Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


Giving and receiving with joy – inspiring insights from Robin Wall Kimmerer on a positive partnership with Nature



What defines a good partnership? In a positive partnership, we are committed to each other, support each other and give each other attention or time – in short, we enrich the other person's life. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, for example, shows that positive emotions in particular expand our own thinking and enable us to relate more closely to others. However, if we look at the status quo of our relationship with Nature, especially in cities, the step towards a loving partnership characterised by positive emotions seems huge. Precisely because a partnership with Nature is rarely practiced in everyday life, we ask ourselves how we can strengthen the positive perspective of a human-nature partnership in cities.

Our vision of a human-nature partnership as part of the Good Life draws attention to positive emotions and values such as caring or compassion as target knowledge for sustainability transformations. It serves as a central point of reference for our reflections in this essay. The way in which we humans understand and relate to Nature has evolved in many different ways around the world over millennia, leading to a wide variety of culturally shaped worldviews and values (IPBES 2022). We are therefore convinced that perspectives and forms of knowledge from other cultures can help us to reflect and positively expand our understanding of the relationship between human and Nature.

In our search for other worldviews and values that focus on a partnership-based approach to Nature, close friends brought us to the book "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a plant ecologist and a gifted storyteller. She is a professor at the State University of New York and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In her book, she approaches the relationships between human and Nature through essays that illuminate the topic in different ways. In doing so, she interweaves the worlds of scientific language with the thinking and knowledge of her ancestors and brings them into a fruitful dialog. As an ecologist, she deals with plants or entire ecosystems from a scientific and rational perspective. Yet, she speaks respectfully about Nature, for example as a valuable teacher and as a subject at eye level, but never as a soulless object of study. For Kimmerer humans are not the crown, but the little brother of creation and she justifies this with the scientific insight that we have little evolutionary experience compared to other living beings. Kimmerer emphasizes that we should see ourselves as students in order to recognize and appreciate the rich wealth of experience and wisdom of plants in particular.

In our essay, we want to relate her thoughts from "Braiding Sweetgrass" to our own understanding of human-nature partnerships and, in particular, look for stories that can be fruitful to inform novel approaches to urban planning. Would it be, for instance, imaginable to consider our animal and plant co-inhabitants as advisors in order to incorporate their wisdom more strongly into the planning and development of our cities?


A different way of talking about our relationship with Nature

Kimmerer opens her book by telling the creation story of the Potawatomi Nation, which differs profoundly from the Christian tale of Eve and Adam. In a very vivid language, she tells the story of a woman who fell from the sky and was only able to find a home through the generosity of other animals. Together they created the world1. The story illustrates that we humans are not above, but alongside other species. For Kimmerer, we are an integral part of Nature that however can learn a lot from plants and animals. For example, algae and fungi show us how their cooperation creates a valuable partnership in the form of lichen that enables both to survive. Similarly, rivers can teach us about a different dimension of time and space if we observe and listen closely to its rushing waters.

The book explains in an appreciative manner that Nature not only provides for us and satisfies our needs, but that her gifts, such as wild strawberries or wild leeks in spring, also come with a responsibility. We humans can act out this reciprocity in our relationship with life by being grateful and trying to give something back. Kimmerer calls the principle behind this the Honorable Harvest. This benefits both the receivers and the donors: The receivers have to give something of value back, which helps the donors to be able to give back again. "One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world" (p. 190). Another principle is to treat Nature and plants with care and responsibility, meaning never take the first wild strawberries, because they could be the last, and never take everything, but only as much as you need. Kimmerer also encourages us to ask ourselves why we take something, whether it is out of necessity or greed. A further example of how we can give something valuable back is by caring for the land in a way that is based on a precise knowledge of its needs. Interestingly, one of the strengths of spatial planning lies in the analysis of needs, for example when the vital human functions are closely scrutinized and translated into planning specifications for the provision of services of general interest. But how could a caring planning look like so that the needs of Nature and humans are likewise taken into account and an exchange in the spirit of the Honorable Harvest is promoted?

Especially in our cities, the idea of such an Honorable Harvest seems abstract. In urban areas, we use a lot of materials and energy from elsewhere for our resource-intensive lifestyles and often do not know where and under what conditions something was planted and harvested. In this context, Kimmerer draws attention to a fundamental contradiction, as we humans, as heterotrophic creatures with our metabolism, are condemned to take more than we give, and our existence is dependent on autotrophic creatures. But behind the apparent contradiction lies the secret to maintaining a relationship on which we have always depended: "When we rely deeply on other lives, there is urgency to protect them" (p. 177). The Honorable Harvest invites us to respond to the gifts we receive in a lively exchange.


Connectedness with Nature as a gift, less as a threatening relationship of dependence

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her intimate relationship with Nature in many small and large stories. Although she repeatedly reveals her own limitations and tells of failure, she always emphasizes the positive that can arise from our connection to Nature. This is a particular strength of the stories, in which Kimmerer continually manages to create images of a mutually touching connection and partnership. This way of seeing and telling the story of a positive relationship at eye level stands in contrast to ways of thinking that focus on our dependence on natural resources and our vulnerability to natural hazards. This perspective is frequently employed in science and politics: It is us humans who need Nature for food, materials, and recreation, and it is us who are threatened by natural disasters. This creates or reinforces a dichotomy in which humans and Nature face each other as separate (groups of) actors.

In Vienna and Dresden, the cities in which we live, we recognize similar anthropocentric relationship patterns in efforts to sustainably plan and develop the city. For example, attempts are being made to reduce our dependence and vulnerability to Nature through urban resilience plans and measures, such as the City of Dresden's "Hitze Handbuch" (Heat Handbook). In addition, ecosystem services and nature-based solutions are increasingly being proposed to solve human problems, e.g. planting trees to protect us from heat or installing water sprinklers in hot sealed places to cool people passing by. For us, these are valuable contributions that make cities more livable and sustainable, but in the mirror of Robin Wall Kimmerer's stories, they reveal a blind spot: Kimmerer describes relationships of donation, providing us with examples of how we humans can act gratefully and ensure that the gifts of Nature are also available for future generations. In urban planning, however, we observe a tendency towards functional relationships in the sense of utilitarianism, characterized by one-sided attempts to make Nature available and usable for human needs. Kimmerer's stories are always about a reciprocal and above all respectful relationships, from which moments of resonance repeatedly emerge. For example, she recounts her experience of transforming an over-fertilized pond on her property into clear bathing water. In order to transform a habitat in this way, priorities must be set. The existing biological communities have to be brought under control and in some cases destroyed in order to assert one's own usage requirements. In practical terms, this means that Kimmerer rakes up the existing carpet of algae with its millions and millions of microscopic inhabitants over a period of weeks and removes it from the pond. In doing so, she reflects on her activities as a contradiction to her conviction that even the smallest creatures are valuable. In the small cosmos of her garden, she therefore decides to compost the algae and pile up the branches and twigs to provide nesting material for other animals. She talks about how important it is to make conscious decisions, to be careful not to waste respect for other living beings and to keep looking for ways to strengthen our connectedness with Nature.


Deep human-nature connections as a key to sustainability?

Understanding the deep connection between people and Nature is increasingly seen as an important lever for sustainability. For example, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) set out the vision of "Healthy living on a healthy planet" in its most recent report 2023. At European level, the conference "Europe that Protects: Safeguarding Our Planet, Safeguarding Our Health" organised by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Helsinki in 2019 called for a shift in awareness and values towards planetary health that takes the connections between human and non-human health seriously. Planning disciplines in particular are ascribed a key role on the path to a healthy city, as both the connection between people and Nature and the health of Nature herself are seen as core concerns of urban planning. Greater consideration of planetary health in urban planning can certainly have a positive impact in thinking about the holistic promotion of healthy cities. However, after reading "Braiding Sweetgrass", we agree that planning can do more to strengthen and cultivate the value of Nature in our cities. Indeed, ideas about planetary health are anthropocentric and instrumentally limited, although reciprocity is addressed. Kimmerer goes beyond this in her stories by considering the respectful cultivation of human-nature relationships as an integral part of the Good Life. Her book shows us that Nature has value without return, that non-instrumental, non-utilitarian relationships have their own relational value. And it shows that we humans can use our capacities for emotions and virtues such as care, gratitude and compassion in a purposeful way.


For a renewed relationship based on joy and responsibility

A partnership with Nature, with certain landscapes, animals or plants can make us feel connected and happy. For example Kimmerer describes the surprise and joy when she discovers wild strawberries for the first time in spring. I (Maeve) remember a hike in the Austrian Alps where we found lots and lots of wild blueberries on the way up and beautiful chanterelles on the way down. These gifts from the forest made me feel very rich. And there was so much of it – we could fill our bellies with berries, take a whole snack box of chanterelles with us and still leave so much for other people and animals. It is not a matter of course that Nature endows us in this way. Still, such experiences can help to build positive, respectful relationships and to see Nature as an integral part of the Good Life. I think we should not see these gifts as "services" that we are entitled to anyway, but as something special and express gratitude and care in return for this generosity. But how can we bring this gratitude and care to life in our cities? What can we give back to plants and animals in the planning and development of our cities? According to Kimmerer, the first step is to think about such questions and then, using one's own creativity and skills, to develop suitable answers. When asked what can be given back to sweetgrass, a group of students end up getting very creative around the campfire: the ideas range from braided Christmas presents to large-scale awareness campaigns in schools to government certification schemes for the grateful harvest of sweetgrass.

In contrast to this story full of joy and positive solidarity is the omnipresent information about the (disastrous) state of the world and the global destruction of habitats. This negative information often triggers despair, drains people of strength and joy and paralyses them instead of encouraging them to act. Robin Wall Kimmerer sees renewal as a powerful antidote to despair in order to re-engage in a positive and creative exchange with Nature and to ultimately take responsibility. Renewal is about both the material restoration of destroyed living spaces as well as the renewal of cultural identity. Therefore, we should ask ourselves what we actually want to renew: "Restoring the land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land” (p. 338).



As a natural scientist, Kimmerer has mastered the methods of measuring, recording and analysing. However, she uses them humbly and respectfully to understand the needs of other species and to build reciprocal relationships. In this way, Kimmerer describes cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where being rich means having enough to share and having many reciprocal partnerships. In our roles as researchers and planners, we also mediate between inside and outside and can address both: knowledge about urban structures on the outside and knowledge about gratitude and respect on the inside. Both are important for the renewal of our cities on the outside and the renewal of our appreciation of Nature on the inside.

The book "Braiding Sweetgrass" was a great source of inspiration for a positive perspective on the human-nature relationship in the sense of a human-nature partnership. On a personal level, Robin Wall Kimmerer gave us access to a different way of experiencing the world and showed us how to better listen to Nature and discover the joy of giving and receiving. We are convinced that we should pay more attention to the voices of Nature in the planning and design of our cities and more gratefully embrace and respond to her many gifts. By focusing more on the positive aspects of the human-nature relationship, we can enable the development of new reciprocal approaches to and with urban planning.

Many thanks for the wonderful reading and the valuable and inspiring insights into the braiding of sweetgrass!


Authors: Philip Harms, Maeve Hofer


If you have any questions or comments about the essay, please do not hesitate to contact us (p.harmsioer@ioer.de)


1 It is worth reading the creation story in Kimmerer (2013) or in the source she cites, Shenandoah and George (1988).



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