The gridded city is ancient, popularized by the Romans but not prevalent globally until the 18th century. When land is subdivided into equal—or by a factor divisible—parcels, it helps with both administration of the area and wayfinding through it. Gridirons are imposed over topography and are unresponsive to local organization. The curve of waterways, soil-born connective tissue of place, desire paths of mammals and migratory trajectories of birds are invisible to us. We navigate land now mapped as real estate without acknowledging we are crossing native walking trails that we have renamed “Clark” or “Halsted” or “Elston.” We fail to sense the dolomite parent rock we have anchored our tallest buildings into is also weathering and mineralizing the skin of soils made richer by deep-rooted perennial grasses since paved over. This logic is superimposed onto our swampy grassy homeland—vibrant, complex social spheres shape how we perceive and navigate space, conceptualize place, relate to each other.
Many, many years ago, when village life was the norm and cities were rare, the idea of the commons was not just an idea, but a lived practice realized in specific valued spaces. Then, we were closer to understanding our spheres of relationship and influence. We maintained common grazing lands and raised animals within our yards, we composted their manure and extra organic waste, grew extensive kitchen gardens to feed ourselves. Our animals ate our scraps, openly grazed grasses, shrubs, and trees, fed on insects and grubs. We redistributed our abundances through selling, trading, and sharing. We cached or sold useful materials to be repurposed at a later time. We realized our dependence on the people who lived near us and the skills they contributed to the functioning of the whole community. The domestic and civic spheres were something we couldn’t separate, or separate from easily. We were closer to our methods of production. Closer to our waste streams. Closer to our food sources and closer to our neighbors. We were closer to land. We were closer to ourselves.
As a rural person, it took me years of living in this city to realize that when I walked out the front door of my apartment, I was in public. Not only did this make me realize I had to dress in some socially acceptable fashion (still a challenge), but my opportunity to relate to others so different from me increased manifold and that gave me the responsibility to do so positively. It also made me realize I had to work to discover ways to find and connect to the plants, animals, and fungi that were more numerous and varied than from where I came.
Who does this land, this place, this city and all its layers—open sky, tree canopy, shrub layer, grasses, forbs and crops, top soil, subsoil and bedrock—belong to? Can we get back to this understanding of shared space as an increasingly urbanized animal? It’s possible. Our decisions can and do affect our land underfoot and thus, food security, habitat conservation, living economies, community resilience, and soil health, clean water, and air. A lack of understanding that our lives depend on our biological systems results in broadscale insecurity in all these realms.
What are we willing to risk when we don’t believe our livelihoods and vitality depend on the relational pathways that connect our neighborhoods, the health of our urban wildlife, the breathability of our air and soil?
Recently, while changing trains, I noticed a woman cooing toward a pigeon trapped inside the Clark and Lake complex. We caught eyes and I slid off my coat and tried to slowly approach and tarp the frightened bird so I could release it outside. Another stranger joined in with her coat. Commuters dodged our lungings. A security officer admonished us, her leashed German shepherd growled. The kid selling chocolate bars for his charter school cheered us on. We missed several rounds of trains. The chasers and the chased panting before we all understood it was time to give up and we parted ways without ever exchanging words. The pigeon hopefully lives on.
How we perform in public, how we inhabit our city, how we navigate spaces less gridded, is a way to reclaim this connection. There is opportunity for relationship of place through participation. If we allow for a more relational dynamic to inform us, we will discover we can learn about this place. We might even start designing this city differently with our curious steps and our fullhearted interactions as first steps in this otherwise lumbering city so we can support our beingness wholly and we learn to care more deeply about each other and the land that we share because of it. It’s possible. v