ENTANGLED HABITATION, COHABITATION IN THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN CITY
Landing in the Anthropocene, where our actions are leaving traces on the very rooted fabric of the planet, we are called to the challenge of moving towards a postanthropocentric paradigm. The anthropocentrism that our species has imposed on all others has unbalanced our position within nature, founded on what we often see as an evolutionary success: intrinsically human-centered, acting and developing as a continuous transformation of matter into products and processes, in a steady flow of supply and exploitation and extermination of animals and plants. But the effects of this imbalance are becoming more and more evident and are manifesting in our way of life. Deforestation, pollution or droughts generated by climate change are no longer distant realities. The biodiversity crisis is a crisis of interspecies coexistence, an inability carried along throughout our human and urban history; an inability to conceive cohabitation as a fundamental ecosystem condition, both for self-preservation and for the preservation of other individuals.
The different notions about crisis and the alarming tone of global reports eloquently emphasize the magnitude of the deterioration of the conditions that sustain human and nonhuman life. They expound on the urgency of rethinking the relations of production, consumption, and coexistence contained in destructive capitalism, but also in the need of going beyond a non-relational way of thinking and approaching other than human life. The notion of crisis, in this sense, is ambivalent. On the one hand, it generates dystopias that threaten us with extinction and alienation, or, on the other hand, it creates new utopian or quasi-utopian narratives varying from technocratic approaches, stemming from planned socio-technical transitions to pragmatic-utopias, associated with the proposal of transformations beyond the political multilateral regime and to some optimism about the possibilities that these crises would allow us a civilizational rebirth beyond modernity.
During the rise of the Modernist era when global economies became characterized by increasingly industrialized, reductive, and linear design, cities were also reimagined, to be optimized to function like machines. Cities reflected the dominant values of society, and were designed to celebrate efficiency, speed, and convenience, all fueled by abundant and cheap hydrocarbons, like coal for our electricity and oil for our cars. A narrow perspective, leading to negative unintended consequences, like pollution, climate change, toxic waste, species loss and so on. The Anthropocene has re-positioned cities as both extremely vulnerable, and as major contributors, to a planetary ecological crisis. It is a very particular form of collapse of civilization, as it is civilization that brings it on. In a reaction against these shortcomings, there is increasing shift towards ecological worldviews—that recognize the interconnectivity of all living systems—including humans. Greater recognition of the co-existence, and co-dependence, of humans and non-humans in cities (and beyond) form part of a wider project of dismantling human species exceptionalism. As humans, we should realize that our anthropocentric perspective represents only one of the many ecologies within our world. The assumption of humankind’s primacy should be overcome to embrace a post-human vision of the world.
Humanity is currently acting as part of a separated context from the rest of the world, lacking an interconnected pluriverse vision. Within this context, new shared future visions are emerging through collective imagination approaches, influencing the societal transformation processes toward non-anthropocentric perspectives. Speculative scenarios of non-hierarchical interrelationships have been developed considering non-humans as living or non-living entities with their own rights for the definition of new political ecologies based on more-than-human futures. Anthropocentric hierarchies are therefore changing to a more inclusive consideration of non-human entities, assuming a posthuman perspective that focuses on the non-hierarchical interrelationships between humans and nonhumans, both living and non-living, accounting for their agency. This more-than-human link between different species paves the way for a paradigm shift required to foster the regenerative transition towards entangled cohabitation.
Entangled cohabitation refers to a deeply intertwined and entangled living status between human and non-human beings and advocates a more-than-human perspective in human-nature interaction design.
The anthropocentric city is founded on ontological binaries (humans/non-humans; organic/artificial; living/non-living; wild/tame), underpinned by a metaphoric spatiality of centers, distances and boundaries. At the center of this ontological space is the sovereign human subject, and all ‘others’ are categorized in a hierarchy defined by their distance from that center (e.g. from domesticated pets as closest to humans to feral wildlife; or from living organisms to inanimate bricks and mortar).
Although several interrelationships co-exist between humans and non-humans, the rights and the agency of non-human entities are still scarcely recognized.
