Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

We welcome to the blog Nir Barak, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III[1])

In this post, I want to turn our gaze to cities as the paradigmatic embodiment of niche construction in the Anthropocene. I wish to outline the task of an environmental political theory of cities, in order to show the need for strong political reasoning when addressing questions regarding the relationships between cities and nature. I will proceed by emphasizing the inadequacies of a theoretical framework entitled the ‘natural city’.



Cities as the paradigm of niche construction in the Anthropocene

By manifesting the transformative power that humans exercise over nature, cities embody the notion of niche construction in the Anthropocene. That impact on nature is not limited to the city’s own location, but rather extends on to the land and infrastructure that sustains it (electric plants, dammed rivers, agriculture etcetera). The biggest tragedies associated with anthropogenic climate change frequently occur in cities due to their density and strategic locations (close to rivers and seacoasts).  Lastly, cities are key sites of the consumption and production of commodities and transformative technologies associated with the Anthropocene. Given the fact that over half of the world’s human population now lives in cities it may be argued that they are THE human niche.

Thinking about cities and nature

The ‘natural city’ is a particular interpretation of the relationship between cities and nature that builds on this idea of city as niche, in order to see cities as natural. This approach is epitomized in the following quotations:

Cities are to humans what hives are to bees and dens are to foxes.[2]

Nature as Other is over… Bluntly put, we are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates, very precocious to be sure, but just big monkeys, nevertheless. We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef (a vast undersea coral polyp condominium) or limestone sediments formed by countless generations of calciferous marine organisms.[3]


Illustration by Sara Cwynar, used by permission. For more of her illustrations please see:

The common thread to the views of all proponents of the ‘natural city’ is that the city blends harmoniously with the natural world since it is part of the larger biotic community. In this vision, the non-artificial (natural) features of the cityscape are recognized as foundational to the lives of the human community which inhabits the city. This understanding comes out of a paradigm shift from anthropocentrism (understood as human chauvinism) to an ecocentric world view, an approach highly correlated with what Manuel Arias-Maldonado identifies on this blog as a narrative of either frugality or restraint. In the words of John Cobb, the ideal of the natural city “calls us to find ways to live within the context given us by nature, destroying as little as possible. In this view, human life adjusts to its natural context. It seeks way to improve its condition that also benefits its natural environment.”[4] In short, the city is conceptualized as part of nature and so it must be organized and managed accordingly.

A critique of the ‘natural city’

The context of this vision of cities is significant. For a long period, environmental philosophy suffered from an ‘urban blind-spot’ that may be correlated with a strong anti-urban bias. In short, this bias conceives urban life as morally inferior to life lived ‘closer to nature,’ i.e. in less developed areas. The attempt to fill the urban blind-spot by finding value in cities is laudable. However, my argument here is that regardless of the worthy goal of conceiving cities as environmentally friendly, the ‘natural city’ approach is highly questionable because it rests on an inadequate conception of politics.

Let’s see 4 arguments on this point:

  1. Against conceptual instrumentalism:

The prescribing guidelines of the natural city instrumentalize the concept of nature or the “natural context” in order to promote an ecocentric political agenda which is disguised as a-political and a-cultural.[5] For example, in the quote above Cobb presents the “natural context” as a given, objective reality, which he appeals to in order to short-circuit a less appealing and tougher political process. The “nature-based” norms and values promoted by proponents of the natural city may be highly attractive to some. However, because the derived conclusions are debatable and contested, they must be justified in political terms and not by appealing to a putative way the world simply is.

“I am at two with Nature.”
“I love Nature, I just don’t want any of it on me.”

As both Jeremy Bendik-Keymer and Marit Hammond have argued on this blog, robustly democratic governance is a crucial response to the Anthropocene. But that necessarily involves debate and contestation about the value of nature and our relationship with it. We cannot simply refuse to take into consideration the Woody Allens of the world who would probably reach different conclusions from the ‘natural context’ of their lives.

