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Urban Natures

Session VI-19, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
This interdisciplinary panel explores the histories, politics, and meanings of urban natures through a comparative discussion of Istanbul, Turkey and Kuwait City, Kuwait. The phrase ‘urban natures’ calls our attention to two distinct but interrelated questions. First, how are ‘natural’ landscapes, species, and practices brought into urban spaces through art, architecture, urban design, and social life? We thus seek papers that explore the politics and practices through which natures are incorporated into the city. At the same time, ‘urban natures’ also direct us toward a second question: What are the unexpected, weedy, and unruly forms of plant and animal life that take root in cities? We are also interested in papers that highlight species and subjects that exceed and escape human control. Focusing on urban natures thus calls us to consider both the projects of containment and categorization that produce ‘nature’ as a particular kind of object and the vibrant possibilities for non-human life amidst those landscapes of control. Building on a rapidly growing academic conversation between art historians, environmental historians, geographers, and others, this panel uses urban natures as a point of departure to consider questions of power, meaning, and possibility. We ground these questions through discussions of Istanbul, Turkey and Kuwait City, Kuwait. Although these two cities seem to sit at opposite ends of any discussion of urban natures, placing them in conversation help us interrogate and rethink a set of persistent binaries, including natural/cultivated; traditional/modern; human/non-human; native/invasive; urban/rural; and ephemeral/durable.
Architecture & Urban Planning
Art/Art History
  • In response to protests against the overdevelopment of Istanbul and the privatization of its public spaces, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced their initiative to build more public parks in cities across the country. Rather than calling them public parks, it chose a late-Ottoman-era name for these spaces. They were called “millet bahçeleri,” literally translated as “the gardens of the people of a nation.” The decision to utilize a late Ottoman era term points to the neo-Ottomanist ideologies of the AKP, and suggests the desire to locate a model of economic growth and urban reform that predates the formation of the Turkish Republic. Since 2018, several new “nation's gardens” have been established within the new high-rise communities popping up in Istanbul’s expanding periphery. While the gardens are billed as efforts to alleviate the social and ecological ailments of Istanbul’s unbridled growth, in fact, they are an outgrowth of urban development and redevelopment plans that displace residents from the city center and further contribute to urban sprawl. These projects are fueled by the construction and tourism sector and real estate speculation to feed a failing national economy. This paper compares the design and use of these new "nation's gardens" to the appearance and use of more longstanding recreational greenspaces in Istanbul to discuss how the more historical sites serve as containers of Istanbul's cultural identity, its histories and its natural habitats. Yet the government's quest to constantly rehabilitate and "revitalize" these more historical greenspaces--often upholding the aesthetics of the newly constructed and neatly landscaped "nation's gardens" as a model--threatens to sever their connection to urban history and damage their existence as natural habitats for non-human species.
  • How can weeds help us understand Istanbul’s urban transformation in a different way? Over the past two decades, Istanbul’s population has grown from roughly 8.7 million in 2000 to 15 million in 2020. Alongside that demographic growth, new infrastructure projects have also made possible a staggering expansion of the city’s urban footprint. While the causes of this social and spatial expansion are complex, a core mechanism for Istanbul’s transformation has been property. Measuring, mapping, buying, selling, and developing property has become key not only to the politics of the Justice and Development Party but a broader social imaginary. From one point of view, property’s ascendance signals a city made legible and transparent to the needs of an urban market. Yet there are places in Istanbul where that regime of property breaks down. This paper introduces the analytic of ‘weedy property’ to make visible some of those sites. Following the growth of the ‘tree of heaven’ (kokar ağaç, ailanthus altissima), this paper asks where, how, and why this quintessential urban tree - often described as an invasive weed - grows where it does. I highlight three kinds of places where the tree of heaven is especially prevalent: the margins of registered vakıf (waqf) property, old gecekondu neighborhoods, and properties embroiled in inheritance struggles. Thinking in terms of weedy property thus helps us to understand property not merely as an object to be bought and sold but as a relation that links people, places, and temporalities together in unexpected and uneven ways.
  • In the seventeenth century, new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers were created in the city’s many agricultural spaces. During this same period, new genres of writings appeared related to flower-breeding: technical “how-to” manuals, which derived from an earlier tradition of agricultural treatises; encyclopedias of flower varieties created in Istanbul; and biographical dictionaries of Istanbul flower-breeders. Such texts attempt to prescribe note-taking habits, agricultural timelines, and observational techniques related to their propagation. The creation of different shapes, sizes, and colors of flowers are credited to the work of individuals residing in the city and its neighboring towns. What can the texts tell us about the practice of creating new floral varieties? Were such texts an attempt to control the proliferation of new flower varieties and practitioners in the city? What was the relationship between the recorded genealogies of flowers, the prescribed techniques of seeding, and the flower industry in Istanbul? Flowers in this period emerge from the texts as technological or human-made plants rather than things, whose history unfolded not only in Ottoman exchanges with western Europe. Taking flower breeding in Istanbul as a case study for the creation of urban natures, this paper focuses on the formation of discourses about city’s history, urban identities, social belonging, and science and technology.
