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Cracks in a paved mirror:

the eco-phenomenological dimensions of

contemporary urbanisation in Asia

Michael Chew

There is a well-established literature on the macro-scale health and environmental
impacts of urbanization in Asia. However, a key but often-neglected effect of this
urbanization is the growing psychological disconnection of the population from
natural environments. The first part of this paper sets out the context of disconnection
on the interconnected perceptual and imaginative levels. The second part introduces
Eco-phenomology as a theoretical and methodological process to explore the potential
for authentic human-nature engagement. The third part of the paper presents and
discusses results from the authors first-person phenomenological inquiry into human-
nature interactions in the context of Dhaka. The fourth part then briefly sketches out
opportunities for redeveloping an ecologically grounded perception and imagination
that can contribute to a sustainable Asian urbanism.

Abstract 1
Contents 2
Introduction 3
Urbanisation trends in Asia 3
Urbanisation and environmental impact 4
Consumption, perception and nature 5
Ecophenomenology 6
Methodology 7
Context: A Rooftop in Dhaka 7
General remarks about the method 8
Bidesi subjectivity 8
A different layer 9
Gaze 9
Open sky 10
Horizon 10
Contemplation 11
Re-embodiment 12
Slowing down 12
Re-connecting with nature 13
Aesthetics 13
Nature amongst us 13
Seeing past the product 14
Opportunities for further research 14
Location 14
Gender 14
Economic status 14
Concluding remarks 14

The extent of urbanisation in Asia presents great challenges for dealing with the
accompanying environmental impact of increasing consumption of urban dwellers.
Importantly, this rising consumption occurs in the context of an urban environment
that has both increased disconnection from nature and increased exposure to
consumptive images and messages. Thus, there exists an opportunity to explore
different means of engagement with nature in these urban settings which can provide
opportunities for reconnecting people with the natural world. In this paper I use a
first person phenomenological approach to explore my experiences of nature from an
urban rooftop in Dhaka over a one year period. These This study provides some
insights into alternative modes of ecologically grounded perception and imagination.

Section I - Urbanisation and environmental destruction

Urbanisation is one of the hallmarks of modernity commonly regarded as a sign of
progress and an explicit register of a countrys level of development. However
environmental destruction has advanced hand in hand with urbanization in a range of
complex and interconnected ways.

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is the largest of all major regions with 30 per cent of the global land mass and
60 per cent of the worlds population. In the West, urban populations have generally
remained stable over the last generation even declining in some places, particularly
in the US. However in Asia the trend is firmly in the reverse, with urban growth
rising steeply, outstripping in many cases general population growth, which is in turn
far outstripping population growth in the rest of the world (Khan, 2002). Asia is
undergoing the process of a massive demographic, cultural and economic
transformation as people flood from its vast rural areas into burgeoning cities. This
transformation is shown in the figure below (Zlotnik 2003):

1he Lerm 'Asla' ls a conLesLed, boLh culLurally and geographlcally. lor Lhe purpose of Lhls paper l am
referrlng Lo counLrles ln Lhe comblned SouLh Aslan reglon easL of aklsLan and Lhe LasL Asla reglon
wesL of !apan.

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Accompanying urban transformation is an associated increase in environmental
impacts. To a certain extent, this is related to the core functioning of the city. The
first cities were born of the crucial phase change between nomadic and settled
populations, and through being better leverage food surpluses because of increased
populations which allowed for more efficient specialisations and social organisation
which enabled still more food to be produced, in turn increasing population growth.
Through this cycle, ever growing amount of inputs in the form of foods and other
natural resources are fed into the city, while growing waste from this consumption
flowed out. In contemporary times these inputs and outputs have swollen
considerably to the extent that the eco-footprints
of some of the worlds mega-cities
are larger than their nations for example Tokyo in Japan. As Rees (2001)

