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for people who care about the West

Nature and cities in context

 

Cities and Nature in the American West
Edited by
Char Miller
288 pages, softcover: $34.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2010.

In Cities and Nature in the American West, leading environmental historians dissect the relationship between the region's urban areas and the landscapes in which they are set. In the introductory essay, editor Char Miller, director of the environmental analysis program at California's Pomona College, frames the collection by detailing how the West's cities grew to be the powerful centers they are today. "They came looking for work and weather, for rest and recreation," he writes, describing the crowds that crossed the country as the nation's highways linked town to town after World War II.

Cities and Nature examines the permeable border between urban and rural environments, noting how environment shapes the urban experience even as culture has its effect on the natural world. (Although far from the West, New Orleans is a prime example of this kind of interaction: Consider the city's historic levees and the impact of Hurricane Katrina.) The book pays particular attention to the marketing and packaging of nature by both corporations and the government, from the establishment and development of the national parks over a century ago to the planning and selling of the resort town of Vail, Colo., in the 1960s and '70s.

A few authors address ongoing controversies, such as the destruction of salmon habitat in and around Seattle; Matthew Klingle, a professor of history and environmental studies, concludes that Seattle residents must "confront the contradictions of wanting salmon and the good life at little or no burden to themselves."

Some of the essays — such as Phoebe S. Kropp's exploration of the politics of camping — are surprising in what they reveal, such as the shift in the perception of camping from a disreputable transient lifestyle to a middle-class leisure activity.

The book's historical perspective will remind Westerners how far we have come in our attitudes and policies, at the same time making it clear — as with the struggle over salmon — how far we have to go. Some of the 14 essays are overly dense and academic, but they nevertheless illuminate the relationship between nature and city, making the book a necessary contribution toward understanding many of today's conflicts.