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It takes more than trees to build a livable city

Why green cities might not be the panacea we think they are.

A drawing of a person holding a shovel and walking away from a row of recently planted trees. Getty Images
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

Des Fitzgerald’s new book, The Living City: Why Cities Don’t Need to Be Green to Be Great, reads like a provocation. The idea of green cities — urban spaces where trees and plant life are integrated to make the environment more sustainable and livable — is so prevalent that there are very few cities in the United States and around the world that aren’t pursuing it in some form.

Fitzgerald, a professor of medical humanities and social sciences at University College Cork, Ireland, doesn’t think the explicit goal of adding more trees is bad, exactly. He acknowledges that planting more trees can have a cooling effect on a warming planet and can benefit people living in cities. But, he writes, he wanted to consider why “so many planners, architects and policymakers [are] so fixated on nature as the solution to all of the city’s problems.” Fitzgerald, who previously co-wrote a book about the intersection of mental health and urban living, started noticing in recent years that people talk about trees as a miracle cure for the challenges cities face, especially the psychological well-being of city dwellers. There’s the rise of forest bathing, park cities, and “one tree per child” campaigns. Fitzgerald wants readers to consider some of the less savory historical antecedents of the movement and question the dichotomy between the city and the natural world that he thinks we take for granted.

A lot of the ideas in Fitzgerald’s book are counterintuitive. You don’t need to agree with all of them to appreciate his book, which takes many of the shibboleths of modern urban planning and architecture and turns them on their heads.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re interested in what the tree symbolizes, more so than the tree itself. The tree as a moral project or as a political project, right?

Exactly — what kind of cultural work we’re doing when we get involved with trees. There’s a quote in the book from someone who says trees are a bipartisan issue, which is sort of true. It’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s an interesting thing to say. There’s no ideology that cannot be advanced by the tree. You have right-wing ecologism and left-wing ecologism. Part of what I find tricky about this kind of uncritical tree veneration is that politics gets covered over a bit, and we kind of forget that there’s all sorts of not-good cultural associations being carried along there.

I can imagine someone reading this and thinking, “What bad cultural associations could people possibly attach to trees?”

On the most basic level, it’s worth reminding ourselves that until very recently in human history, forests were places of terror and fear and the unknown. Today, there’s a certain privilege in being able to enjoy green spaces. You have to have a particular kind of body. In many parts of the world, you have to be racialized in a certain kind of way, to be able to be in the forest in a non-threatening way. All of that gets forgotten.

But the bigger thing is that the political movements that advanced nature over urban space, that wanted to get people out into nature, and out of cities for their own moral goods — it’s not a good movement. A Jamaican-American historian, Dorceta Taylor, wrote this really brilliant history of the environmental movement in the United States, and she convincingly describes what happened in the early days of the environmental movement in the US as basically a response to anxiety about threats to racialized masculinity. You’ve got elite men in urban spaces suddenly feeling anxious and threatened, not least by the arrival of immigrants from places that were then thought to be in some ways less civilizationally developed — Ireland, for example. What’s at stake in the movement into places like Yosemite or the discovery of the West, aside from the erasure of Indigenous communities who were already there, is an attempt to recover a sense of virile white masculinity, as opposed to the threatening masses who are coming into the cities.

That is just something we don’t think about, especially at the [urban] planning level.

What made you want to write about green city initiatives?

When I first started to think about this topic seriously, it was around the time that a campaign was emerging for London to declare itself the world’s first National Park City. It was really the website of that initiative that gave me the sense that there is something interesting happening. It was a very animalistic vision, like what if there were otters in the river? It was this takeover of urban space by wildness, as represented by things like otters and beavers, that just struck me as a very strange vision. Like something was wrong here that needed to be corrected, and there were these wild objects that are going to help us make good on it.

The other thing that really struck me is the language of mental health, the sense that what green space is really going to do is have a transformative effect on the mental health of people in urban spaces, a great problem that has been with urban civic leaders since at least the mid-19th century. It was just so obvious to me that if you wanted to take urban mental health seriously, that is not where you would start.

Where would you start? Why does that seem unserious to you?

I do think that cities have a role in the production of mental distress for some people. The city is a source of stress in a whole bunch of different ways: noise and light, but also inequality and precarity and things like poor housing, [job] insecurity, migration status, dealing with bureaucracy. These are just things that stress people out that conglomerate in urban spaces. So if you are living in a city and you may have some kind of biological predisposition that elevates your risk of developing major psychosis, and that runs into a big stressor — let’s say housing precarity — those two things together will significantly increase your likelihood of experiencing a psychotic episode, or whatever it is.

