(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 438: The Urban Jungle

June 21, 2023

This week we’re joined by Ben Wilson to talk about his most recent book Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City. We chat about how plants took root in the rubble of wars and blank spaces and how cities could be more circular and sustainable.

To listen to this episode, visit Streetsblog USA or our hosting archive.

Below is an AI generated unedited full transcript of the episode.

Jeff Wood (41s):
Well, Ben Wilson, welcome to the Talking Headways Podcast.

Ben Wilson (1m 13s):
Love you to be with you. It’s a delight.

Jeff Wood (1m 15s):
Awesome. Well, thanks for being here. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ben Wilson (1m 19s):
Well, I’ve always been passionate about history. So history has taken me on the, like a really interesting journey through my life. I was, I’ve been lucky to work for myself to take my passion for history, which I could developed for probably when I was about five years old. And to really write history, I think for the general public, for people who are curious about the world and to follow the things that I’m per personally interested. Cause that’s where my, my passion comes from, to be inspired by the things that, that I like and hopefully communicate that to as wide an audience as possible. Always curious about the world. Always finding new and interesting ways to write about history. So I’ve covered quite a broad range in my writing career. I, I studied history at university and I, I never, I’ve never had a job, which is, which is a sort of, kind of an amazing thing and always written and always found a way, one way or hour to communicate with the world as a writer.

Ben Wilson (2m 10s):
Lived most of my life, well, all my life in the uk, but traveled widely to lots of cities. You know, that’s become a sort of passion in my more recent writing career is to write about cities and Urban issues. So I’ve been around the world and I’ve studied in places like Lagos, Nigeria, I’ve been to Mumbai, I’ve, you know, various places in the United States. I’ve kind of tried to sort of bring a sense of place to my writing. So it’s been an interesting life and I enjoy a lot and there’s always, you know, a new strand to pull on. And I guess the most recent one has been to marry an interest in, in ecosystems with an interest in history as well, and an in an interest in cities. So I’m trying to bring all those things together and that’s what I meant earlier by trying to find new ways to write about history and quite a sort of fresh, and an interesting way to write about history now is to try and sort of look at history in a kind of ecological sense, or look at, you know, how much we’ve used ecosystems.

Ben Wilson (3m 2s):
Cause a lot of the time I think traditional history kind of ignored that or didn’t bring it into it so much, but we, we live at a time where our own concerns with climate and the environment is so pressing on us that it’s interesting to look back at the past on those terms.

Jeff Wood (3m 16s):
Was there an inflection point in your writing, or at least in, in your career as a writer looking at history that you started to see cities as this kind of connective tissue between all the things that you were thinking about? Or was it something that was interesting to you early on when you were younger or a kid?

Ben Wilson (3m 30s):
Well, I was born in London, didn’t live there all my life, but I kind of found it and really got embedded in the layers of history in London when I lived there as a, in, in my twenties. Always walked everywhere, kind of discovered the byways and connections and all those kind of, you know, the, the way that history I I is like a layer is like sort of visual archeology that you can kind of trace and put together. So I think, and I was writing a lot about people who lived in cities. In one book I wrote about in the mid 19th century, I wrote about the kind of connections that were developing in the world through things like the invention, the telegraph, and the big sort of technological changes that that came across the world. And that’s really what led me into more specifically Urban history because what I was com becoming interested in was these interconnections between people, you know, where history’s made, where connections are made, where kinda innovation happens.

Ben Wilson (4m 20s):
So cities seemed like a very good way to locate those changes, you know, where people come together and, and innovate and where ideas are generated and sparked. And that kind of curious alchemy that happens in cities, the way that the unexpected happens. That’d always been a sort of part of my writing. And I, I wrote about George in London and print writers and subversive radical satirists and writers and the way they interacted in, in cities was always kind of intriguing to me. But to do that more explicitly has become something, I guess that I came to. And I thought, you know, it, it is informed about what’s going on in the world as well. You know, I, I was kind of conscious, I was writing at a time when the world was urbanizing very quickly.

Ben Wilson (5m 2s):
There was a huge kind of revolution going on, but I kind of, it seemed in some ways sort of disconnected with the past. So to bring back an idea of, of how cities functioned, what cities, the sort of poss the sort of myriad kind of infinite possibilities that happen in cities at a time when I thought that, you know, in a way our cities were becoming much more constrained and we were losing a sense of the kind of the face-to-face kind interactions in cities, the kind of joy that cities can bring, that they were becoming far too much places of kinda outrageous growth and kind of economic change that actually the bringing back the kinda human dimension. What makes cities pleasurable seem to me before covid, you know.

Jeff Wood (5m 41s):
Well that’s another question I have is like how the pandemic impacted your love or your, or interest in cities and some of the things that changed over that period of time. I mean, your, your first book Metropolis came out kind of right as it was taking off the pandemic

Ben Wilson (5m 53s):
Yeah, playing in the middle of it when really what I, what I’d written about was, it was in the background of a lot of sort of hype about cities as being, you know, that we’d become a fully urbanized species. You know, more than 50% of people have become city dwellers in about, let’s say 2010. It was around, about then. No one knows exactly when that happened. And there was a kind of Urban led kind of renaissance going on. You know, the, the, the urbanization of China, for instance was, was huge. The way that a city I was particularly interested in, probably the city that o of all places kind of led me to writing about cities as places where history could be told was Shanghai, which, you know, in the late eighties, early 1990s was, was a real sort of smoggy backwater.

Ben Wilson (6m 36s):
And for lots of reasons it had been kind of sidelined by the Chinese Communist Party because it had been a, a place that had connected with the rest of the world and had been a source of radicalism of political instability. But it then became the kind of symbol of Chinese modernity. And I found it, you know, that Shanghai kind of represented in a way a kind of, you could tell a history of the world almost from Shanghai, from a time when it was sort of more or less dominated by the Western powers and sort of carved up between them and then became a place of resistance, a very cosmopolitan place between the wars and then a site of the beginnings of the second World war. And then the beginnings, you know, in more subsequent times of of times opening up to the world and a kind of aggressive urbanization, which has been exported and the shapes city skylines around the world, the way that Shanghai consciously kind of took on a kind of sky skyline.

