Urbanophilia and the End of Misanthropy: Cities Are Nature

Mary Rowe, Toronto. 
27 February 2013

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Jane Jacobs titled her sixth book The Nature of Economies (Random House, 2000). In the Foreword she makes explicit her intent:

“The theme running through this exposition  indeed, the basic premise on which the book is constructed  is that human beings exist wholly within nature as a legitimate part of natural order in every respect. To accept this unity seems to be difficult for ecologists, who assume –– as many do, in understandable anger and despair  that the human species is an interloper in the natural order of things. Neither is this unity easily accepted by economists, industrialists, politicians, and others who assume  as many do, taking understandable pride in human achievements — that reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order”. Foreword, The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs

Jacobs then proceeds to describe how economic development follows a set of patterns that mimic the patterns of a natural ecology: differentiations emerging from generalities, which in turn produce more differentiations, and the process of co-development. The Nature of Economies followed on the heels of Jacobs’ previous books — beginning with the ever-classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), through two other economics volumes: The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985).

Although her first book (Death and Life…) seems to be the better known in the US, these subsequent ones lay out in provocative detail a way of seeing cities and their economies — and the people who inhabit and participate in them — as a totally integrated part of nature. Her book plays with this double meaning — describing for us the character (nature) of economies while at the same time binding human settlements to nature. I have understood the intent of The Nature of Cities blog to be the same: to provide narratives of how nature resides in the city, but also as a lens into our understanding the composition of the city as natural.

However, the demonization of cities, juxtaposed as it has been against an idealized rural or pastoral landscape, is such a hard meme to break, so often reinforced through popular culture. Television, movies, and literature generally depict the city as the embodiment of crime, trouble, evil, while promoting a sentimental and nostalgic view of small town or rural life. This, then, gets concretized in policy discussions at every level. Density is feared: leading to crime! Over crowding! Higher incidences of HIV transmission! Homelessness! I participated in a meeting last week in Geneva, hosted by several UN agencies and attended by civil society organizations drawn from the global north and south. As part of a larger preparation to review progress towards achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (which expire in 2015), I found myself in lonely company advocating for the benefits of cities and the promise of urbanization to improve societal outcomes.

How entrenched our belief systems are: that cities need to by fixed, altered, rescued. (Even UN Habitat’s current campaign to link practitioners around the world doing innovative city building, of which MAS, my employer, is an international partner, chose “I am City Changer” reinforcing the notion that cities need changing …).

Once you start watching for it you spot a latent misanthropy in almost every domain. The community development work in North America and Europe over the last six decades has only reinforced this, rallying efforts to “re- store/mediate/vitalize cities”.

To what? Their more ‘natural’ state?

Image by Mary Rowe

Fortunately, the life sciences have indeed come to our rescue, over time out-jockeying the mechanistic, linear-ists, persuading us in many aspects of living to look at what is generative, organic, connected to the whole. Jane Jacobs observed city life as inter-connected with the natural and built environments, and her ideas have prompted a contemporary approach to urbanism that integrates uses and users, green architecture and design, local economies (even currencies!), adaptive reuses, and ecological infrastructures. These reflect Jacobs’ recognition that cities — when permitted to — evolve naturally, adding form and function as needed. Jacobs’ method was a simple scientific one: to observe the particular, and extract from it her observations about how cities actually work. She was allergic to ideology, knowing that the complexity of relationships and occurrences in cities most often would produce surprising results that no abstract theory (or its adherents) could predict (or control).

Cities are full of exception, occurrences of serendipity and delight, of innovation and thrift, where someone has tinkered or improvised or been resourceful or imaginative. Good public policy and programs enable the city to make this possible for people. But well intentioned (and some not so) policies inhibit this natural process of city development. Jacobs was notorious in her calling out of large-scale efforts to ‘improve’ the city, seeing them as arbitrary mechanisms to ‘control’ — when in fact what she saw was needed was support for the natural processes that were always occurring in cities, but too often stifled by a number of public and private forces.

Self-organization: the livability of the city

Jacobs observed in the city people’s desire, and capacity if enabled, to self-organize: a concept with which ecologists and technologists are most familiar.

[For an elegantly clear synopsis of Jacob’s ideas on self-organization and how they connect to other natural and manufactured manifestations of it, please read Stephen Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001).]

