Plants among the pavement

Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places

By Helen Carroll

A review of Green City: People, Nature And Urban Places by Mary Soderstrom

Published on April 1, 2007

Green City: People, Nature And Urban Places
Mary Soderstrom

Vehicule Press
$22.95
paper
248pp
978-1-55065-207-9

Novelist and traveller Mary Soderstrom’s Recreating Eden (Véhicule Press 2001) charted a modern interest in botanical gardens, starting with the 16th century Hortus Botanicus at the University of Leiden and its master botanist Clusius. Her further reflections on our need for green space and clear waters provoked this latest book.

In Green City Soderstrom traces that visceral desire back to the emergence of humans on the grasslands of Africa, where green indicated abundant game and flowers offered the promise of fruit. She comes upon a modern paradox: we are territorial, we yearn to own our space, and to get our own scrap of green to cherish we are prepared to pave over the surroundings. Suburban sprawl, massive highways and shrinking green space are some of the dire results.

Soderstrom calls this the Green Paradox, and uses the phrase annoyingly often in an otherwise very interesting examination of eleven cities on four continents. She has recently visited ten of them and wishes she had visited Babylon when it was still available to tourists. Her writerly perspective results in a vignette of Nebuchadnezzar II, when Babylon was a great city set in a fragile green landscape, and she mourns the destruction Haliburton’s heavy machinery has caused to the ruins.

Then she takes us to visit Provins, a delightful medieval city an hour’s drive from Paris. Provins has never grown much larger than its original size, and though there are no longer cow byres within the walls, those walls still stand, protecting the orchards and gardens within the town. Provins was famous for its great fair in the 12th and 13th centuries, and for the red rose its ruler brought back from the Crusades. This Rose de Provins crossed the Channel to become the bloodied Rose of Lancaster. Its descendants still flourish, the most beloved flower in English gardens.

The cities Soderstrom finds most successfully green are the most highly regimented. There is Irvine, an emerald among the dry hills of Southern California, where the administration decrees what is planted; Shanghai, where she finds creative destruction and an official goal to make thirty-five per cent of the city green by moving the populace into highrise apartments; and densely populated Singapore, which claims that fifty per cent of its land is green space. This small, modern nation has also stacked its people in highrises, but gives them ownership of their apartments. It is an island so it successfully limits immigration where others cannot. There are no slums within Singapore, but there is tight government control. Is this the way we have to go?

Soderstrom investigates her cities well. She gives us their history, the personalities of their leaders, and the town planning fashions of the time. We also get a feeling for their landscape and their populations. And she teases out the reasons why they have expanded as they have. Sadly, in cities like Chicago and Sao Paulo, the motivation driving population movement is fear.

Soderstrom has visited her cities, talked to planners, and read city documents. She has observed how city dwellers garden in very small spaces – but she hasn’t talked to them. She hasn’t asked them how they feel about living in highrise buildings. Do they dream of owning a little house with a garden of their own? She has advice for us: slow down and smell the roses. But she forgets that we have to grow them first mRb

Helen Carroll is an environmental activist and avid gardener.

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