Rethinking our relationships with ‘the wild’

A presentation to the WESSA Big Friends Group (BFG) Event held 4 August 2018 at Rondevlei Nature Reserve

Update: Press coverage in the Constantiaberg Bulletin and the W Coast Table Talk community newspapers.

My text bit: Bernelle Verster, a bioprocess engineer – a chemical engineer who works with biology – from Lakeside provided a light-hearted glimpse into her passion for sanitation. She believes there is money to be made from human waste and encouraged people to pee in their gardens instead of buying fertiliser. Her talk centred around the potential of urban spaces to serve multiple functions, to help regenerate the social and environmental value of a place. Trafalgar Park was used as example, a substantial park with a rich cultural and archaeological heritage in Woodstock and District Six, that is being developed to drive the vision for the beautification of the area through landscaping and heritage upgrades. She encouraged people to move away from the “laager” mentality of going off-grid and instead work together to combine urban design and living with nature. In her own neighbourhood, she plans to launch a Dream Zandvlei Friend’s group in the near future to achieve this.

pdf (3MB)

Slide 1: Bernelle Verster, Bioprocess engineer, IndieBio
Rethinking our relationships with ‘the wild’:
a post-environmentalist approach to urban conservation

Slide 2: What is wild, anymore?
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

A bit about me, just to get that out of the way. I am not an environmentalist. I am Chair of the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (the ZPAAC). Actually I just wanted to have a parkrun next to the estuary, but I got duped into doing this, because I am a bioprocess engineer and when people hear the word ‘bio’ they seem to immediately go ‘environmentalist’. I am not an environmentalist. I am a researcher and my job is to find ways to produce economic value through using biology – or nature more generally, if you want. Maybe that makes me about the same status as a mining company. It was only through a convoluted decade of getting stuck with conventional ways of doing this and then stumbling upon how much nutrients, and therefore, potential there is in pollution, that I became interested in wastewater, ways to clean and generate value from wastewater, and therefore, a long way down the line, to clean up, or care for, the environment. So I don’t come at this from a particular love or concern for the environment.

Slide 3: As an example, the amount of nutrients in our wastewater can be seen here. Some of this gets treated, and some of it makes it into our estuary and riverways, way more than what we think.

Slide 4: These are the living things I work with to get these nutrients to go somewhere more useful.

Slide 5: Interestingly, when day Zero was announced earlier this year, and we tried to get people to stop flushing the toilet after they peed in it, or better yet, pee in the garden, I did this little calculation of how much food you can grow with your own pee. Quite a lot, about 1kg a day. So, pee in the garden!

Slide 6: In my work with Zandvlei and my exposure to people who care for the environment, I became quite frustrated with how things are done.
It’s not good enough to say what you don’t want.… and it takes a lot of guts to say what you do want and put your effort where your mouth is, importantly, while seeing how it fits into the bigger picture.

Slide 7: Conservation or regeneration? So, what do we want? Zandvlei is a highly impacted estuary and in the middle of a typically unequal society. Naturally there’s not much left. So whatever needs to be done needs to be regenerated. Park Island is a good example of this.

Slide 8: But our actions are also political. “We hope to do something, because we feel we shouldn’t do nothing. And so if we do something, we need to make boundaries. But what if we should do nothing? The process of doing something is in itself political.” – Suraya Scheba ‘Saving the environment’ is not neutral, and it’s definitely not neutral in a divided city like Cape Town. Whether it is true or not, it’s easy to see why a populist fringe can argue that people care more about grasses than the poor.

Slide 9: With this in mind I think the only way forward is to work with people, and the interface with the urban. Regeneration through architecture & urban planning: Using the built environment to absorb change

Slide 10: This is part of a global move of building in landscape as infrastructure. At the Future Water Institute, my day job, and our Australian counterparts we refer to it as Water Sensitive Design, and the International Water Association calls it WaterWise Cities. China calls it sponge cities. It’s a move in the right direction. It is very much engineering biased, and we need to challenge and shape it to be more appropriate.

Slide 11: What can this look like? Landscape architects are the new heroes of urban regeneration. This is from a company called Square One Landscape architects. This is Trafalgar Square, look at the multiple functions this space serves. The placemaking.

Slide 12: This is another example from the same company, the Lilongwe River Revitalization Plan

Slide 13: So this idea of a post-environmentalist approach to urban conservation is about embracing novel ecosystems
Healthy nature in the urban environment may look a bit different than what we expect, or romanticise.
Being part of nature means we perhaps need to think more about multifunctional spaces, productive spaces, how we work with nature to find a way to co-exist well.

Slide 14: To me, the bottom line is really this: “There’s no point in telling stories of doom and gloom that leave people feeling helpless about global problems like poverty and climate change. I’ve rather been interested in how we develop narratives that give people hope about their future, and how they can contribute to better outcomes.” – Caroline Digby

Slide 15: What are those narratives? Can we tell better stories? Re-imagining interventions at different scales

Slide 16: My work is in industry. This is a sewage works, and this is a brewery. This is a composting site.

Slide 17: These can also be these sort of things. They might work better and have more functions. This doesn’t look like a tree, but it may fill many of the functions of a tree.

Slide 18: On a household scale we can contribute to biodiversity, we can reduce our footprint, we can provide nests for owls, we can help plant the rain.

Slide 19: For me personally, urban conservation increasingly means a dry toilet. A lot of my work now is looking at urban sanitation, what we can do differently. I did not expect it to touch on so many fibres, and nerves, of our social fabric.

Slide 20: At an estuary and even at a catchment scale we are working on a set of projects that can illustrate these interventions at larger scales.

Slide 21: Now these are all arguably technology solutions. It would be a mistake to rely on what we consider the logic of the case studies to convince the powers that be. Shouting louder is not going to get people to listen. We need to learn how to use mediation, politics, psychology, to our benefit.

Slide 22: One can even say that the Anthropocene is that time in which nature and culture can no longer be approached independently

Slide 23: So how do we do this? How do we create resilient, sustainable and liveable urban wildernesses?

Slide 24: I liked these six challenges off the internet:
Take the concepts of resilience, sustainability and livability beyond metaphorical status…make them operational by being specific
Acknowledge and confront the differences between resilience, restoration and resistance
Can we contribute to communities and social movements that include and engage people where they live?
Mindfully create mosaics of communities and design elements that together add up to resilience + sustainability + livability
What do different types of cities have to say to each other?
Can we create a unified definition of resilience + sustainability + livability?

I think the fourth one is the most important Mindfully create mosaics of communities and design elements that together add up to something beautiful.

Slide 25 We also need to encourage relationships of care.
Association, Connection, Assemblages
Encouraging an ethic of resistance to moral injury
Listening in a way that creates trust
Replacing judgement with curiosity
Gently embracing the intimate

Moral injury is like post traumatic stress disorder, or being bos-befok. It’s what happens when you have to do something you didn’t believe in.

We need to listen. When you talk to someone trying to convince them of a viewpoint, and you don’t listen to their side, that’s not a conversation, that’s propaganda. Sharing the wonder of something doesn’t rely on the listener to buy into it. Stories take time, we need to build relationships.

Slide 26. Most of all, be brave in the face of discomfort.

Slide 27: Something that helps me be brave is a concept called ‘jouissance’. It’s described as … a brief flash of enjoyment achieved after excessive pursuit.
The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfillment – but only if that fulfillment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.

We have to remember to have the brief flashes of enjoyment, too.

I’d like to close with a quote. We are part of this world, broken as it is. Love your monsters. “Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather than he abandoned the creature to itself.”

Thank you.

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