The Working Landscape: Between Founding and Preservation
Over the past decade, questions related to the environment have become a central focus within the field of political theory, inviting scholars to explore and critically engage the relationship of nature to the political world. Of course, this call to negotiate how ecology relates to contemporary politics revisits the nature of political agency, spatiality, capitalism, democracy and many other familiar points of departure within political theory. With nature actively represented within the polis, established boundaries between humanity and nature are blurred, and the following kinds of questions emerge: Is nature a pristine place, something to be discovered and preserved? Or is it a text, a playful and open space for human creativity? In the process, familiar theoretical rifts – modernism vs. postmodernism, critical theory vs. post-structuralism – color these dilemmas, circumscribing active engagement of the nature question in politics. And it is these kinds of theoretical impasses that Peter Cannavò attempts to bridge in his book, The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation, and the Politics of Place.
More specifically, Cannavò argues that contemporary American land use policies have contributed to a crisis of place, in which extreme and opposing concepts of “founding” and “preservation” stifle our relationships with our surroundings, others and ourselves. For Cannavò, the solution is to design working landscapes, which resist the excessive nomadism of founding and the rigid parochialism of preservation in favor of inclusive land use policies that promote democratic governance. The Working Landscape reveals the intrinsic interrelatedness and diversity of our environment, whose value is brought to bear via the working landscape, thus effectively challenging the schizophrenic and destructive impulses of commodification that characterize our contemporary crisis of place. Our identities are linked to a sense of place, and it is through a conscious ballet of founding and preservation–whether in the form of collaborative conservation, enlightened New Urbanism, or remobilized mixed communities–that we create meaningful places for the multiplicity of voices within our contemporary world.
Cannavò begins with Iris Marion Young’s open conception of “home,” as both a stronghold of agency and a place for fluid identity, to initiate a new politics of place. Contrary to postmodern and feminist critiques that frame the concept of home as fictive, universalizing and deeply inaccessible to marginalized persons, Cannavò instead argues that “home” is an inclusive concept, one that productively straddles the public and private realms, spilling from comfortable living rooms to neighborhood streets (and even into wilderness areas, as Cannavò later explains): “In short, the outer boundaries of home, like most boundaries, are indistinct. However, the concept of home as domicile requires some core personal space under the control of its inhabitants” (30). “Home” does not simply represent a blank canvas of privatized space, existing independently of the communities that encompass it; rather, places take on rich and complex meanings only within the context of these public realms. This private and tentatively unmarked home-space provides a creative locus and refuge against the vast forces of commodification.
Cannavò’s target is less post-structuralist theory per se, and more the perfunctory postmodern renderings that reduce places to abstract, expendable spaces. As Cannavò notes, “Places are always unfinished” (39). It is his keen awareness of the bracketed mutability of places that makes Cannavò’s working landscape a powerfully productive concept, aligned with other productive theorizing in the tradition of Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, etc. Cannavò does not proffer an escape from our complicity with a larger structure of domination (or -- in this case -- the unnamed capitalism), but a instead proposes a strategy of critically engaging such a structure in order to put it to strange, new uses. Following Young’s lead, key to Cannavò’s re-figuration of the contemporary landscape is his abatement of seemingly exclusive acts of “founding” and “preservation” in favor of working landscapes built within the dynamism of natural/cultural and private/public spheres.
Using examples of the Northwest Timber War, suburban sprawl, and Ground Zero, Cannavò acutely demonstrates how reactive strategies that favor one concept to the exclusion of another serve to polarize interests, resulting in antidemocratic, disruptive and exclusionary policies. Although Cannavò clearly holds that there is much to be learned from preservationist tactics, and that his own bias leans in this direction, his criticisms are evenly wielded at radical environmentalism and extreme development. Cannavò implies that preservation has the potential to morph into eco-fascism (especially given its emphasis on the discovery of natural meanings), so that top-down ecological blueprints leave little room for human political agency. Cannavò explains: “If the world, governed by a preexisting cosmic order, is already organized into coherent, meaningful places by nature itself, then there is much less need for people to engage in founding places” (208). More specifically, extreme preservationists privilege green morality at the expense of politics: in their approach, “[w]e must all accept the ‘correct’ map of the world. Fundamental social and political principles are pregiven by nature. This means that democratic politics is only reliable to the degree that it can discover and apply the right ecological principles, that humans can discover their proper place in nature. In reality, though, democratic deliberation, especially about places and other ecologically relevant topics, is too open-ended, too uncertain, and too messy to be trusted by such preservationists. Politics itself, as a deliberative enterprise, must disappear” (211).
