Fluid New York

May Joseph, Fluid New York: Cosmopolitan Urbanism and the Green Imagination (Duke University Press, 2013)

Times Higher Education

1 August 2013

As I was reading May Joseph’s book, I kept stopping to check the latest news from the city of Istanbul, hoping that the violent suppression of the peaceful protest there had ceased. I was struck by the fact that the protesters had been initially prompted by the proposed “development” of Gezi Park: that is, its destruction and consequent replacement with a shopping mall. Turning back from the news reports about Turkey, I relished reading Joseph’s vivid accounts of the various communal campaigns conducted by New Yorkers against the wanton destruction of those green spaces which had been a source of pleasure, solace and inspiration to citizens for many decades. She demonstrates that environmental challenges bring people together, no matter how disparate and apparently divided the population of a large city may seem to be.

Beyond specific campaigns, though, there is the larger question which is central to this book: how can one be responsibly metropolitan while maintaining cosmopolitan awareness? New York is, of course, the classic case, since it is the most densely populated metropolis in the United States, while being the urban area that is most open-ended culturally – having grown in stature precisely as a consequence of encouraging large-scale immigration in order to make possible its financial and cultural success. She explores the vital tension which defines the New Yorker, namely that between the local and the global.

Joseph’s subject being ecology, she makes a good case for a way of living that is simultaneously metropolitan and cosmopolitan in a rather different manner than has been habitual. She wants the city to be a focus of sustainable living which is respectful of the world’s dwindling resources, in a spirit of cooperation and restraint. People have to learn to live side by side with others in a spirit of ecological humility, seeking ever-new ways of making connection with one another and with their environment. Obviously, Joseph cannot leave out of her argument the major terrorist assault of 2001, now known simply as “9/11”, to which the initial, understandable reaction of New Yorkers was the antithesis of green cosmopolitanism. Her persuasive case is that the traumatic event might lead – and in some instances, is leading – to a rethinking of urban space, of the imperative of reconstruction, and of the ecological dimension of hospitality.

That is one meaning of what a “fluid” urbanism would involve, and it applies to each and every city. The other meaning relates to New York’s distinctive geography: it is a coastal city; it is a city of islands; it is a city of which over a third consists of water. Joseph refers continually to its “archipelago ecology”. This context is, of course, especially important in the light of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in October 2012, which she sees as having a parallel impact to that of 9/11 – global warming offering the challenge this time. Citizens have to take forward the lesson of their experience of the storm, which saw a remarkable flowering of communal responsibility and neighbourly concern. Let them “green” the waterside areas, not only by making them resilient to flood but also by making them places where it seems appropriate to live, to gather, to relax and to appreciate the natural world.

I like this book most when its author extrapolates from her own experience as a New Yorker; I like it least when it lapses into abstraction (there’s too much “palimpsestic mapping of global cultural vernaculars” for me). All told, though, it speaks powerfully to a critical moment in urban ecology.