Biophilic Cities

Urban bobcat

My good colleague John Hadidian (Senior Scientist, HSUS) recently spoke about living with urban wildlife at the Biophilic Cities Project. Keynote speakers alongside John were Jennifer Wolch (Geography, Berkeley) and Stephen Kellert (Environmental Studies, Yale).

Biophilic urbanism is a new effort led by Tim Beatley (Architecture, UVA). He is a wonderful thinker on ethics, public policy and sustainable cities. Helga Leitner (Geography, UCLA) introduced me to his work when I was her student (thank you Helga!). His books on The Ecology of Place (1997) and Ethical Land Use (1994) significantly influenced my own thinking and practice, and I routinely use his work in my animal ethics, environmental ethics and public policy courses.

From what I’ve been reading, biophilic cities includes a strong normative emphasis on valuing and embracing animals and the rest of nature. This opens the door to non-anthropocentric moral norms as core principles and practices of architectural, landscape and urban planning. The future outcomes of such an opening could be transformative — an efflorescence of trans-species urban theory and practice, a welcoming habitat for humans and other beings, a more ecologically sound and sustainable infrastructure, and the further emergence of a culture that morally values both human and non-human life.

Biophilic urbanism is also distinct (if complementary) from the science and human justice orientations of other discourses around sustainable cities. Green urbanism, human ecology, humane cities, urban ecology, and urban political ecology all have a humans focus, which is not bad in and of itself, but wholly insufficient to meeting the full scope of our moral responsibilities in a more than human world. Biophilic urbanism seems to provide a more balanced approach to the well being of the entire community of urban life — people, animals and nature.

My best friend from graduate school and most of my professors had an abiding interest in urban geography. I learned a great deal from them on that score, yet I did not entirely share their enthusiasm for urban issues until recently. Over the years, however, I have been drawn into the discussion of urban nature through questions of urban wildlife, urban predators (e.g. coyotes), and most recently, the impact of outdoor cats on biodiversity. I’ve come to better appreciate urban nature and its many beings as a vibrant site of human-animal and human-environment interaction, one from which there is much to be learned — as well as much to be taught from an ethical and interpretive point of view.

Beatley’s Biophilic Cities Initiative is a promising effort to do right by urban peoples, animals and nature. Do see his most recent book, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning (Island Press, 2010).

Image: Urban bobcats, Riverside County, CA, USGS.

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