Wild Places in Urban Centers

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6 minutes of reading

More and more individuals and groups are questioning manifestations of the modernist para­digm—our economic structure, our urban and ru­ral planning strategies, and especially, our ethical sense. To these questions, I would add three more: How is it that we might re-envision the ways in which we inhabit our places, particularly the ways we inhabit our urban centers? How might we cre­ate places to help us move beyond our current, and arguably unsustainable, worldview? Finally, how might we design our urban centers to both reflect and influence an ethic that stresses interrelationships between human and non-human oth­ers within place? In other words, how do we fos­ter, through a new paradigm of urban planning, what might be called “moral fields” in cities and an architecture for the ethical and spiritual environ­ment?

Projections indicate that the majority of the human population over the next several decades will reside in metropolitan areas.[1] This information suggests that urban places will predominate in human experience in the years ahead. The urban, characterized by high human population density and vast features reflecting advances in human technology—automobiles, asphalt, expressways, international airports, skyscrapers, and sprawl­ing suburbs with extensive road systems—is often considered to be no “place” at all, in the sense of a setting for forming ethical interrelationships. Therefore, it is challenging to envision how the ur­ban experience can, in fact, provide opportunities for developing deeper ethical interrelationships between humans and the rest of nature. The annu­al vacation to Yosemite National Park, for exam­ple, is arguably an unsuccessful model for promot­ing such opportunities. Places encouraging ethical relationships must instead be part of the very same tapestry of places one connects with on a regular basis. Promoting and nurturing places that fos­ter such ethical relationships within these urban centers is therefore essential for develop­ing deeper, more honest ethi­cal relationships with the non-human other—the dragonfly, the prairie milkweed, and the trickling creek.

Finding places that nurture ethical choices and relation­ships in urban areas might be achieved either by enabling places for wildness to flourish, or by augmenting access to the often overlooked wildness al­ready existing in these urban centers. This wildness might be understood as an “anarchy of being.” Philosopher Wade Sikorski posits that an anarchy of being is “not the opposite of civilization,” but a state of be­ing in which “we do not strip away our earthly connections . . . but rather, we find a place where we learn of life’s connection with our earthly situation, with the oth­ers and shadows we think we are not, resituating ourselves in the community of life we humans have long tried to es­cape.”[2]

The standard model of a modern American city does not lend itself to this description. I believe, however, that we can cultivate urban places whose ethos and influence support the development and articulation of such a com­munity of life. This would then allow us to “recon­nect a landless urban population with the pulse of nature.”[3]

What kind of urban area supports such wild­ness or naturalness? One such alternative to the modern city is discussed by the contributors to a recent book, The Natural City: Reenvisioning the Built Environment, edited by philosopher Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and anthropologist Stephen Bede Scharper. The book explores the ways in which a city might become a “life-enhancing community rather than sources of environmen­tal degradation.”[4] This is a vision for a city where planners and citizens strive toward the integration of urban and ecological concerns in a sustainable manner. A natural cityscape would not be seen as separate from nature and would be part of the solution to the environmental crisis. In a natural city, dwelling is envisioned quite differently from the construct of instrumental rationality in which city planning is “no more than technical ordering of residential, commercial, and industrial complexes, together with appropriate infrastructure” (p. 5). The natural city is concerned instead with restoring its relationship to ever-present ecologi­cal systems and strives to reintegrate human set­tlements with nature.

Such a place invites and enables sensitive en­counters that re-engage us with non-human oth­ers. Such encounters create “possibilities for con­structed habitats that can support a diverse range of symbiotic relations and interwoven pleasures,” and they “respect the architectural needs of the non-human creature.”[5] Creating such spaces involves the planning of exterior places that mimic specific habitats and ecosystems, such as a reseed­ed prairie patch on park land, offering native plant species a place to thrive and propagate seed. Such restoration could also be replicated along the path of monarch migration routes, creating places for respite and mating ritual. These same places of­fer human engagement, from planting the seeds, to smelling the native grasses, to watching the monarch but­terflies seek places to lay their eggs. We can create places (habitats) for non-human oth­ers through restoration and conservation efforts, urban ar­chitecture, and various forms of artistic expression. Such ex­periences are a kind of wealth, no less valuable than other forms of wealth so prominent­ly on display in urban areas. These strategies can facilitate re-envisioning the city as a place to satisfy the needs and even desires of our non-human neighbors. By relinquishing our sense of mastery over na­ture and “instead opening up ourselves and our living and working spaces to agency, the actions, the memories, and the pleasures of the nonhuman, we can dwell within abundantly inhabited places of transfor­mations” (p. 167-68).