Ben Wilson (7m 26s):
So I was writing in that background a place where, where there was a lot of kind of excitement about cities. There was a sort of talk about exporting the Chinese model to African cities, so always was very consequential. And then a talk about, you know, the, our future was Urban and that a few sort of global superstar cities were sort of having a kind of disproportionate power in the world, whether it was a sort of Silicon Valley kind of Urban ideal or whether it was a big city like Lagos in Nigeria, which was, you know, sucking in huge amounts of people and really kind of sparking an Urban renaissance. And so I went to those places. I went to all, you know, lots of places like that, the kind of the slums of Mumbai or the kind of like a, you know, a pioneering city like Singapore and tried to sort of, you know, blend together all those things and, and to relate them to history.

Ben Wilson (8m 11s):
And the things I was celebrating was the kind of the way the cities bring people together and it’s exciting. And then as it came out, covid happened. So a lot of the stuff that I was talking about and celebrating the antithesis was happening that we, rather than coming together, we were being asked to stay apart and cities became kind of inversions of everything that I was saying. So I kind of hope when the book came out that it was a reminder of a more hopeful time that people could read when they were sort of stuck and imprisoned in cities that a reminder of the sort of the face up in the markets, cafes, town squares, all the places where that kind of Urban interaction have manifested itself in the past for something that when we were thinking about rebuilding cities after the pandemic, you know, hopefully that those were things that could inspire people to rethink, you know, the Urban life should be about pleasure and innovation and, and the sparking generation of ideas and the coming together of people as they have been throughout history that maybe in a way of rebuilding cities after pandemics and their, their aftermaths of people working from home are kind of flight from the city.

Ben Wilson (9m 10s):
That there was something still valuable about cities. That we still need them and we still need them more than ever. I think, you know, history has always sort of happened in cities, hasn’t it? Those ideas, those fast interactions of ideas, the collision of ideas, the collisions of people, the bringing together of people from different backgrounds, the reinvention of people’s lives and lifestyles in an, in an Urban environment is still really important. And we shouldn’t forget that in an age where we are working more remotely and, and being disconnected that that cities are hugely pleasurable places, they’re hugely interesting places. The way that the sort of the human ant heap kind of emerges over time. Cities have really, really interesting histories and they change very quickly. And that was, you know, even a city like Los Angeles, which I was kind of in my kind of tour of world Cities was the one I thought would have maybe have the least history.

Ben Wilson (9m 56s):
But actually I was kind of obsessed by history when I went to Los Angeles. And even though I said, you know, go around London where history is very obvious, Los Angeles isn’t so obvious cause it keeps in reinventing itself. But you don’t need to know much about Los Angeles or particular bits of Los Angeles to sort of realize how quickly the turnover of history has been and how, you know, things like geopolitics, the history of the Cold War history of race relations are all sort of, you know, can be told from sort of unique little sort of bits of the city and just a dry, you know, a city like Los Angeles, we have to drive around. I’m more used to walking around cities, we kinda an automobile based safari around the city, kind of, it is, you know, if you bring a historical consciousness to it, it’s hugely interesting.

Ben Wilson (10m 39s):
So all cities have that, you know, all districts of cities or bits have their own unique little histories that, or big histories or microcosms of histories that we should value. And they all sort of tell us something about ourselves. And at a time when we were kind of shocked you kind of bending away from cities from that kind of, you know, idea confidence and sort of swagger of cities that yeah, there was something that we should go back to. And that coincided also with thinking about cities as, which is the subject of my more recent book, which is the way that cities and their ecosystems are, are gonna be very, very important to how they develop in the future.

Jeff Wood (11m 13s):
Yeah. Well let’s talk about your book Urban Jungle The History and Future of Nature in the City. I wanna know what your relationship is with nature and the actual Urban environment. We often talk about the Urban environment as kind of the place where we live, including all the concrete and everything else, but it also includes the plants and the nature that lives in the city. So I’m wondering what your relationship is with the Urban environment more generally?

Ben Wilson (11m 34s):
There’s lots of ways to answer that question, but my personal relationship I guess is that having been a city dweller, the, the sort of discovery going around the corner and finding a patch of wild vegetation or an ancient tree or a sort of leftover bit that wasn’t built on is kind of remarkable I think. And you know, and I, I’d sort of got very obsessed with the kind of the human aspects of cities, but what I kind of found when I was writing and researching the book was the nature in the cities is a mirror of our kind of activities. You know, that these are very unique Urban ecosystems that develop in cities and they’re not natural in a sense that there’s a sort of primeval nature that exists beneath the concrete or in sort of unused patches.

Ben Wilson (12m 17s):
But the seeds that come to the city, the way that nature responds to us is this sort of historical dimension I wanted to bring to this book because the history that I celebrate about the emergence and development and the kind of evolution of social and sort of architectural evolution of a city is, is really, it finds its counterpart in the natural world, which is easily overlooked. And so my relationship with it has changed significantly by writing it, but I notice much more because almost the eye is trained to look away from the vegetation and look towards the human and the kind of the buildings, the activity, the, the way that people relate to each other, that you almost sort of step over and ignore something that’s equally remarkable, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, which is this, the way that nature can thrive in cities, but also be really, really surprising.

