Urban Goats

On a cool day in September 2010, a herd of goats suddenly appeared at SE 10th Avenue and Belmont, in Portland Oregon. Although one might see the occasional chicken in this moderately dense urban environment, the sight of this many goats was, too many, was extremely unexpected. A Portland collaboration calling themselves Free Association Design (F.A.D.) were responsible for this provisional use of idle land. Calling it an ‘opportunity in the void,’ F.A.D., aimed to explore space and systems through writing, experience and design methods. Although the project’s initial goal was to understand how to combine sustainable land maintenance, the synergistic effect the goats had upon the community was unexpected and intriguing. This example of ecological détournement intends to depict how a simple act can have a significant impact on the everyday lives of city inhabitants and their sense of place.

Photo by Scott Weber.

Photo by Scott Weber.

Once an underutilized void, the introduction of the goats made this ‘living field’ a vehicle to study a community’s reactions to insurgent public space. The researchers estimated they spoke to over 500 spectators who asked about the goats. Walkers stopping at the fence, motorists got out of their cars, bicyclists pulled over, all to watch the goats. People seemed to be mesmerized by this spontaneous and strange addition to the landscape. A nearby resident said, “I think one of the things that struck me was how starved people are for nature… and this is kind of like bringing nature to us (Hottle, 2010).” People aggressively pulled weeds out of the sidewalk cracks and perimeter to feed the goats. Others gave them their leftover food. These impulsive actions show that many urban dwellers felt compelled to interact with this place in a new way. Some people even begged the researchers to be allowed into the fenced enclosure. Some even try climbing the fence to play with the goats.

It has been hypothesized that humans have an essential urge to connect with the natural world (Wilson, 1986). This ‘love of living things’ is what E.O. Wilson has called biophilia. Wilson argues that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals (Louv, 2008, 43). This is a controversial theory, but a decade of research does reveal that people respond positively to natural views (Louv, 2008, 43). Furthermore, Yi Fu Tuan uses the term topophilia to describe the emotional bond between people and place. By virtue of possessing similar organs, humans share common traits in the way we perceive environments (Tuan, 1974, 4). Most humans start with a similar ‘toolbox’ of senses, but it is our experiences that develop our capacity to fully utilize our senses.

These theories can help us to understand why the goats on Belmont produced the effect they do. Urban spaces are often smoothed-over through commodification and control (Relph, 1987; Harvey, 1989) and what is lost in the process, is depth of sensory involvement. The goats, although behind a fence, provided this once uninteresting space with excitement and the possibility for unexpected urban encounters. People could watch the goats eat and play; they could pet their furry noses as they fed them grass; they could hear them bleat and smell their musty odor. As a whole, passersby were offered the opportunity to perceive with all their senses and interact directly with place. Towards the end of the four week experiment, locals were even showing signs of a sense of ownership, protection, and perhaps investment in the herd as they would come to visit and check in on the goats’ well being.

A final and perhaps lasting effect that the goats had upon the community was that their presence called attention to the previously unrecognized void in the landscape. A F.A.D. researcher said, “Now that the goats are gone, the lot has a very different feel and the void seems more palpable than before.” Many of the people who stopped by said that they didn’t even notice or see this vacant two-acres until the goats were there (F.A.D.). This organic ‘re-appropriation and animation of indeterminate space’ (Groth & Corijn, 2005, 503) exposed the empty space for what it was, a no-man’s land, a space void of social value, a space with greater potential and possibility to be used in new and creative ways. The experiment also engaged a wider public audience through the media and everyday conversation. The goats renewed the discursive instrumentality of public space as a forum for open discussion (Hou, 2010, 1).

Ecologically-based strategies of détournement gain their strength because they are not just acts of resistance against the presubscribed notions of space, but are also overlaid with the giving of the unexpected and playful natural gifts to society creating double transgression that rips through the fabric of the expected, not just ruptures norms, but creates new realities and social relations (Purves, 2005, 27). When the expected is seized with such generous gifts, spectators are forced to confront not just the direct subject of opposition (the alienating or dull urban environment), but also the structures that support such voids in the city. These tactics are a form of everyday creativity that punctuate daily experience; fleeting sensations which illuminate the possibilities of space (Lefebvre, 1991, 429; Crawford, 12, 1999). It is not just the creation of insurgent public space that is transformative. It is also the potential power of the symbolic message that these actions cultivate. They have the possibility to spur new ways of thinking about cities and our right to directly create everyday places that nourish our basic human needs, to grow, love, sense, connect, and live.

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