As a theatre artist, the aspect of theatre that I found most alluring was its essential collaborativeness. We were actors, writers (like me), lighting, set and costume designers, a composer (also like me), a stage manger, back stage technical people, front-of-house staff, and producers all working together to … do what? We were working from our disciplines and points of view to put on a good show, a show that “worked,” and one that people would pay to see. I can tell you that we didn’t always get along, or agree about how to make the show work. But the show opened nonetheless. In fact, there is an old joke about plays: that the best thing about them is the miracle that they open at all.
It strikes me that cities are similar: collections of many points of view that must be reconciled around a set of values. Good city building therefore depends on setting the goals for the city—what we view as important—and then reconciling the often competing points of view about achieving the goals. What do we need our cities to “do”? Certainly we want them to be prosperous and safe. But there is more. We also need them to be resilient, sustainable, livable and just. In all four of these, “green” and nature play a critical role.
As we know, the world is rapidly urbanizing. Existing cities are changing—growing dramatically in some areas of the world, and shrinking in others. And new cities are emerging—over 60 percent of the urban area that will exist in 2030 has yet to be built. Yet, a lack of integrated design for human-scale and ecologically appropriate city-building leads us to repeat the mistakes of the past, resulting in persistent poverty and injustice, the deterioration of livability and health, the continuing degradation of nature, and dangerous unsustainability. The left hand of city building doesn’t know what the right is doing. In city after city, fundamental points of view from core communities are not negotiated and integrated into a single vision for the city: design is over here, ecological vision is over there, housing and storm water management are managed in buildings across town. Better design for better cities of the future must be a fundamentally multidisciplinary endeavor, a mash-up of ideas that merge and evolve in new directions. Seen this way, it is important not to just campaign for nature IN cities, but for a better nature OF cities—that is, the complex and multidimensional character of cities that supports both nature and people.
This is how designing for and thinking about cities should be, anyway. Indeed, at conference after congress that focus on urban issues, groups cry out for the need to cross disciplinary boundaries, to emerge from “silos,” and to scale walls that separate ideas. Practitioners and policy makers crave information that they can use for decision making, while scientists wonder why their data aren’t used to greater effect in policy.
It turns out we are better at wanting cross-sectoral dialog than at doing it. A core impediment to transcending this problem is that although organizations may sometimes invite “outsiders” (i.e., people from beyond their discipline) to their conferences, outside perspectives are not typically permitted to change the way the discipline fundamentally operates. The ecologists may devote a corner of their meeting to urban issues, and the architects may devote a corner to livability, but the novel point of view typically remains at the margins. Top-down governance rarely meets bottom-up community and neighborhood planning. Policymakers and planners aren’t aware of how to implement nature-based solutions. Conservationists don't integrate with housing practices. Practitioners and business people seldom or never make an appearance at urban academic meetings. The public is poorly informed of the benefits of green attributes, or is inadequately included in planning processes. Justice is considered to be the province of activists and lawyers. We talk of solutions in the Global North as if they are universally applicable to the Global South.
This must change if we are going to create the cities we need for global sustainability, the cities people deserve—that is, cities that are good for both people and nature. We need to mix ideas from different sectors and perspectives for green-based change.
So, what if we tried to create a truly mixed meeting?
A way forward
At The Nature of Cities, we believe that nature-based solutions and community building are the beating heart of design for better cities. So, we intend to create a global meeting (and perhaps a series of regional meetings) called the “Transdisciplinary Summit of Ideas on The Nature of Cities.” We aspire to change the process of city building through targeted international meetings that join urban thought leaders and stakeholder groups from different disciplines into a single event, and on equal footing. We envision this convening as a design meeting working from the premise that cities are both ecological and social spaces; a planners’ meeting that interacts with artists; a meeting in which practitioners would meet scientists as a matter of course, in curated encounters. The meeting’s key outcome is to merge the constituent groups of city building into unified and productive conversations.
Since 2012, The Nature of Cities’ motto has been “many voices, greener cities, better cities.” We provide a forum that addresses the role of nature in creating communities, cities and regions that are better for both people and nature. Our strategy for achieving this mission involves building awareness of the myriad benefits of green cities, and encouraging the creation and utilization of these benefits, among diverse people—from architects to scientists to designers, from practitioners to planners to entrepreneurs, artists and participating urban residents. A growing movement in urban social-ecology holds that city building requires a green lens—that urban design with, and not against, nature improves both the global environment and the lives of people. But this movement cannot be only about nature in cities. It must be about the character of cities to which we aspire. Thus, it must be about the nature of cities, cities in which nature plays a key role with people, design and planning to create cities that are resilient, sustainable, livable and just.
The first step in creating this “Transdisciplinary Summit of Ideas on The Nature of Cities” is to hold a planning meeting at which we discuss a proof-of-concept and build a plan for the creation of the larger Summit in both global and possibly regional versions. This is exactly what we are hatching in Portland in April. This three-day exploratory gathering will be a wide-ranging discussion of not only the motivations and value of transdisciplinarity, but also a critical dialogue about the challenges of such a meeting, and even alternatives to it. Portland is an ideal place to hold such a meeting, since there is a lot of multi-stakeholder dialog going on already. The Intertwine Alliance is an excellent example of this kind of philosophy.
International urbanists from diverse disciplines—including ecologists, planners, architects, artists, and civil society—will meet in a workshop setting with scientists and practitioners from the Pacific Northwest to explore ideas for a global meeting on transdisciplinarity. The Intertwine Alliance will also host a public summit on Wednesday, April 26, at the Oregon Zoo, in which many of the international visitors will speak, and all participants will have the chance to engage together in the key issues of global urbanization. (Editor's note: Act fast! As of publication, only about 20 seats are left.)
True to the spirit of multi-voiced collaboration, we have built a team of partners and sponsors for the April gathering, including The Nature of Cities, The Intertwine Alliance, the Urban Greenspaces Intitute, the Bullitt Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and two programs from Portland State University: Indigenous Nations Studies and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions.
It promises to be an important, vivid and, hopefully, transformational gathering. Join us at the Oregon Zoo on April 26.