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

Urban transformative capacity 2

Biopolis Summer School in Biology and Social Innovation project presentations

This evening I went with an anthropologist friend to see the project presentations of Harvard’s summer school in Paris in association with the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) (https://cri-paris.org), Sciences Po, and the mayor’s office of the 4th arrondissement of Paris: https://www.thebiopolis.com/home

The Biopolis program aims to teach students to think about sustainable development solutions for urban problems in Paris, by thinking about the city as an organism. Interesting! The students had worked closely with the mayor’s office to understand ongoing urban development issues, opportunities, and constraints. They had come up with what were supposed to be real, workable, applied projects.

‘Paris compost’ was a project to install compost bins in parks in the 4eme and 18eme arrondissements.

‘Pure Paris’ was a proposal to install moss walls and clusters of exercise equipment along the Seine, creating “pollution-free outdoor exercise zones”.

‘Desmains’ was a proposed zero-waste store where you pay to make your own products and fix things you own already. You can “grab a coffee with your neighbour” and discuss the development of your “sustainable skills”.

‘Eco Metro’ was a plan to install “intergenerational commuter gardens” at stations of the Grand Paris Express.

‘Ouican’ was a sustainability competition for middle schools in Paris.

‘Bonvoyage’ was an app that trains people to intervene in sexual harassment episodes on the metro.

‘Citélève’ hopes to reallocate 150 of the apartments that will be left over from the Olympic village to house university students who will be required to tutor local school children in exchange for affordable rent.

‘Café Tiers’ is a café where refugees and franco-français people can make friends.

‘Green Mobile’ would extend the existing ‘Vegetalisons-Paris’ programme to the suburbs.

I didn’t really understand whether any of these projects will actually take place, but they all seem like worthy ideas.

In my last post (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/urban-transformative-capacity) I complained about theory that doesn’t try to explain why the present is not already like what the radically different future is supposed to be, and that lacks a base in praxis or evidence. Now, on the other hand, my anthropologist friend and I were struck by the low-ambition pragmatism of an imagined future 99.9% identical to the present, and total lack of theory or systemic thinking.

To be clear, this is not a critique of the students, who seemed to be marvelously competent at doing what they were asked to do.

There was no theory behind “the city as an organism”, an orientation which was entirely undetectable in the presentations. When I checked the website to look at past years’ projects, it became clear that each student team had been asked to take a biological thing as a metaphor to inspire them. These metaphors were not theory, they were just bad poetry. Apparently, the students were being asked to think on the level of ‘the Champs-Elysée is shaped like a starfish, therefore if I detach one of its radial streets, it will regrow as a pedestrian walkway.’ This is a shame, since there are plenty of biological and social systems theories to draw on. A systemic theory would have asked the students to ask themselves, ‘If we can only do one, small, pragmatic micro-enterprise or social engagement project, what should it be? How do we define our problem? What would a solution consist of? Are there problems that cannot be solved at this scale? At what time, stage, place, process, do we intervene to maximize the outcome of our investment in time and energy? What times, stages, places, processes, are transformable? In what ways do they transform? How, through what means, interventions, or ongoing processes, are these transformations initiated, continued, and maintained? How do transformations scale up? How do they get locked in, or how do they stay adaptive to changing conditions?’ There is no analogy about echinoderms or the functioning of the gall bladder that raises all of these questions.

As happens so often, the biology was being used as a source of decorative facts, rather than a source of thinking. If you wanted to draw on biological theory, I would suggest looking at theories about the evolution and functioning of the immune system, or models of self-organization in the formation of biological patterns and structures, or theories of the origins of life, or theories of the allocation of resources to physiological processes, all of which say something about how complex dynamic wholes are formed and maintained by associations of small, mobile components.

There are also plenty of social science theories that could be very helpful here, like the transformative capacity ideas I discussed in the last blog post, or critical juncture theory, or theory of institutional leverage points, for example.

We certainly need intelligent young people doing practical projects to make cities greener and more sustainable. But the main thing these students seemed to have learned from this exceptional educational experience was how to make a slick pitch to obtain financial backing. I know that’s important. But the elephant in the room was everyone’s big fear when it comes to climate change mitigation, adaptation, sustainability or nature conservation: a lot of tiny, maybe nice, maybe effective, projects NEVER ADD UP TO ANYTHING. How do you scale up? Where is the phase transition? When is the S-curve of adoption? Why do your personal actions make a difference? At least with a systemic theory, you have a reply to those questions, and so you have hope.

Suggested readings:
Cumming, G.S., Cumming, D.H.M., & Redman, C.L. 2006. Scale mismatches in social-ecologicalsystems: causes, consequences, and solutions. Ecology and Society 11(1):14;
Pierson, P. (2000). Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics. American political science review, 94(02), 251-267;
Mahoney, J. (2000). Path dependence in historical sociology. Theory and society, 29(4), 507-548.
Abson, David J., Joern Fischer, Julia Leventon, Jens Newig, Thomas Schomerus, Ulli Vilsmaier, Henrik von Wehrden et al. 2017 Leverage points for sustainability transformation. Ambio 46(1):30-39.
Capoccia, G., & Kelemen, D. 2007. The study of critical junctures: theory, narrative and counterfactuals in historical institutionalism. World Politics 59(3):341-369.

-- Meredith Root-Bernstein, 25 July 2019

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