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Book Corner

Natura Urbana

Text by Natasha Varga

Matthew Gandy’s recent book Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space dives deep into the interrelationship between urbanity and ecology. The book is thoroughly researched and well-argued, with theories and personal experiences from the author’s own lengthy history of research. As a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, his research topics cover landscape, infrastructure, biodiversity, environmental history, and epidemiology. This breadth of knowledge is evident in this thoughtful and topical book; which sets out to challenge our conceptions of ecology in the urban context.

Natura Urbana opens with an intriguing chapter on zoonotic disease and ‘synanthropic ecologies’—those that thrive in relation to the human environment. The author then moves into the urban wilds of London and Berlin, where he intertwines his own thoughtful observations with relevant theories on the intersection of nature and urbanity, focusing especially on his personal connections with the spontaneous vegetation and ecosystems of these two cities. This device grounds the sometimes highly theoretical text in a real lived experience. When reading the book, it’s interesting to note that Gandy himself isn’t a landscape architect, though he explores many concepts related to the field—an example of this being the discussion surrounding the idea of ‘wasteland aesthetic.’ He notes that our current use of this landscape aesthetic in projects like the High Line and Duisburg Nord exert a choreographed control over natural systems, but often seem to forget that their aesthetic success lies in their ecological complexity.

Cover art for the Natura Urbana book. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the MIT Press

The text deftly links the scientific study of ecosystems and urbanism into their historical and political contexts, revealing correlations and relationships which are often overlooked. The topics covered seem to span all aspects of social and environmental discourse, from Marxism to feminism and 17th century apothecaries, leading the reader into a profound exploration of subject matter in the areas of landscape, ecology, and social science. The book’s nuanced exploration of ‘invasiveness’ and its association with the idea of ‘nativeness’ doesn’t shy away from difficult political connotations of the terminology. While the final two chapters, “Forensic Ecologies” and “Temporalities,” lean into a fascinating exploration of the moral and legal complexities that arise from evaluations of biodiversity and conservation in the urban context.

Ultimately, Natura Urbana is a dense, but engrossing read that weaves together the social and scientific elements that shape an urban landscape. The author’s sanguine and thoroughly referenced writing is a complex narrative that ultimately ends on a hopeful note: our focus is shifting away from an anthropocentric view of urban landscapes and towards the non-human elements in our cities. Gandy asks whether this new perspective shift away from the colonial and anthropocentric view of urban landscapes can lead us to a more equal and sustainable future. Though the book’s subject matter is expansive and, as a result, not always directly pertinent to the design field, it is a compelling read for any landscape architect who may be interested in a deeper conversation about the interplay between society, science, and the urban wilderness.

BIO/ Natasha Varga is a Ground Editorial  board member practicing in Toronto. Her professional background has focused  on mid-sized projects in the urban realm; having gained experience working for firms  in Berlin, Copenhagen, and London.