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THE BIG CITY AS GARDEN OF EDEN

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By Stephanie V Sears

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The Montréal Review, August 2014

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Montreal Skyline (photo source)

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Centuries of human endeavor including animal domestication, agriculture, market economy, industrialization, science, have come between the Garden of Eden and us. This regrettable separation has incited archeology to dig into a very distant past in search of this garden of our lost innocence, allegedly once in the neighborhood of, or in what is now the Persian Gulf before it was flooded by the Flandrian Transgression.

Whether, in fact, the Garden of Eden was one place or several as myth from oppositely situated cultures suggest, the main requisite to enjoy it- other than favorable climatic conditions - seems to have been for humanity to be at the hunter-gatherer stage, with a population limited to small bands. In such circumstances ‘The Garden’ was said to offer limitless bounty, and man, in his simplicity, was able to blend seamlessly into it.

The notion, of Garden of Eden, the earthly equivalent of heavenly paradise, has remained vivid within us as a latent and ultimate objective through the subsequent creation of gardens and parks in our cities and around residences. These have paradoxically introduced the artificiality of man-made spatial boundaries, architectonics, maintenance and the essential notion of a safeguard against wild nature both in a physical and an intellectual sense.

To accommodate what the German psychologist Erich Fromm called man’s biophilia or instinctive bond with nature as well as his civilized dread of its unruliness, human culture created that contradiction of a tutored and limited landscape. Unsurprisingly, the etymology of the word garden interfuses the concept of enclosure, city and a fertile, visually pleasing and useful nature, yet inevitably restricted on all sides and requiring constant care.

Babylon and its hanging gardens, (whether created by the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (704-681 BC) at Ninevah or Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562BC) at Babylon) is probably the most common reference to an ancient and successful synthesis between dense urbanization and gardens, since, with an estimated 150 000 inhabitants, the city was very large for its time. It is further suggested that the limited space of the hanging gardens was made the best of by way of hydroponic cultivation, a technique that uses  mineral nutrients in water, instead of earth, as a foundation for growth and is bound to be further developed in the planning of tomorrow’s green and sustainable cities.

Closer to our time, the concept of self-sufficient garden cities was promoted by Sir Ebenezer Howard to benefit the nineteenth century working classes in England. His plan to alternate proportionate amounts of urbanization and vegetation involved, however, a liberal use of land, which, despite its intended sustainability, implied an urban sprawl somewhat equivalent to that of conventional suburbia. In sharp contrast, many urban planners and environmentalists of today favor the dense city model as the best possible solution to a growing world population and a depleted nature.

Let us consider the sobering statistics:  the world population which reached 7 billion in 2011 is estimated to attain 10.9 billion by 2050 (US Department of Economics and Social Affairs evaluation) and by the end of the century perhaps in the area between 11 and 17 billion as some populations are likely to reproduce faster than expected. Five out of ten people live in a city today, 10% of these live in cities of some 10 million inhabitants or more. By 2050 seven out of ten people will live in a city.

The daunting combination of population growth, shrinking space and natural resources, pollution, a decrease in wildlife and biodiversity, has forced mankind to reconsider nature as a necessary ally. The growing consensus that mutual survival of man and nature requires an intense and constant collaboration entails also a shift of attitude resembling somewhat a return to an ancient notion of earth as an entity that demands respect and, well,…love. Certain sacrifices, therefore, must be made on the altar of environmental wellbeing.   

For now, the urbanite continues to seek escape from crowds, noise, traffic, pollution, and the ensuing stress, by removing himself temporarily to some open countryside or sea coast; and if he has the means, to some more distant and spectacular wilderness where he will aspire - increasingly through eco-travelling- to re-enter that lost Garden of Eden.  

