Nature, Race, and Cultural Power

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

Kevin Loughran
Rice University

As philosopher Henri Lefebvre ([1974] 1991: 30) wrote: nature, despite its material erasure by urbanization, “is still the background of the picture; as decor, and more than decor, it persists everywhere, and every natural detail, every natural object is valued even more as it takes on symbolic weight[.]” These days, nature’s symbolic weight is very heavy, indeed, as the inescapable realities of global warming have forced a real reckoning at the urban-environmental nexus (Greenberg 2013). 

But for many decades, if nature was present in sociological analyses, it was, at best, the “background of the picture” – though it was hardly assigned much symbolic, let alone empirical, weight. Consider as a prime example Ernest Burgess (1925) and the Chicago School’s influential concentric zone model. Despite the fact that Chicago’s urban growth in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century was profoundly an engagement with nature (Cronon 1991; Elliott and Frickel 2015), and despite a privileging of biological metaphors to understand urban social processes (Loughran 2015), the Chicago School did not examine the socio-environmental engineering at the heart of the city’s urbanization, such as the reversal of the Chicago River for sanitation, the draining of marshes for real estate development, or the creation of an impressive park system (Bachin 2004; Bluestone 1991). The concentric zone model firmly avoided the city’s nature by erasing Lake Michigan; the lake’s role in shaping Chicago’s “human ecology” was not examined, and Burgess abstracted the lake away as a thin line interrupting the model’s otherwise circular geometry (see Figure 1).

Screenshot from 2019-06-26 14-46-48
Fig. 1. Burgess’s (1925: 55) Concentric Zone Model

For urban sociologists, nature has since emerged from the background of the picture, thanks to the insights of geographers, historians, political ecologists, and sociologists of culture (cf. Angelo and Wachsmuth 2015). A key question raised in recent studies and theoretical advances is a central paradox of urbanization: the simultaneous degradation of nature and the production of symbolic landscapes of nature. (A puzzle that speaks to core concerns in the sociology of culture at the intersection of meaning-making and materiality [Gieryn 2002; Griswold, Mangione, and McDonnell 2013]).

As the last two centuries of urban history have shown, essential among these symbolic landscapes of nature have been urban parks, which more than any other social space, materialize social constructions of nature (Loughran 2016). Urban parks accomplish this social construction in several ways. First, drawing on culturally powerful images of nature, early landscape architects represented nature as sacred, rugged, and vast. Early parks’ architectural components – such as tree-lined perimeters, open meadows, and winding water features – constructed parks as spaces for the social reproduction of nature, where human interactions with these natural objects further transformed them “from things into symbols” (Fine 1998: 2). And, evincing the close ties of economic and cultural capital, the cultural power of nature that was embodied in urban parks created a valuable foundation for further urban development, as parks have a way of driving up adjacent land prices. Urban parks thus allowed nature to become central to urban symbolic economies (Zukin 1993) even as cities continued to grow and consume more of the countryside spaces that were also thought to symbolize nature (Williams 1973). 

But the symbolic landscapes of nature produced more than just nature. Tied up in urban parks was the production of social boundaries: spatial ones that related to parks’ social geographies, and symbolic ones that related to identity and cultural practices. 

In both respects, race and racialization figured importantly, as the representations of nature spatialized by urban parks were those tied to white-dominated landscapes (Loughran 2017). This idea was particularly germane during the first generation of urban park development in Europe and North America (c. 1840-1870), when migration to cities was creating new levels of ethnoracial diversity, stirring white anxieties. Parks, in their symbolic opposition to urban space writ large (Loughran 2016), were intended to quell these anxieties by serving as safe sites of whiteness within a “racially othered” urban fabric (Bonnett 2002: 354). Geographically, this link between whiteness and nature was formed as parks tended to beautify already-existing white communities or to spatially structure new ones – as civic amenities for newly built neighborhoods (Taylor 2009). And in design terms, early landscape architects’ use of “the picturesque” reflected its role as cultural colonizer, in that its proponents valorized and universalized the rural landscapes of the English countryside and elevated them to a place of global cultural supremacy (Landry 2012). This led urban boosters in many cities to adapt their parks to the picturesque style, even in ecological contexts that were poorly suited to it (Loughran 2019). So nature, or at least culturally powerful representations of it, was linked to white-dominated spaces (see also Taylor 2016). 

