Thoughts on How Cities Change

Photo of Triphammer Falls at Cornell University in Ithaca, NYThese ideas came to mind while reading Bruno Latour (especially), as well as Donna Haraway, Matthew Gandy, Sarah Whatmore, and Eric Swyngedouw. I’d like to write them out before I forget, and I wonder if they are useful for considering how cities change.

Main idea: Cities change through socio-political relationships between living and nonliving things.

Elements interact and combine to bring about different outcomes, as when molecules come together to form a human being (the outcome doesn’t have to be consciously pursued), or when humans construct a building to provide shelter Photo of Rolling Home, by Charles Miller(the combined elements don't have to be completely attached). These combinations are based on more or less cooperative social relationships. In other words, elements participate in diverse forms of associative groupings.

The building materials in the example above don't have a choice in the matter, which is where the political (power relations and governance) comes in. It is through politics that combined action takes place. Power is based on the ability to incorporate necessary elements to realize objectives.

Photo of Martin Luther KingFor example, the winner of a democratic election comes to power by communicating a vision that attracts the most voters. Power can also be taken by force, as when people combine with superior weaponry to accomplish their goals. Groups form through communication, cooperation, and coercion. They exist at many levels, and are not limited to people. Nonhumans communicate nonverbally. The sound of a rockslide tells animals to make way. Flowers attract pollinators with pleasing colors and scents. Nonhumans also cooperate and dominate, even if not through conscious decisions. They interact with or without humans through social and political processes.

These ideas seem useful for understanding how cities change over time, and for finding ways to direct this change toward a common good. Mutually beneficial relationships tend to be the most lasting. Photo of kids playing in a fountainHowever, using wood to provide shelter isn't beneficial to the trees that get cut down. This is where it is necessary to prioritize. While our survival depends on a degree of anthropocentrism, we can still work to understand and reduce harm to others as much as possible. This is an ethical responsibility, and it strengthens our wellbeing. We can develop innovative policies and technologies that result in cohesive solutions to urban problems. The more people and things that benefit from these solutions, the more likely they will sustain.

The authors mentioned above have changed the way I think about cities. While this is not a summary of their ideas, it is very much inspired by them. They helped me look at nature (including cities) as interactive processes of change. I hope others will share their thoughts or add things that I’ve missed.

(Photo of Triphammer Falls from Panoramio user dmcguirk; "Rolling Home, Rockaway Beach, New York, 1933" taken by Charles Miller and scanned from a postcard; Photo of Martin Luther King from blakehuggins.com; Photo of kids playing in a fountain from jandtenterprises.com)

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