Posts from Untaming the Urban

On 8 and 9 December, I’ll be posting from Untaming the Urban, a multi-disciplinary symposium on cross-species cohabitation in the built environment of cities, towns and suburbs (7th, 8th & 9th Dec 2016, Australian National University).


Urban umwelts, living walls and foundations, and pets/pests

Presentations by: Joyce Hwang (Untaming architectural typology); Ned Doddington (Urban umwelt: already wild); Catherine Clover, Stephen Barras & Steev (Social interaction and the internet of possums).

Today’s first three presentations at the Untaming the Urban conference here at the ANU make us rethink our interaction with species in urban environments. Ned Doddington zooms in and out of the umwelts that species inhabit. For some this may be a quite a large umwelt (say, birds and humans), whilst for others it is fairly small (say, trees and ants). Umwelts overlap, and where overlap occurs there may be positive or negative interactions. A tree may provide a very positive umwelt for lichen, but too much may drain it. A human building may provide a positive umwelt for a bird to nest, but too much bird activity in a monumental old building may deteriorate it. When does a positive interaction become negative, and how to turn this process?

Joyce Hwang’s presentation beautifully aligns with this idea. She discusses possibilities to soften the boundaries between umwelts, and to make the overlap between various umwelts more fruitful for the various species involved in this overlapping space. By designing walls and foundations that actually allow for inhabitation of other species (bats in the crevices in roofs, lizards in cracks and holes in foundations). Hwang has been experimenting with different textured walls, roof and foundations to allow other species to cohabit with us, humans. Her work truly pushes the boundaries of popular notions such as living walls and green roofs—the (often aesthetic) ‘greening’ of walls and roofs with (easy to maintain) plants to make a building (merely look) more environmentally sustainable. But what will happen if these walls and roofs really become alive? What if in doing so we humans begin creating umwelts that will attract other species into our umwelts? To what extent can we create opportunities where this overlap and breaking of boundaries results in positive interactions?

From here on the collective of Catherine Clover, Stephen Barras & Steev takes over and conceptualises possibilities of turning pests (the other species in our umwelts that result in negative interactions—from a human perspective that is) to pets (other species in our umwelts that create positive interactions) and the technologies (digital and other) that can be applied for this purpose. This quickly brings us to a discussion about cohabitation of humans with other species in urban environments. Do we really want to (have to?) turn pests (unwanted other species) into pets (desired other species)? Wouldn’t it be better to create umwelts, in line with Hwang’s suggestions, that allow for positive cohabitation? Still, I feel the collective’s suggestion to make this cohabitation visible and experiential in manners that appeal to humans (through apps, for example) will aid in increasing acceptance of this cohabitation and may create opportunities to turn interactions that are experienced as negative into once that will be experienced as positive.


The politics of data collection and representation


Presentations by: Mitchel Whitelaw (Traces of Cohabitation: data design for urban ecosystems); Stanislav Roudavski (Wild Architecture); Elizabeth Demaray (Trans-species Giving and the Cyborg Futures of the Non-human)


Mitchel Whitelaw talks about how various forms of data can be used to better understand urban ecosystems. In the project, he presents today images from local areas in Canberra are brought together to show very local pictorial maps. The maps are randomly produced (through an algorithm) from photos taken and uploaded by Canberra residents. The maps keep changing illustrating seasonal changes as well as selecting different photos taken in a specific region. It is next to impossible to put in words what is happening in these maps and perhaps it is better to have a look at Whitelaw’s projects yourself. The difficulty I experience of putting in words what Whitelaw’s projects do is, perhaps, the true strength of his work. To paraphrase one of his lines, data does not have a form. As soon as we start using it, we give it form. Whitelaw’s projects challenge us to think about the politics of data collection (who collects data has a strong impact on what can be formed with it) but also the politics of data representation, particularly visualisations (how data is presented will affect how people value it, and the understandings that result from it).