There is a very serious point here: we must ask why city life or politics in general should be based on some particular model of nature? In fact, as we shall now see, it is a mistake to try to derive politics from nature.

  1. Methodological Error

If the ‘natural city’ is not an attempt to short-circuit politics by instrumentalizing ‘nature’, then it rests on the assumptions that urban political models can (and ought to) be derived from nature. This attitude was termed by John Meyer a “derivative view” of the relation between nature and politics.[6] This is an unwarranted approach primarily because it is methodologically wrong. Unlike natural processes which are spontaneous and to a large extent deterministic and involuntary (e.g. gravity, magnetism, thermodynamics, photosynthesis), city politics can take on many forms and directions since they also involve planning, deliberation, premeditation and political conflicts– none of which are ‘naturally’ predetermined.[7] This is evident by the normatively desired diversity of opinions (the Woody Allen example) and the plurality of urban political cultures throughout the world (it is part of the basic “circumstances of politics” discussed in Zev Trachtenberg’s post).

The methodological error results from the fact that, especially in the Anthropocene, the very nature of nature and our desired relationship with it is constantly contested. Is nature harmonious or hostile? Is it hierarchical or egalitarian? The answer to these questions reflects the values the person answering already holds. In other words, even if we agree that we ought to derive our political models and practices from nature (and thereby committing the naturalistic fallacy of deriving ought from is) we would still be quarrelling over what nature actually is; i.e. we would find ourselves back in politics.

  1. Normative and pragmatic problem

In addition to the methodological error there is a third, normative and pragmatic, problem. Even if we somehow derive political guidance from a correct description of nature (and that is impossible as stated above), there is no guarantee that will lead to environmentally beneficial policies. Of even greater concern is that certain interpretations of nature can be disastrous for human beings (e.g. social Darwinism) or lead to ecologically disastrous behavior (e.g. suburbanization) or the worst of both (e.g. ruralism).


Illustration by Koert van Mensvoort, used with permission. For more of his works please see:

  1. Counteracting politics

Finally, naturalizing politics implies the impossibility of politics. For attributing naturalness to a certain political order implies not only that this order is morally superior, but also that it is permanent or subject exclusively to the natural laws of politics. That is, if politics were natural, and assuming nature is deterministic (at least at scales relevant to human experience, e.g. with gravity or thermodynamics), it follows that human beings would have no ability to influence, reform or change anything about the political structures in which they live.[8] And that means that politics on any plausible understanding of the term are impossible. This is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of naturalized politics, and shows why the ‘natural city’ is an implausible ideal.

From the Ecological Circumstances Right Back to Politics

The arguments above lead to some important conclusions for an environmental political theory of cities in the Anthropocene. Indeed, to some extent the production of cities may be seen as a form of niche construction. However, if cities are to be addressed as human niches then there is an urgent need for a full political framework that is capable of addressing the variety of socio-environmental and political norms and values that are associated with the processes of urbanization. Therefore, the primary task of an environmental political theory of the city is to find the political institutions and processes that enable a political debate about the city’s relationship with nature and about the political and social norms and values that direct this relationship. In other words, an environmental political theory of the city would emphasize the political processes and institutions that address the ecological circumstances of the circumstance of politics!

[1] Holmes Rolston, Conserving Natural Value (Columbia University Press, 1994), 12–13.

[2] attributed to Margaret Mead, quoted in Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, “In Search of the Natural City,” in The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment, ed. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper, 2nd Revised edition edition (Toronto ; Buffalo N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 15.

[3] J. Baird Callicott, “La Nature Est Morte, Vive La Nature!,” Hastings Center Report 22, no. 5 (1992): 17–18.

[4] John B. Cobb Jr., “Sustainable Urbanization,” in The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment, ed. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper, 2nd Revised edition edition (Toronto ; Buffalo N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 191.

[5] ‘Conceptual instrumentalism’ is the use of one concept, nature in this case, in order to promote political ideas that are not necessarily related to nature. For an elaboration on this please see: Avner de Shalit, The Environment: Between Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2000), chap. 2.

