Wildness and the Global City: Lake Michigan Pilgrimage

Wildness and the Global City: Lake Michigan Pilgrimage
March 4, 2014

I stepped up to the edge of Lake Michigan today and the phrase "standing on the edge of wildness" came to mind. I pondered that. Is Lake Michigan wild? Today, my pilgrimage took me on a northern route. I was on my way to a meeting at the University of Chicago's Gleacher center to listen to presentations about "The Informed City".

As it happened, where I was standing was next to the Chicago Yacht Club. This is not really a wild place. (Well, maybe sometimes it is, considering the parties. But you know; not that.)

So, I was standing on the lake's edge near the Yacht Club looking out over this massive lake which does, I believe still somewhere have its wild.

Then I turned to the Gleacher Center where I stood at the edge of orderliness. I heard a panel of experts talk about that very lake, and its extreme value in a world of water scarcity and expanding cities. The panelists talked about managing demands on water, and how to keep it clean and waste it less. With some awe, they mentioned that the Great Lakes contain 84% of fresh surface water in North America and 21% of the world's supply, which makes the idea of managing and not wasting especially urgent here.

You've heard this, right? The 21st century is the century of the global city. Saskia Sassen wrote "The Global City" in 1991, coining the phrase. Her book is pretty much everyone's primer on the subject.

Chicago's "Informed City" is a precursor meeting to UN's  World Urban Forum 7 coming up in April in Medellín, Colombia. #WUF7 promises visionary engagements, including with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz whose latest book The Price of Inequality argues that the growing inequality in the U.S. is not inevitable. Stiglitz's argument is that the interconnections between the wealthy and the poor directly influence quality of life for both. With over 14,000 people registered to attend, the Medellín forum looks well worth the trip if you can make it.

The World Urban Forum meets every other year, and is an advisory body to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Check out this report from the 6th Forum, which met in Naples, Italy in 2012. The report contains this inspiring conclusion from the 4th Forum, held in Nanjing in 2008:

"Harmony in cities cannot be achieved if the price of urban living is paid by the environment. The concept of harmony entails the synchronization and integration of all the Earth’s assets: physical, environmental, cultural, historical, social or human."

I was spurred some years ago to learn about wildness. A friend who wrote beautifully on the subject had just died and in a eulogy his son mentioned his father's significant influences; Aldo Leopold, and Sigurd Olsen among them. I'd not heard of Olsen before and so I looked him up. Olsen introduced me to the idea of the wild as a place where no human has ever been. A place unaltered even by the smell of humans; the tread of even one human footstep. His feeling as I understand it is that even an aware human footstep - one placed gently on the earth - alters a place forever. It is no longer wild.

Standing on the edge of this body of treasured wild water, with this global city at my back, I feel it - this delicate balance.


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