The Novel City: Faux Nature Maze

When we speak of Nature in cities, the question we want to stress is, is nature in cities natural or in fact an artefact? When we speak of natural processes, they of course take place but apart from spontaneous nature, left to random succession, emerging in spaces that Gilles Clément calls the third landscapes, there is “no nature” in cities. Think of the parks, lawns, trees, (and their inhabitants) – nature in cities is subjected to human intervention, care and maintenance that exceeds the independence or self-organization typical of the so-called first nature. We always get stuck in the meanings of the term “nature” and multiple tools are offered to open up the discourse and design field. In this article, we will try to outline another perspective on nature in the city through the concepts of fourth nature, specifically synurbism and naturoids. 

Fourth Nature

Landscape theoretician John Dixon Hunt (following Cicero’s and Bonfadio’s notions) describes first nature as pristine, without human intervention; second nature as utilitarian to humans, agriculture and built environment; and the third nature as purely aesthetical, developed from civilization surplus, such as gardens and parks. Those three natures coexist in space at different shares, but the fourth nature emerges in novel habitats which differ significantly from pristine nature due to site conditions and unexpected species assemblages. 

The term “Nature of the fourth kind” was devised by a German ecologist, Ingo Kowarik, who had a chance to observe spontaneously emerging ecosystems in post-industrial and post-war Berlin on numerous vacant sites. In the context of urban ecosystems, he similarly divides nature based on a series of transformation stages of pristine landscapes by human agency. Kowarik stresses that nature conservation practices quite rightly rely on a high value ascribed to historical ecosystems for hosting rare and endangered species in comparison to urban habitats. He nevertheless notes that places of fourth nature offer urban residents the opportunity to engage with natural processes within this novel form of wilderness, thereby deepening their connection to the environment. Moreover, those spaces usually offer greater biodiversity than kempt landscapes. Berlin’s approach is to incorporate these novel green spaces into the green infrastructure despite being dominated by non-native species. Those principles are (perhaps too) slowly gaining recognition elsewhere. Combined with cultural assets, like urban infrastructure and art in spaces of the fourth nature can increase its acceptance and accessibility to the public. The notion of the fourth nature is far from new and it seems a valid point in the light of anthropogenic pressure on the environment, yet still to be adopted by legislation, the public or landscape designers. 

In their article “Design with Fourth Nature”, researchers and educators Anita Bakshi and Frank Gallagher from the Department of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers University call for a design approach that moves beyond the static and ideal perspective on nature. They propose incorporating the fourth nature in the landscape design principles, syncing ecology and aesthetics as a dynamic open-end system rather than creating an outdated static image that needs excessive maintenance inputs. The nostalgic view of idealized nature promotes picturesque naturalistic design and should be updated based on the current challenges and climate (and ecological) instability. 

We often like to think there is an underlying structure according to which nature organizes itself and we try to incorporate that structure in our design. At the same time, we forget that the structure itself is a subject of change. The poetic image of pure nature and the superiority of native species is counterproductive. “Immigration, hybridization, mutation and adaptation” can offer a bit of a counterbalance to mass extinction. We also forget that a big portion of species that are now naturalized was brought from elsewhere and that the “appropriate” biodiversity or a set of species is often influenced by cultural factors, ideas of the original romantic (pre-industrial) state and even of a pure, national community. By adhering to the notion that the natural world should conform to our predetermined frameworks, we must ask ourselves: what kinds of ecologies are we actually creating?

Numerous landscapes and biotopes that are under protection today are a direct effect of human agency. In ecological theory and social sciences discourse, terms opposing the binary nature-culture, like Donna Haraway’s “natureculture”, blurring the boundaries between what is traditionally considered natural and what is considered cultural or artificial, have been present for quite some time. However, we don’t seem to utilize or discard those notions in landscape design from a reflected standpoint. Harraway’s influential Cyborg Manifesto further opened up themes of fusing humans and machines, emphasizing fluidity and multiplicity of identities. 

Created Nature

Massimo Negrotti, researcher of AI and cybernetics and professor of Methodology of Human Sciences, named naturoid a human-designed object devised to reproduce an object or a process existing in nature. Not only naturoids deceive, but they also try to replicate the structure or function of natural phenomena. Naturoid can be artificial intelligence, synthetic fertilizer or synthetic meat, and artificial, bioprinted organs and tissues. In terms of environment, naturoids are artificial snow, man-made islands and concrete-mimicking rocks. However, naturoids are always a result of the reduction of complexity of the natural object based on selected characteristics that are to be reproduced. Negrotti accounts gardens as naturoids as their artificiality lies in mimicking a “perfect” nature and excluding all defects that would ruin the image. Even though Negrotti denies the status of a naturoid to cross-bred, hybridized, grafted, cloned and genetically mutated organisms for obvious reasons, we dare to exaggerate and call them “bionaturoids”. With this, we want to underline that most of the nature we are dealing with every day is bred and grown to suit our liking – be it for utilitarian or aesthetic reasons. Is it still nature or it falls under another domain? 

