While deep in my research at the New York Public Library on a undisclosed topic, I recently came across the 1923 edition of New York Walk Book, a hiking guide for the metropolitan area. The book provides itineraries, guides, and maps for both urban flaneurs and nature lovers. This wonderful volume inflamed my imagination.
At the time of New York Walk Book‘s publication nearly a century ago, the natural world and the city appeared to sit within close proximity to one another. The New York region and America as a whole had yet to experience massive suburbanization. Additionally, a comprehensive streetcar system still connected New York and its rural hinterlands. Everyday people easily could escape the confines of the city for an afternoon. For those preferring the familiarity of the urban environment, wild spots still existed within the five boroughs.
Today, while many cities–both large and small–across the United States are witnessing new development and growth, others continue to lose population and now contemplate shrinking their geographic footprints. In both cases, opportunities exist to invite nature back into urban areas. Greenbelts, forests, farms, waterways, parks, and wildlife preserves might be woven into the emerging urban fabric. These projects might be on modest or grand scales.
The sociologist Eric Klinenberg argued in his recent book Palaces for the People: How Urban Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life that public spaces and works are integral to a healthy, vibrant society. Such projects deserve funds, expertise, and support. Klinenberg chose public libraries to explore and build his thesis. Yet, he could have easily written about open space.
Imagine living in a city with beautiful parks, untrammeled coastal lands, or well maintained small forests. Might city life appear attractive, uplifting, maybe even wondrous? Might you discover the good life painted by philosophers and poets in the heart of the metropolis?
If we envision our cities to include the natural world, this is possible. Quite possible.