Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research

Jianguo Wu

“Sustainability” has become the word of the day and the theme of our time. The word—which in essence means meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own (WCED 1987)—tends to conjure bucolic images of landscapes with green hills and empty spaces, but that may be a mistake. Our world certainly is replete with environmental problems: biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, landscape fragmentation, climate change, just to name a few. Urbanization—the spatial expansion of the built environment that is densely packed by people and their socioeconomic activities—has often been held responsible for all these problems. In the recent serge of interest in sustainability, some think that urbanization is key to regional and global sustainability, whereas others regard urban sustainability as an oxymoron. Is urbanization a problem or part of the solution for sustainability? Why is it relevant to landscape ecology?

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The dualistic nature of urbanization

Year 2007 was a historic moment in human civilization: we have transformed ourselves from an agrarian species to a mostly urban species. Only 2% of the world population lived in urban areas in 1800, but this number jumped to 14% in 1900 and 30% in 1950. In 2007, we crossed the 50% mark—with no signs of slowing down. Clearly, urban areas have become the primary habitat for humans—cities, increasingly, are where people live and thus where we will have to make sustainability a reality.

The increasing urban nature of humanity has profound environmental, economic, and social implications for the world’s future. Urbanized areas account for about 80% of carbon emissions, 60% of residential water use, and close to 80% of the wood used for industrial purposes (Grimm et al. 2008; Wu 2008ab). Cities suck resources from ecosystems near and far. The “ecological footprint” of a city—the land (and water) area that would be required to provide the urban population indefinitely with all the energy and material resources consumed as well as to absorb all the wastes discharged—can be tens to hundreds of times as large as its physical size (Rees and Wackernagel 1996; Luck et al. 2001). Urbanization influences local climate by creating urban heat islands on multiple scales (Buyantuyev and Wu 2010); it leads to excessive consumption and frequent contamination of water; it creates major producers of greenhouse gases and air pollutants; and it is the most drastic form of land transformation, devastating biodiversity and ecosystem services. In many parts of the world, urbanization is also linked to increased social inequity and poverty—the problem of “urbanization of poverty”.

Yet, cities epitomize the creativity, imagination, and mighty power of humanity. Cities are the centers of socio-cultural transformations, engines of economic growth, and cradles of innovation and knowledge production. Cities are magnificent for the splendid architectures that symbolize them, inspirational for the fascinating stories of human civilization that enrich them, and attractive for the opportunities and comforts that they offer. And, perhaps most importantly, urbanization offers a number of things that are critical to achieving sustainability.

The most remarkable thing about cities is that, even with urban sprawl, they take up merely 3% of the earth’s land surface, but accommodate more than half the world’s population. Cities have lower per capita costs of providing clean water, sanitation, electricity, waste collection, and telecommunications, and offer better access to education, jobs, health care, and social services. Try to imagine a world with nearly 7 billion but no cities. How much intact habitat would there be left for other biological species? What would happen to the economy and society, locally and globally? Could that be a more sustainable world?

cont. reading…

Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo


Many Native North American artists working today do not accept the terms of ongoing negativity. Recent works by Durham, Rebecca Belmore, Will Wilson and Jolene Rickard share a concern with the liveli- ness of matter that can provide the grounds – at times quite literally – for looking beyond the mirror. While there is evidence of the indigenous phi- losophical precepts that inform the work, the artists locate their practices in an extensive and shared contemporary landscape that includes the space of exhibition, thus short-circuiting a romantic gaze that might locate indigenous art or bodies in nature somewhere else. Their works issue an invitation to a wider audience – including us, a pair of non-Native, English-speaking scholars writing this article – to seriously consider the relevance of indigenous intellectual traditions to the contem- porary global challenges of co-habitation.

Certainly, the four artists’ work dovetails with a wider trend in eco-art that TJ Demos describes as ‘comprehending ecology as a field of interlink- ing systems of biodiversity and technology, social practices and political structures’.15 But a systems approach to the environment can still support forms of anthropocentrism, so long as humans are treated as privileged arbiters of the future. In each of the four projects we discuss, artists grant environmental entities the agency to push back, to punish or reward human activity, to remind people of their precarious position in a relational world where allies are essential to flourishing, as the quotes that open this article emphasize. In lieu of an exhaustive account of these works, we focus on a single material agent in each project, tracing its complex forms of movement and affiliation into spaces of exhi- bition. Seeking to bind viewers into a shared fate with material friends and foes, the following works raise the possibility of an ethics premised on mutual recognition and shared livelihood.

In stone, a substance that is indigenous to every place on the globe, Durham has found a material ally to match the mobility of contemporary art and commerce.16 In Encore Tranquilite ́ (2009), the artist staged an encounter between a giant boulder and single engine aeroplane in an aban- doned airfield outside Berlin. In a widely published story, the antiquated ex- Soviet plane was deemed unsafe by European standards and was slated for sale in Africa, tying its fate to the ethical failures of the neocolonial market- place.17 The boulder came out on top, nearly splitting the plane in two. The implied buoyancy of substrate worked against European metaphors that link it to inertia: ‘stone dead’, ‘stone faced’, ‘stone cold’. While Franke reads Durham’s many works with stone as staging the disruptive force of Europe’s repressed ‘other’, we emphasize an equally affirmative strain: the lively rock acted as an unexpected ally in a tale of global injustice, a potential saviour of countless undervalued human lives that demanded acknowledgement for its intervention before the eyes of viewers. When stone and splintered plane were relocated to the foyer of the Muse ́e d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for Durham’s 2009 retrospective, ‘Rejected Stones’, the materials indexed an encounter that took place in the past.18 Visitors could only scan the scene for clues: Did the stone fall from above or sail through the air? Was it local to Europe or a hit man from Africa? Was the plane it targeted in motion, empty, defunct? Here, material evinced not only liveliness and ethical orientation, but also the ability to know things, marking the limits of viewers’ capacities to control their sur- roundings. Durham lets stone tell its own part in the story.

