Cities are a kind of madness. They are where work and play shapeshift days into nights; bricks, tar and halogen, the glue that holds it all together. In this age of neoliberalism, we live to work amidst deep divisions of labour in big radial waves emanating from dense urban centers to the exurbs. Hierarchies peak in three-dimensional representations of power across a city skyline. CVs are the raw currency—we are either chased or chasing that job, no matter how insecure, mundane, and sometimes oppressive. Despite pockets of accumulated wealth, unhappiness looms like a black cloud, and healthcare systems are stretched by failing immunities and mental distress. Cities are lacerated by clumsy, heavy modes of transport, dedicated to pop and shopping, fuelled by globalized financial quarters in steel-glass homogeneity. In leisure, we bathe in human-human culture as if little else exists.
Cities are hot. Too hot. We can smell it in the smogs of Beijing, Delhi, Riyadh, and Mexico City. We can measure these urban heat islands, quantifying our over-exuberance and burden on Earth. The busier the roads, the higher the seas. Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” of inhuman scales and Fordism is ultimately self-defeating and city-submerging. Yes, there’s pride and technical ingenuity, but deep fractures exist in our thinking. Council chambers and planning offices prioritize humans who elect and appoint them, yet cities are far more than human.
Cities are part of our one biosphere, nest-built by us hominids, of course, but only tenanted to wilder beings in limited, connected webs. Yet we are nature too, our lives dependent upon ecological abundance and function. The bravest and most adaptable find their niche at varying scales and at every opportunity. Sparrow, dandelion, ladybug, shrub—they cling to roofs, hide in drains, and poach whatever they can to survive. They exist despite our chauvinism.
The gleaming peregrine nests in a bell tower, and keenly hunts pigeon-fish above wave upon wave of slate roofs. The handsome night fox prowls the back alleys for rats whilst gulls rear their hungry young on scraps spilt from plastic bags. Sparrowhawks snatch blackbirds from clipped shrubs and kill them on park benches. Skeins of Canada geese navigate straight lines above us, whilst trucks below reverse to collect their skips of rubbish and haul them to landfill.
Even trees are only here at our total behest, planted by us and killed by us. Street tree roots burst from the sidewalks as if trying to escape captivity. Disjunct from community, they shed their leaves, only to have them swept or blown away, deemed a mere slipping hazard by insurers. City trees are left to grab whatever they can, the carbon we blithely pump into the atmosphere, the minerals from the paving slabs we lay, and the polluted run-off from our roads and carparks that kill their soils. Yet, wildness in a city is as luminous as any other encountered. More so, for these beings live with sheer tenacity and hope.
Our anthropocentric value system sustains a long and expensive battle against non-human life, a needless one, stealing energy and time. Stewardship prevails, and with a firm hand. Lives are dispatched and controlled with chainsaws, poisons, and bird spikes. We can choose to relent, instead nurturing the organic commons for our selves and for our wild kin to flourish in equal measure.
Nature isn’t street furniture, plastic planters, nor maintenance contracts. Neither is it the law, prescribed medicine, or vacuous green “space.” Nature is powerful and ancient, a collective force Dylan Thomas described so eloquently as the green fuse. It is where we all belong, in life and death, within and without. In understanding this, there is a liberation, a merging of all things, including the ways we choose to live—symbiotically interconnected with the subterranean mycelium, the river-stream-continuum, and even the microgenome.
My own eco-philosophy is a love ethic I call Fluminism. Fluminism acknowledges both the intrinsic value of all living beings, including humans, and their contribution to infinite and dynamic process. Existence and flow cannot be separated. We are all part of an interconnected narrative, flowing to and from all dimensions, including ones we are yet to understand. The complexity is endless, the minutiae beautiful. As fluminists, we acknowledge interconnectedness with all life (sanguimund) and seek to protect and proliferate all that is good (praximund). Life! More, we step into the flow with devotion because this is life at its best and most meaningful. It is love.
As a fluminist, I suggest replacing the word City with Kinnage (kyn – kin, age – sense of collection). City, citadels, and citizens are anthropocentric remnants of the Roman Empire, of animals killed, sacrificed in unspeakable cruel demonstrations of absolute dominion. Non-humans were forced into harsh work, as were human slaves, or caged in vivariums or coliseums for entertainment (see: Thorsten Fögen and Edmund Thomas, eds., Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity [De Gruyter, 2017]). The word City fails to represent a new fluministic era of protecting and proliferating natural processes, embracing all lives as kin within our moral frameworks. In Kinnages, however, we would see human/non-human boundaries blurred to the point where it is hard to find an edge, our life-love in common. As fluminists, our Kinnages will function as nature; a better life in places of unique identity, refugia, and compassion.
