The Question of Cities & Nature“It has to be like that where everything fits—/ Man into Nature, because the town is Nature.” Fernando PessoaIf human beings are “of nature” and our making is nature brought-forth, then our cities are also products of nature. We dwell in cities. We are part of their organized complexity and, therefore, our cities are part of our “natural” environment.If we view cities as constructs that contribute to our alienation from nature, we forget that we, like all other animals, share a reliance on the earth’s environment. If, rather, we view cities as an extension of ourselves, of our dwelling or being on the earth, then cities become a part of nature too. Cities become nature because we make them, and we are part of nature. (Nature stems from the Latin natura, meaning birth or character.
Perhaps “nature,” then, is just a meme passed from one to another in English since 1662, when the word was first used to describe “the material world beyond human civilization or society”—and, coincidentally, the same year the last Dodo was sighted.)We need to arrive at an understanding of the ecosystem of a city, as a natural construct, as dwelling. “Humanity,” as Kate Soper writes, “is both the creature of nature and its creator.” As such, we are “responsible for the forms of [our] interaction and in principle capable of transforming them.” If there is no division between humanity and nature, then our cities are an extension of nature. This seems a more “natural,” less artificial way to look at cities, especially if they are our dwelling, our way of being on the earth. We must be capable, then, of being in relationship to nature in the city. The city ecosystem can bridge the separation between humanity and nature. Our city gardens help keep us connected to the natural world and its processes, if only through the daily interactions we have with tending to nature, as a tender of the garden. All our interactions in a city, in some way, connect us to the natural world and its diversity. The child connects with the rest of nature in the city even without a garden. Worms come to the surface of a sidewalk after a rain; insects crawl over our human-created habitats and find ways to adapt to and adopt them as their dwellings. Exploring the “nature” of a city park can provide as much sustenance to a child as a trip to the wilderness.
Of course, wilderness offers a different kind of sustenance, a wholly different experience, both of scale and the perspective of no longer being on top of the food chain. Although the small circle of our gardens and houses cannot hold the chaos of a city ecosystem at bay, this should not cause us concern. This is something I call a “one square yard” philosophy: that getting to know the nature of one square yard is as important in instructing our relationship with Nature as is a hike in the remote woods.We are interacting within nature by our interactions with both human and non-human species or even within the ecosystem of our neighborhoods. But if we need daily contact with the rest of nature, non-human nature, we need to foster such experiences in our cities or wherever we live.
We need to remember that “nature” is a human construct, as is “landscape” and “wilderness” and “city.” As a product of our minds, these are also constructs of nature.“All landscapes are constructed,” Anne Whiston Spirn tells us in “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmstead”: “Garden, forest, and wilderness are all shaped by rivers and rain, plants and animals, human hands and minds. They are phenomena of nature and culture.”Thus, our dwelling can bridge the divide between culture and nature, between human and non-human. Is this not a bridge worth making? To view cities as an interaction between organic and inorganic constructs that are part of nature and culture, we need to let go of our assumptions concerning “otherness.” Cities are constructs of our mind as well as our dwelling.Perhaps we can tend the dwelling of our cities by thinking of building as dwelling, and promoting diversity of habitat, for both human and non-human species. Thinking about building as dwelling, we can build (or rebuild) our cities intentionally to be more conducive and inclusive of nature, thus helping make our cities more livable, while simultaneously healing our rupture with Nature. The Question of the City as an EcosystemCities are problems in organized complexity. Districts, neighborhoods, blocks, streets, and dwellings are an inter-related, integrated system, an organism, and a natural community. All its elements comprise an ecosystem. Eco, from the Greek oikos, meaning home. A home system: economy, ecology. Functioning in its interconnectedness. A continuous network of lively, interesting streets, where neighbors and strangers intermingle in diversity.
