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Urban Nature: (The) Good and (The) Bad

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Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS,volume 333)


The article discusses the evolution of the relationship between nature and the urban environment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States, a relationship which was mainly framed in terms of public health issues. From the first hygienist utopias, it examines how urban ecologies developed through the analysis of the great figures of urbanism, who are the source of urban theories and utopias. Ultimately, it explores how environments today are redesigned and standardized for health ideals enrolled in the tradition of urban planning. The article argues the following thesis: spatial and urban planning have long been the tools of biopolitics, i.e. political engagement in all dimensions of life in order to monitor, preserve and control it. Public health becomes the objective of biopolitics as the way we tried, from the eighteenth century onwards, to rationalize the problems posed to government practice by the phenomena resulting from an assembly of living beings making up a population: health, hygiene, birth, life and race relations. It was then that some key concepts were shaped (such as population), forms of knowledge (such as statistics and demography) and practices (hygiene, public safety, etc.). These notions are all linked with the development of modern urban planning conceived as a discipline. To act on the territory is to act on the population, categorised as bodies.


  • Urban health
  • Nature in the city
  • Spatial planning
  • Biocontrol

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  1. 1.

    See the website of the l’Association Nationale des Villes pour le Développement de la Santé Publique: Accessed on December 4th 2017.

  2. 2.

    The collective work by Roderick Lawrence and Gilles Barbey (2015) shows the difficulty of assessing quality of life and health in the environment. See also Lawrence 2006.

  3. 3.

    I presented the great variability of the perceptions of nature in my thesis Nature in the town defended in 1996.

  4. 4.

    Albert Lévy (2012) presents the various aspects of this question.

  5. 5.

    This is particularly evident in Rousseau, who even assigns value to the most isolated and uncultivated places (the sea, mountains, etc.). According to Jean Viard (1990), and also Keith Thomas (1985), it took the development of cities and urban life to develop a special taste for the countryside and nature. It is thus in a setting away from the countryside, rural nature, which had been created beforehand at the cost of daily work and through a popular knowledge of the natural environment, that this taste for nature, rural and untamed, was built. It was a setting aside of “natural” space for the benefit of town dwellers, a setting aside that would reach its greatest visibility with the creation of the natural parks.

  6. 6.

    Owen 1972, pp. 59–60.

  7. 7.

    Fourier 1822, p.566. (The translation into English is by the editors).

  8. 8.

    Cabet 2003, p. 58.

  9. 9.

    Cabet 2003, p. 36.

  10. 10.

    Richardson 1876, p. 19.

  11. 11.

    Richardson 1876, p. 20.

  12. 12.

    Richardson 1876, p. 24.

  13. 13.

    Quoted by Choay (Choay 1965, pp. 142–144) and by Roncayolo & Paquot (Roncayolo and Paquot 1990, pp. 81–89). (Translation by the editors.).

  14. 14.

    Quoted by Choay 1965, p. 142.

  15. 15.

    According to Jean-Claude Perrot (translated by the editors), “from the functional perspective, it is a question of trimming, grafting, and modifying nature. Thus a populationist policy through the control of empiricists (midwives, surgeons, apothecaries), the surveillance of epidemics, the birth of social medicine (free consultations)” (Roncayolo and Paquot 1990, p. 39).

  16. 16.

    Luginbuhl 1992, p. 28.

  17. 17.

    Guillerme 1983

  18. 18.

    Jean-Claude Perrot notes in his analysis of urban history that “la perception des fonctions urbaines résulte d’un glissement analogique depuis des domaines de connaissance déjà constitués. Le bagage épistémologique provient des sciences de la nature animée. Avant 1750, la philosophie des sciences était cartésienne, puis newtonienne; après 1750, elle devient vitaliste. Elle porte à saisir la ville comme un être vivant et lui donne une nature (the perception of urban functions is the result of an analogical shift from already constituted areas of knowledge. The epistemological background comes from the animated natural sciences. Before 1750, the philosophy of science was Cartesian, then Newtonian; after 1750, it became vitalistic. It led to understanding the town as a living being and giving it a nature)”. The author adds that these analogies are still common today: “sous nos yeux, l’analyse des fonctions est en train de céder lentement la place à celle des structures et le vocabulaire biologique (artère, cœur, croissance) à l’outillage de la mécanique astrale (axes de circulation, pôles de développement, ville satellite, nébuleuse urbaine..) (before our eyes, the analysis of functions is slowly giving way to that of structures and biological vocabulary (artery, heart, growth) to the tools of astral mechanics (axes of circulation, centres of development, satellite town, urban nebula, etc.)”. (Roncayolo and Paquot 1990, p. 38, translation by the editors).

