What do people dream of today? The philosopher Walter Benjamin used to say that a society assesses its living conditions in its dreams, meaning the dissatisfaction with its present life conditions and the desire to improve them. In these times of growth crisis, cultural and moral crisis, and now health crisis, do we still dream collectively?

Can we imagine ourselves different as a society, or living somewhere else? We can wonder if the pandemic which affects us, and which affects city dwellers more severely because they are forced to confine themselves in smaller areas than in the countryside, has something to teach us and could guide our imagination towards the city of tomorrow.

First reflection, inspired by the book of the philosopher Baptiste Morizot ” Ways to be alive ” , which tells us this : ” Imagine this fable: a species secedes and declares that the ten million other species on Earth, its relatives, are “nature”. Namely: not beings but things, not actors but the setting, not free creatures but resources at hand. One species on one side, ten million on the other, and yet one family, one world. This fiction is our heritage. Its violence has contributed to ecological upheavals ” [1] . Ecological upheavals take different observable forms, and noticeably in recent years they take the form of the epidemic. Today voices are raised to point at the destruction of ecosystems as being one of the causes of the pandemic. Indeed, an ecosystem in equilibrium does not allow a given species (a virus) to proliferate to the point of invasion, or to the point of destroying another species (as happened to farm animals affected by the recent outbreak or as happened to humans affected by the coronavirus). Of course, we have destroyed ecosystems, but we have also created new ones: the city is an ecosystem, studied as such by many scientists.  

   Let us look at the definition of an ecosystem : “ In ecology, an ecosystem is a group formed by a community of living beings in interrelation ( biocenosis ) with its environment ( biotope ). The components of the ecosystem develop a dense dependency network, energy exchanges, information  and materials exchanges for the maintenance and development of life […]. The ecosystem is a dynamic natural system. Through their mutual interactions and their interactions with the biotope, living species transform the ecosystem, which thus evolves over time: it is a dynamic group resulting from a co-evolution between life and its habitat. If it tends to evolve towards a stable theoretical state, known as climax, events and external pressures constantly divert it from this stable state. The biocenosis then uses its capacities for evolution and adaptation in the face of the ever-changing ecological context. This ability to withstand impacts without changing the structure of the ecosystem or to return to the previous state after a disturbance is called ecological resilience

We talk about ecological regression when the system evolves from an initial state to a less stable state. An ecosystem is healthy when all living organisms and inert environment form a system capable of resilience [2] . ” 

The urban biodiversity studies show a wide variety of flora and fauna in the cities. However, to my non-specialist eyes, this city ecosystem seems to be close to a biological desert compared to the Amazonian jungle or coral reefs. There is mainly one species: humans. It is true that the species are more diverse in town than in an intensive poultry farming. Still, the urban ecosystem in its normal functioning is not able to stop the pandemic without changing the structure of the ecosystem. We are therefore asked to stay at home, and to stop social interactions (the biocenosis takes a hit). Consequently, one can wonder if this biodiversity is ” sufficient ” , that is to say if the city is really an ecosystem, since it is not able to bring the system back to equilibrium after the imbalance created by the coronavirus.      

Second reflection, inspired by Philippe Clergeau, professor of ecology at the National Museum of Natural History, specialist in urban biodiversity. In an interview with the French Newspaper Le Monde [3] he says: “ A“ natural city ” is a city that is no longer anthropocentric, a city that accepts living beings within it. The challenge today is not so much to green the city: we know how to do it, but to restore biodiversity, that is to say not only the diversity of plants and animal species, but above all the relationships they maintain between themselves ”.    

What we hear from philosophers, ecologists, and many scientists, is that we must invent radically new solutions so that cities become truly resilient natural ecosystems otherwise we will relive episodes of crises due to disasters like epidemics, that would be less and less controllable. It is a call for a radical change in our conception of the city. The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht said we are moving toward such extreme changes that we will need new concepts and new words to speak about them. According to him, we must exit the current era, the anthropocene [4] , and enter the next era, the symbiocene (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship), where we promote mutually beneficial relationships between all living beings, especially in cities since it is where a majority of humans live. 

What we must understand here is that the symbiocene is not a “sustainable development” era, and the concept of sustainable city is not what we should aim for. In fact, Glenn Albrecht writes that “sustainability is inadequate as a concept because it does not specify what is to be sustained and over what time frame it is to be sustained. “Sustainable development” equally fails to define what it is about development that is to be sustained, except perhaps development itself, for its own sake”.

To figure out the symbiocene city, we should get some inspiration from the ‘living city’ of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Broadacres’ countryside, complete with skyscrapers, forests and factories surrounded by agricultural fields, or from Friedrich Hunterdtwasser’s organic, living design and architecture informing every aspect of the built environment. 

I bet people’s city dreams are more like Franck Lloyd broadacre city than smart city. Odds on !

 

 

[1] https://www.actes-sud.fr/catalogue/sciences-humaines-et-sciales-sciences/manieres-detre-vivant 

[2] htt ps: //fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Écosystème 

[3] https://www.lemonde.fr/smart-cities/article/2020/02/14/philippe-clergeau-l-urbanisme-doit-pleinement-integrer-la-biodiversite_6029626_4811534.html 

[4] Anthropocene : term popularized at the end of the 20th century by the meteorologist and atmospheric chemist Paul Josef Crutzen , Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 and by Eugene Stoermer , biologist, to designate a new geological epoch, which would have started according to them at the end of the 18th century with the industrial revolution, and thus succeed the Holocene. Refers to the geological period during which the influence of human beings on the biosphere reached such a level that it became a major “geological force”