1be mettopolls bos o popolotloo of JJ mlllloo ooJ o pet coplto l of oboot 4.9
qbo, mettopolltoo 1okyos totol eco-footptlot ls 161,700,000 qbo. nowevet, tbe
eotlte Jomestlc blocopoclty of Iopoo ls ooly oboot 76,860,000 qbo. lo sbott,
1okyo, wltb ooly 26 pet ceot of tbe Iopoos popolotloo, llves oo oo oteo of
ptoJoctlve ecosystems 2.1 tlmes lotqet tboo tbe ootloos eotlte tettesttlol

As more and more cities take up more and more areas of land, the entire planet is
placed increasingly into ecological overshoot where current human demand for
new resources and disposal of waste exceeds the earths total regenerative capacity by
about 30 per cent. For the present worlds population to live at North American-level
material standards, would require the regenerative capacity of four additional Earth-
like planets to support (Rees, 2001).
Thus, cities form concentrated sites of consumption that require vast areas of
land for resources and waste. From a Marxist perspective this is known as metabolic
rift, (Moore, 2003) and encapsulates the inherent contradictions of capitalism - the

1he area of land and waLer ecosysLems requlred, on a conLlnuous basls, Lo produce Lhe resources
LhaL Lhe populaLlon consumes and Lo asslmllaLe Lhe wasLes LhaL Lhe populaLlon produces, wherever
on LarLh Lhe relevanL land/waLer ls locaLed (8ees, 2001).
engine of competition and consumption as manifest in growing urban forms literally
eats up the productive capacity of soils nearby and has to expand further and further.

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Consumption on an individual scale is a key driver of environmental destruction, with
modern goods having increasingly large resource inputs and outputs. The individual
values and imagination behind this consumption are an essential component of the
logic of late capitalism, forming the micro-scale counterpart that underpins macro-
scale economic growth. Across the great economic and cultural diversity within the
Asian region, evidence points towards general peoples preference for materialist
values, and adherence to the perceived central goal of economic growth (Bhandari,
2009). Though this study did reveal medium to high degrees of concern about the
environment across Asian countries, these attitudes seem to have not translated into
practice, given the rising levels of consumption and environmental degradation across
the region (Tay, 2008).
The process of urbanisation amplifies this impact, as people tend to increase
their consumption and waste after moving to urban environments (Rees, 2001).
Alongside this process of accessing more resources and raising their material standard
of living, is a parallel disconnection with nature that distances inhabitants from the
very destruction that this consumption causes. People arriving from rural areas
become insulated from the ecosystems which both sustain their resources and which
handle their waste. Their daily lives and livelihoods no longer intersect with the
natural world and, eroding their identification and felt connectedness with the
landscape. At the same time, urban migration can also be driven by environmental
destruction, and evidence suggests that peoples lived experiences in degraded urban
and rural natural environments can induce passive attitudes towards nature and lower
concern over its protection (Haaften, 2004, Siddiqui, 2003).
This reconfigured relationship with nature can be seen in the broader context
of urban modernity. The triumph of modernity for the city was one of object/reason
over subject/feeling, mind over heart, science/logic over art/aesthetic, and culture over
nature and this can be seen in the modern architecture that dominates city skylines
around the world. This impact of modernity is higher in East Asia than in Europe,
particularly in many rapidly industrializing nations without participatory democracy

(Khan, 2002). Within cities, the central commercial areas have become the
aspirational and dominant, where the race to attract more capital and investment leads
to more and more spectacular, larger than life architecture and urban spaces, such as
the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, or Pudong New Area of Shanghai.
The counterpart to these large-scale developments on the street level is the
proliferation of advertising images which compete to take up prime positions in the
everyday visual field. They employ powerful archetypes to arouse desire and create
associations between products and aspirational modern lifestyles. Consumers engage
with imagination to help create their identity in the world and they use products to
make these imaginaries become reality (Small, 2008). In the context of urbanisation,
these desires are all the more powerful as many of these advertised consumer goods
and services were previously non-accessible to the new urbanites.

