First, there is the alienation of urban society from environmental values that embrace both the cities and their larger regions. The technologies that sustain the modern city have touched every corner of human life, every landscape and wilderness, no matter how remote, and reinforce this isolation.
Second, little attention has been paid to understanding the natural processes that have shaped the city’s physical form and which in turn have been altered by it. In the presence of plentiful energy, the urban environment has been largely influenced by imperatives that are economic rather than environmental or social. Yet, it has become more and more apparent that the achievement of sustainable goals depends on the interdependence of environmental, social and economic determinants. The explosive growth of urban areas since the Second World War has brought about fundamental changes, not only to the physical landscape but also to people’s perceptions of land and environment. An affluent and mobile urban society takes refuge in the countryside in search of fresh air and natural surroundings that are denied at home.
Third, there are issues that concern urban processes and how we think about them. They include vast areas of inefficiently used land from urban sprawl, enormous water, energy and nutrient resources that are the by-products of urban drainage, sewage disposal and other functions of city processes. Having no perceived value, these contribute instead to the pollution loads of an overstressed environment.
Fourth, there are questions of aesthetic values from which the city’s formal landscape has evolved. These values have little connection with the dynamics of natural process and lead to misplaced priorities. Horticultural science, not ecological processes, determines the development, form and management of the city’s open spaces. At the same time, another landscape, the fortuitous product of natural and cultural forces, flourishes without care and attention. These two landscapes symbolize a fundamental conflict of values in the perceptions of nature: the desire to nurture the one and suppress the other in a perpetual and costly struggle to maintain order and control.
Fifth, there are questions of environmental values and perceptions, and of how we respond to the environments around us. If it can be shown that there are less costly and more socially valuable ways of shaping urban landscapes than has traditionally been the norm, then we have a realistic and practical basis for action. The biologist and city planner Patrick Geddes once remarked that ‘civics as an art has to do not with imagining an impossible no-place where all is well, but making the most and the best of each and every place, especially in the city in which we live’. So utopian ideals of the perfect city set in bucolic landscapes that were once the fashion in planning and architectural philosophy are not relevant to our concerns.