by Radhika Borde
What does it mean to have roots? In most cases the metaphor implies a genetic legacy, a cultural inheritance comprising a set of values and beliefs, or a connection with a place that comes from having spent one’s childhood there. In each of these cases there is an assumption that roots are passed down through family generations or are cultivated when a person is very young.
Today many people—particularly urban dwellers—have become placeless and rootless, often living in a virtual world more than they do in a physical space that they can connect to with their senses. How might they learn to reconnect with place? Also, with increasing numbers of people migrating from place to place for work and to escape war and poverty, it becomes ever more crucial to explore whether and how a person may be able to cultivate and establish roots in a new place—understood as a culturally interpreted biophysical context. It is possible to learn a language in adulthood and speak it with the fluency of a native speaker. Can we learn or relearn to cultivate roots in a similar way?
Today many people—particularly urban dwellers—have become placeless and rootless, often living in a virtual world more than they do in a physical space that they can connect to with their senses.
Growing a root in and into a place, just as a plant does, would allow a place to speak to a person’s soul and nourish it. This might go a long way towards alleviating what can be seen as a new type of anomie that fractures the Earth’s power to offer solace, nurture, and connection to diverse peoples in diverse places.
The idea of biocultural diversity, which implies that cultural and biological diversity are linked, has been primarily developed in relation to non-urban areas. Here, I wish to explore its applicability to urban contexts, for two interrelated reasons: over half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and it is cities that generally function as destinations for humans on the move.
Cities are often argued to be hotspots of cultural diversity, but it is hard to make the case that they are also rich repositories of biological diversity. On the other hand, it is easy to argue that they are superb examples of the impact that the biophysical features of a place have had on the development of human culture. Cities have usually been founded in areas with distinctive and advantageous natural features that have facilitated the flourishing of human civilization: on hills, beside rivers, or along coastlines. It may be difficult to find an example of a city that does not owe its achievements at least in part to a natural environment that was conducive to enhancing the effects of human labor, creativity, and enterprise.
The debt that cities owe to nature is sometimes forgotten in our contemporary world, in which the significance of cities is credited to their position in the space of ‘flows’—flows of data or capital—rather than in the space of ‘places’—physical loci that can be tangibly experienced.
The debt that cities owe to nature is sometimes forgotten in our contemporary world, in which the significance of cities is credited to their position in the space of “flows”—flows of data or capital—rather than in the space of “places”—physical loci that can be tangibly experienced. Since the natural environment of cities has had such a huge impact on culture, the concept of biocultural diversity might be expanded to emphasize, for urban contexts, the importance of being receptive to the influence that the biophysical features of a city have had, and can continue to have, on culture. Within such a framing, the biocultural diversity of a city might be understood as the intricate web of cultural influences that a city as a biophysical place has had and could have on the diverse communities that call it home, and conversely the diversity of meanings and interpretations that these communities would ascribe to the city as a place.
Yet, as important as cities are as places, it would be unhelpful if not impossible to ignore that they also are hubs that exist in a space of flows. Cities can be imagined as having tendrils that span the globe. And the people who come to live in them can be understood to bring offshoots of the rhizomatic networks of culture that they are part of. When these culturally diverse peoples grow roots in and into a city as a place, this might facilitate rich processes of cultural hybridization. These hybridizations might then reach other places through the tendrils that are constantly curling out of cities, thus allowing for further and more nuanced hybridization. This would foster a process of globalization without homogenization, since the strength behind this cultural process would stem from the unique character of the biophysical features of cities as places and from the uniqueness of the culturally influenced roots that people would grow into them.
Many, if not most, people would agree that places, in all their biophysical splendor, are unique and should be appreciated and respected as such. We usually take it for granted that the planet is much more interesting for the fact that there are tropical rainforests, deserts, and temperate grasslands. When culture is open to the influence of place, we can be sure that there will be biocultural diversity—and perhaps even a renewed and enhanced respect for the diversities of both nature and culture around the globe.
So, how do we rediscover cities as biophysical places? How do we open ourselves up to being culturally influenced from the ground up, so to speak? There is extensive scholarly writing on place-making in urban contexts—that is, on how people engage with such contexts, relate to them, and recreate them as places for work, life, and leisure. There have also been scholarly discussions of biodiverse place-making in cities through such practices as nature volunteering and urban gardening. Issues of cultural diversity have not been neglected in these discussions, but the focus has been mostly on the ability (or inability) of diverse ethnic communities to reclaim urban green spaces, the differing and sometimes conflicting cultural valuations of biodiversity in cities, and so on. In other words, much of the discussion on this topic has been political.
