Race and the Construction of City and Nature: A Study of Three Periods of Park Development in Chicago, 1870, 1945, 2010

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Recent scholarship in critical urban theory, urban political ecology, and related fields has emphasized the "hybridity" of urban-environmental systems. This argument is contrasted with the socially constructed "binary" relationship between "city" and "nature" that dominated historical understandings of urban-environmental connections. Despite wide agreement on these issues, the trajectories that precipitated this shift in city-nature boundaries have been understudied. Many explanations position accelerating urbanization or changes in global political economy as driving the decline of the city-nature binary. This paper proposes that this transformation is bound up in the changing cultural and spatial dynamics of "race" between the nineteenth century and the present. Drawing on research on urban parks in Chicago, I consider the production of park space at three important historical moments: (1) the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when large picturesque spaces were built; (2) the post-World War II period, which was marked by the development of recreation facilities; and (3) the contemporary period, where linear parks like Chicago's 606 (which I term "imbricated spaces") bring together built and natural environments in new ways. Through this analysis, I argue that the social construction of city and nature, as spatialized through urban park development, was co-produced with racialized spaces and symbols and contributed to the creation of metropolitan racial boundaries. Further, I argue that historical shifts in these racialized spaces and symbols have been implicated in the weakening of the city-nature binary and the rise of the hybrid city-nature relationship.

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  • 01/28/2019
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