Urban Nature

“Seeing nature in the city is only a matter of perception”- Anne Spirn. The Granite Garden.

At least since the turn of the century, attention to nature in cities is increasing – from Transition Towns to green design, from Edgelands to Field Notes from a Hidden City.

An unofficial green area - a roadside bench

An unofficial green area – a roadside bench

There’s also wealth of research on the benefits of urban nature and even, which surprised and delighted me, research that suggests committed urbanites may actually prefer urban nature to more traditional nature.

An extensive study from the late 1980s, conducted by Jacquelin Burgess et al, found that so-called “unofficial green areas”, such as the greenery separating sidewalks from roads, and other strips of green – is valued more than “official” green spaces such as parks or the countryside (460). The subjects in this study valued urban nature particularly for its being urban nature, not just as a remnant or echo of some kind of ideal, or unspoilt, nature that has been lost. Rather, these public open spaces were important to them because “they have the potential to enhance those positive qualities of urban life: variety of opportunities and physical settings; sociability and cultural diversity” (471).

A lot of current nature writing is about, as Anne Spirn suggests, simply seeing nature in the city. In Edgelands Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts describe precisely those in-between spaces – often urbanized – that form a kind of no-man’s land between the countryside and the city. While some of their chapters – on sewage plants for instance – relate specifically to spaces outside of cities, others – such as the chapter on wastelands – are recognizable urban spaces. Only if we see them, and develop a language to describe them, can these spaces truly be valued, Farley and Symmons Roberts argue. A similar point is made in a great guestpost by Naomi Racz on the Center for Humans and Nature Blog. In “On the Benefit of Monomania” she refers to Robert Macfarlane’s advice to “become a monomaniac”, and study one thing, one species, one stretch of river, to hone the skills of the nature writer. Such monomania, Racz argues, is particularly needed in the city:

In a way, the city demands this of us. Despite the terms used to describe cities—sprawl comes to mind—they often draw us in on a much smaller scale. The weed growing through a crack in the pavement has become something of a cliché, but it does suggest an important point about nature in the city and our attachment to the cities we live in.

Indeed, in cities, nature is often not that which immediately draws attention, unless we explicitly look out for it. There’s so much going, so much sound, so many people, so many impressions, that we may easily get caught up in the social swirl, without looking up at the sky and the trees, or paying attention to the changing seasons.

Urban nature - Berlin

Urban nature – Berlin

Yet promoting this kind of dedicated searching for nature in the cities may – and has – also led to charges that urban nature is too fragmented to enable “real” nature experience, whatever that may be. One of ecocriticism’s founding fathers, Lawrence Buell, for instance, clearly struggles with urban nature in his work. Although he does discuss it obliquely – in The Future of Environmental Criticism, for instance – he repeatedly comes to the conclusion that urban nature is somehow “lesser” than the non-urban kind. A particularly explicit example of the bias some ecocritics hold towards urban nature is an article by Lee Rozelle, in which he claims that “the terms urban and ecology, when placed together, seem a most dangerous oxymoron; to make such easy semantic fusions, however intriguing the academic result, leaves the door open for the referent – voiceless nature – to become critically restricted” (109). According to some ecocritics – and no doubt, other environmentalists as well – discussing urban nature may lead to silencing already ‘voiceless’ nature. Of course, anyone who wakes early around this time of year will hear that even in the city, nature is anything but ‘voiceless’, as birds announce the coming of a new day, and spring, with gusto.

The true challenge, then, is not so much to just see urban nature, but to see urban nature as a unique kind of nature. All too often, nature in cities is interpreted as signifying “absence” – to use the term John Tallmadge employs in The Cincinnati Arch. And it is indeed all too easy to interpret urban nature in terms of traditional nature: the beautiful urban garden reminiscent of a slice of the countryside, the secluded corner of a park that reminds us of the peace and quiet of wilder, and quieter, places away from the city. But in order to truly see nature in the city, we need a language and imagery to describe nature that is uniquely urban.

Urban nature - Leuven

Urban nature – Leuven

One of the best examples of such urban nature is the urban wasteland – celebrated by Farley and Symmons Roberts as being “incredibly biodiverse and locally rich in species that find an ecological niche, and opportunity” (145). Melissa Harrison’s novel Clay includes a number of beautiful passages on such a wasteland. It is a typically urban space, that merges the nonhuman natural and man-made. To the young boy who discovers it, it doesn’t matter that there are “unnatural” elements in it: the roof tiles, buckets and coils of wire sticking out of the ivy weren’t litter. Instead, “he could tell it had all been here for ages, and was part of the place, somehow” (147).