That last insight was actually not fully mine but builds on the presentation by Stanislav Roudavski. He asks ‘who are the actors’, ‘what is of value’, and ‘what can be done’ in cross-species cohabitation. What do we, for example, call a living entity? Is it something with a heartbeat? Something which breaths? Something that moves? Something that grows and changes? Can it be synthetic? Can it be the anthill that grows, moves, changes, breaths, and has a heartbeat of its own to make sure the colony can live? Our perception of life is very biased to human life and how human’s experience being alive. Roudavski also challenges the idea that nature is efficient and that we can (or even need to) learn from nature in how we want to preserve species and eco-systems. In Roudavski’s view nature is very wasteful. It is wasteful of energy (it only uses little of the sunlight available). It is wasteful of life (as long a species survives it doesn’t matter how long an individual is alive—let alone whether or not it suffers). It is wasteful of innovation (if an innovation doesn’t succeed it evolves away). So why, asks Roudavski, do we wish preserve nature and why would we want to cohabitate? What is it we value? It is our human bias to look at the current state of nature as the nature, and does that result in how we want to preserve it? Simply because we found it this way when we evolved and became conscious? And that gets us back to those two question: what is the politics of data collection, and what is the politics of data representation?


From here the artist Elizabeth Demaray picks up. Her talk introduces us to how we can communicate with other species. From the famous language experiment with gorilla Koko to studies on the sounds made by plants and trees. Demaray also introduces us to the idea of ‘trans-species giving’. We (humans) are able to give a potted plant to is given an ‘upgrade’ so that it can move around and find sunlight and water when it needs. Such attempts to communicate with and help other species at first glance allows for creating positive interactions between species when their umwelts overlap (see my previous post for terminology). At second glance, however, what are the underlying motivations and drivers for creating these ‘positive’ interactions. Demaray herself highlights at the start of her presentation that much of the research into communicating with animals (and plants too, I wonder) is in fact driven by a desire to enable future communication with extra-terrestrials. But there may also be strong economic drivers for ‘improving’ these interactions. Think of the development of apps that allow people to communicate with their pets. Is this really helping the owners and the pets? Isn’t it simply a way to make owners feel guilty for neglecting their pets and help them paying off this guilt? And what about the upgraded plants? Will this not ultimately aid big agriculture and make it more economically efficient? It is a little step from a rather cute moving pot plant on the lookout for its own water and light to large robotic farms where plants are herded and maximally exploited for human gain. How does this negative imaginary of further exploitation align with the positive imaginary of communicating with other species (or at least make visible the responses of other species to stimuli such as sound and light)? I guess it comes back to asking a slightly altered version of those earlier questions: what is the politics of affecting the interaction between species and the areas where their umwelts overlap?


Urbanisation as a driver for evolution and adaptation


Presentations: Amy Hahs (The Role of Biodiversity in Creating Healthy Cities and Towns); Cristina Ramalho, Leonie Valentine, Luis Mata, Patricia Kennedy, & Richard Hobbs (Novel Resources for Threatened Fauna in Urban Environments); Darren Le Roux & Karen Ikin (Messy Parks and Levitating Trees: managing habitat structures in urban landscapes)


Over lunch someone noted: this morning was all about bringing nature to the urban, whereas the afternoon seems to be more about bringing the urban (people and other species) to nature. Amy Hahs presentation can indeed be captured under that heading. In short, Hahs underlines the positive interactions that are possible between humans and other species in urban and natural environments. Yet, Hahs is not arguing for people to go out to nature and benefit from the interactions with other species there but questions whether and how the evolution and adaptation of species to (our) urban environments can be facilitated. What are the areas in our cities that we are going to leave wild? How are we going to design future umwelts (see my earlier posts for terminology) where species can retreat, adapt and evolve? At what scale do we need to make and leave room for such processes?


The collective of Cristina Ramalho, Leonie Valentine, Luis Mata, Patricia Kennedy and Richard Hobbs begins with reminding us how urbanisation is a main driver of habitat loss and species extinction. At the same time, they point out, urbanisation may result in novel environments and actually aid specific species. It is not all bad, and we need to be aware of the good aspects also. Urban environments provide, for example, additional water, food and other resources, or do not harbour the biotic interactions present in the native habitat. Strikingly, this may sometimes result in situations where endangered species are found in higher densities in urban (or at least, modified) areas than what their density would be in their natural habitats. Again, this results in important questions for urban planners (in the widest sense of the term). What are the circumstances where novel resources are likely to be most important? In what circumstances should novel resources be promoted over restoration and conservation? What do we consider natural and what artificial?


