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The Urban Bestiary: Landscape Architecture and the Modern City, by Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon

by Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon

Every autumn, the City of Portland is visited by a population of creatures who perform such marvelous antics that they are the object of entertainment for evening outings, news articles and websites. The annual arrival of Vaux's Swifts, who careen en masse through the air until funneling tornado-like into the boiler chimney of Chapman Elementary School, has become one of the City's most eloquent events that marks the coming of winter. The Vaux's Swift naturally roosts in tall, hollow trees to keep warm just before their fall migration. As habitat has disappeared, brick chimneys have proven to be a viable alternative. In the past, Chapman Elementary School forfeited fall heat to allow the birds to roost, however, a recent city grant has allowed the school to upgrade to a more fuel efficient heat source while allowing the chimney to remain as pure habitat.1

In the late 90s, Vancouver headlines waxed poetic about the presence of Coyote within the city. Canadians marvelled at the animals' ingenuity to navigate and survive in the urban terrain. The presence of Coyote was correlated to the magnificent siting of the city in the wilderness. In the last two years, the coyote population has grown to an estimated 2000-3000 in the Lower Mainland, causing the City of Vancouver to issue a 'Coyote Alert' and wildlife officials to launch a public awareness campaign to cope with the problem. As the animals have become more brazen in their survival strategies, the tone of the headlines has changed to reflect a growing antagonism between man and beast. Coyotes have become bolder around the downtown core, and reports of them stalking children and plucking chihuahuas from the ends of leashes became more monstrous when two children were attacked and dragged head first into some park shrubbery last summer. A heated debate now divides the city between those who wish to cull by shooting and those who feel it is human responsibility to adapt their own behavior. Autopsies of shot coyotes have revealed that people have been feeding them cooked chicken and other delicacies, lowering their fear of humans.2

In Tokyo, crows have become a leading civic crisis. Corvus macrorhynchous, otherwise known as the Southeast Asian Crow, has found the urban jungle a more hospitable habitat than their native homeland. Ironically, the heat island of Tokyo has been one of the leading attractors of crows migrating to the city. The birds have adapted well to the high rise as perch, and construct their nests of coat hangers and industrial debris. The urban bird has grown bigger and more aggressive than the country dwelling crow. Feeding on Tokyo's protein-rich trash, the crow has doubled the number of eggs it typically lays, and the population has skyrocketed from 3000 to 40,000 in the last fifteen years. The birds have shown a chilling ingenuity in capturing fresh meat. Not only will they strategically place stolen clams on city streets for car tires to break the shells, gangs of crows attack cats and pigeons, pecking out their eyes to disable them before carrying them up into the air to drop them to their death. Lunching salarymen have been attacked for their sushi, and during the breeding season, people have resorted to carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from groups of dive bombing crows intent on protecting their nests. They have been blamed for everything from black eyes to train derailments and city blackouts. The city continues to struggle with this Hitchcockian issue, and several task forces have been formed to solve the problem. The governor of Tokyo has suggested a new urban delicacy: crow meat pie. Other solutions have included large crow traps, the smothering of chicks in their nests, mesh nets for garbage bags and a government plea to Tokyoites to reduce the amount of leftover food they generate.3

Raven in city.The swift, the coyote and the crow hold a power of fascination over us that becomes more overwhelming the closer they touch our lives. These kinds of urban encounters with wild animals are becoming increasingly numerous, diverse and startling. As we persist with land use policies that treat land outside the urban realm as exploitable open space and ‘natural resources,’ animals are left with smaller and more fragmented patches of land within which to dwell. Additionally, the rural buffer between city and ‘wilderness’ is rapidly disappearing, as farmers are either out competed by large agribusiness or are surrounded and absorbed by urban sprawl. Ultimately, many animals stumble into the city in search of food, often following what were once intact migration routes.

We are already familiar with a diverse group of urban-dwelling animals and insects. Rats, mice and cockroaches are our common neighbours. But these creatures invoke disgust and an incessant desire to eradicate them. So why do certain animals invoke admiration while others inspire pity or disdain? The process of relegation is ripe territory for exploration, for in this process are imbedded many assumptions about our positioning in relationship to nature itself.