Seeing urban nature, then, is just the first step – recognizing its imaginative power to connect us to more than ourselves, particularly in a time of climate change and increased urbanization, is the next.

***

I explore this topic in more detail in two articles: “Wastelands, Shrubs and Parks: Ecocriticism and the Challenge of the Urban” (Frame 26.2 [November 2013]), and in “Re-Approaching Urban Nature: Ecocritical Readings of Contemporary Humanized Landscapes”, forthcoming in Alluvium.

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11 thoughts on “Urban Nature

  1. plethiproject says:

    Astrid,

    As I’m an integrativist at heart I don’t find it easy to partition humanity and its cultural artefacts from nature. It’s all made from the same stuff; the stuff that stars are made from. As of yesterday we know that this stuff is made mutable by the gravitational energy pulses from the Big Bang.

    I also find the idea of an Edgeland difficult as its not always clear what constitutes the Edge of What and Where. I know of a number of Squeezelands; Springfield Wood in Gresford, Wrexham is an ancient woodland that has not yet been (e)liminated by the expressway and railway-lines that provide harsh edges a few hundred metres each side of this beautiful place. There are also ‘micro-wildnesses’. As an example I live in an urban area. An early purple orchid grew in our neighbours gravel driveway a few years ago and returns each year. Is it nature or urban nature?

    There is danger when Nature is rendered Sublime (in the Wordsworthian sense); we make the Cartesian error of objectifying it and alienating ourselves.

    David

  2. astridbracke says:

    Thank you for your comment, David! You’re right, dualism is not a particularly helpful way of looking at the world, yet it also often seems to me as if we as yet lack the language to talk in another way about our environment. And often terms such as edgelands can be helpful to help us see that which we have not seen, let alone, appreciated before – although, as you say, what is an edgeland actually, and what is not? I love the term Squeezelands by the way!

    Thanks again,

    Astrid

  3. Naomi Racz says:

    Thanks for the mention! Really enjoyed your post – I always end up with more books to add to my to-read lists when I read you blog!

    Appreciating urban nature definitely requires a shift in “seeing” – it is a shift that has taken me some time and it is still something I struggle with. Just the other day I saw a Kingfisher whilst out for a walk by a canal – it is a bird I’ve long wanted to see – I think I actually said “wow” out loud as I stood at the edge of the cycle path watching it through my binoculars. Even a few years ago I don’t think I would have noticed the Kingfisher, now I carry binoculars around with me everywhere! I’m much more keyed in to nature in the city now and I find the experience of urban nature to be every bit as real and valuable as time spent in the countryside.

    • astridbracke says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Kingfishers are remarkable, I think, and so unexpected when you see them, particularly in places where you don’t initially expect them. I had a similar experience a few years ago and felt the same sense of ‘wow’ as you did.

      Astrid

  4. plethiproject says:

    Astrid,

    I found the BBC page about Marion Shoard on Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ that Stephen mentioned but the links out don’t work too well; http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed_20030205.shtml

    The idea of being more attentive, as Naomi says, is so useful in this and I use a set of questions to get me in a more mindful/ centred/ attentive place. I look out for the energy (potentials for change), motion (direction and time) and friction (helpful or resisting elements) in an environment. It works as a way of thinking about human interaction too. It’s a bit Heideggerian but if you just ‘be’ in an environment more becomes apparent.

    It might be useful to see the cultural/natural interface (though as an integretivist I feel uncomfortable with that binary) not as a series of places; i.e. this is urban, industrial, rural, wild, protected landscape but as layers. In some places the impact of human culture will be very dense and others where it is thin and easily erode-able. On by-passed and abandoned roads plants break up the road surface and layer over that human desire track.

    David

    • astridbracke says:

      Thanks for the link, David! The idea of ‘layers’ does indeed seem to be more useful and helpful in looking at environments than binaries. Urban political ecologists talk about ‘processes’ that shape landscapes and that have different socio-political, economic, cultural, ecological etc dimensions. I find that quite a useful way of thinking about the ways in which spaces are never one thing or another, but function as intersections or nodal points – or even palimpsests – with different dimensions.

      I like your questions by the way – what a good way of making a focusing effort at seeing.

      Astrid

      • plethiproject says:

        Astrid,

        The questions are part of a ‘generative thinking framework’ I’m doing some academic writing on. It is a way of encouraging stillness so that space is made to promote closer attention and/ or trigger creativity. Attention, Creativity and Change are different viewpoints on the same thing!

        I like the way of thinking about space when it isn’t clear what it is. I’d borrowed a phrase from statistics to help me understand it; ghost-edge. The idea and image of spaces being a palimpsest is a very useful share indeed. Thank you!

        We should do a cross North Sea collaboration!

        David

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