Bowdoin Environmental Historian Examines American Experience of City and Nature

Story posted August 04, 2004

The American city of today is most often viewed as something wholly separate from nature. Sewers have obliterated creeks. Buildings conceal earth. The metropolis is dominant, pushing rural places aside, erasing nature and replacing it with human construct.

"Planners, engineers, and landscape architects believed that nature could be harnessed and perfected to help advance social reform."

This divorced view was not always the case, says Bowdoin Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle. "Many Americans starting in the mid-19th century thought of urbanization as a process for improving nature. Planners, engineers, and landscape architects believed that nature could be harnessed and perfected to help advance social reform, build utilities and beautify urban space.

"When European Americans went west, they saw nature as an endless cornucopia and built cities to reflect that nature was the engine that drove American greatness."

Those processes often involved dramatic reform of the natural environment. A case in point is the city of Seattle, Washington, says Klingle, who is researching a book on Seattle's environmental and urban development tentatively titled, "Urban by Nature: Seattle and the Making of the American Environmental Metropolis."

In it, Klingle is examining Seattle's development from geologic time to the present to understand the history of the American experience of city and nature. The critical "conversation" between nature and city took place in Seattle between the 1890s and 1930s, he says, when Seattle engineers, political officials, and individual citizens alike toppled mountains, changed the courses of watersheds, and eliminated wetlands.

"They built Seattle into what they thought a city should look like. It was supposed to be an antidote to the perceived social and physical failures of older Eastern cities."

"They built Seattle into what they thought a city should look like," says Klingle. "It was supposed to be an antidote to the perceived social and physical failures of older Eastern cities. It was planned and promoted as a place that harmonized nature and artifice."

It was a process that took place among many western cities, including Los Angeles, where nature was "improved" to make cities that were "modern, efficient places for safe, healthful urban living," he says. "We mix our labor with the earth to make it something better than before; it's a long American tradition tied to national advancement."

The relationship may not be so one-sided, however. Klingle suggests nature is "an actor in the human city. It tells us where buildings can go, it suggests that if you pave over a flood plain you'll have trouble. Nature is a character in the drama of building cities that we often ignore."

In many ways, the reshaping of Seattle was a hugely successful human enterprise, but it was not without ecological consequences. The removal of mountains increased potential for landslides. Changing rivers and watersheds led to flooding. Seattle's fish population - particularly salmon - was greatly impacted by the erasure of estuaries and wetlands.

The social consequences proved devastating. Many of the city's poor were displaced when their homes were demolished in what was called a "regrade" of the city's 300-foot mountains.

The social consequences proved equally devastating. Many of the city's poor were displaced when their homes were demolished in what was called a "regrade" of the city's 300-foot mountains. Native Americans and immigrant families who had subsisted on seasonal salmon runs could no longer fish for a living.

"By the 1920s, the city's remade landscapes - rivers, parks and beaches - became spaces for well-heeled Seattleites to enjoy," says Klingle. "The escalating cycles of blame, backed by arrests and harassment of Native protestors and the poor, led to a new environmentalism split along racial and class lines."

Seattle now faces one of its most complex, and historically fascinating, challenges. The city has been listed under the Endangered Species Act as a vital habitat for the Pacific Salmon and is charged with restoring its disappearing salmon runs. "All paved over creeks may have to be torn up," says Klingle. "Seattle must reach back into its natural past and recreate the salmon habitat that has been eradicated. Even now, salmon swim up Seattle's sewer drains to try to spawn. In a way, they're just waiting for the streams to come back."

"Even now, salmon swim up Seattle's sewer drains to try to spawn. In a way, they're just waiting for the streams to come back."

In the rural-urban drama, nature, it appears, may have the largest part. How America will balance environmental protection with social equity, however, is a problem for humans to solve.

Klingle is taking a year-long sabbatical from teaching to complete his book, with a summer stipend grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Junior Faculty from the American Council of Learned Societies.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for me to focus on my research," says
Klingle, "and I'm confident that my time off will recharge my
work with students." Klingle says he has discussed many of the ideas he
explores in his work with Bowdoin students, and that their perspectives are
invaluable to his growth as a scholar. "My time in the classroom energizes
my research, and vice-versa."

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