Ben Wilson (13m 6s):
And yeah, as I say that charting the history, a bit of nature in the cities was not looking at a static thing, but it was looking at something that was very, very dynamic. You know, so my relationship to it is that, you know, as an exercise in noticing and looking and also history of kind of knowing where, where are the origin points of some of the plants that grow in cities, you know, how do they get there? What are they doing there? That’s very, very intriguing to me. And so yeah, my relationship has changed significantly. The kind of plants I value in cities has sort of shifted a bit from seeing nature as sort of incidental to actually seeing it now as something that has been, and still is something that city dwellers need, not just for their recreation but for their kind of protection from climate and climate change and the way that, you know, it’s a defensive part of cities as much as it is an aesthetic and sort of beautiful part of cities.

Jeff Wood (13m 53s):
I’ve noticed since I read the book that I’ve, I have been noticing plants that I might not have otherwise noticed or actually plants that I did notice, but I thought that they were weeds. Right. Yeah. There’s something that is just not insidious, that’s not the word I’m looking for, but just like they’re everywhere. Yeah. And I don’t think they’re a native species to San Francisco, but there’s this one plant that seems to get into every crack, every area around my house and all up the street. But I know that nobody’s planted it and it’s not, you know, it’s something that people usually rip out if they get a chance. I had noticed that before, but I noticed even more after reading the book. And I, and I appreciate that because I think it’s interesting to rethink your city every once in a while and see it in a different light, especially as it relates to nature.

Jeff Wood (14m 35s):
You have an interesting story about weeds in the book and I was wondering if, when you were doing the research for the book, is this something that you expected to, you know, find out more about was weeds and the definition of weeds and what we think of as weeds? And that word is just so it’s so loaded, right?

Ben Wilson (14m 50s):
Really loaded. Yeah. I mean, I gave a talk recently in the city of Bath in, in, in England, which, you know, most people will know of if they’ve seen any kind of costume drama of this kind of elegant, beautiful Georgian city, the epitome of kind of the politeness of the 18th century. the city I knew, cause my grandmother used to live there, so I knew it was a child, but I hadn’t really been back much before I gave this talk. And I spent, before I gave the talk, i I wander around the streets and there were lots and lots of what we would call weeds growing. When I gave my talk, I said, I said to the, the people who have bath through had come along to the talk, why have you got so many weeds? And I kept correcting myself and saying, they’re not weeds, it’s spontaneous vegetation, you know, you shouldn’t call it weeds cuz weeds is, is so loaded, but spontaneous pages is the stuff that’s allowed to grow there.

Ben Wilson (15m 33s):
This beautiful city had amazing diversity, biodiversity was incredible in kind of the things that were growing up amongst these kind of very, very elegant Georgian buildings. And one of the reasons I asked moments is, why do you have so much? Was it, are you very permissive or do you just spend all your time looking at the buildings and not at the pavement? And, and never quite, no one was able to quite answer the question, but yes, I think that the idea of weeds, spontaneous vegetation was something that I didn’t know an awful lot about. I’d always seen as maybe a bit of, a bit of a nuisance or I’d seen people ripping them out. But what I kind of discovered in the book, I mean, so the history of this and where the sort of, the starting point from my interest was what happened during the second World War in European and Asian cities was amongst the sort of huge destruction, especially in, in European cities, you know, and less lesser degree in, in Britain.

Ben Wilson (16m 19s):
Although parts of London and other cities were, were hit quite badly was that were, were people noticed was the huge amount of vegetation growing back very, very quickly on the rubble. And it wasn’t the vegetation that people expected to find. So one example was when, when London burnt down in 1666, it was covered by a kind of species of rocket. It was called London rocket. And that wasn’t seen at all to 200 years or so later in the, during the blitz, but there was a whole new plant species. There was plants that would, would you normally find in the highlands of Scotland or on the slopes of Mount Aetna or in Peru, or you know, in mountainside, similar thing in Berlin. There a whole species of plants that were adapt to rocky Mediterranean shores was suddenly popping up in Berlin and all kinds of other species.

Ben Wilson (17m 4s):
So where did they come from? So some, in the case of Britain, some of those spontaneous vegetation followed the railway lines from Scotland. They’d adapted themselves to sort of harsh rocky terrain and they’d found this sort of super highway that took them into the city. They’d escaped from gardens that escaped from parks and made their way to the, either from the city or had made their way into the city. They came on the turnups of men’s trousers. They came in the nose bags of horses that came to clear away the rubble. They came in the treads of tires. So what that toll people, and when people began to look at the history was that throughout all time seeds had come into the city through, you know, our activities, through our love of novelty, of bringing, you know, plants from around the world and putting them in cities.

Ben Wilson (17m 49s):
And they kind of jumped the fence as it were. And, and, and, and arise spontaneously. And what, you know, this sort of fixed people’s notice on, on cities. Oh, and another very good example was a species of plant that arrived in Berlin, a kind of a step vegetation that had come with the red army, with Ukrainian cavalry that arrived in Berlin carrying their seeds incidentally. And suddenly you get tumbleweed outside the sort of the main railway station at West Berlin, which is still there. And then o other species that saw the, you know, destruction, the piles of rubble. They were perfectly adapted. Th this was a great opportunity for them. And then in London, you get species of birds that come to London in the blitz that had never been seen in London before because suddenly there was this kind of whole rocky landscape that they could exploit.

Ben Wilson (18m 34s):
And now that was very, very vivid to people because they wanted to see a recovery, a signs of a recovery at a dreadful time. But this had, this was something that had been happening over the millennia really in cities, was that trade and things like that had bought all kinds of seeds into the city, germinated their seeds that were kind of a disaster, loving seeds that kind of adapted to the results of, of forest fires or cliffs or, or salt marshes or whatever like that found cities that kind of very hospitable place that the idea of Urban ecology really began in Berlin with West Berlin during the Cold War when West Berlin was sealed off and there were a lot of rubble sites that hadn’t been cleared away. Places like London, they were cleared away and rebuilt on quite quickly in Berlin.

