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.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.