The living city Why cities don't need to be green to be great

Des Fitzgerald

Book - 2023

"Everywhere you look, cities are getting greener. From London to New York and beyond, city governments are investing billions in planting trees, installing green roofs, and building micro-parks. The innovations get even bolder, from a "forest city" in China covered entirely by trees to a program in Melbourne that connects citizens, by email, to their local flora. All of these programs, as sociologist Des Fitzgerald points out, are founded on the same general assumption: there is something innately wrong or unhealthy with urban life today, and that nature holds the cure. In The Living City, he argues that this assumption is fundamentally flawed. Talking to the eclectic group of policymakers, urban planners, and dreamers who ar...e building the city of the future, Fitzgerald explores the real roots of our desire to connect cities to nature. The Living City takes us on a tour of the green city movement, from healing forests of South-East Asia to the cognitive architecture of Southern California, through a lab examining the neuroscientific effects of our surroundings to a start-up that's crowd-mapping hidden nature in East London. Along the way, Fitzgerald untangles the often-centuries old ideas undergirding what, exactly, we mean when we think of "nature" - and why we see it as so irrevocably distant from city life. He argues that many urban design programs stem from a Romantic - and misguided -- view of nature. While he isn't opposed to green spaces, Fitzgerald wants to probe the efficacy of attempts to build them into cities. He argues that they aren't the ultimate panacea that many futurists think: after all, how can a line of trees, or an intrusive app designed to show you where those trees are located, truly improve physical and psychological health on a massive scale? At their most useless, green spaces can end up as flowery decorations, "healing" ways of pushing up house prices. Instead of using green space as a band-aid, Fitzgerald proposes that we examine and fix the root issues, like labor rights and work conditions, contributing to urban unease. Ultimately, he makes an argument for celebrating our cities as they are, not as we'd like them to be - in all of their noisy, constructed, artificial glory"--

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New York, NY : Basic Books 2023.
Main Author
Des Fitzgerald (author)
First edition
Physical Description
v, 265 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. City Life
  • Chapter 2. The Garden Bathed in Sunlight
  • Chapter 3. A Rat in a Maze
  • Chapter 4. The Conquered City
  • Chapter 5. Save Me
  • Chapter 6. The Twentieth Century Did Not Take Place
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

"We're overinvesting in nature as a panacea for what are actually fairly mundane urban problems," according to this garbled if intermittently intriguing debut from Fitzgerald, a sociologist at University College Cork. He inveighs against the greening of urban areas (which can consist of planting trees, constructing roof gardens, or opening new parks) but largely sidesteps arguments about the climate benefits and instead takes aim at the moralistic claims of urban planners and architects throughout history. Primary among them is landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whom Fitzgerald portrays as a figurehead of the 19th-century movement to build urban parks out of a paternalistic impulse to keep working-class urbanites "physically fit and morally good." He contends that denigrations of city life as "unnatural" belie the racist and classist underpinnings of anti-urban sentiment, suggesting it instead stems from decades of "telling young and mostly White college students and their parents that the city is, somehow, a dangerous place, a dying place, and, sotto voce, perhaps, increasingly, a too racially diverse place." Though Fitzgerald makes a provocative point about how class and racial anxieties have fueled disdain of urban areas, it's unclear whether he's "against green cities" or rather against their moralizing advocates. There are stimulating ideas here, but the execution feels muddled. (Nov.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A vivid look at a key controversy in city planning, written for a popular audience. To Fitzgerald, a professor of medical humanities and social sciences, urban planners fixated on the idea that more green spaces makes a better city believed "there was something about our cities that was simply bad for us." Granted, the cities into which humans began flocking after 1800 were crammed, filthy, and wildly unhealthy for anyone except the wealthy. As the century progressed, reforms and technology relieved the worst features, but even today, it remains an accepted belief that crowded cities are sinks of stress and mental illness. By the mid-19th century, planners such as Frederick Law Olmsted had the solution: bring the natural world back into to the city, "so that it was not really a city at all," but rather a massive landscaped park with hundreds of buildings. This "garden city" remains a powerful influence, perhaps epitomized by Le Corbusier's iconic designs, which place citizens in scattered skyscrapers among vast tracts of open land for rest and play, connected by multilane freeways to distant offices and factories. Although Fitzgerald agrees that greenery improves a city's quality of life, he doubts that it exerts "a quasi-religious, even transcendental effect on nearby humans" and worries that "we have given too much weight to people who don't actually like cities very much." That "our buildings should align with complex, natural, evolutionary processes" remains a city planning mantra, and this skeptical overview gives its opponents up-to-date ammunition, although they will likely remain a minority. The classic love letter to the messy, unreformed metropolis remains Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but open-minded readers will relish many of Fitzgerald's interesting arguments in favor of traditional city structure. A lively, opinionated, eminently debatable contribution to a surprisingly bitter debate. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.