Nonhuman Urbanism

Information regarding the re-population of native species to various fauna/flora-depleted urban environments.

 

In his book Landscape as Infrastructure (2017) Pierre Belanger argues that 20th century infrastructure, organized by urban planners and designed by engineers, is an urbanistically degrading and environmentally destructive solution to the problems of connectivity, mobility, and service provision. Not only has it torn up perfectly good places where people live but it has suppressed and marginalized biophysical systems.

 

Belanger propounds the formulation of landscape infrastructure as a contemporary field of practice that addresses the flows of urban economies and the dynamics of planetary ecologies.

And he would seem to be right about this. Yet, in the light of what is now called the nonhuman turn (Grusin 2015) I think we can push this further. The nonhuman turn insists that humans have always co-evolved and collaborated with the other creatures of the earth (from microbes to mammals). Amongst all the work that is going in to saving the planet for human occupation it is necessary to consider whether the planet actually exists for us. How are we human in a nonhuman world? How does a consideration of a nonhuman perspective affect the way we build and manage planetary systems? Particularly urban systems.

One way to incorporate these questions into urban thinking through landscape architecture is to extend Belanger’s concept of infrastructure. To be sure, infrastructure has an extraordinary physical job to do. But there are other networks and systems that are just as important - in fact, that help us envisage new types of infrastructure. Networks of social organizations, for instance, of shared meanings, non-material labor and - critically - social and political affect. These systems are distinct from physical infrastructure and yet connected to it. Together they enable us to include the pre-cognitive emotional and passionate dimension of life that may theorists say really drives politics and economics.

How humans are exposed to, work and play with, and build their own subjectivities through meaningful connection to nonhumans can be part of this more ephemeral infrastructure, a condition that writer and curator Nato Thompson calls an infrastructure of resonance. This is the subject of my talk.

Over the past ten years I have developed a small side-project called Under the Radar. It consists of a series of design investigations that explore the affective encounter between humans and nonhumans from various perspectives. The remainder of this paper briefly discusses four of these, in an attempt to tease out what I mean when I say landscape architecture is an art of encounter. In these projects public space becomes is a designed realm in which the collective of humans and nonhumans is made visible and intentional, where the various parties are mixed and all their freedoms enhanced.

 

1. COYOTES

This project explores the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman in a small town in Alabama, USA. The Auburn urban coyote population numbers approximately 600 (Jantz 2012). The Auburn Wildlife Services Office and the Department of Conservation regularly trap coyotes when complaints get too numerous to ignore. The trapped coyotes are put down with penthobarbytol, rather than relocated and released. As a Wildlife Officer said at a public meeting, as soon as a bunch of coyotes are moved out, new ones will come in. “They will always be here. Auburn is an open green space city - coyotes love it” (pers. comm. 2012).

We mapped the coyote population’s movements and identified three public areas where we could design interventions that put humans and coyotes together in an awkward and unconventional way. In this particular example, a storm retention pond is located between a woodland coyote corridor and the building that houses Auburn City’s Water and Sewer Services. In the design for this site, the terrain adjacent to the Water and Sewer Services retention pond, and the pond itself, are reorganized according to a modernist garden typology. The format of the rectangle creates straight lines, regular shafts of space and severe, high retaining walls. The pond is snapped into a large rectangle of water. Into this Euclidian space is introduced a planting regime designed specifically to provide food for the animals and insects that coyotes prey upon, and that coyotes themselves are known to eat.

The planting scheme, based on gut and scat analyses of coyotes, is crafted to supply fruit and nuts throughout the year, according to the seasonal development of the plants, starting in the spring at the northern end of the site and ending in the fall at the south. The trees, native and exotic, are under-planted with winter-flowering grasses that also are eaten by coyotes and their prey, particularly in the leaner months. This public garden, which provides seating, sun and shade for employees in the nearby buildings, will attract rabbits, squirrels, insects, birds and other wildlife. These species in turn will attract coyotes in their passage along the adjacent woodland corridor. As the garden – or critter orchard – grows unchecked plant and animal species will overgrow its initial formal and spatial stratifications in an evolving assemblage of interactive inhabitations.

 

2. SKYLARKS

This project develops a resonant infrastructure that combines native birds, human recreational activities and large-scale agribusiness. The Eurasian skylark went into deep decline with the advent of industrial agriculture and the changing production regimes that accompany large-scale, market-driven cropping. But skylarks have always been beloved members of the nonhuman community because they lend themselves to easy field observation yet they seem so distant, and because of the mating behavior of the male. Following a rapid ascent to a great height in the sky, a slow spiraling descent occurs, accompanied by a thrilling, cascading song that fills the air with hope and joy.

