- The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space
Urban-environmental history is a new sub-field of both environmental history and urban history, each relatively recent fields in their own right. In his introduction to this volume, Isenberg discusses the evolution of urban environmental history as it distinguished itself from the larger field of environmental history as a focus of study. Isenberg differentiates between the early studies in this domain that borrowed, he maintains, largely from the model of the urban organism popularized by the Chicago school of sociology, and the work of newer scholars who stress issues such as power, class, and race. These authors, he argues, are freed from the burdens of the past: "No longer concerned with proving the relevance of urban places to environmental history, no longer beholden to the organism or central place models of urban studies, no longer afraid that environmental history will be subsumed by other fields . . . the essays in this collection mark a new direction in urban environmental history" (xiv).
The book is divided into three parts, "Urban Spaces, Death, and the Body"; "The Geography of Power and Consumption"; and "Cities Deconstructed. It includes nine incisive short essays: Ari Kelman on New Orleans' "phantom" slave insurrection of 1853; Peter Thorsheim on class discrimination in London's parks; Joanna Dyle's analysis of San Francisco's war on rats following the earthquake and plagues of 1907/08; Ellen Stroud on the "Geography of Death" in Harlem; Karl Appuhn on water management in Early Modern Venice; Isenberg on the role of flood control and political conflict in Sacramento, 1848–1862; Matthew Klingle on Seattle "Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Inequality"; Emmanuel Kreike's challenge to the concept that environmental change moves from a "state of pristine wilderness/Nature . . . to a state of domestication/Culture"; and Sara Pritchard's analysis of how regionalization reshaped France's Rhone River.
The essays are insightful and well-researched, often providing perspectives on subjects previously thought to be thoroughly studied. Yet, the obvious question is whether or not this volume lives up to the editor's promise of "a new direction in urban environmental history" (xiv). Just as Kreike argues that environmental change does not move in a linear fashion, neither does urban environmental history always move in a linear fashion. Some of the themes that are prominent in this book were also present in earlier works, particularly class, power, and landscape, although often to a lesser degree. Themes such as the body and the role of culture, however, are entirely fresh, as is their intertwining with issues of ecology and gender. What Isenberg might have noted is that (to the best of my knowledge) the writers in this volume were all trained as environmental historians whereas few, if any, of the previous generation of [End Page 255] urban-environmental historians were. In many cases, the writers in this volume studied under members of this first generation of largely self-trained urban environmental historians. Happily for the field, they are now reaching beyond them.