WebAs suggested above, the capacity for self-organization is a critical attribute of city life. If it’s compromised, so is the healthy functioning of the city. Self-organization occurs at every level of city life: within households, city blocks, neighborhoods, districts, the city and region. Walking groups, street vendors, business improvement groups, neighborhood watch initiatives, buying clubs, co-locations for the self-employed, street fairs, affinity groups of all kinds: the desire for city dwellers to make connections with others is what ensures a city is productive and vital: livable. Cities are not an artificial construct (at least the most successful ones aren’t). They are creatures of the living: created by people seeking to organize their lives in ways that sustain and nurture. The dynamism that self-organization delivers, is what we call livability.

Cities in fact are a living unit themselves, ebbing and flowing with the increasingly global tides of commerce and politics, ingenuity and will. Bees make their own hives and ants their own hills, created as part of the larger ecosystems in which they thrive. Surely cities are Homo sapiens’ greatest creation, similarly embedded in a larger web of connection to the assets and resources that surround them.

Systems of connection: an urban ecology

The webs of connection in a city are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. They enable flows, of people, material, energy, waste. Some formalize, some remain ad-hoc. Every city has these, some are more challenged than others in making these channels of connection work effectively, These systems of capital are what fuel the city. In turn they interweave, or ‘nest’, forming an urban ecology.

[For a full and lively description of the vitality of cities, please see Roberta Brandes Gratz’s The Living City: How America’s Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994). Gratz is also the co-founder with Stephen Goldsmith of the Center for the Living City, an organization founded on the principles of Jane Jacobs.]

Image by Mary Rowe

Increasingly in the imaginative, innovative pockets of city-building there is a recognition that small, seemingly modest local initiatives aggregate up into a whole that makes a city not only more livable, but are also critical contributors to a city’s resilience. These are the two sides of the self-organization coin: a city’s capacity to meet the needs and aspirations of its dwellers (livability) and to productively adapt to diverse challenges and opportunities over time (resilient).

A resilient city has the capacity to swiftly adapt to change and capitalize on opportunity. Although more recently associated principally with climate change adaptation, resilience is a term with resonance across multiple domains (e.g. psychology, biology, engineering sciences, business continuity, community development). Inherent to urban resilience is an integrated, holistic understanding of the connectivity and interdependence of the physical, social, environmental and cultural assets and systems of a city.

The Stockholm-based Resilience Alliance has created this graphic (an instrumental version of my ‘systems of capital’ above) to illustrate these interconnections.

Image by The Resilience Center.

Any city needs resilience-building strategies that protect it — its neighborhoods, housing, institutions, commercial life, open spaces, cultural assets, and its systems that provide food, transport, health, and protection — from the widest range of risks and challenges.

System-wide investments are crucial, but they need to be underpinned by granular strategies that enable self-organization: where neighborhoods, sectors, institutions are empowered by city dwellers who foster resilience in their homes, workplaces, and places of worship, learning and leisure. Resilience is not a household word (yet), remaining for most an abstract concept confined to engineering schools, scientists, and psychologists.

On the other hand, the concept of urban livability — what a city provides its dwellers to make their lives safe, healthy and meaningful — is a term that resonates with most. Marrying the concepts may be a ‘no-brainer’ to some of us, but certainly decisions that dramatically affect our city life are still most often taken in isolation: public housing is sited where land is cheap but services are costly to deliver (and therefore inadequately delivered); zoning changes incentivize profitable development but crowds out the legion of smaller enterprises that make a neighborhood vital and diverse; public investments in open space, parks, and libraries are cut back, denying the multiple social, economic/environmental benefits these community amenities can potentially deliver to their neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

It may be now that a ‘resilience imperative’, ushered in by more recent severe weather events, will make more urgent the need for public and private investments that boost local resilience, and simultaneously, one would hope, livability.

A livable and resilient city

My city, New York, is arguably one of the world’s most livable ‘global cities’ — absorbing continuous population growth and providing opportunities for immigrants, an international center of knowledge and wealth creation and innovation, a cultural mecca of diversity provided formally through a wide array of institutions and informally on every corner, and with a mix of amenities and attributes that makes for many New Yorkers a daily routine that is productive and enjoyable.

