Sunday, September 2, 2007

Nature in the City: Reaction to Readings

Desfor & Keil’s chapter on making nature in the city offers a process-oriented overview of various approaches to city environmental planning, while Beatley takes a more accessible stand on these issues. The difference in these two approaches gave the North American-centered Nature in the City a certain distance from the subject while Beatley seemed to be more focused on actual living European-based strategies for incorporating nature in the city.

Both readings make a case for the existence of nature within the city, instead of nature being in opposition to city life. With the overall increase of populations living in urban areas worldwide, both texts indicate that cities have no choice but to start considering themselves to be a part of natural systems or even to function as natural systems themselves. Page 38 in the chapter on Urban Environmental Policy says that, “paradoxically, it seems, urbanization is offered as the solution to the ills it is said to cause.” Beatley suggests that properly planned cities can function as beneficial, restorative systems in much the same ways as wetland and forests.

I found it interesting that the chapter from Urban Environmental Policy identified local states as traditionally not taken seriously in the political realm. Of course, the reality of modern urban environments indicates just the opposite: grass roots and local initiatives are often what touch our lives the most on a frequent basis. For example, Desfor & Keil discuss how air-quality management decisions affect the citizens of Los Angeles. Beatley promotes optimistic local initiatives such as green roofs, ecological networks and nature policy plans that can have wide-reaching effects on both the people and the environments around cities.

Desfor & Keil also pointed out the growing trend in municipal bylaws governing environmental and public health issues and shows that cities often feel the need to create their own specific rules. Such bylaw regulations are even frequently in direct contradiction to federal and/or provincial and state regulations. While the contradictions of municipal regulations vs provincial/state/federal regulations often leads to conflict and confusion, problems can also arise when municipal organizations enact bylaws despite the fact that they often lack the expertise to make informed decisions. Conversely, the increase in local, grass-roots political action also means that issues that would not regularly be considered in the federal or state political sphere are able to be brought to light.

Although the chapter on making nature in the city was an interesting analysis of past and current political processes of urban environmentalism, I found Beatley’s chapter more inspirational and relevant because it offered concrete solutions to city problems. Overall, I appreciate a positive and solution-oriented approach and find that Beatley offered real living examples with a more applied approach to urban environmental initiatives.

One potential application of the readings to urban environments could be a local green roofing mandate where all new buildings must be built with this in mind. I know that there have been highly successful green roof initiatives in Europe, and I hope that North American cities can start to make similar strides to make use of wasted roof spaces.

Since I am from Toronto, I was engaged by Desfor & Keil’s overview of Toronto and L.A. municipal environmental policies, but I found this text was too filled with jargon and outside references to be properly digested and completely relevant to my life. Perhaps I might find the chapter on Urban Environmental Policy more relevant if I could better understand the concept of “spatial amnesia” (p.35). I am also interested in discussing who forms local environmental policies and how democracy and public opinion (Desfor & Keil’s “weak publics”) are balanced with environmental research and planning expertise in local decision-making processes.

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