On the Edge
The edge. The fringe. The urban-wilderness interface. Desakota. Twilight zone. Interzone. Rurban. Peri-urban. Suburbia. Exurbia. Terrain vague. The hinterland. There are many words for the eerie edgelands of the metropolis, the place where city crashes into nature. Victor Hugo called it ‘bastard countryside’: ‘To observe the city edge is to observe an amphibian. End of trees, beginning of roofs, end of grass, beginning of paving stones, end of ploughed field, beginning of shops . . .’
If only it could be so clear cut. Often, the urban edge is a transi- tion zone. The term ‘desakota’ is made up from the Indonesian words desa
(‘village’) and kota
(‘town’). It describes a liminal area where intensive agriculture and village life are jumbled up with industry, suburbs, squatter villages and spiralling road systems. Applied to endless sprawl in the rural-urban regions of developing countries in south-east Asia, the subcontinent and Africa, ‘desakota’ is expressive of the strange, blurred hybridity of modern urban edge- lands the world over, with their uneasy mix of uses – farms and shopping malls, office parks and patches of ancient woodland, golf courses and trailer parks, reservoirs and rubbish dumps, out-of-town offices and derelict wastelands. We all know these edgelands.
This eerie never-zone was the inspiration for Ernest Lawson in New York at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his paintings of the margins of the metropolis, we can see the sorry state of Manhattan’s countryside as apartment blocks encroach like a besieging army. All that is rural and wild will become a level grid of streets once the rock has been dynamited, the land flattened and the trees cut down. In the meantime, this is a place of abandoned fields taken over by weeds. ‘Who but Lawson can bring beauty out of a region infested with squalid cabins, desolate trees, dumping grounds, and all the other impossible familiarities of any suburban wilderness?’ asked one of his patrons.
Lawson captured the moment just before nature is converted into concrete. The frontline never stays still for long. Writing at about the same time, the naturalist James Reuel Smith said that the terrain beyond New York’s 72nd Street had been ‘a forest in a primi- tive state’ as recently as the 1880s. All that had gone within two decades, replaced by ‘asphalt walks and close-cropped lawns’. You had to venture to Washington Heights, close to what would become 171st Street, to witness the ‘almost unbroken woods, up hill and down dale, interspersed with deep ravines, with numerous noisy brooks, rocks, a fallen tree, and all the wilderness of a place far out in the country’ by the 1900s. But not for long: all this was daily ‘dis- appearing from sight with such celerity that it is merely a matter of months when there will be none whatever left in view upon Man- hattan Island’.
The total reordering of the landscape had begun with European settlement and accelerated in the nineteenth century as New York’s population grew from 33,000 in 1790 to 515,000 by 1850 and 3.48 million by 1900. As the population grew, the city expanded into the wetlands and meadows that made the Hudson Bay estuary one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. As detailed in Ted Steinberg’s chilling, magnificent book, Gotham Unbound: the ecological history of Greater New York
, hills were flattened, and bogs were filled with the debris and heaps of garbage. Draining, filling and urbanising ‘unsightly’, ‘worthless’ wetlands was hailed as a ‘public improvement’ by press, politicians, planners and real estate dealers as a way of converting unproductive emptiness into dollars. In the 1930s and 40s, areas of wetland collectively equal to the size of Manhattan disappeared in a fury of development. And that was just the curtain raiser to a more sustained onslaught in the decades that followed.
LaGuardia, JFK and Newark international airports were built upon filled wetlands, as were major shipping terminals. The 32,000 acres of white cedar swamp at the Hackensack Meadows in New Jersey – a wilderness just five miles from the Empire State Building – were greedily eyed up as ‘potentially the most valuable unbuilt area of its kind in the whole world’. Rubble from the London Blitz – brought as ballast on returning ships – was tossed into the marshes, along with garbage and chemical waste. By 1976 it had been pared down to 6,600 acres. New York’s master planner Robert Moses looked at one of the metropolis’s last major intact marshlands in the 1940s – 2,600 acres of wetland at Fresh Kills on Staten Island – and licked his lips at an ‘immense acreage of meadow land . . . which is presently valueless’. The first step in its conversion from ecological treasure house to valuable real estate was – as ever – to fill it up with trash. Fresh Kills became the largest garbage dump in the world by 1955. For years on end, it received 29,000 tons of waste generated by the city every day. The flat salt marshes had been transformed, within a few years, into a mountain range of human waste, the peaks of which reached 225 feet. Within sight of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Fresh Kills became a nightmarish monument to what cities do to the ecosystem. They consume the natural world with a ferocious appetite, and their outputs are pollution and waste, poi- soning rivers and wetlands, converting natural habitats into toxic landfill.
Amid this orgy of destruction at Fresh Kills, in 1970, former New York Sanitation Commissioner Samuel J. Kearing looked at the rap- idly accelerating destruction of the wetland wilderness and asked which was more important, unthinking urban development ‘or the preservation of wild birds and the biological community of which they — and we — are a part’. ‘I’d vote in favour of the birds,’ he declared. ‘I think many more would vote that way, too, if they had been with me when I made my first inspection of the Sanitation Department’s landfill at Fresh Kills. It had a certain nightmare qual- ity. I can still recall looking down on the operation from a control tower and thinking that Fresh Kills . . . had for thousands of years been a magnificent, teeming, literally life-enhancing tidal marsh. And in just 25 years it was gone, buried under millions of tons of New York City’s refuse.’
His was a lonely voice. ‘We have pushed back the sea and filled in the swamp for parks and airports,’ the New York Times
exalted in 1946, celebrating the victory of the metropolis over the constraints imposed on it by nature. The ‘path to progress’, it said, was the result of the ‘wise use of the garbage pail and other refuse’ in creat- ing dry land out of bog. Natural limits to growth had been obliterated. The ecology and landscape of the edgelands was a resource to be consumed, transformed and entirely remade, and there was little compromise; by the end of the twentieth century, 90 per cent of the tidal and freshwater wetlands were gone for ever.
The conversion of nature into city, the reclamation of the apparently useless into something profitable and the near-total transformation of the landscape in the greater New York region, was a forerunner for developments across the world in the later twentieth century. Take Singapore, where, as in New York, an unpromising location was re-engineered to exploit its geographical advantages as a trading hub. During its colonial period, Singapore added 740 acres to its landmass by filling mangrove swamps, drain- ing marshes and expanding the shoreline. In the three decades that followed full independence in 1965, the city state reclaimed an add- itional 34,100 acres from the sea, massively expanding its size in the process and (literally) setting the stage for its economic ascendancy. As a result, more or less the entire coastline of Singapore is artificial, with devastating consequences for the area’s profuse biodiversity. A mere 5 per cent of the thirty square miles of mangrove forests that existed in 1819 survive today. Most of the sandy beaches are gone, while 60 per cent of the forty square miles of coral reefs were obliterated.
So it goes with city after city across the world: entire ecosystems are remade to pave the way for economic take-off. The destroyed aquatic edgelands of cities – the unlovely marshes, the thick man- grove forests and unseen coral reefs – represent the confrontation between city and nature and, more importantly, the Anthropocene. The rapid loss of Lawson’s gritty New York edgelands became a feature of cities all over the planet in the later twentieth century and beyond as the rest of the world emulated America’s turbo-charged urbanisation. An observer of the modern Bangladeshi ‘bastard countryside’ wrote, ‘There are few horizons which are devoid of settlement, but where they begin and end is often impossible to judge.’ Between 1982 and 2012, 43 million acres of farmland, forest and wilderness were suburbanised in the United States, an area the size of Washington State. That’s two acres of open land claimed by
the suburbs every minute.
