The best books on nature in the city

Who am I?

I have always been both a nature lover and committed urbanite, and those twin passions have shaped my approach to history. My very first published writing (when I was ten years old) was an essay about a willow tree in an urban park I loved in Minneapolis, MN. Now, as a historian, I have written about guerrilla gardening in the shadow of the Berlin wall, forestry outside Detroit, and working-class foraging practices in the nineteenth century. My interest in urban nature remains not just academic, but personal. On weekends, you’ll find me mapping native and invasive species with my ten-year-old son along the River Rouge in Dearborn, MI.

I wrote...

Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

By Kristin Poling,

Book cover of Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

What is my book about?

In an era of transatlantic migration, Germans were fascinated by the myth of the frontier. Yet, for many, they were most likely to encounter frontier landscapes of new settlement and the taming of nature not in far-flung landscapes abroad, but on the edges of Germany’s many growing cities. From gardens, forests, marshes, and wastelands, Germans on the edge of the city confronted not only questions of planning and control, but also their own histories and futures as a community.

Germany’s Urban Frontiers tells their story, examining how nineteenth-century notions of progress, community, and nature shaped the changing spaces of German urban peripheries as the walls and boundaries that had so long defined central European cities disappeared.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The New Wilderness

Kristin Poling Why did I love this book?

What if, in some apocalyptic future, alienated from our place on the planet, we enforced the opposition between a wild nature that flourishes in human absence and the city that towers in our presence, allowing no trace of human impact in the last preserved wilderness on the planet? This is the premise of Cook’s gripping novel, one of the most beautiful and provocative I have ever read. Centering the nature we carry around in our animal bodies, whether in the city or the forest, Cook’s cautionary tale makes a compelling case for a new environmentalism that doesn’t cast human beings as spoilers only, but as themselves part of the wild.

By Diane Cook,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The New Wilderness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'THE ENVIRONMENTAL NOVEL OF OUR TIMES.' Lemn Sissay, Booker Prize judge

From an acclaimed Guardian First Book Award finalist comes a debut novel 'brutal and beautiful in equal measure' (Emily St. John Mandel)

Longlisted for the DUBLIN Literary Award 2022

A Guardian Best Science Fiction Book of the Year

A 'Best Book of the Year 2020' according to BBC Culture * An Irish Times Best Debut Fiction of 2020

Bea's daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away, her lungs ravaged by the smog and pollution of the overpopulated metropolis they call home.

The only alternative is to build a life in…

Book cover of Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin

Kristin Poling Why did I love this book?

Maples, magnolias, oaks, and ailanthus: from the native to the exotic, from the carefully cultivated to the weedy and unwanted, Dümpelmann tells the history of the trees that line our city streets in two complementary case studies. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, trees became yet another technology of urban planning, bent to human designs by tree surgeons, dendroscopes, and all manner of other fantastic inventions. Dümpelmann avoids the pathos of the solitary tree sandwiched between asphalt and concrete. Instead, her story is one of flourishing mutualism: as trees became urbanized, cities became naturalized. Urban trees tell very human stories of war and politics and peace, but also resist our control, and make the city a little bit wild. 

By Sonja Dümpelmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seeing Trees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating and beautifully illustrated volume that explains what street trees tell us about humanity's changing relationship with nature and the city

"A deep . . . dive into urban society's need for-and relationship with-trees that sought to return the natural world to the concrete jungle."-Adrian Higgins, Washington Post

Winner of the Foundation for Landscape Studies' 2019 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize

Today, cities around the globe are planting street trees to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, as landscape historian Sonja Dumpelmann explains, the planting of street trees in cities to serve specific functions is not a new phenomenon.…

Book cover of Nature Obscura: A City's Hidden Natural World

Kristin Poling Why did I love this book?

From microscopic tardigrades in the moss on her roof to a cacophony of crows in an Ikea parking lot, Brenner finds teeming nonhuman life in the most overlooked urban spaces of her Seattle hometown. Her pocket-sized safaris combine personal discovery and well-researched investigations into history, science, and policy. Most importantly, by shifting our vision to see all the non-human life that is already here, Brenner gives her readers an accessible, everyday antidote to the supposed “nature deficit” of cities.

