Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


Lending nature our voice -
role play in search of partnerships with nature


Today, crises and interwoven dystopian visions of the future often dominate the news. In this essay, we turn the page and share ideas for a positive future!

Admittedly, futures can be many because they are created in our minds. I would like to present you positive visions in which humans enter a partnership with non-human nature. These visions are inspired by the idea of city twinning, through which several thousand towns and municipalities have established mutual friendly relationships based on cultural, educational, and economic exchange. In Germany, this took place especially after the Second World War and the reunification of the country. In the URBNANCE team, we have developed a role play to jointly envision such a sister city, yet with nature as a partner instead of another municipality. Thus, in this essay, I will take you, the reader, on a mental journey through the different phases of the game. Before we jump in and think together about how visions of a sister city with nature could look like, I would like to explain why it seems valuable to start a dialog about it in the present time.

Today, people are increasingly living in cities all over the world. Urban areas seem attractive because of the constant availability of all kinds of amenities, products, and services. The global triumph of cities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and interwoven with it the continuing trend in the Western world towards large dwellings, heavy vehicle classes, or frequent air travel intensifies the massive exploitation of natural resources. This hunger for goods and resources goes hand in hand with an understanding of non-human nature as object which can be controlled, manipulated, and dominated by us humans. Especially in cities, through flood events or heat summers for example, it is, however, becoming increasingly noticeable that this exploitative relationship in the long run leads to crises that we can no longer control.

The idea of human-nature partnerships develops new positive images of the future city. Ones that are based on the principle of reciprocity, relying on a mutual exchange through giving and taking. In such a reciprocal relationship human and non-human nature meet at eye level, recognise each other´s needs and are able to respond to one another (for instance in the sense of caring). We will face many challenges on the way to such a sister city. In our role play we would like to take up two of them: Firstly, how can we give autonomous "voices" to non-human nature? And secondly, how can we better perceive and meet her needs, collaborating in a positive sense instead of controlling?

Focusing on positive relational qualities of a human-nature partnership in our role play, it is a thought exercise in desirable futures. We take up the fundamental notion that nature is part of a good life which already meets with broad agreement in Germany. The regular awareness study of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation found that 94 percent of those surveyed agree with this statement in 2015. In the role play we go one step further and ask:

  • What qualities of our nature relationships are part of a good life in the sister city with nature?
  • What has to happen to enable and facilitate a path towards a good future in a sister city with nature?
  • What stories emerge when we recount them together - together with representatives of non-human nature in the context of a role play?

Let's go – in a role play to the sister city with nature

Now, I invite you to take part in a thought experiment in which you can immerse yourself into the role play and contribute your own ideas to visions of a sister city with nature. The photographs embedded in the text are from the first implementation of our role play at the IOER Annual Conference 2022. We hope they can help you to better understand the idea of the game.


Welcome poster with guiding information

Today you transform yourself and travel to the year 2050. You take part in a meeting seeing, sensing and thinking through your role to celebrate the successful implementation of the visions of a sister city with nature.


A selection of objects from the sister city

In front of you are various objects: A heap of fine sand (1), a crumbly wet clod of earth (2), a treat from your beloved pet (3), a delicate flower from a meadow (4) and a branch with leaf and fruit (5).


Decide intuitively for an object.
Which one did you choose? Do you perhaps associate a personal story with it? Did the object evoke certain feelings in you?

Each object represents a character in the role play. Today's assembly include: A river, an earthworm, a dog, an earth bumblebee, and an oak tree. You will find the numbers from the photo of the objects (1-5) on the corresponding role cards.

Please read through the role card that matches to your chosen character and let the information sink in.


Becoming the character with the help of role cards

Please click on the role card for the task (Design: S. Klein)

Did you read the role card you chose?
You are now invited to close your eyes for a while and try to imagine how it feels to be this being. What does your everyday life in the city look like today?


When you have opened your eyes again, we invite you to let yourself be inspired by a few pictures and words in the following and try to vividly imagine a city partnership with nature.