I find that very convincing, and it’s a story that is really important and that we need to stay with, as researchers. It’s with that complexity in mind that I find the idea that trees are going to intervene, it just seems not serious. If you really want to have a transformation of urban mental health, you could just do what they did in the 1950s: build massive blocks of housing, which is literally the opposite of the green cities people think you need. It’s modernist housing blocks on the edges of cities. You get people decent, secure places to live, where they have some sense that their kids have a stake in the place.

That’s the kind of thing that would have a transformational effect on people’s mental health in urban space. It would take out so many stressors.

What about the climate element to this? Obviously, there really are benefits to planting more trees as the planet warms, but I wonder if you see it being used as a feel-good workaround for a more difficult problem?

I think undeniably, trees have a major effect on making cities more livable as the world gets warmer. They have a cooling effect, they provide shade, they let water run off. I have a maybe inappropriate nervousness about this book being read as anti-environment, so I need to stress that I absolutely do think that one way that cities are going to need to make themselves more sustainable in the future is by having more organic matter in urban space.

But without being facetious about it, if we are serious about climate change, and if we are serious about even mitigation, let alone solving the problem, I just can’t believe that this is where we would start. This just feels like, not quite a Band-Aid; it’s almost more like a transference. It’s like we can’t deal with the problem so let’s do this thing that kind of feels like dealing with the problem. It’s nice, anyway, because it’s planting trees. No one’s going to object to that, and that kind of makes us all collectively feel like we’re resolving these issues.

You survey a lot of the research in your book about the effect that nature and natural environments have on us. The research does seem to support the idea that it has a positive effect, no?

I feel confident that immersion in nature has some kind of calming effect and that for some people it will be good for their mental health. There’s a lot of really good research in this space and a lot of people are doing important work trying to really get down to the biological specifics of what’s going on. We are very far from making any good sense of it or getting anywhere near a point where we can make policy prescriptions on the basis of it. That’s not because people are doing bad work, it’s just because we’re very early in that process and it’s such a complicated thing.

Washington, DC, and many other American cities are really struggling right now in various ways that, as someone who loves cities, I find hard. Gun violence is a huge problem in the US, as is traffic violence, the housing crisis, and the death of a lot of downtowns as people work from home. Certain cities just feel ill-equipped right now to deal with these issues. Maybe it’s a failure of leadership, rather than the cities themselves, but it’s hard to take in.

A lot of this is familiar. We have a lot of dereliction in Cork. A lot of buildings are basically closed and there’s no one to take them over and that is not because the economy is bad, it’s just because of completely changing life patterns about where people are shopping, working, all those things. I also think it’s important to think about the city in the absence of this desire for repair. The kind of fantasy we often have about what a good city is — which is that kind of bustling town center, there’s no homelessness — that’s never a good space for everybody.

It’s not that I’m against urban improvement or anything like that, but I think we need to think really carefully about what I think we’ve collectively decided a good city looks like.

It’s maybe this notion that to love cities is to love people and to retreat from the city is to retreat from humanity, to retreat from its problems and to try to pretend like they don’t exist.

Yeah, I think we need to stop thinking about the city as a technology that’s gonna fix society. That’s what I mean about trying to get over that horizon of repair, of always fixing things, of wanting someone to take over a derelict store because there’s homeless people sleeping in front of it. That kind of repair is always tricky and ambiguous.

For anyone who lives in a city right now, there is this sense of, not quite despair but a sense that the city is not in good shape. I think that’s a common global urban experience right now, at least in Europe and North America. I just wonder about the people who are not participating in the conversations. Is there a sense of what a good city might look like for people who are currently sleeping in front of storefronts? I don’t think we think enough about, for instance, the perspective of kids in urban space. Not to be the classic man who has kids and starts to care about these things, but I am suddenly aware of how hostile to kids urban spaces are. Really, it’s impossible for me to let them run around or let them have any kind of freedom. Is anyone even asking kids about what a good urban space looks like?

One of the things that I enjoyed about the book was that, despite the provocations, you have a lot of nuance. There’s a lot of subtlety. Is there anything else you’d want readers to take away from this conversation?

One thing I would really like people to take from this book that’s maybe not on the surface is a kind of anti-utopianism. I’m not anti specific utopias, but anti the idea of utopia. I start off the book by writing about a city that’s being built in Saudi Arabia called Neom and a chunk of that city that’s called The Line. To me, it really crystallizes so much of the vacuity and danger of so much utopian urban thinking. They’ve recruited really serious people, like major architects and serious designers, in the service of what is an objectively dreadful project. Dreadful in its own terms, aesthetically, and dreadful for the people who were already in that space before you broke ground on it. And yet it is buoyed along by an uncritical commitment to utopia on the part of some, hopefully, naive people who are driven by a kind of desire for the perfect future urban space. What I’d like the book to do is to really get us to think critically about the fact of having an urban vision in itself, rather than living in, and making sense of, the spaces that are already around us.