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Modern by tradition: making place differently


I have long been fascinated by the ways in which we can do things otherwise and by people who think differently from myself. I have an innate suspicion of all that which is generally taken for granted as true or right in certain contexts. I know nothing more exciting than having my view of things challenged, and ideally altered to see the world differently. This excitement lies in the fact that the world has endless potential through the ways in which it is in actual fact a rich and dynamic on-going sedimentation of all our practices and understandings of the world. What I want to ask here, is what are those practices and understandings that have come to dominate, and more importantly what other grains are lodged in the layers we take for granted? 


As any landscape architect or spatial planner knows, ideas about place make for place. Our cities and rural landscapes are what they are because this is how we can understand them to be and think they are. Now obviously with some material and physical absolute and relative constraints, we can shape the world in our image – and we do, materially and cognitively. An illustrative example hereof are the earth berms raised to protect the town of Grindavík in S. Iceland from lava flows. In the most recent eruption round mid-March 2024 the land sculpting power of humanity can be readily appreciated, reigning in earthly land forming processes (see fig. 1).


Figure 1: Near Grindavík, S. Iceland 17th March 2024. Lava being directed along earth berms raised to protect the village of Grindavík (to the left). (Photo: Ragnar Visage / RUV (Icelandic Broadcasting Corporation))


Now the Icelandic example might seem somewhat extreme. But if we look around in a place such as the Netherlands, we also see a landscape layered with past and current practices and worldviews within their techno-material constraints. The polder landscape, is one generated through peat extraction propelling the medieval cities of the Lowlands on their mercantile capitalist trajectory. With the threat of the sea growing as a consequence of peat excavation, devices to harness the wind to keep water at bay were devised, making for what all will recognise as the Netherlands today – the windmill. This model of management has become so in-grained in the Western mindset that it assumed that all aspects of nature can be tamed. Hence the birth of ecosystem services, systems analysis and nature-based solutions. All in efforts to fend of the encroachment of ‘nature’ out there, wreaking havoc on our organised polders ‘in-here’. Esther Turnhout (2024) describes this as a deadlock situation but one related to persistent patterns of inequality and  marginalization of alternative forms of knowledge. How exciting it would be to be able to refuse this mindset and see and think our relation to the environment completely differently? 


Now of-course there are many ways to think differently, and one obvious way is simply to ask an outsider. A visitor to the Netherlands could thereby be asked what they see and how. Often as a thought exercise we toy with what aliens would think if they landed on this planet. We know from our personal lives, for instance when we are in trouble, or caught up in a complex personal argument or somehow in a bind, we often seek fresh advise. Outside pair of eyes help us look at things without all the biases that come with our intimate involvement. When it comes to planning and design of our landscapes, who could be these outsiders? Who could be the ones who could help us see differently and identify those grains of otherwise in our taken for granted? Here indigenous knowledges have been brought to the fore. We see in the climate and IPBES CoPs contingents of people from Amazonia addressing the assembly with the assumption being that these can provide fresh ideas within the frame of crisis as defined by these bodies. Less so is a recognition as to how these are the same people often powerless and at the receiving end of climate change. As much as the valuing and recognition of indigenous knowledges is laudable, there is an inherent risk in reifying as somehow authentic and romanticising indigenous views. More sinister is the appropriation of parts of indigenous knowledges and worldviews to justify or even legitimise business as usual (fig. 2). 


Figure 2: When indigeneity is just for show. On Carrera 8, Bogotá, Colombia. (Photo: E. Huijbens, March 2024)


Here it is important to bear in mind that whatever we label indigenous has been at the receiving end of colonial violence for over 500 years. Many of these communities have gone through the wholesale collapse of their ways of being and doing. The Brazilian indigenous activist Aílton Krenak (2019) argues that we need to learn from those who have gone through their ‘end of the world’, not to appropriate knowledge for coping but to recognise injustices wrought in past and present and transform the way we perceive ourselves. His challenge is to help us cope as mere parts of the whole as opposed to conceiving ourselves as the pinnacle of creation and masters of the universe. Indeed, the indigenous knowledges and communities that do remain have learned to cope within the dominant system, taking up, appropriating and retranslating many of the dominant tropes of capitalism, consumption and Western ways of being and doing. But as much as we have been witnessing an accelerating decline in biodiversity, cultural diversity across the globe is suffering from accelerating decline as globalised capitalist consumer culture becomes the norm. Much like with biodiversity loss, lost cultures cannot be reclaimed. Lost values are hard to reinvent and all we do now is to refract what is to be from the current state of affairs and the ways of being and doing we have available to us at current.


