Habitat and Living In Plural Cities

by Jane Wolff

12 Apr 2017

The workshop “Habitat and Living in Plural Cities”, which the British Academy hosted on 7 March 2017 and the events that bracketed it - a panel and seminar both titled “Imagining Infrastructure” - made me think differently about the meaning of three words that are often taken for granted: infrastructure, habitat and citizen. Used generically, their definitions are straightforward. Infrastructure is the set of systems that support the workings of a place. Habitat is the environment in which someone or something lives. A citizen is someone with rights in a political entity. The three days of discussions offered a range of nuanced ideas about each term, and that variation has coloured my ideas about what the experience of a city might mean - and about how scholarship and expertise might be able to enrich the spectrum of possibilities.

First, infrastructure. Sometimes it’s technological, like the air-conditioning that supported the modernisation and development of Singapore’s city-state. The technology can be centralised or fragmented, like the improvised utility networks of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and its possibilities will be inflected by culture and locale. Technological artefacts like the domestic charcoal stoves in Maputo can be linked to significant flows of resources and capital. Sometimes infrastructure is intangible, like the web of relationships that helped people to recover from the Iquique earthquake. Sometimes intangible infrastructure, like the laws that sanctioned ownership of San Francisco’s tidelands, gives rise to physical infrastructure, like the walls that hold reclaimed land in place. Sometimes infrastructure is fixed, like the water conduits in Bangalore; sometimes it’s ephemeral, like the foghorn signals interpreted by pilots navigating San Francisco Bay. One way or another, infrastructure underlies urban habitats: its forms and expressions create circumstances that enable the dense concentration of life in cities.

Second, habitat. The city has sanctioned places where people live, but sometimes those who are excluded from the mainstream, like a community of addicts in Bucharest, find homes in overlooked, interstitial spaces, like the sewers underground. Urban landscapes provide habitat for flora and fauna as well. Some animals live as pets; others exist and even thrive in places that people might or might not notice, from parks and rivers to alleyways and building cornices and railway corridors. Plants exhibit the same range. They take root not only in the cultivated spaces of parks and gardens but also in abandoned lots and cracks in walls and sidewalks. Any small patch of soil becomes habitat for communities of living things at microscopic scales - and up. Defining physical habitats means delimiting their boundaries. What (who?) lives in a break in the pavement? Who (and what?) lives in the centre of the city? At the edges of the metropolis? On land? In water? Some habitats are concrete; others, like the atmosphere, are diffuse; others, like the digital city, exist as disembodied conditions that sometimes mirror and sometimes reconfigure the customary and habitual relationships between people and the environment, or between some people and other people. In every case, habitat asks questions about who the inhabitants are.

Third: citizen. Is being an inhabitant the same as being a citizen? If the city is a habitat, who’s afforded the chance to make a claim to its resources? Whose voices are heard, and where? How can the people who occupy the city’s official spaces, the ones that are easy to recognise and classify, come to know the people (and animals and plants) who live unseen and unacknowledged in the shadows and cracks and interstices?

Infrastructure, habitat, citizen: each word has bearing on the idea of what a city is, or might be. Each exists in two worlds of meaning, one that’s official, standardised, recorded and valued and one that’s lived ad hoc, improvised and often unnoticed. And within each of those categories, there is a range of meaning based on values, expertise, position, ambition and desire. Finding a way forward that’s inclusive and fair calls for the registration of plural readings. In the face of the enormous problems presented by climate change, technological revolution and mass migration, it will also have to involve an engagement between official policies and the tactics and strategies that emerge from the grassroots: large-scale, fixed infrastructure is not nimble enough to provide solutions, and small-scale, incremental invention and adaptation can’t cope with the scale of the issues.

Plurality offers experts and scholars the chance to become diplomats and translators. To document the systems and stories that exist below the surface of the city’s official consciousness is the first step toward making them part of a conversation about the future. To articulate the range of possible conditions described by words we think we know is a way to enrich the discussion. And to express that complexity in language that speaks to different kinds of people - in high office and on the street - is to frame a view of urban habitat that’s understood as shared. 

Jane Wolff is Associate Professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design of the University of Toronto. Her internationally recognised work on cultural landscapes deals with the hybrid ecologies formed by interactions between environmental processes and human intervention.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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