Imaginary Cities

Photo of the Bagdad movie theater in PortlandThere is an interesting perspective on cities in a short essay by Matthew Gandy, titled “Urban Nature and the Ecological Imaginary.” In referring to urban nature, Gandy includes both concrete elements and abstract ideas. The ecological imaginary is an example of the latter, as in the use of scientific metaphors (such as organism and metabolism) to represent cities. This way of thinking seems to have gained momentum in response to industrialization, as urban areas were increasingly viewed as separate from and harmful to nature. Thus planners sought to reconnect cities with a natural ideal.

According to Gandy, urban space is produced through a nature-culture synthesis. In other words, cities take shape through our actions in combination with biophysical processes. Kevin Lynch found that "the quality of a place is due to the joint effect of the place and the society which occupies it" (Good City Form, p. 111). Gandy proposes a political approach that recognizes this co-evolutionary dynamic and moves away from the idea of cities as unnatural.

Photo of sledders in Riverside Park in New York CitySo how might Gandy's thinking help in solving urban environmental problems? I like the way it implies that cities are not results of grand designs that remain fixed over time. They are transformed constantly through social, political, economic, cultural, and biophysical processes. Instead of looking for answers in comprehensive plans (whether City Beautiful, Garden City, Radiant City, Urban Redevelopment, or Ecocity), perhaps we should consider the ways in which cities change incrementally.

Of course, it's possible that the way we understand urban nature makes little difference when faced with concrete problems like air pollution, food shortages, and contaminated water. Does thinking of cities as integral parts of the natural world, and considering the processes through which they change, help in a tangible way?

Baltimore buildings from Urban PalimpsestPossibly. Rather than viewing nature as an external force that can save us from shortsighted actions, or hoping that a new technology will magically solve our problems, we can identify the actions that threaten our life-support system and work towards viable alternatives. We can recognize the importance of political engagement in this process. I'll look forward to reading Gandy's Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City for more background on his ideas.

(Photo of the Bagdad movie theater is from anti:freeze. Photo of sledders in Riverside Park is from Flickr user WhatDaveSees. Photo of buildings in Baltimore is from Urban Palimpsest.)

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