Book review: How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens

reviewed by Taylor Harris Braswell

29 Jul 2022, 10:23 a.m.
Taylor Harris Braswell

How Green Became Good book cover

Hillary Angelo, How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021; 264 pp.: ISBN 9780226739045, US$30.00 (pbk)


Greening projects have become fixtures of contemporary urban sustainability initiatives. Such projects have received significant attention in urban social science research, focusing on the extent to which urban greening initiatives reproduce existing inequalities, sometimes acting as a form of profit-driven development branded with a sustainability mask. In How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens, Hillary Angelo zooms out from the contemporary context to provide a broader, historical account of urban greening. What are the origins of urban greening? How did greening come to be understood as a social good? How does greening shape cities and experiences of cities? Drawing on archival and interview-based research to answer these questions, Angelo identifies both the historical conditions that made today’s greening practices possible and characteristics common to greening projects across time.

The book attempts to solve the puzzle of why urban greening occurs in places where the commonly assumed causes of the phenomenon – that greening is a response to the dense morphology of the classic industrial city and its associated social problems or the cultural proclivities of the urban middle class – fail to adequately explain its adoption. Angelo seeks to develop an alternative understanding of greening by conducting a longitudinal comparison in a case where greening has been a key component of the regional urban history but is wholly failed by traditional explanations: Germany’s Ruhr Valley. As a spatially extensive urban industrial region that has never been lacking in green landscapes, the Ruhr does not have a traditional urban core and has not historically been home to a significant cosmopolitan urban bourgeois culture. Lacking these commonalities with the urban form of the classic industrial city often assumed in urban sociology research, the Ruhr is presented as a particularly rich site for investigating alternative greening explanations.

Rather than being a reaction to a particular urban form, Angelo finds that urban greening efforts are wrapped up in the fundamentally social processes of urbanisation and attempts to craft particular experiences of urban space. Core to greening projects across the Ruhr’s urban history is what Angelo calls urbanized nature, or ‘the social imaginary that makes greening practices possible and that accounts for their recurrence’ (p. 19). Urbanised nature has three principal characteristics. First is a view of nature primarily as an indirect, moral good with cultural or psychological benefits rather than as a direct, subsistence good. Second, that moral value of nature is understood to be universal. Nature is perceived to exist outside of social relations and therefore is equally beneficial to everyone. Third, urban greening has an aspirational quality. Although the content of urban visions can vary from project to project, greening is a value-laden process, reflecting ideas about ideal urban futures. Taken together, these three aspects of urbanised nature make urban greening an effective means of urban development, allowing greening advocates to make use of the understanding of nature as a universal good to reshape space towards particular visions about what a city should be, and subsequently, how city citizens should ideally interact with, experience and make meaning of urban space.

Angelo divides the book into three parts, each tracing urban greening projects in distinct periods of German political economy. Part 1 outlines the emergence of urbanised nature in the industrial towns of the 19th-century Ruhr. Rather than urbanised nature being an inevitable by-product of urbanisation, these chapters show that urbanisation was, instead, a necessary but still insufficient condition for the emergence of this social imaginary. Greening efforts in the aftermath of early industrialisation still took the form of a distinctly agrarian imaginary: residential colonies with subsistence gardens for mine workers. Only after Ruhr elites began to view themselves as part of a broader, global network of urban actors did they begin to deploy nature as an indirect, moral good meant to cultivate a cosmopolitan citizenry rather than a direct good used primarily for subsistence. Part 2 draws upon two greening movements in the post-war period, each attempting to capture the newfound leisure time associated with the increased productivity of the era. First were the regional park projects, or Revierparks, designed to spatialise Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere and incorporate it into planning practice. Second, as a backlash to the social imaginary advanced by Revierparks advocates, was a social movement that sought to reclaim the colonies from the agrarian imaginary described in Part 1 with a new urban vision: a greening environment capable of producing a counterhegemonic proletarian public sphere. Finally, Part 3 details the efforts from Ruhr planners to contend with the aftermath of deindustrialisation, attempting to implement a regional greening project that embraces the Ruhr’s industrial history, thereby allowing Ruhr residents to experience the landscape with pride rather than the despair associated with the hollowing out of the Ruhr economy. However, as shown by an analysis of the effort’s local manifestations in Dortmund, these regional aspirations broke down at the municipal level, where regional planning visions were met with practical fiscal restraints, leading municipal actors to implement greening with an alternative urban future in mind.

The longitudinal comparison employed by Angelo makes visible the particularities of greening projects at different points in time, while also allowing for the general, recurrent characteristics of urban greening to be identified. Whether it was Ruhr elites beginning to see themselves as competitors in a broader network of urban elites, concerns over increased leisure time due to the post-war increase in productivity or dealing with the aftermath of deindustrialisation, each greening project analysed is, to some degree, intertwined with the urban political economy of the time. A core contribution of the book is that it shows the extent to which, beyond the criticisms levied at neoliberal greening practices today, urban greening has always been imbued with historically specific political content despite the widespread perception of nature as universally beneficial. Yet, even with these period-specific particularities, Angelo adeptly shows that, just as greening cannot be reductively explained as a response to a particular urban form, it also is not simply an overdetermined reaction to historical political economic circumstances. Rather, ideas (and therefore agency) play a key role in shaping urban greening processes. The aspirational quality of urbanised nature, along with its universality, common to all three periods means that greening is a particularly powerful way for social actors, whether aligned more closely with existing social hierarchies or seeking radical social change, to project agentic visions for new urban futures.

One potentially fruitful addition to the book may have been a more explicit discussion about Angelo’s approach to historical research. How Green Became Good is an exceptionally robust work of historical sociology, shown by the fact that Angelo not only provides the reader with the historical specifics of each greening project analysed in the book, but also uses those details to skilfully build a general theoretical explanation for how urban greening works as a social process. Moreover, How Green Became Good is, specifically, a work of historical urban sociology. With much of the seminal work in historical sociology focusing on national-scale rather than particularly urban processes, I found myself yearning for more methodological reflections on the application of historical methods in urban sociology. Further discussion about the models of historical research that Angelo drew upon when conducting the research for the book, for example, could have been an instructive resource for those interested in contributing to a broader historical sociology of urbanisation. Yet, even without these explicit methodological reflections, Angelo’s work serves as a model for other scholars inclined to take a historical approach to answering questions in urban sociology and urban studies.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Urban parks and urban problems: An historical perspective on green space development as a cultural fix by Kevin Loughran

Loughran uses history to inform contemporary understandings of urban green space development.

Why does everyone think cities can save the planet? by Hillary Angelo and David Wachsmuth

This Special Issue introduction identifies and explains an underlying transition in discourse from the city as a sustainability problem to the city as a sustainability solution.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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