Nature in cities is objectivized as a set of services and infrastructures. The term ‘ecosystem services’ in particular has been widely adopted by researchers and policy-makers to convey the benefits provided by natural ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living. Natural resources, a concept belonging to the lexicon of extraction, semantically connected to the idea of exploitation. However, such a description is premised on a human-centered perspective for the way cities are conceived, designed, delivered and maintained. The pervasive dominance of a logic of extraction, consumerism, materialistic conceptions of the good life and the discounting of the future common to several economic approaches appear to be the most fundamental reasons. The exclusive logic of the market in production, consumption and finance not only creates disincentives for alternatives to flourish, it also prevents the appropriate accounting and measurement of the real costs of production and consumption and hides the costs of social and environmental needs.
Posthumanism comes to challenge the designer’s views and change their focus to more intricate systems. It draws attention to interactions between humans and non-humans, a non-anthropocentric perspective requires a shift of one’s perception of their environment, of their values, applying methodologies and design principles that support and include the non-human actors.
FROM THE ANTHROPOCENE TO THE PLURIVERSE COEXISTENCE: RECOGNIZING THE AGENCY OF NATURE
Cities represent novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene in which humans alone do not inhabit cities. Despite their anthropocentric definition, cities exist as entanglements of the artificial with unruly, unplanned nature in place. They are not isolated, bounded, self-sufficient entities, but exist in the context of their bioregion, which is defined not only by geographical boundaries but also by their ecological identity.
The more-than-human city seeks to overcome the perception of cities as existing solely for humans, where design joins other disciplines to acknowledge cities as multispecies spaces rather than uphold dualisms of culture-nature and city-country, the multispecies city calls for a relational, integrated and reflexive perspective. A perspective that de-centers human control over nature to recognize the connections between species. Embracing our common role in the collective more-than-human urban story works to reconfigure cities as mutually constitutive/hybrid/networked, rather than, as aforementioned, separate, binary and oppositional. New ways of thinking about messy human and non-human entanglements in cities opens up possibilities for diverse imaginings of human-nature relations.
The development of cities is impossible without considering our planetary life support systems, conceptualized as planetary boundaries. There is a desperate need to explore the potential for ecology-centered approaches that seek to provide an account of architecture, urban design and landscapes as mediated matter that supports the coexistence of multiple species. Mediated matter defined as the result of entanglements between anthropogenic and more-than human processes, systems, rhythms, and activities. Within these entanglements, there is a continuous sharing of resources, which puts into question traditional disciplines and calls for novel forms of design that are centered on engaging with these complex ecologies.
Cities as a collective partnership between human and non-human species and exploring how technology can help sustain it. It encompasses the idea of including non-humans at the center of design as a way of promoting inter-species responsiveness, the importance of micro-relationships and seeing living beings as an ecology rather than an entity.
Bioregions are defined by their geographic, climatic, hydrological, atmospheric, ecological qualities – biomes and ecotones (regions of transition between biomes)-, rhythms, flows, including material-cycles (carbon, nitrogen, phosphor, water, oxygen cycles), microorganisms, flora, and fauna (its metabolism). Bioregional design can, because of their uniqueness, become the basis for meaning and identity.
In cities many human and non-human rhythms of activity intersect, addressing the complex, more-than-human environments legible—particularly those elements that are difficult to perceive or are outside of the human sensorium? By embodying and manifesting the cycle of life at a scale that we can fully observe and engage with, brings us in front of a pluriversal way of creation, making, and agency from microscopical complexity and macroscopical diversity; they may sustain a deeper reconnection with the idea of life itself. It opens the possibility of more-than-human coexistence, if not collaboration, symbiosis.
As nature is ever-changing, our designs should be adaptable to these changes as well. The biosphere is a complex system organized of self-referential components that consist of a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction). The more processes a system contains, the more complex it gets. Complexity is often associated with difficult problems, the reason for this is the exponential difficulty in solving a complex problem as its variables rise, each of which further compounding the amount of possible solutions. Complexity is considered a group of agents (individual interacting units) existing far from equilibrium, interacting through positive and negative feedbacks, forming interdependent, dynamic, evolutionary networks. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. Through their interactions and adaptations, they continuously regenerate using the system’s network of relations. They constitute the system as a unified topology within the space they exist, defining boundaries from their environment without closing off in-formation exchange. In opposition to current technological models, the biosphere relies on the concept of self-regulation, self-regeneration and self-replicating to maintain itself. To self-regulate, a system must go against the second law of thermodynamics – that entropy in-creases within isolated systems.
