The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies

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So-called smart city solutions can be quantified — Intel estimates that Internet of Things alone will see 3. Valuation of ecosystem services opens a can of ethically debatable worms surrounding the relationship between man and nature — how do you assign a monetary value to the knowledge that there are penguins in Antarctica, or to the splendor of a Grand Canyon sunset Chee , Wallace , Fisher et al.

The in tangible value of ecosystem services provided by nature ultimately justifies funding eco-initiatives, but cannot be logged into a spreadsheet. Without a robust cost-benefit analysis, green initiatives often settle for the lowest justifiable denominator: one-size-fits-all greenspace policies that sacrifice ecologies of diversity for economies of scale—concrete and cost-effective.

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From an implementation standpoint, this means a single kind of tree planted many times over, such as the ash trees planted on roadsides throughout the US. The emerald ash borer has spread to over 20 states since its accidental introduction to the United States from Asia. At current rates, EAB could functionally extirpate ash trees, with important ecological and economic ramifications.

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While less economically efficient in the short run, greater planting diversity can promote adaptation and renders urban biomes more resilient Raupp et al. Far from manicured urban parks, diverse and resilient nature is messy, muddy and often unattractive. These material flows are actually some of the largest natural systems in the city, and may underpin viable ecologies.

If our goal is a sustainably viable urban ecology we must discard the values we assign natural elements. We cannot wait for the government to deliver nature, as if it were a metropolitan utility see Trames Vertes et Bleues below. The current paradigm of top-down initiatives for expensive but ecologically impotent natural infrastructure must be inverted: to achieve high-value, low-cost and diverse solutions, infrastructure must be non-physical and realized in a distributed way. The Green and Blue Grid is designed to enhance territorial ecological connectivity by superposing an ecological grid atop urban policy.

However, this initiative remains flawed due to its top-down, hyper-centralized planning and implementation structure.


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We propose a new model for urban ecologies. One that takes shape as a dynamic map of existing diversity, opportunities for enhancement — for example, the connectivity of green spaces — and is based on an overarching model for diversity: a projective urban ecology. Ecologists have a knowledge of the possibilities for urban-nature function, based on diversity, while citizens themselves have the capacity and the willpower to get their hands dirty.

Government is uniquely qualified to serve as a mediator between them, laying down the digital framework and setting the tempo of a diverse urban biome. In a strong joint venture, government-directed platforms will leverage the power of the crowd to take urban nature from the community garden to the digitally-enabled urban biome.

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The platform organizes, the citizenry activates. The process is relevant to biologists and ecologists, but also landscape designers, politicians, architects, transportation officials, and others. The platform will bring together a wide spectrum of experts to set overarching guidelines essentially, what is native and what works that frame the participatory and self-sustaining nature-ifying process. Linux proved the power of the crowd to create software; the next challenge for a globally active community will be to create greenware.

In order to thrive, urban natures need diversity, active engagement, and flexibility — exactly the strength of the crowd. Natural ecology must go hand in hand with digital ecology. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Steve Barron, provides yet another vision of pest-animality, featuring creatures that arise from nuclear waste to protect the urban environment. The turtles are humanised animals; they are individuated subjects with distinct personalities in contrast to the monstrous others of the wilderness.

The race- and class-determined rubric of Hollywood-produced New York cinema configures the urban animal as a monstrous pest — a species facilitated by urbanisation that nonetheless threatens the social stability of the urban sphere. The subterranean mutation narratives of C. Douglas Cheek, and Mimic Guillermo del Toro, belie the essentially conservative reinscription of a strict ontological division between humankind and animality in their figurations of the pest.

Playing on anxieties about subterranean inhabitation C. This ironic play on anthropomorphism where the animal takes on human features to lure people to their deaths suggests that dangerous animality can reside in plain sight, promoting a paranoid perspective on urban social life. That this animality is born out of the urban space itself as a massive laboratory reflects anxieties about urban sociality and its intrinsic everyday contingency and confusion. In these films scientific management goes awry, threatening the city with hyperbolised pests.

Nature and alienness are aligned at the outset of the film with a digitally rendered micro-photographic shot of a dragonfly in the Western desert. Significantly that threat is now not only against the city but Earth itself and the protagonists must race against the clock to save the planet. The response must be global, even cosmic, and on a massive scale to avoid the destructive forces that threaten humanity. The Happening M. Night Shyamalan, provides an excellent example of the new ideologies and environmental anxieties surrounding the increasing realisation of climate change.

The Day After Tomorrow portrays the climatic destruction of New York when the city is flash-frozen, which is framed as an event resulting from the failure of scientific predictions about climate change. As The Day After Tomorrow focuses on climate it also features a global environmental reorientation as Americans flock to the Mexican border for refuge from the new ice age.

Humans who have been in outer space for hundreds of years have lost all physical relation to Earth and gravity as they ride on hover chairs eating fast food. Appropriately it is this animated feature film that best displays the final obliteration of those physical environments, with unbridled urbanism as its cause, finally returning to the traditional opposition of nature to urbanity. The city is reiterated as a relentless affront to the environment, itself symbolised by a single plant sprouting from an old boot once discarded in the dirty streets.

This cinematic history of New York exhibits an urban teleological disposition in that it constructs an explicitly demarcated urbanity and nature irremediably opposed to one another. A specific conception of history, of the city as struggling against its own perceived dissolution, fuels this cinematic formulation of nature and obfuscates any qualitative engagement between subjectivity and environment. Among its many virtues Koyaanisqatsi Godfrey Reggio, gestures strongly towards the disruption of preconceived notions of urbanity and nature.