Urban edges and dull suburbs are hardly the thing of romance; we hurry past them. But we need to pay attention to this easily avoided, unloved interzone. Edgelands represent the fastest-changing habitat on the planet. They are the site of eco-apocalypse, the graveyard of endangered flora and fauna. The urban-rural fringe is also becoming the predominant habitat of the species Homo sapiens
Every day, an area of land the size of Manhattan Island is urban- ised. This is city as mass extinction event. In 2010, 50 per cent of humans were living in cities; by the middle of the century, the figure will be 75 per cent. And we are spreading ourselves out: the propor- tion of land covered by concrete and asphalt is growing significantly faster than population. By 2030, two-thirds of urban land will have been built since 2000. It is not the scale that should alarm us, so much as the location
of this land-grab. We have chosen to site our cities on deltas, rainforests, woodlands, grasslands and wetlands – the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet containing ecosystems that are vital for our survival. The local impact on ecol- ogy is grave, but cumulatively, the damage to the global ecosystem is disastrous and irreversible.
Across the planet, some 423 fast-expanding cities are devouring the habitats of over 3,000 already critically endangered animal species. The Amazon, Indonesian and Congo Basin rainforests are being eroded. The bountiful tropical wetlands of the Indo-Burma region, West Africa and China are in steep decline because of urban- isation. Addis Ababa lost 24 per cent of its peri-urban agriculture in a mere five years. The Jakarta metropolitan area has swallowed up 700 square miles of vegetation on its borders in the last three dec- ades; agriculture has been pushed further out from the city by the bow-wave of urbanisation, destroying once remote and untouched forests. The result of devouring surrounding wilderness is a city being wrecked by floods and rising sea levels: Java’s very existence is at risk. Both New York and New Orleans have sacrificed the vast expanses of wetlands that once defended them against hurricanes, floods and rises in sea levels. Delhi and Beijing are facing desertifica- tion after they destroyed the green mantle of forests that shielded them against dust and sand. There can be few more important places than the overlooked, unlovely, fragmented edges of cities for the future of humanity and the planet. This is the story of global climate change told on millions of local scales.
A city’s edgelands are its life support system; a functioning ecosys- tem of forests, grasslands, wetlands and tidal marshes are essential buffers against the manifold effects of climate change. Yet this is the terrain most vulnerable to our greed for development. The dangers are clear and present. Intrusions into hitherto untouched ecosystems mean that more human settlements are thrust into close encounters with wildlife. Fauna in degraded habitats on the urban fringe are more likely to become sources of zoonotic diseases carrying deadly new pathogens; cities packed with humans are their perfect breeding grounds, from which pandemics spread throughout the planetary urban network with astonishing speed. If we care about our future on earth, we should focus on the frontier between cities and nature: it is a battleground.
A warm spring evening brings people swarming out of the claustro- phobic, rule-bound city through the gates in its walls and into the wild freedom of the countryside. It is a jostling, colourful mass of people. The townsfolk shed their urban ways, apprentices rubbing shoulders with civic dignitaries, men consorting with women, class and gender rules temporarily forgotten in the fresh air and fields.
This is the famous second scene of Goethe’s Faust
, as the people stream out of small, fortified Leipzig for an evening of freedom. The boundary between city and countryside, order and freedom, is stark. But escape from the confines of the city is never far away. In German literature, cities are surrounded by primeval forests and wildernesses, the hiding places of the Brothers Grimm’s wolves, fairies, dwarfs and magical animals. Forests were more important than arable fields because they provided one of the city’s key needs – fuel. A medieval city such as Nuremberg drew its food from up to one hundred miles away; but it needed its timber (which was costly to transport) close to hand, in the forests that abutted its walls. This is the yin and yang of urban life: the civilisation and security of the city is juxtaposed with the wildness and weirdness of the country- side and woodland. The downsides of the crowded and unsanitary city are balanced by the easy accessibility of forests and fields.
Who ever thought of a park when the real, untamed nature was a stroll away?
If the German urban imagination was fed by the forests that environed cities, the English had another kind of wildness upon which the mind could feast. An unprofitable marsh on the edge of the City of London known as Moorfields, which extended from the Roman wall northwards to Islington and connected with yet more open space at Finsbury Fields, was central to urban life long into the eighteenth century. This undrained fen, thick with sedge, rushes and flag lilies, was the place where the people of the city – particularly young Londoners – went for sports, rowdy games, sex, festivities, protests, fights, archery practice and exercise. The monk William Fitzstephen, author of A Description of London
, recorded Londoners skating on the frozen bog in the late twelfth century. At about the same time, young men played the first recorded football games there, involving hundreds taking part in tumultuous, disorderly matches.
Up until the nineteenth century, London was surrounded by 45,000 acres of commons and heathlands to its north and west, and an almost identical area to the south. Like forests, grasslands and marshes provided indispensable sources of energy – hay for the tens of thousands of horses that hauled, carted and carried. Much of the countryside surrounding London was given over to grassland. One of the most famous tracts, Hounslow Heath, extended five miles from the west of London to beyond the hamlet of Heathrow and encompassed over 6,000 acres of grass, furze, broom, heather and stands of trees. ‘Time was when the heath seemed illimitable, stretching north and south . . . [and] far out towards the horizon.’ The primeval native ecology of London’s edgelands was the forest that had grown since the end of the last Ice Age. The heaths – wild as they looked – were the result of deforestation and grazing. But for all that, these huge areas of lightly grazed acidic grassland provided an exceptionally productive habitat for grasses, lichens, mosses, fungi, herbaceous plants, small wildflowers, shrubs, bur- rowing insects, small mammals and butterflies. Heaths abounded in gorse, used as a cheap or free source of firewood, along with bracken and heather which were used for thatching and animal litter. The southward road out of London ‘opened out into one wild heath after another’, a ‘beautiful chain of commons’ easily accessible from the city. The semi-wild environment that enveloped London also provided habitat for ‘wild life’: highwaymen used the cover of the furze to rob stagecoaches along the lonely roads.
‘In the month of May . . . every man, except impediment, would walke into the sweete meadowes and greene woods,’ wrote John Stow of Londoners in the sixteenth century, ‘there to rejoice their spirities with the beauty and savour of sweete flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind.’ The edges of cities throughout Europe represented not just leisure but opportunity. The urban poor relied upon edgeland commons and forests for building materials and firewood, as well as for grazing their animals and foraging – matters of brute survival, not just enjoyment. In the wetland fringes of New York, from the seventeenth century through to as late as the mid twentieth, urban trappers caught muskrats in marshes such as Flushing Meadows in Queens, Jamaica Bay on Long Island and Fresh Kills on Staten Island, selling the furs to aug- ment their paltry incomes. The marshes yielded game and fish for the pot, berries, mushrooms and firewood. On the wild frontier of Berlin in the late nineteenth century, many of the poor who lived peripherally in self-built shanty towns were able to survive because their lives were balanced between urban and rural. The wastelands on the edge, created by the growth of the city, became de facto
com- mons for gleaning and guerrilla gardening.
