“Not too close, not too far: living with animals”

The animals are urbanizing. We are not talking about cats or dogs, but about wild species. Nor are they, of course, insects, birds or rodents: they have been city dwellers for a long time. Rather, they are wild boars, deer, weasels, snakes and even pumas, elephants, bears, monkeys, even wolves. Real wild animals. Animals that feed both wonder and fear, haunt the imagination like mythical stories. Their presence, as sudden as it is surprising, forces man to review his own certainties, to descend from Olympus. The city that was formed by separating itself from nature, from the wild, from the bestial, must relearn to live with it. But how?

Could the city really become a Noah’s Ark, as you say in your book “Zoocities”? How do you see the future of the animal in the city?

The experience of confinement has allowed us to perceive wild animals in places where we did not expect to find them. It was like revealing the nature of the city, which we usually believe has no right of citizenship. From there, a feeling of joyful surprise that the media strongly conveyed. Admiring the ducks strolling on the forecourt of the Comédie-Française in Paris, when they usually paddle a few steps from the Seine, next to the Île Saint-Louis, testifies to a kind of breath in front of a constricting environment and highly standardized urban world.

As for the question of whether there will be more and more wild animals in cities, it is clear that the massive destruction of the natural environments surrounding the ever-expanding urban centers is pushing animals to take refuge there. For example, kangaroos in Australia, who struggle to find grass in the bush, come to town to feed. But there is also the fact that man, also hunted from his natural environment, forms, in the urban areas where he accumulates, unhealthy habitats from which many animals do their business. It should be remembered that around 2.5 billion people currently live in the slums. When water stagnates, waste accumulates, open landfills accumulate, rats, mosquitoes, some monkeys or seagulls integrate humans into their new ecosystem and proliferate.

Review the photo gallery: Confined humans, animals become bolder

With the ecological transition, is it conceivable that wild animals return even more to urban areas?

Yes and no. On the one hand, one can imagine a great reversal with denatured natural areas and some “green”, ecological urban areas, where water and food abound, and therefore wild animals. The de-pollution of an urban watercourse favors the return of many species. On the other hand, the more the cities are “ecological”, that is independent from the point of view of energy, materials, food, etc., the less they will impose the exploitation, even the colonization, of the countryside, the more the natural environments will be preserved, the more animals will be able stay there or come back.

At the moment, cities produce almost nothing of what they consume and reject all their waste outside. The evolution of cities towards forms of self-sufficiency is essential for the ecological change that is urgently needed today. It is with the city, not with the rural areas, that it is appropriate to start: establishing mixed and flexible forms of complementarity, supply and recycling short circuits, favoring the reuse of materials, planting fruit trees and creating shared gardens where possible, etc. This would then turn the city into a city.

What makes them different?

I have proposed this vocabulary to distinguish between the historically “walled” city – like a tower of Babel that detaches itself from the sensory world, leaving the earth to raise humanity towards the sky of the purest spirituality – and the city understood as an independent city and multiform -community of species.

As Aristotle already explained, the city is the place of plurality, freedom of action and independence.

The city protects from enemies and bestiality, therefore from nature and the so-called “savages” whose behavior would always be unpredictable and potentially terrifying. Now, if we are willing to associate the “savage” with the part of the unexpected, the unplanned, the irreducible to the environment, which is found in every living being, including ourselves, we conceive that urban planning destined to the rise of civilization with a capital C is followed by sclerosing, standardizing and draconian effects.

As Aristotle already explained, the city is instead the place of plurality, freedom of action and independence. It is neither centered nor geometric nor subtracted from the uses of local residents, but on the contrary multiple and capable of being redeveloped by these uses. The city is ideally suspended in time while the city is dynamic, changing and rich in history. It can be imagined to be multicentre, made up of connected and individualized housing units, like a set of urban villages hoped for by the artist and urban planner Yona Friedman.

To think in terms not of cities but of cities is also giving a place to foreigners as well as to other living beings. As the biologist and sociologist Sir Patrick Geddes thought, the city is evolutionary and adaptive. As needs arise, it changes. It therefore constitutes a complete ecosystem.

So, when we say to bring nature back to the city, we can also refer to the animal world.

