Essay: Nature and the City

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: September 8, 2021*
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Nature is often conceptualised in opposition to culture, and yet in practice nature and culture are inextricably linked. Discuss some of the ways in which ideas about the role of nature within contemporary, urban societies are expressed through a variety of visual practices (art, design, advertising, film, fashion).

17th December 2018

I often find myself noticing and appreciating that a handful of nature’s animals out there share a special and unique bond with humans and live among us in our urbanized complex settlements, the connection between a person and their cat can be just as meaningful as with another fellow human. I am going to challenge the idea of nature being the opposite to culture with this essay by discussing these topics; the relationships we have to other species and how they have gotten used to exploring and residing in cities and towns rather than the wild, the ideology of a completely urbanized utopian city with strictly no natural features, different examples of how nature is included in modern contemporary practice, and the question of what’s next? If in the late 1800’s moving to a city was a new concept that people were getting their heads around, will there be a new type of established settlement larger than any city we’ve seen in the future that will be called something other than what we know of now?

After moving to Brighton from Suffolk, I truly felt the transition from living on the outskirts of a small countryside town to an urban city in the simple ways of whenever I do visit outside of Brighton and see the rolling green hills of the south downs, I stop and take it in as nature is something I grew up with and so far spent the majority of my life living with. By no means would I call Suffolk a natural haven, much of the countryside is neatly organized farms and fields with a few forests and woods scattered around with social activities such as paintball and motocross racing taking place in them, compare this to such a place like the Lake District where purely natural creations such as the beautiful surrounding mountains that lie on the horizon standing tall behind great bodies of water really give off the vibe of natural bliss. Exploring the wilderness of Suffolk, you would come across the many different creatures of mother nature that share a sense of mutualism with us humans. Whether you’re in the suburban areas of Bury St Edmunds or in the dark eerie settings of Thetford Forest, you are guaranteed to find yourself in the presence of something that will come and greet you on your travels. Having pets that live at home with you is a perfect example of mutualism in animals with humans, and living in suburban areas or cities you are likely to have animal visitors from neighbouring houses. For example, depending on the upbringing and ‘nature’ of house cats, they could scatter away in the blink of an eye, or come walking up to you and let you interact with them. The cat brings joy to you if you like cats, and you would bring joy to the cat if they like you. This moment of bonding doesn’t need to last a lifetime as it can happen almost everyday. The chances of running into an animal that wants to be interacted with, are so high now as so many pets live among us in our established settlements and have begun to live an urban life among us instead of their natural wild lives.

But how has this affected the animals? Animal rights activists argue that zoos should not keep them captive but to set them free to live their wild lives, but does this relate to pets as well? Is the time for house pets over? Of course there are some major differences in that most people are not likely to have exotic animals such as tigers or elephants as pets anymore but and in most cases house pets such as cats and dogs are treated better than if they were in a zoo or even the wild. Keeping them in our homes and bringing them into our family gives us a connection to that specific animal that you just wouldn’t get from meeting another of that species in an enclosure or the wild. If you have lived among your pet for the majority of its lifetime and you are the one to feed them when they are hungry and let them indoors when its raining, then I’m sure they would recognise you as a parent figure that keeps them safe, even if you may not get along with your pet, somewhere deep down inside there is this need to keep them safe.

A feline was naturally born to exist in the wild, hunting for its food and surviving either own its own or with fellow cats, but since the rise in house cats, I feel like they have lost a sense of who they are at heart. Of course they still have the natural instincts of a hunter and continue to hunt birds and mice but no longer for feeding purposes. They know that they will be fed that day by their owner but they still seem to want to hunt out in the ‘wild’. Humans may have evolved to create grand buildings and magnificent architectural establishments for us to live in and to feel safe in, but we have brought animals such as cats and dogs with us on our journey. They have adapted to live in these settlements just as well as we have. They no longer hunt in untouched wilderness sprawling with wildlife, but hunt now in gardens, wooded areas surrounding human settlements and local parks.

“In our own time the human impact on the environment has been so extensive that there is an important sense in which it is correct to speak of ‘nature’ as itself a cultural product or construction.” [2]

Have we gone too far in a sense that we call our home’s beautiful floral gardens ‘natural’ when there is really nothing natural about them. Someone had to plant the right flowers and trees in perfect placement surrounding a neatly organised patch of grass, frequently trimmed and kept tidy, and maybe even with a small pond with a water feature. But every part of that garden has been altered and touched by humans. The flowers, the pond, and any other tools needed for keeping the garden looking satisfying would have been bought from a store and planted into the ground.

