Urban Natures: Of Fields and Forests

May 15, 2008

Mumbai, Dharavi 2007

Stan Allen & James Corner (2005) have devised a useful concept – urban natures – that comes pretty close to airoots’ understanding of cities – but not close enough. This is about the crucial conceptual gap.

They observe that “the difference between city, country, and suburb is fast disappearing”. What is left is “field urbanism” marked by “points of intensity and exchange”. The field itself is diverse and in constant flux. It forms what could be called an urban ecology, with its topography, milieus, communities and networks. In their words, “these new city forms…are composed of small units and collectives rather than singularities, and bottom up organizations rather than top-down orders.”

Eventually they seek to replace the notion of the city as yoked to the world of planning and urban design by that of the image of a cultivated field. However, there may be good reason to believe that the world of habitats as seen through both these sets of images ultimately land up producing versions of each other. After all they are shaped by very similar notions of what constitutes patterns of ownership and propriety, order and organization. The cultivated field is also a grided, audited world. Yet the urban experience for a vast majority of people in the world today falls outside these structures altogether. Millions of people live in spaces that qualify to be the very opposite of the systematic urban worlds that we have come to expect as the valid city. How do we account for ‘urban nature’ embodied in that experience?

We are not talking only about slums, favelas and shanties here. We are also thinking of some of the most developed, technologically advanced and futuristic cities in the world, such as Tokyo.

Tokyo viewed from Sunshine City, Ikebukuro 2005

We can think of the periphery of this dense metropolis as a vast urban field mildly differentiated by zones of intensity, organized around lines and arteries that are subdivided from the regional level to that of the individual housing unit. We can also think of it as a low-rise, high-density urban forest sprawling endlessly, which developed incrementally, following no master plan. The green landscape where farms once stood amidst rivers and trees was replaced by a grey cityscape, as tiny plots of lands were gradually converted into housing lots.

Tokyo, just as most other cities that developed fast and under high economic and demographic pressures, is not the outcome of any intentional design. It just sprawled and densified as people moved in. After the Great Kanto earthquake (and again after American firebombs destroyed the city during World War Two), central planners envisioned a new, rationally planned city. However, the pressing needs for shelter and economic recovery, the absence of necessary legal mechanisms, and the resistance of local communities prevented this grand vision to materialize. The government decided to focus instead on infrastructural development and left residential and commercial development to local actors. Thus, the urban history of Tokyo seems to confirm Allen & Corner’s assertion that “cities are more the product of cultivation and management than of design per se”. Indeed, to this very day the rural past of Tokyo is still very much alive in its hundreds of thousands of village-like neighborhoods.

However, while we cannot agree more that the time has come to radically reconsider the role, purpose, and potential of “urban design”, we believe that the idea of “cultivation” throws us right back to where the old school concept of design took form in the first place. Cultivation and design are concepts fatally entrenched in the agro-industrial paradigm. If we want to think beyond the city-nature dichotomy and its corollary, private-public ideology, we have to go back all the way to pre-agrarian modes of operation, which by the way are not only pre, but also post and actually simply “non-agrarian”.

Kabul hillside 2005

Urban planning and its twin of real-estate development, are often mistaken for being markers of modernization and civilizational impulses. They bring back order and intent to messy and improvised habitats. But in fact, Goliath-like master planners and developers seldom realize the intricacy and organizational principles of the environments they seek to rationalize by tracing roads intersecting at straight angles on their rasterized CAD maps.

Spontaneous and emergent habitats, whether in urban or rural worlds, have for long been described as “primitive” and inadequate by generations of “modernizers”. Maybe a reassessment of these notions may lead to an understanding that unplanned habitats are often much less primitive than urban planners’ own compulsive fear of what they symbolize – disorder, messiness, wildness. The the fear of the wild in the West and the urge to divide, map, rationalize and commodify space can probably be traced all the way back to the Biblical schism between Cain the farmer and Abel the nomadic shepherd. As Alexandre Safran (1998) reminded us, it is Cain who founded urban civilization after killing his brother in the fields.

The dramatic moment of transition from pre-agrarian to settled cultivation is not only the stuff of myth, legend or historical reconstruction. It is re-enacted time and again in contemporary societies in all kinds of ways. Slums, favelas and shanty-towns are contemporary avatars of ancient symbolic worlds of the wild. In them we see a divide between habitats that emerge from a complex negotiation of what constitutes public, personal and private ownership (non-agrarian mode) and habitats that are literally rooted to rules of ownership (agrarian/industrial/modern context) which become the basis of civic control and spatial order that we accept as the foundations of civilized existence.

Bogota, Ciudad Bolivar 2004

Anthony Leeds (1994) considers the latter to be part of one urbanized universe. A universe that shapes the way we think about habitats. It is this universe – connecting the worlds of property ownership, habitats, land, settled livelihood and demarcated residential areas that informs contemporary notions of habitats. Ironically, this connected world presents the story of habitats through a series of problematic binaries – rural/urban, nature/culture, formal/informal, slums/formal housing so on and so forth. These binaries completely erase the non-agrarian space from our understanding of habitats and at the end of the day lump the world of rural, informality, slums and nature in one untidy heap which is then sought to be marked as dysfunctional. This paves the way for the eventual triumph of the urban visualized as formal, planned and civilized.

Allen & Corner’s concept of urban natures is liberating to the extent that it recognizes the essentially emergent nature of cities. This understanding leads them to a more responsive and context driven understanding of architectural practice. But does it really allows for all types of habitats to coexist in a messy continuum ranging from the skyscraper to the hut? A field is not a forest. We feel that their conceptualization of urbanism is still conditioned by an ultimately life-denying agrarian-industrial psychology. They cultivate and manage urban fields, while airoots is wandering and gathering in an urban jungle. The urban forest, however, is shrinking day by day as the grid penetrates ever deeper in the urbanmess in which lives an ever growing part of the world population.

We are utterly appalled by the global Babylon that the agrarian civilization has produced, with its unsustainable lot of pollution, impoverishment, segregation, repression, privatization, nationalization and other alienations. If Allen & Corner open a door towards a more sustainable urbanism, they still fall in the the conceptual trap that urbanism is quagmired in today, and therefore fail to transcend the dark prophecies of Mike Davis (Planet of Slums, 2007) or the cynical commentaries of Rem Koolhaas (Junkspace, 2003).

airoots 2007


  1. [...] (Full Article) Echanove. M.S. & Srivastava. R. 2008. Urban natures: of fields and forests. [LINK] (Full Article) Jinnai, H. 1995. Tokyo; A Spatial Anthropology. trans. Kimiko Nishimura. University [...]

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