While relating to Durham’s work does not necessarily depend upon recognizing indigenous influence, highlighting such connections across the intellectual boundaries we have described can certainly enhance an understanding of its philosophical and political dimensions. Personified stones are a well-established feature of indigenous landscapes across the Americas, appearing at travellers’ shrines, in sentient architecture, or as people temporarily stilled: Durham has written of Indian pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Chalma in Mexico, during which ‘those who give up or try to stop or turn back become stones’, awaiting new life via the decisive kick of a future pilgrim. In a famous 1960 essay that we quote in the epigraph, anthropologist A Irving Hallowell likewise recounts Anishi- nabe peoples’ understandings of stone as ‘other-than-human persons’ whose animate potential can be latent or active. Anishinabe language grasps stones in a state of becoming – a concept communicated word- lessly in Encore Tranquilite ́, where resting stone threatens to spring back into action.20 Durham (who is Cherokee, but widely intellectually engaged with transnational indigenous materialities) articulated a politi- cal role for animate stone under colonial conditions in a poem published in 1983, following his involvement in the American Indian Movement (AIM). ‘They Forgot that Their Prison is Made of Stone, and Stone is Our Ally’ was inspired by the incarceration of AIM leader Russell Means.21 In it the stones spoke ‘the language of the Sioux; what other language could a South Dakota stone speak?’.22 Conversing with the walls allowed the jailed man to forge sustaining networks of communi- cation and alliance, thus keeping objectification at bay. While Durham’s early poem described the stones’ address in English, his work since the late 1990s foregrounds a materialist language of collision and debris – one in which the agency of stones no longer needs linguistic translation to be ‘read’ by international visitors.23 If befriending stone could help humans shed their shackles in what Michel Foucault deemed the quintessential architecture for modern surveillance, the prison, then why not also in the neocolonial marketplace – and the modern museum?

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo (2013) Beyond the Mirror, Third Text, 27:1, 17-28, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2013.753190

Link to full article…

Anthropology & Design

by Ron Burnett

Design practice is centred on audience(s). It matters little whether the audience is hypothetical, real or imagined, there is always someone for whom designs are created. This is often used as the fundamental distinction between design and art practices. The practice of creating art on the other hand, is seen as personal and evolving out of processes that don’t have an overt goal in mind. Yet, there are audiences for art, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that every major city in the world has an identifiable museum. And, do artists try and understand their audiences and cater to their needs? Let’s leave that question open for the time being.

The challenge of course is how do we understand audience, client and user?—Or, in the digital design world, the agent, interactor or participant? Another way of approaching audience is to create one, just as Apple did with the iPad and the iPod. Notice that irrespective of historical circumstances, projections or perceived needs, the term audience remains abstract. This is because it is virtually impossible to draw a straight line between for example, creating a logo and anticipating the response of groups of people to it—or, developing a product and knowing how clients or users will react to it. This is why designers often develop many alternative strategies to their designs and also work iteratively on various prototypes; all with the goal of creating something that will be closer to the perceived needs of the user.

In anthropology, efforts to understand both contemporary cultures and ancient ones are circumscribed by the challenges of observation, analysis and fieldwork. Prior to the revolution in anthropological thought provoked by George Marcus and Michael Fischer [4] in the 1980’s, there was endless debate among anthropologists about the relationship between observation and subjectivity. Put another way, to what extent does your own cultural, class and ethnic background influence what you see and what you observe? It is clear that your own personal history, desires and orientation will have a big impact on the conclusions that you draw from the observations you make. [5] The challenge therefore is to try and articulate what you know and examine how that may influence your assumptions about other people. It means that fieldwork is essential only if you bring to it a self-reflexive awareness of the contingent nature of the experiences you may have with complete strangers.

Designers are well aware of these obstacles and have developed many different strategies to deal with them. One of the most important is testing designs with users and trying to learn about utility, reaction and aesthetic response. But, how far does the process of learning about response go? To what extent are designers able to test their assumptions about their audiences? These issues are even more complex if as is often the case, designers are now crossing the boundaries into the ways in which people organize their lives (design thinking, design process), and the many ways in which design thinking is applied to businesses and to innovation.

“Professional design is now operating within an expanded and increasingly complex field. Some design professionals take solving complex social issues as their domain, often but not always working in close collaboration with specialists in public services from healthcare to those working with disadvantaged families to policing. Other designers and their ways of working are welcomed into business schools to teach the next generation of managers and leaders. Concepts and language that used to be associated with designers now enter other specialist areas: policymakers are told that public services should be more user-centered (Parker and Heapy 2006); businesses engage with customers by offering new meanings for things (Verganti 2009); the US Army is considering the role of design in warfare (School of Advanced Military Studies n.d.). Professional design, in particular design as practiced within the studio-based tradition of many art schools, is taking a new place on the world stage.” [3]

So much of the knowledge that we share in any given society is tacit. So many of the assumptions we make about ourselves and about others are unconscious. It is easy to say that designers should uncover their cultural bias. [6] But, which methods are best suited to the task? Janet Murray suggests bringing multiple stakeholders into the discussion of the design process “and elicit their different perspectives and needs.” [3]