Image: urban nature from palo's Flickr PhotoStream

There has been a resurgence of interest in the need for more green space in our cities.  Being near nature lifts the mood, and there is hard evidence of the positive mental health effects of time spent with nature.  However, as sociologist Des Fitzgerald recently argued, the relations between nature and the urban mind may not be straightforward.

Des Fitzgerald’s BBC essay ‘A City is not a Park’ explored the ways in which place affects wellbeing: how frantic cities jangle the nerves, and calming architecture and visible plant life heal.   There is an enduring idea, he argues, of ‘biophilia’, an inherent orientation to being with the natural world, that informs healthy urban planning; yet these concepts also encapsulate a modernist notion of anxiety about the city itself.  This assumes that the city is opposed to nature, and makes the city the reservoir of all pathology.  His critique of ‘urban nature’ is that the veneration of the ‘park’,  a managed, artificial space, ignores the complexities of how mind and environment are entangled, and that holding nature up as the answer to urban ills leaves the social meanings of nature – and their divisions – under-explored.

Fitzgerald’s essay certainly echoed findings from studies of how urban citizens relate to green space.  Some years ago, when exploring the health effects of new community forests, we looked at the meaning of nature for those in reach of Thames Chase Community Forest, which aimed to extend access to green space on the eastern fringes of London.  Both local residents and environmental professionals widely subscribed to the common sense idea that being in nature was ‘good for you’. But the idea of ‘nature’ was also used to make nostalgic contrasts between contemporary life and a romanticised past, and to make moral claims about ‘the good life’: a morally loaded preference for spending time in the open air rather than indoors, for instance.  The meanings of ‘green’, ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ were elusive.  Although seemingly straightforward, consensus soon evaporated when trying to pin down what green space was properly ‘for’. Tensions arose on whether a football pitch was a proper use of natural space, whether cyclists should be allowed to use particular paths, and whether a café, barbeque area or other attractions should be established to encourage local families to use the space.  Our study found social divisions cutting across debates around the use of space.   Using parks, open land or forests did not just afford affective pleasures  – it also signalled class distinctions, which denigrated some uses of space (for entertainment, or noisy pleasure) and venerated others.

Nature is neither timeless, nor separable from the city.  It is both made by, and makes, our urban environments.  Plant and animal species urbanise alongside their human co-residents. The London pigeon,  the White Ibis ‘bin chicken’  of Sydney, and the red fox which has made itself at home in all cities of the UK, have become successful city dwellers, and different creatures from their country cousins.  The New Scientist report on urban foxes suggested they were good for human health: keeping the rats down and providing a “wildlife experience for nature-deprived city dwellers”.  Other species that have prospered in the city are less likely to be hailed as welcome wild-life experiences:  last summer saw one of London’s periodic panics about the hazards of public transport, as the existence of bed bugs on the tube hit the news following a heat wave.  Nature is not inevitably good for wellbeing.

We may rank other species in terms of their likely impacts on human health, but there is not necessarily a consensus about that hierarchy.   Pigeons, for example, are frequently vilified, but also defended as bringing biodiversity.  Indeed urban citizens are frequently deeply divided on the proper relations with other species.  We cannot agree on which ones to eat, which ones to treat as companions, which to exterminate, and which to encourage for their salutogenic effects.  When we asked attendees at an event in London what helped and what hindered health in the city, there was broad agreement on the stressors (transport, austerity, crowds), and what kept people healthy (relaxation, physical activity, parks), but one thing deeply divided people: dogs off leads.

Our neuroses about urban living get written onto our non-human co-residents, as nature becomes a mirror for examining our relations with each other and the city. In Australia, The Conversation reports anti-and pro-White Ibis sentiments, as the scavenger is anthropomorphised, becoming an Australian animal totem:  positioned as abject and symbolic of urban decline, but also as a tenacious survivor of environmental degradation.    Narratives of migration, indigeneity, and the alien often frame discussions of which species are welcome and which not.  Urban ecologist Daniel Phillips notes the distaste of spontaneous vegetation (weeds) and the overly managed approach to much urban green space.  ‘Exotic’ species, for instance, are problematised as pushing out native plant-life in what he calls a ‘green xenophobia’ .  Yet what is needed, he argues, is a genuinely ‘urban’ environmentalism, which avoids the romanticism of a ‘native’ nature, and instead works with and learns from the feral ecologies that emerge in our urban environments.

There is, then, nothing inevitable about what urban nature means to the human city dweller or their wellbeing.  Dogs, pigeons or pigs might be food, health risks, or beloved companions.  Looking at trees can foster wellbeing, but the pollen can exacerbate asthma and their roots can make pavements inaccessible to wheelchairs.  There may be good evidence that green space improves health, but debates about how that green space is used, and who can access it, highlight class and other social divisions.  Those divisions become written on to discourses about nature.  Calls such as those of London’s Mayor for urban greening are to be welcomed, as steps towards greater wellbeing, sustainability and improving the public realm.  But we need to remain open to many different visions of ‘green’ cities,  and to the complex and sometimes contradictory relations they have with urban wellbeing.  Nature cannot be separated from, or added to, the city in any simple way: nature and the city co-create each other, in constantly evolving and entwined ecologies.