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Report on the International Conference "Creating the ‘Good Life’ in the City: Urban Spaces in Times of Change, Challenge and Crisis"

News from Nov 15, 2022

Heidelberg University, October 10–12, 2022

In October 2022, a transdisciplinary conference took place at Heidelberg University, which was co-organized by the Heidelberg Worldmaking project “Epochal Life Worlds,” the Heidelberg Research Network Umwelten–Umbrüche–Umdenken (Rethinking Environmental Change) as well as the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (additional funding was provided by the DFG). Scholars from various disciplines gathered at Heidelberg to address a basic yet crucial philosophical and ethical question: What constitutes a ‘good life’ and how can it be realized in the urban spaces that we inhabit? For about a decade, the notion of the ‘good life’ has come into the focus not only among political actors, but among scholars in the social sciences and in cultural studies as well. The notion of the ‘good life’ highlights the multidimensional nature of wellbeing and is thus particularly suitable for a discussion of urban spaces with their complex interplay of ecological, social and technological factors. The concept’s focus on a reconsideration of the relationship between human and non-human actors as well as on ensuring equal living conditions can help cities meet the challenges they face, especially in light of the current environmental crisis. Theories of ‘good life’ provided a framework to bring together the conference participants in three interrelated panels on “Nature Cultures: Negotiating Multispecies Interactions,” “Managing Precariousness: Vulnerability & Resilience,” and “Rethinking Urban Spaces.”

The conference opened with a keynote by Anne Rademacher (NYU) in which she traced emerging moral ecologies in the city of Mumbai through the figures of refuge and ruin. By exploring the case of a group of young architects learning green design as well as the unlikely story of an urban forest used by the Parsi community forced to reinvent itself in light of the ongoing environmental crisis, she provided insights into different visions of the “good life” in the city and how these visions are deeply enmeshed with the larger political and religious ecologies both on the city as well as the national level. She also showed the importance of persuasive narratives and local engagement for putting these visions into practice; two aspects that frequently reappeared over the following two days.

The first panel of the conference turned to the question of how multispecies interactions were negotiated in the past and how they could be reconfigured in the future. It started off with two presentations by Birgit Hoinle (Hohenheim University) and Marie-Christine Fuchs (Saarland University) who introduced the concepts of “Buen Vivir/ Sumak Kawsay” as well as “Rights of Nature” respectively, which have both emerged in South America and provided important impetus for environmental movements around the world while reflecting a very much local vision of human-nature relations drawn from indigenous cultures. With the presentations of Matthias Schumann (Heidelberg University) and Harry den Hartog (Tongji University Shanghai) discussion moved to the ecological transformation of Shanghai during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Schumann showed how the Shanghai Municipal Zoo in the 1930s emerged as a site for the construction of a “modern” view of nature. The zoo aimed to spread zoological knowledge and illustrate human mastery over nature, thus indicating some of the intellectual tendencies that are being increasingly questioned around the globe. Harry den Hartog, on the other hand, showed how Shanghai city planning rather attempts to connect with some of the premodern philosophical resources under the umbrella of an “ecological civilization” that attempts to balance economic growth and sustainability and indicates a shift from “quantity” to “quality” in urban development. In Shanghai, this “ecological civilization” has a played a role in projects such as the recreation of the Yangzi waterfront that aims to contribute to the “good life” in the city but also embodies China’s ambition to define alternatives to the current global capitalist system.

The second panel focused on the various, yet interconnected ecological, sociological and psychological dimensions of urban vulnerability to discuss strategies and paths of action to develop resilient cities and urban societies. In his talk Gonzalo Lizzaralde (Université de Montréal) highlighted the often “unnatural” social, economic or political causes of disasters and the pitfalls of many reconstruction attempts. Among others, he discussed the case of disaster reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, where much money was wasted on radical transformation attempts pushed by international NGOs and foundations that eventually came to naught. Yet, he also pointed to successful attempts of urban planning and disaster response, which do not rely on large institutional machineries but rather provide space for the initiatives of local communities. Roberto Pérez Rivero (Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Natura-leza y el Hombre, Cuba) discussed the Cuban agricultural experience after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba was hit by sanctions and had to find ingenious solutions to replace previous food imports. In particular, urban communities, especially the elderly, reused government-owned spaces for urban agriculture, sparking a transformation of urban food production and perfectly illustrating strategies for reshaping “urban spaces in times of change, challenge and crisis.” Unfortunately, renewed availability of agricultural imports reversed some of the early successes, but Pérez Rivero emphasized that urban agriculture can significantly increase urban resilience and sustainability and should not only be seen as crisis solution.