And what would a Kinnage look and feel like? I envision Kinnages as self-determining, nature-venerating, and scaled, horizontally and vertically, to community life. Endemism is celebrated and adopted easily, where no-one, no life, is displaced by place. Natural cycles are respected and “civil” engineering is soft not hard. Limited waste is harnessed and recycled before causing grief to our wild kin. Precipitation and energy is captured by high-rise constructions, with open waterfalls and streams brimming with fresh waterlife flowing to restored rivers and smaller community-owned water cleansing centers. Grey water is recycled and used in agroecology. Parks are wild-rich, riparian cushions to absorb the swell of rivers in spate, and public plazas are made of local materials, transparent and open. Outdoor life and food growing is subject to natural circadian rhythms, with renewable downlighting, that illuminates only below the horizontal plane to avoid light pollution.
All life follows seasonal rhythms. In design, we elicit responsibility and mutuality instead of fear and suspicion, and encourage all genders to be emotionally empowered, to nurture and care.
Kinnages are expressions of authentic “life,” which is not meticulously manicured. We can see the soil, smell it, observe what grows from it. Buildings are voluntarily colonizable and colonized by many more interconnected and native species yet we all retain some privacy. In this shared life, we close down prejudices to each other and all life, whilst cultivating compassion and less conflict. Roosts and forage routes are reserved for bats and birds, night and day, and similarly, places reserved for endemic mammalian, reptilian, and amphibian life. Kinnages reflect and attract the full color spectrum of light and the range of music produced by a living world, of deserts and mountains, river basins and wetlands. Each is a unique palette and ecophony.
Cities are silly-dependent on imports, including nearly all their food and water. Kinnages are different. The schools, hospitals, care homes, seed and book libraries are the stalwarts of a new shared materialism. Organic food is grown with sustainable, minimal waste systems. Boundaries and fences fall away to a lapping green tide and plenty of companionship. Ecoliteracy and creativity, as much as science and heritage, are foundations for learning. Crematoriums and small factories warm natural, communal baths and swimming pools. Why not?
Community kitchens are where people bring homegrown produce, to meet, eat, and preserve surplus through the seasons, a shared wisdom passed on through generations. Here, like the Maori Marae, local panels for discourse and decision-making bloom, and positive actions are celebrated in multiple ways. Each Kinnage grows into its own variable skin. No-one need be abandoned, no-one excluded, and communities become generally self-sufficient.
Kinnage dwelling is life-love, fluministic participation in natural process, from the flora and fauna of soils to the highest-flying bird, from children to the aged, from wetlands to the interdependent forest canopy. Kinnage trees, like their forest cousins, will have a wisdom, sharing unsealed ground as and of the mycelial networks and the microbiome, with their full knowing of what may still elude us. Trees are sentient with minds, not exactly like our own, but aware and responsive. They are social species, altruistic towards each other as community. Kinnage trees and dependent life are self-willed, nourishing one another with their own leaf litter and woody debris. Nutrients and carbon are drawn up into the wood for centuries of flourishing. Kinnage trees will live as long as they like.
Deconstruct the idea of the City’s everyday tensions: motorheads and appalling traffic, shiny shops and crime statistics, long working hours and mental distress. Instead, imagine smaller Kinnages of bridged and cantilevered construction, recyclable and benevolent, freeing up the soils for all life, including ourselves. All are interconnected with wildness and permaculture, and with light rail, cycling, soft edged canals and maybe cable cars as our means of transport. There will be no roads as we know them now. All will breathe fresh air.
The City never truly rests and neither do the street trees. The lights are nearly always on, forcing a new and strange phenology where Robins sing new songs at night to find mates and bats wake up too late to feed, and go hungry. Roads clot with gas and metal, and the dust rises in balloons to drift high across the sky and fall elsewhere. Cities are deep fabrications of the essence of biospheric life. They are a kind of madness. We have detached the psyche away from the root of being alive. We are part of nature, a late edition, and we’ve so much to learn. Our gut brains, like the tree roots, need to dig deep and re-engage with all the elements. It’s an exciting prospect in a time of much uncertainty and fear. Let the Kinnages manifest and re-attach all, in wild process and in love.