Cities of Difference, Part II: Shifting Identities, Diverse Communities and Urban Nature

Julian Agyeman, Medford.  Laura Shillington, Managua & Montreal. 
5 April 2018

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

This article was adapted from an article by Julian Agyeman [i].

A professional ecologist’s view of “ecology” is not necessarily the same as a regular inhabitant of the city. This is especially true in cities full of difference, and the various points of view that result from such difference. What does this mean for urban planning?

Cities of difference are places where we are “in the presence of otherness”, as Sennett puts it—namely, our increasingly different, diverse, and culturally heterogeneous urban areas.[ii] Difference is, in my opinion, a more expansive and useful concept than diversity, which has become virtually synonymous, in the United States at least, with race/ethnicity, and/or gender. Sandercock points out that “Difference . . . takes many forms. It acknowledges that population groups, differentiated by criteria of age, gender, class, dis/ability, ethnicity, sexual preference, culture, and religion, have different claims on the city for a full life and, in particular, on the built environment”.[iii]

In the first part of this series of difference and nature in cities, we looked specifically at gender. This current part focuses on the complexity and dynamism of difference—how the multitude of realities in which people re/create identities, meanings, and values produce, perceive, and experience urban nature differently. No one person can be reduced to one single or fixed cultural or other form of identity, and all, as Sandercock says, “have different claims on the city” and a Right to the City, including its nature(s). People in increasingly diverse urban communities construct and understand urban nature in different ways for varying reasons.

This article uses four vignettes—two from the UK and two from the USA—to show how nature in cities is perceived in different ways.

Vignette 1

In the early 1980s, the parks department of the city of Bristol in southwest England was persuaded by the local wildlife trust to develop wildflower mead­ows in city parks, which like most parks were domi­nated by hard-wearing, close-mown, multipurpose ryegrass. The parks department obliged, applying an appropriate management regimen and, within a few seasons, had beautiful native wildflower swards re­plete with a rich fauna towering above the ryegrass. The wildlife trust and most of the public liked it, ex­cept for the local Asian and African Caribbean popula­tion, who refused to go near the long grass.

Why was this? It was because of a residual fear of snakes in long grass. An environmentally and ecologically beneficial management regime had negative effects on the cul­tural diversity of the park. This dilemma is supported by Low, Taplin, and Scheld’s point that: “In this new century, we are facing a different kind of threat to pub­lic space—not one of disuse, but of patterns of design and management that exclude some people and re­duce social and cultural diversity”.[iv]

Wildflower meadow outside the Cathedral on College Green, Bristol, UK. Source:

There are many ways of looking at this issue. One is to say what if a member of the local wildlife trust or the park’s management team was Asian or African Caribbean? Would alarm bells have been raised? Anoth­er way is to say that there is only one venomous snake in the United Kingdom, the Adder (Vipera berus), and its venom is rarely life-threatening (but this misses the point that snakes are deeply imbued with mythologi­cal traits). Another way is to say that perhaps there is no “answer”, but that someone should have thought to ask the right questions.

Vignette 2

Mediterranean and Islamic Gardens, Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park. Source: London Parks and Garden Trust

In the mid- to late 1980s, I was working as an environmental education adviser, first in a south, then in a north London borough. While some of the schools in these boroughs wanted advice on creating “nature gardens” using native species, which they had been told by ecologists were “better” for wildlife, oth­ers wanted advice on creating what I called “multicul­tural” or “world” gardens in which teachers and par­ents were intentional in selecting plant species from the diverse countries of origin of pupils in the school. The London Borough of Southwark developed Chum­leigh Multicultural Garden in Burgess Park and the London Borough of Lewisham produced a guide on plants for a multicultural garden.[v]

These gardens were in effect autotopographies: cultural and community inscriptions on the cityscape that offered a statement of presence, of recognition, that both humans and nature(s) in cities are becoming increasingly different, diverse, and cosmopolitan, and are welcome.

English Garden, Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park. Source:

Vignette 3

In a challenge to the clarion call from al­ternative food movement (AFM) advocates to “buy and grow local”, Filipino immigrants in San Diego, California, see their food as local food. They cook it at home and eat it in local restaurants.[vi] This demonstra­tion of “translocalism”, which is also in evidence when they cultivate their fruit and vegetable gardens in city neighborhoods, ruptures the dominant, geograph­ic notion of “local food” and highlights the need for greater reflexivity within the AFM. Similarly, Mares and Peña use two predominantly Latino/a urban community garden projects—the now-defunct South Central Farm (SCF) in Los Angeles and Puget Sound Urban Farmers (now the Seattle Urban Farm Com­pany)—to analyze how food and farming can connect growers to local and extra-local landscapes, creating an “autotopography” that links their life experiences to a deep sense of place.[vii] In effect, they are writing their cultural stories on the land—or cityscape. This is a type of cultural place-making through the growth and celebration of culturally appropriate foods. Mares and Peña report that one gardener at the SCF, a thirty-year-old Za­potec woman, described her involvement at the farm in the following way:

“I planted this garden because it is a little space like home. I grow the same plants that I had back in my gar­den in Oaxaca. We can eat like we ate at home and this makes us feel like ourselves. It allows us to keep a part of who we are after coming to the United States”.[viii]

Former South Central Farm, Los Angeles, CA. Source:
Stack House Apartments, Seattle Urban Farm Company. Source:

Vignette 4

Lanfer and Taylor write about Latino/a immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts, who transform public spaces into familiar landscapes found in their home countries. One group has adopted Herter Park on the Charles River in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood because it reminds them of the river­banks and the willow trees they left behind in Gua­temala. Lanfer and Taylor quote one Guatemalan American as saying:

“I think one of the reasons that that place . . . is so popular with us, Latinos, is because of the willows. Willows in Guatemala are very common. They grow beside rivers. People like Herter Park because it looks like home”.[ix]

This construction of nature, typical of immigrant groups, can be characterized as nature as refuge.

These vignettes are important because they prob­lematize the dominant, often expert-imposed mono­lithic notion of nature, as opposed to a more negoti­ated and constructed notion of natures. They illustrate two ends of a continuum containing many different constructions of nature and the related concept of “the local”.

So if nature is quite literally in the eye of the be­holder, how then is nature critical to a twenty-first-century urban ethic where we live in cities of difference—in effect, intercultural city ecosystems? Every culture has a re­lation to nature in general, and urban nature specifi­cally. Some want the solitude it can offer, some want the socialization; some want recreation, some want re­laxation; some want reflection, some want refuge.

Furthermore, what is the role of municipal plan­ners, parks managers, urban and landscape designers, and others in catering to difference and diversity, to recognition and negotiation, to the intercultural city ecosystem/new ecology, while still respecting the tra­ditional ecology? Can they help us think about, design, and manage what I call “culturally inclusive spaces”—spaces of encounter with different people/natures?[x] Can such spaces be designed and constructed to have meaning and authenticity to the multiple publics that inhabit intercultural city ecosystems? There is a solid case to be made that the training and recruitment of such professionals should more fully reflect the make­up of our cities of difference. This would help speed the production, quality, and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces, and, critically, the embedding and ultimately the mainstreaming of culturally inclusive practice within those professions.

Julian Agyeman

Adapted by Laura Shillington
Managua  & Montréal

On The Nature of Cities

[i] This article was adapted from J. Agyeman, Entering Cosmopolis: Crossingover, Hybridity, Conciliation and the Intercultural City Ecosystem, Minding Nature, 7 (2014): 20-26. The original can be found here:

[ii]  R. Fincher and J. Jacobs, Cities of Difference (New York: Guilford Press, 1998); R. Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (New York: Knopf, 1990), 123.

[iii] . L. Sandercock, “When Strangers Become Neighbors: Managing Cities of Difference,” Journal of Planning Theory and Practice 1, no. 1 (2000): 13-20.

[iv] S. Low, D. Taplin, and S. Scheld, Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity (Austin: University of Texas, 2005), 1.

[v] See London Borough of Southwark, Chumleigh Gardens: The Multicultural Gardens in Burgess Park (London: London Borough of Southwark, 1995); and M. Prime, Plants for a Multicultural Garden (London: London Borough of Lewisham, 1993).

[vi] J.M. Valiente-Neighbours, “Mobility, Embodiment, and Scales: Filipino Immigrant Perspectives on Local Food,” Agriculture and Human Values 29 (2012): 531-41.

[vii] T. Mares and D. Peña, “Environmental and Food Justice: Toward Local, Slow and Deep Food Systems,” in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability, ed. A. Alkon and J. Agyeman (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011), 197-219.

[viii] Ibid., 209.

[ix] A. Lanfer and M. Taylor, Immigrant Engagement in Public Open Space: Strategies for New Boston (Boston, MA: Barr Foundation, 2005), 5.

[x] J. Agyeman, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice (London: Zed Books, 2013).

Laura Shillington

About the Writer:
Laura Shillington

Laura Shillington is a faculty member in the Department of Geosciences at John Abbott College in Montréal and is currently teaching an online graduate reading course in urban nature and environment at the University for Peace.

Julian Agyeman

About the Writer:
Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman Ph.D. FRSA FRGS is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, USA. He is the originator of the concept of “just sustainabilities”, the full integration of social justice and sustainability.

Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman Ph.D. FRSA FRGS is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, USA. He is the originator of the concept of “just sustainabilities”, the full integration of social justice and sustainability.

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