Some creative ways of actu­alizing such places include art installations that are designed so as to welcome and support animal and plant life in the city. These projects demonstrate key strategies for enhancing and integrating human and non-human needs and desires. An excellent example of such a project is the Butterfly Garden in San Francisco. Filled with native species required by but­terflies to survive, the garden also serves as a place where human visitors are encouraged to get down on the ground to uncover the treasures of the undergrowth. The creators of this butterfly haven also envision a “wildlife corridor of inter­connecting green spaces designed with habitat needs in mind. It will promote the propagation and movement of wild creatures, and encourage the awareness of Nature’s wonders, even within the heart of the city” (p. 165). Another example includes “transpecies art” where sculptures are created for the non-human other, enhancing their habitat. This includes the “Raptor Roost” series, which provides perching and nesting sites for vari­ous birds of prey. Its goal is to create:

ways to allow . . . various nonhuman habitats to interweave with human-built environ­ments. The needs of particular creatures in particular regions would affect the design, as these creatures would be another sort of “client” at the table. Since these particular clients are unlikely to present themselves at planning sessions, designers would need to consult local environmental scientists, biol­ogists, or environmental groups for specific information about the architectural needs of nonhuman creatures in the area. (p. 168)

This process of creating places for others in our urban areas can then be taken much further by incorporating the needs and desires of non-hu­man others into the discourse of planning—a dis­course that ideally should be focused on the prac­tice of creating and manipulating places. We can strategically and intentionally plan for transfor­mation, where the non-human others become part of our urban and regional planning frameworks. This presents one way to give animals, plants, and perhaps entire ecosystems a seat at the planning table. (Although this is a problematic metaphor, it creates a powerful ethical resonance.) Thus, urban planning can evolve from a strictly anthropocen­tric endeavor, where open spaces are constructed as mere human playgrounds. Planning instead be­comes a more complex, inclusive, and eco-centric act.

Ultimately, how we plan the places we inhabit signifi­cantly affects our responses to others and to place itself. If we plan in a manner that is com­plex and inclusive, the result­ing places will elicit feelings and actions disparate from places that are planned using current efficiency-based strat­egies. In planning for places, we plan for the type of moral fields that we encounter dur­ing our day-to-day lives. This is significant. Moral fields are part of the socially produced reality that reflects and con­stitutes our being in the world, and therefore, as Mick Smith so aptly puts it, “our ethical ar­chitecture forbids or facilitates behavior just as effectively as walls, windows, or doors.”[6]

Therefore, care for place should include not only places of human others, but the places of non-human others as well—such as avian flyways, monarch migra­tion routes, and wetland habi­tats, to name a few.

[1]. United Nations Population Fund, “Urbanization: A Majority in Cities,” May 2007, at http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm.

[2]. W. Sikorski, “Building Wilderness,” in In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics and the Environment, ed. J. Bennett and W. Chaloupka (Minneapolis: Univer­sity of Minnesota Press, 1993), 29.

[3]. D.K. Moskovits, C.J. Fialkowski, G.M. Mueller, and T.A. Sullivan, “Chicago Wilderness: A New Force in Urban Conservation,” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 89, no. 2 (2002): 162.

[4]. I.L. Stefanovic and S.B. Scharper, eds., The Natural City: Re-envisioning the Built Environment (Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 3.

[5]. S. Alaimo, “This Is about Pleasure: An Ethics of Inhabiting,” in Architecture, Eth­ics, and the Personhood of Place, ed. G. Caicco (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2007), 151-72, at 163; 162.

[6]. M. Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 152.

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  • Anja Katina Claus

    As Senior Editor of the Center's journal Minding Nature, Anja guides strategy for content creation, art curation, and journal events, as well as manages the publication of both the online and print versions of the journal. Anja also writes and searches out stories that help us reimagine our relationship to each other, to planet Earth, and the larger Universe.
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