Alas, once in the wild, civilized man is typically prey to conflicting emotions of awe, thrill – certainly - yet also to an unsettling sense of his frailty which makes him fear nature as much or more than he may love it. (Did the author of this essay not hear a fellow passenger say while flying aboard a helicopter over the mostly unoccupied land of Kamchatka: ‘How hostile and depressing all this nature is!’). Therefore the most un-avowed reaction to these far-flung nature expeditions may well often end up being a persistent yearning for the comforts and distractions, cultural or otherwise, of city life.  One might then suspect that a prime, if not entirely conscious objective of the ‘eco ‘ venture is not purely a longing for unsullied nature but  a form of repentance for the nefarious effects humanity has had on the environment.  Ironically,  the urbanite may well, after his ‘wildlife’ expedition,   return to his city life with a clearer  conscious.

The truth is, that since the Paleolithic, with a very few exceptions today such as the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman islands, some isolated tribes in Irian Jaya and the Peruvian Amazon, humanity has no longer co-existed seamlessly with nature, and the more civilized it has become the greater that gap has grown.

Most likely, therefore, a return to primal innocence at the heart of nature is neither possible nor desired. For most of us shelter and sustenance is no longer satisfactorily provided by a cave, a tree canopy, raw nature in general.

Yet with its back once more to the wall of survival, humanity is searching for the most plausible way to alleviate not only a deepening sense of environmental responsibility, but also a more objectionable and ever-growing sense of separation and solitude as the planet’s bio-diversity dwindles and humanity takes over even its most distant parts.   

The drastic transformation of our cities seems to be one of the best solutions to our dilemma.
Whether it be compromise or revolution, the larger and richer cities of the world such as New York, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, London, Paris, Berlin… are attempting in varying degrees and with different approaches - by introducing more nature at their center - to alter some of the very aspects that gave them their trademark caché as great metropolises.  

For cities like New York, it is and will be a remarkable reversal of an urban identity based for a century and a half on a mineral, fortress-like and densely human environment, and which already involves green roof tops, will involve  on  a large scale, city agriculture, especially conceived eco-buildings allowing to grow vegetables and fruit year round in the city, gardens systematically integrated to buildings, non fossil fuel transportation... etc.

In cities already more open and greener than the New York model, such as Berlin, Toronto, the increase in vegetation and the techniques used for the change may be easier to apply and less Babylonian; even more so for Scandinavian capitals like Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo, where the harmonious relationship between city and nature has been from their start firmly rooted in national and  urban ethics.

For a large and ‘culturally’ dense but also fairly green city like Paris, street and park  vegetation  has often been rigorously honed to enhance and prolong city architecture.  Changes, (as with other great European urban landmarks) may be slower, more cautious, with a greater regard for the urban setting per se, and therefore less drastic in character than in big cities in the Americas, for example.

In Paris, one essential goal of the Municipal Garden Planning and Management Department, DEVE (Direction des espaces verts et de l’environnement) is to re-establish a green web throughout the city to encourage biodiversity between its two large green poles of the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes. Relatively simple changes towards this goal are already quite visible throughout the city, as, for example, a noticeably more overgrown look, with lawns left un-mown or partially so, a tolerance for weeds in public gardens and along walkways to encourage insects to pollinate, to create a natural protection against pollution, to promote natural fertilization of the ground so as to  eventually eliminate the necessity of  importing soil from outside the city. Consequently, a few streets,(though usually not main thoroughfares),  like the rue Faber d’Eglantine, the rue Parmentier,  become in the spring  rather more garden than street, with grass or flowers left to grow around the foot of trees and between the paving stones. More spectacular yet still experimental greening techniques are the vegetal wall of the Musee du Quai Branly, the M6B2 vegetal tower by the architect Edouard Francois, a 500 m2 vegetable garden at Bercy where neighborhood residents can freely harvest the vegetables for personal use; the transformation of a Citroen factory site into a 15 hectare wilderness  designed by the gardener and author Gilles Clement; the very new ‘Archipel’ floating gardens set on barges along the Seine that aim to re-establish natural processes along a river otherwise still much polluted by chlorine and heavy metal waste; since 2007 the outlawing of all chemicals in municipal gardening;  the transformation of  the inner city rail track or ‘ petite ceinture’, (which, with the Seine, is Paris’ main corridor for sustaining and developing biodiversity) into  a green belt  creating a near unbroken mesh of vegetation around the city allowing animals like fox, hedgehog, stone marten and field mouse to circulate. A garden on top of the new gymnasium des Vignolles is both a testing laboratory for sustainable city agriculture and a place for social  rehabilitation and well-being.