Nature had other racial associations, too. Essentialist links between Africans and people of African descent and a subhuman “state of nature” was, and remains, foundational to white-supremacist thought (Hesse 2007). While some black scholars in the United States, particularly those with an affection for the rural landscapes of the South (a group that included W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston), “celebrate[d] marginal landscapes like the swamp for the aesthetic and spiritual value they offer[ed]” in the post-slavery period (Raine 2013: 322-3; see also Hicks 2006), class politics in cities sometimes dictated a disavowal of such “uncultivated” forms of nature. As urban black populations increased after 1900, black leaders were well aware of the negative impacts of primitivist associations and stereotypes (Baldwin 2007). Parks brought black behaviors into the view of white observers; in part for this reason, parks emerged as important sites for the enactment of respectability politics (Higginbotham 1993). In Great Migration-era Chicago, for example, middle-class blacks encouraged “proper” etiquette at public parks’ tennis courts and boathouses and looked down upon public displays of sexuality and “backward” acts, such as using Lake Michigan as a baptismal pool (McCammack 2012: 125).

Nature’s contrasting racial symbolisms were brought, often violently, into urban parks. The initial establishment of urban parks as both symbolic landscapes of nature and sites of white privilege needed ongoing cultural work to maintain: parks, if left uncultivated by city park districts, might revert to an unkempt form of nature; white privileges, if undefended, might diminish. In the United States, the mass entry of people of color in general and blacks in particular into parks therefore threatened parks’ stability as symbols of nature and whiteness; accordingly, parks served as major flashpoints of interracial conflict in various places and at various points in time, as groups of color pushed into white neighborhoods – and into white-dominated parks – and whites resisted this entry (Diamond 2009; Kruse 2005). When and where Jim Crow laws could not deter black and brown park use, police surveillance and racist attacks often followed people of color into park spaces (Loughran 2017).

Defending white-dominated landscapes was not the only means of protecting the link between whiteness and culturally valuable nature. The other was for whites to bring representations of nature with them as they fled newly racially integrated spaces by building symbolic landscapes in the suburbs. Post-1945 suburbanization and its corollary, urban retrenchment, meant that many picturesque parks were disinvested (Loughran 2017). In building suburban botanic gardens, preserving open lands, and cultivating green lawns behind white picket fences, suburbanizing whites and white-dominated public and private institutions shifted symbolic landscapes of nature from cities to suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century.

But nature has returned again to cities in the twenty-first century. New parks like New York’s High Line that repurpose defunct industrial spaces with seemingly wild plant materials are celebrated for their architectural innovation, tourist appeal, and promise of a more sustainable urban future. While some older picturesque parks have been revived over time (often thanks to the influx of private funds), spaces like the High Line are the new symbolic landscapes of nature – unparalleled in terms of their cultural and economic value (Loughran 2016). It’s a different landscape than parks of the past – it interweaves natural objects with industrial ones, celebrating “the city” rather than resisting it. But as much as the creation of postindustrial parks has been the result of industrial exodus from older urban cores (as these disused industrial spaces would not exist without historical processes of investment and disinvestment), it has as its chief social cause the return of capital and white people to central cities, who have again brought the powerful symbols of nature with them into new urban spaces.

Nature has many social constructions, but in urban parks, as in other spatial representations, prized forms of nature have been constructed as white spaces. Moreover, the history of urban parks illustrates how nature, and the symbolic landscapes of nature, are not static cultural objects. The ongoing cultural work required to stabilize and maintain these symbols has tightly woven the control of nature with social power more broadly. And in many places, that creation and control of the symbolic landscapes of nature has been a fundamentally racialized – and racializing – process. Even while older urban parks that were conceived as sites of nature have remained in place, “nature” has moved around within metropolitan areas over time. And it has moved because of race.


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