The Urban Space as Nature
The concept of nature and what is natural is socially constructed as much as any social or relational category. What is imagined when asked: ‘What is a natural space or nature to you?’ is reflective of what is considered the environment around us. Being in a desolate forest, next to a waterfall, on the side of a mountain, in a lush green field, and the like are common images that come to mind when we’re asked to imagine ourselves in nature. While being on the sidewalk next to the street busy with city traffic, or in your home is not. If you do not consider the latter being “nature”, then where exactly do you draw the line between the two? Drawing a contrast between what qualifies as nature and what does not can seem like a challenging task because you’re being asked to distinguish what can’t be. What is often lacking in ecofeminist theory and environmental justice conversations is the dissection of nature as a construct, specifically in relation to how that construct affects an urban setting and the people that live in them.
In this essay I aim to question the construct of nature so as to recognize and honor the multiplex experiences of people within their environment. Additionally, to aid in ecofeminist and environmental movements by using this dissection as a way to make better policy in urban settings, both for people and the environment. This essay will be broken up into three sections to deconstruct concepts and then apply them to future possible social and environmental action in cities. The first section of this essay will talk about the politics of an urban setting – how their design both influences social and cultural factors as it is influenced by them, and who is left out of their construction consequently. The second section will analyze the meanings behind “natural” and “nature”, as they are commonly understood, and how their definitions are historically and culturally grounded. It will also go through the negative effects of seeing a city as different. The third and final section of this essay will then talk about how the framing of a city as Nature and the deconstruction of any space is essential towards city design, planning, and policy. We must rethink urbanization and work towards creating more productive, inclusive, sustainable, livable and humane cities.
Culturally Constructed Cities:
The planning and design of cities globally has been rooted in historical social and cultural relations, expectations, and hierarchies. Inequality is spatially reinforced by design, from our systems all the way to individual public spaces. Layouts of cities and public versus private space have been, and often still are, exclusionary to groups based on gender, class, and race. Aspects of architecture and design planning are inherently biased, and the benefits included within them only avail to some. Humans hold bias from their cultural and social experiences, and that is brought into the architecture of spaces as well as the design planning process. Those identity groups that are excluded from those decisions are not represented unless for a purpose.
In general, perceived roles of dichotomous genders in reproduction have influenced the creation of space. While women have been historically labeled as the producers of new life, men have been labeled as the producers of culture.(Ortner, 1974) The diminishment of women to their reproductive labor is where the phrase “man made” arose and has led to the fields of architecture and construction being dominated by men.(Nicholson, 2020) With men dominating the professions tasked with building cities, the concerns and needs of women aren’t likely to be considered during the design phases. As a result the buildings, neighborhoods, and cities created won’t have women in mind either. The male dominance becomes evident in studies that have found that women feel unsafe in many public places, often transportation environments. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’s research on public transit and fear (2009) found that women expressed concern with being alone at bus stops or transit stations at night. They desired more in-person policing, rather than relying on technology as a safety measure. At the same time, the current security trend has been to increase technology to reduce the labor costs of in-person policing. Her study revealed that only three percent of transportation agencies have women’s travel programs in place.(Loukaitou-Sideri, 2009) The construction of cities and spaces within them has been exclusionary in many other regards.
Public space has been politicized to limit access to low class and homeless people as well. Many cities are anti homeless in their architecture design and anti poverty in their policy. You will often see multiple arm chairs on benches, curved benches, or spikes on ledges to prevent homeless people from sleeping there. Fences, usually with spikes at the top, are used to keep homeless people from sleeping in certain areas. The use of the bathroom in a restaurant or store in U.S. cities is often only permitted with the purchase of something, as well as hotel bathroom use only allowed if you are staying there. In some places you have to pay to use any public bathroom. The hostile design of cities towards people with low income or who live in extreme poverty is also reflected in their high apartment prices, numbers of jobs exceeding the number of apartments available, and lack of attention to the infrastructure in poorer neighborhoods.(Hu, 2019)
Cities are an important piece of structural inequalities in that urban design forms public space in the sense of ‘informing’ it, so that it also instructs, educates, and empowers. People involved in city design and planning can use the profound effect they have on the people living in their spaces to create a more inclusive space. As Sara Santo Cruz states in ‘The Journal of Urban Design’, “The success of a public space must foresee various dynamics of inclusion, particularly ensuring the means that allow individuals and communities to participate as ‘fully fledged social subjects in urban life- allowing for local encounters, conviviality, community engagement and social interactions.”(Cruz, 2018) To create more ethical cities the general population should be involved in the production of space and the concerns of those usually excluded must be sought out.
