The city is a lie that we tell ourselves. The crux of this lie is that we can separate human life from the environment, using concrete, glass, steel, maps, planning and infrastructure to forge a space apart. Disease, dirt, wild animals, wilderness, farmland and countryside are all imagined to be essentially outside, forbidden and excluded. This idea is maintained through the hiding of infrastructure, the zoning of space, the burying of rivers, the visualisation of new urban possibilities, even the stories we tell about cities. Whenever the outside pierces the city, the lie is exposed. When we see the environment reassert itself, the scales fall from our eyes.
Of course, cities are physically identifiable sites that are often clearly separated from the space around them. They might be surrounded by walls that define their limits, or green belts in which building is prohibited or heavily controlled. Even when large suburban districts surround the city, these often have separate governance systems. Nonetheless, all cities depend on a much wider territory beyond these boundary markers. Some or all of the following need to be brought in from outside to support an urban centre: food, water, building materials (wood, stone etc), workers, traders and their goods, raw production materials (wool, cotton etc), energy (in the form of material to be consumed, such as oil or coal, or on cables connected to a production centre such as a power plant or wind farm). This is the case irrespective of whether the city concerned has a clear physical edge or not.
Much debate about cities, at least in English-speaking cultures, reproduces the confrontations between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the mid-20th century. Moses is portrayed as the archetypal planner, seeking to control New York’s urban scene through the built environment, pushing through highways in the face of opposition on the ground. Jacobs, meanwhile, is thought of as the champion of street life, arguing that ordinary people, given freedom to mingle in their daily lives, are best-placed to bring order to the city. This ongoing confrontation between top-down and bottom-up models of urbanism is central to contemporary urban thinking, but it leaves out the nonhuman. Both Jacobs and Moses view the city, fundamentally, as an entity made by people, the unfolding of a human vision. It is this underlying assumption that I wish to reconsider. [Continue reading…]