Urbane Ecology

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

IN THE LATE 1980S, I was working as an environmental educator in a north London borough. While some of the borough’s schools came to me for advice on creating gardens with the native plants they had been told were “better” for wildlife, others wanted advice on how teachers and parents might select plant species from the diverse countries of origin of pupils in the school. These gardens were in effect cultural inscriptions on the school landscape, places that said something about how both humans and nature in cities are increasingly different, diverse, and cosmopolitan—and are welcome.

It was also an illustration of how messy and contested the concept of nature had become. A few years earlier, the parks department of the city of Bristol, in southwest England, was persuaded by the local Wildlife Trust to develop wildflower meadows in city parks, which, like most parks, were dominated by hardy, close-mown, multipurpose ryegrass. The parks department obliged, applying an appropriate management regimen, and within a few seasons had beautiful native wildflower swards—replete with a rich fauna—reaching high into the sky. The Wildlife Trust liked it, and most of the public liked it, except for the local Asian and African-Caribbean population, members of which refused to go near the long grass. Why was this? It was due to a residual fear of snakes in such thick, tangled environments.

In San Diego, California, in response to the clarion call from alternative food movement advocates to buy and grow local, Filipino immigrants recently declared that they see their food as local food. They cook it at home and eat it in local restaurants. By defending their food choices, they are declaring an allegiance not to localism, exactly, but to what might be called “translocalism,” which is also in evidence when they cultivate their fruit and vegetable gardens in city neighborhoods. Meanwhile Latin American immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts, are busy transforming public spaces into landscapes similar to those found in their home countries. One group has adopted Herter Park, on the Charles River in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood, because it reminds them of the riverbanks and the willow trees they left behind in Guatemala.

These anecdotes are important because they challenge the dominant, often expert-imposed notion of nature, which has its roots in the Enlightenment and in transcendentalism, and sees nature as separate from humans. But a different notion is emerging, one that has its origins in biology and in cultural and environmental geography. It sees nature as what is present, as a thing both fluid and cosmopolitan. It recognizes that increasing difference and diversity in our cities means different and diverse constructions of nature. It asks that we think about, design, and manage spaces that have meaning and authenticity for people of all kinds.

By 2042 the population of U.S. metropolitan areas will be comprised predominantly of people of color, with immigrants making up a large portion of that population. Municipal planners, parks managers, and landscape designers should take note.



  1. I applaud these concepts up to a point – but these are the same ideas that brought starlings, house sparrows, and numerous invasive plants to this country, creating effects on native ecosystems that are devastating, irreversible, and costly.

  2. I believe that the essential point of Mr. Agyelman’s writing is that the commonly accepted definition of “nature” comes out of the Enlightenment and has at its core to contention that humans stand separate from “nature” rather than dwelling within it. This leads to the concept of human stewardship over nature. Franciscans will be quick to point out that their view of the relationship between humans and nature is one of fraternity, as humans existing as part of nature.

    Adopting the Franciscan view transforms how environmental activists necessarily approach their activism. Given how poorly the environmental movement has embraced voices other than those of economically privileged white men, a monoculture, if you will, there needs to be a radical change if we are to begin to address the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.

  3. I appreciate the author’s remarks recognizing the cultural and political debates over nature in cosmopolitan cities. Multicultural sensitivity helps shine a different light on the meaning of ecological services, habitat, open space, parks, community gardens, native versus invasive species, and the like.

    Unlike the other commenters, however, I hear something far more troubling in the author’s reading of nature as simply “what is present”.

    Assuming I’m interpreting this right, the author is articulating a perspective rooted in what is called “social nature”. This is a marxian outlook that began to dominate social theories about nature and society in geography during the 1990s, and then jumped into both radical and neoliberal perspectives on sustainability and development. Its trendy in the social sciences today, along with a companion offshoot termed new conservation in the natural sciences.

    Social nature is characterized by a breathless anthropocentrism, moral relativism, and social reductionism. The focus of moral and practical concern is myopically human, moral responsibilities to other animals and the non-human world are brushed aside, and nature is reduced to social processes of politics and economic. “Fluid” nature becomes an excuse for manipulated the non-human world in anyway we like.

    All this is justified in the name of political power struggles on behalf of marginalized social groups. The social justice element is admirable, to be sure. Yet it is a impoverished notion of justice that gives no thought to other marginalized and often brutalized individuals and communities — the non-human animals and nature of our more-than-human world.

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