Today, we understand that our relations with nature are culturally mediated and constructed through our conceptions of identity and difference. Our various classification systems adopt a certain framework within which to categorize and view something. It makes us look for (if not create) certain traits to prove the validity of the system. The language we create to designate separation and affinity amongst animals and between ourselves is part of our language of nature. Our systems of classification actively impose categories that contain our desires, assumptions, values and associations. Nature with a capital ‘N’ is culture.

The rat, pigeon and roach belong to a group of animals known as the R-selected species. Brought to America by Europeans, they are characterized as breeding across seasons, and having high levels of reproduction and short life spans. They are highly adaptable and able to aggressively out compete and prey on other plants and animals.4 Symbols of our inability to control nature, these animals are assumed to spread disease and contaminate our food supply, and are much reviled. Without benefiting us in any way, they enter our cities and compete with us for food and lodging. These species are often considered unnatural, though they thrive when thrown into our lives. We are forced to contend with their nests, their shit, their insatiable appetites and unrestrained libidos—their most intimate biologies.

Coyotes, cougars and bears, however, hold a different kind of presence. As animals we correlate with nature, their sojourn in the city is often met with media coverage, public viewing and much general excitement. In the urban context, these animals are in a place we believe they do not belong, and a sighting is a rare and unusual event. Animals are a screen for our own projected desires, and it is arguable that as our ‘wild and natural’ spaces are developed and encroached upon certain species begin to represent, if not actually become, the entirety of these systems. The presence of Bear, for example, holds all that we associate and idealize with that bear: crystal clear streams, healthy salmon stocks, alpine meadows—in short, wild and pristine Nature.

As Bear breaches the physical distance between us by entering the city, it invokes complex emotions of wonder mixed with fear as it holds the virtual reality of an awesome sense of nature which is idealized as existing just outside the city limits, combined with the inherent threat of competition for space. After all, human space is essentially our space, and by entering the urban zone, animals have ceased ‘playing by our rules’.

Painting of mountain lion and winter landscape.We are accustomed to the presence of the image of animals all around us. They are recalled in our architecture, entertainment, myths and language. Even our cars are named after them. Images of animals are conflated with street and architecture to recall not the physical presence of these animals, but the ideals they signify. “(These) animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category ‘animal’ has lost its central importance”5. By becoming ‘animals of the mind,’ they lose their physicality. When we do come face to face with a live wild animal within the city, perhaps the strongest realization is that “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it”6. Our equation of wild animals to a resplendent nature, which for the most part no longer exists, begins to break down as contact increases in frequency and intensity. We are forced to contend with a new kind of startling and complex confrontation with active, willful, self-actualizing beings. As they begin to adapt behaviorally to the urban landscape, they lose the lustre of pristine nature and begin to fluctuate on the juncture between allure and abhorrence. This zone of ambiguity holds the threat of competition and gives us no easy answers of how to live with the uncertainty of what our relationship to nature should be.

Virtual Reality: The Sublime

Insight into our uncertain response to 'nature-al' ambiguity may be garnered by looking closer at the sublime characteristics associated with the wild animal. In 18th century Europe, a period popular for the analysis and classification of causes and effects, a discourse developed on aesthetic qualities and feelings. Emotional responses to art, poetry and landscape were studied and systematized into aesthetic categories. The sublime was one such code that explored elements of terror and the unknown within the landscape: gothic ruins, rugged cliffs, darkened grottoes and densely planted groves were strewn across the land to great effect. These elements were never approachable; they were viewed from afar, atop viewing towers or from the safety of a path. As Edmond Burke theorized, “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and they are simply terrible, but at certain distances and with certain modifications, they…are delightful.”7 Wonder and delight arose from the threat of danger and pain, the strongest emotions the mind was thought capable of feeling, combined with the tranquility of the realization of safety. Only by firing the passions, not weakening them, could the sublimity be tolerated.