Ben Wilson (19m 17s):
Lots of empty space was left, they were called bracken. And so you could see the development of an ecosystem in these places and a turnover of species. And so one of the heroes of my book is a, a chap called Herbert Zup, who was a biologist in West Berlin. Normally, you know, ecologists would go out into the countryside or things like that, but they had very little chance in West Berlin. So they turned inwards and lurked at what was going on in this bracken the fallow fields and found a diversity of, of species in the city growing spontaneously that far exceeded parks and actually far exceeded the local countryside. You know, these were species that that were non-native to, to that part of Germany, but were were kind of happily merely exploiting these empty spaces and creating these hugely valuable ecosystems with rare plants.

Ben Wilson (20m 3s):
Plants you didn’t find anywhere else. The insect populations, the bees, the butterflies and things like that, that, you know, these very important pollinators we’re having a great time in these sites. You don’t have to have your city bond for this to happen there. There are so many waste sites in cities, empty spaces, gaps between buildings, gaps between uses, where actually this nature was flourishing everywhere. It wasn’t just in the, in the damage that was simply that it gave it prominence, it gave it a kind of a reason to study it. But actually, you know, once you turn the gaze onto cities as a, as a, as an ecologist, you find a very high species turnover. As the human population grows, you find more species. All these things seem counterintuitive that, you know, the the bigger and more densely sort of used and populated the city becomes, it actually manifests a huge degree of nature.

Ben Wilson (20m 51s):
And these places where, whereas parks, the bakers of grass, very manicured and sort of grown for ornamental reasons, that the, the where, where nature sort of front flourish best is, is the cracks in the concrete. You know, could be between, you know, behaving stones and sidewalk walks, along roads on railway lines, wrong side roads, you know, in those empty spaces. And actually what I sort of, sort of found that, you know, an American city, a city of the United States will have between about 10 and 25% of its land at any one time will be wasteland as as, as a cycle of growth of building and destruction and rebuilding. And it’s in these sites that actually, you know, they’re huge, they’re bigger than the often the, the public parks.

Ben Wilson (21m 33s):
And that’s where, where nature’s to be found, you know, where, where there’s a huge amount of incredible biodiversity. So whether it’s in more formal places like backyards and gardens that people have created or in the wastelands that that, that actually cities have this huge amount of biodiversity, which is not just there, but it’s interesting cause those seeds are there for a reason and they do sort of chart and follow our, our changing habits, our tastes, the way we trade, the way that, you know, we build, you know, so all that I think was really, really interesting. Now, I walk through cities and this has been a, a recent feature of I think cities in the UK and continental Europe is to more or less in public spaces to change your aesthetics.

Ben Wilson (22m 18s):
Cause once upon a time, well and, and still is that people see spontaneous vegetation as very messy. I’ve noticed that there’s a beginning of a change in, actually, it’s not there completely, but there’s a beginning of a change of a more permissive idea of nature, a change in aesthetics to kind of value sort of messy spaces as, as places of of life, not of not of dereliction, but they’re, they’re habits that are really hard to change because people tend to see those kind of spontaneously occurring species as signs of, of dereliction and people and people not caring and of maybe of of social breakdown, but look at it a different way. And, and they become sort of, they should be sort of places that are cherished to a certain extent, they and cherished partly because they are temporary.

Ben Wilson (22m 58s):
That sort of the, the sort of remorseless nature of the city of the building. And rebuilding means they’re not there for very long. But while they are there, the species that can emerge are incredible and incredibly diverse and, and really, really surprising. And so if you approach it as a historian, ask why, why those species are there, then cities become actually really interesting places, ecologically, you don’t have to go out into the countryside or to a national park or to an area of wilderness to actually find a kind of wilderness on your doorstep.

Jeff Wood (23m 27s):
There was a really interesting Twitter exchange and maybe a couple of weeks ago or last week, there was somebody who I guess is very formal, wants very rigid and orderly neighborhoods and they saw their, one of their neighbors I guess, or somebody in their neighborhood’s house was overgrown with plants and they said, this is why we need homeowner associations, which in the United States they can govern how you mow your lawn and those types of things. And it turns out that, from my understanding anyways, that the person whose house that was, was a biologist who had let their let their garden grow because they understood the importance of pollinators and those types of things. So it’s like this very intense reaction and, and understanding of what is needed, but also how people feel about their, their Urban environments and what they crave in terms of order or not is another matter.

Ben Wilson (24m 14s):
Yeah, totally. And I think, you know, American cities used to be, especially in their period of kind of very, very tumultuous growth in the 19th century, had a lot, did have a lot of leftover space and, and had a lot of, you know, depending on the region, you know, lots of spontaneous vegetation sort of lot marked by sunflowers, maybe they were, they were a big kind of things, lots of prairie type plants that were, were growing in cities, lots of kind of imports from Europe and things like that. Hugely kind of beautiful but also ugly, you know, beautiful if you’re a biologist ugly, if you are a sort of homeowner and you know, the go, the government of the environment of the American Urban environment by weed ordinances is, is is a kind of interesting story of, of a kind of very sharp and sudden change in attitudes and an association with plants that grow spontaneously as kind of like, as like sort of the drs of the drs of the plant life.

Ben Wilson (25m 1s):
We kind of mirrored the sort of drs of the human life that they were kind of camping out on, on waste ground. And it was very, you know, very kind of pejorative terms, very kind of associating, you know, weeds with an ill governed city and then a kind of very rigorous policing of suburbia as it developed and a kind of sort of, you know, an aspirational thing to have the perfect lawn and to have a well ordered garden and to keep, keep up with the Joneses, but also a fear of kind of offending local authorities and, and people that could, could really come down hard on you if you didn’t sort of maintain your property very well. But if you, you know, gardens, you know, backyards are huge contributed to the Urban ecosystem. Open space is, is enormous in the Urban environments. It’s very, you know, gardens are very important and how they’re managed, whether people change their attitudes is, is very different.

