Contemporary Asia is in the midst of the fastest and largest process of urbanization in human history. Alongside the dynamism of the region’s hyper dense cities, however, are alarming levels of air pollution, recurrent stories of toxic food, contaminated waterways and intensifying popular protests concerning polluting factories and plants. Issues surrounding a sustainable urban ecology have thus become paramount in the construction of Asia’s metropolitan future.
Cultivated City, a project initiated by the Shanghai Studies Society in 2013, applies the ideas and practices of ‘cultivation’, understood in its widest sense, to the project of the contemporary city. It uses the dynamic metropolis of Shanghai and other spaces of urban experimentation in China as possible models for the challenges facing the rising mega-cities of Global Asia. The project begins by exploring the philosophical and religious roots of self-cultivation in China (xiuyang 修養, xiulian 修煉, xiusheng 休生 and gongfu 工夫). This concept, with its attending agricultural metaphors and analogies, has an immensely rich tradition. To elucidate the idea of cultivation we focus in particular on Taoist- and Buddhist-inspired thought and practice, the buddhascapes of the modern city and the neo-Confucian thought of Kantian philosopher Mou Zongsan. Cultivated City also pays special attention to the urban garden traditions of the Jiangnan region, and the literati life they hosted, which challenge the nature-culture split by viewing nature (including human nature) as improved or enhanced by cultivation. Cultivated City explores this dichotomy in the context of the translingual modern genealogy of both 'nature' and 'ziran' 自然.
Since the turn of the millennium, Shanghai has built a vast public transport system, embarked on ambitious projects to clean its waterways and continues to expand its parks and green space. Nevertheless, much of the discourses and practices surrounding these ‘modernizing’ projects of ‘urban development’ have been shaped by a conceptualization of 'nature' that is de-animated and exists in opposition to human culture. In negotiating these pervasive transformative currents, many thinkers, artists, architects, and grassroots activists, among others, attempt to articulate alternative modernities that eschew the dominant narratives of secularization and progress. Cultivated City participates in this project by putting ‘cultivation’ to work in the imagination and creation of the 21st century global Asian city. We look for novel ways of integrating the ‘natural’ and ‘urban’ environment that might emerge amongst architects, planners and city dwellers as they attempt to create today’s urban gardens. We also engage with the artist–practitioner, examining the ways in which traditions of cultivation are made manifest in their confrontations and engagements with the modern world. Finally, we explore the electric city as a new but natural urban environment. What might it be for the future city -- wireless, virtual, and increasingly ‘smart’ -- to cultivate itself?
We are especially interested to take this concept “travelling” abroad, to explore whether there are analogous conceptual and practical resonances in South and South East Asia for cultivating the city.
The project has been presented at the Ecologies of Urbanism in Asia Conference at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2014. In November 2015 we will also present at The Philosophy of the City conference at the University of Hong Kong.