Birds nesting in a carpark. Image: DLR, CC-BY
Birds nesting in a carpark. Image: DLR, CC-BY

Urban wildness: Healing the human-nature divide in the city

Cities are founded on the separation of the human and its ecological other. But as Wendy Steele argues, there is an urgent need to rethink our relationship to nature.

This is an abridged extract from Planning Wild Cities by Wendy Steele. Wendy will join the discussion urban-nature relationships at the upcoming Melbourne Art Book Fair event, Wild Cities Click here for event information.

The lyrical children’s fable Where the Wild Things Are by American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak tells the story of Max, a young boy who likes to dress up in a wolf suit and cause havoc in his home. The title of the book is based on the Yiddish expression vilde chaya (wild animals). In the story, Max’s bedroom transforms into a jungle island inhabited by strange and mythical beasts known as the Wild Things.

Time magazine wrote that what makes this best-selling children’s book so compelling is its grounding effect that seeks to balance the seesaw of human fear and comfort. The message from the author is that ‘there’s a Wild Thing in all of us and that’s okay, it’s what makes you human’. ‘And the walls became the world all around.’ At home, Max has a tantrum and is sent to his room without any supper. ‘He travels to a far- away land, which is inhabited by the Wild Things. Max proves himself to the Wild Things by partaking in a wild rumpus so they make him  their King.  But he is homesick and craves his own room and home. But the Wild Things do not want him to go and cry, ‘Oh please don’t go – We’ll eat you up – we love you so! Max returns to his bedroom to find a hot supper waiting for him.

On many levels, this story could be read as the settler-colonial fantasy of mastery and separation from nature/other: the petulance and discontent with society; the quest for adventure  and flight of fancy to new lands; the domination of the Indigenous population; the sense of alienation and nostalgia for home; and finally the mistaken belief in the inherent good of conquest and colonization.

If we accept that we are in the midst of systemic ecocide, what can we do to shift that?

Where is the wild in the city? There is no easy answer to this deceptively simple question. For we are the wild in the city, as much as we are the destroyer of the wild. Building on sociologist Bruno Latour’s idea of ‘wild things’, the city as an assemblage of all manner of things and practices needs ‘a politics of the wild without recourse to old binaries of nature and society’, us and them, good and wild. How do we imagine ourselves to be civilized? How is exclusion performed? How is our concept of civilization grounded in that exclusion? If we accept that we are in the midst of systemic ecocide, what can we do to shift that?

Cities are very much a human-centred story and more specifically in the West, a settler-colonial-centred story. The dispotif or the institutional, physical and political mechanisms and knowledge structures that maintain this power, suggests geographer Susan Ruddick, is what anchors the ‘western civilized man’. The division of the civilized human and ‘other’ is not the effect of the civilizing act, but rather its very foundation, underpinning everything that it means to be civilized. To address this will require a more thoroughly problematic glimpse of our habits and hubris – our estrangement and alienation in the past and present – in order to discover and engage with the urban nature of our wild cities and ourselves as we move into the uncertain future.

Recognition of the role of traditional owners, which includes protection of Country, is a contested issue in Australia. Federal and state government laws may protect ‘significant’ trees through heritage and/or Aboriginal heritage legislation. Or they may not. The Djab Wurrung have challenged both state and federal government decisions against heritage protection for the sacred trees and their surrounds.

In New Zealand, the Whanganui River, which flows 145-kilometres to the sea in the central North Island, now has legal standing. The law recognizes the Maori Iwi people’s sacred relationship with land and water. Through this legislation, the Whanganui River is recognized as a person when it comes to the law. According to the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, the river has its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person…this legislation recognises the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui Iwi and its ancestral river and creates a strong platform for the future of Whanganui River.

Communities are starting to advocate for the rights of nature to exist, thrive, and evolve. Similar ‘rights of nature’ laws, which change the legal status of nature, exist in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, India, and Uganda, to name a few. Under the Yarra River (Wilip-gin Birrarung  murron) Act 2017, while the river’s legal status has not changed, there is progressive recognition of the connection between the traditional owners and the river. As the preamble to the act states, ‘This Act recognises the intrinsic connection of the traditional owners to the Yarra River and its Country and further recognises them as the custodians of the land and waterway which they call Birrarung.’

The premise is that our legal system is a reflection of the values of those who make and administer the law, and this needs to be changed to address the damage and devastation that has been caused in the name of progress. This includes addressing the erasure of Indigenous people’s rights and experiences, which often underpins calls for a return to ‘pristine’ nature in cities.

Nature, like the wild, is not ‘out there’ separate from cities, but instead deeply integrated into our cities and lives as part of everyday situatedness, living and interaction.

We need far better legal recognition of the role of traditional owners, which includes cultural and environmental heritage protection. Indigenous perspectives, developed on Country in holistic ways incorporating lore/law, have a particularly valuable contribution to make to address the settler-colonial legacy and capitalist DAMAGE: that is ‘Dualism (of humans and nature), Anthropocentricism, Materialism, Atomism, Greed (individualism gone mad) and Economism (the myth of no boundaries and limitless opportunities)’. [Ref 1, Ref 2]

In the current political environment, deeply locked into a culture and mindset of economic growth and property ownership, ‘you’d have to be dreaming’.

It is no surprise that the urban wilds are weakly imagined in urban civilization futures, if considered at all. Thoreau’s famous dictum ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’ referred not to wilderness but instead to a state of humanity. Nature, like the wild, is not ‘out there’ separate from cities, but instead deeply integrated into our cities and lives as part of everyday situatedness, living and interaction. This is a continuum that positions separateness and alienation from nature/each other at one dystopian end of the cityscape spectrum, versus connectivity and entanglement with nature/each other at the other as a pathway for shared urban and earthly futures.

As writer Tony Birch describes of growing up in Melbourne, Australia and sharing this experience with his students in the context of climate change:

I talked about country in the sense that Indigenous communities in Australia understand and experience it. We talked about afuture, shared or not shared – the latter of which leads to our further disconnection from each other and place. Finally, I asked eachstudent a question: ‘What are we seeking when we speak of climate justice?’ The universal response was not restricted to justice for humans alone. My students had come to believe that if we fail to care for country, it cannot care for us.

If we are the wild city, then care for each other and Country is the key.

Wendy Steele is an Associate Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning with the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, Melbourne Australia. Her research and practice focus on cities in a climate of change.

Wendy’s book Planning Wild Cities is available for purchase through Bookshop by Uro.