Magazine: Cities Series — 31.03.21
There Is No Line Between Where Nature Ends And The City Begins
Words ALICE GAWTHROP
In Western imagination, nature has traditionally existed as something separate to human society. There has been an ontological nature-culture divide, a harsh line between us and the natural environment. We think of the wilderness, the great outdoors – places that we can come and go from.
The city is, perhaps, symbolic of this divide. Cities are the ultimate liminal space, always in transition, always expanding like a ribcage on an inward breath. It is easy to get caught up in this forward movement, this artificial growth, and lose sight of the natural world that we think we’re leaving behind.
Growing up as a city child, in my own imagination, nature was always something we visited. We packed up my dad’s car, drove down busy motorways to beaches or forests or fields and at the end of the day we came home to the city. I would always be relieved to get back indoors, sheltered from the gross bugs and muddy, uneven paths.
I didn’t think the natural environment began until we got to the car park, got out of the car and changed out of our comfy shoes into our walking boots. With my eyes closed and my headphones on during the car ride, it was easy not to notice that the very motorways we drove on were running like threads through nature, unpickable.
With the rise of urban ecology as a field of study, there is a growing concern that urbanisation is isolating people from their natural surroundings, and that this will only worsen as cities continue to grow. We live our lives indoors for the most part. The nature we have access to is disrupted by buildings or roads or car parks. Our relationship with it is fractured. We think of nature as something that we can come home from and fail to recognise all the ways in which it is home.
I could never imagine wanting to leave the city until the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. Finding myself stuck in my house while all my university friends sent me pictures of their beach walks or picnics in nearby fields at sunset, I felt restricted by the metropolis around me.
Suddenly, I was looking for the natural world in places where previously the closest I’d gotten to it was in the houseplants I could never keep alive. And gradually, almost without noticing, I began to see that nature does not simply end where the city begins.
The neighbourhood that I live in was, a long time ago, a sprawling oak woodland. On a walk one day during lockdown, my sister told me that there is an Arthur Conan Doyle story where Sherlock Holmes goes to the Great North Wood to solve some mystery or other, and it is described as being in the middle of nowhere. We looked at the tightly packed houses and shops and restaurants and schools around us and laughed at the idea of ever describing this place as the middle of nowhere. But if you look closely, there are still pockets of those woods scattered around.
Just a five minute walk from my house, tucked away between the same streets I’ve walked a hundred times, there lie the remnants of this lost forest. The land has seen a lot. First it was oak woodland, then it was occupied by large houses, before those were knocked down and the gardens became overgrown, reclaimed by the nature we are always trying to outrun.
Now, the space is home to oak trees and sycamore trees and bug hotels and over 200 species of fungus. You can go for a walk in winter and nearly lose your shoe to the mud. You can come out covered in scratches from the bushes. But while you’re in there, you never forget that you are in the middle of a city. You can hear the nearby traffic, even if you can’t see it. You can see the remains of the old houses that used to be here. You can’t pretend that this is something separate, something other than the same old city you’ve always lived in. You have to come face-to-face with the fact that nature was here first, and it will always be here no matter how many houses we build and knock down and build again over it.
Rather than trying to build over nature, we should be trying to build with nature. Many studies have found a relationship between green space provision in cities and human health, both physical and mental. There is a strong case for more accessible green spaces within cities and more ways for people to engage with these. Access to nature for people in the city shouldn’t be restricted to those who have cars and the free time to drive somewhere for a countryside ramble. Everyone should be able to find a cared-for green space within walking distance. Incorporating nature into our daily lives, whether by going for walks or taking a more active role in conservation efforts, isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for us, too.
I am still pretty grossed out by bugs. I still can’t keep a houseplant alive for more than a couple of weeks. I am still a city girl through and through. But there is no reason that nature can’t be part of that. We can love our cities while remembering that they are part of a wider world and that they don’t stop being part of that world just because we can’t see it. If anything, we should be doing what we can to bring that world back to us through back gardens or parks or forests or lakes, for the good of the environment and for our own good, too.
If we look after nature, nature will look after us. There’s no reason why we can’t grow together.
Alice Gawthrop is a writer and student based in Birmingham, in the UK. Having studied English Literature at undergraduate level and currently undertaking a Masters in Social Research, she is interested in both environmental sociology and the capacity of creative storytelling to help tackle environmental issues. In her free time, she loves reading and taking unoriginal pictures of sunsets.
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