Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

A reaction to the Greening Cities Symposium

Yesterday Bioveins’ Greening Cities Symposium was held at Les Canaux in Paris.

There were around 30-35 people in attendance, enough to fill the room. The day was an exercise in the mingling of contrasting and complementary interpretations of the place of nature in the city. In the morning session on “Data, Expertise, and Integrating Nature into Green Cities”, the speakers from Bioveins (François Chiron and myself) discussed research on urban ecology (specifically, Bioveins), sources of environmental data, and how to deal with gaps and interpretation problems in ecological data. During the round table, François, Audrey Muratet (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/flora-of-urban-wastelands) and Xavier Japiot (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/biodiversity-assessment-on-the-petite-ceinture-verte) discussed how they have developed their natural history expertise, the ways that they both contribute to and use datasets, and how natural history expertise and datasets can be used together. In reference to this last point, Xavier emphasized the important role of using natural history observations by citizen scientists to produce data. Audrey provided us with some very interesting historical background, going back to the 16th century, about botanical studies of nature in the city. This round table, which was rich in experience and insight, was filmed and will be available to watch by the end of the week.

In the last talk of the morning, Raphael Languillon from La Fabrique de la Cité shared with us some interesting case studies of smart cities and reversible infrastructures. He discussed resilience and planning for risks, and how an economic case can be made for investing in green spaces in cities. The reversible infrastructure idea in particular caught my attention. Fujisawa sustainable smart town (https://fujisawasst.com/EN/) has dual-use infrastructures in its public spaces, that serve as leisure installations during normal conditions, but can be converted into utilities for the survival of displaced people during disasters.

During the coffee and lunch breaks we had the opportunity to silkscreen print a tote bag to take home, with a dual-color image representing the symposium. This was quite popular. There were also three workshops that were offered in the morning: one given by Tanguy Wermelinger and Nicolas Couturier from g.u.i. (https://www.g-u-i.net/en) on drawing other species’ use of space; one given by Carmen Bouyer from Nature of Cities (https://www.thenatureofcities.com) on imagining and feeling how other speices move through cities; and my workshop on how nature can be integrated into social entrepreneur businesses. I would have loved to attend both of the other two workshops, but I heard that they went well. G.u.i. will be giving their workshop again for Bioveins in the next few months (if you are interested in hosting it, contact me!). My own workshop for entrepreneurs had only two participants, but I was amazed by how easy it was to surprise and inspire with some rather simple ideas for the integration of nature into business infrastructures and services. There is a clear need for communication and outreach about urban ecology to applied sectors like business.

If you are interested in our technical reports on urban ecology data available to decision makers, and urban nature for businesses, you can download them at http://www.greening-cities.org.

In the afternoon we turned our attention to some of the social, artistic and philosophical aspects of thinking about data as a medium for the understanding of nature’s place in the city. Marten Boekelo, and anthropologist from Amsterdam University, told us that smart cities don’t always deliver either on their social goals for inclusion and democracy, nor on their claims to improve sustainability. “Dumb” infrastructure may be more effective than smart infrastructure for achieving these goals. Eirini Malliaraki from the Turing Institute then told us about various examples of smart technologies used in conservation and environmental programs. Most of these are tailor-made for particular sites: can they be shared across cities and scaled up? To the extent that environmental problems are often social problems, these smart technologies may do little to address the underlying social problems, but they can add information useful to decision-making, or make feedback loops faster. Technology cannot necessarily replace human engagement with nature, but neither does it inherently create barriers to that engagement.

The last round table brought together—in a certain way, despite a set of technological problems related to two of the participants joining us remotely—the London-based artist Anna Ridler, the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, and Eirini Malliaraki. We tried to get a handle on what art and philosophy bring to the table in understanding AI as a mediator of the place of nature in the city. Eirini helped us understand AI and added her perceptive comments to the issues of art and philosophy. Anna explicitly uses artistic craft to create her own datasets, which she then feeds into GANs—a kind of AI machine learning that uses a training set of images to produce new images. I was intrigued by the resemblance to the mixing of expertise and scientific data that we had discussed in the morning. Emanuele Coccia resisted any attempt to make AI sound either particularly threatening or particularly enlightening. If we want to rethink nature in cities, he argued, we have to think differently about where cities begin and end in space, and what counts as legal person or not. I tried to ask a question that nobody understood (maybe if I figure out how to explain it this will be a future blog post). In a final comment on the panel, co-organiser Alexa Hagerty (https://dovetaillabs.com) pointed out, in fine anthropological style and with great perspicacity, that all of these points are about categorization as a prime influence on how we percieve nature and cities.

Looking back, there are several issues throughout the symposium that can be understood as categorization problems: which knowledge category should we use to approach particular problems; is the world divided into nature and cities, or nature, urban nature, and cities, or is it not divided; is a park just a park or also a refugee camp; are smart cities also automatically green cities; how do we choose what to measure and represent in our methodological protocols that form datasets, whether for art or for science.

I want to thank everyone who helped put together the symposium, which I hope was as enjoyable and thought-provoking for everyone else as it was for me. Particular thanks to Alexa Hagerty who co-organized the event; to Leah Ashe who provided research support and to Lida Sahakian who provided on-the-ground support. Also many thanks to all of our speakers, workshop leaders, and silkscreen printer for their participation. The simultaneous translators were particularly helpful with all of our sound issues, for which we are indebted to them. I am grateful to Emmanuel Raynaud, Véronique Souchère, Florence Barré and Morgane Le Moigno for their assistance in making the symposium possible, and to Bioveins and Biodiversa for the funding.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 14 January 2020

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