1hls ls ln sLark conLrasL Lo how Lhe WesL has successfully asslmllaLed LasLern phllosophy and aesLheLlcs ln Lhe
beglnnlng phase of Modern arL and archlLecLure Lowards Lhe laLe 19Lh cenLury and early 20Lh cenLury.
These rich and carefully constructed semiotic forms cultivate an
anthropocentric form of visual and sensorial literacy. When Kong et al., (1999) wrote
about this in the example of peoples perception of nature in Singapore, one
interviewee commented: `I think the reason why most Singaporeans like to go to the
movies is because we're brought up in this media culture. That is entertainment, and
we want to be entertained. Unless the birds are in fl
ying formation or something . . .
otherwise it's very hard to entertain yourself in nature . . . We have to learn how to
appreciate.' The media-rich environment promotes fast-paced entertainment which
largely excludes everyday nature experiences. The positive experiences of nature that
were reported had less to do with contact with nature itself, instead focussing on
social activities in natural settings. While Singapore is on the extreme end of
urbanisation in Asia, it serves as a useful reference point to consider the implication
of increasing media exposure.
In summary, the modern Asian city, through its specific forms of perceptual
environments, contributes to generating an urban imagination that is both
anthropocentric and orientated towards consumptive behaviour an imaginary that is
not-conducive to environmentally friendly behaviour.

Section II Ecophenomenology and Methodology

What is the potential then for revitalizing perceptual and imaginative connections
with nature? This section considers this from the first-person, phenomenological
perspective. Phenomenology, with its emphasis on epistemology of direct lived
experience, forms the theoretical framework for this inquiry. I present a brief
background to this framework and its context within the broader field of eco-
psychology below.
Pioneered by Edmund Husserl, classical phenomenology locates truth not in objective
scientific empiricism, but rather in the domain of subjective experience of
phenomena. Classical phenomenology aimed to lay the groundwork for an authentic
science that could study the world as structured and constituted through the
consciousness of the lived perceiver. Although Husserl sketched out an ontologically
distinct position of the earth in his later work
, a sustained focus on the ecological
dimensions of phenomenology was to be developed later.
The latter field of eco-phenomenology has emerged to be primarily focused
on the study of our embedded and interconnected relationships with the natural, or
non-human world. The foundational works of Kohak (1984) and Evernden (1985)
called for a new phenomenology of nature to redefine our place in the biosphere - in
relation with, rather than domination over, the natural world. Subsequent authors such
as Sewall (1999) and Abram (1996) have continued to develop these ideas, the latter
drawing on Maurice Merleau-Pontys development of phenomenology to explore our
essential and vitiating relationships with nature.
Merleau-Ponty radicalised Husserls phenomenology by rejecting the
perceivers transcendental, idealist consciousness for an ontologically embodied one.

Pls laLer noLes suggesLed a prlvlleged groundlng of Lhe earLh as a common place of percepLual resL relaLlve Lo
all observers. lor furLher readlng see Abram (1996).
Subjectivity in this reformulation is indistinguishable from the body - its movement
and orientation in the world, together with its senses. In terms of vision, this view
overturns the Cartesian model of disembodied spectatorship - instead the subjects
gaze is embodied, seeing from a particular type and orientation of eye, in relation to
the comportment of the rest of the perceiving body. This paper draws upon this
conceptualisation of phenomenology for its inquiry.
Eco-phenomenology can be viewed as one part of the larger field of
ecopsychology, including but not limited to research into ecological identity, deep
ecology, sense of place and transpersonal psychology. While eco-phenomenology
shares some conceptual ground with the latter fields such as emphasis on an
expanded sense of self and non-dualistic thinking - eco-phenomenology distinguishes
itself through its focus on embodied perception as the basis for (re)constructing an
ecological identity. In the light of previous discussion on urbanisation and
environmental destruction, the phenomenological perspectives are valuable as they
can provide a middle way between anthropocentric and eco-centric viewpoints, in
which the world is perceived as something to be neither exploited for human gain nor
revered as separate to our lived existence (Stefanovic, 1994).