Following Negrotti, a human-made ecosystem is a naturoid and, therefore, always lacks the original complexity. An extreme example is Biosphere 2, a modelled eco-mini-mundus, a closed conservatory in which scientists tried to replicate the environment. The inability to recreate nature’s function was most evident when Biosphere 2 didn’t produce enough oxygen, causing Biospherians’ exhaustion.

View of Earth as an entity in harmony that we must take care of, promoted by The Gaia Hypothesis, is also constructed. In the 60s’ a system biologist, George Van Dyne, wanted to confirm the underlying pattern of an ecosystem, feeding numerous information gathered out in the field into a computer model. As Adam Curtis in his docu-series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (named after the song by Richard Brautigan) shows, the results didn’t give a comprehensible result but showed that natural systems are in fact chaotic and unpredictable.

Ecosystems emerge wherever the niche is free, but the recombination of emerging species is not the one we would necessarily want to happen. The fourth nature allows us to observe different ecologies and adopt new views on wild, hybrid, invasive, and alien species.

Synurbic Nature

From the species’ point of view, cities are new habitats, “mega niches” that are to be colonized. Synurbization is a term that describes adjustments of wild animals to urban environments. Prefix syn- means “together with” -urbanization, meaning species that can adapt to living with humans, and some even thrive in urban environments. Synurbic isn’t just any kind of animal living in urban areas. To be really synurbic, species should have greater population densities in urban than rural or natural regions. Scientists observe other significant ecological and behavioural differences compared to populations living in their native, non-urban environments, such as prolonged breeding season, altered circadian activity, increased longevity but poorer health, changes in diet, increased intraspecific aggression and tameness towards men. Although those parameters fall in the range of natural flexibility of a synurbic species, genetic evolution caused by novel habitats has also been recorded. In New York, for example, local species of fish developed a mutation that helps them block the toxic PCBs discarded in the river. Some weeds developed heavier seeds to increase the chance of dropping them on a soil patch rather than landing on the concrete. Other DNA modifications are observed, particularly to fight disease and processing toxins. 

We mostly acknowledge synurbic species as problematic because they disrupt our idealized perception of wildlife. Wild animals should be dwellers of the pristine and so-called first nature. We might look down on them with mixed feelings, including disgust, lament and empathy. Unfavourable pigeons once received honorary medals for their significant contributions as messengers. Now, they get breadcrumbs thrown on their best occasions. By providing green corridors and food, we increase biodiversity and “luxury effect” yet paradoxically invite more animal populations into the city. In 2016 in Barcelona, 1.187 incidents connected to wild boars were tracked, involving attacks on humans and domestic animals, traffic accidents and “vandalism”.

It is relieving that we can experience the feeling of uncanny terror typical for woods in the city. The potential for eviction, encountering migrants and sinurbic animals, and attracting disease are always present. If we would release the fear of the unknown and acknowledge cities as melting pots for nature as they are for culture, we could create fantastic landscapes full of imagination, thinking in terms of designing with naturoids for bionaturoids and sinurbists, as well as for (cyborging) humans. The luxury effect describes the correlation between biodiversity and affluence in the area. So next time you meet a rat, a boar, a cockroach, and a crow in your neighbourhood, please consider that you must be rich.

Nevertheless, the conservative ethos prevalent among landscape architects isn’t inherently detrimental. This stance becomes particularly valuable in a time when bureaucracy often represents the final bastion of public space, with landscape architects emerging as its champions, battling against the pressures of investment.

Published on March 11, 2024

2 thoughts on "The Novel City: Faux Nature Maze"

  1. Nada Gatalo says:

    I’m genuinely terrified of raccoons. And a bipedal raccoon, as pictured, is next level. I aspire to cultivate the fearless outlook you describe! —“If we would release the fear of the unknown and acknowledge cities as melting pots for nature as they are for culture, we could create fantastic landscapes full of imagination…”

    1. Urska Skerl says:

      I guess fear goes both ways
      My colleague is appalled by cockroaches bordering to paranoia and I was afraid of spiders, until I got to “know them” better (by reading about them, no petting!).
      NYC Wildlife holds a campaign for your terror 🙂

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