Environmental forms, from a theoretical perspective to concrete case studies in urban planning

This article spans the Environmental Humanities (EH) and the New Materialism (NM) to offer an approach to forms, metamorphoses and uncertain futures. It favours an approach to forms that incorporate aesthetic dimensions and reflections and ideas from NM to come up with the expression of "environmental forms" that seeks to renew environmental analyses and research in the fields of the humanities and social sciences that are all too frequently techno-centred.

Today, we see that the notion of form can be confused and blurred by the multiplicity of definitions. Dominique Raynaud writes (1993): "There are no less than eleven different roots for the Indo-European languages alone, three of them for Greek (eidos, skhema, morph) and three for Latin (forma, figura, species). The semantic analysis of these families reveals the diversity of approaches to the notion of form. "Briefly, he concludes that form is both the result of a manufacturing process, and is inseparable from a sensory activity, from which both classificatory requirements and normative axiological judgments proceed. In this essay, by "form", we mean any momentary (event) or lasting (entity) crystallization of a proposal of meaning and/or organized life. The forms thus conceived take shape via several processes: creation, reception (perception and appreciation) and interpretation.

Rich in its notional multiplicity, it is possible to think that the notion of form applied to the natural and constructed environment, subsumed by the expression of environmental forms, allows the capture of phenomena as a result of a nature-culture co-production, dynamic before being static and frozen, at the crossroads of sensories and meanings, practice and theory. The use of the expression of environmental forms (Blanc, Benish, 2016) promotes the understanding of the metamorphoses of materials, collectives and individuals beyond bodies, as well as their plurality and diversity. Instead of returning to the oppositions inherent in modernity – nature versus culture for example, or local versus global –  this reflection focuses on social structures, the "workaday" forms that turn inhabitants into genuine stakeholders in the political arena. This pragmatic approach focuses on what constitutes form, landscape, narrative, ambiance, when and how, in the sphere of an environment to be developed – what may be termed a "possibilisation of the world", or a policy set out in terms of creating life possibilities (Stengers, 2005).

The environment therefore takes on a new meaning. This alternative path rejects a social constructivism that confers a sort of pure power to conspire against the environment. It also rejects a sort of naturalism or realism that tends to confer greater power on scientific objectivation to depict reality. This alternative approach borrows from research into agency and intra-agency. Therefore, the past and present relations of human beings to their environments lead them to co-design a world to which they can refer.

In a first section, we will discuss the question of forms, whose history is strongly associated with the history of art and aesthetics (Goethe, Kant, etc.). Secondly, we will try to highlight the contributions of authors referring to New Materialism literature regarding the issue of environmental forms. In a third section, we will highlight how spontaneous environmental forms such as community gardens, or animals in cities, as well as contemporary “green” urban planning can be a way of co-producing “natureculture” in cities.

Title – Environmental forms, from a theoretical perspective to concrete case studies in urban planning

 

Authors – Nathalie Blanc Director of Research, UMR LADYSS 7533 [1], Frédéric Barbe, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, Nantes [2]

 

Abstract – Intersecting Environmental Humanities (HE) and the New Materialism (NM), this article proposes a specific approach to forms, metamorphoses, and uncertain futures. We favour an approach incorporating aesthetic dimensions, as well as theories from the NM, to propose the expression of “environmental forms”, in order to renew the often techno-centric environmental analysis and research in the field of humanities and social sciences. We intend to focus on the process of “environmentalization”, considered distinct from a usual definition of humanity as ontologically separate from other living beings, and ascribed in a traditional opposition between nature and culture. This process of creating environments means building a system that unites the stakeholders with variations in time and space.
 

In a first section, we will discuss the question of forms, whose history is strongly associated with the history of art and aesthetics (Goethe, Kant, etc.). Secondly, we will try to highlight the contributions of authors referring to New Materialism literature regarding the issue of environmental forms. In a last section, we will highlight how spontaneous environmental forms such as community gardens, or animals in cities, as well as contemporary “green” urban planning can be a way of co-producing “natureculture” in cities.

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[1] Biography - Nathalie Blanc works as a Research Director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). She is the Managing Director of the CNRS-related LADYSS laboratory and is based in University Paris Diderot 7 in the Geography, History & Social Sciences Department. A pioneer of ecocriticism in France, she has published and coordinated research programs on areas including habitability, environmental aesthetics, literature & environment and nature in the city. A founding member of the French Environmental Humanities Portal, she has also been from 2011 to 2015, the French delegate of the European COST research project Investigating cultural sustainability, and is now the delegate of the European COST program on New Materialism ‘How Matter Comes to Matter’. She has recently published the book Form, art, and environment: engaging in sustainability, by Routledge in 2016. Other selected publications include : Litterature and ecology. Towards an eco-poetry with T. Pughe and D. Chartier, in Écologie et politique. Ecoplasties. Art and Environment. with Julie Ramos, 2010, Manuella. Towards environmental aesthetics, 2008, Quae. She is also an artist and an art commissioner, currently working on the theme of ecological fragility.

[2] Biography - Frédéric Barbe is an artist and doctor of geography, researcher-associate at UMR 1563, Ambiances Architectures Urbanités. His doctoral research (2012) focuses on the geography of the world library and the scales of literacy in globalization. It also works on issues of ecology and socio-ecological transition, precariousness and urban development in their relations with actors and public policies.