Photograph © Ted Wood/The Water Desk
A review of Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space by Matthew Gandy.
By Anjulie Rao
There are more than 30,000 vacant lots in the city of Chicago—remnants of urban renewal’s disastrous execution and disinvestment. Where buildings once stood, acres of new life have emerged. Many of those empty lots have become overgrown—small prairies where remnants of building foundations peek out from plots of seeding grasses; thick, tender lamb’s-quarter; and purple flowering chicory. The lots are home to rats, skunks, raccoons, and the occasional possum. Chicago, like many postindustrial cities, grapples with how to develop these spaces, calling them wastelands.
Matthew Gandy, a professor of cultural and historical geography at King’s College in London, disagrees with that characterization. These seemingly unproductive lots are rich with life. His new book, Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space, complicates vacant and postindustrial spaces through explorations of biodiversity in urban nature. Gandy carefully dissects the social and political roles nature plays within cities. He makes a case for wildness, seeing it as a remedy for the at times violent control municipalities and landscape professionals enact on the land while seeking to beautify, remediate, or develop vacant spaces. Tracing layers of cultural, philosophical, and social discourses about urban nature, the book prompts those working in the fields of ecology and landscapes to reconsider how we speak about and engage and interface with untamed urban spaces and their inhabitants.
Gandy structures Natura Urbana as a network of ideas, not a rote series of informational arcs. Each chapter creates the “constellations” suggested by title. These stories and ideas paint a broader portrait of urban plant and nonhuman animal life. The book is, at times, tedious; rarely are conclusions drawn, but instead questions are posed that prompt the reader to think critically about their understandings of urban nature. Invoking the work of artists and filmmakers is particularly crucial throughout the book; Gandy sees artistic interventions as key to thinking beyond one’s landscape practice to better engage with complicated subtleties. Chapters are laced with a pair of core tensions that reappear throughout the text: a tension between control of natural urban spaces and terrain vague—uncultivated spaces that contain enormous biodiversity—and a tension between human and nonhuman perspectives of nature. Gandy emphasizes a “multiperspectival” theory of urban landscapes to better include the viewpoints of nonhuman animal and plant life.
The latter tension is introduced in the chapter “Zoöpolis Redux” (named after the geographer Jennifer Wolch’s 1996 essay, “Zoöpolis”), in which Gandy theorizes through the lessons of animal presences in urban stockyards and their effects on public health. He looks at historical efforts to control predatory species and the evolutionary changes to animal behaviors and physical traits required to adapt to urban spaces. While rats, disease, and slaughterhouses might seem like less-than-ideal examples on which to build a case for nonhuman others, Gandy is making an argument about empathy.
“The existence of empathy between species rests on a diversity of ethical relations and kinship bonds that develop among humans and nonhuman others,” he writes. Paraphrasing Wolch’s work, the act of “renaturalization”—recovering lost urban nature through cultivation processes—can yield what she calls “reenchantment.” Or, as Gandy writes, an “emphasis on expanding the imaginative scope of encounters with other-than-human nature, including a variety of objects and material artifacts that are routinely ignored or overlooked.” He references Nicolette Krebitz’s 2016 film Wild, in which a woman domesticates a wild wolf by trapping and subduing it. Ultimately, however, it is she who becomes more feral as she lives alongside the wolf—a metaphor for how reenchantment doesn’t alter only our daily lives, but ourselves.
Gandy presents reenchantment as a vital building block toward empathy with nonhuman others. It serves as a point of tension between the concepts of wildness and maintenance: We carefully plant flowers in our cultivated gardens to attract wild honeybees, but we enact ordinances on vacant property that require we mow wild plant life that might house “pests.” But experiencing the presence of wild animals—those pests—within a city sparks a type of curiosity or concern about that animal’s own kingdom: Where does that skunk spend its day? Is the coyote eating feral cats? Human delight, curiosity, scientific study, and sensory experiences fostered by untamed urban nature subvert the value judgments (“unproductive” or “wasted” space) that have driven landscapes for generations. I often think of David Sedaris’s essay “Untamed,” which documents his relationship with Carol, a neighborly fox; or the recent interest in TikTok accounts dedicated to urban foraging—within “wild” urban nature we can experience discovery and delight. Gandy expands upon empathy with nonhuman others as an experience not only present within academic theory, but in the everyday lives of urban residents.
“A focus on spontaneous forms of urban nature transcends the merely speculative or utilitarian potentialities of ostensibly empty spaces. By regarding nature differently, in both cultural and scientific terms, a set of counterdiscourses can be articulated that question the perverse emphasis on wastelands as sites simply awaiting erasure and redevelopment,” he writes in the chapter “Marginalia.” Indeed, Gandy asserts that the terminologies used to talk about urban nature in postindustrial cities are insufficient and reinforce a human-first perspective. He swaps terms like “wasteland” and “brownfield” for “edgelands” and “terrain vague” to better recognize the rich biodiversity in these spaces and invoke the aesthetics and sensory components of undesigned landscapes.
Controlled landscapes exist across an aesthetic spectrum, with neatly mowed lawns on the most contained side and untamed landscapes that require human interventions, such as Berlin’s Park am Gleisdreieck, on the other. (Gandy notes that the wild urban nature park employs people to pick up garbage and uses covert sprinklers.) In between are landscapes that create a simulacrum of control. Gandy uses the High Line as an example of postindustrial wastelands that “have been transformed into spaces of leisure.” The varying levels of wildness, often defined by cultural or economic value, provide urban commons, opportunities to uncover human cultures, and an aesthetic outside of a bourgeois relationship to nature in cities.
