Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

3. The loss of nature in cities

Before entering a discussion about ‘life in cities’, different levels of perceptions and forms of articulation needed to be taken into account. It would be best to do this in reference to past, present and future (expected) experiences, as the time line running through cities elongates visions, makes short cuts possible and allows as the case in Athens a steady dialogue with the past due to the presence of the Acropolis. Alone that temple on top of a massive rock overlooking Athens says such a poetic ground allows the inscriptions of further going thoughts into the marbles as did Lord Byron when visiting Cap Souion where the Athenians honored Poseidon, the sea god, as a way to appease him for them honoring more Athena close by.

Describing life in cities can reflect upon one model Kant used to distinguish between concept, principle and perception. Since a point can never be described fully, it can only be circumvented by adopting the principle of the same distance being drawn around one focal point. By drawing ever smaller the circle the point is approached by approximation. This may be kept in mind when attempting to describe life in cities, the intended subject of the conference ‘Myth of the City’.

One key theme resonates through the various poetic observations when describing life in cities, namely the loss of nature. This marks us as urban dwellers that we all have become. The loss can be transformed into the question as to where all the flowers have gone to? There is a connection children experience at an early age; instead of being able to pick flowers in the fields, they are forced to buy them, if they wish to make a gift for their parents on the way back from school. But where do the children get the money from if they do not work as of yet, even though there are some cruel truisms existing in cities around the world. That is underlined by children knowing already how to survive in the Palestinian territories once they have reached the age of ten or where in Indian cities begging in the streets is an art children learn first of all if of the poverty stricken class.

Loss of nature can be linked in terms of perception to a degree of abstraction which goes hand in hand with every increasing speed requiring that the path is freed of all kinds of obstacles. The faster the vehicle in which man travels, the freer the road has to be of any kind of manifestation of nature. The paved roads covering the surface of the earth stretches in the meantime beyond cities and leaves it to a rare chance to still smell the earth after the rain. Abstraction means living according to concepts having gained over time seeing sheer independence from nature.

The poet Bruno Kartheuser speaks, however, about another kind of emancipation from nature when he describes the city as anti-pole to living in caves. He sees in cities the possibility of living beyond nature. Man can enjoy in midst of the city many things that elevate him above life and death as dictated by nature directly. With such possibilities comes above all the use of money and what mankind undertakes to make still more money. Alone that force of money leads to constructing cities as they have become entities accessible by super highways and airports with natural beauty standing second in line behind buildings made out of steel, cement and glass.

Within such an artificial urban society experiences to be made can only be had when spending money. Everything else does not count as experience. It reproduces a unique kind of ‘poverty’ as people seem more bent to discover some meaning in life by taking flight to all kinds of escapisms from city life and what it has brought about, namely numerous conveniences, but many more activities disconnected from nature and hence devoid of any experiences to be made with the senses.

James Joyce demonstrated that amply by imitating in the last chapter of his Ulysses footsteps resounding in a tunnel going underneath railway tracks. There can be heard water dropping somewhere to rickoshades of the walls as the steps echo their own beat. Otherwise there is dreary, cold silence with fear written on the grey cement walls.

Other moments within the city account how people rush up stairs of a Metro Exit. They are swallowed by the dark streets into which they disappear on their way home after a long day at work. Once the standards set by cities and what appears for a moment do not last very long, then everything is reduced to but a fleeting moment. It shall be replaced by new manifestations the next day.

The constant changes can make anyone uncertain, but especially someone wishing to cling to some familiarity scared because he or she ends up without memory base. This is the case if the city changes so much within four years that the former place is beyond recognition when returning after a few years of absence. Man going beyond self recognition is known as to what happens to recruits when trained by authoritarian officers. They send them back and forth with senseless orders till they can no longer comprehend themselves what they are doing and, therefore, are just well prepared to follow orders blindly. That is why a Portuguese writer strikes a powerful note when he compares people in cities to blind ants.

If poems about life in cities are replicas of certain activities taking place, then this sense of reproduction must be brought more into focus and be examined accordingly. Poems can be considered as life lines or veins through which thoughts run like rivers through cities. Even if these rivers have become entities by themselves due to the built-up embankments, things can be discovered when standing either besides the Seine in Paris or at the Thames in London. Rivers give a sense of direction when buses cross over bridges while underneath, along the embankment, there can be seen joggers making their way or else some people who sun bathe. The latter seem to be completely out of bounds from the usual hectic produced by the traffic. There is always over ground a lot of hustle and bustle of activities happening everyday in the streets, in offices and near main squares, but beside the river another time mode prevails. The latter is soothing and allows for a scent of the wide open sea with sea gulls flying in from there.

