Reading List

List Creator

Hillary Angelo

University of California, Santa Cruz

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.


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