In the late 1800’s, the idea of a city seemed unnatural to some people as it was a completely new concept that in a sense takes us further away from Earth’s natural beauty. Having to move from a countryside house or village, to a huge sprawling settlement full of concrete roads and brick buildings with little foliage in sight, would surely be a big change for these people. Plans for utopian cities were drafted up by architects such as Le Corbusier that presented a ‘perfect’ linear city for society, which was based around the abstract shape of a human body. These plans and ideas were all meant to create an environment where man could reunite and live a better life, but would making a purely man-made environment benefit the human race? Taking us further away from the wilderness, the idea of the “Radiant City” was never carried out but aspects of it’s concepts were included in the design of urban plans during the 1930s and 1940s, and the construction of the first Unité d’habitation in Marseilles in 1952. The general lifestyle of pets would change enormously if such a place was to exist, as there would be lesser places for them to express their natural instincts of hunting and exploring the wild. If the amount of people who have pets today were to live in somewhere like Ville Radieuse, it could completely change the future for pets such as dogs, cats, and any other animal that roams urban areas (foxes, rabbits), for example, cats may not be completely in the wild when living with humans on a suburban estate but they still have access to what we know as ‘nature’, they can explore wooded areas and actual wildlife habitats yet would not have the opportunity for this if they lived in a human’s ‘perfect’ utopian city. “Things that have always behaved in one way in the past, may, they argue, come to behave in very different ways in the future, not because they themselves have changed, but because the laws of nature have changed.”[3] Unlike dogs, cats seem to have their own lives and do what they want in their own time, we trust a cat exploring outside of our homes but we rarely do with dogs. People may not feel comfortable letting a cat roam around on its own in a city that was primarily built for humans, just how there are most likely people living in places such as Manhattan, New York City that wouldn’t feel safe knowing their cat is constantly surrounded by traffic and masses of pedestrians.

This advertisement, captioned “For Nature, Everyday Is 9/11”, was created by French organisation Fondation Nicolas Hulot, raised by Nicolas Hulot himself who plays a strong roll in France and worked as the Minister for the Ecological and Solidary Transition until his resignation in August 2018. The image depicts a vital horrifying moment of the 9/11 attacks but with trees instead of the World Trade Center. The image is hard hitting, especially for Americans, as this was an event the shaped the future for one of the biggest superpowers in the world. As controversial as it may be, it gets the message of the need for environmental protection across and makes more of an impact than it would with any other base subject. Many people who would get to see this advert, would most likely not appreciate the idea of it but it would certainly stay lingering in their mind for them to think about. Sometimes it takes that extra nudge of controversial topics to get the publics attention. The message for the advert is clear that it is to open our eyes about climate change and global warming but in a way that could be perceived as us being terrorists to the trees. After reading forums on for this particular advert, I noticed many of the comments were negative and there were only a handful of people in favour of the ad. People commented that is was “too soon” to be using the September 11 attacks as an advert, no matter what the cause behind it was. I understand this as it was still quite a delicate subject in 2007 with wars raging caused by these attacks, but this advert was created to get a reaction. Whoever at Fondation Nicolas Hulot designed this ad, had in their mind that this would get the attention of Americans especially as it was created by a French designer. Patriotism is a huge part of America, primarily after the September 11 attacks, and when a non-American says something controversial about either the attacks or just as America as a whole, it won’t go down quietly.

“Human nature can be seen as a deeply marred by original sin or some other intrinsic flaw, and therefore as an obstacle to be overcome rather than as a beacon to be followed. The “nature” side of oppositions like “nature versus art” or “nature versus nurture” need not automatically be the superior one.” [5]

We’ve come along way in the past 2-3 centuries as a species, world population is booming, we can now go to space with relative ease, we have almost everything we ever need on a small rectangular sheet of metal and glass housing circuits and motherboards, and cities are growing in their masses. But head back to late 1800’s America and the simple idea of moving to a city from the countryside was a huge change for many people. They weren’t used to not having the wilderness just outside their front door, and having to live on neatly paved streets dividing perfectly organised buildings in around the sprawling metropolis. There is some kind of correlation between how I earlier stated about pets living in Le Corbusier’s utopian paradise and with the people of 1800’s America moving to newly developed cities. They may not be used to it to begin with and their lives would change drastically, but would eventually become the norm for them. People who have lived in cities all their life would struggle to move out and live in the country as the environment around them in a city is what they have been used to for as long as they have been around. Humans adapted to living in cities in the masses quickly and has now become a normal thing in our lives to reside in a busy city, they are home to many and most jobs that people need therefore making cities a necessity for some people. But what’s next? Will there be a new idea put forth sometime soon that will completely change the way we think about our homes? If moving to a city was a new and scary experience for people 200 years ago, it’s realistic to think that at some point in the human journey of life that a new kind of settlement will become the norm for us and future humans will look back on us like we do with 19th century people and maybe even think the same as I.

In 1995, Japanese building construction company Taisei Corporation, drafted plans for the tallest building in the world. Named the X-Seed 4000, this 4 kilometre high structure was designed for Tokyo and was planned to accommodate up to 1,000,000 inhabitants. This number in itself it larger than the population count for New York City up until 1860 where it’s overall urban population reached 1,068,000. An entire cities worth of people was planned to live in one ridiculously huge building, but this could easily be the future for the human race. The X-Seed 4000 isn’t the only concept of this idea to be thought of, the Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid, and the Ultima Tower were both also planned to accommodate up to and over 1,000,000 people each but have not been constructed, yet. Could we be seeing these gigantic structures coming more and more of a viable option to reside in? If built correctly, they could withstand the destruction from any natural disaster. The problem with such an establishment is that it would be taking us, as people, primarily away from what we call nature, if people didn’t like the change of moving to a city in the 1800s because of the withdrawal from the wilderness, moving to one of these giants would surely be a far more drastic step in humankind.

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