But there are persistent challenges that inhibit this city: areas of concentrated poverty, limited housing choices, land use development pressures that threaten the existing vibrancy of their neighborhoods, and the chronic need for more investment in infrastructures of all kinds, made all the more prescient by the storm events from which we continue to recover. These challenges are common to cities of the size and intensity of New York. The plethora of livability indexes popularized through niche media (Monocle) or global accountancy firms (Mercer) and routinely rank ‘global’ cities like New York, London, Hong Kong and Mumbai very low down the list, providing little guidance or useful measures for improvement for cities as vast and complex as the world’s largest and most productive.

In fact, on-the-ground practitioners connect every day with the physical city: entrepreneurs, activists, designers and planners, artists- and know that city-building is not a zero-sum game. And civil society movements — originating in cities — make clear these win-win opportunities: ‘creative place-making’, ‘localism’, ‘shared streets’, ‘universal design’ are each about mobilizing local assets to generate livability and resilience benefits.

Our largest and most intense cities, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere, are facing increasing challenges placed on them by growing populations, resource demands, aging infrastructures, resource scarcity, and economic downturns or uncertainty. They are also home to remarkable social innovators, designers, entrepreneurs and artists, energized by city life and constantly improvising ways to make life in the city meaningful, just, and productive. These new approaches are most often hyper-local, starting modestly but generating results that could easily be scaled up to have greater impact.

We have much to learn about effective approaches to building city resilience and livability. Whereas New Yorkers may envy the spectacular adaptive reuse examples of London, Hong Kong looks to us for lessons in integrating historic preservation into its land use and economic development strategies. Similarly, what do the informal economies and public markets of Mumbai have to teach other city building practitioners about how cities can foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem? And what about the network of social innovation entrepreneurs tackling urban design challenges in Bandung and Rio?

Beginning in 2011 the organization for which I work, the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) — a century-old advocacy organization concerned with the relationship between the city’s built form assets and its people — began reaching out to urban innovators: artists, designers, planners, teachers, and entrepreneurs living in other global cities to share approaches, and discuss disruptive innovations that are making their cities more livable and resilient. This initiative is based on a theory of change that urban innovation is fostered locally and then scaled up, and continuously adapted to changing conditions, with the support of enabling public policy and investment.

Our most effective instruments of livability and resilience scale in both directions: for instance, community gardens and naturalized spaces could hold storm water, grow and distribute food, show art, mitigate urban heat island effect, host Tai Chi and/or a FEMA trailer, dispense flu shots, provide local respite places, show movies, offer wi-fi hot spots or charging stations, display locally created maps or evacuation instructions from the City, provide a pop up space for the branch library These approaches contribute to the livability and resilience of the city.

Connecting cities with cities: growing the urban ecology 

The world’s global cities make possible the peer-to-peer trading that fuels the global economy, which is fundamentally urban, facilitating connection between entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and consumers. Nowhere is social media more robust than in the global cities of the world, and speaks to the appetite of urbanists to learn from each other. Aggregating those examples necessitates creating platforms to connect and nurture the global urban resilience ecosystem of practitioners.

Similarly, a network creates a platform for the exchange of practices to improve the livability and resilience outcomes of their cities, and in the aggregate, over half of the world’s population who live in the global city. It provides a unique learning and advocacy platform for the best in city-building practice, across sectors and disciplines, to spread the social innovations that potentially affect hundreds of millions of lives, and the natural ecosystems that support them. The value proposition of this initiative is that it is grounded in the practical: with an explicit commitment to link, across sectors and disciplines, with practitioners actively contributing to outcomes at the most local level.

An initial meeting of this Global Network was convened by the Municipal Art Society of New York and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, with founding participants who are engaged in resilience and livability initiatives from two dozen cities around the world. The common finding from this group was the need to develop a ‘new paradigm’ that embraced the physical and aspirational nature of cities — see the draft paradigm below — and was relevant to cities in both the northern and southern hemispheres. What has emerged is a pattern of understanding the city as a living system, providing its citizens with opportunities and access, prosperity and dignity, protection and choice, and systems of engagement and governance that maximize livability and resilience. With a common framework, this initiative is now cross-pollinating innovations between city builders, strengthening the connective tissue within cities and between them.

Our next step is to create a digital learning platform, where we can, as Jacobsean urbanists, observe in our own cities and others, how livability and resilience are being ‘home grown’ and connected up, to strengthen the ecosystem in which the nature of cities, of the world, resides.

