Our age is an urban age. Never before have humans shared a planet so dominated by cities, and never before have so many people—the majority of our earth’s human population—lived in cities.
Our new urban reality invokes a sense of dread among environmentalists—fear of an ever-more consolidated isolation of humans from nature, and fear that the carbon emissions, pollution, and energy demands associated with burgeoning urban growth will quickly erode the precious and dwindling vestiges of nature with which we share the planet. This is to say nothing of a more generalized fear that a world dominated by humans—in absolute population numbers and in terms of the urban built form—is also, and inevitably, a world marred by social tensions and geopolitical unrest. After all, cities are not only places of concentrated humanity, but also places of vast social and economic disparities. If there is a “problem” of cities in the twenty-first century, it straddles ecological dysfunction on one side and social disquiet on the other.
Yet this formulation of our urban present and future overlooks a crucial insight that, perhaps ironically, we have recently begun to learn from cities themselves. Contrary to what we thought throughout the twentieth century, urban settings are not nature’s opposite. Cities are not the exclusive place of human culture, while rural hinterlands form nature’s last refuge. Nature is not something “out there”; it is, in fact, the very stuff of cities and countryside alike. It is the bundle of biogeochemical processes on which all living things depend, and it is the rich and complex non-human and non-living world, both rural and urban. Those processes and worlds are woven together in a mosaic of city and non-city spaces, and they challenge us to see nature in the city and the city in the countryside.
In urban and environmental scholarship, we’ve come to this realization slowly, and through many disciplinary portals. Nearly a decade ago, the environmental historian William Cronon challenged us to notice the absence of people in our collective cultural imaginary of wilderness (see “The Trouble with Wilderness”). Around the same time, the important subfield of urban ecosystem ecology was demonstrating the unique challenges that cities pose to ecological inquiry (for an example, see the Baltimore Ecosystem Study [BES]). Urbanists, meanwhile, increasingly turned to the insights of theorists like Henri Lefebvre, who famously argued that the world was “completely urban,” at least insofar as economic processes united cities and hinterlands (see The Urban Revolution). In all of these academic arenas, it was increasingly imperative to see larger processes—social, ecological, and economic—as connectors of urban and rural settings and socialities. There could be no nature apart from cities, and no cities apart from nature.
The twenty-first century is filled with specters of unsustainability, deep social inequities, intense material desire and consumption, and urgent calls for the technological domination, or “correction,” of problems like climate change. In a matter of decades, we can imagine coastal cities completely remapped and most urban centers more vulnerable to new, sometimes catastrophic, weather patterns. It appears that the key human challenge for the current century is to control nature as it affects cities.
How, then, is nature critical to a twenty-first century urban ethic? I would suggest that the key is to be found in learning rather than controlling. It rests among the forward-reaching gestures of sustainability practitioners across the world.
For many American students of environmental ethics, it was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac that first challenged us to think of an ethical community as something inclusive not just of other human beings, but of non-human and non-living things as well. Today, this is the conceptual assumption of ecology; we look for interconnections, for systems, for feedback, and for environmental unity.
But in some ways Leopold doesn’t sit comfortably in the urban age. If the twentieth century environmental quest was to save a space for nature, the twenty-first century imperative is to re-carve a space for nature on an urban planet, to re-think and re-make cities as human habitats that are integrated into ecosystems, and as such, intentional environmental forms.
One challenge embedded in a twenty-first century urban ethic, then—in the spirit of Leopold—is to be intentional in our modes of seeing and activating the urban-nature connection. A true urban ethic is one that sees nature first and foremost as a part of the city, but then goes further by making sure that nature maintains an intentional and recognized urban place.
But we must be very careful here. Reserving an intentional place for nature must never be used as an excuse to marginalize, dispossess, or otherwise abuse fellow humanity. Too often, we see campaigns to establish parks and other spaces for nature in cities as veiled attempts to designate those who belong and don’t belong in certain urban spaces (see my Current Anthropology article for one example). A twenty-first century urban ethic must not substitute nature for social justice; in fact, its central challenge is to harmonize these imperatives. This is precisely because it recognizes that without social harmony, there can be no true, prolonged, effective engagement with environmental systems. A twenty-first century urban ethic recognizes that our ideas of nature mirror our ideas of people in society (see Raymond Williams), and in aspiring for more vital nature we must also aspire for more just societies.
Through my scholarship and teaching, I’ve studied the urban environmental transition all over the world, but I need look no further than my home town, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a material example of a twenty-first century urban ethic in the making. The city I came of age in—a famously polluted center of steel production that witnessed a dramatic postindustrial decline—is now a vibrant mosaic of urban environmental innovations. Among them is “one of the earth’s greenest buildings,” a place where generations come together to think differently about human habitats in cities.
To embrace a twenty-first century urban ethic is to reject environmentalist fears of an urban planet. This ethic recognizes that by bringing nature in—through sustainable design, urban agriculture, innovative public spaces, and new modes of urban landscape design—we start to see the very parts of our selves and our communities that past visions of cities have for so long obscured. Such changes give form to our new urban ethic; they learn from Leopold, and carry us boldly to our common, urban future.