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Designing the non-anthropocentric city

Agata Szydłowska, Head of the Design Theory Department, Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw

Imagining Warsaw’s Future: The Concept of an Animal District

Imagine that there was an animal district in Warsaw, consisting of a breeding ground for endangered species, a veterinary clinic, a kitchen and an island for nocturnal animals without any artificial light. Free living animals would inhabit the whole city, supported by feeding facilities such as pastures. Some species would be directed to specific areas to avoid unnecessary conflict.

These are some of the elements of a speculative project by architecture and research studio Centrala and Natalia Budnik, which imagines a possible future for the Warsaw Zoo, reimagined as the Animal District. Speculative design projects are tools for considering future scenarios that are radical yet plausible. This one inspires us to rethink our coexistence with biological non-humans in cities.

The Flaw in Modern Views: Dividing Nature and Humanity

Designer Li Jönsson, in her book Design Events: On explorations of a non-anthropocentric framework in design, wrote,

“At times where issues such as how human activity is threatening biodiversity and is argued to cause severe climate change, natural and artificial systems can no longer be conceived in isolation but only in relation to each other.”

Modernity has convinced us that the spheres of “human” and “nature” can and should be separated. In this division, cities have become areas of human domination. Biological non-humans have become objects of careful control and regulation. Species can be welcome (swifts) or unwelcome and fought (pigeons), depending on their usefulness or grace. Greenery is divided into cultivated species that are useful or decorative, and weeds that are treated as an impurity and removed from elegant areas. The presence of “novel ecosystems” in the city, a kind of wild urban greenery that the botanist and gardener Gilles Clément calls the “third landscape”, is interpreted as a sign of neglect, which complicates any campaign to promote, for example, unmown lawns.

Whether we like it or not, cities are made up of dense networks of human and non-human inhabitants, and the division between nature and culture is no longer tenable. In “naturecultures,” as Donna Haraway puts it, different species constitute each other.

Designing for Resilience: Biodiversity and Climate Synergy

Designing and redesigning cities to take into account non-human perspectives is therefore not only a question of ethics, but also of resilience. Multispecies cities — where there is room for free-living, uncultivated and uncontrolled plants and animals — are simply better prepared for the challenges of climate change. Green spaces reduce temperatures, mitigate the effects of droughts and floods, stimulate biodiversity and reduce air pollution. The wellbeing of wild pollinators secures our crops, which should be diversified and located in urban areas to shorten supply chains and feed growing urban populations.

Addressing Non-Human Perspectives and Vulnerable Populations in Design

Non-anthropocentric design, i.e. design that takes into account non-human actors, can also meet the needs of the most vulnerable people.

  • Reducing traffic prevents accidents involving animals and pedestrians.
  • Proximity to green spaces is crucial during heat waves, which are particularly dangerous for the elderly.
  • Reducing the volume of traffic, machinery and equipment such as air conditioners would benefit not only animals whose hearing is more sensitive than ours, birds that mate and communicate by sound, but also humans who suffer from noise.

But some needs are hard to reconcile. So-called light pollution, which disrupts the daily cycles of both human beings and animals, and often misleads the latter, is difficult to reconcile with the issues of safety on the streets. Some conflicts are unavoidable so careful, informed design and legislation should take them into account and seek solutions.

Principles of Non-Anthropocentric Design: The Multispecies City

Some inspiration for organizing a multi-species society can be drawn from the work of political scientists Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. In their book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, they offer a thorough proposal for organizing a society in which non-human animals are granted rights hitherto reserved for humans. Domesticated animals, i.e. animals that cannot survive without humans (pets and farm animals), would be granted citizenship. Species that live close to humans but don’t depend on us directly, such as rats or pigeons, would be treated as residents, i.e. foreigners who have some basic rights but do not participate in society in the same way as its members. Wild animals, i.e. those that don’t interact with humans at all, should be treated as persons with whom we have no contact, such as citizens of countries with which we have no diplomatic relations.

Kymlicka and Donaldson invite us to imagine what a city designed for human and non-human inhabitants would look like. For example: How to design for those who fly or navigate a city by smell? Designing such spaces would require deep biological research focused on different species.

This kind of multi-species democratic approach creates a need for non-human advocates to speak on their behalf. We need to move beyond designing for normative ways of interacting with an urban space that privileges a vertical, bipedal, fit, predominantly male body which navigates by sight and some hearing. The proposed approach can in some ways parallel elements of inclusive, universal design, i.e. design that takes into account different ways of interacting with the environment, for example by people who don’t navigate by sight or those who use wheelchairs.

Empathy in Urban Design

Some elements of feminist design can also be useful. As Leslie Kern argues in her book Feminist City. Claiming Space in a Man-made World, design that meets women’s needs and takes into account issues of care work (commuting with prams), safety or different daily routines with moving between home, work, schools, clinics, etc., results to be generally more inclusive. Finally, an intersectional approach should also take into account the wellbeing of non-humans.

An inclusive, multispecies city, designed with care and expertise, can benefit everyone, especially those who cannot escape the effects of climate change in air-conditioned homes and offices, or cottages in as yet undamaged areas. The multispecies city requires not only the expertise and will of designers and architects, but above all the political will to shape regulations and legislation and to begin to treat non-humans as persons, not things.

About the author

Agata Szydłowska is an Assistant Professor at the Design Theory Department, Design Faculty, Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She holds her MA in art history and a PhD in anthropology (both from Warsaw University). She’s also a graduate from the Graduate School for Social Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences. She’s a co-author of the project MYCOsystem presented in the Polish Pavilion at the XXII Triennale di Milano “Broken Nature. Design Takes on Human Survival” (2019) which was devoted to the multispecies collaboration in the context of design. She’s also an initiator and co-author of an ongoing project Zoepolis which is devoted to design for a human-non-human community which has comprised of three exhibitions and a publication so far. She has published extensively on the history of Polish design. Her latest book is entitled Futerał. O urządzaniu mieszkań w PRL-u (‘A case. On private interiors in communist Poland’, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2023).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Graduate School for Social Research (GSSR). The publication of content on this blog does not imply endorsement or approval of the expressed views by GSSR.