Although laudable in their aspirations, radical environmentalists, already marginalized within the structure of liberal democratic capitalism, are thus easily dismissed as antidemocratic zealots–allowing their noteworthy goals to be dismissed as well. At least, this is the critique of radical environmentalism that Cannavò appears to be presenting. But is this approach fundamentally antidemocratic, as Cannavò suggests, or simply offensive to a particular kind of democracy which has historically gone hand in hand with capitalistic exploitation? Cannavò is certainly sensitive to the issue of commodification, and the market’s transformation of “places” into empty and exchangeable “spaces.” Yet, it remains unclear how regional governance, which Cannavò suggests as a solution, could rupture the omnipotent grip of global capitalism and the consequent preferential treatment of founding over preservation.
Cannavò finds the radical pursuit of founding more physically and politically destructive than strong preservationist tactics, for the simple reason that founding naturalizes the commodification of places, often at the expense of state intervention. This leads to similar questions, however: How important is the critique of capitalism, and the governmental structures that go hand and hand with it, to achieve political efficacy? Is civic republicanism, in the form of popularly elected regional governments, enough to break the seemingly unstoppable motor of commodification? In this sense, we are left with a dilemma: Outside of market strategies, how does one incorporate an environmental sense–that is, fundamentally green values– into a liberal-democratic framework that only values property and profits, and that is increasingly driven by global corporate interests?
Cannavò’s example of Portland’s metropolitan government, Metro, is illustrative of the liberal-democratic dilemma that often characterizes environmental politics. A directly elected body formed in 1978, Metro is comprised of seven members (one elected councilor from each of six districts and one regionally elected president) and oversees 25 cities in three counties with a cumulative constituency of 1.3 million people. Despite the fact that Metro is “democratic and accountable. It is an elected, known, transparent governing body,” Cannavò admits to recent public backlash in response to overly burdensome land-use regulations imposed by Metro (246). More specifically, in 2000, Oregon voters passed a radical ballot initiative, which requires compensation for any state or local regulation (including existing regulations that were not in existence when the property was acquired) that limits the use or market value of the property.
Cannavò reads the issue not as the precedence of private property rights, but as the citizenry’s sense that Metro had somehow overstepped its bounds and become too preservationist. In this sense, Cannavò’s faith in participatory democracy is quite palpable, lending a wonderful hopefulness to his reading of the Oregon ballot initiative. Citing an Oregonian editorial crystallizing this perspective, Cannavò remarks: “In line with this view, one could argue that the authorities in Oregon had become overly preservationist and that the public was pushing, not for a radical property rights law, but for more moderate policies that would give increased allowance to founding activities when fairness to ordinary citizens was at stake” (249). Yet, one could also argue that liberal-democratic institutions reify a general sense of political efficacy rooted in property ownership; that is, without express consent, actions affecting citizens’ private property are intrinsically considered excessive and unfair. In this sense, Oregonians were simply expressing the liberal-democratic mantra of private property rights. Arguably, an open forum for both preservation and founding may be impossible within this structural context, returning us to the crisis of place that Cannavò initially discerns, wherein founding always trumps preservation.
Without a deep critique of the larger structure of capitalism, and its liberal-democratic bedfellows, we are left chasing our (theoretical) tails in an effort to escape this predicament. Still, by bringing to bear the crisis of place, offering an efficient response to the dilemma of contemporary environmental politics, and consequently calling into question routine understandings of spatiality and agency, Cannavò’s The Working Landscape represents a significant contribution to political theory. And, of course, Cannavò’s practical blueprint for the working landscape provides an invaluable addition to environmental policy literature. Academic quandaries aside, planners do not have the luxury of pondering the efficacy of our liberal democratic system. The problems that Cannavò raises demand real solutions, which Cannavò effectively and persuasively provides. Indeed, Cannavò’s The Working Landscape offers a toolkit for practical political change that is likely to become an essential text for urban, regional and environmental planners.
Katherine Young recently received her Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University. She is currently working on her book manuscript, The Animal Paradox, which looks at the animal subtext within the Western canon that renders animal bodies exceptionally and ironically political. Her most recent piece, “Deleuze and Guattari: The Animal Question” appears in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., An [Un]Easy Alliance” – Thinking Environment[s] with Deleuze\Guattari (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).