Symposium “Natural City”

Karlsruhe, September 2023

Inaugurating the foundation’s venue in Karlsruhe, Germany, a symposium on the topic of the natural city was held on September 1 and 2, 2023, with many international participants.

The focus of the symposium was not on the technology and ecology of concepts of green cities today, concepts which have been exhaustively treated in recent years, but on cultural and social aspects. A city aiming to be natural comprises not only ecological aspects but also culture.

A ‘natural’ city is not only about nature domesticated and brought into the city; it’s not just the “green city” of today. Following a basic occidental understanding of an assumed human condition or conditio humana, it’s natural for humans to have culture – according to this understanding, a human is not just a natural being but also a cultural animal. This being originated from nature and still has ties to it, even endangering its natural base of existence as the loss of biodiversity, ecological collapses, and climate crisis reveal. But it is also a being that developed culture, epitomized in the city. Therefore, a ‘natural’ city for humans must encompass both nature and culture.

This aspect has been almost completely overlooked in recent discourses about green cities. It’s crucial to consider both nature and culture when discussing a ‘natural’ city. In this context, basic assumptions grounded in culturally inherited key ideas need examination. These ideas mostly exist as tacit knowledge, an unthought known informing the respective concepts of ‘natural’ cities. Without considering these ideas, discourse about better, natural cities for the future remains incomplete.

The history of the idea of a city being ‘natural’ ranges from the paradise myth to diverse utopias, the garden city, and up to the “green” city of today. We aim to focus on these lines of thought and how they manifest today in the green city. It’s also essential to consider the image of humans behind these concepts and investigate new ways to bridge the nature/culture divide characteristic of the Occident.

The symposium focused on discussions grouped around leading topics presented by speakers:

The cultural base, in terms of ideas as inner images: Massimo Venturi Ferriolo from Milano presented occidental key ideas centered on paradise, the garden, and conceptions of the natural in our culture as well as in others. He also covered the Greek concept of the polis as the home of human community and the idea of synoikia, a cohabitation of city (‘culture’) and nature.

Let’s take what we have: Barbara Tagliolini showcased a case study of a park in Rome, an example of revitalizing cultural heritage and the challenges posed by multiethnic community use. How do autochthonous local communities interact with diverse immigrant groups in ‘their’ shared garden?

Let’s transform what we have: Sam Olshin of AOS Architects in Philadelphia discussed the major challenges faced by modern cities, particularly the lack of communal spaces. He followed with concrete examples of placemaking for communities.

Citizen participation:Michael Johansson from the University of Kristianstad, Sweden, shared a case of active participation by multiethnic groups. He discussed walking with them through parts of the city where these groups live and exploring ideas for reuse and refurbishment.

Bring nature into culture: Ian Boyd from Wales discussed methods for re-naturalizing the city, pondering what steps we can take to reintegrate nature into our daily lives.

Cultural comparison: Botond Bognar from the Illinois School of Architecture, USA, presented the case of Japan, a culture closely tied to nature, contrasting it with the Occident. He explored how modern Japanese architecture seeks to reforge its connection to nature.

The utopian move: culture becomes nature:Tim Kaysers from the Chamber of Architects in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, illustrated what a fully natural ideal city might look like, envisioning it in the form of a forest. He also shared actual examples of city greening initiatives.

Back to culture:Architect Johannes Baar-Baarenfels from Vienna, Austria, presented a specific project in Bulgaria that conserves cultural heritage through Bionics.