Until recently, the aesthetics of undesigned nature elicited unease among the general public, bureaucrats, and some landscape professionals; after all, these spaces don’t conform to the typical consumption–recreation uses found in cultivated urban nature such as neoromanticist parks and formal gardens (again, a symptom of human-first perspectives). But that uneasiness is a central component of experiencing enchantment: Untamed or spontaneous eruptions of urban nature open doors to new possibilities for how we might feel, what we might find in those undesigned places, and how we might behave there. Gandy suggests that embracing unease—leaning into more uncomfortable sentiments of enchantment—leads to considering how we might build an inclusive ecological community in that wild space. Unmanicured urban nature holds the potential to challenge not just normative economies or production, but also the histories of identity and belonging that the landscape profession often ignores.
Identity is addressed in the chapter “Ecologies of Difference,” in which Gandy begins to connect points of ecological study with histories of identity-based exclusion. Beginning in Berlin, he tracks how ecologists’ interests in “distinctively German landscapes” arose alongside the Nazi party. “By the 1930s,” he writes, “taxonomic distinctions between different vegetation patterns became increasingly regarded as the innate expression of regionally specific human cultures, and the ideological preoccupation with boundaries acquired an increasingly geopolitical edge.”
Although this practice died out after World War II, Berlin’s postwar ruins were engulfed by new plant life, yielding a new type of ecological consideration: the Multikulti. The term, he writes, was used in a 1972 documentary of Berlin’s Teufelsberg, “an artificial hill comprised of wartime rubble” that was known for its unique flora of global origins. Multikulti describes the multicultural biotrope that “conflicts with conceptions of German identity as relatively homogeneous, place-bound, and linguistically circumscribed.” Though Gandy argues that the early emergence of the Multikulti that emphasized issues of race and citizenship has devolved into empty celebration of “difference” expressed through food and festivals, the core takeaway here is that the cosmopolitan landscape sits opposite the ideologies of heterogeneity and assimilation—two tenets of colonization.
Colonization plays a significant role throughout the book, especially as an exclusionary force in urban landscapes. Gandy takes special care to discuss the role of whiteness in the natural historical archives and in urban environmental discourse. Because undesigned landscapes represent cosmopolitan urban ecologies, they could potentially point to a “postcolonial political sensibility.” Nonnative plants arrive on a particular site due to human and nonhuman migration, conflict, and travel—and, as with prewar German practices, their presences can signify landscapes of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. As humans emigrate and resettle outside their native lands, so will the plant life that they bring—as familiar food to cultivate or as stowaways. Race, then, becomes a critical framing for cosmopolitan landscapes.
Race is a crucial intersection in the controlled versus cosmopolitan landscape, which we observed in 2020 when a Black bird-watcher in Central Park became a focus of national attention after a white woman telephoned the police when he requested that she leash her dog. In postindustrial American cities, its presence is felt when access to green space for Black residents comes in the form of vacant land, not parks.
On Chicago’s predominantly Black West Side, residents are sometimes blamed for not adequately caring for local parks and green spaces while being valorized for tending the gardens they plant on vacant lots that supply fresh produce in the tradition of pre-Great Migration farming. In the chapter 3 section “Black Ecologies,” Gandy suggests that these “diasporic spaces of memory that unsettle dominant cultural and environmental narratives” constitute a more pluralized ecological study, one that allows us to question issues of race and racism in the broader field. Again, it is the moments of unsettling or uneasiness that serve to provoke change.
Gandy uses the chapter to point to Black presence as out of place among white American and European cities. Although he cites the geographer Carolyn Finney and the concept of “double essentialization” (nonwhite people are often cast as disinterested in nature, while also associated with rural labor) in minority presences among the largely white-dominated landscape field, Gandy’s discussion of “othering” of racialized peoples in urban ecologies is a short section—almost too short considering the current wave of discourse surrounding the need for equity in the profession.
Particularly in the Global North, where nonwhite peoples are othered alongside cosmopolitan urban environments, there is an urgency to dig deeper into parallel marginalizations. Although Gandy dedicates the next chapter to “Forensic Ecologies”—a horizontal field that blurs science, citizenship, and data collection, presenting myriad examples of how everyday citizens’ actions intersect with state- or nonprofit-led land-clearance initiatives—what is missing in Natura Urbana is a discussion of the overlapping elements of “othering” in the case of grassroots efforts toward environmental justice. It’s well-documented that nonwhite neighborhoods are more often subject to environmental degradation, leading to destruction of biodiversity and low-quality human life. But instead of performing an analysis of how the other—both in race and in credential—can overlap to build environmental justice movements, Gandy again returns to empathy and environmental justice for nonhuman species. He revives the discussion of folding human and nonhuman perspectives into a posthuman protection that rearticulates the multiperspective tension from “Zoöpolis Redux” but overlooks grassroots minority groups who work as advocates for biodiverse and healthy environments.
It’s important to note that Natura Urbana is not an instruction manual or overbearing critique of landscape practices; much is left to be said in an intersectional analysis of race and marginalized spaces. But the conclusions drawn from the incredible research presented here feel less complicated than Gandy’s provocations: Urban terrain vague is an opportunity, not for bureaucrats or those who might call Chicago’s 30,000 empty lots “wastelands,” but for those looking to exercise their curiosity, for those seeking delight through a new genre of landscape aesthetics, for amateur botanists or beekeepers or bird-watchers. Cosmopolitanism isn’t just a function of cultural institutions or diversity, but the ways our environments intersect with socioecology. A city is the product of many living things: human, rat, flea, and chicory. Through Gandy’s lens, it’s all a part of an ecosystem of enchantment.
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based critic and journalist covering the built environment.
Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space, by Matthew Gandy; Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2022; 432 pages, $30.
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