I apply these ideas of embodied perception in the phenomenological research

Phenomenology relies on the method of getting back to the things themselves. By
using the process of the epoche, - bracketing our experience we attempt to remove
our preconceived notions about the phenomena under consideration (such as from
another knowledge authority, eg science), thereby allowing ourselves to experience it
directly through our own perception.
From this position we describe the phenomena
as experienced, the relationship between it and the perceiving self. These qualitative
descriptions can then be distilled to capture the essences of the perceived
phenomena key meanings that underpin individual experiences.

Context: A Rooftop in Dhaka
Applying these phenomenological methods to this inquiry, my exploration focused on
experiencing the natural world within the context of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh
with a population of estimated at 14-15 million, in which I lived for one year. Dhaka,
while seen as a place of opportunity for the thousands of Bangladeshis that flock in
daily from the country side, is also known for it difficult living conditions. 30-40% of
people live in slum areas that are subject to constant threats of eviction and poor
access to hygiene, while everyone suffers from intermittent waste and power service,
and chronically congested roads that severely constrict mobility.
The rooftop location was used as it served as a key space of contemplation and
engagement with the natural world, whilst being very assessable, and non-unique. In
the dense contemporary city, rooftops are one of few places to gain a wider access to
the natural environment.

AlLhough Merleau-onLy does reconflgure Pusserl's orlglnal concepL of Lhe epoche, lL can sLlll be LreaLed as
approxlmaLely Lhe same meLhod ln Lhls lnqulry. A proper dlscusslon ls ouLslde Lhe scope of Lhls paper, buL SmlLh
(2003) provldes an excellenL summary.

General remarks about the method
The phenomenological process is iterative and potentially never-ending. Unlike other
social scientific analyses that rely on statistical sample sizes to infer generality,
phenomenological methods are centred on distilling meaning and common features
from observation. These are the qualitative essences of the experience derived from
perception and reflection. As embodiment and perception is highly specific - varying
according to politics, culture and economics - I do not claim that the insights
described are universal, and I expand on this below. Instead they are intended to be
sketches of meaning that are relevant to contemporary Asian cities. These sketches
are italicised, and are represented in the paper as first person distillations from my
journal notes, which are then analysed theoretically. The personal and qualitative
focus of this method has attracted critique from proponents of quantitative research
methodologies (Starks, 2007), however as outlined above, exploring personal lived
experience is precisely what is needed in this era of over-reliance on exclusively
rational ways of knowing.

Bidesi subjectivity
A specific limitation for this inquiry is the fact that I am observing and writing from a
bidesi (foreigner) experience. Both my mind and my perception are foreign the
former honed from Western academic training, the latter trained through life
experiences in a very different sensory environment namely, urban and rural
Victoria, Australia. While some studies show differences in perception of nature
across cultures (Johnson et al., 2004), others suggest that experiences in nature may
actually reduce cultural difference (Johnson et al., 1997). In addition, as a bidesi, I
possess relatively high wealth and social privilege. Thus my observations are not
likely to be representative of the general population. However it is this same outsider
status that makes these observations potentially valuable by looking and
experiencing with this foreign perspective, new insights may be gained beyond the
local horizon of possibilities.


Section III - Insights and analysis

In this section we explore and discuss the phenomenological insights from the

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Looking out from the rooftop, I see a unique perspective on the city an encounter
with a soft green layer of foliage and life that is not visible from the street.

This foliage obscures the concrete and other construction, and serves as an alternative
horizontal layer of perceptual experience one filled with birds, bats, swaying tree
limbs and rustling leaves. From this perspective, nature is revealed as active and
dynamic birds and bats fly by, trees sway in the breeze, while the human world
seems a static backdrop in comparison. This is in contrast to the perspective offered to
the observer on the street, where sensual reality is often dominated by human
interactions and human-designed visual environment, and where nature can be
encountered as the static backdrop the tree, the grass, the lake.
Therefore, as I look across this other world, I enter tentatively into the
perceptual landscapes of non-humans insects, birds, bats, trees which would be
normally closed to me. Through seeing the crow glide by next to me and squawk to
its companions, or to observe the bats clambering for their sleeping place amongst the
leaves, is to take a first little step into these non-human worlds. In these visual
landscapes I am only one perceiver amongst many, one perceived amongst many. In
effect by this simple switch of vision, the observer enters these inter-subjective
landscapes at a different physical scale, above the ground and the usual horizontality
field of vision that this afforded. This is just one gesture towards the embodied
encountering of the visionary cultural historian Thomas Berrys key insight - The
universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects (Berry, 1994). This
inter-subjectivity is actually an evolutionary inherent, and we ignore it at our peril.
As Abrams (1996) writes:

Oot boJles bove fotmeJ tbemselves lo Jellcote teclptoclty wltb tbe moolfolJ
textotes, soooJs, ooJ sbopes of oo oolmote eottb - oot eyes bove evolveJ lo
sobtle lotetoctloo wltb otbet eyes... to cootlooe by oot llfestyles to cooJemo
tbese otbet seoslbllltles to tbe obllvloo of extloctloo, ls to tob oot owo seoses of
tbelt loteqtlty, ooJ to tob oot mloJs of tbelt cobeteoce. we ote bomoo ooly lo
cootoct, ooJ coovlvlollty, wltb wbot ls oot bomoo.

I catch the eye of crow as it stares at me from the rail. Involuntarily I look away, like
someone who has been caught staring. Laughing at my shyness I return to look back
on the crow, which hasnt dropped its gaze.

Perhaps the most concrete example of trans-species intersubjectivity is holding the
gaze of an animal. It happens every day to pet owners, but with non-owned animals,
it affords us a glimpse of alternative subjectivities. By acknowledging subjectivity, we
are invited to expand our care - as Chew (2006) writes, holding the gaze calls us in
an intensely personal way to extend our compassion and ethical care beyond our own
species. It can also help us understand ourselves by reflecting back our inquiring
minds through the gaze of the wild other, we are holding a kind of mirror up to
ourselves, one who through its very difference has the chance to make us question
ourselves on a deeper level than a familiar human gaze. Eisely (1969) states it
eloquently, We do not know ourselves until we catch the reflection from an eye other
than human.

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stepping off the last stair and onto the rooftop, the expanse of the open sky
surrounds me and frames me in its vastness, with the movement of air, smells and
light playing with me on all sides.

The sky has a unique status as providing a visual and physical frame to the
environment both natural and human below and all around. Just like the air itself,
the sky is invisible it only makes itself observed through its framing and holding of
all the other elements of the city. Abram (1985) discusses our ignored connection
with the air and its unique status as holder of the biospheres perceptual exchange,
We are immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea Just as, in
breathing, we contribute to the ongoing life of the atmosphere, so also in seeing, in
listening, while Stoknes (2008) suggests a reformulation of our scientific definition
to better consider our embodied relationship with it, Lets call it the Eairth the
closely intertwined links between earth and sky, ground and world, ocean and clouds,
rain and water vapor. The Eairth, then, is this living, creative world that we are fully
inside Eairth continually brings forth hospitable places that my body readily
participates it.
Experiencing the sense of space, and connectivity from the wind in my hair,
the sunlight on my skins, distant smells drifting into my nostrils whilst standing on
the rooftop gives an embodied credence to the concept of eairth. It is this invisible
ground for all my perception that I am co-constituted with we know on a scientific
level with every breath, billions of molecules of oxygen become part of my
bloodstream, and on a visceral level the groundedness that we receive after a few deep
The air is a challenge to our perception as it is invisible to sight it is readily
ignored and its generative and restorative functions also forgotten. Yet it is in this
perceptual challenge that exists an opportunity of re-imagining our nature-human
relationships. For instance, in the case of Dhaka and other rapidly urbanizing Asian
cities, the current practice of dumping toxins in the air may be reconsidered if it could
be viewed more holistically.