Figure 3: Making Landscapes at Bestiario in Manizales, Colombia. (Photo: E. Huijbens, March 2024)


At this point it is appropriate to introduce one of the leading figures trying to reframe our ways of being and doing. Arturo Escobar in a recent article (2021) introduces us to the notion of the ‘pluriverse’ as opposed to the uni-verse of Western thought. What sits at the core of his valuing of other knowledges, pluralising the dominant one, is a focus on the ways and means with which we relate. In the article he proposes thus six interrelated ‘axes’ as he calls them as strategies to help us transition to the pluriverse through valuing relations. These axes are around: the re-communalization of social life; the re-localization of social, economic, and cultural activities; the strengthening of local autonomies; the de-patriarchalization and de-racialization of social relations; the reintegration with the Earth; and the construction of meshworks among transformative alternatives. In line with the focus here on planning and design, Escobar asks us thus if we “… re-design local, regional, national, and even trans-national economies to favour relationships, the commons, and place-based living?” (2021, p. 11). In my own work I propose to ‘develop earthly attachments’ recognising the importance of the here and now for a particular mode of existence, valuing the context of all that has been and can become. In concluding my book on the topic I state: 


Each place matters and we cannot be alienated from it, nor render it abstract for

purposes of capital gains. The here and the now for each and everyone of us is valuable and meaningful. Folded into every here and now is the whole ecology of the place, extending into the depths of time and bringing together a wealth of trajectories we are entangled with at each and every moment. These entanglements are more than us, augment us and expand us and we need to recognise them and their potential for our emancipation and future as we reconcile with our legacy of exploitation, alienation and abstractions of the life forces that animate us (Huijbens, 2021, p. 178)


In the words of Escobar, making for ‘a world where many worlds fit’ is to me a call for the commons and that of conviviality premised on valuing the ever on-going ways we relate. What is important here is to see the relations that we continually make and re-make with each other and our material surroundings as the source of infinite wealth in terms of being and doing. Right there and then, with a plurality of eyes, ears and noses we have what we need to change. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri state in their book Assembly


Only by immersing ourselves in the experience of the present, on the side of resistance, can our standpoint express and alternative – and, relying on the common, produce subversion. (2017, p. 239)


Figure 4: Community garden in Chinchiná, Colombia (Photo: E. Huijbens, March 2024)


A place based and communal life, the commons, broadly conceptualised, are the ‘territory of relationality’ Escobar (2021) calls us to, or in the words of Bruno Latour (2018); a call ‘down to Earth’, attaching and entangling with each other and the material surroundings. So the question then in terms of spatial planning and design is what gets naturalised? Moreover, how can we enable other world-making practices recognising the plurality of ways people can relate to make sense of that which seems given? I would propose the challenge of designing convivial spaces of the commons using the principles of ‘interdependence, care, and repair’ as Escobar emphasises (see also 2018 and 2022). This is a profoundly political act, but then again life is politics and there is no one true state of affairs, or one silver bullet to solve the challenges we face. We need to embrace complexity and even confrontational dynamics and live through these, continually weaving the socio-material fabric that makes for us as we make for it. The lens through which we view the world would be one valuing the plurality of ways of being and doing, allowing these to thrive, without predefined goals. Being modern by tradition is about the art of paying attention to the possible, relying on our creative energies and desires in making for future spaces and places. 


References:

- Escobar, A. 2018: Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press

- Escobar, A. 2021: Reframing civilization(s): from critique to transitions, Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2021.2002673

- Escobar, A. 2022: On the ontological metrofitting of cities. e-Flux Architecture, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/where-is-here/453886/on-the-ontological-metrofitting-of-cities/ 

- Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2017: Assembly. Duke University Press.

- Huijbens, E. 2021: Developing Earthly Attachments in the Anthropocene. Routledge. 

- Krenak, A. 2019: Ideas to Postpone the End of the World. House of Anansi Press.

- Latour, B. 2018: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press.

- Turnhout, E. 2024: A better knowledge is possible: Transforming environmental science for justice and pluralism. Environmental Science and Policy, 155, 103729.

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