Critical, creative and digital writingEcriture critique, créative et numérique

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Urban environments

I call "urban environments" the environments built by humans and that by definition gather together a rather dense population: in other words, urban environments are cities, towns and villages. Urban environments are characterised by their architectural fixity, by their careful regulation of the organism's movement, and by their apparent protection from the hazards of the "natural" world. I claim that these characteristics have slowly led many people to feel dissociated from the world: urban spaces have alienated the human organisms from the environment. Ultimately, this dissociation creates a lack of care and concern for the environment.

The architectural fixity of urban environments

The city is a perfect example of the fixity of urban environments. With its buildings made of glass, steel and concrete and its roads of asphalt, the environment of the city seems rigid and unchanging. Indeed, the dynamic component of the city is not its environment, but its organisms. It is the human beings who animate cities (though nowadays electricity and pixels may also seem to have this function), not urban architecture. On the contrary, urban environments are designed to be static, so that the population loses as little time as possible in transportation. This type of environment evidently suits our contemporary mode of life, where time is so precious that it cannot be wasted in movement, thereby giving the impression that only those moments where one is still and working may bring wealth and capital.

The regulation of organisms in urban environments

Because of the density of population in urban environments, human organisms cannot be completely free of their movements and behaviors. Rules and regulations are needed in order to ensure against accidents of all kinds. In other words, specific spaces must be reserved for specific types of interaction: sidewalks are reserved for walkers; roads are for transportation; crosswalks for walkers who want to cross roads; and so on. This regulation of the organism's interaction with the urban environments entails a compartmentalization of space. If the latter is not respected, accidents occur. The compartmentalization of the urban environment is a necessary requisite for the safety of humans in cities. However, it reinforces the rigidity mentioned earlier. Indeed, the compartments are not permeable: no car should be seen advancing at high speed on the sidewalk. In the same vein, walkers who tread on roads will frequently be honked by angry drivers. This regulation of the organism provokes a sense that in cities, our surroundings are carefully within our control.

The protection from the natural world

Urban environments seem to be separated from the world of "nature", chiefly for two reasons. First, because they are by definition built by humans, cities do not belong to the realm of "nature". This not only reinforces the dichotomy culture/nature but also expands it. Cities are the epitomization of the alleged elevation of humans from the inferior world of nature into the superior world of the reason. Then, in urban environments, there is a sense of invulnerability to the trivial phenomena of the earth. Trapped in the daily routine of transportation and work, human organisms become oblivious to the fact that they are embedded in a world that is not all under control. Think simply of the frequent snowstorms that paralyze the cities of New England, or the sandstorms that strike the cities of Eastern Australia or Eastern Asia. Tragically, we are often reminded of our embeddedness in dangerous and sometimes lethal ways.

The need to rethink the effects of urbanization

Urbanization has participated in the process of conceptually dissociating human beings from the world. In urban environments that are so likely to be under careful control and regulation, that are intended to be as secure as possible so as to avoid the paralysis of capitalist societies, human organisms tend to forget that the world is not rigid, that it is not always regulated, that it is not always protected. When catastrophes occur, the sense of helplessness and fatality is amplified by that apparent dissociation of beings and world. But more importantly, if one does not feel involved with the world as a whole, if one feels alienated in a spatial compartment, one will surely not make any effort to preserve the external world (external to urban environments, that is). Understanding one's embeddedness in the world is a prerequisite for caring for the world, and therefore for preparing a livable future global ecosystem.