Natural and Nature:
Although the cultural influences of the construction of a city can be easily recognized, the cultural influences of the construction of Nature and what is natural is not as commonly understood. Arguments of “natural” have been used to depict certain races, bodies, and sexualities as mentally ill, deficient, or inferior. In ‘Disorderly Pasts: Kinship, Diagnoses, and Remembering in American Indian-U.S. Histories’, Susan Burch talks about settler colonials used the “natural” argument of medical diagnoses to label Native Americans as mentally ill simply for a difference in culture and customs. One of the reasons a Native woman was incarcerated at ‘Canton Indian Insane Asylum’ was because she still lived with her family and was cited as being dependent, a burden, and “incapable of being taught to live right” (Burch, 2016, p. 370). Arguments of “natural” have been used to justify gendered hierarchy and used to slander LGBTQ+ members despite the fact that dichotomous genders, sexualities, and relationships are not exclusively reflected in nature. Arguments of “natural” that have been tied up in racism, ableism, sexism, etc. have negatively affected millions of people through governmental policy. Examples of this are: IQ tests, racial segregation to ghettos, institutionalization, forced sterilization, and even genocide.
In the same way the definition of natural is constructed around social and cultural relations, so is the definition of nature. To most, nature is a space that remains completely or minimally “untouched” by humans, but this is often not the case. “Natural environments” are not as distinct from “built environments” as people make them out to be, and in this way existing social arrangements are then mapped onto “natural environments”. As Alison Kafer states in chapter 6 of ‘Feminist Queer Crip’, “Many campgrounds in the United States…have been designed to resemble suburban neighborhoods, with single campsites for each family, clearly demarcated private and public spaces, and layouts built for their cars.”(Kafer, 2013, p. 130) Such arrangements enforce singular family/group arrangements. Kafer continues, “each individual campsite faces onto the road or common area so that rangers (and other campers) can easily monitor others’ behavior.” (Kafer, 2013, p. 130) Such arrangements encourages policing of outwardly queer acts. An environmental historian William Cronon notes how Indigenous people in the U.S. have been removed from a space and any evidence their occupancy destroyed so new parks being built could be read as “pristine” and “untouched” wilderness. (VEAK) Park advertisements and brochures have also often catered to a specific, overwhelmingly white, audience. But wilderness has already been less appealing to African Americans with a history of white supremist violence and lynching in rural areas.(Kafer, 2013)
With our interactions with “nature” being historically and culturally grounded, who gets to access Nature then becomes an issue as well. The main group of people that is often left out of Nature are those with physical disabilities. Disabled bodies are seen as the antithesis of nature, or the ultimate consequence of taking risks in “natural” terrain. Emerging yourself in nature and tackling rugged terrain are seen as liberating, calming, renewing, and the only way to have a relationship with Nature. Accommodations for certain physically disabled or impaired people, such as ramps and wide smooth trails are often touted as obstructive to “nature” and tainting the “natural” experience. Disabled people themselves, like wheelchair users, have been critiqued as harmful to nature trails. This rhetoric of course completely overlooks already existing accommodations like trail maps, markers, stairs, and more. Arguments like these have no standing as well; studies have shown that disability accommodations to trails like boardwalks and slow sloping trails that move along the side of a mountain preserve the landscape better than other forms of trails.(Kafer, 2013) In this way, the disabled experience and interest in nature becomes politicized in a way that the able-bodied one does not.
The construction of all environments politicizes some groups’ interactions with them, but also completely dismisses others. Amanda Baggs, a person with Autism, in her video ‘In My Language’, uses visual and oral descriptions of her interactions with the surroundings in her apartment as a way to expand eco-normative conceptions of both nature and interaction. She describes her interactions of smelling, tasting, and touching her environment as her native language. One part in the video shows Baggs wiggling her fingers in the water that comes out of her faucet; saying “the water doesn’t symbolize anything, I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me”(Baggs, 2007). This mutual interaction between her fingers and the water pushes our assumptions of what is language and what is nature. Language is interaction with our environments, and Baggs examples that language is not solely spoken word or written text. By interacting with the water from her faucet she challenges the assumption that nature only exists “out there” as opposed to the spaces around us everyday. Similar to how spoken word and written texts are the only valued forms of communication, only certain kinds of interactions with our environment are seen as such. For example, how hiking a mountain or swimming in the ocean are recognized as much more meaningful interactions with our environment and with Nature. The question of “Why?” is the crux of this issue. These two interactions are distinguished, but the difference between them is unclear.
In the video labeled ‘Slavoj Zizek in Examined Life’ Zizek describes the problems in what we exclude in our understanding of Nature and meaningful interactions with it. Zizek describes how our ecology today has become mystified and a sort of religion, and problematic because so. He states that our “notion of nature as a harmonious, organic, balanced, reproducing, almost living organism, which is then disturbed, perturbed, derailed through human hubris”(Zizek) is an evasion of engaging with how our interactions with the world impact it. Seeing humans as an exterior force from nature and interpreting a catastrophe as a punishment somehow makes it easier in a way, Zizek argues. However, this detached and mystified understanding of ourselves in relation to the world is hurting any effort to help it. He says that humans are a part of the living earth and are not just an exterior force disturbing the balanced totality of nature. In this video Zizek walks around trash sites, using trash as an example of the limitations of our ecology. When we throw trash out it disappears from our sight and our minds, but it never truly disappears from our world. We must embrace all of the things we create and produce, even trash, if we are ever to truly love and care for the earth. Zizek argues that,
“To confront properly the threat of ecological catastrophe is not all this New Age stuff- to break out of this technological manipulative mold and to find our roots in nature, but, on the contrary, to cut off even more these roots in nature. We need more alienation from our life-world, from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop, I think, a much more terrifying new abstract materialism, a kind of a mathematical universe where there is nothing.” (Zizek)
Zizek argues that a “true ecologist” will love trash and rubbish and reject what is “nature” to embrace artificiality. He says that to love the earth is to not idealize it and to ever truly survive sustainably in the world we must fundamentally change our understanding of meaningful ways of living in it.
