Natural City

July 20, 2015

Organic metaphors for cities have been in fashion at least since Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932). A biologist by training, Geddes turned to city planning when his eyesight became too defective to use a microscope. He imagined a city as not fundamentally different from any other living organism.

A city seems to follow a logic of its own, complex and mostly spontaneous. It grows and mutates taking different forms and functions. The only difference between a city and an organism, is our conviction that we can plan the former, while we see an organism’s internal capacity to grow and structure as divine.

Tampering with biological cells, whether animal or vegetal, is seen as sacrilegious. Think of the strong movement against genetically modified organisms. The fear is that we may create types of organisms that could get out of hand, go viral and threaten biodiversity. Playing god may endanger and impoverish the realm of our own existence. The related worry we have with GMO is that these extra-dominant strains tend to become the property of corporations that control and impose their terms on farmers and consumers.

At one level these fears are real. We don’t want any cartel to dominate the food industry. Organic food, farmers’ markets and guerrilla gardening are healthy reactions to a form of capitalism that threatens the livelihood and autonomy of producers and consumers.

At another level, we can’t treat nature as sacrosanct and out of bounds of human engagement. We’ve always been tampering with it and always will. However much we pollute and exploit it, we are part of nature.

Forests have forever been inhabited by humans. Their ecosystem depends on us as much as we depend on them. Even “pristine” forests have relied on intricate and interfering knowledge systems, which humans living in and around them possessed for their co-dependent survival. We can’t reduce nature either to something pure that must remain untouched or a raw resource that we should freely exploit. Either way this amounts to physically and conceptually evacuating human presence, and makes way for nature’s total sacralisation or devastation. Both of which are happening simultaneously today.

Nature is messy, contradictory, predatory. Harmony is a beautiful invention of the mind but as green-architect and nature-lover Michael McDonough once told us pointing to a harmless-looking creeper growing around a serene-looking tree: “it is a war out there.” He saw his role as that of a peacekeeper. There is a lot humans can do to monitor and support nature that doesn’t involve destroying it, as the greening of arid regions in Israel and India have shown.

Could the same thing be true of cities? Can we manage them without killing their diversity and spontaneity? Geddes certainly thought so.

We are only starting to understand how we can alter an organism’s genetic code, while we have been planning cities and neighbourhoods since Sumerian times. The problem is that we have never been very good at it, or perhaps we lost those skills in modern times. Master planned cities usually turn out to be disasters, and our proud megacities, which are colonizing the planet from Shenzhen to Santiago are the result of the same Monsanto brand of capitalism that kills diversity in the name of efficiency and profit. The problem with this model is that it is crisis-prone and offers a highly uneven quality of life.

Maybe it is time we start recognizing human agency as an active principle in urban growth. We must see beyond planning and engineering as ways of organizing habitats, and invent methods that involve users and residents and their dynamic acts. We must start seeing people as the building blocks of cities and open the planning process to them.

Unfortunately, even as the rhetoric of participation dominates the urban planning discourse from Tokyo to Toronto, and at a time when hundreds of thousands of communities of users interact in responsive networks and games, we seem unable to open up urban practices. Urban development still tends to be managed by technocratic planning agencies, which serve the interest of real estate speculators more than that of end-users.

There are a few concepts that we love to use, like the title of this article, precisely because they evoke an oxymoronic world were nature and city not only coexist but blend into each other. This vision is not one of LEED-compliant buildings with floral facades and smart cities surrounded by green belts that preserve “nature” out there. No, we do not need to preserve the city from nature or vice-versa. The two work best together.

Above all, the natural city is one where human nature can express itself. Where the act of making a home is as natural as plucking fruits from trees. It is a place where habitat develops continuously, in response to the changing needs and means of the people who live in them. And where objects, homes and places can be produced locally by mixing native skills with the most advanced technology available. Where the architect is also a builder and a resident. Where the users are the developers. And where rules follow forms rather than the other way around.

While this sounds like a utopia straight out of a Jehovah’s Witness brochure, it is in fact a reality that exists in rather complicated “slums” the world over, from Mumbai to Madrid. Destitute people have demonstrated what the dark side of this vision looks like. They live in homegrown neighbourhoods, built locally by resident contractors in vernacular fashion, using whatever resources they can access. They usually lack resources, but what they lack most is the right to improve their habitats on their own terms.

What policy-markers, planners and architects usually do when confronted by what looks like feral urbanization is to ghettoize or destroy it. Sometimes the authorities can’t cope with the magnitude of such growth, and let it be. Some enlightened souls praise the “informal city” – but this has become a catchall phrase as flabby as blobs in architecture. Others suggest “tactical” interventions, but as Neil Brunner observes these are not antidotes to “the vicissitudes, dislocations, and crisis-tendencies of neoliberal urbanism.”

What we need instead is a fundamental reshuffling of our conception of how a city grows. Growth must be redefined and reclaimed if what we want is a city that is diverse, fertile, creative, but also inclusive, beautiful and resilient. We may have to stop trying so hard to plan and control, and recognize the city’s inherent capacity to evolve.

The vital force at work in cities is not divine, but eminently human. We must trust users and give them the right and means to improve their habitats and shape it in small and big ways. Users should be empowered to meddle with the code of their urban environment and create new urban genomes – as they have always done. We should not allow real estate developers to monopolize the engineering of cities in ways that only benefit them. In this process, the users best ally could well be the architect, the urban planner and the policy-maker –if only they learned to observe the natural city before planning it, as Geddes already did a century back.

#NaturalCity
#ReclaimGrowth

Photos: Banganga Tank, Mumbai

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