When our desire for urban nature becomes a performance of mastery
Situated in the gentrified, formerly working-class suburb of Chippendale, Sydney, is One Central Park, a skyscraper that features vertical hanging gardens. The building has a J. G. Ballard–esque panache, the architecture enmeshed with the natural world, bringing to mind that author’s High Rise and The Drowned World simultaneously.
A collaborative effort by Foster and Partners, Ateliers Jean Nouvel and PTW Architects, the part-residential, part-retail building was named the Best Tall Building in the World in 2014. Along with the obvious hanging gardens, the building boasts an internal water-recycling plant, a cantilevered heliostat to reflect sunlight, and a low-carbon tri-generation power plant. But it is the gardens that have afforded the building an enviable place in the eco-architecture world. Now the world’s tallest vertical garden, it has a mix of native Australian flora and exotic species.
One Central Park is one of many nature-themed structures that focus on the entangled architectures of steel and wilderness, promoting an illusory image of harmony between nature and the city. Singapore’s refurbished Changi Airport is another such notable structure, which now features the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, making the airport an attraction of the city in and of itself. Known as the ‘City in a Garden’, Singapore is already famous for its Gardens by the Bay, which contain a grove of human-made ‘super trees’ that actually mimic the processes of photosynthesis and rainwater collection through the use of photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight into energy. In this sense such innovations fit more broadly into what is known as ‘biomimicry’, or the process by which scientists, architects and others imitate natural processes as a solution to human-centred dilemmas or inventions. Architecture is at the forefront of this movement.
But while such imitation is generally viewed favourably, it also suggests that for nature to be viable and appreciated in our digital age it must merge with the technical worlds of machinery and architecture. What we are witnessing is a fusion of the Anthropocene, a new geological era defined by human actions, and scenery, an anthroposcenery, in which nature, ever more unpredictable in the wake of human-driven climate change, is transformed and repackaged as heavily choreographed scenery for the ‘well-being’ of humans inhabiting the cityscape.
While the idea of a sustainable city is important in light of finite resources, inadequate energy goals and threats to natural ecosystems, we must also ask what it really means to ‘green’ a city. How do we make sense of the discourse around ‘green cities’ that holds them up as havens of sustainability while promoting a view of nature as malleable and subservient to human whims, and design and infrastructural imperatives?
Humans have always had an ambiguous relationship with nature, from the deforestation of ancient woodlands to the tourist infestation of Instagrammers at nature sites today (including the crowds at the peak of Mt Everest). In the past 250 years humans have contributed to an unprecedented increase in environmental devastation, which now puts people in the precarious position of wanting to care for the environment while also wanting to partake of its natural splendour. Even Antarctica, the last wilderness in a hyper-globalised world, has seen increasing water pollution threatening the marine life along the route from Chile and Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula as ships carry southwards more and more tourists, many of whom would, ironically, be concerned about the disappearing continent and its wildlife. As Charlotte Simmonds and colleagues recently put it, tourists are ‘loving nature to death’.
This difficulty in reconciling our love of nature with our desire to protect it seems insurmountable, as humans, no matter how much they preach conservation, also want to witness glorious mountain peaks and hike through towering redwoods. This hunger for the natural is now also being catered for in our increasingly garden-centric metropolises, airports and skyscrapers, where visitors experience nature but without the unpredictable, uncomfortable inevitabilities of the natural world: insect bites, animal attacks, frostbite and so on. This essentially reorients our understanding of what nature is. The greater irony, perhaps, is that as deforestation and pollution rage, incapacitating the natural world, humans have once again taken it upon themselves to be the custodians of nature by turning to technology, now to perform nature’s role on its behalf. Just as nature has been conquered and turned into a resource through human intervention in the past, it is once more being forced to acquiesce to the machine world so that we may enjoy its bountiful offerings in urban settings.
Glamourising green cities
Nature has long been considered a cure for the modern urban malaise, an offshoot of the Romantic discourse helmed by Rousseau, Byron, Shelley, Blake and Coleridge, for whom nature rejuvenated the soul. Rousseau in particular cautioned society against moving en masse to the cities, disliking the ‘black vapours’ that had engulfed the streets of London. Nature writing grew, and Henry David Thoreau eagerly prescribed the ‘tonic of wilderness’ to revitalise city dwellers.
