Cities without humans: terrifying, hopeful or something else altogether? In this post Emma Nicoletti muses over these questions as she muses over plants emerging between cracks in a carpark.
Looking out from a carriage on Osaka’s elevated train line, I saw an unused car park below. Most of the car park looked like it would have been perpetually covered in the shadows cast by surrounding office blocks. But one corner saw sunlight. In this corner the tar mark was cracked. And in the cracks small green plants were growing.
This fleeting image of green through grey, of organic material thriving in the fissures of inorganic slabs, has been difficult to put from my thoughts. I have imagined it as a battle of sorts between a colonial oppressor and colonised oppressed. The tar mark—playing the role of coloniser—thoroughly stamped its claim on the territory by covering it in impenetrable tar, denying its original organic inhabitants—playing the role of colonised—any rights or access to sun, air or water. However, the tar mark’s empire is on the wane. Over time, and probably after a few earthquakes, cracks are opening in its hold on the territory. The organic material has seized upon these points of weakness. It’s making its comeback by using its newfound access to life support systems to germinate seeds whose roots will help to further widen the cracks in the tar marks’ empire.
As this battle of anthropomorphised organic and inorganic materials played out in my head, I realised that I was rooting for (pardon the pun) the plants and soil. As my narrative would have it, they are the wronged underdogs, and who can’t help going for the underdog?
But belonging to the category of the humans—tar marks’ financial backers and strategists—I realise this puts me in a difficult position. I’m advocating for the other team, for an outcome in which the markers of human endeavour (specifically in this scenario, the apotheosis of human civilisation, the metropolis) are overrun by organic materials.
It is also worth noting that in my scenario, set in an unused car park, the humans are conspicuously absent. Why they stopped providing the tar mark with money to repair the cracks before the opportunistic organic material could cause more damage is unclear. Perhaps the humans are dead? 1
The realisation that I was rooting for the other team reminded me of a comment made by Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought:
Imagine all the air we breathe becoming unbreathable. There will be no more environmental poetry because we will all be dead. Some ecological language appears to delight in this, even sadistically, by imagining what the world would be like without us. […] It’s hard to be here right now. (31)
It seems my scenario participates in this sadistic delight at humans and their technological innovations finally getting their come-uppance.
What, then, if I turn my attention to the here and now? And specifically to the actually existing urban spaces that have been largely abandoned by humans?
I find myself recalling “Dead Cities: A Natural History” a chapter in Mike Davis’ book of the same name. In this chapter, Davis considers various dead cities and what their landscapes look like once no longer occupied or tended by humans. Such cities include those devastated by war, nuclear disasters and disinvestment. It is this last category I’d like to discuss. Davis notes that “[i]n the 1970s, an equally savage ‘blitz’ [to that of World War II] of landlord disinvestment, bank relining, and federal ‘benign neglect’ led to the destruction of 294, 000 housing units in New York City alone” (386). “[D]eindustrialisation, white flight, housing and job discrimination, anti-urban (but pro-suburban) federal policies, capture of city revenues for corporate rather than neighbourhood priorities, and so on”, are the “macro-economic determinants of inner-city decline operating on decadal frequencies” and resulting in such areas resembling the “ground zeros” of air raids (387-8).
I’m drawn to Davis’ comments because they highlight the social and economic processes by which once thriving urban centres have become places where “nature” outstrips people. However, the “nature” in such places are not fertile forests of green creeping through cracks in the tar mark, but the “nature” of virus’ and disease ravaging the bodies of the impoverished unable to flee to the burbs. Once public and private investment is directed away from the inner-city ghettos and the buildings are ravaged by fire, looting and rodents, and once the “respectable types” have moved out and the socially and economically disempowered have moved in, “increasingly high rates of increasingly virulent contagious disease […] explode” (Rodrick and Deborah Wallace qtd. in Davis 395).
Looking at urban spaces that are actually in decline, rather than past them to a time when they have already declined, I can see the suffering of organic species (for humans are indeed organic too) at the hands of inorganic processes (a profit driven neoliberalism and post-industrial capitalism). Technologies do not operate independently of us, but according to the values and the ends to which we put them (or let them be put by others). Instead of imagining the organic and inorganic as battling it out for domination, I’d do well to imagine organic and inorganic battling for continued co-existence, where their nemesis’ are the social and economic values and practices that work against this.
1. Given that a. the Flight of the Conchords’ premise is that the humans are dead because they have been killed by robots, and given that b. the car park that initiated this flight of fancy is in Japan, the country with the largest number of robots in the world, perhaps the robots have killed the humans and have no need for car parks, therefore, they have no interest in car park conservation initiatives?