Mary Rowe
New York City

The Livability+Resilience paradigm, created at the MAS-sponsored Bellagio conference.
The Livability+Resilience paradigm, created at the MAS-initiated and Rockefeller Foundation-supported Bellagio conference
Mary Rowe

About the Writer:
Mary Rowe

Mary W. Rowe is an urbanist and civic entrepreneur. She currently lives in Toronto, Canada, the traditional territories of the Anishinabewaki, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosauneega Confederacy, and works with government, business and civil society organizations to strengthen the economic, social, cultural and environmental resilience of the city and its neighborhoods.

Mary Rowe

Mary Rowe

A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, Mary is an impassioned leader with diverse experience in the business, government, not-for-profit and philanthropy sectors. Over 30 years, Mary has been a steady advocate and champion for community-based approaches to building livable and resilient cities, and their importance to the economic, social, cultural and environmental future of society. She has led campaigns, organizations, initiatives, and companies spanning a few months to several years. A resourceful entrepreneur, dynamic personality, and very convincing communicator—Mary is a sought-after project leader and most recently was chosen as one of 300 for 300: an honour roll of individuals selected over three centuries for their unique contribution to the City of New Orleans. Mary has led national and international urban initiatives from both Toronto and New York City, and currently is Senior Advisor to Evergreen (https://www.evergreen.ca/and Future Cities Canada (https://futurecitiescanada.ca/), the Urban Project (https://theurbanproject.ca/), and is a Senior Fellow with Shorefast (https://www.shorefast.org/) a foundation focused on reconnecting local economies with the communities in which they are placed.

5 thoughts on “Urbanophilia and the End of Misanthropy: Cities Are Nature

  1. Hi Clark and thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think we’re actually
    on the same page. My point is that cities are natural in that they have
    the capacity to self-organize and course correct, as you suggest natural
    systems do. But we set up all sorts of obstacles to that natural process
    – arbitrary rules, overly proscriptive regulations that stifle
    experimenting to make things work better. I very much appreciate your
    comment about waste, and how natural systems incorporate waste and
    economically recycle/reuse it. I think, when enabled, cities can do the
    same thing. The new ‘sharing economy’ is doing just that: looking at what
    I call ‘slack’ in urban systems, that can be (re) deployed in smart ways.
    So: extra bedrooms shared through airbnb, tool sharing, community
    gardening, mixed-use 24/7 complexes that provide one kind of use/service
    at one point and another at a different time of day etc. A few years ago
    there was a study done here in New York City called Picture the Homeless,
    and it looked at all the vacant second floors etc. in commercial districts
    here and what would happen if the zoning restrictions were changed, and
    new incentives explored for building owners to open that up to housing.
    (a kind of airbnb for commercial space) and that was a terrific example of
    spotting some ‘waste’ – an underused resource that could be redeployed in
    a more economical way. Similarly, import replacement strategies are an
    extension of this approach- introduced by Jacobs – where you look at what
    feedstocks you may be importing but could source something equally
    effective (or more) and cheaper to meet your needs. Very much in sync with
    your natural system observations. Cities are about constant improvisation,
    don’t you think? And that capacity of the city to improvise is enhanced by
    some limits/constraints — which exist in natural systems – but we’ve
    artificially insulated ourselves from that in US cities certainly,
    thinking we could let cities be limitless. But, in fact, not the case. So
    a very simple way to reflect your perspective is to pay attention to where
    is the waste, where do we need more (better) feedback loops to help guide
    city development? The local economy movement (see the New Economics
    Foundation report ‘Plugging the Leaks’) also gets at this. Thanks very
    much for your thoughtful comments here.

