The rewilded city

The most sustainable city is a rewilded city – a city with space for diversity and for life to unfold in all its raw, messy forms and shapes. A city that isn’t too polished, homogenized, or cultivated. A city that is made for living, all kinds of living. A city that embraces life and is flexible, adaptable and updatable. This requires a degree of ruggedness or even space for “ugliness”: if there is a homogeneous, uniform concept of what a picturesque, well-organized city should look like this tends to limit opportunities for development, creativity, and free, messy living. Not that organization and efficiency is a no-go – obviously city-planning is important. But momentarily there is a tendency of eliminating all the “rough”, non-groomed areas in developed cities, and that cultivation and homogenization is reducing space for free, unorganized, impulsive, interim living and creative expressions.

In many cities, including my former hometown Copenhagen, the raw areas in which unrestricted creativity unfolds and a degree of liberating “ugliness” is allowed to grow are constantly endanger by the cultivation of exclusive, homogeneous buildings. This cultivation of the city is the opposite of rewilding. Rewilding involves making space for life to flourish; it is a flexible, spacious approach that ensures the existence of “pockets” of ungroomed areas that can be shaped by the people who live there, and hence develop in accordance with life. Cultivating a cityscape on the other hand means cleaning up and making everything look picturesque and nicely polished, which in itself might sound intriguing, but is often a lifeless and stagnant procedure. Life is not static and motionless, and therefore designing or building for immobility and static perfection is the same as creating objects and buildings for admiration from a distance, not for living, not for usage, not for wear and tear, not for weathering.

But perhaps the goal with city-cultivation is increased consumption? When perfectly polished buildings, parks and squares decay they need to be re-groomed, re-polished, re-cultivated, and hence the ongoing battle against user traces and weathering sets in.

Allowing for rawness and flexibility in buildings and plazas is a way of inviting lived life in; of allowing the life of the users and inhabitants to shape and to mold. And it involves viewing user traces and decay as beautifying or enhancing rather than blemishing. In that sense, the processes of rewilding the city and rewilding nature are not much different. Rewilding involves letting life unfold, unrestricted and uncontrolled. Of creating a frame for unfolding (or allowing for an already existing frame to endure and evolve), and then, importantly (!), stepping back and letting whatever is meant to blossom and flourish grow.

At this writing moment I am in Jakarta together with my oldest son, and blown away by the collage of a city this is. Now, I am not saying that there is anything sustainable about this city; it is highly polluted and literally sinking. As a matter of fact, it is supposed to be the most rapidly sinking city in the world, which at the current rate of sinking, meaning unless something drastically is done to turn around this development one-third of the city will be under water in 2050. North Jakarta is sinking 25 centimeters annually at the moment. The reason therefore is a combination of rising sea levels and an immense overuse of ground water due to massive development. So, sustainability in the ordinary sense, as in “green” is not exactly what one will experience here. The city is characterized by heavy traffic and smog, and an ever-increasing inequality between populaces that fosters immense poverty.

However, in relation to the above definition of the rewilded city there are fascinating “pockets” of diversity, street life and rawness to experience here.

Yesterday, for example, I went to an old abandoned looking mall (really ugly place with dark corridors, fluorescent tubes in the ceilings, and peeling paint on the walls in an impossible 80’s color palette; cobalt blue, bright green, orange and brown). To my big surprise, however, the top floor of the mall had been taken over by creative hipsters, independent bookshops and small record studios. There was even a repair shop, which offered repairing your outdated electronics while you could drink a café latte and listen to records (I was very fond of this place, as the overconsumption of electronics and electronic waste is one of the main current polluters, only topped by the consumption of fast-fashion clothes and accessories). Vintage shops with colourful hippie clothes, corduroy bell bottom pants, felted hats, handmade jewellery and curiosities such as cartoon figurines, old toy cars, and feathered decorative ornaments were spread out throughout the corridors next to food stalls with delicious street food and matcha lattes. Cuddly, yet tough looking cats were hanging out next to the food stalls looking to be fed and petted. As mentioned, a couple of independent book shops were also to be found here with an amazing selection of e.g., Indonesian and international poetry, queer fiction, eco manifests, and feminist literature. I spoke to the owner of one of the book shops, and she said: we are so lucky being here, because the rent is low and stays low, which allows for us to curate with our heart. This notion would also explain the independent record stores and the small recording studios.

At the floor underneath, tailors were spread out throughout the dark corridors, and on the ground floor fruit, vegetables and fish was being sold by elderly ladies from their interim stalls. This made me remember that I was still in Indonesia, because the assortment and array of people on the top floor could have been found in any diverse large city.

All big cities have places like this mall; places that never turned out the way they were intended to. That are deteriorating and more or less abandoned. And, typically such places are demolished in order to make space for new, polished, neat places with the intention of modernizing the city. However, when the diverse life of a city is allowed to unfold, mold and shape such “un-places”, something enchanted occasionally starts growing. It is not always the case, of course. Sometimes the decay develops into a degree of irreversible neglect. But other times, when lived life and inventiveness is allowed to unfold, something beautiful occurs.

The rewilded city is a place that allows for unrestricted creativity to blossom.

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