Blog Post

Urban Nature

Good story today in the New York Times on parks, new and old, in Manhattan (here's the link, reg. req'd).

City parks -- urban ecology -- is problematic for me. I'm not totally convinced that cities should have parks (yes, yes, you're yelling at me now: Central Park! Olmstead and Vaux! The Emerald Necklace! Golden Gate Park! Griffith Park! Just relax for a minute, cowboy).

Among many smart people, Anne Whiston Spirn at MIT and Richard T.T. Foreman at Harvard have both done some really nice thinking and writing about the role of landscape, ecology, and environmentalism in the built environment. Spirn's work on gardens and the usefulness of topological maps in understanding cities is a lot of fun; Foreman's recent work on the ecological effects of roadways will change the way you think about freeways and driving through Yellowstone (hint: don't).

But when I sat in on Foreman's landscape ecology class at Harvard a couple years ago I got into a lot of arguments. The nascent architects -- he teaches in the Graduate School of Design -- were smart, eager, and creative. But they never questioned the notion that maybe people want green space in their cities. To me, that feels like a murky blend of misguided greenism and the worst you-can-have-it-all multiuse demands of Jane Jacobs. People go to cities, I think, to work, to go to cafes, to get socialized (into art, culture, medicine), and to connect with other human beings in ways that living in a mildly suburban house in, let's just say, West Berkeley, might not otherwise allow. If you want nature, you leave the city.

Even the sainted Olmstead and Vaux weren't trying to build nature in town. They were trying to build something that would look very much like nature to a working-class city dweller, to chill the proles out and improve their moral character so they wouldn't revolt. That's the same thing Howard was worried about when he wrote about Garden Cities, but at least those got the chimney sweeps out to the 'burbs.

And even in a Mumford/Howard greenbelt, human beings have the annoying tendency to relate to nature by burning it down, razing it for crappy buildings, or pouring poison on it until it dies.

Maybe what we really need to be thinking about are ways to drastically minimize the ecological footprint of cities. The air above Mexico City used to be famed for its clarity; now the city's vapor plume sometimes extends all the way to the coast, perhaps even out over the Gulf of Mexico.

Natural space within the built landscape might be a machine for fixing those problems. Parks really can be the lungs of a city. But pretty as a park can be, we need to scrape off the wooly-headed spirituality that surrounds their construction. Nature is not here for people to enjoy or to make them into better human beings; it merely is. We're more likely to screw it up then we are to achieve Nirvana by sitting in a manicured acre's worth of it once a week at lunchtime.


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