What made London ‘glorious’ according to the essayist Leigh Hunt were its ‘green pastures’ close to hand: ‘There
we have fields; there one can walk on real positive turf . . . and have hedges, stiles, field-paths, sheep and oxen, and other pastoral amenities.’ At week- ends until the early nineteenth century, Londoners – just like Leipzigers and New Yorkers – strolled out of the metropolis to tea gardens, taverns and theatres in the rural fringe. The boundary between city and countryside was porous. Thomas De Quincey cap- tured the nearness of nature and its role as an antidote to urban claustrophobia when he wrote of the joy of walking along Oxford Street by night and glancing along a side street ‘which pierces north- wards through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods’. Writing in the 1820s, the satirist, journalist and lifelong Londoner William Hone could remember that ‘In my boyhood, I had only to obtain parental permission, and stroll in fields now no more, – to scenes now deformed, or that I have been wholly robbed of, by “the spirit of improvement”. Five and thirty years have altered everything.’ Hone’s close friend George Cruikshank depicted the scene in a cartoon entitled ‘The March of Bricks and Mortar’ in 1829, a nightmarish scene of serried ranks of terraced houses and factories, led by a robotic infantry battalion of picks, shovels and hods, belching smoke and bombarding London’s arcadian fringe with cannonades of bricks. Trees cower in terror; cows and sheep run from the invaders. This is city as destructive force, expansion as naked violence and runaway suburbanisation as ecocide.
The image may seem hackneyed now. But it had a visceral impact when it was published. For it was here, on the cherished northern outskirts of London, that the swift, unstoppable juggernaut of sub- urbanisation first got going on the omnivorous scale we now know all too well. ‘The rage for building’, wrote a contemporary critic, ‘fills every pleasant outlet with bricks, mortar, rubbish and eternal scaffold-poles, which, whether you walk east, west, north, or south, seems to be running after you.’
Known as ‘wastes’ and ‘wildernesses’, these unproductive peri-urban common lands were regarded by agricultural improvers as ‘disgraceful . . . and insulting to the inhabitants of the metropolis’. Walking out of London to the suburban village of Kew in 1819, Sir Richard Phillips railed at the immense tracts of unused land, look- ing forward to the ‘fullest triumph . . . of the fortunate combinations of human art over the inaptitude and primitive barbarity of nature’. More bombastically, during the Napoleonic Wars, the president of the Board of Agriculture, Sir John Sinclair, declared war on the ‘wastes’: ‘Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath; let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement.’
By the time Finchley Common was enclosed for sale in 1816, encroachments had already reduced its size from over 1,240 acres to 900; thereafter, almost all of the green space was surrendered to suburban development. Lewisham lost 850 acres of commons in 1810 and Sydenham Common – the 500 acres of which had reminded Washington Irving of the wilds of America – went entirely. The 60,000 acres of commons and heaths that existed in the eighteenth century dwindled to 13,000 by the 1890s; today, only 3,889 acres of this precious ecosystem remains. The once-mighty Hounslow Heath has been reduced from 6,000 acres to 200 by suburbanisation and, later, airport development.
It marked a cardinal moment in urban history. London had always been growing, of course. But never at this velocity and never into the beloved pockets of countryside around Islington and Hampstead where Londoners flocked at weekends to escape the smoke, stench and congestion of the city. The age of mass-produced housing had arrived. That timeless experience of leaving the bricks and mortar and stepping into semi-wild edgelands was going. It meant the alienation of city-dwellers from nature. In a famous musical song, a working-class Londoner stretches his imagination to believe he is living in a rural bliss. He has filled his miserable inner-city backyard with vegetables grown in pots and he boasts he could enjoy the sweeping vistas to far-off Chingford, Hendon and Wembley ‘if it wasn’t for the ’ouses in between’. People were sealed in the city, distanced from nature by seemingly endless terraces.
Or, at least, the poor were. George Cruikshank may have been horrified by the march of the city; but he was deeply implicated in it. He had moved to a new suburban development in Pentonville in 1823, built for middle-class families to enjoy a semi-rural lifestyle close to the city. Overlooking fields and streams, it was little wonder that Cruikshank wanted to stop other families swarming his arca- dia, where they would block his views and chew up his fields. London had expanded just far enough for him.
Cruikshank, then, was one of the pioneers of modern suburbia, a NIMBY before it became fashionable. Cheap finance became available in the 1820s, opening the way for rapid development of the ’burbs. Omnibuses, followed by trams and trains, made commuting possible for the first time. Then, the industrial revolution made cities cramped and polluted, plagued by cholera and crime. People were leaving the land and coming to town; by 1851, Britain had a majority urban population. During the second half of the century, London’s outer ring of suburbs grew by 50 per cent each decade; these places experienced the fastest population growth anywhere in England. In this time of monstrous growth and rapid, discombobu- lating change, confidence in cities collapsed. If you had the cash, you decamped to the rural edgelands. Then, you decamped again if, like George Cruikshank, you feared that others were coming to spoil the party. Districts that possessed a rural charm rapidly became densified, as wastes, fields, market gardens and private gardens experienced in-fill. Pleasantness was often a fleeting quality, spur- ring further leapfrogging to new edgelands. The ‘’ouses in between’ kept mushrooming.
Edgelands possess magic. They are the sweet spot. No wonder people have been attracted to live there since the earliest cities and en masse
from the early nineteenth century. But they are in constant flux as cities sprawl outwards. Suburbia had its champion in the remarkable Scottish polymath and landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon, whose influence deeply affected the ecology of modern cities. Worried at the velocity of change in London, he made an extraordinarily visionary proposal in 1829, the same year as Cruik- shank’s cartoon. What had motivated both of them was the impending sale of rugged Hampstead Heath, the city’s most popular and cherished wild heathland, to developers. According to Loudon, the government should buy existing rural and common land on the margins of the capital – a circle at a distance of a mile from St Paul’s Cathedral. This would produce a mile of country- side, which would then give way to a mile of urban development, and then another mile of countryside, and so on. If this was done, wrote Loudon, ‘there could never be an inhabitant who would be farther than half a mile from an open airy situation, in which he was free to walk or ride’. The rural zones would be planted with trees and shrubs in a semi-wild landscape of rivers and lakes with ‘rocks, quarries, stones, wild places in imitation of heaths and caverns, grottoes, dells, dingles, ravines, hills, valleys, and other natural- looking scenes’. Whatever it was to be, this was not a call to preserve farmland or create parks: it was a plea for wildness to be integrated into the expanding urban matrix.
‘I am now twenty-three years of age,’ Loudon had written back in 1806, ‘and perhaps a third of my life has passed away, and yet what have I done to benefit my fellow men?’ Those anguished words, confided to his journal in the year that he was left crippled by an attack of rheumatic fever, tell us a lot about him. Dedicated to pub- lic service, he combined his profession as a landscape architect, inventor and botanical writer with radical political activism. Making modern cities more habitable, particularly for the poor, was central to his reformist vision. He advocated access to green space of all kinds – including squares, public parks and cemeteries – as an anti- dote to the confinement and disease of the industrial metropolis. Contact with nature, he believed, should be the hallmark of mod- ern cities, and, just as importantly, cities should be landscaped like a garden.
