The best books on nature in the city

Kristin Poling Author Of Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City
By Kristin Poling

The Books I Picked & Why

The New Wilderness

By Diane Cook

The New Wilderness

Why 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.


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

By Sonja Dümpelmann

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

Why 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. 


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Nature Obscura: A City's Hidden Natural World

By Kelly Brenner

Nature Obscura: A City's Hidden Natural World

Why 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.


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Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

By Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Why 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.


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

By Joseph Stanhope Cialdella

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

Why 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.


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