One poetic thought would be to transcribe into poems all those unwritten messages humans breathe upon a window when taking a bus. Or when they walk through the streets, they appear to project their thoughts like painters images thereof upon the otherwise naked surfaces of houses when passing by. This ongoing painting every day means there are over time different layers of meanings attached to those houses and what atmosphere prevails immediately for the person when turning into that specific street.

Then, there is the other perception when someone stands at the window and looks down into the streets with life spilling by while the person thinks of how to get out of this loneliness, a feeling surfacing so often when it seems life is out there while no one calls. The telephone has remained silent for days now and only scarcely some letter flutters through the mail box. That life down in the street is composed by all kinds of activities: a woman taking her dog for a walk, two men loading a truck with empty barrels from the nearby pub and a newspaperman shouting himself coarse to sell a few extra editions. The light at the next intersection changes constantly from red to green and back. It regulates the floods of cars spilling over the intersection or else allows the flocks of tourists coming from the nearby church (in Paris it would be surely the Notre Dame) to the area where all the restaurants can be found to serve all of them at once.

Every city has such places preferred by the strangers who wish to come into contact with the city without really entering its daily life. How then to figure out traffic jams if not a planner or traffic engineer? Traffic culture, as discussed at the Fifth Seminar, is more than just planning; it is how people move through the city and behave towards each other. 1 Absence of vandalism on public transport is an important indicator. Otherwise it costs a lot the firm operating the system. There are those trains whose windows are scratched and seats either cut or signed by those who know the use of sprays as do graffiti artists preferring empty spaces especially along railway lines.

All this amounts to still more questions of not only how to control the graffiti from becoming simple vandalism, but also how beautification of a city does still let people get to their destinations. It adds up to a lot of confusion, laughter, shouts and muffled silence especially when cut in half by sirens as fire trucks or an ambulance make themselves through the traffic, or try to do so at minimum of time and yet without jeopardizing still other life. There are people crossing once famous squares and large boulevards while in side streets some small storekeepers try to survive. They do so by masking their worries with a smile. It all underlines city life is about as much perception as deception.

Not everything can be grasped at a glance, or as Bart Verschaffel explained in his video about a glance in Paris, that a man puts sight on a woman only after she had inspected herself already ten times before that in the mirror. That means also people do not show necessarily their true faces when out in the streets. With such doubts in mind, the thought can come that the entire thing called city is not moving anywhere at all while everyone keeps pretending to be on the move. Naturally Orwell understood this that special systems in place make sure people move on, in particular the poor ones may stay only one night at places designed especially for them and where they have to stripped to receive a cold shower before they may sleep for one night in one of the numerous bunks kept tidy by similar organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Others are more privileges as they can afford a room in a hotel of their class or else even manage to rent or to buy one of the more luxurious apartments because in a most preferred location in town i.e. with view of the river or of some significant monument such as the Eifeltower.

Indeed, what is to say about the loss of nature in view of men sleeping underneath the bridge or else when street cleaners equipped with huge brooms let water flow along the rims to sweep everything the crowds of the previous evening have left behind on the pavement, in tight corners or near rubbish bins but only nearly made it to the designated places. Nature is a difficult term. It can trigger off nerves when the contrast city – nature is thought about. For a bus driver can be just as nervous making it through the heavy traffic as he may not be able to make ‘ends meet’ at the end of the month due to his small salary and a large family at home to take care of. The natural relations leading to a sense of proportions are usually out of place in a city. There many things have gone beyond human proportions. And distances are confusing as much as relative e.g. it may take the same time by high speed train from Paris to Brussels compared to making it across Paris from the North to the South. Thus it is easy to come to the conclusion nothing is natural about a city, even though a woman of Berlin would protest and point at her own body to say there is also the fact that we human beings are also a part of nature. That thought never occurs for someone coming from the countryside into a city for the first time. As long as this contrast is effective, this understanding of city as being anything but a natural place prevails.