Looking down from the infinitude of sky, my gaze meets the crest of the horizon, which
is turning pink at the days end. As the sun sinks lower, the colours shift before my

Standing on the rooftop, there is another way of engaging with the air. It is clear that
this invisible totality of space is also mutually constituted by the spatial horizon
with all its human constructions which serves to frame it. In addition, this horizon
provides a temporal aspect to the act of contemplation viewed at dusk and dawn, the
suns rising and sinking simultaneously connects time and space with the rotation of
the entire earth. Abram writes about the horizon revealing a natural unity between the
experience of space and time it is this ground and the horizon that transform
abstract space into space-time. And these characteristics 'the ground and the horizon'
are granted to us only by the earth. The physical curvature of the earth provides an
anchored reference point beyond the mirrored signs of the human-space of the city a
geological arrow to a future that lies over the horizon, rather than inside our minds.

My eyes rest upon the mesmerising layers of swaying green foliage in the distance.
The wind has picked up, and the trees slowly bend to and fro, their leaves forming
intricate patterns in which the gaze can get lost in.

This ability for nature to be a place to be lost in perceptually on one level derives
from its fractal, or self-similar nature. As I stare at the trees, their fractal forms
imbues this specific aesthetic moment with broader connections their symmetry and
intricacy draw me into connection with other natural fractal forms, for instance the
curvilinear forms in plants, animals, and humans. This curious familiarity is
connecting and encompassing, and connects in a more holistic manner than the
semiotic connections that I absorb on streets level these are functional, directing me
here or there, or working my unconscious to associate desire with product.
The difference between the two can be illustrated further using Sewells
(1999) concepts of ordinary vs true attention Ordinary attention, tends to skip from
thing to thing
, while with true attention, self-consciousness fades from view.
Many parts of the city tend to invite ordinary attention, for instance the semiotically
rich streetscapes with their high visual stimulation. In contrast, through
comprehending nature directly and exclusively, opportunities for true attention arise,
with the mind being able to lose itself in the fractal forms. This way of seeing can
have the effect of suspending the conscious, restless, ego - allowing for an opening
up of experience and a deeper connection with the object of perception.
Another ecopsychological concept that can expand on this is Kidners concept
of resonance, which refers to the essential quality of the lived engagement of the
subjective self with the other as producing a shared experience that is greater than
both, and not reducible to either.
In the context of perception, Kidner (2001) writes
when I experience a beautiful landscape: there is a subjective resonance which
includes myself and the landscape, and does not occur in the absence of either. One
reason for the intensity of the nature experience is the above mentioned contrast
between static and dynamic forms. Like Sewalls true attention, being drawn into
gazing at the swaying trees or circling birds can represent a momentary loss of the ego
self, and gain of another larger, coupled inter-subjectivity.

1hls can be seen as a vlsual correlaLe Lo lLs menLal counLerparL, Lhe 'monkey-mlnd'. See Sewall (1999) for exLended
kldner wrlLes LhaL resonance ..tecoqolzes ooJ tespects tbe sttoctote of tbe otbet, so tbot tbe wboleoess wblcb evolves oot of
tbe jolot tesooooce of self ooJ otbet locotpototes tbe loJlvlJool sttoctotes of botb ot oll socb compooeots. kldner (2001)

Section IV - Towards a psycho-sustainable Asian urbanism

The discussion above shows how careful observations in the framework of eco-
phenomenology can give us meaningful insights into our relations with ourselves and
with nature. Sustainability in urban environments is not just about clean energy and
waste management it is also a crucial psychological issue, stemming from how our
human-nature interactions participate in our perceptions and imaginations. In this
section I sketch out some broader implications with respect to a broader notion of
urban sustainability.

Firstly though, some reflection on the choice of observation space. The rooftop here
was the physical space where these experiences revealed themselves to me over the
one-year period. The latter are not bound by this specific physical space in Dhaka
and other cities there are countless other opportunities for these and many other
related experiences to present themselves. On the other hand, the rooftop space here
does hold a sort of special position in the context of increasingly dense Asian cities,
it is one of a few places that can offer this range of nature-interactions and yet remain
very accessible to people. View in the nexus of tensions between a compact city and
peoples desire for a spacious and green environment (Wiersinga, 1997), the rooftop
can be a fertile intermediary space.