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In sequences that take us from Monument Valley to Midtown skyscrapers and vacant Lower East Side lots the film makes an audiovisual argument about the mutually-constitutive geographic, aesthetic, and ecological relationships between these very different places. Here we argue that against such an impulse to cinematically distil and purge nature from the city there is also a cinema that actively renegotiates the relationship between urbanity and ecology. As was explored in the first half of this article ideologies of nature have tended to corrupt more mainstream narrative representations of New York.

New York was no less affected by such disciplinary discourses. Just as parks were re-appropriated by gay and lesbian culture and re-articulated as alternative community spaces Jonas Mekas explores Central Park as a radical, liberating space in s New York. His Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, also known as Walden exhibits a park that is rife with possibility, constantly a source of creative inspiration and counter-cultural politics as implied by its Thoreauvian title.

Walden presents a space with so much centrifugal energy that in one sequence a marching crowd spills out into the streets indifferent to the grid and traffic lights. The film abounds with sequences where Mekas is clearly overwhelmed by the wind in the trees around him or the position of the sun in the sky as he seems to enter into a trance-like state:. And then I began filming the tree in little fragments: I fragmented; I condensed…and then you can see the wind in it; then you can see some energy in it.

Then it became something else. By recognising his own disposition toward ecological objects Mekas is able to cultivate an alternative aesthetic relationship between the camera and those objects, recreating that disposition cinematically. The title of his Guns of the Trees also implies an agentive ecological force and that ecology has its own cinematic representational strategy that the filmmaker need only recognise.

This dynamic exposes social performativity, opening the door to new possibilities each time the scene is played out.

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As Greaves said in an interview. This film is about us, about the cast, crew, and onlookers, about us all as part of nature, and nature has its own story to tell. The agency of the environment is palpable in this film as characters are never fully socially-formed and all human relationships and the film itself conclude in indeterminacy.

The park is the only identifiable agent in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm , the only stable referential field, and furthermore this field is indifferent to generic differences within the film — the park is the park in the fictional scenes as well as in their breakdown when the actors drop out of character to complain and the documentary form takes over.

Yet this marginalisation also affords them freedom from the strictures of regulated sociality. Animality has come full circle — from the ideological animalisation of deviance and criminality to animality as a vehicle for re-appropriating identity and environment. Levitch exalts the survivability of the cockroach — perhaps the most iconic urban pest — and its transcendence of human institutions. For Levitch this cockroach stands in for the sorts of counter-cultural forces that the city tries in vain to contain or dispense with, appearing in a moment of documentary-contingency.

Singer takes homelessness out of the realm of sociological study and offers a visceral engagement with the people of the tunnels, who even keep dogs as pets in a small pen near their makeshift homes.

Their subterranean lifestyle appears less radically different than one might expect and the practicality of living such a life becomes a central subject of curiosity. Importantly it is through a mutual identification with rats as a pestilent species that the viewer is brought to empathise with the documentary subjects and to question the broader raced and classed definitions of animality that unfairly colour so many New York films. It is significant that these films are in black-and-white — a feature that elides not only the colour green but also the ostensible boundaries separating essentialised urbanity and nature.

This aesthetic enables viewers to perceive all of the interacting features that comprise the city — above ground or under — in their inextricability. Hutton frames various vistas of the city in static extreme wide shots and holds the views for extended, meditatively-paced long takes. These black-and-white images continually emphasise the activity of ecological features that saturate the city — always in motion, however slightly.


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His static camera moves with the river offering contemplative vistas that transcend the opposition between nature and urbanity. Mocking the iconic verticality of Manhattan the short documentary The Hole Courtney Sell and Billy Feldman, explores a neighbourhood on the border of Howard Beach, Queens and Brooklyn that has one of the lowest elevations in the city and therefore floods regularly. The aesthetic of the film, alternating between interviews and a highly subjective first-person camera perspective that peeps through holes in fences and drifts through flooded areas, effects a reinhabitation of New York that de-essentialises its urbanism.

Further complicating this bucolic pastoralism a scene of an ice cream truck driving through flooded streets offers an intensely localised and ironic visualisation of climate change. While eerily prefiguring the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy this scene also reveals that the neighbourhood had already been subsisting under those conditions for years. Perhaps the singular icon of The Hole is the recurrent rooster that walks freely through various yards drawing the attention of the camera — not to its otherness but to how it voices the alternative status of this place without words.

For Akira Lippit, reading Christian Metz, cinema shares with animality a specific relation to language. It is in this spirit, viewing The Hole as the camera curiously ponders a distinct urban ecology, that we find a tentative destination; and it is from listening to the ubiquitous rooster, unspeaking, that we get the sense that this is a sincere account of a place that is uncontainable, unreadable, and multifarious — a microcosm of the city that has always harboured difference and that continues to inspire liberation from and resistance to the distinctly human dreams that founded it.

Brady Fletcher is a Ph.

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His areas of interest include transformations in representations of nature in avant-garde and documentary cinema of the s through the s, intersections and interactions between aesthetic and political concerns in ecological criticism, and the emerging field of eco-cinema studies. Cortland Rankin is a Ph. His research interests centre on cinematic representations of urban space and the relationships between cinema and architecture.

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