The glimpse of bear or cougar or coyote within the city is a sublime moment tolerable only so far as it maintains its distance. Its wildness delights and titillates, but is framed and constructed by the empowered gaze of the observer: its sublimity is not true ‘nature,’ but the fantasy created and projected onto the furred, scaled, feathered body. This distancing and subjecting to the gaze relegates the animal to passive backdrop to human activity. As 'screen,’ it lacks an interiority. Biologically and psychologically, it is denied self-actualization. Expectations that wild animals be seen and not heard, that they not get too close, reveal that we still believe we hold dominion over animals and nature. We still operate under the dichotomy of nature versus culture, a Cartesian model that treats landscape and all that it embodies as a series of inanimate objects strewn across the terrain. We have insisted on a hierarchy of life that demarcates us the beneficiary of a food chain that we have declared ourselves at the top of, if not outside of altogether.

As these animals enter our lives, they push us into a web of complexity of an ecosystem we did not design, but one that is a direct result of our large-scale transformation of ecological systems. As wild animals adapt to urban conditions and learn new strategies for survival, their presence deconstructs the illusion of an existing Edenic nature upon which we depend for peace of mind about our modus operandi. Not only are we forced into interaction to avoid the consequence of a stolen lunch, abducted Chihuahua or mauled child; to maintain the order of our nests, we are forced into a face-to-face encounter with our own animal-ness and the consequences of our radical disruption of natural systems.

Coyote near backyard.As we affect and transform nature, so we are affected and transformed by nature. The visual presence of wild animals takes on new symbolic meaning as the memento mori of pristine nature. Just as Burke’s architectural follies functioned within the pastoral landscape to provoke the sense of mystery and awe of lost civilizations (and the threat of the repetition of the disaster that was their demise), so too does the animal presence act as a ‘ruin’ of pristine nature forcing its way into the consciousness of our urban spaces. Unlike follies, however, these interlopers refuse to keep their distance. Thus, our vision of the mythical constant of a pure and unchanging American wilderness is abruptly negated by the very active challenge of animal competition.

Beyond the Sublime: New Approaches to Landscape

As landscape architects and planners, we have a direct influence on the shaping of the land and its systems through design practice and the land use policies we affect. With the wonder and fear of animal contact comes an urgency to the current practice of landscape architecture and planning. Self-reflection and analysis on our psychic estrangement from animal-nature leaves no room for naiveté in how we overtly and complicitly affect ecological systems and their inhabitants. Landscape Architecture is a cultural practice that simultaneously molds our environment, but also our perceptions of it. As a representational act, landscape architecture has a responsibility to further the discourse on contemporary notions of nature and urbanity. As metaphors for nature, animals can open up new ways of understanding larger, more complex and abstract systems and spur the imagining of new landscape hybrids.

Oversimplifying and polarizing nature and culture have resulted in two extreme post-Enlightenment notions of nature that have largely been perpetuated by the profession of landscape architecture.8 The first invokes nature as a domain independent of culture: the foundation of authenticity. This version of pristine nature was perpetuated through the particularly American invention of the idea of virgin nature landscape imagery of Ansel Adams and John Muir. Creating and perpetuating this myth with images of nature without human traces, they contributed to the irreconcilable nature/culture polarity: a version of nature sleek, pristine and devoid of humans.9 The alternate point of view posits nature as nonexistent outside of culture, purely a cultural construct. This postmodern viewpoint refuses to see nature as a static constant yet so focuses on the historical objectification of nature, that ultimately it is still denied its own subjectivity.

Though these individual approaches to nature—the ecological and the postmodern—are inadequate, they go largely unchallenged by the profession. Robert Riley, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, analyzes this juncture: “In landscape architecture, in North America, the two factions coexist, easily and comfortably, in the office and in the classroom, sliding past one another with neither friction nor engagement, this is perhaps not surprising, given the unphilosophical, nonconfrontational, and thoroughly apolitical character of the profession and discipline on this side of the Atlantic.”10 Landscape Architectural education and practice today largely persist in either the proliferation of visual scenography (the Sublime, the Beautiful, the Picturesque and the Modern), or the manufacture of a nature that bears no traces of cultural mediation. Both of these design expressions espouse outdated constructions of nature that fail to keep pace with contemporary theory and ecological understanding. The results are often inert, disengaged and ecologically destructive.

