Sunday book review – Nature in Towns and Cities by David Goode

036504-fc50I’ve had this book for quite some time, and I have kept picking it up and putting it down. For me, that is usually a sign that it hasn’t grabbed me but I’m wondering whether it is me, or the book, or both. In this case I think it is mostly me. I’m not that gripped by urban wildlife as a subject.

I’m more interested in rural, for example farmland, wildlife than I am by urban wildlife. Even though, I acknowledge, there is sometimes more wildlife of interest in parts of our cities than parts of our countryside, and that is a view that is reinforced by reading this book.

But there are a few niggles with the book itself. First, it is a bit bird-centric. The author acknowledges his own personal interest and expertise in birds, but I’d hoped for a slightly rounder overview (not that there is anything wrong with birds, of course). More about plants? More about bats? Second, it is quite London-centric too. ‘Well’, you might say, ‘isn’t everything?’ but that’s hardly an excuse. This too is understandable as the author has worked with distinction in London for many years and is an expert on its ecology and wildlife.  I wonder whether the publisher prevailed upon the author not to repeat Fitter’s Natural History of London but to attempt a wider canvass – if so, I’m slightly sorry they did. I would have liked either a greater focus on London or a greater amount of information from outside the capital.  The book lacks a good assessment of the overall change in ecology of any city which I think the author could have written for the city he knows best and which would have been very interesting. Third, the photographs are badly chosen in places, and simply too small to illustrate any points in others. Fewer, bigger images would have been better.

But there is a lot of interest in this book. The author really is an expert and has the facts and the stories at his fingertips to spread through these pages.  I enjoyed reading about the colonisation of London by foxes, for example.

The last third of the book grabbed me more firmly. It is about how, and why, we should design our cities, our buildings, our green spaces, to help get nature back into them. This is really the heartland of applied urban ecology and I enjoyed reading this very much. There are good examples and good ideas in here.

I’m glad I don’t live in a big city.  But if I did, then I think I’d want those running the place to read this book and act on some of its good ideas.  Boris Johnson may soon be not only London Mayor but also a London MP, he may be in Downing Street eventually. Does he have a copy?

Nature in Towns and Cities by David Goode is published by Harper Collins.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury.


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4 Replies to “Sunday book review – Nature in Towns and Cities by David Goode”

  1. David Goode was head of the well-regarded London Ecology Unit which having been part-funded by (some of) the London boroughs was absorbed into the GLA, in what was a generally good decision by K Livingstone.

    The former LEU members did some excellent work, not least in supporting the establishment and implementation of the London Biodiversity Action Plan. Much was made not only of the LBAP but of the fact that London was the first city in the world where the Mayor had a statutory biodiversity strategy that would feed into all the other strategies and policies for the city. Of course it never had as much influence as one might have hoped and certainly not on the majority of the individual boroughs but it certainly provided a more positive, biodiversity-led approach than what followed. I'll leave you to guess whether biodiversity (or even wildlife or nature) is a word used more or less frequently in City Hall these days.

    But back on the New Naturalist front, it would certainly have been good to contrast the current situation with aspects of RSR Fitter's early volume. There are still Black Redstarts, thanks particularly to individual advocacy facilitiated by the London BAP and, despite Richard Fitter's concerns, probably many more breeding herons now than a century ago. And very odd it is to see them nesting on rafts on reservoirs too. Thanks largely to Peter Scott, there is the London Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre and the chance to see Bittern (and Water vole) and much more besides. At the same time, however, despite a large number of hugely valuable projects, there is no concerted approach to safeguarding the city's wildlife. Too much tidying up and not enough management of the right sort in those sites that need it most. A comparison of breeding bird species in London woodlands now compared to 40 years ago would probably be quite damning. And just how many soft-surfaces were lost since the London BAP was launhed And are things likely to get better or worse. Will my children be more or less likely to see a hedgehog, hawfinch or yellow hammer in a further 40 years. Will the new London Nature Partnership get its act together. What, you didn't realise there was one?

    The Goode book doesn't preach over much but it does provide the opportunity to get people to think about what wild there should be in the city, even if those likely to be able to influence matters see no value in such things beyond votes. I suspect that, looking back, the time covered by David Goode's personal experience will be seen as a high point for London, But then again, Richard Fitter's crystal ball was not perfectly attuned either. And perhaps a Nature & Well-being Bill will percolate through the Smoke. Certainly it needs to. And that would be a Good Thing.

  2. Don't spoil the Sunday, Mark, with your suggestions about Boris Johnson!!!. We don't want an airport in the Thames Estuary back on the agenda and other projects like it, which have little or no regard for nature.

  3. And there lies the rub, Alan - I bet this book stops at the city limits. There is a yawning no mans land between town and country around our towns and cities which in many places we use as no more than a dumping ground, and at best (as in Mark's home village, like so many through middle England) intensive agriculture rolls right up to the last larch lap fence. So its hardly surprising the likes of Boris Johnson see this in between space as a void waiting to be filled with his bright ideas.

    Yet this is the setting of our cities we are talking about, and the closest potential wild space to the vast majority of our population. How many times have you seen a fine diamond glued to a strip of sardine can with araldite ? That is how we 'set' our cities today. We can do it better, and I was delighted to see, in contrast to Sir Simon Jenkins and Shaun Spears, featured recently in this blog, that Dieter Helm in the latest Natural Capital report is starting to recognise the opportunity of real thought & planning for the positive, active greenbelt we need. It isn't theory, either: it is now 25 years since the creation of the National Forest and Community Forests and you can see what the future looks like - and it looks fantastic, some of our most awful places turned round into fantastic places to live - better in many cases than the 'pristine' greenbelt. RSPB Rainham Marshes is a good place to start - because as you go up the Ingrebourne river there is a string of new woodland and habitat - Ingrebourne wood, next to London's biggest reedbed, Hornchurch country park - both on old landfill - and the new Pages Wood on farmland. No trouble getting kids out from behind their computers when they've got space like this right next door - so why can't we do this in every green belt and around all our towns and cities ?


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