Planning Multispecies Cities

We’re talking about extinction, climate change, urban development and urban planning futures. Dr Donna Houston says urban planners need to be more attuned to the ecological realities and rhythms of our cities.

From switching on a light, recycling a plastic bottle, shopping at the local supermarket, to asking a smartphone for directions, everyday life in cities is a key contributor to processes co-producing the Anthropocene, a potential new volatile geological era marked by the activity of humans. Activities core to urban life and the functioning of cities are exacerbating planetary changes across key terrestrial, atmospheric and aquatic thresholds, including: land cover change, ocean acidification, a warming in the average temperature of the planet; the six great mass species extinction, pollution and environmental degradation. These changes in biophysical worlds are acutely felt in social worlds, though they are experienced unevenly and disproportionately affect precarious and vulnerable human and nonhuman populations.

Rarely, however, do we investigate the entanglements and dependencies of urban life and the Anthropocene.

“The longer view, but also the responsibility. So cosmo-ecological is also to put one self into obligation or responsibility; in a way that… Western euro-centric or anthropocentric practices don’t do”.

Dr Donna Houston

This involves understanding what the choices and consequences that are bound up in these entanglements and dependencies mean for urban planners, designers, citizens and activists. It also involves understanding what they mean for the multitudes of earthly life dwelling within and beyond urban boundaries.  The bio-cultural diversity of life on a planet of cities is complex and it doesn’t look the same everywhere. We are situated on a precarious threshold where forms of urban development matter profoundly for planetary futures.  We need new ways of thinking about the city that are capable of connecting the unique social, historical and ecological dimensions of urban places with planetary changes.

“… to understand that the ecological and cultural processes that are entangled within our relations are really important to our survival. In fact, we won’t really survive if we don’t attend to them”.

Dr Donna Houston

One way forward is to consider new problems for urban research: such as that of what our colleague at the University of Sydney, Thom van Dooren, refers to as the cultural and biological entanglements of extinction. Extinction stories offer a window into relationships between localised and mass extinction and help us in understanding what specific humans and nonhumans within particular cities are doing. In Perth Australia, an interesting story is unfolding involving endangered Carnaby’s Cockatoos, their people, plants and places and how considering black cockatoos in urban contexts highlights present incongruences between planning, time, and ecologies as well as new possibilities for thinking about how we can plan ‘multispecies’ cities.

As urbanists, we need to imagine a different type of future to better plan for multispecies cities. Part of the answer might be to decentre the human from our discussion of cities and urban planning more specifically. Donna’s powerful and unnerving research starts with ecological time, which is important for understanding the way we plan, design and build cities. Donna ends by talking about the role of cosmo-ecological and Indigenous methodologies in urban planning.


Dr Donna Houston is an urban and cultural geographer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University. Her research explores the intersections of urban political ecology and environmental justice in the Anthropocene; the biopolitics of climate change; toxic landscapes and bodies; and planning in the ‘more-than-human’ city. Dr Houston is the Director of the Bachelor of Planning and the Co-Director of the Faculty of Arts Environmental Humanities research stream.

Read more about Donna’s work here: 1) Houston, Donna (in progress) Urban Political Ecology at the ‘Edges of Extinction’: Black Cockatoos and Multispecies Justice in Perth, Australia; 2) Houston, Donna, Hillier, Jean, MaCallum, Diana, Steele, Wendy and Byrne Jason. (2018) Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and ‘becoming-world’ in planning theory’. Planning Theory; 3) Houston, Donna, MacCallum, Diana, Steele, Wendy and Byrne, Jason (2016) Climate Cosmopolitics and the Possibilities for Urban Planning. Nature and Culture.

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