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

Nature and the city from confinement

In this time of coronavirus quaratine, social distancing, and confinement to our homes..

..many images are going around showing “nature taking over the city” as people retreat from public space. My favourite is this one from Chile (see photo above). The caption says, “Lanalhue Lake, in Contulmo [Chile], awoke yesterday without humans contaminating or destroying nature. A scenario that hasn’t been seen since the Cretaceous. A light of hope in the middle of this tragedy.”

The idea that dolphins, monkeys and songbirds are taking over the public spaces of cities is a strange echo of images of ruins. I think of ancient palaces covered in vines and trees, or post-apocalyptic public spaces being casually traversed by escaped zoo animals. When they start putting images on social media of major buildings covered in ivy and moss, the imaginary of the end of the world will be complete.

In many ways, confinement in our homes is a particular realization of the ultimate dream of many conservationists and environmental activists, who encourage us to give up any and all actions that contribute to carbon emissions, tropical forest destruction, plastic pollution in the ocean, industrial farming, and so on. Our unwilling but cooperative and even voluntary renunciation of the world anticipates the collapse of our civilization and our cities—a strange moment in which we watch, from the small view afforded by our windows, a preview of the end of the world, and are meant to feel proud, satisfied, and releived. Air pollution and carbon emissions have dropped dramatically along with the freeze in economic activity during the period of confinement in China and Italy https://www.visualcapitalist.com/coronavirus-lockdowns-emissions/ Articles like this one (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/10/coronavirus-could-cause-fall-in-global-co2-emissions) perform a delicate waltz around the ideas that (1) economic shut-down and recession are bad, but (2) carbon emissions are dipping and it would be really nice if they just possibly somehow stayed really low for a long time even though (1), and (3) at least this shows that people can radically adjust their behaviour so maybe we can continue to not leave our houses hardly at all for the sake of the environment for the rest of time, that would be great except for (1).

Curiously missing from this kind of discussion is the social and personal costs of staying in our homes and never going out. Many people do not have home situations that are comfortable, or safe. They may be trapped at home with psychologically or physically abusive people, they may be living in over-crowded situations, they may lack running water. Others who live alone suffer from isolation that they could otherwise reduce by going out. Under crisis, social roles and assumptions always seem to revert to traditionalist and conservative models: women are expected to suffer disproportionately during and after the epidemic (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/feminism-womens-rights-coronavirus-covid19/608302/?fbclid=IwAR0Bbgst_yx4Owliobh6Ii7rgPy1cZgBcpM0LXz_6Bmq86GsgGB-90y6xdY). So will the poor, the self-employed, and others who were already on the social and economic margins. In reality, the home is not some paradise to which we can all retreat in comfort and security, autonomy and self-realization.

What I find upsetting about many environmentalist discourses--and this predated the coronavirus situation but may be amplified by it—is the narrowing of the sense of home and the sphere of action to the smallest and least socially engaged unit possible. Many years ago I was struck by a line in Paul Ginsborgs’ book The politics of everyday life about how the family is a closed, inward-looking, self-centered social unit. This is why many conservative and dictatorial regimes have policies that encourage marriage and families with many babies, or that impose curfew for years at a time, two things that for many people are almost the same. The more you are stuck at home, by force or through the imperative of childcare and other gendered homelife activities, the less you have interest in or resources for public, political action. It seems contradictory and counterproductive to base the protection of all other living and non-living things on Earth on household economics and the retreat into a state of social atomization. The household is the decision-making unit least concerned by anything that happens outside its confines. The distancing of people from nature and the natural resources on which they depend is exactly the move on which our harmful economic and production systems are based—this is the problem, and more of the problem is not going to be the solution. When added to the idea that homes are not, in fact, uniformly wonderful places, this scenario is disturbing.

As the philosopher Emanuele Coccia has said, we need to expand our notions of what it means to be at home in the city to include living with other species, so that the lines between city, home, nature, and habitat are blurred. We need to expand our conception of the basic social unit to include plants, animals, forests, and other wider communities. As I have mentioned in other posts, there are already many solutions to living together with other beings in cities (
http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/living-with-wildlife-in-cities; http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/making-urban-nature-book-review).

If we are going to reorganise society, we cannot do it along the lines of social distancing. Remember anyway that the only thing being improved by social distancing and home confinement is emissions contributing to climate change. Industrial agriculture and resource extraction and the distribution networks they depend on are still functioning. Social distancing takes everything that is good about globalization and social life—exchange of ideas and culture, travelling to understand how context and place make lived reality, the use of the body as a basis of thinking and doing, friendship and personal warmth—and preserves everything that is most harmful and destructive. I understand the frustration of fellow conservationists and environmental activitists and their jealousy of the ability of governments to radically alter the patterns of everyday life, with the cooperation of nearly everyone, due to a pandemic. But frankly, if we were looking for a model of crisis to perversely yearn for, we should look elsewhere.

As Rebecca Solnit shows in her very interesting book, A paradise built in hell, disasters that in one way or another destroy the distinction between home and public space (fires, earthquakes, etc.) often lead to the spontaneous flowering of social action, solidarity, and new (if temporary) ways of living and getting by. I am not suggesting destroying the world in order to save it. All of these apocalyptic visions are, essentially, predicated on paradisical assumptions about the basis of social life, which are almost always wrong and often repressive. The point is to break down the barrier between public and private space (the real space, in the city, not online). Fortunately there are ways to do this that are short of an apocalypse. For example, the development of flourishing public and semi-public spaces and the encouragement of transformation and temporary reapproapriation, creating a fluidity of public and private space, is one way to break down this barrier (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/urban-transformative-capacity; http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/ruins).

My own personal little suggestion under the circumstances is to realize that when we are at home, we are not alone (nor are we alone with our families, if we are living with them). Our house plants, our mouse infestation, the fly that comes in the window, but also the toy robot, the coffee machine, the computer, or the rock picked up on a beach, are things we can treat as alive, as persons, as part of our social life, in an animistic way. What can we say to them? What games can we play with them? What rituals can we invent with them, what secret powers to affect our emotional lives might they have? What do they want—can we care for them and make them more comfortable? Taking an animistic attitude towards our things at home (if we don’t already) may help us to pass the time during our confinement a bit better. It might also help us to practice extending our sense of community to the other things on Earth that we live among.


If you live in France and want to contribute your window-based observations of urban (or rural) nature to a database, you can do so here: https://www.oiseauxdesjardins.fr/index.php?m_id=21&a=N341#FN341
Those lucky people who have gardens or balconies from which to watch birds have all my jealousy at this moment. If, like me, your home gives uninspiring views of plants and animals, you can take a quick tour of some nice gardens here: https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/five-gorgeous-gardens-virtually-tour-213000463/photo-p-march-19-marks-first-213000493.html (the links are in the photo captions).

If you want to contribute to my art school project about animism in times of coronavirus, you can share your biographies of or interviews with your things at home on social media with the hashtags #stayathomewithanimism #quedateencasaconanimismo #restezchezsoiavecanimisme #stateacasaconanimismo

Bibliography:
Ginsborg, P. 2005. The politics of everyday life: Making choices, changing lives. Yale University Press.
Solnit, R. 2010. A paradise built in hell. New York, Penguin Books.

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