Architecture : Urban Ecosystems – Carrie-Anne Richardson – Medium

Re-imagining the City

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The streets were empty on the drive home from work. It’s a public holiday tomorrow; I guess most people took the day off. The sun was already low in the sky when I left (winter approaches), and the light was further reduced by the soft, sleepy blanket of clouds that had refused to wake up and dissipate this morning, now soaked in a dull pink. As I drove the familiar bumpy streets, slightly dilapidated buildings washed in the grey-pink light, break lights glowing before me and a few tired pedestrians making their way home along the sidewalk, I thought about urbanity, and eco-systems, and the way that we separate them. We tend to view everything we create as separate from nature — ‘natural’ vs ‘man-made’, a common dichotomy, either noted with a smug undertone, acknowledging our superiority over the natural world, our ability to manipulate it and refashion it into something with sharp edges and moving parts that improves human existence; or in a condemning way — precious nature has been ruined by man’s harsh impositions on the landscape: glaringly obvious angular objects are placed as eye-sores in an otherwise pristine, curvilinear context.

Rarely do we consider man-made objects to be part of the natural world. But on my drive home, they seemed integrated — like ant hills or bee hives, the city had been stuck together by its inhabitants with bits of things we found and manipulated in a manner that our biology (our hands, our minds) made possible. I considered the urban landscape as a complex system of infrastructure and communication, where its occupants interact spontaneously or in a planned manner, all working to improve their own state but also, by collaborating, working to improve the conditions of the whole. I thought about cities — they are odd things; clusters of people gathered in a spot. The individuals could be anywhere in the world; they could be spread out evenly, or in smaller clusters elsewhere, yet so many end up in a congested swarm, possibly drawn towards some special quality of that place that would improve their lives (a bay where ships may dock, gold, fertile soil). At this point, however, most of those original catalysts for growth are obsolete; yet the people remain. Look at Johannesburg — people flocked here for the gold, taking a chance, hoping to make their big break. Those people required amenities; accountants, doctors and teachers fulfilled opportunities; the economy developed. The economic importance of gold in the area has now diminished, yet the people are all still here, with more arriving each day, and apparently without any real reason other than to barter with each other, to exchange goods and services — a thriving, self perpetuating group of people that simply is.

On a side note, I’ve been thinking a lot about community, and the way people need each other. It was an important element in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath”, which I read recently for the first time. I think I may have neglected this in the past; the idea of social welfare can seem illogical, or at least economically counter productive. Kindness may be explained away with genetics, the ‘altruism gene’ Richard Dawkins describes in ‘The Selfish Gene’ — we treat people well, instinctively expecting the same in return; the tribe protects itself and shuns those who deviate from its rules. Is caring for each other foolish and soppy? Or is it a just a cunning strategy for survival? I’ve been playing with the idea that it need not be forced (welfare) or apologized for (the altruism gene), but that perhaps, as a social animal, it’s in our nature to interact with each other — maybe it simply makes us happy, stimulates our brains some how. Perhaps we may choose to be social, not because it’s morally the right thing to do, and not because its the logical thing to do, but because it feels good. The muscles on our bodies are made to withstand strenuous exercise, and will wither as we decline into poor health if we don’t engage them. Perhaps we need social interaction in the way we need exercise, or food — our bodies are built for it. And when we interact, and collaborate, we thrive.

And so, the thriving little communities of humans build up and tear down their habitats, their nests, constantly changing and adapting their homes to suit their evolving needs; sometimes overwhelming their context, forgivably, as any species of elevated numbers might, but happily capable of recognizing any negative effects and of developing an improved approach to people-clustering; to urbanisation. My journey complete, I pulled up into my garage, climbed the rocky staircase to my own hut on the hill, and looked out over the twinkling lights scattered amongst the sea of trees that constitute Johannesburg’s extensive man-made forest, with a sense that ‘urban’ is not separate from nature; it is part of it.


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