Nicolene Steyn (North-West University, South Africa) highlighted the importance of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for reducing vulnerability in the African Urban context especially due to their widespread availability, affordability and potential application. She showed that although some examples exist where ICTs are applied to climate related issues within the South African legal framework, laws and policies seldom refer to the development and use of technology for climate adaptation. Consequently, Steyn concluded that there is great potential for the future implementation of ICTs, even if there remain quite a few challenges, such as the persistent fragmentation of city governance or procurement challenges, that must be overcome. Lastly, in his presentation Robert R. Gioielli (University of Cincinnati) explored the emergence of the single-family-home as the dominating form of living and the epitome of the American way of life after the second world war. Gioielli emphasized how the single-family-home became embedded in the political economy of the country, reproducing gender, class and racial hierarchies as well as fuelling dependence on automobile infrastructure. Gioielli also pointed out, however, that the single-family-home is quite versatile and can be adapted to changing social realities, for example more diverse family types, and that it historically also provided a safe space for people that did not fit the heteronormative standards of suburban America.

The third day of the conference started off with one of its highlights, a trip to the Heidelberg Bahnstadt, one of the most prominent urban development projects of the city, where Ulrike Gerhard (Heidelberg University) gave an on-site lecture to introduce some of the accomplishments but also some of the shortcomings of this particular project. For example, one of the benefits is the low energy consumption resulting from the construction of passive houses as well as the inclusion of water basins and green spaces for the improvement of the microclimate. Yet, the rather uniform style of the houses also led to it being dubbed the “Stalin Allee” (Stalin Boulevard) after the showcase boulevard of the former GDR in Berlin while the large sealed surface areas make it the hottest district of Heidelberg. These might be some among the reasons why the local Heidelberg residents were reluctant to move in when the first houses were completed in 2012. In recent years, however, the Bahnstadt has been in high demand, especially among young professionals and families. The trip thus provided insights into how urban spaces were rethought in Heidelberg as well as into some of the pitfalls that followed from these attempts.

The last panel took off where the on-site lecture ended, and continued the dicussion of attempts to rethink urban spaces. The first presentation by Hou Shen (Peking University) took a look back at the city of Qingdao in Northeastern China and its transformation from a small fishing village into a colonial hub during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The German colonizers envisioned Qingdao as a central component of their colonial ambitions but also designed the city as a recreational space situated next to the Pacific Ocean. Building and frequenting beaches together with the local population, they thereby served to spread an image of the ocean as opportunity rather than threat. Hou also pointed out, however, that this picture is undergoing another shift right now as climate change exacerbates the risks associated with living close to the ocean. Gareth Doherty (Harvard University) then returned the discussion to the present and took the participants onto a tour of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, where he is currently conducting “landscape fieldwork.” His main concern are the terreiros, ritual spaces of the Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion, where not only deities and humans but also elements of nature find a home in an increasingly densely populated city. By narrating his experiences within these spaces, Doherty not only made a plea for the value of fieldwork within the field of landscape architecture, he also highlighted the importance of terreiros as alternative spaces of “environmental preservation,” as refuges within the city, thereby reminding us of the sacred spaces in Mumbai presented by Anne Rademacher during her keynote.

Elisa T. Bertuzzo made the claim that aspects of the “good life” can be found in ordinary urban practices even under precarious circumstances. She used the concept of “urban concomitances” to emphasize in which different groups of different social backgrounds inhabit urban spaces side by side often temporarily and while being on the move. She used the example of Bangladeshi communities in Italy who cultivate agricultural plots under often precarious legal conditions next to but not necessarily together with the local populations. Bertuzzo also highlighted some of the unexpected opportunities these communities can exploit due to the ongoing climate change by introducing South Asian crops that are suitable to Italy’s changing climatic conditions. She also cautioned, however, that despite such success stories we have to take seriously the inequalities as well as the various and sometimes conflicting claims to the utilization of urban spaces when discussing how to create the “good life” and for whom. The panel closed with the screening of “A Thousand-Year Stage,” a short movie by the Canadian filmmaker Daphne Xu about the creative ways in which local residents experience the transformation of the villages in the construction process of the new megacity Xiong’an between Beijing and Tianjin. Juxtaposing open spaces with intimate glimpses into people’s lives, and documenting in particular musical performances, the film reflects both spaces and times in motion; it shows how people’s way of using space and of experiencing time reveals adaptive processes, but may also run counter to the strategic city planning or generate its very own spatio-temporal dynamics of a ‘good life’ in the new city, thus again showing the importance of local initiative and agency.

The different panels of the conference were able to bring together insights from many different disciplinary perspectives which nevertheless emphasized recurrent themes, including the necessity of local initiative, incremental change, and informal solutions. Numerous presentations also showed that attention has to be paid to issues of inequality and access while showing the attention of concepts and narratives that emerge outside of the Euro-American context. All in all, the concept of the “good life” served as a productive device to anchor discussions during the three-day conference and it is hoped that the discussion can be continued through other venues in the future.

Report written by Matthias Schumann

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