Of course, one cannot simply walk out onto any rooftop and expect a transformational
experience! The experiences and their analyses can be seen as part of the long and
essential process of re-imagining human-nature relations, breaking down the binary,
hierarchical split between the two that an increasingly Westernized contemporary
Asian culture perpetuates.
Two practical manifestations that will be discussed here
are re-embodiment and ecological aesthetics.

Many of the above perceptions were accompanied by a great sense of embodied
perception, different to the semiotically driven perception that is generally evoked by
human urban landscape. By getting back in touch with our own bodies and becoming
aware of the connections they have with the world, we can begin to soften the edges
of the modern mind/body, culture/nature dichotomy. Re-engaging with physicality
gives us the opportunity to dim, the lighthouse beam of consciousness that we have
learnt to project uni-directionally out onto others and nature (Chew 2006).
Several approaches present themselves:

Slowing down
As modernity expands across Asia pace of life increases and with faster lives,
people have less time to genuinely listen or engage with the natural world, which
operates on different and often longer timescale. Instead, we are increasingly

Cf course, Lhere ls far greaLer complexlLy regardlng Lhe changlng and LradlLlonal WesLern vs. Asla
values wlLh respecL Lo naLure, boLh of whlch are non-slngular and plural. lurLher dlscusslon ls ouLslde
Lhe scope of Lhe paper buL can be found ln MllfonL 2006 and lgnaLow (2006).
caught up working in a globalised economy that operates across time-zones, the
tempo of which increases with the growing speed of information technology, all the
while leisure time is increasingly taken up with absorbing a frenetic diet of
intermingled news and entertainment. Research has also shown the faster life pace can
be more environmentally destructive (de Graaf, 2003).
By tempering this expanding stream of mediated stimuli - for instance,
reducing television or internet use in favour of time with nature - we can regain this
balance. Or it can also mean recovering lost practices and arts such as the slow-
food movement, or building cooperatives that trade on skilled time rather than money.
It is also through creating spaces for contemplation both natural and human made,
and (re)developing concepts of time that are gentler on the planet and each other.
From the vantage point of the rooftop, remembering the earths horizon as temporal
reference point at the beginning and ending of the day can serve to provide a bodily
grounding to daily routine.

Re-connecting with nature
Children are readily seen engaging with nature with genuine curiosity and embodied
reciprocity, but all too often adults are socialised into compartmentalizing their nature
experiences usually as a backdrop to their own aims, such as surfing, bush-walking,
or as a relaxing retreat from the realities of urban living. Traditional practices such
as Tai Chi can provide this reconnection, as well as other more contemporary
experiential processes
. On a broader level, we need to ensure that our urban spaces
have sufficient nature available for immersive and rich interactions. A new approach
in urban design the Green Urbanism approach (Beatley, 1999), argues that cities
should be sustainable not only in reducing environmental impact, but also be green in
the sense of making nature (trees, parks, green rooftops) present.

Governments and NGOs frequently use all kinds of approaches to change peoples
environmental behaviour moral, financial, social, to varying degrees of success.
However these behaviour change techniques rarely use the recognition of the natural
worlds intrinsic worth to generate the change. This is where expanding peoples
sense of beauty or bringing it to them - can have influence. Enabling people to see
the beauty of nature that is right in front of them, almost all the time, can have a
profound effect on their actions. Several ways present themselves:

Nature amongst us
The Wilderness Society calendar. The moonlit desert screensaver. The 9
David Attenborough film. The growling grass-frog ringtone. We like to surround
ourselves by stylised representations of nature
, allowing us to get our restorative
naturefix (Van den Berg et al., 2007) without changing our actual lives, which are
usually profoundly disconnected with the natural world. The awareness and
appreciation of nature that dwells all around in peoples kitchens, workplaces and
streets can be cultivated. The more that peoples positive connection with nature can

