A “smart” city is not so smart: how nature became a political problem and what the “cyborg cities” will be like

    05 Dec 2021

    The idea of ​​smart digital cities has already captured the imagination of our contemporaries. However, although this clear image is attractive, there are factors that the smart city model does not take into account: it is living life that not only does not leave the city but also takes on new, hitherto non-existent forms.

    Thankfully to the Knife review, let’s explore why nature in the city is not just pigeons and trees but a political and cultural problem and how urban nature “uses” infrastructure for survival.


    What is a smart city

    Smart cities are the most common way of thinking about urban development around the world today. This concept is often understood as a set of digital technologies that provide the ability to quickly (and even in real time) monitor various indicators in the city by the authorities in order to improve the operation of services. For example, the Internet of Things – the heart of smart cities – can quickly track and optimize transport, parking, lighting, safety and waste disposal. The use of digital technologies is seen as a way to create innovative solutions to the problems of globalization, in order to ultimately improve the quality of life and make cities resilient.

    Smart cities are controlled cities, computer cities that turn everything into information, analyze it and manipulate it. Today, there are whole areas such as urban informatics, the purpose of which is to collect and analyze urban information on an ever-increasing scale. It seems that the more data we collect, the more opportunities we will have to change something.

    But this is pure technocratic reasoning: as if we can solve everything with the help of technology without resorting to political, economic and cultural changes. This is not the case for two reasons. First, smart cities do not see the many biological processes that take place in cities and can, as in the case of Toronto below, lead to a political crisis. Second, these processes are intertwined with the economy, culture and technology.


    How biological processes affect the city

    In 2003, a SARS epidemic broke out in Toronto, Canada. About 50 people died and hundreds more spent several months in hospital beds. SARS was brought there by Chinese migrants, of whom there are quite a few. For several months, local residents avoided interacting with migrants and were suspicious of them for months. And beside them, also to the Canadians of Asian origin, and the Chinese living in Chinatown. But Toronto is a city of migrants, of which more than half of the population is here. Canada is famous for its policy of multiculturalism, and Toronto is a living embodiment of this policy.

    So the SARS virus has become for the city not only a biological problem (infection and illness of hundreds of people) but also a political one. The anti-migrant and racist statements that appeared against the background of the epidemic did not please the local authorities. And it took them a lot of effort to return the multicultural balance to its usual course.

    Cities are not only about economics, cultural life, and technology. In many ways, these are also biological processes. SARS viruses are not only a medical problem, but also an important political issue. And the larger the city, the more global they are, the more complex biology is intertwined with politics, economics and culture. This is what those who write about smart digital cities today are forgetting. And that is exactly what they are reminded of by numerous environmental crises and stories like the one that happened in Toronto.


    What new type of nature has appeared in cities

    What are the alternatives to smart city models? One of them is “live” cities. That is, it is an appeal to biological and – more broadly – natural processes. However, this is not just a “return to nature” in the city but also a radical rethinking.

    For a long time, those who studied nature in cities separated humans from it, and the process of urbanization itself was portrayed as deliberately artificial. Indeed, what is natural about the construction of artificial highways or the construction of factories? For example, in urban projects of the beginning and middle of the century, in Le Corbusier, nature was only a resource for a person living in a certain area. She was required to be beautiful and useful. Nobody cared what processes take place inside parks and squares and how wild animals felt within the city (which should not have been there).

    However, by the end of the 20th century, they returned to urban nature under the influence of environmental crises, but under a different sauce. Why are they talking about nature in cities again today? One of the most obvious answers is the general concern about climate change and nature in general. Today, more than 95% of scientists who deal with the problem of warming are sure that climate change is a fact, and the primary source of climate change is humans.

    Recently, even the influential term “Anthropocene” has appeared, borrowed from geologists. It describes a new situation when, first of all, anthropogenic factors determine changes in nature – climate, soil and water composition.

    The Anthropocene is evidenced by several environmental crises that occurred in the second half of the 20th century in modern cities. In addition to the notorious disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, one can also note the disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984 and in Seveso, Italy in 1976, when, as a result of emissions of harmful substances from industrial enterprises, tens of thousands of people fell ill with skin diseases and a dozen women were persuaded to have abortions, fearing, that their children will have congenital disabilities. However, in addition to human diseases, such accidents harm the ecosystem as a whole: for decades, it cannot return to normal. For example, the Chernobyl accident affected the whole of Europe, and even several months later, English farmers in the north of the British Isles were forbidden to graze their sheep in meadows that were contaminated with harmful emissions.

