Animals in cities
By Maan Barua
12 January, 2021
The urban is bustling with life. Cattle are being embroiled in conflicts over streets. Dogs are emerging as public health concerns. Macaques contest what it means to be a denizen. A body of work in geography and the wider social sciences is beginning to animate the city and is at the cusp of reworking urban theory. These pose radical questions of urban habitus (Barua & Sinha, 2017), mobility (Lulka, 2013), economy (Hovorka, 2008), biopolitics (Howell, 2015) and planning (Metzger, 2014), not solely through the logics of modernity and design, but as co-fabrications between lively bodies and the built environment. In an analogous vein, biologists are beginning to show how cities have become sites of evolution (Schilthuizen, 2019), ecologists signal the flourishing, even abundance, of life within built environments (Francis & Chadwick, 2012), and ethologists herald novel animal behaviours that emerge in response to anthropogenic urban regimes (Sinha & Mukhopadhyay, 2013).
The urban has, in fact, been central to the emergence of what might be termed an ontological turn in human geography, seeking to go beyond the binaries of nature/society, flesh/information, animal/human, exerting a tidal pull on the discipline and on the wider social sciences as well.The first impetus of this turn, emerging almost twenty-five years ago as a thought experiment at human geography’s fringes, entailed a critique of the anthropocentricism of urban theory and its analytical grammar (Philo, 1995; Wolch, West, & Gaines, 1995). A trans-species urban theory, it considered animals to be discursively constructed as a marginal social group, caught up in webs of power exercised from without, and subject to all manners of socio-spatial exclusions from the city. Attending to how city-building practices designate ‘animal spaces’, it revealed the logics through which other-than-human life was ordered, partitioned and regulated, whilst being cognisant that animals might themselves script ‘beastly places’, reflective of their own ways, ends and doings (Philo & Wilbert, 2000). Foregrounding public and political struggles against the marginalisation of animals, such a trans-species theory prompted other urban imaginaries – of the city as a zoöpolis (Wolch, 1996), or anima urbis (Wolch, 2002), a vibrant urban constellation embodied in its animate life.