Urban Ecologies

Rory Lenihan-Ikin

For a relatively tiny period in human history—the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—humans had the capacity to exploit natural resources in a way that fueled unprecedented growth in civilisation, while having no significant visible consequences. The opportunities and possibilities opened up by the use of extracted natural resources—particularly fossil fuels—and the absence of any ‘downside’, led to the perception that humans had somewhat conquered nature. Combustion engines were driving our growth, and it was inconceivable that the fossil fuels powering them could ever be exhausted.

It was not until the consequences of this exploitation started to catch up with us that it once again become apparent that we are a small part of an immense but fragile interdependent ecological framework, on a finite planet.

Much of the growth of this period happened within the world's cities; a trend that has continued, reaching a milestone in 2009 when for the first time city dwellers outnumbered those living rurally. This growth, characterised by a polluted, congested, concrete jungle style operation, has begun to be challenged, and in cities all over the world an urban renaissance is taking place. The concrete jungle that shuts out ecology and wildlife is being rolled back, replaced by vibrant urban centres that invite nature in.

This new type of city, one that is designed as a habitat for humans as well as other species, is described by artist Natalie Jerimijenko as a BENEFITxBENEFIT model. This double benefit model is of course not just a nice win-win, or a case of “plants are nice so let's get some in here”. As part of an ecosystem—a community of living organisms who have co-evolved together—we rely on with these other organisms to survive and thrive. 

Humans have not been away from nature for long; over 99 per cent of our evolutionary history has been spent in intimate contact with ecology, while the other 1 per cent represents our time living in villages and cities. However, as the new urban renaissance demonstrates, we do not need to sacrifice what makes cities successful in order to live alongside nature—in fact, done well, urban density can be a beacon of ecological harmony. 

Despite the ‘greening of cities’ being held firmly as a buzz phrase for some time, and the human benefits of a connection to nature now widely known, we are still narrow-minded in our approach to ecological integration. We must start thinking outside the silos of science, art, and design that are currently inhibiting our ability to act with open-mindedness. Why do we not provide habitats for insects that also act as visual public art installations for interactions between humans and micro beasts? Why aren't non-experts engaged in researching and disseminating information about their local ecologies, when they have the most intimate knowledge of their particular environment? Why do we prescribe medication for issues caused by polluted air, instead of prescribing measures to improve air quality?

These are some of the questions critiqued by Happy Berm, a project that transforms unused grass verges in Auckland City into an oasis of fruit, colour, biodiversity and public art. Together with a team of worms, bees, and photosynthesis, a fluid group of people and I work on changing the nature of roadside land that is currently a victim of chemicals, pesticides, and carbon emissions from mowers and maintenance machinery. The BENEFITxBENEFIT effect can be seen here: people benefit from having fruit to eat, flowers to pick, and a space to be with neighbours; bees benefit from the flowers, and worms from the improved soil quality; and microbes are inherent benefactors in all of these interactions.

The new urban renaissance is one that anyone and everyone can engage in. So go ahead, exercise your agency and delve into the depths of urban ecological transformation. Subvert the current model of the ‘environment as a service’. Instead, integrate with it. Explore business models for non-humans, rights of nature, sociopolitical critiques of pukeko, ecosexuality and any number of other vanguard concepts that drive us closer toward an urban design mindset that weaves the interdependent ecological framework into the very fabric of our everyday being. Let us live happily alongside other living species, and all enjoy the benefits.


Fixed for Good, by Dieneke Jansen and Jenny Gillam