Ben Wilson (25m 47s):
But the legal case that kind of established it was the, was a chap called John Gold who was a lawyer in some Lewis Missouri. And he, when he took it to the state Supreme Court, the kind of the argument against him growing, you know, spontaneous vegetation was that it was ugly. He said, it’s not, it’s the source of life. We were all dependent on this. But yeah, he was still ordered to cut it down and, and that case is the precedent for enforcing weed ordinances. But again, it’s, it’s a, it’s a change of fashion. There are plenty of, of garden designers in the United States who are kind of, who are arguing against that suburban aesthetic and trying to make garden, you know, gardens look and feel and be much more biodiverse, you know, wherever that catches on is a hugely different matter.

Ben Wilson (26m 31s):
But it’s sort of about education, I think. And what do you want your, how do you tend to your garden is really important. It’s a lot about ideology, it’s a lot about fashion and it’s quite heavily politicized really, you know, know. And it’s, do you go out into your garden? Do you appreciate it as a space that’s well ordered? A kind of part of which does have a long history in cities of kind of controlling and taming nature and bending it to your will or do you look at it as a source of life? And so take pleasure in the bees that are out there here, who’s, who’s that yard backyard for I think is question you have to ask you and then asked very seriously because yeah, because this is another sort of thing that I kind of discovered writing the book was that, that the countryside can be very impoverished biologically speaking cause we spray crops manage that very heavily, but those pressures don’t exist in cities so much.

Ben Wilson (27m 19s):
The need to kind of put down pesticides and weed killers. It is just isn’t there in the same way that it is in the country. So we have to grow a lot of crops depending sort of how you manage and, and deal with the land is, is important. And I think we’ve, we forgot for a long time the contribution that cities could make to biodiversity, especially as cities have sprawled and grown so much and encroached on so much countryside that actually, what do you give back? What should you give back? These are, these are all political questions, they’re all moral questions and it’s a question of how we answer them. You know, I answer them one way, you know, which is to encourage spontaneous vegetation, but I totally appreciate how much that offends other people and how the preference is for other people is, is hugely different.

Ben Wilson (28m 0s):
And it’s not a question of forcing it on people, I don’t think it’s a question of, you know, education. And I think what I’m trying to do in the book is to talk about how cities were very much in the past connected to their ecosystems and were sort of wild and messier places and it’s kind of quite a recent thing that we’ve, we’ve had this desire to ti tidy them up and to, to spray and, and cut and trim and, and hack back the vegetation and, and to ask why that is and how we can in in the future change that if we wanted to. And if we value that as a, as an important contribution to increasing biodiversity for some people it’s a no-brainer for other people. It’s a much longer process to sort of come to terms with that and accept that the cities can look and feel a different way.

Jeff Wood (28m 42s):
You mentioned kind of the far further fields and crops and those types of things and the symbiotic relationship between cities and the hinterlands. And I found this chapter and specific portion of your book about night soil very interesting about the kind of symbiotic relationship between people and, and how they’re fed. And this excrement harvesting night soil, the movement to take what was seen as waste and use it to grow makes me feel like American cities didn’t do things correctly,

Ben Wilson (29m 8s):
But not just American cities. Yes. I think, I mean a lot of the, what I’m writing about in the book is about how cities were very much once dependent on their media ecosystem or on their hinterlands, you know, how over time we came to manage the flow of water, the production of food, the use of trees, the use of fuel, that all those things were moved further and further away from the city. So cities sort of almost sort of appeared to float away and they’re in a little bubble a self-contained sort of very human based, you know, and human, a human world. It was detached from nature. And that is particularly relevant when it comes to food and food production that, that for a long time, you know, the, the richest agricultural land was on the edges of cities because cities produce a lot of nutrients in the form of excrement, whether it’s human or animal.

Ben Wilson (29m 58s):
You know, in the time when cities were powered by horses, you know, the amount of manure that was produced was prodigious, was huge in a New York was called the dung heap of the universe. And Brooklyn was the farm. It was the farm of New York was one of the most agricultural rich places in the entire United States produced a vast amount of proportion of the vegetables for the United States in a very small area because it was, had nutrients from a small area. Paris was, was famous as a place of market gardens that could produce vegetables all the year round of vegetables and fruits and then, and, and feed the whole of Paris and export it to, to London because it had so much kind of amazed Londoners that you could get melons and, you know, bizarre times of the year and salads at Christmas and what have you because they, they worked their land, very, very small bits of Paris.

Ben Wilson (30m 48s):
They worked very hard with all the dung that was being produced by the horses that produced it. And that that system collapsed as soon as motorized vehicles came along. Similarly, you know, in Chinese Japanese cities, landlords would export urine and human experiment. And it was part of the kind of rental agreement with, with tenants that they had this kind of, you know, this golden juice as they called it that was taken not very far to the edge of the city. the city made fit by processes that made them a able to use it as very fresh fertilizer. And we’re talking, this was the system that worked in case Japan probably right up to the beginning of the 20th century. And in China until relatively recently, you know, right, really recently, the, the, the collection of night soil as it’s politely called was, was a huge business and was usually important.

Ben Wilson (31m 34s):
You know, there was a slogan in China in the fifties of, you know, city workers get to work and, you know, help with our harvest. So yeah, that, that’s a symbol I think of a symbiotic relation that, that cities kind of contain within them and produce more nutrients than anywhere else in the world. Whereas a lot of it is flushed away and then becomes a problem. And this, this was an argument of, of Marxists in the, in the 19th century and beyond, was this kind of waste, this big turning of a, a circular system into a linear one, one of kind of consumption and expulsion in the form of pollution. And then that still happens, I dunno what it’s like in the United States, but in in my country, there’s a huge scandal of the amount of sewage which is continually poured into rivers causing huge ecological destruction and, and destruction of people’s pleasures who want to use and swim in rivers and and beaches.

