Make Ecologies Strange 1

Christin Clyburn — “Philadelphia’s Green Spaces Appear Natural Up-Close, but Artificial from Afar”

Christin Clyburn is a rising senior majoring in Economics and minoring in Sustainability & Environmental Management. She is from Washington, D.C.

Person A
Person B
Person C

For her breaching experiment, she guided park visitors through an observational exercise and exposed them to evocative overhead images of the park. In doing so, she prompted participants to experience a change of perspective and caused them to challenge their perception of city green spaces as natural commonsense ecologies.

A few Wednesdays ago, I was walking through the Penn Museum entrance. After weeks of unpleasantly cloudy and brisk afternoons, the weather was warm and sunlight from the west was drawing east-leaning shadows across the courtyard. I looked around. The blossoming trees and twittering birds were beautiful and everything felt natural. After having walked several blocks through the city, it felt as though I had arrived at a rare little square of earth that had been left undisturbed. After sitting and observing the courtyard for a while, I realized that there was truthfully something very unnatural about the space. Upon closer observation, I could find many distinctions between a natural woodland and the intentionally placed trees. Between perfect rectangles of manicured grass and Philadelphia’s original meadowlands. It was almost like I had experienced and then stepped back away from a trick of the eye. 

The courtyard was not the only artificially neat square of nature in Philadelphia. I immediately thought of Cira Green, Rittenhouse Square, and Love Park, amongst others. I began to experiment with how my perception of these places changed when I thought of them from a zoomed out bird’s eye view. Suddenly, I was no longer in a clearing in the forest or atop a grassy hill. I was sitting alongside five predetermined bushes and adjacent to two symmetrical trees. I noticed that from within a park, it’s actually quite easy to believe I’m surrounded by the beauty of nature’s design. Tangled branches and the occasional wilted leaf or dried-up berry may lure me into believing that the park flourishes with free will. However, looking overhead at Philadelphia’s parks, the constraints of intentional human design are undeniable.

I became aware of the imagination that accompanies visitors of these spaces. It allows us to gloss over the artificiality of the place and paints over an unpleasing backdrop so that we might preserve the pretty green picture we wish were real. I supposed that this new perspective could open the space to challenge one’s perception of a commonsense ecology. I wanted to inspire this realization in others and for the realization to be as rich as my own personal experience allowed. To do so, there needed to be a personal, voluntary element to my intervention. I didn’t want to lecture the public about my revelation, rather I wanted to lead them on a journey guided by their own eyes, such that they might themselves come to similar meaningful conclusions. Thus, my intervention was intended to breach the everyday regularness of people’s experience in a space, but it was also intended to breach their typical mindset about whether certain ecologies are commonsense at all. 

I traveled to several small green spaces around Philadelphia. In these places, I found individuals who served as willing participants of a short interview. The interview consisted of three stages. The first stage evaluated whether a person viewed the surrounding ecology as commonsense or not. Instead of using the term “commonsense ecology”, I asked whether they saw the space as typical or unusual in some way because I believed this was the most straightforward means of posing the question, without having the interviewees get distracted by a new term. The second stage was a guided journey. Participants were asked to point out natural and then unnatural elements of the space. Next, they were shown an overhead view of the area, which displayed the surrounding streets and buildings that encased the green space. The two images below approximately capture the perspective change that an interviewee would experience. The first image is from within a park and the second is an example of the presented overhead view of the same park.     

Finally, they were asked whether the space seemed more natural or artificial after looking at it from a new perspective, in order to see if their perception of a commonsense ecology shifted. For the purpose of this paper, I’ve focused on the responses of three interviewees, who are referenced as “Person A”, “Person B”, and “Person C”. 

Interview Takeaways

Person A: “ This park feels a bit unusual in the way that there isn’t a lot of greenery in the city, but I feel like we’re at an exception here”. 

I thought that A labeling the space an “exception” was particularly profound. I considered the two images below and how they’re separated by only a few centuries.

At first, buildings and roads were unusual anomalies in the landscape, but overtime a gradual transition occurred that has since made green space an atypical exception. When considering whether an ecology is commonsense or not, one must determine how the space relates to other spaces that surround it. I initially deduced that a shifting definition of commonsense ecology was driven by ideological changes throughout history. That belief has since been refined. Now, I believe that a given ecology experiences many different contexts over time, and these changing contexts in turn, reform how the ecology itself is perceived. A square of trees on the outskirts of an early colony would be considered differently than that same square of trees located in the center of a city, and one may feel typical and commonsense, and the other unusual. And people will relate and respond to these spaces in different ways accordingly. Building upon A’s comments, I’ve concluded that ideological changes may affect landscapes just as much as changes in landscapes affect society’s ideologies.  

Person B: When you’re here, you don’t feel like you’re in philadelphia…It’s almost like a utopia. That’s why I come here. If we weren’t here physically in Philadelphia, we wouldn’t know that we were in Philadelphia.

Person C: It feels like I’m in a forest.. Well I’m not, but I feel it. 

