More-than-human Cities: On Urban Design and Nonhuman Agency

Kartik Chugh

The modern cities are usually imagined as purified spaces of human existence, a humanist citadel, constructed by humans and for humans alone. The rapid urbanization fueled by capitalist development project proceeds without any regard for nonhumans. In its classical sense, urbanization transforms empty, unproductive wastelands into improved lands through a process called development such that the newly produced lands have the highest use-value. Such language of contemporary urban theory can be problematic because: (i) the so-called empty lands are not empty but filled with non-human life, (ii) the improved lands are usually depleted in terms of vegetation and soil quality, and (iii) the valuation of land as “best use” is based on profits and human interests only (Wolch, 2017). 

Similarly, Marxian urban theory, although highlights the role of capital and political elites in shaping urban space and urban power structures, and calls for a “right to the city” for marginalized and poor people, it doesn’t accommodate urban nonhuman life into its purview. This pervasive disregard for nonhumans in the contemporary urban theory is indicative of its deep-seated anthropocentrism. 

In the age of ecology, the humanist concept of cities has become less useful. Posing Cities and Nature as opposites is unproductive. A new strand of literature is emerging which fractures the humanist fantasy of urban studies. Philosophers, geographers, and ecologists among many others are portraying a multitude of ways in which the nonhuman actants are intricately entrenched in the social, political, cultural, historical, urban and infrastructural life of the city. They contend that cities are ‘lively’ places, better conceptualised as hybrid ecosystems, where nonhuman lives are entangled with that of humans. For instance, Ingold’s concept of “dwelling” implies that urban landscapes are produced as a result of interspecies interactions between humans and nonhuman agents. I would like to add that the production of urban is also mediated by the interactions between non-human species and more importantly, the interactions between nonhumans and urban materialities and infrastructure. 

If the urban theory disregards animals, do architects, designers and planners who shape the urban built environment engage with nonhumans? One can still make a case for urban green, but for animals not so much. The buildings that we see in the urban are rarely designed keeping nonhuman inhabitants in mind. Not just the process of building displaces or kills animals, buildings in many cases also pose a threat to birds (Owens and Wolch, 2017). In the rest of the article, I’ll attempt to show how urban design and infrastructure is based on a humanist conception of the city where certain nonhumans are imagined to be out of place. I’ll then show how these nonhumans exercise their agency to transgress human imaginations by recasting and re-purposing urban infrastructure to produce novel ecologies. 

Hostile Design

For many urban plants and animals, the design of the modern city can be unpleasant. In the vertical city, the homogenous tall buildings, for instance, are inaccessible for many. Animals such as macaques find it difficult to climb and navigate these buildings. In places such as Delhi where tall buildings are not prevalent, people often use cage structures to restrict macaques’ access to their private properties. Similarly, terraces and walls which are extensively used by macaques and squirrels to navigate the city, are studded with barbed wires. Terraces thus become exclusionary spaces confined to humans and their companion species (like dogs). These differences in access are indicative of the power structures inherent in multispecies relations. They suggest how certain animals can be more distant or favourable than others.

Synurbic animals like pigeons are excellent urban adaptors who have learnt to make use of anthropogenic elements for their survival. Their aggressive mating and nest-building behaviour on human infrastructure mean they are widely considered pests. The public infrastructure where pigeons tend to perch/make nests (e.g. clocks in metro stations) is usually studded with pigeon spikes to restrict bird’s access. Spikes and barbed wires are also installed in private spaces like window fronts. Similarly, in tall buildings, balconies are covered with nets (see photos) to keep them out. These are only a few examples where humans fashion unpleasant and defensive designs intentionally to create a purified space and to assert control over the cityscape. And though the hostile design might intend to keep only certain animals out, it unwittingly ends up impeding even those which in usual cases might be welcomed. 

