Chicago: Nature’s metropolis

Chicago’s skyline (source: https://www.fringechicago.com/home/fringe-chicago-skyline/)

“…a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.” ―Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

Chicago. What first comes to mind when you think of this metropolis? You might imagine it as a big dot on a map, located somewhere in the Midwest region of the United States. Indeed, the city spreads across a substantial area of 589 km2 and is home to a little over 2.7 million citizens which ranks it third most populated city in America. Now, let’s get a closer look. What you see is endless rows of skyscrapers, some of the tallest in the country, that do not seem to have a beginning or an end. It’s truly mesmerizing sights like these that serve as prominent symbols of our human power and aid us to draw a clear distinction between the country (what we define as “natural”) and the urban world (what we define as “unnatural”). As humankind, we are used to separating ourselves from nature and construct the imaginaries of opposing worlds. Convinced in our omnipotence, one of the ways in which we control nature is we confine it in the little “islands” in the midst of our human landscape. So whether we want to control nature or preserve it, we unconsciously convince ourselves in the belief that we are unnatural. As Cronon (1991: 18) states “nature is the place where we are not”. David Harvey (1996) had a fundamentally different approach to seeing cities. According to him “in a fundamental sense, there is…nothing unnatural about New York City.” To understand this statement, we ought to apply a metaphor of metabolism used in Urban Political Ecology, which is going to be further explored in my blog.


In a biological sense metabolism is a life-sustaining process in the organism where food, i.e. nutrients, is converted into energy and other things that the body requires. During this process, it is not only that the food is being transformed by being consumed and digested, but food transforms your body too as it moves through you and exits in a different form. Similarly, ‘the modern city’s metabolism has frequently been presented as an interconnected space of flows dependent on the external input of energy, materials and information’ (Gandy, 2004:363). This concept poses a number of analytical dilemmas regarding the intersection of biophysical and social dimensions to urban space. Urban Political Ecologists often use it to uncover unequal power relations forming urban space.


Going back to David Harvey’s quote, the idea of metabolism gives us a way in which we might interpret it. Humans are a part of nature and cities, even though conceived as places quite outside of nature, what we understand from the perspective of metabolism, are made up of natural materials. So the imagined dualism between the city and the country in reality just hides certain connections and issues instead of helping us to understand them. It’s the metabolism that gives us the view of seeing the connections between the city and the countryside, not just in metaphorical but also in material ways. 


Throughout my blog, I am going to be exploring urban, environmental, social and political issues and power relations in Chicago and their connections to and implications on each other through the applied lens of UPE and while also referring to the idea of metabolism.

References

Cronon, W. (2009) ‘Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West’, WW Norton & Company.

Gandy, M. (2004) ‘Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city’, City, 8(3), 363-379.

Harvey, D. (1996) ‘Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference’, Oxford Blackwell.

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