The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III)
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.
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.
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.” 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:
- 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. 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.
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.
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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).
- 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. 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!
 Holmes Rolston, Conserving Natural Value (Columbia University Press, 1994), 12–13.
 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.
 J. Baird Callicott, “La Nature Est Morte, Vive La Nature!,” Hastings Center Report 22, no. 5 (1992): 17–18.
 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.
 ‘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.
 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.
 This argument is not directed against any specific political order; it is valid whether fascism or democracy are derived from nature