08.06.2018

City Nature
A definition

City nature is not just a whim of fashion. A completely new form of nature in the city is what can best, cheapest and fastest clean up all the mess  we have created for the planet with our built order, says Stig L. Andersson.

The article was originally published as a debate post in Politiken Byrummonitor, 8 June 2018.
Original title: “Ny bynatur er ikke en flyvsk trompetbuks”

In the last few weeks and in various media, it has been possible to read several negative statements about the concept of ‘city nature’. In this place [Politiken Byrummonitor], C40 director Simon Kjær Hansen stated that one does not save the world with “more grass and more trees”.

As someone who has worked with city and nature and their interrelationships for more than 30 years, it would be gratifying if this was really the case; that this work had suddenly and almost by chance become trendy. A bit like the one who all his life has been wearing trumpet trousers and has now suddenly (temporarily) become hip at a semi-annual shift of a fashion whim.

But I think there is more to it than that.

“Nature has no disasters.”

To me, the critics’ comments reveal a basic ignorance of what it means to work with nature in the city. You can’t blame anyone for this ignorance; it is complicated matter and very far from the traditional architectural way of understanding urban development.

So allow me here to clear up a number of misunderstandings and explain why a new paradigm for nature in the city is not a whim of fashion mood – but a necessity.

The built order no longer works

Historically, the common way of using nature in the city has been strictly subject to the order of what was built. There has certainly been greenery in the city, but it has been in demarcated parks, with mowed lawns and stemmed street trees – preferably set up in straight rows.

This ‘nature’ has been a direct extension of the building architecture and has simply continued its belief in structures, order and closed forms. And so, it has primarily been planned based on how it looks.

Now it turns out – with the climate changes of the Anthropocene era and the new natural reality – that this built order no longer works.

Firstly, we can see that our cities are increasingly collapsing due to what we responsibly call ‘natural disasters’ (a more correct word would have been’ urban disasters’ since it is our cities’ organization that turns out to be problematic. Nature has no disasters).

Secondly, we see how sick we actually get from living in our cities. Stress, lifestyle diseases, loneliness and pollution are sufferings that belong almost exclusively to the city.

“Stress, lifestyle diseases, loneliness and pollution are sufferings that belong almost exclusively to the city.”

One solution to this, of course, could be to continue with more of the same. But one could also ask oneself the question of whether there is another way that both makes our cities more adaptable to the new reality, makes our urban lifestyle less burdensome for the environment – and at the same time increases the quality of life of all of us.

I believe in the latter.

And here it turns out that a completely new kind of nature in the city is what can best, cheapest and fastest clean up all the clutter we have created for the planet with our built order.

The solution is neither to make more of the old ‘building nature’ nor simply to move an imaginary image of existing nature into the cities. That solves nothing.

No, we must invent a whole new kind of nature in the city that we have never experienced before. A nature that is 100 percent man-made, and which actively uses and utilizes the properties and qualities that are built into nature, in its design. These properties are ecosystem services, metabolism, photosynthesis, etc. And they are both rational, aesthetic and quality of life-creating.

By really working with nature in our cities, we can thus both remediate cloudbursts and floods, clean air pollution, reduce CO2, cool our cities during heat waves, heat them during ice winters, etc. But we can also improve public health, measurably reduce stress and lifestyle diseases and make us all more happy, social and community-oriented.

A walk in the industrial area?

We all know this instinctively well (where would you rather go for a walk, in a forest or in an industrial area?), the new thing is that we increasingly have research that documents all these beneficial effects. New nature is thus not about how it looks, but about how it works and feels.

That is why a critique of ‘grass and trees’ and ‘tangled’ city nature is so misunderstood.

Partly because it does not understand or seem interested in all the vital properties and effects of the new nature. Partly because it is primarily about what the new nature looks like, even judged from an outdated building architectural paradigm.

“Nature is uncontrollable, open, changeable, growing, processual, grown and material.”

Yes, seen from the straight angle’s Excel sheet, the new nature is naturally messy: Nature is uncontrollable, open, changeable, growing, processual, grown and material. But it will have to be if it has to work. And if it should be able to balance – and correct – the rational and vulnerable order of our current cities.

So I am not arguing for cities without buildings. I argue for a balance between the city and the new nature. In order to create optimal cities and architecture, the tight functionality of the buildings and the texturality and properties of the new nature must be seen as complementary: as two essentially different elements that must nevertheless exist equally side by side. Both if we are to survive; and if we are to have anything to survive for.

New nature in the city is not a fashion whim that can be judged by how it looks. If we do not have the new nature, we do not have to decide at all whether we like it or not. Because then we are not here either.

Perspectives

Discover more articles

The six most important things to know about butterfly habitats

The butterflies are in decline worldwide. In Denmark alone, every fourth butterfly is endangered. This is a result of the lack of habitats and pronounced use of pesticides and fertilizers following the intense agricultural use in the open landscape. However, cities have great potential to become oases of biodiversity, as it is easier to assign space and create suitable habitats for biodiversity in urban environments. This article introduces the six most important landscape and design parameters that must be considered if the butterfly is to be attracted as a permanent resident or frequent visitor.

Read more

City nature is not nature

“City nature is not nature. City nature is something we humans design to solve the urban problems we have created ourselves. City Nature is about correcting 1,000 years of urban delusions that have separated the built and the grown (…)” says design director and partner, Stig L. Andersson, in this debate post, where he commends the government’s proposal to demand more and better city nature.

Read more

Back when Earth turned green

Mosses were some of the first living things to make the Earth green more than 400 million years ago. In Denmark, there are about 650 species of moss, and the stories they tell are worth listening to.

Read more