[6] John M Meyer, Political Nature: Environmentalism and the Interpretation of Western Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 2–5, 47–50. See his post on this blog.

[7] Please notice that this argument is not a retreat to dualism. It merely makes the point that a qualitative difference exists between cities and nature, despite the fact that they are interrelated and interdependent. For more on the Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies see the post by Luigi Pellizoni.

[8] This argument is not directed against any specific political order; it is valid whether fascism or democracy are derived from nature

3 thoughts on “Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

  1. Hi Nir!

    I am catching up on posts after a long semester – please excuse such a late reply.

    One thing that your post reminds me of is what in Cleveland has been called “Sustainable Cleveland.” Sustainable Cleveland is a program from the Mayor’s Office that has been going for about a decade. It is aimed at 2020, 50 years after the river caught fire, ushering in the Clean Water Act and the EPA (which may be dismantled by the time 2020 arrives, due to Trump). The City of Cleveland wants to show how we now have a “green city on a blue lake,” and Sustainable Cleveland is one of its major “incubators” for producing such evidence (never mind the mixed metaphors – I guess eggs are hatching on the lakeshore, the eggs of investment capital).

    Sustainable Cleveland seems really positive for many U.S. citizens concerned with sustainability. It is a serious effort over many years to foster economic growth in “green” economies and to foster non-profit initiatives that “add value” to Cleveland. There is also an educational function, and some refinement of public services – making them more efficient and producing more “buy-in” to them.

    But the thing that is so clear on reflection – and your article really brought this out for me – is that this entire multiyear initiative has no coherent or real discourse of power sharing. In this sense, it is entirely apolitical! Rather, everything it does is subjected to an inexorable market logic – even the efficiency and buy in to public services, or the value-added of non-profits that might attract investment to the city; even the “advantage” too to schools that ship their students to the annual conference and workshops thereby giving students items for their college applications, vitae and the future interviews. What we have, ta-dah! … is neo-liberalism, not politics.

    What your article helps me to say simply is that a coherent sustainable Cleveland would have to be centered on power-sharing. And, in Cleveland, this would mean a serious engagement with colonial history and with the disempowerment of both labor and the poor; the persistence of brutal policing; even the sick reality of a city that invested in the RNC for the likes of Donald Trump while not even showing the delegates the poverty of half the city, let alone opening up the city to a shared contestation of how it should be used, politically.

    With best wishes for the New Year,


  2. Thank you Jeremy,

    The question you open up in your comment is just as interesting – after we understand that the policies of urban sustainability are political and address issues of environmental values, power structures, human rights and social stratification – comes the political Leninist question – what is to be done?
    So, yes – definitely power sharing or simply put – democratic deliberation is crucial. However, issues regarding distribution of political power are highly sensitive and deserve close scrutiny. Many activists and green advocates would almost blindly support policies and rhetoric of decentralization of state power and greater autonomy for individuals. So do I. These tools (decentralization and autonomy) are the ‘classics’ for progressive politics. However, these same tools are also the ‘classics’ for promoting neo-liberal agendas. Therefore, being over enthusiastic about decentralization and autonomy without recognizing the need for at least some hierarchical structures is, to a large extent, an intellectual and pragmatic trap for progressive agendas.
    What I’m trying to imply is that these concerns are political all the way down – even with power sharing mechanisms – the essence of the subject at hand will involve contestation of norms and values. The challenge then would be to have significant public engagement and participation as the realization of this politics (anthroponomy?), otherwise decentralization and individual autonomy would be only in the service of strong economic actors.

    Best wishes and thanks again for your comments,

  3. I agree. Good comment. I don’t see what is wrong with hierarchies when they are needed or helpful (and not prohibitive of basic democratic rights). They are ways to bundle accountability and decision-making at relevant points. The question to me has always been what the justification for the hierarchy is and how it remains legitimate, not whether a hierarchy in and of itself is a bad idea. It seems in many cases to be a good one — provided that its authority is checked and limited by democratic process and personal dignity.

    Thanks, Nir.

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