Today’s writing draws inspiration from the vivacious lifeworlds of Berlin’s Brachens – a socio-natural space emergent from a city’s uneasy development politics and community histories. Through the arrivals/departures of plants and animals, Gandy masterfully displayed how the evolution of urban nature reflected prevailing urban narratives.
In this regard, Taipei is no different from Berlin. To explore this further, let’s examine the departures/arrivals of a beloved local bug – fireflies!
Fantastic Bugs and Where to Find Them in Taipei: Clockwise from top-right (Fu-Yang Ecology Park, Mu-Zha Park, Da’an Forest Park and Rong-Xing Garden Park).
The Active Production of Urban Ecology
Save for this year’s COVID-19 disruptions, Taipei’s annual firefly seasons (April-May) have always stirred a flurry of excitement. As throngs of people huddle together in Taipei’s parks, there is a simple childlike wonder in admiring the fireflies’ captivating glow:
Cameras steady… and ready, get-set, glow!
This harmonious façade, however, belies a tedious environmental history. Although fireflies are endemic to Taipei, it virtually vanished by the early 1990s due to widespread light pollution and habitat destruction brought about by rapid industrialization. It took nearly 2 decades later – in 2017 – before it resurged to its numbers today. Naturally, this recovery is far from ‘natural’ – like many other urban ecologies, Taipei’s firefly parks are actively produced ‘through the fusion of the physical properties and creative capacities of humans with those of non-humans’ (Swyngedouw, 2006:24). Over the course of 4 years, the Taipei municipality have forked out NTD 50 million to restore the delicate aquatic habitats needed for fireflies breeding:
Traces of Nature, Traces of Ideologies
Extending Gandy’s claim that “traces of nature are traces of history”, I seek to highlight that urban nature not only reflects past events, but also the precipitation of societal ideologies in the present (Kong and Yeoh, 1996). From this perspective, Taipei’s firefly parks can be understood as spatial manifestations of collective ideological constructs, assembled and aligned to serve specific ends:
Nature as a Cultural Reminder of Childhood and Rural Simplicity:
“When I was little, on summer nights my family and I used to put a straw mat on the ground in front of our house and lie down to watch for fireflies. At that time, despite the lack of material affluence, we enjoyed rural life a great deal, especially seeing fireflies light up in the sky. That kind of beauty was just beyond description”
– Ho Yuan San, director of Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute
“I want my boys to see nature’s wonder like I did when I was little,” he said. “I also want them to understand how important the environment is to those fragile creatures.”
– Scott Lai, father of 2 in Taipei
Nature as Testament to Taipei as Eco-city:
“Fireflies are a symbol of the city and an important indicator of whether we take the issue of ecological integrity seriously”
– Huang Li Yuan, Taipei City Parks and Street Lights Office
“Due to the success in bringing back the fireflies to the park, Taipei City Government was able to secure the hosting rights for the 2017 International Firefly Symposium. It is an important milestone for Taipei as an eco-city.”
– Taipei City Government
Evidently, the presence/absence of fireflies is not only an imprint of Taipei’s development history; it is simultaneously celebrated/lamented as a gain/loss of shared societal values. Here, firefly restoration projects gained legitimacy from intersecting within Taipei’s multi-tiered interests – more specifically, in enabling the animation of its ecological and socio-cultural aspirations.
Granted, just like Berlin’s Brachens, Taipei’s firefly parks are highly contested spaces despite being backed by overt socio-political support. Urban nature – as an ideological construct – are often volatile systems susceptible to contestations by variegated urban communities (Duvall et.al, 2018). Hence, Taipei’s firefly restoration success is not an unwaveringly resilient outcome. Rather, its success is sustained through the constant, active adaptations to competing agencies faced on various fronts:
Restoring Faith in Humanity
If urban natures are 1) ideological constructs painstakingly sustained through humanity’s intentional efforts, and 2) cities are indeed biodiverse spaces in their own right, is there perhaps room to acknowledge humanity as constructive forces in nature?
For one, ecological papers have typically theorised humans as ‘agents of disturbance’, occluding the ‘role that humans play in developing unique ecosystems’ (Mcintyre et.al, 2000:17). Taipei’s firefly parks exemplify this counterfactual, highlighting how urban ecologies have transformed via the collective efforts of charities, schools, grassroots communities, researchers and politicians. Building once again on Gandy’s quote – “traces of nature are traces of history” – if nature is a socio-cultural palimpsest upon which past histories are inscribed, then it is simultaneously a fluid script where new beginnings are (re)written.
While Taipei’s firefly restoration project is a rare success story, I believe it inspires a dogmatic shift in our perception of humanity’s role within nature. In an era where environmental activism is sorely needed, it is perhaps timely to reimagine ourselves as responsible stewards of ecology – and more importantly, to remind ourselves of our potential to construct similarly vibrant ecologies in other locales.
Duvall, P., M. Lennon and M. Scott (2018) “The ‘natures’ of planning: evolving conceptualizations of nature as expressed in urban planning theory and practice”, European Planning Studies, 26, 3, 480-501.
Kong, L. and B. S. A. Yeoh (1996) “Social Constructions of Nature in Urban Singapore”, Japanese Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 34, 2, 402-423.
Mcintyre, N. E., K. Knowles-Yanez, D. Hope (2000) “Urban ecology as an interdisciplinary field: differences in the use of “urban” between the social and natural sciences”, Urban Ecosystems, 4, 5-24.
Palmer, M. (2012) “Discovering Urban Biodiversity” (WWW) New York: The Nature of Cities (https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2012/08/14/discovering-urban-biodiversity/, 1/12/2020).
Swyngedouw, E. (2006) “Metabolic Urbanization: The making of cyborg cities” in Heynen, S. M. Kaika and E. Swyngedouw (eds) In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, London: Taylor and Francis