These attitudes helped to create a schism between nature and culture, in which both were seen to be distinct, unrelated entities, with very specific ideas attached to each. The city was mechanistic, human oriented and artificial. Nature, the space beyond the city, was authentic, paradisiacal and organic. With the onset of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century, nature was increasingly associated with the idea of revitalising humans, a place of spiritual refuge from the shallow, soulless metropolises that modernity wrought. These ideas have endured, expressing the nature–culture divide that dominated much twentieth-century thinking. In response to this binary, many eco-critics and environmental theorists discouraged thinking about nature and culture as fundamentally separate, and instead urged people to foster a symbiotic relationship between humans and the environment.
Many such thinkers have (usefully) illustrated how nature and culture actually share many elements thought to be reserved for human civilisation, such as complex communication. Danila Cannamela, in her Quiet Avant-Garde: Crepuscular Poetry and the Twilight of Modern Humanism, argues that ‘nature, rather than being the opposite of culture, expresses more-than-human forms of knowledge and communication’, seen for instance in the way in which trees and nonhuman animals have complex social structures. Eco-critics, she writes, have attempted to ‘erode the modern nature–culture dualism’. For her ‘the open question…is how Western culture could mend its centuries-old divide between nature and culture’, citing Timothy Morton’s ‘ecology without nature’ thesis as a possible way out. She writes that according to Morton’s proposal, ‘a respectful coexistence between human and nonhuman agents can become a reality only if we begin deconstructing our Western notion of nature as a separate, organic entity’.
However, this desire to undo the nature–culture dichotomy has led to a situation in which nature and culture have become entangled in the ‘green city’ thesis in such a way that nature is once again being conceptualised to suit society’s idealised view of it. Practices from architecture to the wellness and other industries emphasise the importance of a ‘green outlook’; we create green spaces in cities and hiking paths through untouched redwood forests, hoping to foster an environmental spirituality, all the while criticising loggers and mining companies for their interventions into the natural world. And yet all of these acts turn nature into a resource, as a raw material on the one hand and as spectacle on the other.
The act of creating green cities, or ‘sustainable cities’, has taken on the added dimension of transforming nature into a human-built commodity, substituting the looming redwood with the garden skyscraper, so that citizens no longer need to compromise between remote nature and urban convenience. These structures in particular act as homages to nature while retaining the self-conscious proclamation of ‘human ingenuity’, so that while they are meant to remind us of nature, we are never allowed to forget that humans sit at its core. It is a testament to the cultural gluttony of a society that wants the best of both worlds without ever asking what their specificity might be.
Gaia Vince writes of the contradictions in such visions of the cities of the Anthropocene, arguing:
Cities are the ultimate manifestation of our species’ stamp on the planet and subjugation of nature. They are environments entirely shaped and created by humans to protect them from the natural world. But cities are also where humans most clearly define their relationship with nature, allowing select bits in and banishing others.
Vince writes that ‘specific elements found in the natural world, such as a mountaintop view, a lake and palm trees, have been cherry-picked and combined to provide an easy, entirely artificial landscape for the city’. It is not enough for human civilisation to alter the land in nature’s own territory, from agricultural lands to national parks; the city itself must become its own source of wilderness, where natural elements from flora to fauna are sourced, renovated, and put on display. When we look at these structures, what we are seeing is how the natural element is controlled and manipulated, leading to a counterfeit wilderness. In the vertical gardens, nature is predictable, appeasing, unthreatening—in contrast to the chaotic and unpredictable that nature so often is. We want all of the aesthetic, performative dimensions of nature without the difficult bits.
In Jurassic Park, author Michael Crichton argued that how we view nature often has little to do with its inherent behaviour: ‘[People] just chose plants for appearance, as they would choose a picture for the wall. It never occurred to them that plants were actually living things, busily performing all the living functions of respiration, ingestion, excretion, reproduction—and defence’. While green cities may be meticulously designed with an eye to mimic natural phenomena, the desire to make them aesthetically appealing attests to this tendency to beautify and specularise nature under the guise of sustainability.
