Mutualistic Cities, Chapter Four:
Stories and Living Cities

“When we record our impressions of cities, we become narrators of urban spaces, and of urban lives. This leads me to another jointure: what are the roles of speculative storytelling, and of literary research, in guiding discussions of mutualistic urbanisms?”

Night planet Earth with precise detailed relief and city lights illuminated by moonlight (North America, Gulf of Mexico & Florida), NASA. Image by Anton Balazh. Sourced via Shutterstock. ID: 344122589. 

Last time in Mutualistic Cities, Mark and Jan explained why relationships between cities and the Earth System are, in their current state, essentially parasitic. It’s certain that these relationships won’t sustain. What’s less certain is whether they’ll fail – on account of destruction wrought by climate change – or be transformed into better, and more mutualistic, ones. In the final chapter of this initial series, Killian Quigley mulls how best to imagine such a transformation, and speculates about where Mutualistic Cities moves from here.

If we want to describe mutualistic cities, and to encourage their creation, then we need to figure out what we’re talking about, as well as how we’re talking about it. If cities are understood as agents that take from and give to the earth’s ecosphere, what varieties of contribution would indicate a shift from urban parasitism to urban mutualism? As Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz aptly note, it is at present easier to imagine what may occur if such a shift doesn’t transpire than it is to conceive of mutualistic futures. Toward the latter goal, a first step may be to reconceive cities as environments– or perhaps as “biocities”or “living cities”2 – by the persons that inhabit them, not to mention the policymakers that disproportionately direct their futures. A further step might involve reimagining cities not as “fixed places” but as what Aidan Davison and Ben Ridder have called “sustained events.” This would mean conceiving of the urban not as a static state but as a form of dynamic enactment that incorporates “human and non-human beings, ecological and technological products, global and local scales,” and “vernacular and cosmopolitan cultures,” all in states of perpetual becoming.3

Unsurprisingly, thinking so complexly must entail communicating with our colleagues in other disciplines, not to mention our colleagues outside academia. For instance, there is a significant movement in design and architecture toward “biophilia,” the term the ecologist Edward O. Wilson used to designate an innate and ineluctable sympathy among human beings and the ecosystems they share. “Biophilic design” incorporates a range of ideas and practices, some of which seem to extend not much further than a sort of greenwashing, but many of which are rich in their implications. For instance, Tim Beatley writes evocatively about a need for “place-strengthening” – for reifying felt connections between persons and their urban habitats. Beatley suggests, rather marvellously, that city-dwellers keep phenological journals – personal records of the seasonal changes that one observes in one’s surroundings.4 Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that this would result in untrammelled wonder – such a practice could serve, above all, to emphasise the lack of sensory richness in certain contexts.5 Still, one of the things that so appeals about Beatley’s idea is the notion that progress toward better urban ecologies happens, in part, at the level of everyday persons’ capacities to sense, observe, and feel.6

When we record our impressions of cities, we become narrators of urban spaces, and of urban lives. This leads me to another jointure: what are the roles of speculative storytelling, and of literary research, in guiding discussions of mutualistic urbanisms? Is it productive to examine scientific prospects (such as the “super civilizations” described by Nicolay Kardashev) in literary terms – in terms, that is, of the imaginings and consciousnesses they encourage, undermine, and require? Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose have called cities “storied-places.”And Mark C. Childs, of the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture + Planning, recently challenged writers to “improve the craft of fictive city-building” in an editorial in a popular science fiction magazine. Childs’s belief in the power of imagination to inform planning and problem-solving in urban design is profound: he suggests that building types be thought of “as built species” which interact “in the city ecosystem.” He ponders, further, the prospect of “living” buildings, and wonders at the possibilities for “mutualism, parasitism,” and other dynamics among them.Childs’s provocation resonates with very real – and historical – efforts toward biomimicry and biophilic design in urban architecture.9 But his call to fictional urbanism seems to gesture toward designs and lives that exceed the capacities – and perhaps the imaginations – of contemporary city-makers.

That excess is, I think, a signal of the potential value of an enterprise like ours. If writers, scientists, academics, policymakers, and indeed anyone interested in the quality of urban life, now and in the future, want to effect mutualistic change, they need to develop their mutualistic imaginations. The geosciences can help: to better conceive of our place, and our moment, in the flows of space and time, we need to be able to think in geological timescales. The humanities can help, too: for starters, literary criticism can unpack the assumptions we make about city life, and can inform the ways we conceive of future cities. Our project’s potential for interdisciplinary work doesn’t stop there – I am reminded, for instance, of the important contributions already being made by urban political ecologists, who begin with questions like: why is urban nature organised in its present form, and what kinds of power does that organisation serve?10 It’s thrilling, and a bit intimidating, to contemplate the range and depth of the questions that arise at the intersections of mutualism and urbanism. But with some hard thinking, and some diligent work, we hope to raise even more, answer the ones we can, and contribute meaningfully to building the mutualistic cities of the future.

Keep watch for more from the Mutualistic Cities crew.


1. In John Christensen & Ursula K. Heise’s formulation, this term conceives the “city as at once a human and more than human creation.” See Christensen & Heise, “Biocities: Urban ecology and the cultural imagination,” in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, eds. Heise, Christensen, & Michelle Neimann (London & New York: Routledge, 2017), 452-61.
2. See Steve Hinchliffe & Sarah Whatmore, “Living cities: Towards a politics of conviviality,” Science as Culture 15.2 (June 2006): 123-38.
3. See Aidan Davison & Ben Ridder, “Turbulent times for urban nature conserving and re-inventing nature in Australian cities.” Australian Zoologist 33.3 (June 2006): 306-14. See also Hinchliffe & Whatmore, “Living cities.”
4. See Timothy Beatley, “Toward Biophilic Cities: Strategies for Integrating Nature into Urban Design,” in Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, eds. Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen & Martin L. Mador (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008), 287.
5. Judith H. Heerwagen and Bert Gregory have described “modern built environments” as generally inferior to “nature” and “historic buildings” in terms of their “sensory richness and ambient variability.” See Heerwagen & Gregory, “Biophilia and Sensory Aesthetics,” in Biophilic Design, 228.
6. Hillary Brown has also emphasised the importance of sensory experience of the built environment. See Brown, prologue to Biophilic Design, xiii.
7. Van Dooren & Rose, “Storied-places in a multispecies city.” Humanimalia 3.2 (Spring 2012): 1-27.
8. Childs, “Composing Speculative Cities.” Analog Science Fiction & Fact 136.4 (Apr 2016): 30-6.
9. See Christensen & Heise, “Biocities.”
10. See, for example, Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, & Erik Swyngedouw, “Urban political ecology: Politicizing the production of urban natures,” in In the Nature of Cities: Urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism, eds. Heynen, Kaika, & Swyngedouw (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 1-20.

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is the co-editor (with Margaret Cohen) of the forthcoming Senses of the Submarine: A Cultural History of the Undersea. He’s recently published articles in Eighteenth-Century Life, The Eighteenth Century, and MAKE, and writes the Great Barrier Reef Stories series for the SEI blog. Follow him on Twitter here.