Many of Lhese conLemporary pracLlces draw upon Aslan ldeas from 8uddhlsm or 1aolsm. lor
dlscusslon and an exLenslve llsL, see (Macy, eL al. 1998).
1hese 'larger Lhan llfe' represenLaLlons of naLure can serve Lo place Lhe vlewer ln a voyeurlsLlc
relaLlonshlp wlLh naLure. lor furLher dlscusslon see (1homas, 2010).
happen continually, subtly, and in their homes and workplaces, the harder it will be to
maintain the hierarchical and destructive relationship of humans over nature. In turn,
the more natural it becomes to treat all life with respect - not only dolphins, seals or
other iconic and anthropocentrised species.

Seeing past the product
As discussed, the psychodynamics of late capitalism are highly effective in expanding
peoples desires for consumer goods the very best psychologists, marketers, artists
and designers work tirelessly for this aim. In this context, our socialised perceptions
adapt ever more quickly to the current products and lifestyles that flash before us,
needing newer ones to satiate ourselves. Instead, an alternative newness can be
found in the attitude of paying true attention to what is already there. Through this
attitude, we can quench our trained thirst for novelty by seeing new perspectives in
old things, whether they be consumer products or natural environments both can
have environmentally beneficial effects.

?55*%$/+0$0,# <*% </%$8,% %,#,&%'8

I have purposefully restricted the inquiry to one particular space. However, there are
many other urban spaces in which phenomenological methods could be also used to
study human-nature interactions fruitfully. Further work could explore private and
public spaces and the phenomenological effects of individual versus collective
engagements with nature.

Dhaka, like many south Asian cities, has clearly defined spatial segregation of the
sexes with women and girls having limited access to public areas and spending
more time in private spaces. Female exposure with public nature in urban areas
therefore has much more limitations, although because of work roles women may
have greater access to nature in residential settings. The extent that this might affect
restorative or other benefits of this exposure is unclear and makes for further research.

Economic status
People from lower socio-economic groups generally have a relatively higher exposure
to the natural environment compared to richer urbanites, due to the nature of their
work (Van den Berg, 2007). However, their relative lack of education may also have
an effect on their attitudes towards the environment (Ignatow, 2006). The
interrelations of these effects are still unclear.

)*+'4/.0+9 %,3&%@#
If we are to move towards a genuinely sustainable Asian urbanism, it is not sufficient
to engage with the self-nature connection alone without broader cultural change, the
individual changes brought on by isolated individuals reflecting on their own
perceptions amount to precious little. Similarly, most of these ideas for social change
above are currently difficult to implement simply because they operate outside of
the dominant paradigm of humans as separate and superior to nature. They would
need to be coupled with systemic structural change. For instance, urban planning and
infrastructure must allow for green spaces to flourish in the city, modern architecture
needs to take into account eco-phenomenological perspectives, actively creating and
sustaining human-nature interactions. Our ways of working in terms of time and space
need to be re-examined to make sure they nurture, rather than inhibit, our connection
with nature.
In modernizing Asia, as in the West, the current environmental crisis is a crisis
of perception - we remain largely blind to the natural world and our own embodied
place within it. This is an acquired condition - ongoing participation in contemporary
urban environments with their rich semiotics can disembody of perception and
strengthen the consumptive imagination, in which nature is at the periphery. Eco-
phenomenological approaches can other an alternative, providing an essential
complement to structural change as they address our life-world, our basic assumptions
and desires in our daily lives. Collectively, these add up to our society and economy,
and without these phenomenological considerations, our structural actions simply
propagate the singular belief that the best human minds coupled with the best
technology will alone solve the environmental crisis. This technological approach
needs to be complemented through authentic perceptual participation in nature, which
nurtures an ecological imagination. As we move deeper into the 21
Century, with
the rising environmental crises, it is through the ecological imagination that we can
form the basis for a new ethic of care and respect for the natural world. After all, this
is simply another way of caring for ourselves.

22 Aprll 2012


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