Darren Le Roux and Karen Ikin talk adds insights from Canberra to the two earlier presentations in this session. In urban areas, they show, it can be rather simple interventions that help restoring and reviving species’ habitats. In neighbourhoods with at least one of three threes being a native tree (where native means Australian, not Canberra region native per se) significantly more native birds were found than in neighbourhoods with less than one in tree being a native tree. Not all trees need to be native, they just need to be scattered well. Alternatively, by relocating ‘dangerous’ trees (basically dead ones) from residential settings to safer urban locations (say, a park) vertical habitats do not get lost. Mature trees are incredibly important to species, and get increasingly lost in urban settings. And even by enriching electricity and communication poles with nesting and resting holes, birds, bats, and other species are given critically required vertical habitats. This all does not have to be very expensive. It also goes against more common conservation or restoration thinking that (new) habitats need to be self-sustaining. These interventions will have a (technical) time-limit, but they are critically required. Of course, there will be trade-offs and criticisms. Native Australian trees have a higher fire-risk, people may consider a dead tree to look messy in their well-maintained park, and not everyone will be happy with the droppings and sounds coming from the new vertical habitats—but then, by adding electronics to these new and replaced vertical habitats people go online and see what is going on over there high above their heads.


This all calls for changing perceptions of what we consider natural and artificial landscapes in urban settings.


Everyday nature and conservation as the happy side-effect of urbanisation


Presentations by: Kylie Soanes (Threatened species management in urban landscapes: the need for creative conservation); Ferne Edwards (The Urban Beehive: Beekeeping and the Sustainable City); Georgia Garrard, Luis Mata & Sarah Bekessy (Conservation Tools for Sharing Cities with Nature).


Kylie Soanes argues that in urban settings conservation is often not at the core of (environmental) action. It is often considered a happy side-effect of urban actions. Yet, 30 percent of threatened species is found in urban settings. Long story short, and as touched on in other presentations also, urbanisation might provide opportunities for conservation of threatened species, but, Soanes asks, how often are urbanisation and urban settings actually considered in recovery plans? Having looked at policy documents of 99 municipalities, the answer is: not all too often. Whilst this is a problematic observation in itself, Soanes challenges us to think beyond the ‘easy’ solution. Yes, we can pay more attention to conservation in urban settings, but how can this be balanced with other goals? Introducing spotted quolls in or near urban settings likely implies more trouble for people with chicken pens, more control burning in local parks will likely result in resistance from local citizens. There are limits on the community tolerance to accept sharing their urban habitats, Soanes reminds us. In developing conservation plans some healthy realism seems required—which reminds us once more about the relatively easy, low-intrusive and highly successful examples presented by Darren Le Roux & Karen Ikin in the previous session.


Ferne Edwards looks at urban beekeeping to explore the relationships between humans and other species in urban settings. From ethnographic fieldwork in Canberra and the USA, Edwards has come to learn that where the umwelts of bees, humans, and other species overlap (for terminology see my earlier posts) positive feedback loops may occur. As we heard earlier today, cities may present resources and positive environmental conditions that are more difficult to find in rural areas. For bees these are, to name a few, flowering plants throughout the year, less use of agricultural pesticides, and higher temperatures in winter which help bee colonies getting through the colder months. Amateur beekeeping in cities helps people experiencing, connecting to and engaging with nature. Yet, challenges abound also: people might get stung, amateur beekeepers have difficulties keeping hives disease free, and the community of (amateur) rapidly aging—which not only implies that their number will go down, but also their tacit knowledge and skills might get lost.


The collective of Georgia Garrard, Luis Mata and Sarah Bekessy rounds up this day. They argue that cities are the places where large scale re-enchantment and re-connection of people with nature is possible. This is a topic that has hovered over many of the presentations today but hasn’t been explicitly touched on as such. One way of bringing more nature into the city is to incorporate nature in the built form. By creating ‘everyday nature’ it will be easy for humans to encounter the umwelts of other species. But how to do this? Well, so the collective continues, we shouldn’t be always thinking in terms of nature versus built-up space, developing versus offsetting losses, preservation versus change. We need to explore how competing values, these and others, be balanced. Going back full loop to the first set of presentations, the collective highlights that better data (or better data representation perhaps?) may help to tackle these exact issues.






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