  19. 19.

    Guillerme 1994. Translation by the editors.

  20. 20.

    Stefulesco 1993

  21. 21.

    Luginbuhl (1992, p. 43, translated by the editors) explains that “l’hygiénisme et l’esthétisme contenus dans l’urbanisme du second empire, empreints du sens moral déjà souligné, ne sont pas pour autant dénués d’un sens social: la ville s’organise en effet dans une différenciation socio-spatiale, comprise également dans des espaces verts (...) Si le besoin de beauté et de santé, c’est à dire de nature, est effectivement un des arguments de l’organisation formelle et sociale de la ville, il reste dans les pratiques et les discours fortement teinté d’une idéologie paternaliste et ségrégative (the hygienism and aestheticism contained in the urban planning of the second empire, marked by an already emphasized moral sensibility, are nevertheless not devoid of a social sense: The town organizes itself in a socio-spatial differentiation, included also in the green spaces (...) If the need for beauty and health, that is to say nature, is indeed one of the arguments for the formal and social organization of the town, it remains so in practices and discourses strongly tinged with a paternalistic and segregative ideology)”.

  22. 22.

    Roncayolo 1990

  23. 23.

    Choay 1965, pp. 277–290; Roncayolo and Paquot 1990, pp. 252–255; Ebenezer 1946

  24. 24.

    Thomas 1985, p. 277.

  25. 25.

    Re-published as Garden-Cities of Tomorrow, new ed. with prefaces by Sir F. Osborn & Prof. L. Mumford, Faber & Faber, London, 1946. Translated into French by L. E. Crepelet: Villes-jardins de demain, Tietsin press limited, China, 1902, pp. 15–26, 83–84, 77–79, 81, 128, 134.

  26. 26.

    IAURIF 1978

  27. 27.

    Roncayolo 1983, p. 149. But the principles of garden cities as described here would not be respected when they were realized. In England, these garden cities would be suburban cities quickly adsorbed into a continuous urban fabric. While in France, under the pressure of various constraints, “la cité-jardin n’est qu’un quartier de l’agglomération, une réponse à la question du logement et de l’habitat salubre (the garden city is only a district of the agglomeration, an answer to the question of clean and healthy housing )”, gradually what was a project of individual dwellings then became a series of collective buildings. We drift then “du mythe de la nature vers l’équilibre des formes et des masses (from the myth of nature towards the balance of forms and masses)”.

  28. 28.

    Roncayolo and Paquot 1990, p. 229.

  29. 29.

    Hygienism has inaugurated a unitary view of the town as a space for the generation of diseases: the urban territory appears as a medical/health unit (Murard and Zylberman 1985).

  30. 30.

    Gropius 1935, p. 102.

  31. 31.

    Le Corbusier 1986, pp. 61–63.

  32. 32.

    Choay 1965, pp. 233–249.

  33. 33.

    Le Corbusier’s urbanistic work is of little significance from the point of view of realizations, including never executed blueprints. However many of his books had a great influence on a whole generation of architects and town planners.

  34. 34.

    Choay 1965, p. 243.

  35. 35.

    Castex, Depaule, Panerai 1980, p. 140.

  36. 36.

    Translation in Butler and Parr 2005, p. 32.

  37. 37.

    Le Corbusier 1986, p. 95.

  38. 38.

    Many American thinkers on urban planning travelled to Europe as part of their training. However, beyond the transfer of ideas and similarities in the relationship between nature and the town, it must be borne in mind that the place of nature in Europe and North America and the history of European and American towns are very different. European nature is the pastoral, bucolic and possibly cultivated nature, whereas the American nature emerges from untamed nature, the wilderness.

  39. 39.

    Choay 1965, pp. 297–311.

  40. 40.

    Wright 1945, p. 3.

  41. 41.

    Wright 1932, p. 25.

  42. 42.

    Choay 1965, pp. 379–384.

  43. 43.

    Duhl 2011, p. 137.

  44. 44.

    Lavoisier 1776, p. 147.

  45. 45.

    Guillerme 1983, p. 202.