There are clearly delineated differences between public and private space, but each are interrelated, not distinctly self-operating. A city is an ecosystem of diverse cultures. Neighborhoods are habitats within the city ecosystem; they are an interconnected and indispensable part of the city’s ecosystem. As neighborhoods become dull or lack the liveliness engendered by diversity, they sow the seeds of their own destruction. So, too, thriving neighborhoods sow the seeds of their own regeneration. What happens matters and what matters happens. Say that the energy of regeneration needs tending, fostering, if cities are to survive, if they are to become our dwelling.A shop closing on one city street affects the other shops on the block, which in turn affects the nature of the whole neighborhood, resulting, possibly, in a change in the entire district. Thus, the city evolves or devolves in a certain way. There is flux, but stability in diversity, both human and economic. (See Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)A tree, planted on a city street, in the middle of a neighborhood, can have more than just an effect on air quality.
Others may be moved to plant trees, as the feeling they get from that first tree is good, or they may plant flower boxes, spruce up their garden, or remove litter from the sidewalk, or somehow be moved to be kinder to their neighbors. Suddenly, strangers appear, and they feel good in the neighborhood, perhaps they want to become part of it, they buy in and become neighbors, contributing to the diversity. So, too, an abandoned dwelling falls from grace, becoming just a building. Then, as it deteriorates, the abandoned building begins to take with it other buildings or dwellings around it, or across the street. Before long, all is lost.What happens to the integrity of an interrelated system when such a change occurs? When someone decides to change an architectural feature of the block or neighborhood, say, to turn a front porch into a driveway, it can create a dramatic, cascading effect. Suddenly, everyone on the block wants a driveway. Soon the porches are gone and so is the neighborliness of the neighborhood. Perhaps tempers flare over honking horns or cars backing out of driveways. Then a carport is set up, which soon turns into a garage. Neighbors pull into their garage, park their cars, and enter their houses through interior doors, never seeing their neighbors. Thus, the character of the neighborhood is gone.
A city is an ecosystem of interdependence, reliant on all its parts.While a city may be an ecosystem, it is not isolated, as it interacts with the ecosystems surrounding it—whether suburb, town, farm or wildland. Like many ecosystems, indeed all ecosystems, just as the species within an ecosystem are interdependent, so too, city ecosystems may be interdependent with surrounding ecosystems or habitats, even reliant on far away systems for clean water, as an example.If we think of a city as an ecosystem, tend to its ecology and encourage its diversity, our cities may become dwelling. Bringing forth the nature of cities as dwelling may help us resist the temptation of “going back” to nature (if that is even possible), and of viewing nature as something outside ourselves.“It is surely not a matter of ‘going back,’ but rather of coming full circle,” writes David Abram. “Uniting our capacity for cool reason with those more sensorial and mimetic ways of knowing, letting the vision of a common world root itself in our direct, participating engagement with the local and particular.”If we tend to the dwelling of our cities and foster their essential nature, we can reestablish our relationship with nature wherever we dwell. Therefore, bringing our dwelling with us, as part of our nature. This can also effect the design of our dwellings, our cities. If we turn to Nature to help us solve essential design problems, we may even be able to make our cities more sustainable, by reflecting even embracing Nature through biomimicry.
The Question of Biomimicry“Life has learned to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live in the depths of the ocean and atop the highest peaks, craft miracle materials, light up the night, lasso the sun’s energy, and build a self-reflecting brain. Collectively, organisms have managed to turn rock and sea into a life-friendly home, with steady temperatures and smoothly percolating cycles. In short, living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging the future. What better models could there be?” Janine BenyusThe human organism is an extremely complex feedback system. A feedback system maintains a prescribed relationship between outputs and inputs by comparing the two and using the difference to control action.In the presence of stimulations (inputs), humans tend to reduce the difference between output and input based on the feedback from this difference.(Think, “Learn from our mistakes…”)Are human beings, then, a naturally closed-loop system? A closed-loop system adjusts its output response according to a control input or reference and the resulting feedback. This feedback is compared to the reference to calculate an error and make corrections or adjustments.(Think, “To err is human, to [correct] divine…”)In closed-loop systems, the output has a direct impact upon the action. Feedback action is used to reduce errors.(Think, “I’ll never make that mistake again…”) Natural systems produce without any wasteful byproducts. Nature, then, is a closed-loop system. Everything used to produce something in nature either goes into the end-product or is eventually recycled or otherwise returned into productive relationship within the system.(Think, “What is waste for one is food for another.”)Species have evolved ways to maximize production using limited resources and minimizing waste. Spiders, for example, produce the strongest, lightest fiber—pound for pound, 5X stronger than steel—from nothing more than their food, much of which they trap in their webs made of this same fiber.