Nature as we know it has been constructed around historical cultural and social conditions, and we must begin to see it as so. We must see the desolate forest, shimmering waterfall, towering mountain, and lush green field in the same way we see places like a city full of buildings, cars, pollution, and people. To see them as different is to wrongfully see humans as separate from nature, because all space is one of human construction. We understand urban spaces as human constructed and thus further from sustainable living but that’s not the case. To expand our conception of language, interaction, and the environment is to imagine new ways that our inventions can exist in line with the rest of the earth’s. To understand ourselves as an inseparable part of nature is to take accountability for the discriminatory and violent constructions of our spaces. To recognize our influence in the creation of any space is to open up possibilities of creating productive, inclusive, sustainable, livable, and humane cities.
Considering the constructed nature of any space, specifically a city, is both a humanitarian concern and an environmental concern. It is projected that 68% percent of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050 (UN). Thus increasing the scope of impact of a city’s design and also increasing the impact and probability of problems associated with environmental anomalies due to climate change. With the various ways in which the design of the spaces we construct can be exclusionary and discriminatory to groups, it’s important to think about how we can construct things differently moving forward. Our relation to cities, artificiality, and the earth must also be reevaluated to make better policy toward better functioning more sustainable cities.
In the webinar ‘Rethinking Cities: Gender and the City- Creating the Change’ various urban planners and activists talked about the gendered nature of the planning and production of public spaces, specifically urban spaces in the Global South, and steps to take to combat it. Some policy and design mentioned related changes that would benefit women. Some of those changes being better access to water and sanitation, housing, electricity, and land titles. There is an absence of women in city planning and an absence of women in the city workforce. To create safer and more empowering conditions, women have expressed interest in more rental housing for women, closer proximity of care centers for seniors and children to residential buildings, skill building and marketing centers, 10% reservation for women hawkers and public toilets, affordable housing for women headed households, and shelters for homeless women. Designs of the buildings of themselves were suggested, like natural lighting and ventilation, to create an enhanced feeling of well being (Brahmbhatt, 2020).
In the webinar architect and activist PK Das talks about how to create an inclusive, representative building/city design and his experience in doing it. Das stresses that one of the most important parts to creating ethical spaces is to work with people’s movements and to base designs off inclusive participation of local populations. One of his successful projects was the Carter Road Promenade located along the Arabian sea on the west side of Bandra. The Carter Road Promenade is a part of the larger movement in the city to reclaim public spaces and to protect Mumbai’s coastline, has garnered much use, and encourages get-togethers and cultural events with its descending steps that lead to the coastline rocks. To encourage ethical and sustainable architecture he says you need to 1- promote neighborhood based planning as the basis of city planning, 2- evolve a non-prescriptive incomplete and forever evolving inclusive public space planning & design program and a participatory implementation model, 3- bring about gender transformation and the achievement of gender space for intervene in order to challenge the prevailing conditions of inequalities and exclusions, towards the achievement of equal inclusive and gendered cities, and 4- network reclaiming public space movements with other democratic rights movements across sectors in order to strengthen each movement and the movements beyond borders (Brahmbhatt, 2020).
Cities play an important role in environmental discourses about sustainability and global warming as well. Denser, more populous cities are touted as being more energy efficient than their smaller counterparts and the future of living in an increasingly warming world. But cities are affected by global warming in dramatic ways that suburbs are not. Extreme heat events are increasing because of global warming, and cities feel that heat especially. Heat waves kill more people than any other climate risk and cities experience a heat stress multiplication by a factor 1.4 and 15 depending on the scenario.(Wouters, 2007) Global warming is also increasing extreme rain events, and the cities that have experienced them already have dealt with flash flooding and overwhelmed sewage pipes. However, there are solutions to these issues. ‘Green roofs’ and more vegetation in cities is linked to helping both heat stress and excess water problems. There are also other architectural designs intended to help these issues, like permeable pavement, reflective or white roofs, and more. “Nature” and cities do not have to remain distinct and separable, in fact if they do it will contribute to our demise.
With these issues it’s important to remember Zizek’s description of true ecology. We must not depict humans and human inventions/constructions as any different from nature, because they’re not. Environmental movements that paint humans as the problem expunge us from the accountability of ever really helping it. Instead we have to imagine a future that will look unfamiliar to the one that is so commonly talked about in conservation conversations. Of course humans need to confront and change the ways that we are living unsustainably in this world, but doing this requires that we alienate ourselves from what we commonly think of as the harmonious and sustainable Nature. Doing this requires that we analyze how we construct spaces to create them to be more sustainable, truthful, engaging, and authentic. We must honor the true “natural” experience and the “nature” all around us. By doing this we can rethink urbanization and work towards creating more productive, inclusive, sustainable, livable and humane cities.
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