Making Wild Cities — Notes on Participatory Urban (Re)Wilding
For the last few months I’ve been working as creative director on a new urban rewilding project. I’m not going to write about that project here (it’s still in development) but instead I’ll discuss some of the research I’ve come across and how I’ve started organising my thinking.
Participatory urban (re)wilding combines three distinct phenomena that have their own complexities and characteristics. Participation and cities, I know a thing or two about; rewilding less so. I’m interested in how to combine the three — in my view, doing so is one of the fundamental tactics we have for surviving the 21st century. But that gets pretty complicated. And messy, in a delightfully difficult way. Although I’ve dabbled in tangentially related themes several times over the last 15 years (including Flightpath Toronto, the GROW Observatory and the Huey-Dewey-Louie Climate Clock) this has been my first opportunity to get much deeper into the topic, and perhaps eventually to have some useful impact.
I’m barely more than an amateur enthusiast of rewilding. If you want someone with actual authority, go straight to some original sources: for example Rewilding, edited by Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, Dr Sarah M. Durant and Dr Johan T. du Toit, which has been one of my go-to texts because of its breadth of author perspectives; Healing the Metabolic Rift by John Thackara for urban and global scale implications; if you’re looking for something a little more philosophical try The Sucker, the Sucker! by Prof Amia Srinivasan.
Rewilding → Urban Rewilding → Urban Wilding
There are dozens of definitions of ‘rewilding’ and I’m hesitant to present any single one, because it is through the multiplicity of its meanings that we understand just how complex the field is. But, broadly, rewilding refers to a range of processes through which humans ensure that non-human species and natural processes are re-introduced into a landscape in a way that they can become self-sustaining once more. With its macroscopic and long-term perspective on human-nature relationships it’s usually differentiated from ecological restoration. In Rewilding, the editors suggest that while rewilding is rooted in ecology, it is done by and for humans, and explicitly requires a multi-disciplinary approach.
But when such a process is brought into cities, the question arises whether one can really refer to it as rewilding. An urbanised version of this undertaking should probably instead be referred to as ‘wilding’ since there is no archetypal city-based natural landscape to return to through re-wilding (thanks to Deborah Long for talking me through this).
Urban wilding, however, is about more than just ‘green’ buildings and cities — which are often simply technical propositions (that can be quite energy intensive and misleading) for problems that demand far more radical and intricate responses. As Thackara asks: “Does your city know where its lunch is coming from? And is that place healthy — or not?”
This means that urban wilding must be more than just improving access to nature: it involves redesigning our urban infrastructures to account for our non-human neighbours, so that we don’t just co-exist, but, more, that we are mutually supportive and generative. Cities globally have started experimenting and organisations like Wild Cities are helping chart a path, demonstrating how cities can become happier and healthier, and societies more resilient and adaptive.
Urban wilding, however, has many socio-cultural complexities that differ from rural rewilding (which is a whole separate topic that I’m not focusing on here). Dr Bridget Snaith has shown how people of different race, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds have quite different perspectives on urban landscaping.
You might think that everyone loves green cities, but in actual fact there is no cross-cultural consensus on how, why and when to use green urban spaces, or how to care for them — one person’s lovely ‘wild’ meadow, is another person’s unkempt park suffering for lack of maintenance. Urban wilding — involving social, cultural, environmental and technical infrastructures — needs to account for this diversity of perspective, both in designing wild processes as well as in delivering them.
Urban Wilding → Participatory Urban Wilding
The current pandemic has demonstrated how intimately entwined we are with each other and with our natural and environmental systems. The way that different cultures and populations have handled this raises the question of how we will collectively respond to planetary-scale environmental crises. One thing that has been clear is how vastly different people’s responses have been to both top-down and bottom-up coordination in managing the pandemic. There has been no universally-adopted solution to the situation. Entire PhDs will be written on this topic. Connecting increasingly urban populations to the natural world is essential for humankind’s successful response to the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st century.
Our relationships to natural systems are frail, particularly in cities, even while being fundamental to humanity’s ongoing existence. Making wild cities will require radically new decision-making systems that account for our complex interactions with each other and enable us to cooperate even without consensus. There is no urban wilding without participation. I’ve written about some of the challenges of structuring participation in Mutually Assured Construction.
In Rewilding again, Nicole Bauer and Aline von Atzigen discuss how public attitudes to rewilding verge on ambivalence and negativity — residents often see it as less positive than visitors, in part due to a fear of losing control in wildness. Cecily Maller, Laura Mumaw and Benjamin Cooke provide evidence that failure is almost certain when local communities are not involved in key decision-making, saying that “urban rewilding… necessitates… democratic processes.” If urban wilding is to become a feature of city-making, developing participatory platforms for supporting its design, delivery and maintenance will be absolutely crucial: participatory urban wilding.
In order to have any hope of evolving our cities into systems that sustain and encourage both human and non-human species to co-exist and be mutually supportive requires a set of processes that get everyone involved in a radical transformation — and in making decisions about that radical transformation — changing how we live with each other as well as the natural systems that envelop us. In Decolonising Rewilding, Dr Kim Ward favours ‘Wildness’ as an objective because it emphasises the need for humans and non-humans to ‘co-produce’ their environment.
We don’t just need our cities to be wild, we need to be a little wild ourselves.
Wild Cities and the Climate Emergency
The brutal fact is that either we change the way we live, or the local and geo-scale effects of the climate emergency will change our lives for us — we’ve already seen its effects resculpting the physical fabric of our cities, disrupting infrastructures we rely on, and substantially altering the social fabric of our cities as effects are felt to vastly different degrees by rich and poor. Wild cities are coming, one way or another.
The only way that we, human beings, survive the next century is if we transform how human and natural systems co-exist in cities. We need to imagine new futures for our informal green spaces; give citizenship and personhood to non-humans; embrace not just the aesthetic but the psychological benefits of urban birdsong; revolutionise the planning and construction industry; embrace octopus intelligence. And much more.
People often say they want cities that are more ecological, with tree-filled parks, green-walls and roof gardens. But making that proposition a reality at scale is hard, especially when we cannot (and probably won’t) all agree on everything before we start the transformation. We need new ways of working together, cooperating with natural systems and learning from them — not just mimicking them. Participatory urban wilding would be about all of us co-imagining, co-producing and co-creating such a future, building explicitly upon a model of interdependence and mutualism that evolves along with the changing climate. How do we engage not just people but also birds, mice, fish, bees, mushrooms and trees?
Participatory urban wilding — reshaping the processes through which our cities are designed, built and lived-in to enable mutual cooperation (humans with each other as well as with non-human systems) — would challenge how we relate to our neighbours, to the mice in our walls, to our political systems, to the environment that supports us. It would reshape how we feel about public space and who owns it; how we make decisions about our homes; our consumption and eating habits. But it would also evolve our cities into much more dynamic and sustainable engines of survival than the socially-constricting, energy-intensive and life-shortening beasts that they are right now.