There are plans to introduce more vegetation in the hard-faced Paris cemeteries,  and to enhance existing small public gardens as well as increase their numbers throughout the city to serve as stepping-stones (‘pas japonais’) for bio-diversity, and to make urban agriculture a functional reality at the Jardin des Haies.  Gradually, therefore, despite the cultural dictates of architecture and a well-loved tradition of honed and geometrically designed French gardens, elements of wilderness, of nature whimsically incorporated to buildings and of sustainability are being introduced into Paris. The urban garden landscape, administratively sectioned into forest, woodland, bush, flowerbeds, pond, prairie, lawn, tends, in all its forms, toward a greater floral and faunal variety and toward including a broader human enjoyment. This is achieved by greater adaptation and less control of the naturalness of a particular terrain.

Public gardens, no longer simply decorative,  become laboratories to assess the ecological and economical use of water, soil and gardening machinery. This trend has been stimulated further by ecological audits initiated in 2005 to evaluate the environmental merits of garden management in Paris. 
In a few gardens the planting of medicinal or culinary herbs in what used to be simply decorative flowerbeds has led urbanites to occasionally cut a few stems of these herbs for personal use. This has been encouraged, with moderation, by some gardeners employed by the city in order to stimulate an exchange of information on gardening with Parisians.  Such exchanges are, in fact, a general goal of DEVE management that sets up ecological informational panels at the entrance of gardens. Interactive events organized, for example, by researchers working on city biodiversity to probe the public’s ecological and garden interest, also aim to awaken an urban environmental conscience. The garden and gardening gradually become less an auxiliary feature of city architecture and more central to urban culture, more closely involving citizens through more frequent and diversified enjoyment, and through direct participation as in ‘shared’ garden initiatives.

So while public gardens and parks offer the now mandatory benefits of visual attractiveness, air improvement, reduction of stressful noise, cooling of island city heat, one wonders how much greener and  ‘wilder’ the big city inhabitant will tolerate his city to become without losing , in his view, the  urban ingredients that make it the setting that he loves.  Within the Paris DEVE itself, opinions diverge on how to go about greening the city. Some environmental/city planners consider vegetal walls to be valuable for air quality while others consider the technique to be expensive and less effective than cheaper horizontal methods like simply greening sidewalks. The French architect Edouard François deplores what he considers to be excessive urban regulation in France and detrimental to more creative concepts. Others, by contrast, consider that certain things done in one city, say, Montreal, should not and cannot be done in Paris. 

But despite these diverging views environmental sophistication in the capital continues to develop and with it, fauna is bound to increase and diversify within the city limits.

How much fauna does a city resident actually want to have in his city and of what kind?

Here again, the level of acceptance is bound to vary according to a city’s particulars or ‘personality’.  According to some DEVE environmentalists, eager themselves for the presence of more urban fauna, birds are, at this stage, the most well accepted animals, while small mammals are less favored.

A researcher on urban biodiversity at the Paris Museum of Natural History, says that birds within the city seem, for their part, to adjust their own activity to the varying intensity of human movement during week days: for example, singing more frequently during week ends when city noises are fewer.  