The biosphere is not truly balanced but instead relies on the concept of adaptation and evolution, which operate under the principles of complex adaptive systems. A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts (either natural or man-made). As aforementioned the biosphere is self-sustaining, self-replicating (cycles) autonomous in which energy and matter are spread among ecosystems; reabsorbed and redistributed. The biosphere involves all organisms in a back-and-forth exchange of energy, feedback, and adaptation. There is feedback between boundaries: if ecosystems are self-organized out of colonies, and the biosphere is self-organized out of ecosystems, the planet is self-organized out of its separate spheres. Since systems interact with other systems through permeable boundaries, information and energy exchange can trickle across spheres. The scope of such a hierarchical system’s agency is outside the scope of this essay, the important point to remember is systems are hierarchical and any change at a local level can affect the system on a larger scale. Biological systems organize and adapt, a process that requires a degree of random action. Due to their biological nature, randomness causes new processes to arise allowing evolution and adaptation. As we move up system scales randomness leads to increasing potential for adaptation or unpredictability.
The Technosphere is completely non self-sufficient, it relies entirely on humans for its maintenance and distribution. If technology -the Technosphere- is to behave fundamentally analogous to biological systems, random processes and self-regulation must be included. This means designing symbiotic processes and technologies that avoid using nature as a function to be mimicked, but instead designing technologies that operate under the same fundamental principles.
By focusing on cohabitation and a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and non-humans, new design perspectives for regeneration, posthumanism, post-anthropocentric design, collaborative survival based on a more-than-human perspectives are emerging. This more-than-human perspective highlights the co-constitutive role of non-human aspects, instead of regarding human as the essence of the universe and the primate of all things, an independent who dominates the world. Such posthuman non-anthropocentric perspective is about finding ways to re-affect an objectified world. This perspective presents opportunities to design non-human natures as a medium that develops our noticing for a more-than-human world and overcome problematic narratives of human privilege and exceptionalism.
This ‘metabolic rift’: a social, ecological and individual break, where people are alienated both from their labor and their nutrient cycle. Such loss of human-nature interactions can be described as the extinction of experience that can have disastrous consequences. Furthermore, peoples’ attitude towards nature is influenced by their interactions with it, where loss of engagement can decrease willingness for nature conservation. Many studies support that increased urban human/nature engagements can offer important health, social, economic and environmental co-benefits.
Approaches towards more-than-human design include nature-based solutions and nature inclusive urban design. More-than-human design extends this focus from humans as users to consider connections with – and within – the broader environment by placing nonhuman natures at the center of the design process. Often used interchangeably, the terms multispecies design refers to nonhuman species, whereas more-than-human encompasses other scales and elements, including other species, but also soil and rivers. In other words, this shift strives to re-conceptualize humans as one of many interconnected ‘parts’ within an ecosystem. A shift to a multispecies city demands greater relinquishing of human control to enable multispecies’ sharing of space. Such a shift requires re-conceptualizing who and what the city is for, and what else can be made to feel welcome within the proximate confines of urban spaces. Redesigning cities for multispecies coexistence is a crucial transition, where the urban environment stops being just a container of programs and functions and becomes an inclusive space that fosters dynamic processes of exchange.
Bio-hybrid architecture emerges from a coupling of living biological complexes with artificial objects
To imagine a vision of post-anthropocentric cities, requires moving beyond the essentialism of the human as the creature of enlightenment, the Cartesian citizen-subject, the rights holder and the property owner. Shifting away from such dominant anthropocentric ontologies is difficult, because of the terrible gravitational attraction of human specialness and the efficiency and effectiveness through which it was enforced at the age of enlightenment. By discussing how the planetary can be affected by the local through spheres, systems, autopoiesis, and symbiotic processes and technologies and bio-hybrid architecture we can begin to encourage visions of a future of our cities. Lets’ get started!