Naturing the City: Anthropocentrism in Urban Ecology

While urban planning and design practices are increasingly adopting ecology into their frameworks, our understanding of nature’s value to the city remains highly anthropocentric, focusing on the economic and psychological value of contact with nature. While greater appreciation for nature among city dwellers (and humans in general) is essential to promoting conservation and reintroducing nature to city, there remains a risk that the role of nature could become restricted by this anthropocentric approach. For instance, nature as a resilience tool may simply help sustain the systems we have in place, however harmful or unsustainable they may be. In the case of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, which I introduced briefly two weeks ago in the post “Renaturing the City: A First Glance,” the park may improve the city’s ability to recover from hurricanes, but also allows an unsustainable and environmentally harmful urban system to survive unchallenged. To the extent that the park protects the city’s most vulnerable populations and helps the city save money, this is certainly a good thing. However, the park also protects some of the infrastructure that is responsible for climate change-causing emissions in the first place, such as Houston’s overruling highway system.
As tragic and costly as disasters are, they also offer cities the opportunity to rethink their identity and rebuild with a refreshed set of priorities in mind. A city like Houston may be more resilient, thanks to Buffalo Bayou Park, but how can it become more sustainable without any real impetus to change something as significant as its transportation infrastructure? Of course, this is not to beckon a hurricane in Houston’s direction, but rather to indicate an important distinction between sustainability and resilience. If we simply ensure that our highly polluting, unsustainable cities can recover from disasters more quickly, then we have only addressed half the problem of climate adaptation. Furthermore, it perpetuates the myth that new design strategies and technology are sufficient problem solvers and thus render deeper, systemic change unnecessary.
This myth of sustained, or sustainable, development appears to be derived from a Western capitalist understanding of urban planning and its relationship to ecology. While we have established that high levels of biodiversity and complexity are important components of a resilient ecosystem- urban or otherwise- recent adoptions of Western eco-city principles have failed to deliver a significant level of biodiversity. Ying Li and Ian Mell report their findings on this phenomenon in their chapter “Understanding Landscape: Cultural Perceptions of Environment in the UK and China” for the 2019 book Planning Cities with Nature. Li and Mell focus on the rise of Chinese eco-cities, an idea which emerged in response to the nation’s rapid development along with an emerging concern at the national level with urban ecology (Li and Mell, 10).
 These eco-cities aim to integrate nature into the city in order to maintain “ecological functions” as well as provide residents access to nature (Li and Mell, 10-11). The authors contrast the eco-city approach, which is Western in origin, with Chinese philosophical ideas of nature, which tend to be more holistic (Li and Mell, 7). Li and Mell’s work finds that Western ideas of urban ecology, represented in the eco-city trend, rely more on “design labels” than using nature as a “theoretical underpinning (Li and Mell, 11). While the authors’ analysis perhaps relies on an element of Chinese philosophy that is becoming less culturally central due to rapid Westernization, it is still significant to understand how a limited, Western idea of nature may inhibit our ability to effectively and meaningfully integrate nature into emerging urban forms.
On a more micro scale than urban infrastructure, other approaches to renaturing the city focus on promoting deeper human connections between human and the natural world. Many of these efforts focus on fostering a greater appreciation for a particular species of animal, following the approach that used polar bears as an early symbol of the climate crisis. This direction makes sense, as humans might more readily empathize with an animal than, say, a particular type of tree that is also under threat. Often, projects aiming to connect people with their non-human neighbors employ technology and education to develop this relationship. For instance, in his 2018 book Blue Biophilic Cities: Nature and Resilience Along the Urban Coast, Timothy Beatley describes projects which aim to demonstrate to coastal urban residents the wealth of biodiversity hiding below the ocean’s surface. These approaches aim to show people what is in “their own backyard,” with the hope that heightened awareness can develop a greater appreciation for the natural world and how humans affect local species and ecosystems. In one example, Beatley describes the nonprofit Ocearch, which tags sharks and allows their migration patterns and live events- such as mating, births, and deaths- to be tracked digitally. The sharks’ activities are conveyed through Twitter, so users can tweet personal messages to a particular shark and thus feel more in touch with them (Beatley, 60). In another example, a nonprofit in Oregon called Harbor WildWatch hosts events called Pier into the Night, in which the nonprofit invites visitors to watch videos recorded by volunteer divers earlier that same day (Beatley, 68). Naturalists provide narration during the event, describing the species being shown on the screen to attendees.
Digital tools have proven useful to building connections between humans and their animal neighbors in a wide range of contexts, including the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. In Christian Hunold’s paper “Why Not the City? Urban Hawk Watching and the End of Nature,” Hunold describes the online community of urban hawk watchers that emerged from enthusiasm over a red-tailed hawk nest located on a ledge on the fa├žade of the Franklin Institute. The science museum installed a camera near the nest in order to live-stream the hawks’ activities, and soon a Facebook group and blog emerged that discussed developments in the birds’ lives, which included the death of a father hawk (tiercel), the adoption of a new partner by the mother hawk (formel), and two fledgling deaths resulting from the young birds’ collisions with a nearby window. After the two fledgling deaths, which occurred during the same summer, impassioned hawk watchers wrote to the Moore College of Art & Design, whose window both fledglings had collided with (Hunold, 125-7). As a result of the hawk fans’ efforts, the College hung colorful banners in front of the windows in order to prevent any more accidents. Digital tools, in this case a live-stream camera and social media, were able to foster greater human connection to the hawks, which then provided sufficient impetus to affect change that would encourage the survival of the species in their home environment of Philadelphia. 
In the movement to incorporate nature into the city, human empathy for the flora and fauna of local ecosystems is essential to garnering social and political support for renaturing efforts. As evidenced in the cases described here, digital tools and public education efforts have proven valuable in connecting humans more directly with neighboring species, which can result in positive change in support of more ecologically sensitive planning practices. However, how might we be limited by the way connections to nature are facilitated by some element of palatability? Resilient ecosystems require high levels of biodiversity and complexity, meaning that being too selective with what species and design tools to include in our idea of “urban ecology” can be detrimental to larger goals of resilience and sustainability.

Orange trees in Plaza Virgen de Los Reyes, Seville.
Works Cited
Beatley, Timothy. Blue Biophilic Cities: Nature and Resilience Along the Urban Coast. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Hunold, Christian. “Why Not the City? Urban Hawk Watching and the End of Nature,” Nature and Culture, 12.2, 2017.

Li, Ying and Mell, Ian. “Understanding Landscape: Cultural Perceptions of Environment in the UK and China,” Planning Cities with Nature: Theories, Strategies, and Methods. Eds. De Olivera, Fabiano Lemes and Mell, Ian. Springer, 2019.