Loudon wrote his pamphlet soon after he returned from a tour of France and Germany. In Leipzig and several other German and Austrian cities, obsolete city walls were pulled down throughout the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries and replaced with public promenades lined with linden trees that encircled historic city centres. These parklands – the most famous example is the Ringstraße in Vienna – preserved the distinctiveness of the urban core even after de-fortification. Loudon’s green belt proposal almost certainly influenced the design of Adelaide in south Australia. Laid out by William Light from 1837, Adelaide consisted of two built clusters either side of the River Torrens surrounded by 2,332 acres of parkland – an unbroken figure-of-eight green belt.
Long before John Loudon, there had been attempts to halt the growth of London. Both Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell had banned high-density building on the fringe of the metropolis. John Evelyn demanded a green girdle of gardens and orchards which would make London ‘one of the sweetest and most delicious Habi- tations in the world’. Loudon went beyond these simple, restrictive ideas. For a start, he accepted and embraced the inevitability and desirability of urban expansion. An urbanist at heart, he loved the energy of cities. But he knew that frenetic urban life had to be coun- terbalanced by retreat into nature. His was a call to preserve the huge heaths that teemed with life before the builder and speculator got to them. The city should grow round these areas of outstanding wildness, not crash into them.
The ideal of rus in urbe
– the countryside in the city – has been with us since the first cities. The sizeable urban parks that appeared in the nineteenth century only partially satisfied that urge to live along- side nature as well as the sources of wealth and power. In an age of accelerated urban growth, the connection between city life and the countryside was disappearing for ever. How could that link be pre- served? There was no shortage of visionaries.
Sixty-nine years after the publication of Loudon’s essay, in 1898, Sir Ebenezer Howard came up with the concept of the ‘Garden City’, a compact settlement surrounded by a buffer of countryside. In marked contrast to Loudon, Howard was anti-urban. His ideal settlement was an oversized village, a rural-urban hybrid in which every dwelling would be surrounded by a garden. Between 1895 and 1910, Arturo Soria y Mata came up with his highly influential Ciudad Lineal
– ‘lineal city’ – plan. He wanted Madrid to expand into its sur- rounding countryside along thin transport corridors with a single row of houses on either side. Everyone would have a close, intimate relationship with nature because the edge would always be easily accessible from your back door. Soria’s ambition, like Howard’s, was nothing less than to ‘ruralise the city and urbanise the country- side’.
Ebenezer Howard called his Garden City concept the beginning of a new civilisation. In the same utopian vein, the American archi- tect Frank Lloyd Wright envisaged ‘Broadacre City’ in 1932, a new metropolis which he said would exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It would be a decentralised city, spread through the countryside. Broadacre City, like Garden City, would be the anti- city, a complete reordering of the metropolis as it had existed for millennia. ‘Modern transportation may scatter the city,’ he declared with relish, ‘open breathing spaces in it, green it and beautify it, making it fit for a superior order of human beings.’
Radical ideas came out of Berlin, the fastest-growing city in Eur- ope at the end of the nineteenth century. Max Hilzheimer, the city’s commissioner for the care of natural monuments, argued for the right of Berliners imprisoned in the ‘desert of stone’ to experience the ‘secret beauty’ in ‘the surroundings of our city Berlin’ – the untouched forests, bogs, sand dunes, lakes and creeks that charac- terised the post-glacial Brandenburg region. It was there, in Berlin’s edgelands, said Hilzheimer, that city folk could discover ‘the image of the free nature, where one can indulge at will, and in which trees and bushes grow without having been directed and put in place by human hand, where sources, creeks and rivers search their way according to their own laws’. Wild fringe ecologies were so valuable precisely because they existed so close to artificial cities and their nature-starved masses. There was no need to travel to distant wil- dernesses if there was one on your doorstep.
A strategy for preserving fringe ecologies even while Berlin grew culminated in a bold ‘Comprehensive Green Space Plan’ in 1929 which demanded twenty-six green wedges radiating out continu- ously from the city centre to large nature reserves on the wild edgelands. This plan, farsighted as it was in reinventing the modern city, fell victim first to the financial constraints of the Great Depres- sion and, finally, to the Nazis. Following the destruction inflicted on cities during the Second World War, the British town planner Pat- rick Abercrombie revived the plan, demanding that the density of pre-Blitz London be replaced with these lavish green wedges. He imagined every Londoner walking ‘from garden to park, from park to parkway, from parkway to green wedge and from green wedge to Green Belt’, a route from inner city to peripheral countryside clear of buildings and traffic.
Green wedges, garden cities, lineal cities, Broadacre City – all these proposals to, as Lloyd Wright put it, destroy ‘the artificial divisions set up between urban and rural life’, met failure. They came at a time when walking out of the city into a natural land- scape had become almost impossible, particularly for the poor: it would take a bus or train journey to see a rural vista. Only in the post-war period did London impose a Green Belt on its fringes, by which time most of its adjacent countryside, including its rough heaths, had been eaten up by suburbia. London’s Green Belt was widely copied around the world as a means of preventing sprawl and protecting countryside from development. Restrictive in intent, it did little to reimagine the urban edgelands as places for biodiver- sity or to radically impact ecology within cities.
Modern green belts are a long way from the proposal made by John Claudius Loudon back in 1829 for landscaping the city with a mixture of alternating wild and artificial zones. But although Lou- don (and his successors) did not succeed in changing the city on the macro scale, they did on the micro. As cities expanded, their edge- lands were converted from one ecosystem to another. If the traditional European and American city was compact and dense, the city emerging in the nineteenth century was ringed and inter- laced with greenery. It may not have been the publicly owned, remnant wild space made up of green wedges that campaigners wanted, but it was nonetheless brimming with vegetation.
Today, almost a quarter of London’s surface area is made up of suburban gardens encircling the dense, built-over core; in Brisbane, it is closer to a third; in continental Europe, where cities are denser, it is about a fifth. Residential backyards in the United States, the majority planted in suburbia since 1945, cover an area collectively the size of the state of Georgia. In León, Nicaragua, 86 per cent of all green space consists of private patios. The predominant ecosys- tem type in cities is not, as one might think, parks, recreation grounds and cemeteries, but private gardens. Few did more to nur- ture into life the domestic back garden, and hence the ecologies of modern cities, than John Claudius Loudon.
Go to numbers 3–5 Porchester Terrace and you find yourself in one of the ritziest districts of London, the home turf of Middle Eastern royals, enigmatic oligarchs and well-upholstered ambassadors. But the house you find there has an odd historic pedigree: it is the great- great-grandfather of the suburban semi, the house that spawned millions of imitators and helped inculcate an aspirational lifestyle.
Built in 1825 by Loudon, the property showcased a new way of living in the city. With its glass- domed conservatory and veranda, it epitomised middle-class domesticity. Affordability was masked by an illusion of grandeur because, as Loudon wrote, the aim was to give two small houses the appearance of being one large, fairly grand building, bequeathing to both the outward vestige of ‘dignity and consequence’.
Loudon loved the suburbs; he celebrated the new way of living as it was emerging in the 1820s. Suburbs, as he saw them, blended the best of city and countryside while avoiding their pitfalls. They also created a new type of nature. Loudon stood at the forefront of pop- ularising gardening as a leisure pursuit. He wrote for as large an audience as possible, aiming to diffuse, for the first time, knowledge about horticulture and gardening to men and women of all sections of society. The author of An Encyclopaedia of Gardening
(1822), he was also the founder and editor of the Gardener’s Magazine
, the first periodical dedicated to horticulture, and the Magazine of Natural History
. Much of his prodigious output was written in collaboration with his wife Jane, an author and illustrator of books and articles on gardening. The Loudons became the most widely read garden writ- ers of the early nineteenth century; their influence extended down the generations.
