Ellis Calvin

The Natural City


Illustration by Ellis Calvin

En route from India to London in 1889, Rudyard Kipling crossed the North American continent. Upon reaching his first American metropolis, he wrote, “I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. He continues,

It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hooghly, and its air is dirt.


A cab-driver volunteered to show me the glory of the town for so much an hour, and with him I wandered far. He conceived that all this turmoil and squash was a thing to be reverently admired, that it was good to huddle men together in fifteen layers, one atop of the other, and to dig holes in the ground for offices.

He said that Chicago was a live town, and that all the creatures hurrying by me were engaged in business. That is to say they were trying to make some money that they might not die through lack of food to put into their bellies. He took me to canals as black as ink, and filled with un-told abominations, and bid me watch the stream of traffic across the bridges.

The horrified Kipling wanders through the unnaturally straight streets, the sun blocked out by proto-skyscrapers. To Kipling, with his well-established love of the natural world, a “real city” is an abomination.

The character of cities has changed a great deal since Kipling’s time, and the negative perception of cities has softened as technology and society have progressed. Although the idea that cities are somehow unnatural lingers, we are shifting away from a dichotomy between cities and nature. Previously it was thought, if cities and their ailments are unnatural, it stands to reason that nature can be used to treat urban problems. This idea has a long history, but it was the soot-covered cities of the Industrial Revolution that intensified the contrast between city and countryside and the accompanying efforts to bring nature into the cities. Today our society is beginning to understand that cities exist within nature, rather than opposed to it. I want to examine two examples of nature-based solutions to urban problems in particular—the enormously influential Garden City movement of a century ago, which saw the city and nature as adversaries, and the present-day push for urban agriculture as a way to fix Rust Belt cities like Detroit, which is not based on a binary view of the city and nature.

The Garden City movement was founded by a London clerk named Ebenezer Howard in the last years of the nineteenth century. As a young man, Howard had traveled to the United States in 1871. In Nebraska he pursued and quickly abandoned his ambition of becoming a farmer. From there he traveled first to Chicago for a stint as a reporter and finally back to London in 1876, but not before being introduced to American transcendentalism. He published his one and only book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (later renamed Garden Cities of To-morrow) in 1898, a book that changed the course of a century of urban planning.

Although Howard presents his Garden City as a solution to the problems of the country as much as those of the city, it was the crisis of cities he was responding to. Howard saw cities like London or the industrial towns of northern England as overcrowded and miserable places for many of their residents. The memory of the devastating cholera epidemics that swept nineteenth-century cities lingered, and debtors’ prisons and public parks were crowded with the urban poor. The countryside was poor too, of course, but the countryside seemed to offer poverty with dignity. Too many in the cities were preoccupied with money and commerce. Howard believed he could design a city around the bucolic virtues and eliminate the terrible disorders of the city. He writes,

The country is the symbol of God’s love and care for man. All that we are and all that we have comes from it [...] Its beauty is the inspiration of art, of music, of poetry. Its forces propel all the wheels of industry. It is the source of all health, all wealth, all knowledge. But its fullness of joy and wisdom has not revealed itself to man. Nor can it ever, so long as this unholy, unnatural separation of society and nature endures.

The proposed town of 30,000 residents features concentric circles with specialized uses intersected by six spoke-like boulevards. The very center of the town contains a five-acre garden which is then surrounded by municipal and cultural institutions (e.g. the town hall, museums, the theater). The next ring contains a great park which would include several crystal palaces to serve as marketplaces and winter gardens. Beyond that is the rest of town with dense but spacious housing, a circumferential boulevard, and, on the edge of town, a thin band of workshops and small factories. Finally, the town is surrounded with orchards, pastures, and a variety of other agricultural land, all producing goods primarily for the town.

