Urban Jungle, Covered In Literary Review

We look forward to Ben Wilson’s new book, as reviewed here:

Where the Streets are Paved with Goldenrod

No one, you would think, aspires to be a night-soil man. Yet in the late 1950s, Shi Chuangxiang’s labours in the latrines of Beijing briefly won him national praise. He was proclaimed a socialist hero and met the head of state. Back then, human excreta mattered, so much so that gangs fought for the plummest spots. Why? Because cities, until relatively recently in human history, were a part of healthy ecosystems that operated according to the principles of nutrient exchange: take, use, return, all in neat equilibrium. The spoils of Mr Shi (who was nicknamed ‘Stinky Shit Egg’), collected at a time when synthetic plant food was not widely available in China, became the organic fertiliser that was intended to power the country’s Great Leap Forward in agriculture.

As Urban Jungle makes abundantly clear, this cycle of reciprocity has now been ruptured everywhere. City and countryside have become estranged; moreover, nature has been expelled from urban centres. Rivers have been diverted underground. Wetlands have been filled in. Woods have been unceremoniously cut down. The results are sadly obvious. For the 4.46 billion people who reside in today’s cities, the feel of concrete underfoot and the smell of car fumes in the air are everyday realities. It’s little wonder that depression levels among urbanites are one fifth higher than among their rural peers.

In his new book, Ben Wilson, a London-born historian who – tellingly – now resides in leafy Suffolk, does not set out to depress us further. Instead, with the same upbeat spirit that pervaded his last book, Metropolis (about cities as repositories of innovation), he points in the other direction. Our cities can, to borrow a line from the Thriving Cities Initiative’s vision for creating a circular economy, become places for ‘people, plants, and animals’. The question is ‘how?’

This is not a manual for green-minded urban planners; nor is it an eco-inspired rhapsody. The urban jungle Wilson has in mind is firmly planted in the real world. Rewilding our cities is, he states frankly, ‘impossible’. Wilding them, on the other hand – now that is doable. Across seven main chapters – looking at suburbia, parks, the ‘crack in the concrete’ (think demolition sites, empty lots and so on), trees, water, food and animals – Wilson provides an array of fascinating examples of urban ecology through the ages…

Read the whole review here.

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