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Why ‘green cities’ need to become a deeply lived experience

Greening Manhattan: bringing nature into the city is one thing, making it part of our culture and everyday lives is another. Alyson Hurt/flickr, CC BY

Why ‘green cities’ need to become a deeply lived experience

Australian cities are inherently diverse places, but that diversity can lead to conflict between different values about what cities should and can be. Our series, Conflict in the City, brings together urban researchers to examine some of these tensions and consider how cities are governed and for whom.


Enthusiasm for urban greening is at a high point, and rightly so.

Ecological studies highlight the contribution urban nature makes to the conservation of biodiversity. For example, research shows cities support a greater proportion of threatened species than non-urban areas.

Green space is increasingly recognised as useful for moderating the heat island effect. Hence, this helps cities adapt to, and reduce the consequences of, climate change.

Reducing urban heat stress is the main objective behind the federal government’s plan to set tree canopy targets for Australian cities. Trees are cooler than concrete. Trees take the sting out of heatwaves and reduce heat-related deaths.

The “healthy parks healthy people” agenda emphasises the health benefits of trees, parks and gardens. Urban greenery provides a pleasant place for recreation. By enhancing liveability, green spaces make cities more desirable places to live and work.

The increased interest in urban greening presents exciting opportunities for urban communities long starved of green space.

Unpacking the green city agenda

This enthusiasm for “green cities” stands in stark contrast to traditional views about nature as the antithesis of culture, and so having no place in the city. The traditional view was that the only ecosystems worthy of protection were to be found beyond the city, in national parks and wilderness areas.

We embrace the new agenda wholeheartedly, but also believe it’s important not to focus solely on instrumental measures like canopy cover targets to reduce heat stress. We should not forget about experiential encounters.

The risk with instrumental (and arguably exclusionary) approaches is these fail to challenge the divide between people and nature. This limits people’s connection to the places in which they live and to broader ecological processes that are essential for life.

Instrumental targets in isolation also risk presenting urban greening as an “apolitical” endeavour. But we know this is not the case, as we see with the rise of green gentrification associated with iconic greening projects like New York’s High Line. Wealthy suburbs consistently have the most green space in cities.

Bringing nature into the city is one thing. Bringing it into our culture and everyday lives is another.

Understanding ecology in a lived sense

Urban greening provides an opportunity to recast the relationship between people and environment – one of the critical challenges associated with the Anthropocene.

Urban greening is not just for our benefit, but must surely be for our co-habitants too. Matt Cornock/flickr, CC BY-NC

To break down nature-culture divides in our cities, and in ourselves, we argue for the importance of embracing experiential engagements that develop a more deeply felt connection with the city places in which we live, work and play.

We are advocating a focus that does more than just encourage people to interact tangibly in and with urban nature, by drawing attention to the way humans and non-humans (including plants) are active co-habitants of cities.

Such an approach works by recognising that human understanding of the environment is intricately wrapped up in our experiences of that environment.

Put simply, green cities can’t just be about area, tree cover and proximity (though they are important). We need to foster intimate, active and ongoing encounters that position people “in” ecologies. And we need to understand that those ecologies exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space.

Without fostering a more holistic relationship with non-humans in cities, we risk an urban greening agenda that misses the chance to unravel some of the nature-culture separation that contributes to our long-term sustainability challenges as a society.

Active interactions with nature in the spaces of everyday life are vital for advancing a form of environmental stewardship that will persist beyond individual (and sometimes short-lived) policy settings.

Green city citizens need to see themselves as part of, not separate from, the ecologies that exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space. PINKE/flickr, CC BY-NC

No getting away from the politics

It is important to consider the policy and governance dimensions of urban greening.

If the instrumental orientation prevails, our cities might be “more liveable” (at least for some, at particular locations and points in time), but our societies may not be more socially and environmentally just, or more sustainable.

We therefore emphasise the need to understand and critique the dimensions of the renewed interest in urban ecology. We have to consider whether this interest is associated with existing political economies, which embrace technocratic expertise to the exclusion of other voices, or whether urban greening can foster the emergence of a more transformative form of decision-making.

We also ask how we can enhance the prospects for more deliberative and place-based responses. An experiential turn for urban greening may be one way to make green space planning and practice more democratic.

By questioning who we might be greening for and how, we can open the way for the much-needed acknowledgment of Indigenous histories and participation in the making of urban space.

Giving urban greening an experiential focus might also help open our eyes to the needs of the more-than-human. Rather than simply cultivating green spaces for a narrow set of anthropocentric benefits, we pose the question: who are the participants in urban greening? It’s a way of acknowledging that we inhabit cities with plants and other non-human lifeforms.

An interesting area of policy development that may be productive for urban greening is the idea of the playful commons. This is an example of a governance approach that is more open to affective and experiential interaction – the community participates in negotiating, licensing and designing the use of public space.

Applying this approach to urban greening might encourage more deliberative forms of governance that can deliver more environmentally just and sustainable cities for the long term, for both humans and non-humans.


You can read other Conflict in the City articles here.