Animals and Urban Design

The Urban Coyote Project captures stories about coyote life in cities. 

The Urban Coyote Project captures stories about coyote life in cities. 

My summer research project is aimed at investigating and understanding the relationship between animals and design in the context of urban space. Non-human actors, including plants and animals, have always played an essential role in human development. From farming and food to clothing and medicine, human lives are deeply intertwined with the animal world. In the context of industrialization, the relationship between humans and non-humans has been largely exploitative, as humans have mined the earth and utilized its inhabitants in various ways with little concern for the resulting environmental catastrophe that we now find ourselves in.

In writing about the Anthropocene, or so-called human age, Diane Ackerman writes, “We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox. When it comes to Earth’s lifeforms, we’ve been especially busy. We and our domestic animals now make up 90 percent of all the mammal biomass on Earth; in the year 1000, we and our animals were only 2 percent. As for wild species, we’ve redistributed plants and animals to different parts of the world, daring them to evolve new habitats, revise their bodies, or go extinct. They’ve done all three. In the process, we’re deciding what species will ultimately share the planet with us.”

Increasingly, over the past several decades since the advent of modern environmentalism, there have been numerous calls—from those in a variety of fields—to consider the environmental and ethical issues associated with human-animal relationships. Donna Haraway, in drawing connections between cyborgs and companion species asks which of these might “more fruitfully inform livable politics and ontologies in current life worlds.” Much of Haraway’s work draws connections between cyborgs and animals and their role in shaping human life. She writes, “Cyborgs and companion species each brings together the human and the non-human, the organic and the technical, carbon and silicon, freedom and structure, history and myth, the rich and the poor, the state and the subject, diversity and depletion, modernity and postmodernity, and nature and culture in unexpected ways.” In this sweeping range of issues, Haraway captures what is at stake here. Human-animal relations are no small part of life, and part of what drew me to thinking about the relationship between design and animals in the first place is the immensity and importance of animal life on this planet and the complexity of human relationships with various animals.   

Within the field of geography, animals have carved out a space for research and study, and the area of animal geography —emerging in the 1950s—has a rich history of acknowledging not only the presence of animals in cities, but also their value. Early animal geography was focused primarily on the study of animals from a scientific perspective, and aimed to develop zoographic explanations of their behavior, including where and how they live, and how they influence the environment. In the zoogeography of the 1950s, humans were largely seen as intruders in animal environments and animals were regarded as being entirely unlike humans. The overarching purpose of the field at this time was to track, map, count, and model animals and their behavior.

A decade later, cultural animal geography emerged with an emphasis on collecting data on human-animal relations. This work focused on the ceremonial uses of animals, the domestication of animals, and the ways in which animals affected human life (e.g. through crop pollination). Most importantly, animals were now seen as key elements of the natural environment, and something that had the ability to shape human activity, such as the kinds of settlements, agriculture practices, and industries that were possible given a geographic location. 

In the 1990s, “new” cultural animal geography allowed for connections across fields such as human geography, anthropology, political economy, cultural studies, and feminist studies, resulting in key theory developed by geographers Chris Philo and Jennifer Wolch called “Transspecies Urban Theory.” Transspecies Urban Theory aims to “explore the complex nexus of spatial relations between people and animals. The goal is to tease out the myriad economic, political, social, and cultural pressures shaping these relations with reference to both particular groupings of people and particular species of animals.” A crucial component of this theory is that while spatial relations within cities are made more complex by the study of animals, it is because animals themselves posses agency in this context, which disrupts commonly understood power relationships between humans and animals.

In her study of chickens in a large city in Botswana, geographer Alice Hovorka further develops the notion of transspecies urban theory. She writes, “Cities are inextricably wrapped up in human-animal relations. Animals are influential actors, and interspecies mingling encourages one to acknowledge that animals are shaped by, and are themselves central actors in the constitution of urban form, function, and dynamics.” Similarly, in her study of Grizzly bears in Alaska, Jessica Dempsey captures what is meant by animal agency in a political context. She writes, “The bear does not have some internal agency to change policy but rather its power comes into being through connections, in this case between charisma, science, scientist, environmentalists, foundations, capital, and First Nations. With these connections or networks in place, the bear becomes a player, and has a better chance of claiming its rights and entitlements to life/home. The bear is not an inert, passive thing that environmentalists use as a pawn in their games, or as just a symbol (although it is a symbol too at times), but a nonhuman whose presence in the space, influences the ‘state of affairs’, changing the face of a political economy.”

3-D printed nest aim to bring birds back into cities. Source: PrintedNest

3-D printed nest aim to bring birds back into cities. Source: PrintedNest

I want to echo Dempsey’s notion that the bear is not simply a “pawn” that environmentalists use in their games. Designers cannot simply use animals for their own ends or to promote a better life for humans at the expense of animal well-being. Animals are already treated as such in numerous contexts, particularly the food and clothing industries. However, designers have the ability to imagine a more mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals, and one that considers animals as actors in their own right, as well as creatures that possess special skills that humans do not have.

Designers play a key role in the development of sustainable and ethical practices that concern the well-being of animals, and this has been a largely neglected area—though not absent—within HCI. Ultimately, I hope that my research helps humans perceive the world as a place in which animals are always present and in which we are not necessarily the only creatures at the center of experience. We have the ability to shape our relationship with animals to be more peaceful, equal, and sustainable. Design isn’t just plastic and buttons and wires and glass and code—it can also include living elements; we can and should think about animals and the design implications of their existence in our everyday lives.

*I'll post updates on this project throughout the summer. And if you come across any interesting animal designs, feel free to send them my way!