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Poster at the 2024 Ocean Decade Conference Barcelona

United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) -  UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

UN Ocean Decade Poster

Western society has been based on the separation between nature and culture, in which the distinction between “natural” and “non-natural” territories played a central role. This conceptualisation had land defined according to its productive uses: of material extraction, such as agroforestry, mining and farming; urban settings, with residential, administrative, industrial, commercial, transport, cultural, social and leisure uses. “Marginal” territories, such as seas, forests, deserts, haven’t received the full acknowledgment of their importance by many, and have also become places of extraction, where activities regulation is more challenging to occur, as in the Deep Sea.


Global efforts on climate change address land and sea, yet often keep the separating paradigm between culture and nature, “natural” and "non-natural” territories. Yet it’s an elusive separation: we live in nuance and one inhabits the other, starting with our own bodies. A forceful, conceptual separation, and the alienation of intervened territories such as cities as outside “nature”, might limit the scope of action of sustainable and regenerative practices, by not fully addressing the interconnection and interdependence between ecosystems. Cities are, after all, built on land, have air and water; other species co-exist with us, daily. We have nature embedded in our culture, and that is an opportunity to work upon, towards global well-being. Reframing this illusive boundary between nature and culture might begin with reconsidering culture and innovative practices as mediating tools on our relationship to nature: in a technological and material, but also, substantially, in an emotional sense. Indigenous People’s knowledge inform us that climate change results from a relational fracture between humans and nature; so perhaps the ever-present, permeating qualities of culture can significantly contribute to address this issue, and advance urban change from within.


Cities, and in particular, coastal cities can be central stages for that to happen: aggregating more than one-third of human population, many particularly sensitive to climate change risks, such as rising sea waters and flooding; while at the same time, coastal development poises further risks to these areas. Historically, cities have also been where culture-led paradigm shifts have occurred, offering an immense opportunity to implement the social, economical and environmental changes through their cultural and innovation policies. Coastal cities also enjoy a symbolic connection to the sea, from which their transitions may benefit: considerate of its citizens, other species and ecosystems, in a thriving relationship among all.


Barcelona offers a strong symbolism in this regard: its urban development history has been embedded with innovatively providing citizens with improved health, as through the 1859 Cerdà plan; reconnecting the city to the sea through the regeneration of its waterfront, with the 1992 Olympic Games; and more recently, through the transformation of its streets in greener and pedestrian public spaces, through its Superblock programme. The city has also succeeded in transferring its former manufacture-based economy to a creative, innovative one, particularly with its 22@plan. Thus, weaving sectors and approaches, with environmental, cultural and innovation policies that mediate our relationship to nature physically, symbolically and emotionally can accelerate our transition into the future.

Across disciplines, many climate change efforts have rightfully been focused on mitigation and adaption, with technological and policy approaches inclined towards the physical aspects of this issue. However, accelerating the indispensable political, social and economical shift may benefit from integrating at its core an understanding of culture, creativity and innovation beyond material results: embodying and affirming our relationship to nature. This pivotal change is grounded on values and on an emotional rapport, to regenerate this bond in a way that allows our species, and others, to flourish.


This consideration of culture in its multiple disciplines - arts, design, architecture - and across levels of action towards playing a central role in social, economic and environmental change hasn’t been sufficiently implemented - and it also asks for natural and social sciences to cement innovative forms of collaboration, something that is emerging slowly. It’s a paradigm shift in the view of culture, as it gains its centrality in our relationship to nature, while it asks for the expansion of a climate change interdisciplinary approach - namely, in the multilevel in which territorial planning and urban design occur. Acknowledging the complexity of our ecosystems and their interdependence, the tangible and intangible impact of urban policies in territories more vast than their own, calls for an increased complexity in the consideration and design of cities. And that includes how these territories integrate nature-based solutions, and how the relationship to nature can be nurtured.


Until recently, the inclusion of natural elements in urban areas has been largely dependent on a limited view of ecosystems, elements and species that understands them as providers to the aesthetic, utilitarian and productive needs of humans. Recent urban ecological approaches haven’t been accompanied by similar cultural and innovation policies: there’s an opportunity here to further explore. The dissemination of Indigenous Peoples and traditional knowledge, advancements within Western sciences and the challenges imposed by large-scale environmental issues have defied the values, actions and consequences of past, well established practices, while improving our ability to understand our ecosystems and how to work with them more beneficially - for the benefit of all, humans and more than humans; direct and indirectly, on land and on sea. The cultivation of a human-nature bond addresses our current climate emergency and seeks a long-term improvement of life on this planet. Cultural manifestations, beyond the creation of innovation, beauty and harmony are key to provide these meaningful connections through artefacts, rituals and processes in themselves.


Throughout human history, cities have been drivers of change, and for the flourishing of our oceans and communities, we need an integrated view of these ecosystems. Beyond the global scale of action, coastal cities present a valuable place for that to happen.


On our human life scale, the quality of our relationships has been established as a benchmark to a healthy life. Expanding that relational framework beyond our species, into more than humans and nature, might increase our tangible and intangible well-being, and provide a much-needed source of meaning and resilience for the challenges ahead.

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