However, current lark numbers are only 10% of what they were 30 years ago. Their habitat has been replaced by single-species cropping which reduces the structural diversity of terrains and interferes with the territorial requirements of the birds.

Field ecology research has suggested that setting aside sufficiently large and numerous areas of otherwise commercially farmed fields can help increase nesting and foraging opportunities for skylarks and thereby improve breeding success. As a result farmers in England are now paid to create and maintain biodiversity for increasing the habitat of skylarks. The SAFFIE1 has shown that suitable nesting sites can be made during the sowing of commercial crops by turning the machine off (or lifting the seed drill) for a 5 to 10 meter stretch as the tractor goes over the ground, to briefly stop the seeds from being sown.

Repeated in several areas in the same field to make about two skylark plots per acre, these “seed tables” enable breeding skylarks access to multiple foraging opportunities. This is a consortium-led project funded by, amongst others, the Agricultural Industries Confederation and Sainsbury Supermarkets Ltd.

We developed a project in Missouri, in the Midwest of the United States where the Missouri Skylark, a grassland prairie bird, is also endangered. We discovered that skylark plots open up a network of physical spaces through which birdsong and flight can be appreciated by humans for their aesthetic and affective qualities. So we designed an agrarian open system of pathways and picnic areas that encourage other ground-dwelling avian species such as pheasants and partridge in the hope of emblematizing an urban-rural crossover that could spread almost on its own.

Just as the early 20th century English ruralists considered the whole of a region as a work of art, the interpenetration of human and nonhuman made possible by interventions that are good for both has the potential to operate across extensive territories of cropland, linking commercial fields with open systems of patches and corridors. If implemented on the scale of districts and regions the project could form a shifting, drifting network of feeding and breeding, observing and feeling opportunities which would otherwise be lost. The skylark project firmly claims urban / rural public space as a constructed realm.

 

3. LIZARDS

A project in Auckland, New Zealand, highlights the unique volcanic landscapes of the Auckland region by focusing on the ecology of the native lizard populations whose habitat is the volcanic field on which the city is built. It seeks to draw attention to the web of biotic and geologic relationships which lies just under the radar of Aucklanders, and which provides the special character of the landscape that they interact with on a daily basis. At the same time as bringing the cryptic lives of skinks and geckos to the attention of the people who live among them, the project contributes to the scientific understanding of lizards. It intersects scientific data about lizard species with place-specific socio-cultural data to generate landscape form.

Once the habitat and microhabitats of particular lizard species have been defined, it is possible to enhance the use of existing habitat structures by adding in special features, such as food sources and perching opportunities. Certain species prefer certain habitat structures. The greater the number of microhabitats the greater the number of species of lizard can be accommodated. The species that may be found in the project intensities share a requirement for similar structures: logs, rock outcrops, leaf litter.

The design of lizard gardens relies on operations that maximize such aspects of the geometrical habitat configuration as:

· inclination of surfaces (in NZ north facing surfaces increase the thermal environment)

· presence of rock crevices (for protection and hibernation)

· substrate texture (provides food source and protection)

· perch height (for thermal absorption and protection)

· diameter and density of overhead canopy (maximize solar penetration to habitat)

New Zealand’s Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve is the only remaining Maori stonefield site in public ownership. It was formed by the eruption of two volcanic cones, one of which has been extensively mined, while the other is relatively intact. Large quantities of volcanic stone from the eruptions were used both by Maori and Europeans in the making and protecting of gardens. Wall remnants clearly show the patterns of occupation and gardening from early Maori horticultural practices to latter day orcharding and farming. Maori garden wall alignments, primarily constructed in chevron patterns to maximize kumara exposure to the sun, have been overlaid by quadrangular walled enclosures specific to European farming practices. The result is a singular array of structures that visibly record the history of settlement of this part of Tamaki Makaurau.

A number of different species of skink have been observed at, or may be considered as likely to inhabit, the stonefields site. These are the now endangered moko skink (Oligosome moco), the copper skink (Cyclodenia aena), the ornate skink (Cycodenia arnate) and the rainbow skink. The Otuataua lizard garden has been designed to fulfill the ecological requirements of these species – what they eat, the space they control, and their thermal requirements.

The location for the lizard garden is close to the stonefields reserve but not actually in it. The garden is proposed for a site where the coastal walkway turns ninety degrees and heads towards the boundary between the stonefields reserve and a coastal and foreshore restoration zone. This walkway is proposed to become part of Te Araroa (The Long Pathway), the walking trail running the length of New Zealand. At this point the walkway runs beside two large earth-covered stone mounds, and affords impressive views both of the stonefields and the Manukau Harbour.