Howard spends most of Garden Cities on practical and somewhat mundane considerations—the generation of revenue, the mechanisms of administration, and so on—but there is a moral objective to his plan. Howard believed that the natural environment of Garden City would encourage a moral society, even to the extent that it could lead heavy drinkers away from the bottle without having to ban alcohol outright. If the Garden City could keep town and country harmoniously balanced, then society would be too. The Garden City is a city in a vacuum, always in equilibrium and rarely affected by outside forces. It was the dynamism and unpredictability of cities that alarmed Howard, who made the mistake of associating the unchanging character of rural communities with nature. Once a Garden City is established, it is static. There is no opportunity to advance within society, no latitude within the plan for innovation or adaptation to unforeseen technologies, and commerce on a scale beyond local is virtually impossible.

Within a decade two Garden Cities were in the works outside of London, and the following years saw Howard’s Garden City ideas applied in Germany, the United States, and in the plan for Australia’s new capital city, Canberra. The Garden City plans being realized were rapidly diverging from Howard’s vision of small, self-sustaining Garden Cities into garden suburbs, particularly in the United States. The garden suburb kept the bucolic trappings of Howard’s garden cities, but abandoned the more radical notions of self-sustainability and egalitarianism. Even “proper” Garden Cities were deeply flawed. Canberra is perhaps the world’s most vibrant Garden City, but for its first forty years it was a stagnant, isolated town. A 1954 Australian government study found that administrators saw the city as “an expensive housing scheme for public servants.” It was only when the authorities allowed the rigid plan of the city to break down in the 1950s, allowing for changes in lifestyle and technology, that the city began to thrive, and the population jumped from around 25,000 in 1950 to around 350,000 today. In the example of Canberra we can see the Garden City’s greatest flaw—both cities and nature, whether antithetical or not, are dynamic entities, but there’s no room for change in Howard’s plan.

The Garden City idea doesn’t ever seem to go away, in part, I think, because we can’t get over this idea that cities lack nature. A more accurate way of looking at it might be that cities don’t utilize nature properly. Ironically the Garden City movement (or what it’s become) has gone a long way towards suppressing nature in its encouragement of sprawl.

Today the sustainability movement continues to pick up momentum, and although its objectives are ultimately global in scale, many of its solutions purport to solve problems on a local level. Ebenezer Howard was tackling the problem of overcrowded cities, but Detroit is facing the opposite problem. Detroit has become something of a “ruin porn” star, with photojournalists flocking to the depressed city to snap photos of collapsing concert halls and neighborhoods being reclaimed by prairie. In a sense, nature is doing a pretty good job at, in the words of the conservationist George Perkins Marsh, “reclaiming lands laid waste by human improvidence." Since the city began declining fifty years ago, dozens of solutions for revitalization have been proposed and a few of them implemented, from the mixed-use Renaissance Center to the People Mover. One of the most recent fixes is a push to turn the city’s 200,000 vacant lots into farmland.

Detroit’s urban agriculture movement has generated plenty of national excitement, and it’s hard not to be excited. Taken together, the literature makes urban farming sound like Detroit’s silver bullet. By turning the blighted urban space into productive agricultural space the farms promise to create jobs for the city’s nearly 140,000 unemployed, provide healthy produce to the city’s vast food deserts, generate clean air and water, free up millions of dollars in municipal services and boost the local tourism industry. And there’s a moral argument here, too, that nature in the form of urban farming can foster community cohesion and empower residents to take more control over their own lives. A line from the mission statement of Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit echoes Howard (and many others) when it says,

As a society, we have become dangerously disconnected from the land and the sources of food that sustain life. We have detached ourselves from the real source of wealth - a respectful and reverent relationship with each other and the land.

It might seem paradoxical that Detroit’s return to nature is supposed to halt urban decay, but only if you accept that the city is antithetical to nature. If instead you see urban farming as a way to harness the nature already present within the city, it becomes clearer what separates this plan from the Garden Cities. When presented as opposites, the city overpowers nature or nature overpowers the city. Howard’s search for an equilibrium resulted in a model of urban stasis. For Detroit’s urban farmers, nature exists within the city and vice versa. This more nuanced approach to treating urban problems with nature will surely prove more successful at revitalizing the city.

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