Imagining an Urban Nature Agenda

Thoughts on how overcoming the divide between nature and human activity requires a more in depth view of nature in the city.

Imagining an Urban Nature Agenda

Urban nature advocacy lies at the heart of an emerging urban environmentalism that has the capacity to overcome the classic and debilitating divide between nature and human activity that causes environmentalists to assume a defensive posture.

It may seem difficult to advocate for "saving" urban nature, since urban environments are so often degraded and therefore have to be renewed and reconstructed as a new type of nature. Through this process of renewal, urban nature advocacy is most strengthened through a connection to place.

Los Angeles, along with its global city counterparts, needs an urban nature agenda. On the one hand, it seems obvious, even a non-sequitor, to assert the need for such an agenda, particularly in a place like Los Angeles long derided as nature's implacable enemy. Yet Los Angeles is also a place rich in nature's amenities — the ocean, mountains, diverse habitat and eco-systems, a Mediterranean climate. It has become a place where reinvention, while difficult, also seems possible — and critical to movements for social change. Such an agenda therefore requires a more expansive view of nature in the city as constituting part of the material world in its urban form.

When I first considered writing this book, I knew that I wanted to focus on the Los Angeles River and the recent initiatives to "re-envision the river" and the communities that surround it. I broached the idea with my editor at MIT Press, Clay Morgan, while we waited to be seated at Juniors delicatessen, a well-known Los Angeles gathering place. A man, perhaps in his seventies, who was seated next to us in the waiting area, overheard the discussion and began to tell us his stories about where he had caught tadpoles by the river's edge. His stories were a bit vague but the nostalgia was striking, and not unusual. Part of the power of the efforts to intervene around the L.A. River, to restore it or at least to modify its current state as concrete channel, has been the power of nostalgia, the desire to undo the continuous sense of loss in relation to urban nature.

A common use of the term nostalgia often situates it in negative terms – "a perversion of historical or biographical truth for the sake of cheap or gratuitous feelings" which could also be applied to this presumed loss of nature. But Fraser Harrison argues that the word's actual etymology — the Greek word nostos meaning "return home" and algos meaning "pain" — provides a deeper and potentially liberating desire for reconnection. The nostalgia factor also suggests that the experience and loss of nature in the city is connected to a sense of place. How one sees a loss — or a connection — to nature is dependent on how one experiences the material world itself, whether planting a garden in the city or hiking in the nearby mountains, or by imagining the polar bears in Alaska drowning due to a change in temperature from global warming. While the nostalgia for nature may reflect a sense of loss that incapacitates, it can also, as has happened with the L.A. River, stimulate the desire for change and an agenda of renewal.

An urban nature agenda seeks to identify opportunities that may appear small in scale yet are representative of a larger shift in how we perceive the urban landscape. A tree in a parking lot becomes a step in the direction of reducing parking's big footprint while beginning the task of establishing a treescape in the city that can have powerful implications for livability. A pocket park or community garden in one neighborhood can become part of a process of reclaiming urban land otherwise abandoned or degraded. This might entail a median strip on Broadway in New York City where corn and beans are grown. It could include a trash strewn property along the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles where a 14-acre garden becomes an immigrant farm and ultimately a new type of urban plaza. And it could even include alleyways turned into greenspace and gathering places. But an urban nature agenda also needs to seek big changes, suggesting a larger goal of transformation. Re-envisioning the Los Angeles River, now a common point of reference for both policymakers and activists, is one such transformative goal. A River re-envisioned and reconstructed is tied directly to core issues of landscape and land use and how the connection to greenspace is valued in an urban setting like Los Angeles and its pervasive urban hardscape.

While urban nature advocacy for such goals as more parks and green space, community gardens and farmers' markets, and trees and bike paths are a critical dimension of the struggles for a more livable city, they need to be seen as part and not distinct from an agenda of social change. Such a perspective asserts the need for community gardens and for affordable housing as well as community gardens that are part of affordable housing developments. It identifies the need for farmers' markets and for job-creating supermarkets and ethnic markets that can stock local foods, culturally appropriate foods, and fresh and affordable foods. And it seeks more sustainable parks and schools and housing and viable job-generating businesses that are part of a broader strategy of land use based on public goals for livability and for justice rather than land use that displaces and creates unaffordable places and no green space and overcrowded schools and unsustainable jobs based on the imperatives of globalization.

The most compelling arguments of the urban environmentalists often turn out to be about justice and equity linked to issues of place. In this way, an environmental justice movement can situate its arguments as the environmental dimension of social justice advocacy. To do so helps establish Bruno Latour's notion of a political ecology that incorporates the human and nonhuman and provides a direct route for environmentalism, building on its links to social justice movements, to engage in the struggles regarding the material world we inhabit and seek to transform.


This essay is adapted from Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (2007, The MIT Press).