In 1838, John published The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Compan- ion
, a how-to guide to creating the perfect garden in a brand new house on the expanding urban fringe. In fact, the book was not merely a DIY gardening book but a massive manual on becoming suburban. Loudon and his wife could help you choose the right kind of plants; but they could also advise you on how to make your house, inside and out, a place of beauty and respectability, how to decorate your bookshelves and lay out your furniture. The Loudon couple were Victorian lifestyle gurus.
Numbers 3–5 Porchester Terrace might not have been the very first semi-detached villa ever built, but it became the template for the suburban way of life, a living showcase for the aspirational mid- dle classes of early Victorian Britain. Most important was the Loudons’ garden. The pillars of their veranda were twined with China roses, wisteria, jasmines and japonicas. All around the ver- anda were planters filled with flowering seasonal plants. The garden itself, smaller than the area of two tennis courts, was crammed with 2,000 species of exotic plants, ‘specimens of almost all the kinds of trees and shrubs that could, in 1823 and 1824, be procured in the London nurseries’, as well as numerous varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, figs and vines. The aim was to create a miniature and manageable version of the landed estate within the metropolis, a new way of living for professional and commercial families.
Loudon presented gardening as a lifestyle choice for the new breed of suburbanites: it was about exercise, intellectual curiosity and conspicuous consumption. It allowed men and women to reconnect with their rustic instincts in a setting that was neither countryside nor city but poised between the two. Gardening, in Loudon’s view, was about gaining mastery over a piece of land and bending it to your will. The bestselling garden writer in the world, Loudon helped create the Victorian garden not only in Britain but in Australia, New Zealand, America and Europe. His design, which was known as ‘gardenesque’ – with neat lawn, groupings of orna- mental shrubs, flowerbeds and carefully placed trees – has conquered the globe, as has the rustic style of low-density ‘garden suburbs’ planned around private gardens, avenues and open spaces.
Loudon’s garden design, as it took shape in Porchester Terrace, emphasised display and ornamentation; it sought out an eclectic assortment of trees and shrubs from all over the world that would have been considered bizarre and incongruous by earlier genera- tions. In his columns in Gardener’s Magazine
, Loudon enthusiastically promoted newly imported plants as they came on sale. As one observer of the growth of middle-class London suburbia put it: ‘In the place of [ancient manor houses] we behold the modern villa, with its spruce though pigmy appurtenances of pleasure-ground, garden and green house, where the exotic productions of southern climes have supplanted the gigantic patrimonial timber.’ Under Loudon’s influence, this novel ecosystem, as we would call it today, was, with its cultured mix of alien and native plants, making subur- bia a surprising cornucopia of botanical cosmopolitanism.
The plant palette in British cities represented the spoils of empire and London’s position at the centre of a worldwide network of trade routes. In turn, suburbanisation was a form of internal colo- nisation as cities consumed villages and farms and transformed their ecologies with bricks and bougainvillea. Suburbia itself was shaped by empire: much of the investment capital that fuelled the building boom came from profits brought from India and elsewhere in the empire.
The garden character of modern suburbia was, in fact, not so much an English invention as an import from abroad. Rather than live cheek-by-jowl with locals in the established Indian centres of commerce, trade and religion, British officials, merchants and mili- tary officers took to segregating themselves in ‘garden houses’ on the outskirts of cities such as Madras and Calcutta from the eight- eenth century. South Asian cities were a lot greener and more expansive than European ones. Madras, it was said, ‘seems to be less a city than a vast garden where houses happen’; the buildings of Bangalore were ‘completely hidden’ in a forest of trees. Emma Rob- erts described Madras in 1836: ‘The roads planted on either side with trees, the villas . . . nestling in gardens, where the richest flush of flowers is tempered by the grateful shade of umbrageous groves, leave nothing to be wished for that can delight the eye or enchant the imagination.’ Unlike in Europe, Englishmen ‘live entirely in their garden-houses, as they properly call them; for these are all sur- rounded by gardens so closely planted, that the neighbouring house is rarely visible’.
Parts of London began to take on this Asian aspect as colonial adventurers retired to semi-detached villas in new suburbs such as St John’s Wood, Kensington and Bayswater, which was known as ‘Asia Minor’ because of its pronounced Anglo-Indian character. Many of the new semis reflected the architectural styles of the gar- den quarters of Calcutta and Madras, with verandas, balconies, pergolas, loggias, gazeboes, bay windows and, critically, ornamen- tal gardens. John Loudon’s famous semi-detached villa was itself in Bayswater.
An extensive industry of nurseries and seed catalogues emerged to meet the demand for colourful, exotic plants and trees. London’s floral inventory was augmented through businesses such as James Colvill’s Exotic Nursery based near Sloane Square, which offered, among other things, Mexican dahlias; rhododendrons from the Himalayas; yuccas, Californian poppies and mountain laurel from the United States; magnolias, peonies and roses from China; and, one of its bestsellers, Japanese spotted laurel. George Cruikshank may have depicted the countryside being bombarded with bricks, but he could equally have drawn cannonades of alien seeds spraying down on the urban edge. The suburban environment was begin- ning to gain an abundance of species that exceeded the countryside thanks to the fashions for exotic plants promoted by people like John and Jane Loudon.
The taste for exotics extended to the working poor who lived in cramped houses devoid of gardens in the inner city or rapidly urbanising suburbs such as Bethnal Green. The journalist and social campaigner Henry Mayhew, in his 1851 portrait of working-class Londoners, London Labour and the London Poor
, made much of the love of bright, exotic flowers in the East End. When the gardens of working people were filled in by housing, the trade in seeds had fallen away. But it was replaced by a profitable business in the mid-nineteenth century. Towards the end of May, the stalls and bar- rows of flower-sellers were ‘exceedingly beautiful, the barrow often resembling a moving garden’. They were selling potted roots: gera- niums, mignonette, dahlias, fuchsias and polyanthuses that could be grown in window boxes or flowerpots. The founding of the Tower Hamlets Chrysanthemum Society in 1859 attested the tremendous popularity of that plant among working people. The first annual Window Garden Show for working-class entrants was held in 1860; four years later, Charles Dickens was among thousands who admired the overflowing roses, fuchsias, geraniums, balsam, con- volvulus, mignonette and dahlias. Much later, in 1939, Picture Post
commented, ‘Every Londoner longs for a garden. Few can afford a big one. But thousands grow glorious flowers in backyards, and window-boxes, even on roof-tops.’
The demand for a greener city, the desire for a private garden in which to cultivate chrysanthemums, dahlias and vegetables, moti- vated Ebenezer Howard to design his Garden City as a way of distributing land to the landless and satisfying the instinctive human desire to grow and cultivate. If Howard did not achieve a revolution in urbanisation, his ideas fundamentally reshaped existing cities around the globe. The garden suburb became the prevailing model of the twentieth century for expansive city growth, consisting of low-density family homes shrouded in greenery. After the First World War, around 4 million new homes were built in Britain. Lon- don doubled in size while its population grew by just 10 per cent: this was a policy of dispersal just as it was a sudden and violent revo- lution in the landscape of London’s environs. London County Council built eight huge ‘cottage estates’ on the agricultural outer rim of the capital for working-class people, most notably the Becon- tree Estate which was, with 25,769 predominately semi-detached houses for 116,000 people, the largest housing development in the world.