The design proposes a series of dry rock forms and an earth mound oriented to the sun, creating heat panels which provide a localized climate ideal for thermal absorption, conduction and convection. The dry rock structures provide vertical perches and lateral crevices for basking and protection. Planting adds further to the habitat structure with the provision of twigs and branches for perching in the morning, and leaf and twig litter on the ground plane for protection and foraging for insects. Lines of flax (Phormium tenax) bound the garden and help provide the microclimate conditions lizards require.

As well as providing habitat the design of the garden extends the historic stone garden structures of the reserve to create a new terrain that intensifies and focuses the patterns of early gardening techniques. The pit and mound continue the topography of the stonefields, the stone structures reflect their geometries, and tamarix trees introduce the exoticism of the orchard.

The resulting garden provides a timely laboratory for the study of lizards. These reptiles are urban indicator species, and can tell us much about the biodiversity of our cities. But the body of knowledge of northern New Zealand herpetology is evolving only slowly, due to the diminished locations and range of the endemic lizard population. The Auckland region currently provides habitat for twelve species of lizard. Prior to urbanization there were eighteen. The depredations of prolonged urban development and the corresponding growth of predator populations have taken their toll. The lizard population of Auckland is therefore in a critical phase. The Under the Radar project shows how new animal habitat can be designed in urban situations to enhance at-risk species chances of survival and at the same time provide a new kind of public open space.

 

4. BENTHIC CREATURES

The intertidal zone is a gradient threshold that seems to lack delineation: it is all barely differentiated transition. Yet the tidal flat has two very important axes. While we are not visually aware of them their interaction is critical to the zone. For many centuries the Manukau Harbour on the west coast of Auckland, New Zealand has been inhabited by Maori. Their ecological epistemology is based on the interaction between the tides and the moon, between the X and Y axes, themselves invisible, of life.

An installation at Manukau Harbor investigates this interaction. It uses the analytical landscape architectural conventions of the transect, of identifying, naming and drawing. A stringline is stretched along the mudflat from land to harbor channel. At regular intervals along the line a peg is inserted into the mud. A drawing is made of a different creature observed at the location of each peg. The drawing is punched on the peg. We see live objects: amphineura, bivalvia, crustacea, gastropeda, odonata, scyphax.

Scyphax ornatus is a terrestrial isopod that exhibits circadian and circa-semilunar activity rhythms when kept in constant conditions in the laboratory, suggesting that these rhythms enable Scyphax to predict nightly foraging opportunities (Quitter and Lewis 1989).

Within scientific domains of knowledge such creatures are almost entirely invisible. The more science tries to describe them and explain them, the darker they become. To Maori, harvesting and eating is a way of explanation. To eat a live object is to bring it into the light.

The Polynesian fishing calendar reflects the lunar cycle in relation to intertidal animals, species whose rhythms and distinctions are different from humans’. The lunar cycle suspends objects dark and bright between darkness and light in a longitudinal zone that is both land and sea, where seawater skims the surface of the land and live objects find a sunlit zone. This soft shore - littoral, intertidal, epipelagic - transforms sunlight into seagrass, into cockle, crab, hatchling, bivalve, gastropod, crustacean, and echinoderm. It’s a gravitational field of food. The moon’s cycle gives life to intertidal animals, and to the terrestrial and aerial animals that feed in this liminal zone. Here the Polynesian takes advantage of her own foraging opportunities.

The rhythms of the moon and the tides it pulls across the shore are predicted in the Maori calendrical system, where epistemology and ecology come together to form a maramataka, a lunar system for regulating the gathering of food. Maori involve all the heavenly systems in their maramataka, the solar and stellar cycles as well as the lunar cycle, but it is the 28 - 30 day cycle of marama, the moon, that is most relevant to food practices on the mudflats of Manukau Harbor, since the moon controls the tides. When fishing, significant aspects for understanding the relationship between the catch and the lunar cycle are the phase of the moon, the time of day, the condition of the water, the species of fish out there, and the weight of your neighbor’s catch.

The moon dictates all, but the sun and the stars describe the background oscillations that pull all creatures along their evolutionary paths.

On the mudflats of the Manukau Harbor, benthic and epipelagic species are found on the seabed and swimming in the two-inch layer between the mud and the air. When the Matariki (Pleiades) are low on the horizon in the north east of the sky, at the time of the half moon waxing gibbous, eel and fish are abundant, but small, and it is a productive day to collect shellfish. For the Maori, as for the Scyphax, the moon is about food.

The sky is a cultural resource, as much as the land or sea.

 

CONCLUSION

The Under the Radar project focuses specifically on creatures that are not charismatic or obvious, but with whom we share many of the landscapes in which we live. Its purpose is to draw attention to the cryptic and often invisible biota that, with a little fellow-feeling, we can include rather than exclude in the ongoing creation of the global public realm. Combining animal habitat enhancement with creative landscape design will help us form new kinds of open space.