Ruffles and shuffles, hustle and bustle, crowds rushing up stairs, crowds going down the same stairs, it is sometimes like balls of people rolling along through endless tunnels connecting different subway lines or else the loss of space makes them crowd together even more so. At times it seems the only space made free is for purpose of advertisement. It underlines that the one who can scream the loudest, shall be heard i.e. who can afford such expensive advertisement to indicate that the product brought onto the market is known by all e.g. Coca-Cola, Mercedes, Fiat, etc. More important is which products are known by the cities they come from or what has been done to brand a certain city through special products (instead of being imprinted by a special nature) e.g. perfume from Paris, chocolates from Brussels, just as a red double Decker is linked immediately to London and not Madrid or Athens. The only reminder of nature is something artificially cultivated but effective when wishing to refer to nature. Here are meant the existence or not of special public spaces like parks e.g. Hyde Park in London. These special places bring about some surprises to remind nature still exists in midst of the city such as a fox suddenly appearing on the cricket grounds near Westminister or at Savignysquare in Charlottenburg of Berlin.

However, the loss of nature underlines not a ‘no’ against a way of life, but rather a direct revolt of a different kind. This revolt is marked by people responding to dismal surroundings. It starts with a lack of light when living at ground level of high rise buildings or in seeing only cement but no plants, no trees and no wide, open horizon. The confinements to usual patterns created by structures repeated all the time like houses being built in uniform to administrative regulations leaves the people unaware that boredom can also be produced by a surrounding in which things are only repeated. Once the main model of construction has been grasped, then everything else can be anticipated and known to make the rational world of a city like an international airport with an exit or entrance and some simple orientations to get about. Nothing more is needed, no map reading, no information from other people, as the rational pattern is repeated everywhere so that even the most illiterate person can find his or her way. It means a city entails the danger of over simplifying the model of living to the point that it reaches a level below what is offered in nature.

Indeed, it is not easy to live. There is much pressure and the air is thin. Not only in the underground, but also in a backyard there can be something stifling free movement and breathing. Once out of breath, it becomes cumbersome to go through the streets. All that is enhanced by entering artificial office spaces with their neon lights and countless desks in one room designed to let everyone work in one and the same space, but still all alone. Isolation is actually accentuated by this close proximity to others who do similar things. There also significant objects standing around to mark the room as an office: telephones, waste baskets, shelves, partitions between main and side rooms, the latter designed for those who have made it a bit higher up in the ladder of the firm as it is already a privilege to have a working space all to oneself.

By contrast, many films including some crime scenes, love to show back alleys where the cats jump out of rubbish cans when the car comes racing down the alley while some fugitive flees towards the end, if only to confront a huge fence made out of wire mesh. Practically these wasted spaces make up most of the city and contrasts to nature which never wastes any space as each becomes a niche for some other living plant or animal. Thus a city turns black when it rains; in nature, rain drops on leaves become pearls. As clouds hover above a city, the absence of natural light makes itself even more felt. All rooms are lit by artificial light as cities entail just that: a way of dealing with darkness. Out of fear some keep on the light throughout the entire night and many citizens startle when they are out again one day in open fields, that they have not seen the stars for a long time now.

This turning inward to look at what man’s own imaginary world can produce has lead to the development of first television and then computers. It has made the creation of virtual worlds into a huge problem for human relationships. For they tend to make the divorce from natural settings into such a problem, that especially a youth growing up in cities hardly ever plays out in the streets, in the mud, near rivers or lakes. Instead they know only the world through video games.

That special light of the modern urban screens makes many other things invisible. It is a mix of messages but mostly of a confusing kind. Cities are no longer ‘talking heads’, but have become instead talking screens found on the side of buses as much as in airports. These screens continue to talk even after the shops have closed for the evening. Mainly they are used for purpose of advertisement, for some wild message being screamed out into the darkness. Whether or not those passing by take notice, it does not seem to matter. The city has brought about this art for art’s sake, as it relies on a kind of self advertising. It does so in order to entice people to buy more and more. In such a consumer paradise cities are too self absorbed to see what loss of nature means in reality. As compensation or replacement it is a system which is effective in place as it does not allow for alternatives. Of interest is only that nature returns in those advertisement of cars which show how durable they are when back in nature about to cross a desert or some untouched land, and the only vehicle around is that brand of car.


1 http://poieinkaiprattein.org/cultural-actions-for-europe/the-workshops/workshop-3-traffic-culture/

^ Top

« 2. Planning for cities free of myths becoming ideologies | 4. From ‘Flaneur’ to passages of time with a city just used, if not abused »