The experience of leaving the cramped slums of the inner city for the garden suburb was recorded in a 1991 book called Just Like the Country: memories of London families who settled the new cottage estates, 1919-1939
. May Millbank remembered moving as a child from a tene- ment in Somers Town, Kings Cross, to the Watling cottage estate in Burnt Oak. ‘We looked out of the window and my brother who was two years younger than me said, “What’s that over there?” He couldn’t make out what the green was or what the flowers in the garden were and I was glad he asked because I wasn’t sure if the flowers were also called grass.’
Watling Estate is a quintessential interwar garden suburb, a reac- tion against the harsh nineteenth-century slum and a representation of the desire to return to England’s lost (or, rather, imagined) past of villages and rural simplicity. Many street trees were ancient sur- vivors from the hedgerows that had only recently divided fields or lined country lanes. The estate was landscaped with generous green verges, street corners and traffic roundabouts, along with parks and recreation grounds, to give it a village-y, open feel. And then there were the houses (or ‘cottages’), set back from the street with private gardens behind privet hedges.
‘My parents set about developing a garden,’ remembered Joyce Milan of the time her family moved to Page Estate in Eltham, ‘something they had never known but had longed for. Mum was mainly in charge of the operations and it was remarkable what she achieved over the years . . . Every inch of the garden was used, growing flowers of every kind . . . Beyond the gate, we grew vegetables of all kinds, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Even celery and cucumbers were given a try. Mum planted a small apple tree which produced delicious fruit.’ Joyce Milan’s mum was not alone: the 1930s were a heyday of gardening, as semi-detached neighbourhoods became the predominant habitation for the work- ing as well as the middle classes. Many took to gardening because of the sheer exhilaration of owning a patch of green after a lifetime in the inner city. In 1938, a whopping 65,000 people entered the compe- tition run by the London Gardens Society for that year’s best-kept garden. Even if you didn’t want to win a prize there was every incentive to get out with a hoe and trowel: a neat, well-cultivated garden was a condition of tenancy in cottage estates.
For a long time, urbanisation was regarded as a destructive force as far as nature was concerned. Real
nature – untouched, native, uncultivated – existed elsewhere, in the countryside, in reserves, mountains and forests. Domestic gardens were dismissed by a lead- ing ecologist in 1966 as ‘biological deserts’. In reality, the suburban ecosystem had hardly been studied.
It took the zoologist Dr Jennifer Owen to change that. Owen gradu- ated from Oxford University in 1958, gained her PhD from the University of Michigan and took up academic posts in Uganda and Sierra Leone. In the latter country, she made the observation that there was more wildlife in her garden than in the nearby forest. In 1971, back in Britain at the University of Leicester, she began a thirty- year study of her suburban garden of just 741 square metres. During that period, she recorded 2,673 species, made up of 474 plants, 1,997 insects, 138 other invertebrates and sixty-four vertebrates. Because she was unable to study tiny flies and soil creatures, Owen esti- mated that the true number of insect species was 8,450. Similarly, she calculated the plant diversity of suburbia to be 3,563 species per hectare (an African rainforest has up to 135 plant species per hectare). Owen’s garden was not managed as a purposefully biodiverse habitat; it was an ordinary back garden. Yet around 9 per cent of all the species in Britain were found there.
Further scientific studies of gardens in other cities have backed up Jennifer Owen’s findings: urban gardens support a greater num- ber of species than an equivalent-sized semi-wild rural habitat. They are the opposite of ‘biological deserts’: that designation more readily applies to countless acres of monoculture agriculture in the countryside. Suburbia blooms in comparison.
This bounteousness is partly due to the fact that people stuff their gardens with a range of plants not seen in the natural world. It is an extremely complex environment, the long-term global legacy of gardeners such as Loudon. Gravel paths mimic coastline habi- tats; compost heaps are like detritus layers in woodlands; shrubs and hedges resemble deciduous forest habitats; lawns stand in for grazed pastures, sheltering as many as 159 small plant species. There can be a mosaic of different habitats crammed within a modest garden, some wet, some dry, some shaded. In London, there are 2.5 million mature trees in private gardens, making up a considerable proportion of the urban forest. No garden has an identical inventory of plants, so a corridor of suburban yards yields an even greater diversity of food resources for foraging species. Intriguingly, biodiversity is directly correlated to human population size: a small town will have an average of 530–560 plant species; a city with up to 400,000 people will have around 1,000; but once a city passes the million-person mark the number rockets above 1,300.
City gardens, therefore, make up a collective urban habitat con- sisting of thousands of unique microhabitats. It is an ever-changing ecosystem: there are 1,625 native plant species in the British Isles but 55,000 taxa available for sale to domestic gardeners (many of them are almost indistinguishable; the list includes 6,413 varieties of daffo- dil), and fashions continually change. Of the plants in a typical garden, 30 per cent are native and 70 per cent are alien. Owen counted 214 non-British species in her garden from all over Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, providing an abundance of food for herbivores. The flora of the world had travelled to Leicester and made it home.
The emergence of the suburban jungle escaped the attention of ecologists until relatively recently. As we will see throughout this book, the green fringes of cities the world over have, as their ecosys- tems have matured, become an alluring habitat for an impressive and increasing array of animals, birds and insects, many of them endangered by intensive farming and climate change. But none of this was clear during the onslaught of bulldozers and builders. Ecol- ogists saw only destruction.
Los Angeles, the global emblem of nature-devouring suburbani- sation, was a particularly potent example. Promoted as a refreshing corrective to industrial urbanisation, L.A. in its early years offered the perfect combination of city and nature. According to the con- gregationalist minister and L.A. booster, a ‘pauper lives like a king’ in sun-kissed southern California, blessed with a garden in which to grow vegetables and keep chickens, as well as easy access to beaches, mountains, forests and countryside.
It proved too attractive. Looking out of the plane window while flying from L.A. to San Bernardino in 1958 was ‘an unnerving lesson in man’s infinite capacity to mess up his environment’ for an appalled William H. Whyte: ‘the traveler can see a legion of bulldozers gnaw- ing into the last remaining tract of green between the two cities, and from San Bernadino another legion of bulldozers gnawing west- ward’. L.A. turned from dream green city to ecological nightmare, driven – ironically perhaps – by the deep-seated desire of millions of people to live amid nature. The prevailing vegetation types of the region – chaparral and coastal sage scrub dominated by drought- deciduous shrubs – were almost entirely eliminated. The destruction of more or less the entire ecology of Greater Los Angeles, bar a few scattered remnant patches, was a shocking revelation of the power of twentieth-century urbanisation.
Photographs of the post-war subdivisions that eradicated the peri-urban landscape show rows of identical, mass-produced bun- galows occupying moonscapes denuded of trees and plants. It looks like the very definition of ecocide, but this was a landscape also poised on the brink of renewal. Within years, such landscapes would develop a canopy and a covering of exotic plants.
The humanmade biome of Los Angeles is now more forested, more colourful, more shaded and greener than the ecosystem it replaced. Part of the reason is that it is now a wetter place, with vast amounts of water piped hundreds of miles first from the Owens River and then the Colorado River. Water sprinklers became com- mercially available after the Second World War, and this heavily irrigated landscape now supports a mighty assemblage of flora col- lected from every continent on the planet, which thrives in southern California’s balmy Mediterranean climate. Areas of coastal sage scrub do not contain many trees or grasses. By the 1960s, L.A. pos- sessed an area of lawn the size of four Manhattan islands, ninety-five square miles. A survey published in 2019 found 564 species of trees in residential yards compared to four in natural areas. There was a sevenfold increase in plant species per square metre in cultivated areas compared to surviving patches of native habitat.