To understand why humans create exclusionary designs, it is important we ask the questions of how people and animals relate to each other in the urban and how do these relationships play out? Although animals occupy a wide variety of roles within the urban landscape, a majority of urban dwellers still consider animals as ‘others’. A typical categorization involves boxing the animals in the categories of pet, livestock, wild and pest. Such categories reinforce the false binaries between ‘domesticated’ (insiders) and ‘wild’ (outsiders), urban and rural. Urban design is also a result of the attitude of people towards animals. These attitudes are shaped by the animal’s scientific, ecological, cultural, symbolic, aesthetic, religious, and utility values and even fear and antipathy (Owens and Wolch, 2017). I strongly feel that designing more-than-human cities would require understanding interspecies relationships, urban ecology and human-animal conflict in unison and not as separate matters. In this regard, the concept of zoopolis – a place in which animals and people can co-exist (Wolch, 1998) – is rather intriguing.

Transgressing Boundaries, Repurposing Infrastructure

It can also be argued that animals have the capacity to transgress the imagined and materially constructed spatial orderings of human societies. The more-than-human usage of the material city exemplifies how nonhumans can repurpose ‘lively’ infrastructure to furnish novel ecologies. 

Let’s take the example of wires. Overhead wires and cables extend across the cities (in India), forming extensive networks. For humans, these wired networks are essential for transmission (of communication signals, internet, electricity). Many nonhumans including plants have the potentiality to re-purpose the wires for other than human functionalities. The network of wires and cables form aerial routes for macaques to access and navigate the city more safely. In places such as markets which are bulging with human activity and traffic, macaques use these cables to zip-line across roads safely. Also, the sight of birds utilising these wires for perching/resting is a common occurrence. Many times, urban animals adapt to the hostile design by devising novel strategies. For instance, macaques seem to have learnt to navigate their way through barbed wires. In cities like Toronto, urban raccoons have learnt how to access raccoon-proof green bins.

In wired cities, transgression also involves the potentialities of animals to disrupt the functioning of human activities. It involves instances where our furry acrobatic co-dwellers (squirrels and macaques) by chewing telecom cables, disrupt the urban infrastructure in place to deliver lightning-fast internet services. 

Green Urban Design

The green urban design also follows the logic of human imagination and spatial ordering. Designing the cities ‘green’ often involve segregation of green spaces in the form of biodiversity parks, rooftop gardens, median plantations, public parks, etc. In all these examples, the vegetation is carefully chosen, pre-assembled and placed only in particular spaces. The urban home gardens for instance usually consist of a pre-assembled, hand-picked, elite troop growing in pots or other containers. This careful management and design can read as a way of exerting control over the cityscape. 

Plants, however, have a notorious tendency to transgress these imagined spatial orderings. Their agency (coupled with animals) to disperse and in some cases to invade and naturalise, means they can cross their designated frontiers and even flourish in a variety of niches across the cityscape. In the case of urban gardens, for instance, the domesticated and persecuted plants often transgress the boundary of the controlled ‘inside’ to form new assemblages on roadsides, gutters and rooftops. Like animals, plants in the city too can repurpose infrastructure to produce urban life (see photos). In my town, for instance, vines such as Giloy (Heart-leaved moonseed) have flourished in the concrete bins outside houses, making use of water pipes. These vines have also made use of wires, poles and even mobile towers to proliferate.   

The nonhumans in the city are not passive but full of potentialities and by interacting with the lively infrastructure, these nonhumans play a crucial role in animating and producing the urban. Juxtaposing nature and city is unproductive. A multidisciplinary effort among various disciplines including urban ecology, urban studies and architecture would not only make the cities more inclusive but would also create new urban forms and solutions.


Image Credits:

  • Slideshow 1: Author, Aditi Bhande and Coyau (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Slideshow 2: Author and Chris Goldberg “Monkey on Electric Wire” (CC BY-NC 2.0)
  • Gallery (Circled Tiles) : Author and Aditi Bhande
  • Cover Photo: Chris Goldberg “Monkey on Electric Wire” (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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