The city as ecosystem: gentrification and monoculture

In Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, Rebecca Solnit (who wrote the book’s text; it also includes numerous photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg) argues that there’s a parallel between urban gentrification and the decline of ecosystems in the wake of human exploitation:

Think of San Francisco as a rainforest being razed to grow a monocrop. Think of all the eccentrics and idealists as forty species of orchids or as butterflies whose function is subtle but critical to the ecosystem. When rainforests are clearcut or burned to grow monocrops, they are productive for a few years, and then the soil once teaming with life becomes barren.

Writing in 2000—before the dotcom crash, September 11, and the housing crisis—Solnit describes the ways in which many poor people, artists, and activists were rapidly priced out of their longtime homes in San Francisco due to the sudden influx of internet cash. Becoming a bohemian artist or activist, or merely surviving in poverty, became much more difficult and expensive as housing prices rose and local businesses gave way to multinational chains. Meanwhile, Solnit contends, the city’s cultural and creative heart was hollowed out, leaving a playground in which the dot-com rich could visit trendy bars mimicking the styles and cultures of the bohemians who’d been priced out.

I don’t know enough about San Francisco, or about what’s happened there in the years since Solnit wrote, to judge her assertions here. But I’m intrigued by the idea she articulates here of the city as an ecosystem—and particularly when she extends the parallel in order to suggest ways in which concerned community members might struggle against the negative consequences of gentrification:

The proposed solutions recall environmentalism long ago, when it was the conservation movement: it sought to preserve wilderness, intact ecosystems and endangered species within a society that was devouring the landscape for development and resource extraction….When it became clear that creating exceptions to the rules was no longer an adequate solution, conservationists began asking larger questions about those rules and became environmentalists: they recognized that only profound changes in priorities and practices would sustain the ecosystems we depend upon.

Solnit suggests that activists should focus on the big picture, and become urban ecologists, rather than merely preservationists. Their goal shouldn’t be merely to preserve the status quo against gentrification, but instead to promote those policies (old or new) that will promote the continued diversity and vitality of the city. It’s interesting to think about this idea in the context of Jane Jacobs (whose classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities Solnit cites), who felt that most of the action in keeping cities alive and vital would need to happen on a very local level (the block or neighborhood) because of the extreme difficulty of taking account the full complexity of what makes the whole of a city function.


0 Responses to “The city as ecosystem: gentrification and monoculture”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

June 2008
« May   Jul »

%d bloggers like this: