Respect for Old Age and Dignity in Death: The Case of Urban Trees

Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand: 37, What If? What Next? Speculations on History’s Futures (2020)
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How can humanist principles of respect, dignity, and care inform and improve design for non-human lifeforms? This paper uses ageing and dying urban trees to understand how architectural, urban, and landscape design respond to nonhuman concerns. It draws on research in plant sciences, environmental history, ethics, environmental management, and urban design to ask: how can more-than-human ethics improve multispecies cohabitation in urban forests? The paper hypothesises that concepts of dignity and respect can underline the capabilities of nonhuman lifeforms and lead to improved designs for multispecies cohabitation. To investigate the implications of this ethical framework, we 1) indicate injustices of current management in relation to natural and cultural histories of trees; 2) outline a conceptual framework that includes large old trees as stakeholders in urban communities; and 3) use this framework in a thought experiment with urban trees in Melbourne, outlining comparative design outcomes. Our findings show that the expansion of dignity to include nonhuman life is possible and plausible. Such an extension can justify and encourage design innovation for multiple species and sites. The resulting design practices will lead to improvements by supporting communities of trees at all stages of their life-cycles, including old age, death, and rebirth. This approach requires substantial shifts in accepted thinking and practices including history, ethics, aesthetics, regulation, and education. Design can play a significant role in the necessary transitions by demonstrating tangible and positive outcomes. In this context, history emerges as an essential tool that can extend societal imagination by situating possible future places in the context of ancient and ongoing geological, evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes.

Author's Profile

Stanislav Roudavski
University of Melbourne


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