Cities offer hope as possible sites of reconciliation between different communities of humans, and between us and other species.
The lesson that life constantly enforces is “Look underfoot.” […] The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Don't despise your own place and hour. Every place is the center of the world.
Since the start of 2020, many of us have been forcibly stuck in place. In this condition, the subtle, steady rhythms of the world turning, the seasons unfolding underfoot and overhead, have contrasted more notably with the digital lives that flicker and pan across the screens of our devices. Working from the confines of my home in Singapore, I found myself more fascinated than usual by the local patterns of nature. When out for exercise, I joined the many others who delighted in the arrival of wildflowers and butterflies to roadside verges, after the regular mowing regimes were paused during the lockdown period. We hoped that this rediscovered wildness would be allowed to remain with us. (1)
Certain groups of people, such as older adults and children, whose movements are more locally constrained even under “normal” conditions, already interact closely with their local ecosystems. Every morning, my 80-something-year-old neighbour is outside, on the pavement, deep in the flow of the task at hand, or her memories, or most likely caught up between both. She fills her plastic bag with blue pea flowers from the self-seeded vines that cover the guardrail where our street crosses a stormwater canal; these blossoms will become tea or colouring for cakes. Along the path bordering that same canal, my daughter walks to nursery school. She usually stops to scan the water for flurries of fish feeding and fighting. On a railing or rooftop, she can often spot an egret or a heron stalking their breakfast.
The links between contact with nature and human well-being are well-established. Biophilia, the theory by the biologist Edward O. Wilson (1979) that claims humankind instinctively desires interaction with nature, has entered mainstream use. Some frequently cited examples of research proving the benefits of natural exposure include shorter recovery times for patients whose rooms have a view of greenery as compared to those facing a wall, and the more highly restorative mental effect of a walk through a park as opposed to a walk down a busy street.
Is there a tension between our innate and salubrious attraction to wild nature and the environmental imperative to live densely, in cities? Currently, the news seems full of stories about the pandemic-driven fleeing from some of the world’s most iconic cities, such as London and New York, to the suburbs and beyond. It’s debatable whether this genuinely represents a larger, long-term urban exodus, (2) but even a milder trend towards suburbanisation—or on the part of the rich, the pursuit of rural getaways—runs counter to the advice of scientists and advocates who argue that our best hope for a liveable planet is to quickly and dramatically shrink the current footprint of human activities. Just as throwing “away” our rubbish is essentially a misnomer, for there is nowhere it can really go, an “escape” from the city risks spreading our human problems further across the land. As epidemiologists have reminded in the case of outbreaks, from Ebola to COVID-19, encroaching into the shrinking refuges of other species endangers both them and us.
“Rewilding” implies the reversion of a landscape previously altered by people. The concept has entered the popular imagination via stories such as Wilding (2019), Isabella Tree’s chronicle of the transformation of her family’s estate in rural England, and George Monbiot’s Feral (2017), which together convinced many readers of the rich potentials of reviving depleted land. They have also helped to spread knowledge of the crucial role that non-human large mammals play in the trophic cascades that shape dynamic ecosystems.
How do the dynamics of rewilding change when transposed from spaces that humans have voluntarily retreated from (such as former farmland, deindustrialised regions or national parks) to places where humans still wish to densely coexist, namely cities? “Urban rewilding” may seem like an oxymoron to some. In the North American context, I’ve seen rewilding linked to the “deep adaptation” view of inevitable social collapse, often with uncomfortable echoes of the colonialist pioneer project and the ambitious but often naive “back to the land” movement of the 1960s and 70s. In some fora, there is a sense that cities, and in some cases, civilisation itself, are the root of all human problems.
On the contrary, Michael Pawlyn and I assert in our new book, Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency (2021), that we need to embrace the realities of our interdependence with both other people and other diverse species, whilst helping our cities evolve to actively support this. In Flourish, we explore this and other ways that designers and clients of design can support the transition from the arrogance and anxiety of the Anthropocene towards the acceptance and reintegration of the Symbiocene. The latter concept was first articulated in 2011 by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who went on to observe that “some humans have done well in the short-term defying symbiosis in our industrial gigantism and monocultures, but it is now time for all humanity to re-join the diversity and unity of rest of life.” (3)
What does rewilding in our city streets and spaces look like? In dense urban contexts, where it is functionally or politically impossible to reintroduce other large mammals at scale, humans will need to actively intervene in a way that helps the landscape to evolve. To some, it might mean the intentional re-introduction of native species of plants and animals to city spaces. Barcelona’s planned city-wide introduction of beehives, nesting towers for bats and bees, as well as insect-friendly plantings, is an example of this method. In my use of the term, urban rewilding also entails embracing the spontaneous growth of new plants seeded by air or animals, and avoiding or significantly reducing mowing, pruning, weeding, and the use of pesticides. This approach can be seen in the work of Yun Hye Hwang’s experiments in rewilding various sample sites in Singapore, including a rooftop and the lawn of a university campus. (4)
To ensure substantial impact within urban systems, these smaller measures must be bolstered by larger policies that embrace nature as an essential factor of city planning and management decisions, and crucially, they require citizen support. Both Singapore’s City in Nature plan, unveiled in 2020, (5) and Barcelona’s recently announced “renaturalisation” plans (6) were in the works well before the pandemic struck. Yet the tangible benefits of urban nature, at least in terms of the wellbeing of those “stuck” in these cities, have now surely helped to make a stronger case for their necessity here, and in other cities around the world.
