“Zoopolis” was coined by Jennifer Wolch, former professor of Geography at the University of Southern California and current dean at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. She described it as a “renaturalized, re-enchanted city” that would “allow for the emergence of an ethic, practice, and politics of caring for animals and nature” by “[inviting] the animals back in.”
She introduced the idea as a model for “trans-species urban practice.” This trans-species urban practice should theoretically permeate through all factions of the metropolis, but more recently, it has involved a specialized combination of management and grassroots activism. The goals of this practice have included: 1) changing how animals and humans interact in the city; 2) forming low-impact urban ecological designs; 3) modifying every day management and policy-making of the local state; and 4) defending the interests of urban animals with more force.
In the paper “Toward Zoopolis?,” she and co-author Mona Seymour explored the intentional town of Harmony, FL as to whether it fits the zoopolis model. The town designs and manages the area with animals, the land, the community, and future human generations in mind, based on the values that:
1) People live better when they live in regular contact with animals and nature.
2) Community features belong to the community.
3) Harmony strives to sustain its natural systems so that their grandchildren can get the same benefits they enjoy.
4) Economic vitality and architectural design are driven by a sense of place.
5) Harmony subscribes to the principles of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle in order to eliminate waste and promote alternative energy sources.
Looking at the town’s website, it appears more like a ecotourist resort than a thriving, self-sustaining town. Seymour and Wolch concluded that despite the discrepancy between the town’s philosophy and practices, Harmony is an example of a zoopolis.
This path for attempting peaceful co-existence with other living beings requires that we attempt to perfect our faulty designs. It assumes that by designing our urban habitats more intentionally, to be open rather than closed, our relations with animals and the land will be better and more harmonious. Certainly, even within the postmodern slant of all-encompassing contradictory ambiguity, we have not fully embraced the limitations of our designs, that there will always be limitations with our designs because designs are limited.
Daniel Lim, founder of Emergent Thought and an incredibly brilliant thinker, provides a fascinating preliminary perspective on the role of design in existence. He believes that the universe is likely 99% emergence and 0.1% design. Neither process is comparable to the other. However, emergence will always trump design in lasting presence and complexity. In his view, adaptation to change and sustainable living can only occur through the process of emergence. Design will always be limited (and therefore, non-adaptive) because of the intention that drives it.
Take the history of the United States.
This country was founded upon intentional colonies whose identities and customs related back to their country of origin, namely England. Once the country expanded, the intentionality was lost because the identities transformed into something different, no longer driven by the quest for autonomy and freedom from the English crown. Instead, the communities merged and the country grew into yet another sprawling civilization, not unified by one particular vision, despite what social theorists, philosophers, and economists may propose.
Life, relationships, and societies in general do not persist on intentional design. If intentional design played a part in their making, the intention inevitably fades and makes way for emergence to continue. To set an objective to live sustainably and in harmony with animals and the land is to attempt designing the world we live in. But think about it. Many cities and neighborhoods are already intentionally designed and managed in order to keep certain animals (and humans) out, and they fail. Thus you have white flight and so-called pests and weeds. Black people still move to the suburbs. We are still sharing houses with rats, mice, and cockroaches. Bears, moose, and coyotes venture through and across the city. Raccoons raid trash bins and suffer mortality to automobile traffic. Birds still nest in chimneys, attics, and dryer vents. Plants designated as weeds and invasive exist in greater abundance in urban areas due to high disturbance regimes that characterize urban ecosystems. And we will always live with each other because our designs can never fully include or exclude others. Emergence will happen even amidst our designs.
Is intentional living throughout society truly the answer for peaceful co-existence and stability? No. But it’s a hope to cling to for now. Can zoopolis manifest without intentionality? Of course, but we would have to let go of all of our attempts toward control, including how we approach design. And right now, it doesn’t seem we are willing to do that. So better intentionally design toward zoopolis than intentionally design that privileges few and disenfranchises many.