Site Specific Project- Nature and the City

After looking at the book Landscape by John Wylie, I was influenced to look at the ideas behind nature and the city and how they coexist or any tensions that arise. I looked at the Journal of Urban History, and the article Humans, Cities, and Nature: How Do Cities Fit in the Material World? The paper explores how historians—and others—continue to create a barrier between the natural world and the city and how there are tensions between nature and the city; the article also looks at the idea that the city and man are all part of nature.

The article begins to look at Rachel Carson who ‘clearly remained in the camp who viewed humans as despoilers: “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world . . . The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.”‘ Can all humans be seen as damaging the environment or are there only some cases? I believe that in the case of Coventry and the River Sherbourne, the river’s water has over time become contaminated and is no longer of any use, this has been a result of the activities of humans around that area.

In contrast, Jane Jacobs, spoke about the role of humans in cities. ‘Jacobs, too, was appalled by the destructive capacity of humans. Ironically, she argued, “sentimentalizing” nature had led to. . . several thousand more acres of our countryside . . . eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find’; many people often move to the suburban areas as they want the best of both, the countryside and the city, however this has led to more countryside being destroyed. As demand for the suburban lifestyle has increased, more natural areas have had to be cleared to make room for more housing. This can be seen for Coventry as the city had a wide spread suburban landscape, that had affected the natural landscape and even the River Sherbourne; the river runs through people’s gardens where houses have been built to accommodate high demand.

The article continues to look at Jacobs and her idea that ‘human beings are, of course, a part of nature, as much so as grizzly bears or bees or whales or sorghum cane. The cities of human beings are as natural, being a product of one form of nature as are the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters.’ Can it be argued that cities are part of the natural environment; the article later looks at the idea of how cities grow organically, without a set design, it is random, echoing the ideas of a natural organism. Furthermore the materials used to create these cities come from the natural environment. For these reasons I believe that to an extent a city can be seen as quite organic yet there is still a wide difference from the natural environment.

When looking at urban ecology, the article states that ‘humans create urban ecosystems that provide habitat for nonhuman populations, but these urban ecosystems comprise only a small portion’ and that it is important to understand urban ecology (the scientific study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings in the context of an urban environment) and the processes within a city. The River Sherbourne is an example of this ‘small proportion’ of nature within Coventry; the city in parts has left space for the river to flow and continue its course, also allowing a natural ecosystem to continue around the river edge.

Having said that Coventry allows space for the River Sherbourne to flow, ‘cities are also major modifiers of the physical environment.’ This idea is true for the river, as over time man has altered the river, an example of this is the centre of Coventry where after the blitz bombings and city redevelopment begun, the river was culverted underground in large tunnels that are still under the city centre today. Furthermore due to human interference, parts of the river have been straightened, ‘canalised’ and the meanders removed, other parts have been used as major dumping grounds; many of the tributaries have been covered by new housing estates and others have been put into pipes underground. All of these show the effect that humans have had on the river; I believe that the idea that nature and man coexist in harmony can not be seen as true for the River Sherbourne, man seems to have disconnected itself from nature in this case, and has almost ‘taken over nature for mans own needs and wants.

Geographer Ronald J. Johnston noted that the existence of cities , “can influence the course of basic physical processes, such as the hydraulic cycle.” In the case of rivers and water systems, ‘urbanization removes much of the filtering capacity of soil and rapidly channels precipitation into available watercourses, thus encouraging flooding’; this is true for Coventry as the River Sherbourne is known for flooding, especially around the Spon End area. Can this be seen as natures way of defying the city’s ideas and showing nature fighting back to take some control back from man who believes that we are solely in control of our cities and environments? I believe that on first glance the city can be seen to ‘beat’ nature covering part the river for mans’ needs, however by flooding, the river takes back some control and the idea that man can’t control everything even though we strive to do so.

Coexist means to exist at the same time or in the same place often in harmony and peace; for the case of the River Sherbourne and Coventry, I believe that to an extent they do coexist, existing as the same time, as the river is still there while the city thrives. However the idea of harmony is a lot harder to agree with as I believe the city has damaged, to an extent, the river; the river is now polluted and its course has been changed due to man; if man had left the river be and built around it I believe there would more more ‘harmony’ but Coventry City centre was built over the river. The river seems to have been ignored and forgotten, this is true by the fact that when talking about my project and the river, barely any people knew about the river; this is one of the main reasons for my project to highlight the river and discover it not just myself but for my viewers to discover it too, giving the river a voice and allowing man to see how we have affected the natural river and the surrounding natural environment.  My photographs will show the journey of the river through the landscape, showing the change from the natural landscape at the source and then the journey through the landscape and into the urban cityscape. I want my images not only to be my experience but I want them to show the larger social issues behind the river and the city.


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