To green our cities, we must rethink our relationship with nature

Central Park, New York City. Image: Getty.

Enthusiasm for urban greening is at a high point, and rightly so. Ecological studies highlight the contribution urban nature makes to the conservation of biodiversity. For example, research shows cities support a greater proportion of threatened species than non-urban areas.

Green space is increasingly recognised as useful for moderating the heat island effect. Hence, this helps cities adapt to, and reduce the consequences of, climate change.

Reducing urban heat stress is the main objective behind the Australian federal government’s plan to set tree canopy targets for Australian cities. Trees are cooler than concrete. Trees take the sting out of heatwaves and reduce heat-related deaths.

The “healthy parks, healthy people” agenda emphasises the health benefits of trees, parks and gardens. Urban greenery provides a pleasant place for recreation. By enhancing liveability, green spaces make cities more desirable places to live and work.

The increased interest in urban greening presents exciting opportunities for urban communities long starved of green space.

Unpacking the green city agenda

This enthusiasm for “green cities” stands in stark contrast to traditional views about nature as the antithesis of culture, and so having no place in the city. The traditional view was that the only ecosystems worthy of protection were to be found beyond the city, in national parks and wilderness areas.

We embrace the new agenda wholeheartedly, but also believe it’s important not to focus solely on instrumental measures like canopy cover targets to reduce heat stress. We should not forget about experiential encounters.

The risk with instrumental (and arguably exclusionary) approaches is these fail to challenge the divide between people and nature. This limits people’s connection to the places in which they live and to broader ecological processes that are essential for life.

Instrumental targets in isolation also risk presenting urban greening as an “apolitical” endeavour. But we know this is not the case, as we see with the rise of green gentrification associated with iconic greening projects like New York’s High Line. Wealthy suburbs consistently have the most green space in cities.

Bringing nature into the city is one thing. Bringing it into our culture and everyday lives is another.

Understanding ecology in a lived sense

Urban greening provides an opportunity to recast the relationship between people and environment – one of the critical challenges associated with the Anthropocene.

Urban greening is not just for our benefit, but must surely be for our co-habitants too. Image: Matt Cornock/flickr.

To break down nature-culture divides in our cities, and in ourselves, we argue for the importance of embracing experiential engagements that develop a more deeply felt connection with the city places in which we live, work and play. We are advocating a focus that does more than just encourage people to interact tangibly in and with urban nature, by drawing attention to the way humans and non-humans (including plants) are active co-habitants of cities.

Such an approach works by recognising that human understanding of the environment is intricately wrapped up in our experiences of that environment. Put simply, green cities can’t just be about area, tree cover and proximity (though they are important). We need to foster intimate, active and ongoing encounters that position people “in” ecologies. And we need to understand that those ecologies exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space.

Without fostering a more holistic relationship with non-humans in cities, we risk an urban greening agenda that misses the chance to unravel some of the nature-culture separation that contributes to our long-term sustainability challenges as a society.

Active interactions with nature in the spaces of everyday life are vital for advancing a form of environmental stewardship that will persist beyond individual (and sometimes short-lived) policy settings.

Green city citizens need to see themselves as part of, not separate from, the ecologies that exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space. Image: Pinke/Flickr/creative commons.

No getting away from the politics

It is important to consider the policy and governance dimensions of urban greening. If the instrumental orientation prevails, our cities might be “more liveable” (at least for some, at particular locations and points in time), but our societies may not be more socially and environmentally just, or more sustainable.

We therefore emphasise the need to understand and critique the dimensions of the renewed interest in urban ecology. We have to consider whether this interest is associated with existing political economies, which embrace technocratic expertise to the exclusion of other voices, or whether urban greening can foster the emergence of a more transformative form of decision-making.

We also ask how we can enhance the prospects for more deliberative and place-based responses. An experiential turn for urban greening may be one way to make green space planning and practice more democratic.


By questioning who we might be greening for and how, we can open the way for the much-needed acknowledgment of Indigenous histories and participation in the making of urban space.

Giving urban greening an experiential focus might also help open our eyes to the needs of the more-than-human. Rather than simply cultivating green spaces for a narrow set of anthropocentric benefits, we pose the question: who are the participants in urban greening? It’s a way of acknowledging that we inhabit cities with plants and other non-human lifeforms.

An interesting area of policy development that may be productive for urban greening is the idea of the playful commons. This is an example of a governance approach that is more open to affective and experiential interaction – the community participates in negotiating, licensing and designing the use of public space.

Applying this approach to urban greening might encourage more deliberative forms of governance that can deliver more environmentally just and sustainable cities for the long term, for both humans and non-humans. The Conversation

Benjamin Cooke and Brian Coffey are lecturers in the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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