Re-wilding Our Urban Ethics and Politics?

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I’m sitting at the edge of Tomales Bay in Inverness, California, one of the communities of the Point Reyes region, on the last day of the wonderfully inspiring 2013 bi-annual conference, called the Geography of Hope, hosted by Point Reyes Books. Wow, what a geography it is here, just an hour north of San Francisco. There are green rolling hills, cliffs of sandstone, wild ocean waves, serene inland bay habitat, and wild as well as domesticated critters everywhere. Here there is a palpable wildness—where nature’s difference is cultivated, its diversity nurtured, and its multiplicity spared. This place has wonderfully wild neighbors such as loons, pelicans, white egrets, hummingbirds, foxes, and elephant seals. All this diversity exudes a potentiality that is quite exhilarating. I actually feel a sense of hopefulness about the possibilities of the oldest task of humanity, “living on a piece of land without spoiling it.” The landscape, the people, and the non-human others all seem to elicit a sense of hope as well. While I know that such feelings express human romanticizing and “anthropomorphizing” (and thus require scrutiny), I am not ashamed of having them, for even to my practical Midwestern sensibilities this is all very real and I feel that lassoing this concept of hope should actually be a legitimate strategy for the practical business of life. This includes the business of healing the atmosphere that manifests in fresh, crisp, sweet smelling air; of healing the soil underfoot so it is a welcoming habitat for snakes, snails, and microbes; of healing the landscape to let the sunshine softly warm up skin and fur.

In addition to all this, the business of life ought to also be the creation of safe spaces for all kinds of voices to be heard; spaces for human others to experience being proud and powerful; habitat for non-human others to have the space to be, become, and endure. I think this is what a geography of hope might look like. And this is what I see here in the place that hosts the Geography of Hope conference.

The folks of Point Reyes fought hard to keep this area a geography of hope and stave off a geography that shamefully showcases the activities of tearing down and homogenizing the places of human and non-human others, recklessly and thoughtlessly throwing up built environments with no relationship, visually or structurally, to that place.

The people here have not only stood up for conserving the places of non-human others by protecting their habitats from developers. They also have and continue to create places where humans in love with the land and all its inhabitants are encouraged to speak of their love, passion, and sympathy toward this nature. They share their stories of commitment to and sacrifice for this land. For example, one of the pivotal stories of this area is the designation of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962. This National Park was established to conserve existing wild open lands from residential development, in addition to protecting the working lands of the region such as historic ranching and oyster farming. The surrounding community was the driver of this impassioned struggle. This community continues to support their National Seashore by working with the US National Park Service to raise funds, implement preservation projects, and proudly share their story with visitors.

We can see from this Point Reyes example two ways of expressing an ethics of place: one where places of non-human others are protected to allow them to endure and even flourish in their pre-existing landscapes, and another where the human others are provided a place to develop an intimate ethical relationship with these non-human others. More significantly, in my opinion, we can see in Point Reyes an example of the creation of conceptual spaces that allow ecological ethics to inform political decisions and collective actions:
from the local Point Reyes Station bookstore implementing a local, living economy and hosting the Geography of Hope conference; to Toby’s Feed Barn hosting various events such as author talks, concerts, and fundraisers that honor their local community; to the Point Reyes National Seashore Association that raises funds and educates the public in order to directly support the Point Reyes National Seashore Park; to the formal and not so formal signage honoring non-human others, which is posted throughout this seashore community.

Coming back to my hometown Chicago—considered by geographers to be a burgeoning megalopolis—I am struggling with what such a geography of hope might look like here in a major urban center in the working landscapes of the Midwest.

So what does this have to do with City Creatures you may ask? Well, a lot. A geography of hope, in my view, is utterly essential for the survival of our city creature neighbors.

These city creatures are dependent on suitable habitat to endure and flourish. Such spaces, I think, can also be understood as an element of a geography of hope. So what do I mean by a geography of hope? Geography in this context means the physical and social characteristics of an area. And for a working definition of hope, I pulled a description from the all-too-handy Wikipedia, which explains that one way to look at hope is to “cherish a desire [goal] with anticipation.”  Even in this basic definition, it is clear that hope is not merely a synonym for optimism. Hope also entails pathways and thoughts that lead one to an intended goal. If we view hope in geographical terms, we can understand it as an expression of the physical landscape and social make up of an area that facilitates the attainment of the cherished desires of a community. For a place like Chicago, an inclusive geography of hope would envision and work to provide for the well being of our fellow city creatures.

We have, unfortunately, created a geography that frequently excludes any hope of sharing the landscape with those others. We have designed our cities to obscure the sights, smells, and sounds of more-than-human nature. I think a great deal of this drive to cover over the “messiness” of nature, whether with turf grass or concrete, expresses an impoverished view of the human-nature relationship. Embracing these places rather than hiding them from view is one way to help us confront and mend the false ideological rift that claims humans as separate from nature. (I am proud to say that some organizations have already begun embracing the idea of mending this false dichotomy within the City of Chicago, including the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Wilderness consortium. Stay tuned to these organizations as they courageously address these complicated ideals.)

However, in order to successfully create such places we also need to move toward a politics informed by an ethics of place. Therefore, we must as a community find ways to articulate this ethics via a politics that fosters the conceptual space for expressing the complexity and multiplicity of our living with non-human others (city creatures). This requires that we plan for public spaces that allow and even encourage us to express our thoughts of and feelings for these others to the larger human community and then decide on collective actions and practices that support such ideals. As I noted elsewhere, “This means that we need to plan in a manner that is complex and inclusive, where the resulting places elicit feelings and actions disparate from places that are planned using current efficiency-based strategies.” Urban planners might be comfortable and even trained to adopt a set of universal moral criteria that, in a sense, absolve them from making any actual ethical decision about a particular situation and context, allowing them to appear neutral and objective, to rise above emotional attachments and the messiness of a real politics.

In order to provide suitable habitat for the city creatures here and now and for future non-human generations, we need to provide not only nourishing habitat for them, we need to create better political “habitat” for human others as well, so that more people are able to voice their care and concerns for these others in an arena that is “legitimate” enough to influence the collective actions and practices of a community. We need and should demand much more than the occasional opportunity to sneak in a few words on ecosystem services to the regional powers that be.

In the Chicago region, we can be proud of both our natural diversity as well as our existing cultural and social diversity. These are all essential assets to the expression of a geography of hope in our community. Perhaps we do have all the elements for such a geography. I wonder if we can tap deeper into our human diversity by creating more conceptual places (perhaps building upon existing models such as the programs that ECCo facilitates at The Field Museum here in Chicago) for various communities to voice their thoughts and feelings much louder than they have so far been able to; perhaps then a re-wilding of place and politics, accompanied by the profound hope that I was privileged to experience in the community of Point Reyes, California, can emerge more fully in our own shoreline urban community.

  • Anja Claus

    As Senior Editor, Anja guides the development of Humans and Nature Press Digital as well as co-edits submissions to this publication.  She spearheads the Questions For a Resilient Future's Cosmos series—a series focused on reimagining our inter-connections with off-Earth environments.

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