Untaming the Urban (2)

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).


Complex compromises need to be made


Presenters: Linda Corkery, Paul Osmond, Natalie Pelleri & Sara Wilkinson (Urban Ecology Renewal – re-wilding Sydney); Katherine Berthon (Greening Up: Making Room for Wildlife in Cities).


The collective of Linda Corkery, Paul Osmond, Natalie Pelleri and Sara Wilkinson talks us through their ‘big picture thinking’ project on the urban ecology of Sydney. What is required to re-wild (or untame) the city, they wonder. Having looked at the international literature, and after discussions with a variety of stakeholders they highlight opportunities and constraints. Whilst (some) landscape architects may be open to the idea of re-wilding the city, their designs tend to remain human-centric and biodiversity often implies not much more than mixed vegetation. Solutions such as green roofs have value, but to keep maintenance costs low these often turn out as highly manicured ecosystems. Rewilding nature strips or green open spaces might sound like a good idea, but without thinking about management and maintenance they may become messy and unappreciated spaces in the future. Policymakers are open to developing policy tools and planning instruments, but current tools and instruments (already) face a lack of enforcement raising questions about their effectiveness—and those yet to be developed. The presentation makes us think about the complexities of realising big visionary ideas for re-wilding and untaming the urban. How to move from imagination to praxis? There is no one best goal, complex comprises are required, and there are limits to urban design, the collective concludes.

Katherine Berthon sets out her presentation by stressing, once more, that cities are built by humans for humans. There is, traditionally, no focus on providing for the needs of other species in city design. And even when we think of the needs of other species we tend to focus on desired species (say, our pets, bees, colourful birds) and try to keep away from undesired species (what we experience pests, say, mosquitos, rats, doves). One way of making cities more friendly for other species is greening up, and roofs (and walls) provide an exceptional opportunity for greening up. In the central business district of Sydney, for example, 18 percent of roofs could be greened. But, so questions Berthon, this is the conventional imaginary, from which people start discussing which type of green roof is best. What do we actually know about how good green roofs are in the first place? To answer this question, she set out to measure (mainly) insect life on bare roofs and green roofs. Not surprisingly, Berthon found that green roofs show much more life and much more diverse life than bare roofs—but, bare roofs are not fully lifeless. That being said, Berthon points out that just greening a roof here and there is not a move in the right direction, and not any roof holds potential for creating rich biodiversity. Without another green roof (or green space) in the vicinity (and that’s just 71.5 meters horizontally) a green roof might become a trapped green island in the sky, and roofs smaller than 500m2 have less potential for large biodiversity than roofs over 500ms. Now that we have this information, continues Berthon, we can ask ourselves the question: what species do we want (and have) to cohabit with and why? How to work backwards to get them into our cities? Whether is greening enough? And, whilst not explicitly asked by Berthon but implicitly woven through her narrative, what complex compromises need to be made in terms of co-habitation with desirable and undesirable (but ecologically important) species?


How to untame the urban if we don’t really know what the untame is, or was, or will be—or what we want it to be?


Simon Kilbane (New Natures: Landscape architecture, ecological and urban design from the scale of the street to the region); Wendy Steele, Cecily Maller, & Ilan Wiesel (Into the Wild).


Simon Kilbane asks us to think critically about the possibilities to engineer ecosystems. What is nature? How is it framed? Why do we want to preserve it? What is nature in the urban? Why is a distinction made between nature and urban in the first place? The grass is popping up in cracks in the pavement, there are insects on your window. This is nature. With so much nature available already, how can we re-wild cities? Yes, at all kinds of levels plans are made for engineering ecosystems—from bee-habitats at street scale to bird migration routes at a continental scale. But how realistic are these plans in political, economic, and cultural contexts? And how realistic are these when we consider climate change. Do we want to restore or prepare? Can we design novel ecosystems for a future climate? The notion of novel ecosystems might be challenged for moving even further away from the (native or semi-native) ecosystems that were in place before urbanisation set in. Yet, we often do not have knowledge or data about what was actually in place, we don’t have a reference point. So how can we restore when we don’t know what to restore, and does it make sense to restore when original conditions have changed so much (and will change further)?

The collaborative of Wendy Steele, Cecily Maller, and Ilan Wiesel provides an approach for bringing together the various discussions we have had over the last few days. They set out, referring to Bruno Latour’s work, by arguing there is a gap in our thinking about the non-human. Seeking to move away from a human-centred thinking they propose the term more-than-human (which, as some of the audience noted, still means a human focus; it still has ‘human’ in it) to open up our debates. From here, with references to the post-structural writings of Deleuze and Guattari, they suggest an approach of mapping, diagramming, and sketching. How do we grasp the problems we are facing? Our current methodologies seem unable to capture the knowledge we require to address these problems? By mapping various bodies of work around specific problem areas we might resolve knowledge gaps in specific disciplines and research areas. Diagramming (or the diagrammatic) helps to gain insight into the interconnections and relations between agents (human and more-than-human alike) and helps to anticipate potential tensions and conflicts. Sketching (or imaginative thinking), finally, allows for new groupings and new assemblages of human and more-than-human elements to address these problems. For example, through mapping exercises, we may gain insight in the mismatched orbits (spatial/temporal routines) of human and more-than-human lives. Through diagramming we may create more insights in moments of encounter where such orbits intersect, and the moments of distance where such orbits diverge. Sketching, finally, might result in proposals for human and more-than-human practices of intentionally adapting their orbits to facilitate new opportunities to encounter with one another. Of course, so concludes the collective, we will have to accept that most of our action does not (and often cannot) always have the outcomes we intended it to have.

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