The specific question of the city is precisely that of knowing how to create forms of life thanks to which men, plants and animals cannot coexist or, on the contrary, make war, but simply live together.

The extermination campaigns of the so-called vermin are reflected in the fact that they are ever more numerous

This question is central and very concrete. Where I live, as elsewhere, there are beetles, mice, seagulls and even more and more wild boars and foxes. Exterminating them when they bother me is neither ethically possible nor effective in the field. As evidenced by the story of rats and mosquitoes, campaigns to exterminate so-called vermin increase their numbers. So how do we do it case by case, locally, experimentally, so that the existence of some is compatible with that of others? The problems linked to the ecological transition oblige us to review the hierarchies, the relationships of dependence, the articulation between public and private, between individual and community, between man and nature.

But how to achieve this familiarity of proximity between humans and animals? What measures to put in place?

First of all, there are two attitudes to avoid: as I said, the eradication of the animals that annoy us and, on the contrary, the feeding of those we wish to attract. In many cases it is a question of squaring the circle, because there are a lot of conflicts. You should know that the pest control industry and the wildlife food industry are equally thriving. But in both cases, to kill or to feed, there is a desire for anti-ecological and anti-democratic domination at the same time.

In concrete terms, there are all kinds of architectural, urban and even mental gestures to escape this double trap. The city can be equipped in such a way as to ensure the coexistence of neighbors in peace with each other. For some animals, you could opt for building covers that adhere to all types of insects, batrachians or reptiles, opacify the windows to prevent billions of birds from crashing into them, reduce lighting, clean up a stream and put put it back in the open air, de-asphalt where possible, set up ecological corridors to allow animals to cross roads, railings, gardens, etc., leave useful materials such as piles of branches or stones, water and mud, etc. at their disposal in courtyards or gardens . And each time, he studies the situation with specialists so as not to further unbalance the situation.

The more honey bees there are, the less nectar is available to wild bees.

The case of hive urban fashion is emblematic of an attitude that is both interested, dominant and wrong. The more honey bees there are (therefore domestic), the less nectar is available for wild bees – of which the number of species is considerable – which are crucial for pollination. The situation we have created is indeed rather tragic for the latter who are disappearing.

Read also: Beehives in the city, a false good idea

How to avoid this trap?

I suggest starting from the neighborhood to better understand the right gestures, to avoid the trap of feelings such as resentment: a neighbor is neither friend nor enemy. I don’t choose my neighbors. They are simply in geographical proximity and they share certain spaces with me, whether they like it or not. The question raised by the neighborhood is that of the right distance: neither too close nor too far. I propose to start from there to create new values ​​and establish a life side by side and face to face that seems to me the best basis for coexistence. It constitutes a basis on which some practices of sharing, mutual accompaniment, solidarity can then develop.

How, in the life of a city, can all these devices be democratically implemented?

In a city, citizen participation is not only necessary, but essential to adopt an ecological lifestyle and to put pressure on elected officials in this direction. Acting locally on the one hand, and personally engaging on the other, are two sides of the same coin. Citizenship, which does not consist only in monitoring the actions of those in power, but in taking care of the places we share with others, would be strengthened.

Accountability is key.

Yes, responsibility towards the state of the world and towards its surrounding environment, avoiding making people feel guilty. There is a punitive aspect to ecology that alienates people. While we would benefit from the enhancement of the strength of collective commitment associated with the pleasure of sociality; commitment that it is necessary to preserve forms of institutional normalization lacking in flexibility and ductility. Everywhere we see experiments flourishing (eco-districts, cooperatives, shared habitats of the 3And age, shared urban gardens, collective maintenance of a forest, deforestation and cleaning of a beach, etc.) in which the active participation of the members and the protection of the environment that they identify, create and wish to transmit are intimately linked. Ecology and democracy do not go without each other.

Read also: Live with the wolves!


For further

  • Joelle Zask, “Zoocities. Wild animals in the city ”, Premier Parallèle, 2020
  • Emilie Dardenne, “Introduction to Animal Studies”, PUF Editions, 2020
  • Yona Friedman, “Mobile Architecture. Towards a city designed by its own inhabitants (1958-2020) ”, new complete edition with Editions of the Eclat2020.

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