature, using and disregarding with too little admiration and wonder. 

Our literacy is not a step out of nature that separates us forever.  Our literacy remains a subtle, wild listening point that is Earth-made and continues to express Earth and cosmos through the facets or currents that we name modern human life.  The city calls to us like the forest and desert, and aspires toward becoming the essence of any landscape, that of eloquence.  Without really knowing it, this is what we have never ceased moving toward.  This is our high human quest, and it will never be completed.  With the city, we have been given a great challenge, and a new chance in a peopled Earth.  It is another face of Earth that has been masked by our limits.  Not an island as we have long believed, the city is an ecological adaptation that can flower into an oasis of life. 
Where is the "city" going, if it is authentically "living?"

Now in a peopled Earth, the city of the future is already expressing its wildness far more than its tameness.  The destiny of the city lies in its maturation as a wilderness ecosystem that integrates with the larger Earth ecosystem.  While this can seem to be an impossible stretch and a Romantic eco-dream, it is likely the practical destiny of the city.  It is the way that the Earth and cosmos work.  It is astonishing but reasonable to presume that the global human population is capable of being less at the turn of the century in 2100 than it is now.  The key dynamics of biotic wilderness ecosystems—diversity, fittedness and complete recycling—are possible in cities. 

Given our most rational measures, the destiny of any ecosystem is most likely one that evolves or advances [not devolves] into a wilderness ecosystem.  And a wilderness ecosystem can have many forms, including human technologies.  An advanced culture would have a high eco-literacy that would expand human identity to integrate with the larger Earth ecosystem rather than exclude it.  And it would do this because the enduring conditions of existence are, paradoxically, ongoing creation.  The key dynamic of the universe is ongoing creation, and the key quality for biota [those events occurring in landscapes capable of having macromolecules such as the Earth] is wildness.  Wildness is not something shrunken down to distant remnants but rather the central operating factor in the biosphere and the cosmos.  And wildness is alertness and response to eco-pressures that would result in mutations such as your writing explores.  As awkward as it seems due to our longstanding strategy of exploitation of resources as a natural middle step for human evolution, cities are more ethological events [driven to appear and evolve as evolutionary responses] that artificial.

Ultimately the advent of new strategies renders the reliance on a traditional city/manufacturing base/etc. rather obsolete.  Technology advances but serves an identity larger than a specific species as in John W. Campbell’s 1937 short story, “Forgetfulness.”[iv]  A synopsis of Campbell's story might go something like this: A pre-colonization expedition by a group of advanced humans visits a lush, semi-primeval planet, and encounters a race of peaceful and simple inhabitants.  These apparently simple-minded denizens know little about the ancestors that built a tremendous set of ruins near-by, a city and spaceport slowly being recovered by the jungle, with records and artifacts of an impressive interstellar empire.  Eventually, the obnoxious visitors push the locals too far, and then realize that these 'primitives' have actually evolved far beyond them, building anything and everything they need from scratch, converting matter-to-energy readily.  Who needs permanent structures and vast collectives when you have finally achieved a rational, thriving harmony with nature?

[i] John Hay, The Undiscovered Country, p. 12.
[ii] Psychogeography [  See also, Ivan Chicheglov, Formulary For A New Urbanism: Sire, I Am From Another Country.London: Psychogeographical Association, 1997.
[iii] John Hay, The Undiscovered Country, p. 171.
[iv] John W. Campbell, “Forgetfulness” in The Best of John W. Campbell. New York: Ballentine Books, 1976.

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