Seagull against sky.If we accept that our built landscapes are constituted (wittingly or unwittingly) by theory, then design professionals can consciously re-present nature/culture relationships as a form of theoretical discourse/environmental activism. If we are able to move beyond the strictly visual, our engagement with site-specific influences would therefore include not only the usual physical and environmental phenomena comprising the immediate site, but the larger social /cultural milieu, and the underpinnings of the site as part of a larger functioning biological body. The creation of open ended Cultural landscapes that raise the issues of habitat and biology open up possibilities for new kinds of engagement with nature and all that constitutes it. Rather than regurgitated answers and experiences, landscapes that provoke questions and draw connections place the onus back on the user to create a dialogue, to think and to become actively engaged, rather than passively entertained.

Acknowledging our affiliations and connections with nature allows us to co-adapt and learn to live with nature as it learns to live with us. Philosopher Kate Soper offers another way of re-thinking Nature: “It is not clear that by becoming more mystical or religious about nature one necessarily overcomes the damaging forms of separation or loss of concern which has been the result of a secular and instrumental rationality. What is really needed, one might argue, is not so much new forms of reverence and awe of nature, but rather to extend it to some of the more painful forms of concern we have for ourselves. The sense of rupture and distance which has been encouraged by secular rationality may be better overcome, not by worshipping nature that is ‘other’ to humanity but through a process of re-sensitization to our combined separation from it and dependence on it.”11 The kind of empathy Soper imagines breaches that distance between our bodies and the natural world. A ‘re-sensitization’ would attune us to an ‘ubiquitous landscape ”that includes the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, economies as well as ecologies, the cultural as an extension of the natural, our bodies as themselves natural systems that pattern our thoughts, and our thoughts as structured around metaphors drawn from nature.“12

Our interaction with animal/nature reveals that our responses are conditioned, complex, fragmented and ambiguous. All of our possibilities and understandings of nature co-exist, and are not mutually exclusive. Our challenge is to acknowledge the complexity of the modern bestiary; with all of its fact, myth, rumor, fable and legend; and to responsibly explore the possibilities for design intervention.


Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon is an urban designer for a landscape architecture firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. She also sits on the graduate thesis advisory committee in the Department of Architecture at UBC, is an associate editor for ORegonLAND Magazine and pursues her own land-based art practice.
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End Notes.

1. See Jim Metzner, "Swifts in the Chimney", Pulse of the Planet, May 11, 2001 http://www.pulseplanet.
nationalgeographic.com and Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, "Wild Flyer- Frequent Flyer", Summer, 1998 http://www.dfw.state.or.us

2. See Reuters, "Vancouver Learns to Live with Pet Eating Coyotes", May 10, 2000 http://forests.org/archive/

3. See Robert Juhl, "Crows Rule Tokyo's Concrete Jumble", April, 13, 1998 http://www.smn.co.jp
and Jonathon Watts, "Crows with Attitude Invade Tokyo", The Guardian, April, 19, 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk

4. Mark Dion, “Concrete Jungle: A Discussion with Alexis Rockman (extract) 1991”, Mark Dion, London: Phaidon Press, 1997,pp. 117-119

5. John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?'”, About Looking, London: Writers & Readers, 1980, p. 103

6. John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”, About Looking, London: Writers & Readers, 1980, p. 104

7. See Edmund Burke, Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: with an Introductory Discourse concerning Taste, London: George Bell and Sons, 1889

8. Kate Soper, “NATURE/Nature” FutureNatural- nature science culture, ed. G Robertson, M. Mash, L Tickner, J. Bird, Barry Curtis and T. Putnam, New York: Routledge, 1996, pp. 22-23

9. Rebecca Solnit, “Look the Other Way: New Western Landscapes”, As Eve Said to the Serpent: on landscape, gender and art, Georgia, 2001, pp.99-108

10. Robert Riley, “FutureNatural” Harvard Design Magazine, Winter Spring 2000 vol. 10 p.84

11. Kate Soper, “NATURE/Nature” FutureNatural- nature science culture, ed. G Robertson, M. Mash, L Tickner, J. Bird, Barry Curtis and T. Putnam, New York: Routledge, 1996. pp. 32-33

12. Rebecca Solnit, “Elements of a New Landscape”, As Eve Said to the Serpent: on landscape, gender and art, Georgia, 2001, p.47


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