What is the natural habitat of humans? According to the World Bank (1), today more than half the human population live in cities, a figure that far exceeds three billion people. Even so, the urban does not fit easily into our idea of what landscape is.
The Royal Spanish Academy establishes as the first definition for the landscape concept “part of a territory that can be observed from a certain place” (2). This terminology does not refer to the characterization of what is observed: landscape is not a forest; it is not a valley; it is neither summit nor desert, just as it is not a street, a stadium, a plaza or a boulevard. In this sense, the concept of landscape has no material condition other than that it is a site associated with specific ground. It is defined by the very fact of observation and not by the characteristics of the object; it is a subjective construction beyond matter.
The city is a daily observation territory for more than half of the world’s population. It is not strange, though, to confront the idea that urbanization is the cause of the destruction of the landscape. This sentence not only disregards the urban landscape, but also contrasts it with the concept of landscape, situating it in an antagonistic position. This confrontation is a problem of perception and perspective, whose origin is possibly found in a landscape idea commonly associated with the aesthetics of “the natural,” based on the nineteenth-century conception of the beautiful and the sublime. In other words, the longing for a “lost nature” is the basis for the presumption that the landscape is in a territory far from human intervention. This discrimination goes beyond the perception of physical phenomena, but is rather an inheritance of an “outdated” cultural imaginary or what we can call an “attitude.” The difference, according to the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (3), lies in the evaluation: perception is a sensory response to external stimuli, while attitude is a position with respect to the perceived world. Consequently, what we understand by “natural” is a position. Like beauty, it is a collective consensus based on a system of shared beliefs and values; nature is a conjunction of image, symbol, and feeling onto which we project a sense of value. Why is the city less nature than the desert? Because concrete, automobiles, and shop windows are human constructions that do not belong to the bucolic imaginary or the romantic ideal. These elements correspond rather to the specific universe of our daily life, uniting less natural ideals than the virgin pampa. However, if we understand the landscape as a construction, why is the city not also a landscape?
(3) Tuan, Yi-Fu, 2007. Topofilia: Un Estudio de las Percepciones, Actitudes y Valores sobre el Entorno (A study of perceptions, attitudes, and values about the environment). Madrid:
Editorial Melusina. Capítulo:1. Introduction (pp. 9-13)
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (4) refers to the current phenomenon of reclaiming the environment as part of an obsessive concern with pollution and purification, motivated by identifying security with purity. For Bauman, in contemporary culture the danger lies in the strange, an agent that disturbs the stability of what already exists and is under control. The city is the chaos, the hybrid, the dirty, which is far from the purity that emanates from the virgin territory found in the popular conception of landscape. Then, no matter how intervened a territory may be, it will be landscape if it carries with it the pristine imprint of the natural.
(4) Bauman, Zygmunt, 2000. Modernidad líquida (Liquid modernity). Buenos Aires: Fondos de Cultura Económica de Argentina. Chapters 3. Espacio/tiempo (Space/time) (pp. 99-138)
To ignore the city as landscape is to deny its own/our own nature. Man constructs his environment as a reinterpretation of what is familiar, creating a mimetic but contained universe. It also denies the intrinsic artificiality of what is commonly called natural: the park, the course of the river, the landscape itself. Yi-Fu Tuan identifies as one of the problems of the ecologist environmental movement the lack of study and consideration of the attitudes and values that people demonstrate when interacting with the environment. He argues that understanding these relationships is fundamental to solving environmental problems, which he describes as essentially human. Personally identifying the city with the concept of landscape means changing the way we value the urban environment. Currently, in a context of increasing urbanization where social pressure for taking care of the environment does not cease to be important, it seems relevant to reflect on the need to integrate in our concept of nature that which is essentially our own. After all, it is not the city that destroys the landscape, but the observers themselves.
Antonia Piñeiro Lazo. Student in the Master’s Program in Urbanism at the School of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.