Plants, cyborgs, and the future of nature

green man
The future of nature? (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Does nature have a future? If so, what kind of future will it be and how will humans shape it?

These huge questions dominated proceedings at a conference to mark 50 years of the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield. Drawing together renowned speakers from around the world, the agenda was ostensibly the future of the profession of landscape architecture. But it was much bigger than that, and in my view better for it.

This isn’t the only forum where academics and practitioners are wrestling with how to understand ‘nature’ in the Anthropocene. Richard Weller, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, kicked off with the idea of the ‘cyborg planet’, surrounded, monitored and ordered by all-seeing satellites, and detailed the conflicts between urban expansion and biodiversity.

For Nigel Dunnett, professor of planting design and vegetation technology at the Department of Landscape, the agenda was one of bringing feelings of joy into cities by creating spaces of ‘enhanced nature’ or ‘pepped-up nature’ such as the London Olympic Park, artfully designed quasi-natural environments in which humans could feel immersed in life and colour. Stig Andersson, creative director of SLA Architects in Copenhagen, talked of landscape design as bringing a new order into the built environment.

In these and other presentations, there was a blurring of boundaries between the human and more-than-human, an understanding that whatever we mean by ‘nature’ as something other than ourselves and something that supports our own wellbeing, it is inextricably intertwined with and shaped by human activity.

That means, first of all, that care for the natural environment is care for ourselves – but the pursuit of human wellbeing through economic growth accompanied by accelerating urbanisation runs up against the ability to sustain human wellbeing (not to mention planetary welfare) through carbon control, food production and the preservation of biodiversity.

It was Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, who made the connection between care for the environment and care for ourselves in terms of an agenda of justice and equality. His rhetorical question was whether we could think of a planet that was fundamentally socially unjust as being sustainable.

Quoting the planning academic Patsy Healey, he emphasised the need to think of planning (and planning for ‘sustainability’) as ‘managing our coexistence in shared space’. In material terms, it means that there is a shared agenda between Black Lives Matter and the survival of an animal or plant species. In both the human and the more-than-human environments, inequalities diminish our own species and those we share our planet with.

Professor Agyeman set out four conditions for a sustainable future:

  • improving quality of human life and wellbeing
  • meeting the needs of present and future generations
  • justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes
  • living within ecosystem limits

Taken together, these link justice and equality for humans with a just approach to the wider environment, respecting the present and future needs of all species within the shared space we call planet Earth. From a planning perspective, this involves conceptualising and promoting cities as urban commons – an agenda I’ve also pushed in my work on the future of town centres.

There’s a danger, though, that by refocusing on social justice among humans we return to thinking of ‘nature’ as a resource to support human wellbeing rather than as a multitude of other species with whom we share the planet.

Bringing together the insights of the conference, we can think of nature as a complex mix of actors in the co-evolution of humans and other species, as the context for human action, as a stake in human conflict (from the English enclosures of the seventeenth century to the ongoing dispossession of First Nations), and as the victim of human injustice, as eloquently expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical on the natural environment (‘the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor’).

This is all big-picture stuff. For everyday practitioners or researchers, there’s an everyday agenda that unfolds and, given attention, can change the way we practice.

First, we can be aware of the difference that can be made at small spatial and interpersonal scales in the way we intervene in landscapes and streetscapes. The Refugees Welcome in Parks project is a great example of small changes that make a big difference.

Second, we can keep in mind that change extends well beyond professional, local or disciplinary boundaries and that it is by building bridges and removing barriers that we are likely to make the most difference within and beyond our chosen occupations.

Third, we can keep in mind the constant and inherent conflict between ‘value’ as imagined by acquisitive and rapacious economic interests and what creates value for humans who experience injustice and exclusion, and for the other species with whom we live. Challenging the commoditisation of the natural environment and the reduction of all logics to financial trade-offs and accumulation is a good start.

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