Nature in the City
Nature is overwhelmingly viewed as a public good in contemporary cities. Parks and green spaces are desirable forms of public space, and investments in them are understood to be important ways to show care for a neighborhood. Community gardening and greening efforts are motivated this belief; as a consequence, the presence of trees and parks increase urban property values. As consensus grows that urbanization and climate change are the twin processes shaping the twenty-first century, the ideal of the “green” or sustainable city has become the motivating image for contemporary urbanism. From Abu Dhabi’s smart, sustainable Masdar City to post-industrial brownfields, planners, architects, activists, and city governments are working with the tacit understanding that greener cities are better cities—both more hospitable and more sustainable.
But where, in John Berger’s words, did this “way of seeing” nature in the city come from? And how does a supposedly shared belief in nature’s universal moral value play out among diverse, differentiated urban publics? This reading list provides a brief introduction to the historical origins and contemporary politics of the widespread view of urban nature as a public good by tracing its intellectual and sociospatial origins. You can also find my take on the topic here.
The list begins with John Berger’s meditation on the subject. Next, it features three texts that show nature in the process of consolidating as a “good” in opposition to the city in the context of Euro-American industrial urbanism at the beginning of the twentieth century (Sinclair, Howard, Bender). It then moves through several classic historical-cultural works that have examined the “ways of seeing” nature that this history has produced (Green, Marx, Nash, Williams), and then into contemporary scholarship by geographers and social scientists that explores the political and social uses of nature enabled by this shared belief in nature as a “good” (Bell, Brewster and Bell, Krupar). It introduces several landmark books that deliberately destabilized these ways of seeing by telling urban histories as stories of “socionatural” entanglements (Cronon, Gandy, Kaika), and ends with contemporary pieces that examine the consequences of this view: “green gentrification,” as nature’s desirability in the city increases property values (Gould and Lewis); and two “landscapes of discontent” (Newman, Nelson) that illustrate—through uneven uses of public space—that nature is not as universally accessible and as free of social content as we might think.
[Image: Central Park via Wikimedia.]
Why Look At Animals?
Why indeed? A beautiful essay on changing views of animal nature in the modern era.
A classic muckraking novel that also illustrates the emergent romantic view of nature in relationship to the industrial city. (See Chapter 22 as Jurgis “escapes” urban labor and social relationships by fleeing to the countryside.)
The Garden Cities of To-Morrow
Howard’s treatise on garden cities as combining the best of town and country.
Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century America
University Press of Kentucky
In some ways a counterpoint to Howard and Sinclair; Bender shows the emergence of an “urban” vision in American manufacturing towns, and the role of nature and the landscape in shaping/tempering that view.
The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth-Century France
Manchester University Press
An important and under-read book.
The Country and the City
Oxford University Press
A beautiful critical cultural history of the city/nature opposition told through literature.
The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America
Oxford University Press
About the city in nature rather than nature in the city.
Wilderness and the American Mind
Yale University Press
Simply a classic on the “wilderness” idea in America.
Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village
University of Chicago Press
Not a self-consciously urban book, but a powerful ethnographic account of how people use nature to construct moral images of themselves.
The Environmental Goffman: Toward an Environmental Sociology of Everyday Life
Society & Natural Resources
An academic article on the sociology of being “out in nature.”
Hot Spotter's Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste
University of Minnesota Press
This book is part fable, part art, part scholarship. Explores how the romance of nature is used to cover histories of violence, militarization, and pollution at a national wildlife refuge.
Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
W. W. Norton
Perhaps the first major urban-environmental history, by a great scholar of nature (his “The Trouble with Wilderness” and Changes in the Land appear on other lists in this series).
Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City
Followed Cronon to tell a “socionatural” story of New York City.
City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City
A study of changing views of nature through technology in Athens.
Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice
The unintended consequences of the romance of nature in the city: “green gentrification,” or, how nature increases property values.
Landscape of Discontent: Urban Sustainability in Immigrant Paris
University of Minnesota Press
An anthropologist’s account of how urban public green spaces are sometimes less public than we might think.
Why Are Our Parks So White?
The New York Times
A journalist’s take on the same topic.