Ben Wilson (32m 19s):
It’s a, a massive, massive problem and sort of symbolizes that that kind of, you know, I, you know, the, the, the cities have went from being kind of having a circular things in terms of food and water and all kinds of things to being ones of, you know, of consumption and, and expulsion on sort of gargantuan scales. And that is a problem. And it is one that, that is a problem of particularly modernity and industrialization, but it’s one that you know of some cities in the world are, are taking very seriously, such as Amsterdam, which is plans for a totally circular economy where the city uses and reuses recycles, uses nutrients, puts it back into, into agriculture, becomes much more self-sufficient in terms of energy and production consumption, all those kind of things.

Ben Wilson (33m 4s):
And it becomes, you know, going towards the idea of zero waste and a totally sort of circular economy, wherever that’s possible. Not it’s a different matter, but it’s certainly a, a return to how cities kind of used to be in, in all kinds of ways, you know, that, you know, one interesting kind of aspect of that that I was kind of in interested in the book was that cities once were surrounded by forests because that was the source of fuel and building materials. And so cities needed to have a be belted with a huge amount of forest and was soon as you know, the first country that really moved away from that kind of model of urbanization, you know, city plus forest was the United Kingdom that was flood exploiting coal on a, on a, a very, very vast scale from the 16th, 17th century onwards.

Ben Wilson (33m 45s):
And then just cut, simply cut all the trees down. Whereas cities in on continental Europe were dependent on timber as a source of fuel and building shelves way into the 19th century. So had big state managed for or municipally managed forests on their peripheries, which still to a certain ex extent exists now as a kind of wonderful sort of contrast between city and forest.

Jeff Wood (34m 6s):
They’re very well manicured and managed too. And

Ben Wilson (34m 8s):
They’re well managed. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (34m 10s):
And I was in Heidelberg and I, I used to run track cross country and I was went across from the schloss and there was this trail and it goes through the forest and I was like, there’s, there are no leaves on the ground, there’s no twigs or anything. It’s like very manicured and, but it’s a beautiful place. Yeah. It’s, it’s, there’s a trail that goes through there, but I was just amazed at the, the forest management of the place this in Heidelberg. It was just crazy.

Ben Wilson (34m 30s):
Yeah, well they, the forest is very central to the German imagination and it, and they were lucky that they kind of fell in love with forest as a place of sort of leisure as they were falling out of use as a source of timber. So they, they stayed in municipal hands. But I, the, the point I’m trying to illustrate is just how much, you know, cities, you know, and it is symbolized by, by agriculture and, and food production that the cities were, you know, Urban agriculture was a big, big part of cities, you know, like going back to Los Angeles, you know, up until just after the end of the second world war, in the beginning of being able to transport food over vast distances and things like that. This, the Los Angeles was the city of farms, you know, a huge amount, 25,000 farms of varying sizes within its limits and produced all its own food.

Ben Wilson (35m 14s):
And it will, that wasn’t unusual for cities to produce food so closely and so and so nearby and to circulate, you know, nutrients. So we’ve moved away from that really know relatively recently I’d say. And that kind of detachment of cities from, from their local environment is, is a big story of urbanization really. And one that’s not always told, I don’t think, when we think about cities in their evolution. So that was one I was keen to tell and to relate it to sort of issues we have in the present, which is the future su sustainability of cities and the role they can play and to see it as a sort of historical process, a thing of historical interest and that the history does have something to tell us that we can manage cities in a, in a way that they were managed once before and in a much more sort of environmental sense that our idea, I think came along that we could engineer our way outta problems.

Ben Wilson (35m 60s):
And I think at an age of increasing floods and increasing temperatures that our engineering is simply not enough that we have to go back now where once we needed the forests for fuel and building materials, we now need the trees to protect us from higher temperatures and from floods and we need river in the same way that rivers were once sort of, you know, protective and sort of vital life sources and then got kind of pushed underground or marginalized or turned into sewers that actually they are, they all sort of, and you know, those, you know, rivers and wetlands and things like that, things that were sort of erased from the kind of promethean Urban experiment, you know, where we kind of thought we could go to land and we were going much more back towards those ideas that the trees and regulators of temperature, that rivers and wetlands that were kind of engineered away, you know, in cities all over the world actually now, you know, learning to live with water in excess water in cities is a really kind of important thing.

Ben Wilson (36m 59s):
And that means to a certain extent re naturalizing the landscape. You know, there’s pioneering American cities like Philadelphia, which is kind of transforming the hard surface into much softer, more rugged, natural sort of water catchment areas that, so it doesn’t go pouring straight into the sewage system or flooding houses that, that it becomes a much more idea of a sponge city where sort of the natural sort of hydrology or, or kind of restored or artificial natural hu hydrology is paradoxical as that sounds becomes once again a kind of important way that cities kind of exist within their environment and interact with their kind of ecosystem. So it’s interesting, it’s interesting we’re kind of doing it because we’re kind of almost being forced into it, but I think that’s kind of almost how cities operate that they are, cities are very adaptive and they’re very adaptive to, to the outside threats.

Ben Wilson (37m 47s):
So I kind of expect to see a kind of more of a trend going back towards using nature more in cities. You see it in cities that are very kind of advanced in this and the anticipated climate, the effects of climate change very early like Singapore, which began it in the, in the 1990s or Dutch cities, which are combine an amazing livability, a kind of, you know, a walkability cyclability within cities, a density within Urban cause but with a, a way of managing water and bringing nature back into cities. They show how that can be done. It’s not a utopian kind of idea. It’s a, it is a very practical idea and a very kind of worthwhile things. And it, and it has a kickback.

Ben Wilson (38m 28s):
It does, you know, having more vegetation and appreciation for vegetation and it makes cities a nicer place to be. You know, and it’s, one example is the sidewalks kind of the, the verges in Australian cities take up 7% publicly owned land. 7% of the city is huge, you know, things around the size of roads and roundabouts and intersections along sides of roads by people’s houses. So neglected land is always moan and now there’s kind of competitions for who can grow the most sustainable drought-resistant plants and they look beautiful. They make make streets a much more pleasant place to be and so do trees. And it’s a sort of tragedy that that cities in Asia and in places like India, which were once famous for being kind of cities that were half ci, they integrated to dense urbanism with, with trees are being cut down, you know, in a kind of race for modernity and against the wishes of the people who actually use vegetation as a resource for food and medicines and things like that.