Rewilding expands and enriches the greening agenda for urban public spaces. Sports pitches and playgrounds, cycle paths and city farms are all important to the future of cities, but we shouldn’t mistake these as replacements for wilder spaces. As Charles Montgomery shares in Happy City (2014), the evenly spaced trees and lawns that humans say they prefer the look of may not actually be as beneficial as wilder forms of nature, when it comes to wellbeing. Furthermore, allowing more instances of “wild” nature into our cities can help build a more nature-symbiotic society through generational cycles of influence: researchers have found that direct exposure to nature during childhood correlates with conservation attitudes and practices as adults. (7)
In his book Down to Earth (2018), Bruno Latour argued for a need to reorient politics towards “the terrestrial”. This thesis piqued the interest of many readers, yet left us without any clear examples of what it could mean in practice. Here is another way that proximity to wild nature is important to city-dwellers: it provides us with metaphors and models for human systems and our social future.
In this time, as we are called to transform of our ways of being in the world, we need new metaphors and models to inspire us. In our new book Flourish, Michael Pawlyn and I encourage readers to look deeper into nature for models of truly regenerative design. In one vivid example that inspires us, the botanist, teacher and author Robin Wall Kimmerer observes the rich social life of a local plant, the serviceberry, and she discovers a metaphor to help imagine a new economy based on “gratitude and reciprocity”, on the principle of abundance rather than scarcity. (8)
Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is one of many voices reminding us that countless communities, over many generations, have practiced symbiotic stewardship of their co-evolved landscape. Any serious attempt at rewilding or forming a restoration ecology must join in the overdue acknowledgement of and learning from the sophisticated relationships between indigenous peoples and their landscapes. Deeper studies into specific first people’s practices of land management, such as Bruce Pascoe’s Black Emu (2018) in Australia, and M. Cat Anderson’s Tending the Wild (2013) in California, offer further examples of ways of life intimately interwoven with place.
Beyond the challenge of (re-)acquiring deep local knowledge, rewilding in the context of contemporary cities will have to contend with additional complicating factors including intensity of use, microclimates of manmade noise, air pollution, the urban heat island effect, impermeable surfaces and so on. It’s tempting to seek analogies to the challenges of cultivating humane coexistence in dense urban contexts, the unruliness and risk of close interaction between people with different cultural backgrounds and practices.
Rewilding offers a promisingly tender new model for the landscape industry. Just as we have asked some of the most vulnerable in our societies to clean our toilets and slaughter our livestock, landscape work is often conceived of as brute force, unskilled manual labour. In a marked departure from this, during the development of Hwang’s rewilding projects, she has taught the landscape workers she collaborates with to identify certain plants for special care, such as at-risk species, or management, like fast-growing climbers that smother other plants. This is a small but important step, going from a system of control to a system of care.
At a time when both ethnic nationalism and biodiversity loss threaten many points on the globe, cities offer hope as possible sites of reconciliation between different communities of humans and between us and other species. The dynamic and heterogeneous nature of cities may also allow for a type of rewilding that jettisons old notions of “native” and “invasive” species, and celebrates processes of negotiation, adaptation and mixing.
To cynics, this may sound like a romantic fantasy. But the Overton window has shifted; various city administrations are now articulating rewilding agendas, and mainstream news outlets are disseminating the concept. This is our opportunity to leap beyond an “ecosystem services” view of nature, one that continues to subjugate the Earth and its other species in service to humans. This is our moment to act on the knowledge that we humans are more than “biophilic” nature-protectors: we are an inextricably integrated part of nature’s whole. In essence, let’s rewild our own self-image.
To do this, we’ll need to turn our self-centred and anthropocentric tendencies on their heads, learning to see ourselves in other people, other creatures, other systems. Those city dwellers, like my flower-picking neighbour and fish-spotting child, find resources and respite where many of the rest of us have been too busy or distracted to look. If we look more carefully and curiously around us, how might the many other life forms, who are busy sinking their bodies, roots or mycelia into the ground, suggest new ways for us to embed in our urban spaces in this uncertain era? Being “stuck” in one place needn’t imply stasis, but rather a rootedness from which we can flower.