The sustainability myth
Many critics point out that these ‘sustainable cities’ are not truly sustainable, citing, among other issues, the dubious sources of many of the ‘energy-efficient’ technologies on which these cities depend. John W. Day and Charles Hall warn that ‘many see urban living as the sustainable future for most of humankind in the twenty-first century. But there are serious issues for urban areas, especially very large ones in both the developed and developing world…’.
Firstly, they argue, ‘almost everything from building materials to artificial lighting to clothing to food that is used in a city is produced elsewhere, often at high energy costs’. Therefore, for instance, ‘when economists claim that the US economy as a whole has become less energy intense…part of what they are really saying is that energy-intensive and highly polluting industries such as aluminium and steel-making have been outsourced to regions and countries where labor is cheaper and environmental regulations are less stringent’. Our need for these products only increases over time, they argue, meaning that such products will continue to be shipped over significant distances, ‘and particularly…[to] densely populated urban areas with the sophisticated infrastructure of “The Efficient City”’.
The vision of many architects and designers of the green city also clashes with the existence of lower socio-economic groups, whose presence often seems to register as a blight on the utopian metropolitan fantasy. In an issue devoted to the future of the city, Scientific American featured a two-page spread on ‘The Efficient City’, including a picture of a ‘thoroughly modern high-density city with gleaming multistory buildings interspersed with (relatively small) green spaces and clean streets with little traffic, but the ‘city apparently doesn’t have poor people as there is nothing that looks like a low-rent district’. Indeed, this is one of the most neglected consequences of ‘greening’ cities: with the gentrification that green cities will inevitably promote, poorer people will be pushed to the outer suburbs (as often happens during Olympic Games construction), while the more affluent areas of a city will be ‘greenified’, if sterilised to accord with ‘green city’ concepts.
According to Ettore Maria Mazzola, the projects of Stefano Boeri are the epitome of this problem. Boeri’s verdant-looking Milano Polyclinic project, for instance, caters to the rich more than it embodies the idea of sustainability: ‘we should not be surprised that no one has noticed…that the “hospital” project includes a mega shopping center, to take care of the financial backers of the project, rather than the ill’. And what’s more, according to Mazzola, computer renderings of Boeri’s vertical gardens are much greener than the finished product, the plant life of which has turned grey: ‘There is no reason to worry either about keeping the plants alive and healthy looking, as they appear in computer renderings, they will just need an enormous amount [of] fertilizer’.
Mazzola argues that words such as ‘sustainable’, ‘urban renewal’, ‘bio’ and ‘eco’ rarely correspond to the truth of urban design, and are in fact a way for architects to manipulate conceptions of reality. ‘Since the early 20th century’, he argues, ‘the abuse of terminology in architecture was the key to manipulate reality’ so that ‘the consequence of the failure of the so-called “functional city” [of the mid-twentieth century] is that today people are looking for a “more sustainable” approach in urbanism, architecture, farming, etc’. While acknowledging the positive aspects of the desire for sustainable alternatives, Mazzola argues that the term ‘sustainable’ is not appropriate when applied to actual developments: ‘Many people think that when a building is equipped with the most advanced eco-energetic devices it should be considered sustainable, even though it stands in an unsustainable urban context’.
Another issue, he argues, is that this new green terminology obscures the conglomerates that operate behind the scenes: ‘It is enough to use the magical words “sustainable” and “urban renewal” and no one will ever judge… It is far more important to consider the giant companies and construction conglomerates’. Indeed, the green-city vision has become so attractive that ‘the subservient press and the new gurus will continue to speak of “sustainability”, praising architectural absurdities where free-climbers will be required to prune its impossible foliage’. It is likely that, as in Ballard’s High Rise, new hierarchies of power will emerge in the green city that perpetuate, if not deepen, existing inequalities.
While the efforts of these eco-architects may be motivated by an understandable desire to create de-urbanised, eco-friendly cities, such practices unwittingly culminate in de-naturalising nature, distorting the image we have of the natural world. A significant side effect of this project is that it has a tendency to trivialise nature by making the natural world appear to be subservient to our needs, if not benevolent and serene. As Claire Colebrook, Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller argue in Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols: ‘The planet does not need to be saved; it existed before organic life, and will go on to exist for some time (probably) well after humans and well after organisms’.
