“By city ecology I mean something different from, yet similar to, natural ecology as students of wilderness address the subject. A natural ecosystem is defined as “composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.” A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies. I’ve made up this definition by analogy.
The two sorts of ecosystems—one created by nature, the other by human beings—have fundamental principles in common. For instance, both types of ecosystems—assuming they are not barren—require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life. In both types of ecosystem, many small and obscure components—easily overlooked by superficial observation—can be vital to the whole, far out of proportion to their own tininess of scale or aggregate quantities. In natural ecosystems, gene pools are fundamental treasures. In city ecosystems, kinds of work are fundamental treasures; furthermore forms of work not only reproduce themselves in newly created proliferating organizations, they also hybridize, and even mutate into unprecedented kinds of work. And because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.
If not fatally disrupted, however, they are tough and resilient. And when their processes are working well, ecosystems appear stable. But in a profound sense, the stability is an illusion. As a Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, observed long ago, everything in the natural world is in flux. When we suppose we see static situations, we actually see processes of beginning and processes of ending occurring simultaneously. Nothing is static. It is the same with cities. Thus, to investigate either natural or city ecosystems demands the same kind of thinking. It does not do to focus on “things” and expect them to explain much in themselves. Processes are always of the essence; things have significances as participants in processes, for better or for worse.
…..Cities are in a sense natural ecosystems too—for us. They are not disposable. Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.”
Jane Jacobs, Introduction to 1993 ed, Death and Life of Great American Cities, (1961)
“If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid. Even as they frighten everyone with fantasies of proletarian rapacity and revenge, they themselves, through their inexhaustible dealing and developing, hurtle masses of men, materials and money up and down the earth, and erode or explode the foundations of everyone’s lives as they go. Their secret–a secret they have managed to keep even from themselves–is that, behind their facades, they are the most violently destructive ruling class in history. All the anarchic, measureless, explosive drives that a later generation will baptise by the name of “nihilism”—drives that Nietzsche and his followers will ascribe to such cosmic traumas as the Death of God—are located by Marx in the seemingly banal everyday workings of the market economy. He unveils the modern bourgeois as consummate nihilists on a far vaster scale than modern intellectuals can conceive. But these bourgeois have alienated themselves from their own creativity because they cannot bear to look into the the moral, social and psychic abyss that their creativity opens up.
Some of Marx’s most vivid and striking images are meant to force us all to confront that abyss. Thus, “Modern bourgeios society, a society that has conjured up such mighty means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer who can no longer control the powers of the underworld that he has called up by his spells.”
“Marshal Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air, The experience of modernity, p100, (1982)
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848