I was first introduced to the work of Ingrid Stefanovic by Henri Bortoft in 2009. Henri was teaching us the dynamics of seeing, how to comprehend systems in a radically different way to the predominant paradigms of most educational thinking and scientific philosophies. Henri strongly recommended that we read Ingrid’s work on sustainable development and the concept of place via her book Safeguarding our Common Future – Rethinking Sustainable Development. Ingrid was really able to bring Henri’s philosophy alive and show how it could be applied in practice, and it was then that I began to appreciate the many different ways possible to explore our world, our environment and the places we live.
Ingrid provides a wonderful example of how a phenomenological way of seeing and thinking informs her investigations of urban areas. In Safeguarding our Common Future she describes a walk through Oak Bay, in Victoria, Columbia, with spectacular houses and gardens. She had just taken up photography, and on her meanderings took many photographs of small details such as leaded windows, fountains, pools and flowers. When viewing the photographs, the whole sense of the place resonated within the unique perspective of each photograph. Her description can be seen as extremely “holographic” as we have been discussing in terms of the relationship of the whole and the parts:
The experience led me realize that, while the camera focussed my attention on specific aspects of my neighbourhood, what made these images special was that they constituted more than an isolated, atomistic parceling up of the neighbourhood through the camera lens. Instead, each image was significant inasmuch as it captured and articulated in a distinct way, the sense of place of the neighbourhood as a whole. On the one hand, I was drawn to notice particular details such that I had missed when I had not sought them out through the lens of my camera. On the other hand, each individual photograph was all the more meaningful to the degree that the broader sense of the place as whole was reflected and even in some sense enriched in each photographic image.
It was this way of experiencing a city that I have drawn upon in my own explorations of São Paulo. São Paulo for me is an extremely difficult place to live, what with the pollution, traffic congestion, violence and gargantuan size. Being so challenged in this way I have tried not to retreat, but to be inspired by Ingrid’s own way of seeing to attempt to connect with the spirit of São Paulo. I have taken many photographs in the couple of years of living here on and off (and now permanently), and I thought I would show just a few.
I have tried to explore many different facets of this vibrantly challenging metropolis of around eighteen million people. Instead of breaking São Paulo down into parts, into districts, into social classes, into buildings, into big data statistics, I have tried to see how São Paulo comes to presence in the parts, how the spirit (my word, remaining undefined) expresses itself in a myriad of different ways. That way I do not look at São Paulo through the distant eyes of a stranger, rather I connect with São Paulo in a way in which I fully enter into the experiencing of São Paulo and not thinking of it as a thing which is separate to me.
Ingrid has followed up her work on sustainable development with a new book The Natural City – Re-Envisioning the Built Environment published in 2011. Because I have an interest in the notion of smart cities, the Transition Towns movement and our relationship to our environment, both urban and natural, I asked Ingrid if she could introduce her work, and I am grateful for her in writing to me with this introduction:
In the face of problems such as global climate change, we begin to realize that urban and environmental issues can no longer be addressed separately. Yet, many of our institutions continue to identify with either natural resource issues, on the one hand, or cities on the other. On a daily basis, we describe getting “out” of the city “into” the wild, conceptually bifurcating through deeply rooted paradigms natural and urban landscapes.
The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment challenges that divide, arguing for the need to shift our worldviews to recognize that cities can be “natural” – and that it is also “natural” for human beings to build human settlements. Chapter topics range from philosophical, cosmological, social and practical ways in which to rethink the dualism between nature and the city.
I am looking forward to reading this, which I have not yet had a chance to. São Paulo’s problems are not merely complex, they fall into that category of wicked problem. With the international spotlight on Brazil, Rio de Janeiro especially is seeing huge swathes of investment, but perhaps São Paulo slightly less so. There are many excellent projects and programmes though happening here, as well as other smart city related projects in other parts of the country, and I will continue to report and highlight them here as I have been doing. I do feel that Ingrid helps highlight the notion that our future living spaces are not just about the technology or the technical solutions. We are human beings and the experience of living in these urban areas, connected as a society and connected to nature, and we must not lose sight of that in where we progress from here.