  46. 46.

    See Special Issue 3 “Machines au foyer” of Culture technique published in September 1980 by the Centre de recherche sur la Culture technique.

  47. 47.

    Luginbuhl 1992, p. 44.

  48. 48.

    It is still a logic of the milieu, used by urban planners. Detached from a global reflection on society, they base social changes on the context of the built environment that constitutes their only field of intervention.

  49. 49.

    Luginbuhl explains that Haussmann’s achievements in particular are tainted by a segregative and paternalistic ideology (Luginbuhl 1992, p. 43).

  50. 50.

    IAURIF 1979

  51. 51.

    Foucault 2004a, p.24, (and for the translation of this excerpt into English, Garrett, Jotterand, Ralston 2012, p.101).

  52. 52.

    Foucault 2004b

  53. 53.

    See, for example, the Green Paper on the Urban Environment , a Communication from the Commission to the Council and Parliament, Brussels, 1990.

  54. 54.

    The white paper by the Architects’ Council of Europe: Europe and Architecture Tomorrow.

  55. 55.

    The Charter of the Society of European Spatial Planners, 2003. Accessed online on December 4th 2017:

  56. 56.

    The following observations are the product of a workshop organized by LADYSS in the context of a reflection on cultural ecosystem services and concerning the relationship between health and environment: The relationship to living beings as a condition of habitability, June 4, 2015, National Museum of Natural History (MNHN).

  57. 57.

    Searles 1960, p. 6.

  58. 58.

    From the 1980s, geographers developed many works related to quality of life and well-being (Bailly and Racine 1988).

  59. 59.

    Bloch 1995

  60. 60.

    Robert Lenoble states that two periods of thinking on nature can be distinguished in the eighteenth century: “l’une qui étend les principes du mécanisme à tous les détails de la nature, mais surtout invente une métaphysique mécaniste de l’homme, où la raison pure, réduite d’ailleurs à une mécanique de sensations, suffit à assurer le bonheur; puis à partir de 1750, une réaction violente de l’affectivité, qui éclate chez Rousseau dans une apologie totale du sentiment (one which extends mechanistic principles to all the details of nature, but above all invents a mechanistic metaphysics for man, in which pure reason, reduced, moreover, to a mechanism of sensations, is sufficient to ensure happiness; then from 1750, a violent emotional reaction, which bursts out in Rousseau in a complete apologia of the sentiment)”. Rousseau’s relationship with nature and then that of the Romantics is not characterized in the same way as in the text of the Encyclopédie de d’Alembert and Diderot. The definition of nature in this very Encyclopaedia clearly shows an effacement of the symbolic force of the idea of nature in the first half of the XVIII century. The article refers to nature in other terms such as the system of the world, cause, essence and being. Nature in itself is nothing. We refer to God and Providence in the articles, if we understand by Nature “l’action de la providence, le principe de toutes choses, c’est à dire cette puissance ou être spirituel qui agit et opère sur tous les corps, pour leur donner certaines propriétés et y produire certains effets (the action of providence, the principle of all things, that is to say, that power or spiritual being who acts and operates on all bodies, to give certain properties and produce certain effects)”. And when we speak of the action of nature, in the Encyclopaedia, “on n’entend point autre chose que l’action des corps les uns sur les autres, conformément aux lois du mouvement établies par le créateur. C’est en cela que consiste tout le sens de ce mot, qui n’est qu’une façon abrégée d’exprimer l’action des corps et qu’on exprimerait peut être mieux par le mot mécanisme des corps. (we understand nothing but the action of bodies on each other, according to the laws of motion established by the Creator. It is in this that the whole meaning of this word, which is but an abridged way of expressing the action of bodies, and which may be better expressed by the term mechanism of the bodies)” (Lenoble 1969, pp. 342–344).

  61. 61.

    Viard 1990, p. 115.

  62. 62.

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his lectures at the Collège de France published in 1995 defines nature in these terms.

  63. 63.

    Hadot considers nature as a hidden entity, guardian of secrets (Hadot 2004).


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Blanc, N. (2019). Urban Nature: (The) Good and (The) Bad. In: Bretelle-Establet, F., Gaille, M., Katouzian-Safadi, M. (eds) Making Sense of Health, Disease, and the Environment in Cross-Cultural History: The Arabic-Islamic World, China, Europe, and North America. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, vol 333. Springer, Cham.

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