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

Urban transformative capacity

How to create an ideal city (?)

As I mentioned in a previous post (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/we-love-trees), I was going to do a collage and silk screen activity about an idea of an ideal city, at the silk screen workshop at Les Grands Voisins (https://www.grandemasse.org/?c=activites&p=atelier-serigraphie). I have taken a class there and used their workshop with the assistance of the master printers a few times. It turns out that Romain, a graphic artist who works there, has an interest in urban psychogeography, ("the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals,” see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography), and that was why he had organised this activity. We discussed a collaboration between his planned activities and Bioveins, which I hope will bear fruit.

Since no one else showed up for the activity, we decided to do a complex four-colour print of my image that I had not been planning on. Romain helped me prepare the image using Photoshop, which I have to admit that I trepidatiously dislike. I printed the coral colour too thick, due to an embodied technical error. Afterwards, about 3 of the prints were good, but Romain suggested, and I agree, that the image was missing something. “A word” he said, “but of course, I’m a graphic designer so I think that.”

The image I came up with has buildings cut out of a tropical garden and a marsh, with advent-calendar windows, and some trees made of urban lifestyle scenes with little paper doll dress tabs, next to a paper Marie Antoinette (and lamb) doll. I was thinking of children’s make-believe, as I discussed before, but also about outsides and insides, interior life and exterior life—how we can dress as Marie Antoinette or as a tree, or visit a marsh that is also a large building with some other mysterious life going on in the rooms behind the windows.

Lately, real cities are also doing some of this dressing up and hinting at their hidden mysterious otherness. On Saturday, London became the first National Park City. The idea is to recognise urban biodiversity and mobilize the public to value, protect, and enjoy it (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/london-national-park-city/). As someone in this article is quoted as saying, a National Park City isn’t an IUCN protected area category (like real National Park,which is a specific form of protection of a specific kind of nature-human relationship) (https://www.iucn.org/theme/protected-areas/about/protected-area-categories), and I imagine it is widely seen, among ecologists and conservationists, as a contradiction in terms, or a capitulation to the meager urbanite imagination of what nature and wilderness are. Ideally, though, it might be a tool to help the city become more wild (less ordered and separated, more mixed and accomodating) and more biodiverse. An editorial in the French newspaper Libération also recently called for cities to be reconnected and reintegrated with nature, pointing out that urban land conversion bears responsibility for biodiversity loss http://enlargeyourparis.blogs.liberation.fr/2019/07/07/nous-devons-passer-de-la-ville-la-ville-nature/.

Finding that editorial a bit weak on concrete solutions or approaches, I remembered recently finding a special issue in the academic journal Ambio about “urban transformative capacity.” Was this going to reveal a toolbox of enlightening theory and evaluated applications? No. However, it is quite interesting to find this topic covered in a journal dedicated to socio-ecological research, which points to the current focus on cities and social issues of urban renewal within academic nature conservation-related thought. This literature is really fairly interesting, presenting a number of proposed theoretical orientations (or parts of a theory, perhaps not yet totally articulated) about how socio-ecological systems and institutions change. The introductory paper (you can read it here: https://link.springer.com/journal/13280/48/5?wt_mc=alerts.TOCjournals&utm_source=toc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=toc_13280_48_5), first stresses the importance for cities to develop “adaptive capacity” in order to meet biodiversity and climate change challenges. Adaptive capacity, in this literature, consists of “(1) learning to live with change and uncertainty; (2) nurturing diversity and social-ecological memory for reorganization and renewal; (3) combining different types of knowledge for learning (experiential-, experi- mental-, process-, structural-, functional-); and (4) creating opportunity for self-organization and flexible problem solving across scales (Folke et al. 2003).” Frankly, this sounds like a good plan for personal development as well. But if I could offer an off-the-cuff one-line critique, I am concerned that the reasons that these actions/orientations do not already exist—or, critically, the particular way in which they exist, which acts contrarily to the normative frame of the authors—have been insufficiently considered, and simply treated like an impediment that needs to be stepped over. While full of good ideas about how adaptive urban transformation works or could be made to work better, I was also struck by the authors’ ability to express what can only be fraught and complex power disputes as though narrating a documentary about ants fixing their nest after a rain: “..these propositions commonly identify two additional capabilities that are critical for transformations: To be able to actively disrupt and dismantle existing systems, and to simultaneously create and build up viable alternatives..”

Maybe its due to this dispassionate view from above that puts too little attention on the micropolitics of reality (as they themselves admit), but the first paper in the issue (Castán Broto et al. 2019) shows that there is very little evidence that any of this theory is being implemented in actual urban planning, policy or management in cities around the world. There is a long way to go to put ideas into practice, or to bring practice to theory.

I decided that maybe the words missing from my silk screen print were “urban transformative capacity”. So I made a pdf version with them superimposed, in the best spirit of transformation, versions and versions and versions.

References

Wolfram, M., Borgström, S., & Farrelly, M. (2019). Urban transformative capacity: From concept to practice. Ambio, 48(5), 437-448.
Casta ́n Broto, V., G. Trencher, E. Iwaszuk, and L. Westman. 2019. Transformative capacity and local action for urban sustainability. Ambio. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-1086-z.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 21/07/2019

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