Book Review #1: The Natural City

The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment
Edited by Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper
University of Toronto Press, 2012


The Natural City explores, with particular attention to Toronto and its environs, the relationship between urban and so-called “natural” environments.  Structurally, it is a collection of eighteen essays, written by contributors whose areas of expertise include urban planning, environmental studies, philosophy, engineering, and theology.  Each essay uses a different perspective to explore an aspect of “nature” in cities.

Given my strong ties to heritage advocacy, the idea of nature and cities is one that I find quite interesting.  In Toronto, one often thinks of heritage as something which is limited to architecture (referred to as “built heritage”), but heritage is about all aspects of our shared cultural experiences, including natural elements.  Our notion of natural heritage is not limited to the elements of wilderness which pre-date European settlement, as evidenced by this heritage tree in Roncesvalles which is less than one hundred years old.

With all this in mind, I was hoping that The Natural City would include some good passages about the interconnectedness of built and natural heritage, and indeed, there are some excellent ideas to be found in this book.  Unfortunately, The Natural City also has some problems with it which make it difficult for me to recommend the book to others.

Many of the essays seem to be written in overly academic language.  It’s been seven years since I sat in a university classroom, and thus I don’t know what to do when confronted with this sentence, from the book’s first essay (by co-editor Ingrid Leman Stefanovic):

“Phenomenology has always aimed to avoid lapsing into a reified description of either a solipsistic subjective world or an apparently ‘objective’ reality that is said to subsist independently if interpretive structures of understanding.”

Here’s another sentence, taken from an essay by Robert Mugerauer:

“In fact, current research and reassessments in complexity theory, self-organization, phenomenology, and enactivist approaches to cognition correlate with Developmental System Theory (DST), constructivist interactionism, emergence, and co-evolution in their development of an epigenetic position, in contest with the performatist view (wherein development is understood to ‘be performed by genes’).”

The entire book is not this impenetrable, but there are considerable parts of The Natural City which go on like this.  And that’s too bad, because amongst these obtuse passages are some very interesting ideas (including many in Mugerauer’s own essay, which I otherwise quite enjoyed).

While I personally indulge in abstract thinking about what cities are and what nature actually is, I found the philosophy-themed essays – clustered together at the front of the book – the most difficult of all to make sense of.  These essays expect me to have a familiarity with concepts and vocabulary which, as a non-academic, I do not.  Anyone about to read The Natural City may want to skip over these, or to ease themselves into the book by reading essays out of sequence.

The last two essays in the book were, I think, my favourites.  Gaurav Kumar and Bryan W. Karney’s essay Natural Cities, Unnatural Energy? raises some fascinating points about energy and the difficulties that people today have in comprehending the scale of it use.  Sarah J. King and Ingrid Leman Stefanovic’s Children and Nature in the City describes a study in which Toronto children were observed interacting in a city park; of particular interest is the difference between what the children were observed to do and what the children made of their own experiences.  Other essays I particularly like are Richard Oddie’s regrettably brief essay on city sounds, and Trish Glazebrook’s Ecofeminist ‘Cityzenry.’ 

It is easy to dismiss my criticisms by saying that The Natural City is not aimed at me, but then, who is the intended audience?  It had a book launch at City Hall and was promoted on Metro Morning, suggesting that the editors hoped it would find its way to all interested Torontonians.  The objective of The Natural City seems to be to change or augment the reader’s perception of the relationship between cities and the natural environment, which is definitely something I want to read about.  And the back cover includes endorsements by David Miller and Jane Goodall, exactly the sort of people whose endorsements carry weight with me.  And yet I very nearly gave up on this book after fighting my way through the first three essays.

While some of the contributors define their unfamiliar vocabulary, many do not.  As such, I worry that this book may only be appreciated by a handful of people who are already engaged in the discussion.

The idea that civilization and nature are compatible and not competing ideologies is an important one, and one with nuances which I think are of growing interest to our society, and to Toronto in particular.  Reading about these subjects can help us change our whole way of thinking about nature and cities, and that doesn’t just mean looking at trees or putting stuff in the recycling bin.  Toronto has a tradition of seeing urbanization and nature as uneasy bedmates, a tradition which has included the burying of many of our rivershiding old farmhouses amid residential developments, and of course the perceived need for cottages away from the downtown bustle.

As our society continues to feel the effects of extreme specialization, however, I feel like it is more important than ever to take the excellent work being done by front-line academics, and to translate it into words that everyone else can understand.  The language used in much of this book suggests that the editors are not particularly interested in sharing their ideas with the general public, and I think this does their work a disservice.  Nearly every essay in The Natural City contains something which I think the average Torontonian can take on board and incorporate into how they understand their home city but I don’t know that, in this package, the rest of Toronto will get the opportunity to join in the discussion.


One thought on “Book Review #1: The Natural City

  1. One could quickly Google search some of the unfamiliar academic vocabulary, but those passages that you’ve quoted are densely filled with it. I agree that it’s an interesting and relevant subject matter. We need to better integrate nature into the city. Projects like the planned naturalization of the Don River through the Port Lands have a lot of potential. I wish we could daylight some of our lost rivers like Taddle Creek through the University of Toronto campus. I also think about the potential for our ravines to be better integrated into the fabric of the city in terms of built form rather than having the built form turn its back to the ravines. If some scheme could be thought up to bring the water’s edge back to Fort York, I’d be thrilled. That last possibility is less likely than ever given recent development, but maybe some canal system could be devised. This topic has many avenues of thought, both in terms how we plan the future of the old city and new communities.

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