  • Recent interest in landscape education at Kuwait University and mega-million-dollar landscape projects imply an interest in initiating and developing a solid foundation for a future for landscape architecture. This interest is best reflected in the landscape politics found in the everyday practices of cleaning, managing, maintaining, securing, using, and traveling to Kuwait City’s Al-Shaheed Park. This ethnographic project explores how the park and definition of the “public” it serves are created through everyday practices as enacted by multiple actors. These include officials, visitors, management employees, security guards, cleaners, and designers, each defining and understanding the park differently. Simultaneously, many other actors are non-human, like the green lawns, red running pathway, olive trees, birds, water pipes, gates, signs, and more. Through analyzing these different human and non-human actors and their relationships, I explore what a public park is in Kuwait, and most importantly how people understand the term “nature” through this particular constructed urban nature. I am inserting myself into existing discussions within landscape architecture where scholars push for the inclusion of non-humans, showcasing an interest in moving towards the expansion of ‘the public’ to ‘publics.’ Located on the historic Greenbelt which separates Kuwait City from the suburbs, Al-Shaheed Park is a unique non-governmentally managed landscape that stands out in many ways. It becomes emblematic of existing politics, problems, and potential change. While many participants speak of Al-Shaheed Park as a space of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, the majority understand it as bizarrely clean, well-managed, safe, green, lush, foreign, and civilized. For this presentation, I unpack color and materiality. People compare the park’s “green” vegetation and vibrant and well-maintained materials to the “beige” context, while pointing at the rugged asphalt roads, the broken-paved sidewalks, the non-lush streetscaping, and more. Non-human actors like the sumptuous green lawns and meandering pathways symbolize a more civilized and European-like “nature”. Shrubs, trees, and green roofs, through rigorous maintenance efforts, symbolize institutional care. A certain urban imaginary arises, one embedded with greenness, Europeanness, and perceptions of progress. Simultaneously, Kuwait is unquestionably one of the hottest countries in the world and this alarming fact alone signals an urgent need to critically analyze the infatuation with “green” at a time of significant climate change. I ask, is green the color we should be focusing on, or beige?
  • Over the past few decades Kuwait’s urban landscape has become dominated by the conocarpus lancifolius tree. This is an evergreen tree with an uncanny greenness to it that defies the beige of the desert, it has an unruly rate of growth that constantly needs to be kept in check, and yet the extent at which it is ubiquitously used as a hedge or street tree in public and private landscapes suggests it is the most ideal, or, naturally occurring tree in Kuwait’s desert environment – however, it is a naturally occurring swamp tree in the lower valley streams of the Somali Peninsula. Landscape historian, John Dixon Hunt, famously theorizes nature into a tryptic hierarchy; “first nature” which is wilderness untouched by humankind, “second nature” in which humankind begins agricultural practices and urbanization, and “third nature” in which humankind looks to the landscape solely for aesthetic appeal. The controversial c. lancifolius currently resides in this “third nature” state. It is controversial because on one extreme it is desired as local environmental activists argue for its abundant supply as critical in offsetting Kuwait’s carbon footprint and others argue for it as a versatile evergreen tree that can withstand Kuwait’s harsh arid climate and saline soil. On the other extreme it is despised as local ecologists warn of its detrimental effects on plant and wildlife biodiversity, and they reiterate its natural occurrence as a mangrove tree which leads to its high watering requirements in Kuwait’s desert environment. Furthermore, from a landscape architectural perspective, it negatively standardizes the urban landscape’s form and function with its demanding maintenance regime and destructive root behavior to below grade urban infrastructure. This proposal aims to move beyond this oscillation between the c. lancifolius as desired or despised towards a more measured narrative of this tree that has swarmed Kuwait’s urban landscape – how can we continue to live with this newly established “nature”? Through social and scientific archival sources, and grounded interviews this proposal unravels the history of the c. lancifolius. It elucidates how it took root literally and figuratively over the past few decades both in Kuwait’s urban landscape and in the situated prevailing urban imaginary of nature. The aim is to attempt to progress to the recently theorized “fourth nature” which moves beyond a “third nature” to one that is regenerative, ecologically sound, harmonious with the urban context, and synergistically promotes plant and wildlife diversity, and human livability.