Cities and more-than-human thinking

This post was written by Justin Westgate and originally appeared on his personal blog.

I attended an interesting presentation by Gehl Architects last week. Wollongong City Council has approached Gehl to consult on helping to make the city centre more vibrant and liveable for people.

Gehl’s approach to town planning is a human-centered one – they focus on the the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life, carrying out empirical research to help make better decisions about how to design – or redesign – urban spaces. Their most visible work is perhaps that inCopenhagen, using it as a ‘living laboratory’ choreographing the extraction of cars from the city and the development of alternate mobilites – cycling, walking and public transport – and ways of making the city a more people-friendly space. But they also work in cities around the globe.

There were a mix of reactions to the ideas presented at the talk. Some were supportive of new approaches to revitalise the city centre. Others – perhaps unsurprisingly if you understand Australia’s car culture – interpreted the discussion as primarily an anti-car drive. One audience member summed up this anxiety by asking: ‘So where will I park my car then, and how much will it cost?’ – and this reactionary response has continued in the local media (read the comments below the article). There’s also a sense of ‘experts’ from overseas coming in and telling ‘us’ what to do without understanding local culture. Of course this misses the point that the consultative role of Gehl initially is to help  the council undertake local social research to better understand the people dynamics of the city – which would appear also to include some sense of public engagement – before developing plans or taking action.

My own reactions are also mixed but for different reasons. I’ve been living in Wollongong for almost a year now (and I’ve lived in a number of different cities around the world). That’s not a long amount of time but certainly enough to get a ‘sense’ of the city, and enough to support a rethink of the city’s dynamic potential. I’m also supportive of alternative and more sustainable forms of mobility. I’m a cyclist – this is my main mode of transportation – and I’ve worked on projects promoting sustainable transport – so I’m already sold on thinking that works at smaller, more human scales for a number of reasons: sustainability, community, health, local economy, etc. Understanding the dynamics and nuance of these is not always obvious or easy – and of course politics – local, national and cultural – muddies waters.

My other reaction – and this is related to my current research – is that this kind of human-scale design doesn’t go far enough. While I’m not an architect or town planner I am a designer, and while a human-centered methodology has become somewhat de rigour within current design its outcomes are inherently biased. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are some really good things that have come out of this approach, but we need to remember that the world in constituted by more than just humans. Current debates in social thought question the supremacy of ‘the human’ as both a focus for investigation, and as agent in the world. ‘More-than-human’ thinking, through the work of academics such as Kay Anderson, Tim Cresswell and Jane Bennett for example, argues for a decentering of the human. ‘Man’ is more than just a human animal, and while we’ve come to think of humans – and culture – as separate from nature, the reality is we are inherently entangled with and within it – from the bacteria in our gut, the animals with live ‘with’, seemingly inanimate matter or objects, to geologic forces. It is also argued that humans have become a force of nature in our own right. We have been impacting the earth’s natural systems at a global scale for some time now and are beginning to experience the consequences of our actions: climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, ecosystem collapse. This era of human impact has a name – the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is not just a name but a concept that, if we take seriously, provokes us to rethink our relationship with nature. This relationship is more complex and nuanced than we might think – or might want to admit. Cities can be seen as sites of focused human culture, but are also more than simply buildings and people – there is much more going on – and, of course, they have become sites of increasing activity. They have grown in number and size over the last century and will continue to grow, and to house even more of the total of humanity. There is emerging research which works to understand the city as assemblage – that is as a mix of spatially entangled bodies, agents, materials, cultures, qualities and more. Analysis is one thing, the next step is to consider how we might ‘design with‘ these qualities in mind – the more-than-human. How might humans take into account the forces that surround us, both big and small, and consciously design with these? This is not a small task. But if we are to respond effectively to this challenge and devise ways of living together – with each other and the other life and forces that sustain us on this planet – then we have some work to do.

The University of Wollongong’s own Australian Center for Cultural and Environmental Research has colleagues undertaking research in this vein, making their own contributions to more-than-human research. It’s a stimulating environment to be situated within.

But back to cities – because I’ve got a bit sidetracked. I’m certainly not an expert in designing them, I just happen to have some experience living in them, as well a vested interest in the city I currently call home. Hats off to Wollongong City Council for initiating a process to rethink the dynamics of the city. I hope this revitalisation has knock-on effects in considering how urban spaces can be more vibrant and liveable not only for humans but all life that calls Wollongong home.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @justin_westgate. His last post for Conversations with AUSCCER was ‘IAG 2013 – an invaluable experience‘.

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