The regenerative city:

The healthy and just city

The convivial city

The conscious city

Take some moments to imagine these visions from the perspective of your character.

Now, you are in the year 2050. The visions have become reality: The sister city with nature is a complete success! Partnership models have been shaping urban development for years. Urban space and life have changed for all city dwellers.

Entering the city hall, you are welcomed by a friendly facilitator from the city planning office. Split in small groups, you share your experiences of being an earthworm or an oak tree in the sister city. Here you have the chance to report your daily experiences and share why city twinning with nature is a cause for celebration.

Please think about what gives you particular pleasure or enriches your life in the city? What do you yourself contribute to the partnership by sharing with others? What gifts do you receive and what do the partnerships enable and empower you in?

The facilitator invites you and the other participants to reflect together on how this future came about and what happened along the way. An intensive exchange of experiences begins with the different perspectives flowing into the discussion. The facilitator has plenty to do to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak. He records the discussed points on a big timeline poster. A collective story slowly emerges, describing the development into a sister city from 2020 to 2050.

Think about what rules, habits or even values have changed so that certain things could happen? What has changed recently, what in the year 2045? What were ground breaking events in, say, 2025?


One desired pathway towards a sister city with nature

Now we say goodbye to the game. I would like to invite you to close your eyes again and imagine how the images and visions of a sister city with nature slowly fade away. With the help of a mindfulness exercise, you might find it easier to shake off your role and find your way forward.

Follow the link to a guided mindfulness exercise or find a way for yourself to slowly return to your human self.

Finally, we reflect on our impressions from the role play. For this, all participants receive a postcard to write down their thoughts. These should be personal impressions that we ourselves would like to remember.

Please take a piece of paper and write down your spontaneous considerations. What insights of the role play would you like to take with you - for your private or professional life?


The participants’ collected impressions after the role play at the IOER annual conference 2022


Now we have shared ideas and visions for a good future. I may thank you for your openness and sharing of ideas. I hope you have enjoyed thinking about positive and desirable futures through consciously taking on different perspectives and angles of non-human nature.

A river or an earth bumblebee cannot articulate their needs through human words. But might we look and listen more closely? The rich knowledge of the natural sciences certainly plays an important role here, thinking for example about site conditions in the world of plants, the behaviour of animals, and the functioning of ecosystems. This information can and should be used to promote and preserve biodiversity. Though, in our role play, we chose a different approach using empathy and imagination to put ourselves mentally and emotionally into other living beings’ and ecosystems’ perspectives. We see this as a promising shift of perspective that brings the game’s participants into a reciprocal exchange with non-human nature and thereby encouraging them to look and listen more closely in order to develop effective responses together. We are aware that the articulation of the needs of non-human nature in the role play is based on the knowledge, spontaneous associations, and thoughts of the game’s participants. This is ok, because it is not about mapping the physical needs of an oak tree or a dog in the game. Rather, it is about opening up to these perspectives, consciously thinking about them, questioning hierarchical world views and enriching the positive visions of city twinning with non-human perspectives.

What if cities decide to apply these visions of a partnership with non-human nature in political decision-making processes in the city council or in regional development? How would the city change if we shift our ways of thinking, acting and organising from controlling and harnessing non-human nature as an inanimate object to giving and taking with a living subject? Will we then perhaps succeed in supporting non-human nature in her diversity instead of restricting her ever further and exploiting her without moral nor material limits?

Many participants of the role play at the IOER Annual Conference 2022 concluded that in a crisis-ridden present, it had been particularly inspiring to collectively think about positive futures and to exchange encouraging ideas about pathways towards an urban human-non-human-nature partnership.

Shared impression after the role play at the IOER Annual Conference 2022


I would be delighted to hear about your impressions, thoughts, and visions and invite you to share them with me by email. Also do not hesitate to reach out in case of questions or comments about the essay.

Author: Philip Harms (p.harmsioer@ioer.de)

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