Rethinking ‘place’ in more-than-human cities

Connecting people with place is a popular and appealing pursuit in Australian cities. Design and planning professionals use place-focused and placemaking strategies and initiatives to reconnect human communities, enliven streets and revitalise neighbourhoods to be more socially and environmentally sustainable.

Connecting people with place is a popular and appealing pursuit in Australian cities. Design and planning professionals use place-focused and placemaking strategies and initiatives to reconnect human communities, enliven streets and revitalise neighbourhoods to be more socially and environmentally sustainable.

Ideas of place have their conceptual roots in phenomenology and the insights of geographers, architectural and planning theorists, and environmental psychologists. These discussions have largely focused on a human sense of place or identity; the particular experiences, emotions and attachments people have or hold for particular geographic places. This human focus of ‘place’ is evident in placemaking initiatives that pursue positive social change, such as the revitalisation of Melbourne’s laneways.

Pursuing positive outcomes for humans in these ways is vital and important work if we are to make healthier and more liveable cities. However, insights from geography and science and technology studies, not to mention Indigenous worldviews, emphasise that we, humans, live in more-than-human worlds and cities.

Many of the challenges facing cities – such as climate change, water shortages, urban heat islands and their effects on health and liveability, disease, and so on – are social and ecological; they are more-than-human.

More-than-human thinking radically decentres humans: not to diminish their role or experiences but to recognise nonhuman agencies and vitalities. This is not just about acknowledging animals. In a more-than-human view, microorganisms (e.g. bacteria or fungus), technologies and materials are also acknowledged for their role in making the world(s) and cities we humans inhabit.

To say we live in such a more-than-human world seems obvious. But when taken seriously, it has significant implications for socially and ecologically sustainable urbanisation and human city dwelling. More specifically, it has implications for those professionals and thinkers who draw on ideas of place to create positive social and ecological change.

The idea, as I’ve said, that through greater connections with place we humans and our built environments can better attend to social and ecological challenges is an appealing one.

Take, for instance, the place-based view of passive design; a design approach that encourages dwellings to respond to the sun and winds’ seasonal movements to maximise human comfort while minimising active heating and cooling. Meanwhile, regenerative design promotes deep connections with place, amongst other things, to achieve buildings and communities that not only minimise their impact on the environment, but also contribute to improving socio-ecological systems.

However, the challenge remains that, at least for people, greater connections with place and more ecologically responsive urban dwelling are not necessarily commensurate goals. Thinking place in more-than-human ways, however, helps to reframe the ways research and practice understand human dwelling in cities. It can also help to reframe the ways we think about, design and plan for ecologically and socially sustainable urban realms.

As an example, using a more-than-human view of place(making) to consider urban street gardening activities, my research has highlighted the ways human engagements with pavements, trees, birds, bees, soil, wind and rain contribute to defining our sense of place.

In terms of these experiences of place and their role in encouraging more ecologically responsive city dwelling, the research has highlighted the ways these nonhuman entities can challenge our sense of place, drawing us into, and sometimes away from, ethics of care for the social and ecological sustainability of our cities.

For further information, contact Sarah Robertson via sarah.robertson2@rmit.edu.au.

Recommended Citation:

Robertson, S.A., 2018. Rethinking relational ideas of place in more-than-human cities. Geography Compass, vol. 1, no. 4, p.e12367. https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12367

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