Growing a root in and into a place, just as a plant does, would allow a place to speak to a person’s soul and nourish it.
What I believe is needed is a phenomenological approach—one that addresses the vital question of how we can develop roots in and into cities as places, regardless of whether we grew up in a given city or have cultural roots elsewhere. What can individuals, groups, and institutions do to develop and foster a deeper experience of, and connection to, a city (whether native or adopted), as well as an enhanced feeling of ecological responsibility toward it?
To get to know and experience a city as first a biophysical place, and then a biocultural one, one might start by seeking out the natural features around which the city has developed—be those a river, a bay, or a cluster of hills—and then spend time in vantage points that allow for contemplation of these natural features, as well as engage in exploring the history of the city’s development in symbiosis with those natural features.
Another useful exercise would be an immersion into the mythical history of the city’s founding (if such a history exists and has been recorded). The biophysical features of cities such as Rome, Mexico City (Tenochtitlan), and Prague are linked with prophecies, festivals, and legends. The ancient Septimontium festival in Rome celebrated its seven hills. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, literally the “place of the prickly pear cactus,” was linked to a founding myth related to the auspicious sighting of an eagle sitting on a cactus and holding a snake in its mouth. It is said that Prague was built after its founding princess stood on a hill overlooking the River Vltava and had a vision of a city whose fame would touch the stars.
Engaging in these exercises is quite distinct from spending time in urban green spaces, which may be understood as zones where humans have made “concessions” to nature. Contemplating the natural feature or features to which a city owes its existence would reposition people as not just stewards of, but as debtors to nature. Paying homage to how a native or adopted urban home was nourished by its biophysical environs would allow for a similar, contemporary experience of personal or communal nourishment.
The next exercise might be to experience a heightened awareness of the physical nourishment that the biophysicality of a city and its environs can provide—such as by tasting and smelling local produce, along with understanding how the soil and climate of the city and the agricultural lands that supply it have influenced the tastes and smells that are being experienced. Gathering available wild foods and gaining an appreciation of local ecological and seasonal cycles would also be beneficial. This exercise would emphasize that the biophysicality of a city belongs to all who understand and enjoy it and that it can be mediated not only by cultures that are local to the place but also by cultures that were nourished by other places. For example, a seasonal fruit may be used in the cuisine that is local to a place, but this does not restrict it from being adopted by a culinary tradition that originated elsewhere. This process of culinary adoption might benefit from some degree of continuity between the historical bioculture of a place and its contemporary manifestations.
By engaging in such exercises, newcomers to a place, as well as people who feel rootless despite belonging to families that have been living in the same urban context for several generations, would most likely experience some feelings of rootedness. But why is this important? In today’s cosmopolitan world, rootlessness may not necessarily be seen as a negative experience and may be thought to imply freedom. Why this emphasis on both newcomers and local city dwellers developing roots in place?
The first answer to this question is that there is scant evidence that local communities will necessarily embrace newcomers. If the people you have come to live among are less than welcoming, developing your own strong roots into that place may be helpful.
Secondly, in many countries, there are heightened security concerns surrounding immigrants or refugees who may appear not to “integrate.” Now, the idea of “integration” implies merging into a new cultural context that might be at odds with the one that a newcomer is familiar with, and that is the wrong thing to expect—at many levels. Rather than using the language of “integration,” it may be more valid to speak of “connection”—which may mean connection both to the place one finds oneself in and to the communities one finds oneself among.
Last but not least, it is crucial for all people to develop roots into the biophysicality of the places we live in. The planet as a whole is far too large and too abstract an object to elicit our ecological care. Most of us can only think and act locally, and ecological action will most likely be much more effective if the need for it is felt viscerally. Also, if we (both newcomers and those who have preceded them) feel rooted in a place and discover how to cherish it, there is no reason why we couldn’t have multiple roots in multiple places that we may have experienced and enjoyed and may continue to treasure—thereby giving a new meaning to the concept of “rooted cosmopolitanism” that some philosophers argue we should aspire to.
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Radhika Borde has a PhD in Cultural Geography from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She has studied and written on Indigenous nature spiritualities and environmental activism. She is a steering committee member of the IUCN specialist group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas and edits the group’s newsletter. Read more from Radhika Borde.
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