These comments resonated with me because I have often been in a small green space and in my mind, transported myself to some distant natural paradise. It was only recently that I became self-aware that so much of the feeling of connectivity that I experienced with the nature in that space, was dependent upon me imagining that I wasn’t in the middle of the city. B referencing the park as a utopia was especially interesting to me. A utopia can be described as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect” (Oxford Languages, 2023). The current state of natural disappearance is far from utopic and I’m concerned that green city spaces may in part be coddling a sense of complacency amongst city-dwellers. If these spaces allow us to imagine that everything is perfect, we lose incentive to improve. Green spaces are disappearing not just locally but globally and an actively engaged public is necessary to combat this phenomenon. Part of my project seeks to interrupt the utopian illusion that encompasses green city spaces, so that we might not become overly comfortable and forget there’s still much work to be done. 

After seeing the overhead images, Person C revised their initial thoughts about the naturalness of the park. Their comments captured what I sought to achieve with my intervention. 

Person C: “It feels natural and I get that that’s the effect it’s supposed to have but realistically if there were trees this crowded, it wouldn’t be this clean so it definitely feels manicured and manufactured a little. Like this wouldn’t happen in a forest, the mulch and stuff. I guess when you look further into the little details, it’s not like a fully raw experience.”

I wanted participants to take a closer look and observe an ecology from a different perspective. I wanted them to challenge their perception of a commonsense ecology and walk through an observational journey. By asking them these questions and guiding them through this exercise, I hoped to plant a seed that would encourage them to similarly challenge other ecologies they find themselves in. 

Part of why I selected these three interviews is because they show the full range of responses to the intervention. Most individuals shifted their perception of a commonsense ecology after being shown the overhead images, as Person C did. However, some already seemed to have a sense of awareness about the non-commonsense elements of the space, as Person A did. Person B captured the sentiments of another less common group who clung to their original beliefs and justified doing so with an “it’s less artificial than other areas, so it must be natural” sort of opinion. 

As I was walking back to my apartment one day, I noticed a man (Person B) on a bench in the green clearing by Penn’s Vance Hall, just to the side of Chestnut street. I decided to ask him for a short interview and he obliged; however, it’s worth noting that I hadn’t originally planned to interview at this particular location, meaning I didn’t have an overhead picture of the area on hand. During the stage of the interview when I was supposed to show a bird’s eye view of the area, I instead showed him some of the overhead pictures that I’d shown other interviewees. His response provided fascinating insights. 

Person B: What I don’t like is that [the overhead shots of other Philadelphia green spaces] are surrounded by tall buildings. So that loses the ambience. 

He continued by pointing out only differences between the space we were in and the pictures I showed him. For example, he mentioned that the picture places were probably more noisy and more in the city, and because they were surrounded by buildings, he likely wouldn’t be able to see the sky in the same way.  He wouldn’t acknowledge any commonalities even at my prompting. At first, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t see how we were in a little green space enshrouded by buildings on all sides, in the heart of University City. However, I later thought of a moment that offered a potential explanation.   

I was walking through Dilworth Park and there was a beautiful display of tulips situated in the center. I took several photos from a couple feet away. I cropped these photos to solely capture the flowers. I then proceeded to take many pictures very close up. Later, upon looking at the photos, I had a realization. The reason I cropped my far-out photos and switched to close up pictures is because I didn’t want to capture the bustling city in the background, which ruined the natural aesthetic of the floral oasis. I wanted to remove the sidewalks stained with blackened gum spots and the cars aggressively honking at the crowded intersection and the stoplight protrusions and the buildings and all the urban essence that surrounded these flowers. I enjoyed them so much more when I could pretend I was in an endless field of tulips. 

I then considered that the acceptance of non-commonsense ecologies was perhaps a less passive choice than I thought. Maybe half of it is that the average person doesn’t have an eye for the unnaturalness of these ecologies, but maybe the other half is that people don’t want to have an eye for it. Instead of obliviousness, the man’s comments could very well be intentional denial. Earlier in his interview, Person B mentioned how he came to this place to get away from the problems he felt in the city. The park was a safe haven that he could escape to, and I believe that he wanted to protect and preserve the natural paradise he imagined in that green space, even if that meant denying the undoubted unnaturalness surrounding it. 

After completing my interviews, I felt a deep sympathy for urban dwellers, myself included. Many humans feel themselves drawn to nature and all of us are connected to it, regardless of our preference for the outdoors. It enriches us. There’s something lovely to the soul about glittering fish in a pond and colorful flowers and butterflies suckling their nectar and strong trees shading green grasses and the privilege of being able to experience it all. But in a densely packed urban environment, where can we find these things except for the little squares of green we place for ourselves? 

To those who sit on Cira Green’s lawn or read in the museum courtyard or enjoy strolls through Rittenhouse Square, or love the tulips by City Hall, we all deserve to satisfy that corner of our souls that longs for something earthen and green. However, we cannot be complicit in letting all the natural green in the world die because we feel safe knowing that we can always lay down some grass on top of a parking lot or plant some trees at a street corner. We can love these unconventional parks, but it is important to realize that they are desperate substitutes. They should also remind us of the endangered remaining authentic green spaces, both locally and globally. I believe I was successful in guiding a revelation that changed how some people understood and related to seemingly natural and questionably commonsense ecologies. I would like to engage in a follow-up project that expands on this intervention and seeks to target how people’s enjoyment of Philadelphia’s green spaces can be leveraged towards conservation efforts.