    Cities disrupt habitual natural cycles, taking a lot of resources and energy from the environment. For example, London today is experiencing water supply problems: population growth is driving the need to take excess water from the surrounding rivers, resulting in less rainfall and an increased frequency of droughts. The global character of cities leads to the fact that they contain new biological organisms, new species, and even ecotopes (specific habitats of certain natural communities), replacing old, familiar species. Thus, the growth of cities increases the burden on the environment and leads to its damage.

    Why, then, is there no point in talking about a return to nature today? Precisely because cities have created a new type of intermediate space where nature, human activity (such as politics or culture) and technology intertwine and form new hybrids.


    Why urban nature is a political issue

    Indianapolis in USA is an interesting place. If we compare the map of the middle and upper class settlement and the map of the trees planted by the city, it turns out that these maps overlap. More trees are planted where wealthier people live. Why does it happen? Mainly because middle-class people appreciate the shade and other beneficial effects of trees and are lobbying to plant trees near the areas where they live. Thus, social interests have an impact on urban nature. But that’s not all.

    It turns out that trees should be planted in such a way that geographic proximity is maintained between plantings. This is necessary for the processes of seed dispersal, pollination and exchange of substances. Therefore, the more trees are planted in one place, the more they need to be planted around the planting, that is, nearby, preferably in the same area. As a result, more trees are planted in Indianapolis for both social reasons (lobbied) and environmental (it’s better for trees). The funny thing is that from the point of view of the regional scale, this is the most correct move.

    But there is another story, already in Cape Town, where the interests of individual local residents enjoying the forest stood in opposition to the interests of the entire city. In 1998, an accidental fire occurred in Tokai Park, which mowed down some of the tall pines that were brought here several decades ago and planted for recreation of the surrounding residents. Some of the trees burned down, and from under them a finbosh rose and appeared – a shrub whose seeds germinate well on the ground enriched with minerals after the fire.

    When the fire was extinguished, the problem arose of how to restore the park: it turned out that the finbosh is a famous local plant, which is appreciated by biologists and conservationists and is very useful for the environment. It was necessary to continue sowing the forest with pines and acacias, which are popular with those who relax in the park and run in it in the morning, or plant finbosh, supplanted by pine trees, but which promotes biodiversity and strengthens the drainage properties of the soil. As a result, the interests of those who like the pine park came into conflict with the interests of the entire city and even the region.

    The question of whose interests should be realized in the first place is a political question. And these two stories, Indianapolis and Cape Town, show two different cases where nature (in the sense of the broader habitat of different species) is either on the side of particular social groups (for example, the wealthy), or on the side of the common good of the entire city.


    Why urban nature is a cultural issue

    If you come to Barcelona today, travel around the suburbs and see what grows there around private houses, then you will see not olives, citrus trees and even palm trees, but manicured lawns. In the suburbs of Barcelona in the 1980s and 2010s began to spread private gardens with lawn and flowers, which were transferred here from the Anglo-Saxon world in the course of global exchange. Local authorities in the city center began to build public parks with lawns: well-groomed and tidy – they began to symbolize “good nature”, unlike the thickets that were usually found in the gardens of the Spaniards. Today the gardens symbolize some cultural difference between the middle and upper class from everyone else. If you are wealthy and can afford to live in a private house in the suburbs, then a pleasant green lawn with a lawn will favorably distinguish you from the rest, and give neighbors an idea of ​​your culture. Today these gardens are very widespread and cover 11% of the entire Barcelona suburb.

    However, the problem is that these gardens are characterized by a more maritime Atlantic climate with mild and humid weather. Therefore, they need more water than the arid climate of Barcelona can provide.

    There is a problem with water and in general with the irrigation of a large area of ​​Barcelona. Thus, the private interest of well-to-do families becomes tense with the interest of the entire region. They want a different, “good” nature and therefore worsen the one they had.

    This story is not unique. In order to attract startups, new companies and, most importantly, investor money, most modern cities must demonstrate not only a good economic, cultural and political component, but also a natural one. A typical but striking example is modern Mumbai. The city boasts contrasts between the beautifully manicured streets lined with tall offices and the crowded, grimy slums of the Dharavi district (best known for the movie Slumdog Millionaire). Investors want to see “good nature” with parks, lawns, artificial ponds, and, of course, the sight of dirty slums or neglected green wastelands, regularly used as public toilets, turns them back. The 2000s in Mumbai were marked by the desire for a “bourgeois environment” to civilize and aestheticize nature and the poor living in the city. In 2008-2009, the city began clearing the slums, but they still remain within the city limits.

