City, Arts and Public Spaces: Susan Moffat

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Susan Moffat, Project Director for the Global Urban Humanities Initiative at UC Berkeley.

Keyword: Restoration
In the Bay Area and beyond, ambitious creek and wetland restoration projects aim to return landscapes to an earlier, more “natural” condition. The scientists designing the projects know that it is impossible to restore a landscape to a pre-human condition when the entire watershed has been radically altered, and they make many nuanced choices in order to enhance habitats.  But the public often believes the goal is to put a site back to “the way it was.”
Historical ecologists including Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute use historic maps and journals and quantitative methods of hydrology and geology to reveal the many past conditions of wetlands and creeks over time.  They help land managers address the question of “restore to what? To when? “ But the public and some advocates often seek a return to an imaginary, timeless pre-human past, one that ignores the fact that natural systems are characterized by disruption as much as by balance.
“Restoration” is one of a suite of words perpetuating an image of nature as a pristine, static object rather than a network of processes. “Restoration” implies there is an ideal state to which a landscape can be returned, just as “reclamation” to an earlier generation implied the right of humans to reclaim from the grips of desert or swamp the land that was given by God for human dominion.
The much-heralded “restoration” of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul was actually the radical reinvention of a buried river as an artful linear urban plaza with water running through it.  But it is by no means a return to the river’s original state. 
By contrast, the ongoing restoration of the South Bay salt ponds, an area the size of Manhattan in San Francisco Bay, is successfully transforming industrial waterworks into functioning salt marshes. But as the marsh area increases, the birds currently inhabiting the industrial salt ponds (which prefer ponds to marshes) are being displaced in a kind of eco-gentrification.  New reservations for these species are being constructed, but as with urban renewal, the displaced species are not always thriving in their assigned new homes. Restoration for one species means removal for another.
In cities, where human and non-human needs often seem in direct competition, the misuse of language such as “restoration” and misunderstandings about the nature of nature can lead to conflict. At the Albany Bulb on San Francisco Bay, a State Park plan conceptualized this manmade landfill as wilderness to be “preserved,” “conserved,” and “restored” and required the removal of long-standing outsider art and human encampments. The site remains bitterly contested by its residents, users, and environmental advocacy groups.
William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” is as important an essay for urbanists as for ecologists.  How do we use history in decisions about altering landscapes? And since decisionmakers need words as handles, are there better words than “restoration” to talk about the reinvention of spaces shared by humans and other species in urban areas? Can art reveal the position of humans in dynamic natural systems? To Susan Schweik’s point, can we talk of “editing the landscape” as we talk of “editing the city”?
Historical ecology/Grossinger
Cheonggyecheon Stream restoration
South Bay Salt Pond project
The Trouble with Wilderness/Cronon