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The Poetics of Urban Ecology

Rachel May

 

Cities, as seats of civilization, have always been sites of focused cultural energy and powerful cultural memory. The historical role of high culture (literature, art, music, ballet) in St. Petersburg is especially strong because the imperial capital served as the point of entry for European art forms; its museums have been a major repository for traditional Russian arts as well. This makes Petersburg a good case study for the importance of cultural elements within the ecological balance sheet of a city. On the negative side of that sheet are a vast array of calamitous factors, from the initial decision to locate the city on flood-prone swampland not far south of the Arctic circle, to the terrible effects of river channelization on water quality and public health, to the arrogant industrialization of the country in the early Soviet era, to the terrible deprivations during the blockade, to more recent, misguided efforts to provide for the city with nearby nuclear power plants and an ineptly-executed dam near the mouth of the river. On the positive side are -- well, mostly intangible assets like beautiful vistas, the white nights of June, national pride, nostalgia, and a brilliant cultural heritage. And, in keeping with the city’s paradoxical nature, all the past tragedies contribute to present greatness through cultural memory and Petersburg’s official status as a “hero-city.” Without these claims to greatness and loyalty, Petersburg would have sunk back into the swamp a long time ago.


When ecologists study the dynamics of an ecosystem, they generally concern themselves with observable, ongoing processes (energy flow in, energy flow out; extent and connectivity of green spaces, water quality, traffic patterns, structures of economic exchange, and so on). The notion of memory, especially cultural memory (that is, memory of things we never experienced directly, passed on through generations by word of mouth or through art and history) is more or less alien to ecological thinking. Clearly, however, cultural memory contributes to the sustainability of cities. I hope that urban ecologists will be able to find ways to incorporate this and other fundamentally humanistic concepts into the interdisciplinary web that makes up their complex discipline.

 
Further topics and interdisciplinary essays

The Statue of Peter I: History and Symbolism

The River and the Poem: Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman"

The Poetics of Urban Ecology

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