An interview with Donna Houston
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Dr Donna Houston, Associate Professor in the Discipline of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, Australia. Donna is a cultural and urban geographer whose research focuses on environmental justice in the Anthropocene; geographies of extinction, and urban planning in more-than-human cities. She is particularly interested in how cultural methodologies such as storytelling, visual methods and cultural memory can be used to address current social and environmental challenges. Donna's teaching and research are focused on creating more caring and just multispecies cities and societies. Donna is the Discipline Chair of Geography and Planning, Co-Director of the Faculty of Arts Environmental Humanities Research Group and a founding member of the Shadow Places Network, an international environmental humanities initiative funded by the Swedish government’s Seedbox. Donna’s recent projects include an Australian Research Council Linkage Project “The Power of Public Spaces to Connect Communities and Places” and an ARC Discovery Project ‘Enabling Social Innovation for Local Climate Adaptability’. With A/Prof Andrew McGregor, she has formed a Multispecies Geographies research group that explores just climate transitions in urban and rural food systems and the development of critical frameworks for multispecies justice.
Hello, Donna, and thanks for joining me at www.morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you became interested in the intersections of environmental justice, urban planning, and geographies of extinction, professionally and/or personally?
Hello Sophie, thank you so much for inviting me. I really enjoy following the ‘more-than-human worlds’ website and I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of your forthcoming book, In the Shadow of Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua.
I currently teach and write about cities and urban planning but my background is in cultural geography and the environmental humanities. My interest in the intersections of environmental justice, urban planning, and geographies of extinction emerged out of an entangled set of concerns about how ecological loss, harm, and repair are at once seen and unseen within urban contexts. Within urban planning, there has been a history of writing nature and earth others out of the stories, infrastructures, and spatialities of the city. At the same time, cities are sites of sedimented environmental injustices, where racialized and gendered capitalism and settler-colonialism intersect with uneven and inequitable forms of environmental protection. My hope is that in bringing stories of ecological, harm, and repair in multispecies cities into critical view, new or different possibilities will emerge for reparative urban politics that can offer more interdependent and just visions and practices of the city.
In an article co-authored with Jean Hillier, Diana MacCallum, Wendy Steele, and Jason Byrne, you offer “multispecies entanglements” and “becoming-world” as two fruitful directions for urban planning theory to better engage with the imbricated nature of humans and nonhumans. Could you explain these two ideas for us and how relate to the concept and practice of multispecies justice?
At the time of writing ‘Make Kin, Not Cities: Multispecies Entanglements and Becoming-World in Planning Theory’ for the journal Planning Theory, we had noticed that while urban planning has a strong tradition of engaging with issues related to urban ecology, urban greening, and sustainability, there was significantly less theoretical work that questioned human exceptionalism and nature-culture ontologies that structure and underpin these themes. Jennifer Wolch wrote two seminal articles, ‘Zoopolis’ (1996) and ‘Anima Urbis’ (2002), which called for planning to widen its ontologies and concerns to embrace the animal and plant life of cities. We felt that this work, which was first published in the mid-1990s, needed to be revisited and extended – especially in the context of the climate and biodiversity crises.
I guess we started with the fraught and no doubt flawed question of what making kin might mean for planners and place-makers. We wanted planning/planning theory to think about this question more along the lines of Donna Haraway who highlights the problems with only seeing and connecting with kin as singular/similar kinds. Haraway suggests that in 'practicing care of kinds-as-assemblages’ we can better align with praxes of dwelling that enable earthly survival, and hopefully, more-than-human flourishing.
This is quite a shift for urban planning that sees itself (perhaps along with architecture and design) as a profession that ‘makes’ cities. We used the two themes of ‘multispecies entanglements’ and ‘becoming-world’ to think about what this recomposition of kin relations might look like for city planning, which has been so resolutely focused on the human built environment. If planners were concerned with making kin and ‘practicing care of kinds-as-assemblages,’ then urban development would proceed from a very different ontological reality. What we wanted to do here is suggest some ways in which planning might involve transversal, intra-active practices. This means becoming more attuned to the actually existing ecologies within and beyond cities and how this attunement can assist with decentering human/urban exceptionalism. We drew quite heavily on the environmental humanities to help show how ideas of ‘connectivity’ which are common in city planning and which often have an altogether different meaning might be transfigured by paying attention to more-than-human entanglements.
The second theme of ‘becoming-world’ asks some difficult questions which relate to planning practice and the potential of more-than-human planning. One of the cornerstones of planning in Western democracies is the idea of communicative/deliberative practice which relates to how planning as a process proceeds, how decisions are made, who is invited to the planning table, what might be considered to be in the public interest and which communicative methods are best suited for inclusive dialogue. Communicative planning in a human-centric vein already has many existing challenges and exclusions related to power and difference – is it possible then to consider other forms of multispecies communicative intra-action as a basis for more-than-human deliberation? As I said, this is a difficult question and one that we put out into the world rather than seeking to answer. ‘Becoming-world’ is what we offer as one way of thinking about what kinds of processes might be important to redefining human and nonhuman differences in a shared world.
In terms of how this all might relate to the concept and practice of multispecies justice
the short answer is: I don’t really know. For me, multispecies justice depends upon the
particularities of the historical, cultural, ecological, and place-based contexts from which
it emerges. It is what multispecies, multi-thing, becoming-world, planning praxes ought
to be able to recognize and respond to. Multispecies justice is situated in the interstices
and intersections of reparative and transformative obligations to live and behave well on
this planet, and more specifically, since I am writing here from the location of being an
uninvited guest on Gadigal lands in so-called Sydney, to live and behave well on First
Nations Country/ies. This requires different responsibilities, ethical negotiations and
forms of redress that are dependent on the specific ontological and historical relations
that people inherit and inhabit.
