City/Nature or Nature is NOT a Saint Bernard

I just finished reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by renowned urban theorist and critic Jane Jacobs. Much of her writing exactly echoes my sentiments toward suburban sprawl development versus more community-oriented (or city/urban) development. Her book is entirely felicitous for the current state of Haverstraw, as the ever present tide of suburban ideology continues to infringe upon the Village’s urban nature. This excerpt is particularly appealing:

“In real life, barbarians (and peasants) are the least free of men — bound by tradition, ridden by caste, fettered by superstitions, riddled by suspicion and foreboding of whatever is strange. ‘City air makes free,’ was the medieval saying, when city air literally did make free the runaway serf. City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from subsistence farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs.

“Owing to the mediation of cities, it became popularly possible to regard ‘nature’ as benign, ennobling and pure, and by extension to regard ‘natural man’ (take your pick of how ‘natural’) as so too. Opposed to this fictionalized purity, nobility and beneficence, cities, not being fictions, could be considered as seats of malignancy and — obviously — the enemies of nature. And once people begin looking at nature as if it were a nice big St. Bernard dog for the children, what could be more natural than the desire to bring this sentimental pet into the city too, so the city might get some nobility, purity and beneficence by association?

“There are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimental ideas imply, at bottom, a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world’s champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world’s most voracious destroyers of wild and rural countryside.

“It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized suburbanized shadow of nature — apparently in sheer disbelief that we and our cities, just by virtue of being, are a legitimate part of nature too, and involved with it in much deeper and more inescapable ways than grass trimming, sunbathing, and contemplative uplift. And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have the killed the thing they thought they came to find. Our irreplaceable heritage of Grade I agricultural land (a rare treasure of nature on this earth) is sacrificed for highways or supermarket parking lots as ruthlessly and unthinkingly as the trees in the woodlands are uprooted, the streams and rivers polluted and the air itself filled with the gasoline exhausts (products of eons of nature’s manufacturing) required in this great national effort to cozy up with a fictionalized nature and flee the ‘unnaturalness’ of the city.

“The semisuburbanized and suburbanized messes we create in this way become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow. These thin dispersions lack any reasonable degree of innate vitality, staying power, or inherent usefulness as settlements. Few of them, and these only the most expensive as a rule, hold their attraction much longer than a generation; then they begin to decay in the pattern of city gray areas. Indeed, an immense amount of today’s city gray belts was yesterday’s dispersion closer to ‘nature. . .’

“Nature, sentimentalized and considered as the antithesis of cities, is apparently assumed to consist of grass, fresh air and little else, and this ludicrous disrespect results in the devastation of nature even formally and publicly preserved in the form of a pet.”

— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


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