Ben Wilson (39m 24s):
And for shade that these cities, the one once famous for their trees are being denuded of trees with huge kinda ecological consequences with, with peaking temperatures, with sandstorms that come in, floods and things like that. It’s, you know, you see the dangers once you strip away nature. That nature was a resource. When we stop seeing it as a resource and purely as ornamentation, then we lose that connection with it as a, as a vital living and important, you know, corollary of Urban living and a kind of necessary one as well. You see that being played out. You see good news stories and bad news stories, but where all of them underline the kind of the importance of having nature in cities of, of having some sort of accommodation between what we value about cities, which is often their, their density, the kind of the activity of human life.

Ben Wilson (40m 13s):
But, but the kind of huge amount of space that cities create for nature that we don’t utilize. So it’s, there’s acres and acres of flat roofs which are terribly underutilized whilst, you know, which also help with flood preventing flooding, retaining water, but also with regulating the temperature within buildings. You know, it’s a huge kinda, you know, thing that’s out there that’s, you know, you know, vast amounts of, of underutilized Urban space. So I think that’s one thing that also kind of, I came to realize when I was writing the book and I kind of look out for more and more is, is the unused space, the space, the possibility that exists in cities to insert nature in and how innovative people can be in, in slotting it back in.

Ben Wilson (40m 54s):
And how much that desire has always, always existed amongst Urban dwellers is to live amongst greenery. It’s always been the dream going back to the hanging garden of Babylon and through to the Rome of Nero or the, the mogul gardens of Indian cities in the, in the 16th century and what have you or the kind of garden squares of London or the creation of Central Park or whatever those stories are. There’s always been this very kind of almost utopian but certainly ideological and heavily sort of politicized and aesthetic desire to live with nature in cities. And it’s always been a kind of dream. I think it was a big part of the kind of development of American cities as well was to be different from European cities and to, and to have a, a cities that balance the nature and, and urbanism a much more from the very beginning of kind of American urbanization and it, it’s one that we should, we should sort of stick true to really and, and find ways of constantly reinventing, you know, that we have ages where parks with kind of the antidotes to slum living now.

Ben Wilson (41m 49s):
We should have sort of trees as a kind of trees and vegetation as a kind of way that that that encourages people to, to live in cities and come back to cities and find pleasure and joy in them and places where you can bring up families and connect them with nature whilst living having the best of both worlds. However we try and do that, you know, we’ve, we’ve tried it in many, many different ways. You know, suburbanization was, was one of them.

Jeff Wood (42m 12s):
What’s been the reaction to the book so far in terms of folks thinking about cities, Urban, greening, everything related to the things that you talk about?

Ben Wilson (42m 21s):
Well I think sometimes you’re preaching to the converted when you write books like this so you get a lot of support that sort of generally people who are quite in favor of it. I’ve yet to have any kind of serious negative rea I think some people might think, oh you know, it’s utopian, it’s pie in the sky if you don’t like cities you don’t like, you know, you kind of see cities as as the problem. That’s one reaction I think is that the cities are sort of remorselessly kind of destroying nature and not creating it. So for people who reject cities, it’s an argument sometimes falls on deaf ears a little bit. I’m a kind of realist in this kind of thing that cities can and should exist. They, they are a way of by people living more densely and more sustainably. That’s a good thing surely. And that, you know, that cities aren’t always the problem that, that that the argument should be with containing, you know, not wishing cities away.

Ben Wilson (43m 8s):
I think another reaction has been to share and to get people to see their cities in a different way. And I think lots of people I’ve spoken to have begun to, to notice things growing in their cities much, much more and to appreciate what they see growing and to notice it where they hadn’t done before. So I think that’s been a really, really nice reaction. The other thing is that I’ve got some reactions have been quite interesting that there’s a lot of people, there’s a big movement for companies in general businesses to offset their emissions with rewilding projects and some of the danger is that there’s a lot of greenwashing that goes on and an attempt to sort of, to find sort of quick and easy solutions or things that look like they’re natural in doing good things. So there is an interesting kind of way that the corporate world sort of tries to sort of piggyback on these kinda things and kind of bend them to their needs.

Ben Wilson (43m 53s):
But actually, you know, you kind of lose the kind of spontaneity and community aspect cause at the end of the day they should be about communities and how they decide for themselves, what kind of nature they want and how they innovate and, and what kind of environment they want to live in. That’s really, I think always been to my mind and writing this book. Cause a lot of this book is about resistance as well. It has been resistance to the way that cities have been changed and change has been forced on people and green spaces have been taken away from people and the kind of nature they want. So a lot of the book is about how people have had to sort of try and sort of do things for themselves. So, so I worry about it being sort taken away from people cuz this should be a kind of common endeavor, not a kind of corporate kind of way of kind of greenwashing and kind of covering up yeah, their crime.

Ben Wilson (44m 35s):
But that was an interesting response actually to the book and one I hadn’t anticipated was the way that you kind of get a sort of people trying to sort of use these ideas for their own kind of, you know, less than pure ends to sort of cynicism about it. Which was kind of, which something I hadn’t anticipated, but you know, maybe is the sign that attitudes are changing in some strange way.

Jeff Wood (44m 57s):
The other question I have for you is, you know, I imagine that you’ve been in talking about your book and thinking about it for a long time obviously, but is there something in the book that you don’t get asked about that you wish you could talk about more?