    These two stories show how nature and culture are connected to each other. “Good,” aestheticized nature in cities is created thanks to social interests and cultural ideas about the good. The Spaniards want to copy the British middle-class lifestyle, and the Indians want to create a bourgeois nature to attract investors. It would seem that there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing, except that “good” nature has its opposite – “bad.” In Spain it is more authentic and adapted to the local climate, in Mumbai it is dirt, dust and overcrowded slums with specific bodily habits. And this “bad” nature with its own characteristics is swept out of the city or marginalized, which usually leads to disastrous consequences. Because along with the slums, cultural traditions and practices that have existed here for centuries disappear, leaving in return a clean, good, but utterly devoid of cultural content space.

    The researchers also note that at first glance, “bad nature” – slums, thickets or even wastelands (wastelands) – is a source of biodiversity (including cultural diversity), which is so lacking in modern cities.


    How nature is woven into the infrastructure of the city

    The nature of the city is strongly tied to the urban infrastructure.

    The most commonplace example is the sewage system. There is a long, complex network of pipes and machines that takes water from rivers near cities, purifies it, delivers it to taps and toilets, then, in turn, takes it from there, cleans it, and throws it into suburban fields and ponds (or maybe into the same the river itself). Initially, the sewage system was built in order to cleanse human bodies of disease-causing microbes. But today, it uses various beneficial organisms (for example, algae) to purify the water after pipes and saturate it with oxygen.

    However, natural organisms are not only rationally grown by humans in cities for their own purposes. They can also use infrastructures themselves to move around the city and achieve their natural goals (for example, to parasitize).

    A striking example is a parasitic fungus Ophiostoma ulmi ssp, which destroys elms (causes the so-called Dutch elm disease), affecting the vascular systems of trees and preventing the crowns from feeding. It appeared for the first time in the 1920s in Holland, and was the source of the destruction of more than 40% of elms in Europe. In the 1940s, he crossed the ocean in ship’s wooden crates carrying cargo, and in North America, within ten years, he destroyed almost all American elms.

    The US authorities and scientists sounded the alarm and introduced sanitation and disinfection standards on ships, but it was impossible to cover the entire number of boxes transported. The fungus has mutated. It ended up again in Europe through Canadian ports, where it merged with the species that already existed there and became even stronger. As a result, in the 90s, he remained a very harmful parasite, which they tried to fight.

    This fungus used the transport infrastructure to “travel” to other continents and parasitize there. The SARS story in Toronto also shows that viruses use migratory flows to move around and hit new targets.

    This means that natural organisms have their own purposes, but are highly dependent on the infrastructure, culture and politics in which they exist.


    What is a model of cyborg cities

    Nature today is not what it used to be. More precisely, it was suddenly discovered that nature is not a separate existing dimension, the opposite of culture or technology, but millions of organisms that are intertwined with infrastructure and more or less successfully managed by city authorities with the help of medicine and sanitary standards and are strongly associated with politics and cultural values. For lack of a better word, the British geographer Matthew Gandhi from Cambridge calls this state cyborg and suggests thinking of “cyborg cities.”

    Gandhi thus seeks to generalize the idea that cities are hybrids: half alive, half technological, determined by the clash of political interests and cultural beliefs. This idea challenges the concept of smart cities, where any process can be successfully controlled.

    She challenges the view of the city as only informational processes and shows that nature is knocking on all windows and doors through environmental crises, diseases, problems with water supply.

    But at the same time, it shows that there is no return to some kind of “good old nature” in the style of environmentally friendly activities. We already, as city dwellers, live among thousands of pipes within the policy of controlling biological processes through medicine, norms and engineering, with our cultural ideas about “good” nature and among the inequality of distribution of valuable properties of nature. Therefore, what we can do is to discard the idea of ​​smart cities as a panacea for all urban ills, be surprised that we have not noticed for so long, and look at the city in all its hybrid complexity.

    In the 1973 Soviet cartoon “Miracle“, the protagonists – two children – travel around the city of the future on a long high-speed train past high multi-storey glass skyscrapers, climb a transparent round elevator to a great height, ride a travolator through huge public buildings, then sit in a small transparent capsule, which floats at a great height above the city, so high that even planes are rendered far below. Finally, they descend and run past a difficult traffic intersection towards their goal – to see something amazing. Against the background of their journey, the announcer reads the offscreen text, “Have you seen a miracle yet?” Miraculously, there is a small green sprout that makes its way through the asphalt. Good environmental metaphor.


    The city with the world’s smallest carbon footprint is located in the UAE. An innovative environmental project called “Sustainable City” was built in 2015 by Diamond Developers thirty kilometers from Dubai. Let’s get to know several facts about this remarkable place here.

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