By Kelly Brenner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nature Obscura as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2021 PNBA Book Awards finalist
2021 Washington State Book Awards finalist
With wonder and a sense of humor, Nature Obscura author Kelly Brenner aims to help us rediscover our connection to the natural world that is just outside our front door--we just need to know where to look.

Through explorations of a rich and varied urban landscape, Brenner reveals the complex micro-habitats and surprising nature found in the middle of a city. In her hometown of Seattle, which has plowed down hills, cut through the land to connect fresh- and saltwater, and paved over much of the rest, she exposes…

Book cover of Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Kristin Poling Why did I love this book?

An evolutionary biologist and an excellent storyteller, Menno Schilthuizen gives a lively, upbeat survey of the myriad ways in which nonhuman life adapts to urban environments. Schilthuizen frames the city as one of nature’s many engineered environments: just as beetles evolved to live in anthills and whole-food webs rely on beaver-constructed wetlands, human cities provide homes for plant and animal life all over the world. This story goes far beyond peppered moths adapting to smog-stained trees. Schilthuizen delves into concepts like preadaptation and fragmentation to provide a nuanced and varied picture, allowing a more precise understanding of what is new in the Anthropocene and drawing connections between cities from Singapore to Paris.

By Menno Schilthuizen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwin Comes to Town as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We are marching towards a future in which three-quarters of humans live in cities, more than half of the landmass of the planet is urbanized, and the rest is covered by farms,pasture, and plantations. Increasingly, as we become ever more city-centric, species and ecosystems crafted by millions of years of evolution teeter on the brink of extinction - or have already disappeared.

A growing band of 'urban ecologists' is beginning to realize that natural selection is not so easily stopped. They are finding that more and more plants and animals are adopting new ways of living in the seemingly hostile…

Book cover of Motor City Green: A Century of Landscapes and Environmentalism in Detroit

Kristin Poling Why did I love this book?

Nature takes on different meanings in the landscape of the post-industrial city. On a city block in the middle of a shrinking city, the return of green space can signify abandonment, disinvestment, and decay instead of healing, flourishing, or balance. Cialdella brings much needed nuance and historical context to the place of nature in postindustrial Detroit, providing a wider range of stories about the ways in which gardens and green, from the wide expanse of Belle Isle to urban potato patches and backyard sunflowers, have helped connect communities to the city and each other. Nature in the city doesn’t replace people; it helps them flourish.

By Joseph Stanhope Cialdella,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Motor City Green as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Motor City Green is a history of green spaces in metropolitan Detroit from the late nineteenth- to early twenty-first century. The book focuses primarily on the history of gardens and parks in the city of Detroit and its suburbs in southeast Michigan. Cialdella argues Detroit residents used green space to address problems created by the city's industrial rise and decline, and racial segregation and economic inequality. As the city's social landscape became increasingly uncontrollable, Detroiters turned to parks, gardens, yards, and other outdoor spaces to relieve the negative social and environmental consequences of industrial capitalism. Motor City Green looks to…

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The Constant Tower

By Carole McDonnell,

Book cover of The Constant Tower

Carole McDonnell Author Of Wind Follower

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Armchair anthropologist Asian drama addict Christian Perseverer

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What is my book about?

This is a multicultural epic fantasy with a diverse cast of characters. Sickly fifteen-year-old Prince Psal, the son of warrior-king Nahas, should have been named Crown Prince of all Wheel Clan lands. But his clan disdains the disabled.

When the mysterious self-moving towers that keep humans safe from the Creator's ancient curse rebel, Psal attempts to find the Constant Tower and break the power of the third moon. Psal must risk losing the little respect his father has for him and face the dangers of the unmaking night to find the Constant Tower and save all of humanity.

The Constant Tower

By Carole McDonnell,

What is this book about?

Sickly fifteen year old Prince Psal, the son of the nature-blessed warrior-king Nahas, should have been named Crown Prince of all Wheel Clan lands. A priest-physician like his friend Ephan, Psal lacks a warrior's heart, yet he desires to earn Nahas's respect and become a clan chief. If he cannot do this, he must escape his clan altogether. But his love for Cassia, the daughter of his father's enemy, and his own weaknesses work against him. When war comes, Psal defends Ktwala and her daughter Mahari, wronged by Nahas, and speaks out against the atrocities his clan commits, further jeopardizing…

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