To produce the human species’ strongest equivalent fiber, Kevlar, we need extremely high temperatures, petroleum-based raw materials, sulfuric acid, and massive amounts of energy, resulting in extremely toxic byproducts that are not recoverable within our ecosystems.What is the logic in this construct? There are errors in need of feedback corrections.Biomimicry is the process of observing nature and using its close-looped systems to improve design.(Think, “What is good for the goose…”)Biomimicry can improve our designs (outputs) and reduce our negative impacts (errors).(Think, “The error of our ways…”)Say that we already are biomimics.The way barbs on burr seeds inspired Velcro. The way plants self-clean their leaves inspired self-cleaning paints.
The way marshes filtering organic waste inspired wastewater treatment plants that recover usable water.Closed-loop products are recycled within the system, mimicking nature’s processes. (Think, “One company’s waste is another company’s raw material.”)Yet, through hubris, human beings discarded biomimicry in favor of our own ingenuity and engineering, ignoring the errors surfaced by our own feedback loops.The way vulture wings inspired the wing design of the Wright brothers. The way Alaskan hunters observe and mimic polar bears to catch seals. The way ravens help guide hunters (wolves & men) to easy prey.Nature’s logic has evolved over four billion years of experience and adaptation to create resilient, adaptive, sustainable systems.(Say that using nature’s logic is a way of knowing.)Biomimicry can serve as a bridge over our separation from nature. (Say that a bridge connects more than the banks of a river.)We can use biomimicry, then, to unconceal the being of our dwelling, to reveal the essence of Home. The Question of Dwelling (Home)Gaston Bachelard wrote, “There exists for each one of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow beyond the real past.” What is our home and how do we make it? How do we bring it forth (poeisis) out of the shadows and into the light of presence?
Home is a house made of breath, as William Goyen would have it, “founded on the most fragile web of breath and you had blown it…an idea of breath breathed out by you who, with that same breath that had blown it, could blow it all away.”So, home is in the shadows of our dream-memory and in our breath. Home is an idea that consists of all the memories we have and all that we have forgotten. “Our soul is an abode,” according to Bachelard. Home is an apartment, a house on a city block, a country estate, a cottage, a cabin, a condo, a room, an icehouse, a tent, or even a nest. “Intimacy needs the heart of a nest.” We carry home within us along with all the stories of our culture that tell us who we are. While we may never find our home in the physical sense, it may inhabit us, and we will never lose it. Once we find a house we try to make it a home by shaping the space to meet our idea (ideal?) of home. We surround ourselves with things that conjure memories: paintings, photographs, books, music, food, furniture, tchotchkes, maybe a garden, a porch with a glider or rocking chairs, windows looking out on street or the horizon, the rooms of our nesting, people, things with special meaning or association.Home is dwelling. Home, from the Old English, hām, which means “house with land”; other origins link it to world, village, family.
In Sanskrit the closest word to home, kayati, means “he is lying down” (in Greek, keitai, “he is recumbent”). Thus, home is the place where we lie down, where we are at home. (“Wherever he laid his hat was his home…”)Dwelling is the being of home, its presence and its essence. As such, it haunts us. (Hanter, in Old French, or hanten, in Middle English, to haunt.) Home or the idea of home haunts us, especially if—like Odysseus—we are always searching for it, for the way “back home.” All we can do is try to make it, try to bring forth home as dwelling.Perhaps all this thinking about dwelling, about the being (existence) or essence of home will only succeed in planting seeds for thinking about how we live on the earth. “Enough will have been gained if dwelling…” as Heidegger wrote, has “become worthy of questioning and thus [has] remained worthy of thought.”
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