In Paris a few resident or transiting foxes still go unknown or unnoticed while some 10 000 foxes have made their home in London. Though the latter encounter the disapproval of some Londoners they have clearly established themselves as urban foxes. One suspects that as coyotes have been observed to do in Chicago these foxes have honed their survival skills by looking both ways, like good children, when crossing city streets. Black bears have grown fat by feasting regularly on the contents of city dumpsters in several North American cities. In the town of Brasov in Rumania the author stood a few feet away from brown bears sitting inside dumpsters, feasting on the inside of yoghurt pots while providing a nightly entertainment to the inhabitants of Brasov come to look at them with flash lights.  The omnivorous and dexterous raccoon is probably even better suited to city life and has indeed well adapted to Kassel in Germany, to Toronto, Chicago and New York where in Central Park he appears to entertain a profitable relationship with human picnickers.

Other typical big city wild fauna includes moose in Anchorage and Fairbanks, venomous snakes and monkeys in Delhi and other Indian cities, leopards in Mumbai. Mountain lions seen on the outskirts of Los Angeles and Denver suggest that they may eventually enter the cities and circulate through them if tolerated.

The existence of such fauna in an urban setting is all at once exciting because it conveys a new, refreshingly hybrid dimension to the anthropogenic landscape, but also worrisome because it has proved dangerous in some cases.   The harmonious Eden-like co-existence between man and  wild fauna in an environment shaped and dominated by mankind as idyllically depicted by the 17th century Flemish sibling painters Roelandt  and Jacob Savery still eludes us.

An ecological turning point is or will be when a city’s ‘personality’ officially accepts that wild, free-ranging regional fauna is part of city life.  One can surmise, then, that urban life will no longer evolve as before in a more or less fortified insularity challenging open nature but will become part of a necessary and valuable ecological continuum. According to the size and behavior of a city’s regional fauna, an innovative urban planning will then have to systematically set up corridors allowing for the free passage of wild fauna in a manner as to permit a mutually safe and harmonious co-existence between it and humans.
In view of the ecological degradations and disasters humans have witnessed and caused a fashionable interest in urban gardening,  as illustrated  by the recent  garden exhibition at the Grand Palais in June 2013 in Paris,   is evolving, consciously or less so,   towards a more global environmental concern, and consequently, towards a drastic transformation of the urban landscape.  We are entering, to quote Gilles Clement in his book ‘La Sagesse du Jardinier’, a world of global gardening (‘jardinage planetaire’), where, to quote the same author,  belonging to the world as a human being is irreconcilable with the idea of  dominating it.

Are we, then, gradually coming full circle back to the Garden of Eden? Not precisely. Greening an urban landscape implies recycling urban sites that have been at the opposite end of pristine and effortless nature. These are and will be tired spaces, previously scarred by various forms of urban development, demanding elaborate makeovers.  There still is and will be, therefore, a strong element of artificiality, space constraint, and possibly genetic deviations in flora and fauna as they adapt to the urban context. One may argue, however, that what is now tagged as ‘artificial ‘may in the future be considered as or become a variation of ‘natural’.  After all, an opinion poll already revealed that a man-made rock crag in the Paris Bois de Vincennes was considered by most hikers to represent the most natural-looking feature of the Bois. The fabricated aspects of an urban nature may eventually, therefore, be seen as ‘nature’ in that setting. As such, they may contribute to a first step toward a return to A if not The Garden of Eden in a more distant future. By then, all world cities, may have become part of a web of biodiversity, endowed with both vertical and horizontal gardens and prolonging open nature and yet still contrasted to it by specific urban attributes.

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Stephanie V Sears is of French and American nationalitiy, an ethnologist with a doctorate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris on the traditional specialists Tuhuka/Tuhuna of the Marquesas islands, and free-lance journalist, essayist and poet. She has been published in a number of reviews like the Bulletin de la Societe des Oceanistes, Insula, Wildlifeextra, The Cresset, Cerisepress, E, the Environmental Magazine. Her poetry has appeared iin literary reviews such as Poetry Salzburg, Nimrod, Iodine, The California Quarterly, Cha, Aoife's Kiss, Linq.... She has been short-listed for a Puschart prize in 2009 in  The Hudson View. She lives part of the time  in Paris France and in Massachusetts.

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