The very notion of a green city perpetuates an illusion of control over something that is at base difficult, if not uncontrollable, in its relation to the human. The idea of the green city, therefore, leads us not towards a fundamental nature but further from it, confusing the reality of nature with its curated, aesthetic form. As Graham Harman once put it: ‘nature is not natural and can never be naturalized’. Of this line of thinking, Brad Tabas proposes that ‘a deeper realism, then, is not to be accomplished by focusing on what we call nature, but may paradoxically be achieved by lifting our gaze above or beyond nature to the real’. It thus becomes vital, particularly in the age of climate change, that what we call nature is not confined to hanging gardens or pleasing metropolitan ‘green spaces’ but incorporates those elements of nature unable to be controlled: the floods, the fires and the storms that level buildings.
This approach to naturalising the urban world, or urbanising nature, has led thinkers to question the status of nature in an anthropocentric context. Slavoj Žižek makes the bold claim that ‘nature does not exist’, since it has now been repackaged as perfectly ‘harmonised’ and ‘balanced’. Green cities emphasise a harmonious balance between the natural and the wrought via the carefully constructed green space. But while architects and designers concentrate on ensuring that these green features effectively operate, everyday citizens are meant simply to enjoy the facade.
In this way, despite the strides made by eco-critics in reconceptualising the nature–culture binary, nature continues to be confused with scenery, and the more these buildings merge nature with metal, the more this view of harmonious nature will catch on—nature as malleable and attractive rather than inherently complex and potentially hostile. While Scott Hess cautions against emphasising sublime nature over what he calls ‘an everyday nature’, what we appear to covet now is an ‘everyday sublime’, beseeching the exotic wilderness to merge seamlessly with the cityscape so that it may be easily tamed.
The biophilic city
The current surge in ‘green buildings’ grows out of the solarpunk movement, whose vision promotes a nature interwoven through metallic cityscapes, endorsing a chimerical city that brings the best of nature to the city and gives the metropolis a green makeover. Solarpunks are much more optimistic (if not dangerously utopian) about the future than, say, cyberpunks. One of the aims of the solarpunk movement, it seems, is to keep the dystopian cityscapes of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element at bay. The worlds depicted in those films were unapologetic in their abandonment of wilderness in favour of unending metallic fortresses, bleak yet visually striking. In Cinema and Landscape, Christina Kennedy and colleagues write that The Fifth Element was ‘an extension of the stereotypical city of today: a thoroughly complex and artificial environment, that maybe even despite all of its problems, can be stunningly beautiful’. Both films feature characters cut off from nature, a feature that we, the audience, are to view with concern. An antidote to this abundance of steel is now given in the form of the ‘sustainable city’, or the ‘green city’, a hybrid creation that is meant to function as a well-oiled ecosystem.
Tim Beatley envisions what he calls ‘biophilic cities’, arguing that in the endeavour to green our cities, planners focus on everything but nature. His view emphasises nature: ‘Biophilic Cities acknowledge the importance of daily contact with nature as an element of a meaningful urban life, as well as the ethical responsibility that cities have to conserve global nature as shared habitat for non-human life and people’. Beatley’s sentiments carry a distinctly Romantic feel in their plea to humans to harness a ‘meaningful’ relationship with nature. He writes that because humans ‘coevolved with the natural world’, cities need to make room for green spaces and make daily interactions with nature possible, but while we may have coevolved with the natural world and other animals, that evolutionary trajectory has long since deviated into destruction and self-idolatry.
In fact, while we may have evolved in and with nature, we have long since created roots in the metropolis. The idealistic notion of cohabiting with animals within the city comes with its own set of restrictions that mirror the invisibility of the poor in the green city. Beautiful birds and rare butterflies are encouraged as desired wildlife in the biophilic city; in Singapore, otters have achieved an enviable place within the city as beloved creatures. As Beatley put it recently, ‘Contact with this highly charismatic species has other benefits for Singapore residents’; it provides ‘a portal for urbanites to connect with biodiversity and nature more broadly’.