Anything could grow in Angeleno soil, it was said, if it was watered well enough. L.A.’s new inhabitants took up the challenge: by the 1960s, L.A. led the country in sales of ornamental stock. Set- tlers from the east coast and the Midwest brought their preferences for the English aesthetic which went back to the time of John Loudon – an orderly gardenesque landscape of lawn, eclectic exotic ornamentals and stately, shady trees. They had little appreciation for the native plants of coastal sage scrubland, which is brown for much of the year. In one of the nation’s first mass-produced blue- collar suburbs, Lakewood, there was a fad for jacarandas from the Amazon, pepper trees from Peru and rubber trees from India. Orange and avocado trees took hold in suburban yards. The insati- able desire for a verdant lawn was made possible in the 1960s by hybrid crosses of African Bermuda grass with other African variants that retained their greenness all year round. We are talking about an almost complete species turnover during the course of a century, an urban biome created by generations of residents that is totally dif- ferent from the native ecosystem.
We tend to think of the city’s assault on nature as being one of asphalt and concrete, bricks and mortar. But urbanisation reshapes the edgelands of cities in a more fundamental way: due to the immense acreage of gardens, it replaces native species with alien ones. In temperate countries in Europe, this might not be so much of a problem. For one thing, most of the plants require tender human care and would not live long on their own, so only a few become invasive. For another, garden fashions introduce a lot of resource-rich plants from diverse origins that provide food for insects, upon which all life ultimately depends, including our own.
In Mediterranean-climate and tropical cities, however, alien plants can impact on the regional ecosystem when they escape and become invasive. Lantana camara
(from the verbena family), introduced to Indian gardens from South and Central America, has had a devastat- ing effect on biodiversity, particularly in forest understories. The pretty Amazonian water hyacinth has wreaked untold carnage on riverine and wetland ecosystems the world over. In New Zealand, the colonial desire to Englishify the cityscape with plants familiar to settlers has been fatal to local ecosystems. In Christchurch, out of 317 vascular plant species found in the city, only forty-eight are natives. Many of the surviving native herbaceous plants are considered weeds. Since the arrival of British colonists, over 20,000 alien species have been introduced, many of which out-compete the indigenous flora. In fast-growing cities in Central and South America, Africa and Asia – many of them located in biodiverse hotspots – escapee plants find the climate and soil entirely to their tastes. A study of Ensenada, Mexico, found that 61 per cent of plant species growing wild in the city outside parks and gardens were non-native; a similar investiga- tion in Concepción, Chile, discovered 113 alien plants in streets and waste grounds and hardly any natives at all. As the next chapter details, huge proportions of cities all over the globe are carpeted in manicured lawns. Outside Europe, many of the grass seeds are imported from abroad and, because they are non-native, require oceans of water, pesticide and fertiliser to keep out indigenous flora and preserve the vaunted greenness. Swathes of lawn adorning sub- urban areas bear no resemblance to the ecosystems they conquer and are often lifeless as a result. Turfgrasses are some of the most destructive invasive species assailing the planet.
In the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, the story is less dramatic, but it is a cause for concern all the same. Pelham Bay Park, the largest natural area in New York City, lost an average of 2.8 native plant species and gained 4.9 alien species every year over five decades. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sur- veys of Central Park found 356 plant species, 74 per cent of which were natives and 26 per cent non-native. In 2007, there were 362 spe- cies, of which 40 per cent were native and 60 per cent non-native. The pattern is strikingly common the world over: urbanisation increases
the total number of species present while at the same time inflicting local extinctions. We talk about global cities as monotonous, with similar skyscrapers, cuisines, brands and cafés. But globalisation exerts its force in other ways, largely unseen and rarely discussed. The globalisation of urban nature is known as ‘biotic homogenisation’.
Over the last century, we have transformed the edgelands of cities from their wild, semi-wild or agricultural state to something else – an expansive realm of suburbia, a good proportion of which is a complicated tessellation of very different kinds of open spaces. Generations of ecologists saw this is a bad thing: the modification of the landscape and the replacement of native plants with aliens made it a degraded, profoundly unnatural, messed up place. True nature existed in ‘pristine’ or untouched areas, while suburbia rep- resented all that was bad about the interactions between humans and natural processes.
But there is another way of looking at it. The suburbanisation of the edgelands on a global scale has created ‘novel ecosystems’, hybrid habitats where the artificial mixes with the natural. Urbanisation is a shocking, destructive event for native wildlife. Yet new ways of life are created in the process. Like it or not, this kind of habitat is a real- ity, and it is irreversible. Better to embrace it than wish it away. Right in front of our noses is a lavish, vital ecosystem that needs to be val- ued if it is to thrive. The challenge now is to optimise these vast, often disregarded edgelands ringing our urban centres. Because, like other habitats on our planets, it is endangered.
Imagine the outcry if the London authorities sold off Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Victoria Park, Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest to developers. It would be an unmitigated tragedy, an ecological cri- sis for the metropolis, entailing the sacrifice of 3,000 hectares of recreational space and wildlife habitat. Yet that was the amount of green space lost in London between 1998 and 2006 as gardens were paved over, turned into decking or built upon. And these gardens can be just as ecologically valuable as parks, if not more so.
Although a quarter of London’s surface is designated as garden space, just 58 per cent of it is vegetated. The remaining 42 per cent of potential greenery (10 per cent of London) is simply part of the grey jungle. A massive 12.4 square miles of the metropolis is made up of paved-over front gardens devoted to car parking. In Califor- nia, meanwhile, 33,881 ‘accessory dwelling unit’ (ADU) permits were issued between 2018 and 2020 after changes in the law allowed separate buildings to be built in suburban backyards in an effort to ease the state’s housing crisis. In Germany, by contrast, paving over your garden entails higher water bills as compensation for your part in reducing greenspace. In 2021, there was a campaign in the Neth- erlands named ‘Breaking the Tiles’, in which cities competed to rip up paved areas in front of homes, apartments and offices and replace them with plants and bushes. Rotterdam went head-to-head with Amsterdam in a battle to remove the most tiles. In the end, the score was Rotterdam 47,942, Amsterdam 46,484.
The global trend is going the other way, however, with fewer gar- dens and more asphalt. As gardens begin to disappear or change use, so large amounts of the urban habitat shrink. Furthermore, there are gardens and there are gardens: some contribute far more to the health of the city than others.
Brad and Amy Henderson, a young couple in their 30s, were cited by the city of Lawndale, Los Angeles, for creating a nuisance in 2003. Their crime? – contributing to urban ‘blight’ and creating ‘slum’ conditions by allowing ‘excessive overgrown vegetation in [their] frontyard’. According to Preston Lerner of the Los Angeles Times
, Brad and Amy had rejected the neat suburban garden ideal of trimmed lawn, tidy shrubs and regimented flowerbeds in favour of a ‘chaotic, writhing, tangled hodgepodge of purple sage, dun buckwheat, coyote bush, needlegrass and dozens of other drought- tolerant native plants, all growing in nature’s version of a rugby scrum’.