Ben Wilson (45m 8s):
That’s a really good question. I think one of the things that I found really interesting, but maybe it’s just a personal interest, is what happens on the kind of the edge of cities as cities grow and change and push out and expand. And I found that kind of that liminal zone, that kind of the, the boundary between city and countryside or city in wilderness or city in sea or city, you know, city and Jungle whatever. It happens to be a really interesting place where, and historically really interesting that process of urbanization as cities have pushed outwards from their sort of original cause their sort of dense centers into, into countryside is a really interesting process. But maybe I, maybe I’m just sort of, that’s something that’s personally interesting to me.

Jeff Wood (45m 51s):
I think it’s really interesting, especially in light of what’s happening here in California where some insurance companies have recently decided not to insure houses because of the wildfires on the wildland Urban interface, right? So we’re getting closer and closer to nature on the edges and the forests and things and the insurance companies are like, nope, we’re not gonna, we’re not gonna support that. And so there’s that tension between the edges. Right. That’s really, really interesting.

Ben Wilson (46m 16s):
Yeah. And what effect will that have that will stop you from getting mortgages presumably?

Jeff Wood (46m 18s):
Yeah, because if you can’t get an insurance, the mortgage companies won’t allow you to get a mortgage and so it, you, you either have to pay in cash to build a house and then hope that it doesn’t burn down and have to Yeah. You know, build another one or the state is gonna have to pick up the slack in some form or fashion, which that’s a lot of money and, and political face that people are gonna have to either save or, or or push off. So it’s super interesting

Ben Wilson (46m 41s):
And the same will happen to coasts I would imagine. I think the kind of the insurance and people will stop ensuring people are, cuz coastal urbanism has been a huge, huge thing and, and it’s been really consequential I think for yeah, an ecosystem we don’t talk about very much, which is the coastal ecosystem, which is the source of a lot of life and a very, very important for, for the interaction between land and sea and very important for the global kind of environment. But you know, we, we like to push down to the coast, you know? Yeah. Whether it’s in Dubai or Lagos or Mumbai, we know reclaim land from the sea and surely, you know, the same effect will happen on that edge as well. That very important edge,

Jeff Wood (47m 20s):
Especially sea level rise. Right. Like just the Yeah. Managed retreat that needs to happen. And, and that’s another insurance thing, like you said, it’s, it’s Florida. Whether that’s they’re gonna backfill all the, the insurance that’s gonna disappear or not. And what that’s gonna do to the state budgets and things like that is amazing. There’s a stat in the book that I found really interesting related to this topic as well, is that two thirds of Urban land will have been built since 2000 by 2030. Yeah. And so, if you think about how much we will, will build in the future to get to that point of two thirds of what’s being built by 2030 mm. That’s a lot of building and that’s a lot of resource extraction. That’s a lot of edge city Yeah. Construction. Right. And so I just thought that was really fascinating and it’s, and it’s a stat that I’ve heard before and in, and numerous different ways.

Jeff Wood (48m 2s):
You know, people say by 2050 or 2060, you know, we haven’t seen most of the things that have been built yet, but that is also scary to a certain extent to me.

Ben Wilson (48m 11s):
Yeah. It’s really scary because, I mean, a lot of the, where that urbanization is happening is in biodiversity hotspots around the world in Africa and Asia, places, which, which are hugely important for the life of the planet and how we urbanize on, on, on those edges. Cause we want urbanization to happen. So how the edge of the city interacts with the ecosystem it’s going into is really, really important. And I think the cities have always done it quickly and without thinking, you know, the kind of expansion of any major city in Europe or the United States or wherever hasn’t been that concerned with, with the edges. It’s taken sort of maybe a little bit of interest and preserved a bit, but it hasn’t done it in a very systematical thought through way. And I think, you know, if the climate emergency is as, as nice as we think, then the, the battle will transfer to the edges of cities.

Ben Wilson (48m 56s):
It’s where wildfires happen, where flooding happens and things like that. So urbanizing on the edge is really, really important. And I think there’s a huge opportunity there as well to have a kind of more dense form of urbanization, which preserves patches and corridors of nature on their edges, which is surely a much better way of doing it. And those edges will be the ramparts of the city will ramparts that once defended cities against, in invading armies. But those edges will become the ramparts that defend against natural, you know, disasters and emergencies and things like that. So we, we would do really well to, to think much more intensely about the edge zone of the city. Cause it is really important. And it, it is interesting if the market dynamics and, you know, few events have their say and to turn out to be much more important than, than our conscious planning, which would probably be within the tradition of the, of the history of cities of sort of, you know, confronting disaster and being shaped by them and responding to them is probably, when you look at the bigger scheme of, of cities, whether it’s wars or recessions or diseases or pandemics, whatever it happens to be, they’ve always kind of, cities always been shaped by disasters as much as they have been by their successes.

Ben Wilson (50m 3s):
So that’s, you know, that could be yet to be a kind of, you know, a future for, for our urbanizing planet. But I think, you know, whether Whether you like it or not, Whether, you are kind of into this or not, I think it will become, it will intrude more and more into our lives and our politics, the way that cities and nature interact. You know, that we got away with it for a long time, but I think those days are over whether we want to think about it or we don’t. It’ll be something that, that we, we have to confront like the Dutch who live in their sort of low lying country, but have learned to deal with the sort of the threat of nature, the threat of what, you know, badly managed urbanization can do. And they’ve done it in an innovative and very necessary kind of way,

Jeff Wood (50m 41s):
Make way for the river.

Ben Wilson (50m 43s):

Jeff Wood (50m 44s):
So the book is Urban Jungle, the History and Future of Nature in the City, Ben Wilson. Where can folks get a copy if they wanna buy one?

Ben Wilson (50m 50s):
Well, all good bookshops online retailers, of which there are several can read it as an ebook. But yeah, ask your local bookstore support your local bookstores. What I’d say. Well,

Jeff Wood (51m 1s):
Ben, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Ben Wilson (51m 4s):
That’s been loads of fun. Thank you so much.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free