Could you tell us about the Shadow Places Network, of which you are a founding scholar – for instance, its membership, the kinds of research undertaken, and the Network’s contributions to our understanding of places and peoples in an age of planetary unraveling?
The Shadow Places Network (SPN) was originally started by Eva Lövbrand, Fiona Miller and Emily Potter, and funded by a Swedish Government Seedbox grant. The purpose of the SPN is to foster collaborations between interdisciplinary academic, artists and communities to communicate the impacts of climate change in specific and often neglected places, to make visible the extractive logics and structures exacerbating climate change and environmental damage, and to re-imagine more just, reparative, and ethical connections to place.
The SPN is inspired by the late Val Plumwood’s essay ‘Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling.’ In this essay, Val Plumwood talked about the importance of re-thinking place-based ethics of connection and care in relation to and in resistance of capitalism, colonization, and extraction. Plumwood asks: how can we care for one’s own place without destroying the places of others (including nonhuman and inhuman others)?
The SPN is thus interested in is tracing the entwined and uneven histories of harm, damage, repair, and care as well as the invisible geographies of local, regional, and global connection that shape the diversities of human and nonhuman life in shadow places. Members have undertaken several artistic and academic projects which can be found on the website. This includes a Manifesto for Shadow Places and the A-Z of Shadow Places Concepts. Currently, we are talking about how we might extend the work of the SPN to support local communities imagining climate transitions in places with carbon-intensive histories/ industries. If anyone reading this is interested in the SPN or contributing to the concepts, please do get in touch via the website!
You currently teach a number of courses at Macquarie University that are focused on space, liveable cities, and infrastructure. What kinds of insights and concerns surrounding urban sustainability have emerged in the course of your engagements with students, and how have these in turn shaped your teaching practice and pedagogy?
First, I want to to say that I am privileged to teach wonderful undergraduate and postgraduate students in planning, geography, and the environmental humanities at Macquarie University and I get to co-teach my courses with amazing academics in Geography and Planning.
A few years back now, I was very fortunate to teach a course at Macquarie University in the ‘Ecological Humanities’ with Deborah Bird Rose. Every year, Debbie would give this amazing set of lectures based on her work. It was really transformative for many of our students, and during this time Debbie was working on her book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. One of the important questions Debbie asked was what does it mean to ‘look into’ extinction and environmental crises instead of turning away from this unraveling of planetary life. It struck me that this is a really important question for urban planners. What we did in the ecological humanities was emphasize how students could ask questions of their disciplines and disciplinary knowledge in relation to climate change and the loss of the diversity of earth life.
So often the livability or wellbeing of cities is measured only in very narrow terms –
a thin slice skimmed off the very top of the socio-ecological interdependencies that
cities can no longer afford to ignore. In this way, nonhuman nature in cities gets
treated as a ‘nice to have’ rather than as what makes urban life possible. When
socio-ecological interdependencies are recognized, for example, that trees and
urban forests can mitigate urban heat, this tends to get bound up in ‘services’
narratives which put an economic or use value on it. So it is all still bound up
in a human exceptionalist logic.
I would say that most of my students are very concerned about climate change and biodiversity loss, most would like to try and solve the inherent problems of growing housing and income inequality and car-centric cities. These are enormous challenges for planners – and I think the important insight here is that it is all interconnected. Planning deals with everything from land use zoning, development approvals, and offsets, to strategic visions shaping urban infrastructures and futures. Planners are responsible for the public domain in cities, parks, streets, reserves, and gardens.
If we were to really ‘look into’ socio-ecological interdependencies in cities and by this, I mean facing up to the ontological requirements and responsibilities of the interdependent worlds that we share in common and in difference – this could go quite a long way I think to addressing livability in a much more generous and generative way. Planners are often seen as being the adjudicators of urban nature and space. I think the challenge is for planners to see themselves as being in more of a reparative role: as invited participants helping diverse and more-than-human communities in cities thrive.
Finally, Donna, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
This is a great question Sophie. I am endlessly fascinated with the creative approaches and concepts that different scholars and artists use to interact with earth others and to create and communicate such brilliant and vivid accounts of morethanhuman worlds. It is really exciting to see a flourishing of civic ecologies and citizen environmental humanities projects where multidisciplinary collaborators communicate about the complexities, interrelations and vulnerabilities of morethanhuman worlds. While it is important not to romanticize collaborations – which can be inequitable and harmful if they are not approached ethically, with respect and care – I think there is a lot of wonderful work out there which is illuminating different pathways for communicating morethanhuman research and praxes to diverse audiences.
Haraway, D. (2010) '‘When species meet’: Staying with the trouble'. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(1): 53–55.
Plumwood, V. (2008) 'Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling.' Australian Humanities Review (online): http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2008/03/01/shadow-places-and-the-politics-of-dwelling/
Potter E., Miller F., Lövbrand E., et al. (2022) 'A manifesto for shadow places: Re-imagining and co-producing connections for justice in an era of climate change', Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 5(1): 272-292.
Rose, D. B. (2011) Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction, Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press.
Wolch, J. (1996) 'Zoöpolis', Capitalism Nature Socialism, 7(2): 21-47.
Wolch, J. (2002) ‘Anima urbis’, Progress in Human Geography, 26(6): 721–42.
"For me, multispecies justice depends upon the particularities of the historical, cultural, ecological, and place-based contexts from which it emerges. It is what multispecies, multi-thing, becoming-world, planning praxes ought to be able to recognize and respond to."
"Planners are often seen as being the adjudicators of urban nature and space. I think the challenge is for planners to see themselves as being in more of a reparative role: as invited participants helping diverse and more-than-human communities in cities thrive."