Brad and Amy were rebels against the ecologically destructive cult of the suburban lawn that had given their city, Lawndale, its bucolic name. Lawns cover 40 million acres in the United States. For city enforcement officials, their yard was a public nuisance; for them, it was a native wildlife garden, ‘an island in the middle of a totally urbanized environment’ in the words of Brad, which did not require destructive inputs of water and pesticides.46
In the end, the Hendersons gained the support of their community and won, agreeing to trim their wild plants when they encroached on the sidewalk. It was a victory for urban gardens that are grown for ecological, as opposed to ornamental, purposes. Gar- dens that are a little wild, a bit messy
– with tall herbaceous plants, infrequently mown lawns and spontaneous growth – fall foul of long-established ideals of suburban beauty and local weed ordi- nances, but they overflow with resources for wildlife, including vital pollinators and invertebrates.
Cities and suburbs need more people like the Hendersons. That is why it is so important to understand and broadcast the potential biodiverse power of gardens, which are, after all, the keystone of the urban ecosystem. They have the capacity to be a boon for nature if we tend them accordingly; they are not merely ornamental or recreational but key microhabitats that can be more
biodiverse than the countryside or a city park. The greening of the urban environ- ment can only happen one garden, one flowerpot, at a time. It can only happen when gardeners fully appreciate the vital contribution their plots could make to biodiversity.
The term ‘ecotone’ is used by biologists to describe the transition zone between two distinct biomes, where ecologies collide and intermingle. It could be the place where a forest meets grassland, or where a river encounters a marsh. The word comes from the Greek oikos
(home) and tonus
(tension). It is a dynamic environment which is constantly being remade: it is a zone of struggle and co- dependency. Ecotones are places of exceptional biodiversity, species richness and adaptation as a result.
We should start seeing urban edgelands as ecotones – as the half-wild interface between human and natural habitats where biodiversity can flourish. In 1978, W. G. ‘Bunny’ Teagle published a short but highly influential pamphlet, ‘The Endless Village’, the result of his pioneering 1,300-mile journey by bus and foot through the post-industrial edgelands of the Birmingham and Black Coun- try conurbation in the West Midlands of England. This scarred terrain had been the founding forge of the industrial revolution that engulfed the world, a human-altered landscape of quarries, mines, slag heaps, factories, furnaces, railway lines, canals, power stations, housing estates and motorways – a ‘jumbled mosaic’, as Teagle called it, capturing the intertwining of human activities and nature. This derelict, abused terrain, Teagle discovered to his surprise, was profuse with life. Neglect had allowed nature to flourish; it had found a niche in these abandoned edgelands, in the scrub, heath, bogs, marshes and woods that had been left to regenerate. This is the new wild. Or perhaps it is the old
wild, a throwback to the scrubby, rugged edgelandia that once girdled cities and provided a retreat for urban dwellers.
Teagle’s findings were specific to the Black Country; but almost every city has a comparable belt of left-over land. It is a wildscape, an ecotone where the artificial and the natural become deeply imbricated. Just over twenty years after Bunny Teagle’s ground- breaking survey of the Black Country edgelands, another discovery was made in the UK, this time in the industrial landscape of Essex. An abandoned oil terminal covering 240 acres, wedged between refineries, new housing, roundabouts and a superstore on Canvey Island, had been fenced off and left for thirty years. This is classic feral edgeland: it had been used for bonfires, trail biking and illegal rubbish dumping. Yet despite its roughness, it contains magic. ‘Can- vey’s Rainforest’, as it is nicknamed, has more species, including a number of rare and endangered species, per square metre than a nature reserve. ‘Nowhere else in the UK has such a richness of nature,’ Matt Shardlow of the conservation trust Buglife told the Guardian
. ‘It’s ridiculously high quality. I cannot think of any site of this size which has such diversity.’
For much of the last century, biodiversity conservation strategies focused on pristine natural environments, overlooking urban habi- tats and scruffy fringes. At the same time, green belts were preserved for agriculture and to limit sprawl; their value for biodiversity and wildlife was disregarded. But the time has come for the urban-rural ecotone to become a priority for nature conservation, because it can be an incredibly productive habitat.
Green belts are a misstep. What the planet needs are wild belts or ecological buffer zones on the edges of cities – wildlife reserves that conserve native ecologies while also serving as defensive walls against severe flooding, poisoned air, water shortages and desertifi- cation. These semi-wild mantles are not merely nice add-ons but economic and existential necessities. As we shall see, New York has reason to rue the near-total loss of its tidal wetlands, and Delhi its encircling forests. We could forget how a city relates to its hinter- land once we dispensed of the need for its food, fuel, building materials and water – instead procuring those energy inputs from ever greater distances – but climate change is forcing us to re- examine the city’s place within its immediate environment.
Writing in 1894, the historian Thomas Janvier bitterly fulminated that the opportunity ‘to create a beautiful city’ in New York was simply ‘wasted and thrown away’. If the street plan had formed around the natural topography of Manhattan rather than a grid, New York would have looked very different, with roads curving with the contours of the land around hills, tracts of woodland and ‘reservations [preserved] for beauty’s sake alone’. As it was, the city planners decreed ‘that the forests should be cut away, the hill levelled, the hollows filled in, the streams buried’ to make way for the rigid, undeviating rectangular street plan.
The alternative New York imagined by Janvier, which grew around its natural topography rather than smothering it, while pre- serving sizeable tracts of wildness, would nowadays be called ‘landscape urbanism’, a way of designing cities to exist in some sort of harmony with their natural surroundings. It is a concept of urban planning that extends back in time to Loudon, who looked upon cities as having the potential to be gardens writ large. Bio-sensitive urban growth is centred on what is called the ‘patch-corridor’ model. Cities can, will and should grow, according to this model, but they can minimise their environmental impact if they concen- trate new developments in dense, moderately sized hubs set amid substantial patches of remnant native vegetation, particularly areas of rainforest, woodland, wetland, grassland, savannahs and rivers. These patches have to be linked by green corridors because that ensures the survival of indigenous species and allows room for ani- mals to range without being fragmented, trapped and isolated by urbanisation. This brings us back to the wild spaces envisaged by Loudon almost two centuries ago, to the demands for green belts and wedges that followed as cities everywhere began to grow at hyper-speed. Only today, the need for such interventions is deter- mined by pressing environmental priorities and developments in ecological science. To put it another way, we have moved from focusing on aesthetics to self-preservation.
We now know that the shadowlands of cities can be exception- ally good for nature, even if they don’t look like conventional wildernesses. It is where wildlife adapts to living in close proximity to humans, an urgent need in the Anthropocene when our greed and waste touch every ecosystem. Urban edgelands can become the wildlife reserves of the future, refuges for numerous species from the intensities of the city on one side and industrialised agriculture on the other, if we preserve them. In the past, the forests ringing German cities, the wetlands surrounding New York and the heaths encircling London were rugged, semi-wild places of escape for the inhabitants of the urban jungle. Imagine if that were the case today – if we could walk, cycle or take a train out of the city not into fields but straight into wildscapes and nature reserves. As we shall see throughout the rest of this book, edgelands will become vital to shield cities from the dire effects of climate change. But they are places of pleasure and escape as well. Fresh Kills on Staten Island was for the second half of the twentieth century a byword for the malign effects of a city on its local ecosystem. But even this site of rampant destruction is becoming the home of a new urban wild.
Copyright © 2023 by Ben Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.