  2. “I think we are using the wrong definitions of what is Nature”. One of the main unrecognized characteristics of Nature is that it produces no garbage! Until our cities are a balanced eco-sphere which actually contribute to supporting Nature and produce no garbage. Isn’t every other discussion lowering our standards and using incorrect logical. As much as some of this make sense. It does not pass my personal test. It article is well meaning and useful on certain levels but it also, in my opinion, falls short of the real comparison. Call me idealistic if you will but the standards of comparison we use do govern what results we get. Livability and sustainability are great standards and better than the current status quo. In fact I participate in my local transition town efforts where I live because sustainable and natural self organizing systems are a very important step on the way to healthier cities/communities. But let’s not deceive ourselves on the way that sustainable and resilience are the endpoints we use to compare ourselves to Nature. My intent is not to be overly critical of this article but Instead to point out a next conversation beyond this one. This article points out a critical step for the evolution of our communities. Until we reach a certain level of public acceptance the next conversation on no garbage can not be realized. I bring up this pint for forward looking thinkers to begin to think dream and plan for while we are building the base of resilient, sustainable strong enough to support the next evolution beyond the picture painted here.
    I am bothered by logic which asserts that because certain characteristics of of a city are Nature like and even mimic Nature that it qualifies a city to be Natural. If I got the thrust of the book wrong I apologize. But to say cities do not need to change is to accept that we can not do better, right? There is are reasons the meme of back to Nature is hared to break. It’s because 1) the benefits of cities are not equal to benefits of Nature (different but not equal) and 2) cities do not produce greater heath results.
    A last point is another standard to measure against is that real Nature has the ability to heal itself and others. I don’t see out cities producing more healing and health than the damage they do. For instance ADD ADHD and autistic children have their symptoms reduce just by going for a walk in Nature but none change when going for a walk in the city. I did not say CURE. Just healing. When cities producer the same results that is the goal and standard we should measure our communities against. Would you disagree? Or advise otherwise? Am I off track? Is my vision missing the mark? Have I failed to understand something?

    Clark Mumaw
    Middlebury, Indiana
    [email protected]

  3. Hi Justin. Your point is surely more about the tragedy and awfulness of cancer, rather than suggesting any parallel to the nature of cities? Your comment reflects this vestigial instinct many of us harbor: that cities, unbridled, will just keep growing, invading verdant pastures: the ‘pathologizing’ of cities I detailed above and which I still see sinisterly entering the discourse. I just returned from a consultation in Dhaka, Bangladesh where several UN agencies, including UN Habitat, convened with stakeholders from around the world to consider new directions for the next round of Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. With reps from countries that are home to multiple megacities that each year receive migrants in the hundreds of thousands , settling in slums where their basic needs have to be improvised on a daily basis, my proposition that cities-are-the-answer-not-the-enemy was a somewhat lonely one. But in that context, in Dhaka even, the worlds densest and fastest growing megacity, there was the growing, albeit grudging acknowledgement that cities are where hope resides. That the proximity of urban life holds the promise of cheaper provision and better access to services, reduced per capita emissions, stronger social networks to support social and economic innovations, and a culture of interdependency and collaborations-of-necessity. [See this week’s copy of The Economist: the lead story is a cautious piece about ‘The Sharing Economy’]. I even think there is some movement in the global advocacy community focused on individual rights: that there is greater potential for their protection in dense, well-managed city life, than in isolated, unproductive rural environments.

    Within nature are all sorts of aberrations, predators, toxicity, and invasive species. in Ontario where I was born there was a period of time where a reedy plant called purple loosestrife was taking over inland marshes and wetlands, crowding out diversity and threatening the health of those small but interconnected ecosystems. (I’m not sure how that has all panned out: maybe someone familiar with southern Ontario biodiversity challenges can fill us in). But I am reminded of that image when I see yet another downtown street corner here in New York with a bank and a drug store: B’s and D’s have become the purple loosestrife of lower Manhattan, eliminating any diversity from our street corners and dampening the vibrancy of our shared street and sidewalk life. More’s the pity. (I fear this has scaled up to affect city neighborhoods and districts, as the seemingly unbridled development – which economic development professionals covet – of universities and hospitals, aka Eds and Meds, in cities certainly across North America. )

    Are B’s and D’s and Ed’s and Med’s the cancers threatening healthy, diverse neighborhood life? Just as suburban sprawl takes valuable agricultural land out of production, ‘paving paradise’ to bring us personal swimming pools and yet another Best Buy and Applebees, we need checks and balances that provide course correction for our urban ecosystems. We need city zoning and other regulatory frameworks that may include financial incentives and tax structures that support diverse uses and users, to prevent predatory mono-cultures, cancers, of any kind forming up. Community innovators in fast growing cities are constantly improvising ways to guide growth, enabling healthy, generative forms of ‘connective tissue’ to form up and build the resilience of the system.

    Maybe what I am more precisely arguing is that cities are profoundly natural; not to be fought but embraced, harnessed, nurtured, cultivated. Cancer may be found in nature, but is not natural: its an aberration. My observation of people, and people in their cities, leaves me fundamentally hopeful. Both cancer and cities are seemingly intractably with us, but the cure for the former will no doubt be discovered, eventually, in one of the latter.

  4. You are correct. Cities are indeed natural phenomena. Sadly, so is cancer.

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