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La nature citadine en France et au Royaume-Uni

Concevoir, vivre, représenter


Edited by Marie Mianowski, Sylvie Nail & Pierre Carboni


Collection Interférences

Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015

Paperback. 212 pp. ISBN  978-2753542853. €17


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



As a suburban Londoner, my word association game gives the following results when I think of ‘urban nature’: private back gardens with grass and flowers, municipal parks, open commonland, city ‘squares’, wild birds feeding in the back garden, urban foxes snoozing in the day and prowling at night. Some but not all of these verbal cues appear in La nature citadine, which adopts more of an ‘arts and humanities’ approach than a ‘social sciences’ one. Edited by colleagues from the Université de Nantes, the collection is composed of eleven essays drafted by fourteen authors based in a range of disciplines from civilisation britannique through history and ethnology to architecture, languages and literature. As the editors explain, the collective enterprise is transdisciplinary in perspective:

L’objet du présent ouvrage est premièrement de dépasser la double opposition technique-art, et nature-culture et de montrer comment, au fil des siècles et selon les aires géographiques, l’homme a construit un environnement urbain dans lequel la place laissée à la nature a traduit l’ambition plus ou moins affermée de développer un humanisme paysager. [12]

Following a preface by Bernadette Lizet, the first cluster of essays appears under the heading ‘Entre pittoresque et entropie’, with a sharply focused sub-heading: ‘Nature et esthétique en Écosse au XVIIIe siècle’. John Lowrey opens the volume with an examination of three parliament buildings in Edinburgh, with particular attention being given to the former Royal High School at Calton Hill. From this close view of individual buildings and their interior, the second essay, by Clarisse Godard Desmarest looks out to the construction of suburban mansions around the city, many of which commanded views out into the strikingly diverse surrounding countryside. The third contribution, by Pierre Carboni, adopts a very different approach by presenting some of the works of James Thomson (1700-1748), a little-known poet and propagandist of Whig ideology, who was fascinated by the presence of nature in the urban environment. Carboni concludes:

En dépit de l’étrangeté de son expérience et de l’obsolescence de son esthétique, l’œuvre de Thomson, archétype méconnu de l’éco-poésie moderne, ne laisse pas d’interroger notre sensibilité et notre conscience contemporaines de citoyens de la biosphère. [69]

The second cluster of extremely diverse essays, entitled ‘La nature urbaine : un humanisme pour qui ?’, adopts an interrogative stance. In an extremely interesting piece, Hélène Ibata throws light on ‘panoramas’ that were used to depict British landscapes and townscapes in the early nineteenth century. This particular form of representation was invented in 1789 by a Scots-Irish painter named Robert Barker. An abrupt change of theme brings the reader to Claire Boulard Jouslin’s discussion of depictions in British magazines for ladies during the second half of the eighteenth century of landscapes, plants and animals found in exotic parts of the world. Thus, ‘la géographie est donc perçue comme une science de la diversité physique mais aussi de la singularité visuelle’ [89]. A real leap through time and space then introduces the tragic loss of population in Liverpool between 1930 and 1980, when the city’s inhabitants declined by half. War damage and slum demolition policies caused this collapse; subsequent regeneration schemes introduced public open space as well as improved housing at lower densities than before. Sylvie Nail charts the creation and evolution of Everton Park as part of a programme for ‘greening the city’. Crossing the Channel, Renaud Bécot shows how the small town of Fougères faced the challenge of de-industrialisation in the 1960s and 1970s, and devised a scheme to transform its old working-class image by enhancing its environment of buildings and open spaces with the promotion of tourism in mind. Similar thinking lay behind the designation in 2004 of the Liverpool waterfront as a World Heritage Site. In the fourth essay in this section, Anne-Solange Muis and Hasim Pittavana Ranarivelo turn to cités-jardins around Paris, best translated as ‘garden suburbs’ rather than ‘garden cities’. The ancestry of both forms of residential milieu was close but garden suburbs never aspired to provide employment for their inhabitants, unlike garden cities. After a discussion of some English cases, attention is focused on the seventeen cités-jardins built around Paris between the two world wars, and especially on the example of Champigny-sur-Marne, with its trees, grassy open spaces and hedges.

Four essays on the ‘Métamorphose de la nature au creuset du langage : le paysage comme métaphore et modèle’ form the third part of the book. Joanny Moulin explores the work of Edgar Morin and ‘the ecology of action’; then more familiar territory is covered in Pascale Guibert’s discussion of urban environments in the poetry of William Wordsworth. His famous work ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ declared: ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’. Sarah Brottier’s essay on nature in Anglo-American poetry of the twentieth century includes a close examination of the work of D.H. Lawrence. Finally, Marie Mianowski uses Robert McLiam Wilson’s novel Eureka Street (1998) to reveal stark social and environmental contrasts in Belfast between (broadly) Protestant east and Catholic west, between territories of peace and nodes of conflict, and between densely-packed housing for the working class and leafy suburbs of detached houses and spacious gardens for the middle class. An interesting point is made by showing how the place name ‘Béal Feirste’ (Belfast) proclaimed the settlement at the mouth of the Farset, and then by revealing the many culverted streams that flow beneath the urban fabric, forming a kind of ‘hidden nature’ that might well be incorporated into ‘place-making’ strategies designed to encourage tourism in this city in sure need of economic diversification:

Belfast est donc une ville dotée de nombreux parcs, irriguée en surface par la mer et la rivière Lagan et traversée en profondeur par des rivières souterraines et invisibles, témoins du passé et dont seul désormais le nom atteste. [195]

This collection offers an interesting array of loosely connected essays set between the covers of a single book, which certainly relate to conceptions, lived expressions and representations of urban nature. The spatial balance is tipped emphatically toward the British Isles, with only two and a half essays (Fougères, Champigny-sur-Marne, and Edgar Morin) being emphatically ‘French’. Even the ‘British’ treatment is weighted heavily toward Edinburgh and Belfast; those seeking information on London and other English cities will be disappointed. The book’s sub-title is not, of course, inaccurate, but it might be taken to imply more even-handed treatment of subject material. Eleven illustrations are provided, but in only three essays (Edinburgh’s parliament buildings, Everton, and Champigny-sur-Marne). A few decent maps of eighteenth-century Edinburgh, contemporary Belfast (perhaps a ‘mental map’ of the city), the cités-jardins around Paris, and even Fougères would not have gone amiss.


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