Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jane Jacobs' Easter Egg: Nature and the City

A surprise urban/environmental synthesis from the last pages of Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Beale Street WalkThere are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimental ideas imply, at bottom, a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world's champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world's most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside.

Tangle of Vines in the Old ForestIt is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized suburbanized shadow of nature -- apparently in sheer disbelief that we and our cities, just by virtue of being, are a legitimate part of nature too, and involved with it in much deeper and more inescapable ways than grass trimming, sunbathing, and contemplative uplift. And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have the killed the thing they thought they came to find. Our irreplaceable heritage of Grade I agricultural land (a rare treasure of nature on this earth) is sacrificed for highways or supermarket parking lots as ruthlessly and unthinkingly as the trees in the woodlands are uprooted, the streams and rivers polluted and the air itself filled with the gasoline exhausts (products of eons of nature's manufacturing) required in this great national effort to cozy up with a fictionalized nature and flee the "unnaturalness" of the city.

Hellfire and Jesus on BealeThe semisuburbanized and suburbanized messes we create in this way become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow. These thin dispersions lack any reasonable degree of innate vitality, staying power, or inherent usefulness as settlements. Few of them, and these only the most expensive as a rule, hold their attraction much longer than a generation; then they begin to decay in the pattern of city gray areas. Indeed, an immense amount of today's city gray belts was yesterday's dispersion closer to "nature."
The Old Forest clearcut and the decline of Parkway Village are displays in the same fictionalized nature exhibit.

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Blogger Naomi Van Tol said...

That part about the clay dogs on the riverbank was especially poignant.. everyone should read that book.

2:58 PM  
Blogger gatesofmemphis said...

yeah, geographically specific nature wiped out for generic fake nature. Hmmmmm.....

I wonder how much of her analysis and prescription has officially touched other American cities.

11:43 PM  

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