The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment


  • Madison Van West



The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment.
Edited by INGRID LEMAN STEFANOVIC and STEPHEN BEDE SCHARPER. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.  $35.00

Reviewed by Madison Van West

Editors Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper believe that there is something unnatural about our cities, but not for the reasons you might think. It is not the concrete, or the high-rises, or the cars—at least not necessarily. Our cities are unnatural because individuals within them lack a sense of place. They lack a spiritual connection to the built environment, and they lack an understanding that our cities are as much a part of the ecological system as trees and meadows. The task of The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment is to begin the work of reconnecting the urban to the natural so that individuals might live more fulfilling and sustainable lives. It is an essential read for anyone involved in city-building, or for city-dwellers looking to gain a new perspective on their role in the urban environment.

Each of the volume’s four sections takes a different theoretical approach to “natural city.” The first section lays the philosophical groundwork for the reader to better understand the natural/urban divide and the pervasive sense that cities are somewhere other than nature, as are the humans that live within them. This viewpoint is an appropriate starting place for the collection, and a theme that runs throughout, as it informs how we approach environmental issues generally and how we build our cities specifically. Technocracy and expert opinion reigns in planning and architecture, usually at the expense of meaning and purpose within our urban spaces that responds to our needs as human beings. Peter Timmerman, in his chapter, is not surprised by this separation, as our literary and philosophical history has been preoccupied with the urban and human mastery over the natural for some time.

In the second section, we see that temples, mosques, churches, and other sacred spaces are not the only built forms imbued with spiritual meaning. In the natural city, the entire city would reflect and respond to the spiritual needs of its inhabitants. This does not presume a single cosmological understanding shared by all, but instead a common understanding that the city is more than its physical composition. Vincent Shen explains that this is logical for Daoists, who view the Dao as being embodied in the way we create and navigate cities. In his chapter, Stephen Scharper argues that religion is not a necessary element of this shift. He cites Aldo Leopold’s land ethic as means to facilitate this ideological shift in urban planning to focus on the integrity of the biotic community rather than solely the human community. This perspective is, in my view, among the most important contributions to literature on urban planning, which is notably lacking in discussions of religion and spirituality in the built environment.

The third section focuses on the role of society in the natural city, both as creator and inhabitant, with an eclectic group of authors whose connection to one another is not always readily apparent. For example, Richard Oddie’s work on acoustic ecology and soundscapes in cities bumps up against Trish Glazebrook’s ecofeminist approach to engaging the cityzenry (her term to distinguish residents of a city vs. residents of a nation). This section also offers an international perspective through John B. Cobb, Jr.’s case study of China and Shubhra Gururani’s of India, which describes the challenges of sustainable development and the impact of development on society’s ability to access the necessities of life, respectively. The chapters in this section may appear dissimilar, but they find common ground in themes of politics, citizenship, quality of life, and urban development.

To close, the final section considers praxis, or the linking of theory and practice in building the natural city. William Woodsworth makes explicit the fact that the City of Toronto is built on the land of Aboriginal communities, and their legacy remains in both the artifacts still under the ground and the modern architecture that channels the spirit of the city’s former inhabitants. Complementing this historical approach, Robert Mugerauer writes of city-building that reflects ecological systems within nature; healthy cities with clean air and soil and thriving watersheds. Above all, this section highlights the fact that cities are always changing, and it is our responsibility to guide that change in a way that reflects the human need for creativity, the biological need for adaptability, and the need for all life to thrive into the future.

Though only a few chapters were mentioned above, it is clear that this collection is truly interdisciplinary; offering works in the field of philosophy, anthropology, theology, engineering, architecture, and more. This breadth exposes readers to many fields of study that may not always be in communication with each other. The virtues of interdisciplinary learning have been widely espoused, especially in environmental studies, but in this context it is especially important, as the task of creating the natural city will involve the collaboration of entire societies. The collection also manages the challenge of discussing complicated concepts in clear language, successfully balancing a depth of analysis and accessibility of concepts.

So, what does the natural city look like, and how do we get there? In the end, the answer is not explicitly clear. What is clear from the collection is that to discover the natural city requires a paradigm shift; a change in thinking that will compel individuals to view urban environments not as cold or devoid of life, but instead as natural spaces full of inherited spirit, meaning, and potential. This collection starts the dialogue on reintegrating the natural with the urban; an essential topic for the survival of human and non-human alike.


MADISON VAN WEST is a Masters in Environmental Studies and Planning Candidate at York University. She is currently working to uncover new forms of public involvement and community engagement in city building.



How to Cite

Van West, M. (2014). The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment. UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies, 18, 58–59.