But other animals will never be embraced as part of the fabric of the city. Rats, as Cameron McWhirter once wrote, are viewed as a ‘sinister force, gnawing at the foundations of human control’. Their historical affiliation with disease sets rats apart as undesirable animals that do not fit the utopian vision of the harmonious, hybrid city of controlled biodiversity. Boris Palameta also points out that the act of ‘reshaping nature to suit ourselves’ has culminated in a fractious relationship between humans and pigeons. Meanwhile, Michael Dulaney has written of Sydneysiders’ frustrations with ibises, colloquially known as ‘bin chickens’, which have taken up residence in the city in the last two decades and can often be found darting through traffic as they ferret through rubbish bins for food. Human colonisation of wetlands and marshes has led to the loss of ibis habitat, forcing these ‘bin chickens’ to move to the city. ‘Viewed this way’, Dulaney says, ‘ibises are climate refugees’.
As a feature of the biodiversity dream, animals are courted for our well-being and for how they might add scenically to city life, but only so long as those animals are appealing, do not disrupt human lives, and serve the city’s, which is to say humans’, interests. However many ‘charismatic’ animals we entice to the city and however many green spaces we construct, biodiversity is celebrated only so long as humans are able to exercise control, suggesting that sustainability is perhaps just another sign of human dominance. As Dulaney puts it, ‘as we speed further into the Anthropocene, an epoch of human-induced global catastrophe, the horizon of possible futures for all species narrows to the fate of just one’.
Gaia Vince also observes that the influx of animals into cities again confirms animals’ reliance on humans. After human destruction of large tracts and varied types of native habitats, many animals have been forced to adapt to the city. Although urban planners have started to encourage biodiversity, it is disturbing that the underlying message may be that animals cannot take care of themselves—that humans are the necessary guardians of nature.
Getting back to nature the city
The perseverance of Romantic attitudes about nature as a psychological and aesthetic resource to be mined for its beauty and harnessed to our ‘wellness’ puts society and designers in an almost impossible situation. How can we realistically foster an urban environment that does not exclude the poor? How might we re-examine the aesthetic priorities that currently shape our cities? How might so-called ‘undesirable’ wildlife be given a place? How might the goal of ‘sustainability’ in the developed world attend in truth to how we outsource our polluting industries to other countries? How might we break with trivialising concepts of nature and develop more embracing notions of cities in their relation to their hinterlands and our multifaceted relations with nature?
Future generations growing up in privileged ‘green cities’ might very well succumb to the illusion of nature as a scenic resource, as perfectly harmonious and technically controllable, believing that the processes of nature may occur organically within cities, as if we do not live in contradictory and complex relations with them. Green cities may play a role in undertaking some agricultural tasks, and in remediating some natural processes presently under threat, such as in urban beekeeping (with urban apiaries said to produce healthier bees than apiaries in the country) and city farms. Yet discussion around such ventures surely must also ask why previously naturally occurring phenomena need be rerouted to the city, or why naturally occurring processes have broken down.
However much they appear to differ, green cities and deforestation share much the same view of nature—as a resource for humans, with green-city architects using plants to negate the disastrous levels of pollution we have produced, ignoring the fact that it is not a plant’s job to absorb these harmful pollutants. Even if trees are adept at absorbing pollution, ancient woodlands did not grow in anticipation of carbon emissions, and we should not see plant life as an instrument in this way.
‘Greening our cities’ is a move that whets our appetite for a cosmopolitan wilderness. But such a desire undermines the very notion of nature, promoting an ideal nature that is curated according to our tastes, a nature that is subservient to the ‘pressures of spectacle’, as Rob Nixon puts it. The difference between our treatment of nature now, as opposed to at the height of colonisation, is that we approach nature with an eye to conservation that often, ironically, ends up bolstering human sovereignty, as we monitor and control wildlife under the guise of seeking to save endangered wildernesses.
The flawed philosophy of the green city shows us that the Western world cannot forfeit the cultural performance of nature, and cannot disentangle itself from the nature–culture dualism. As Krystal Yhap and Rebecca Wenker controversially put it, ‘You cannot get to the natural world without going through culture’. But where such thinking is expressed in the green city idea, where nature is engineered as spectacle and we are reminded in the city’s very architectural fabric of humanity’s power over it, any sense of the real, of an other nature is lost. In this age of anthroposcenery, whatever is left of nature outside what is made available via the present hyper-technological mindset remains largely inaccessible to us. What is clear is that in our negotiations with the nature–culture dualism, we must acknowledge the limit to which culture can undertake nature’s role without abandoning nature completely.