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Searching for Nature in the City: A Q&A with Dr. Lea Schweitz

Re-Naturing the City

March 31, 2016 • By Lea F. Schweitz Re-Naturing the City

This is a view of the greater Chicagoland area over time: two hundred years in five seconds. In a quick succession of five images, each representing a new era in Chicago’s landscape, the prairie turns to farm then to “development.”


On the first viewing, the urbanization of the area is striking.  It is tempting to view these maps as a linear forecast for a post-natural, urbanized future. From this perspective, the expansion of the areas of “development” looks a bit like bloodshed dripping across the land. However, watch again (or if you are like me, again and again and again). On repeat, pockets of green come into view along with the highways, and “development” coexists alongside the steady presence of Lake Michigan. How do we read maps like these?

My research for The Enhancing Life Project begins from the trend of global urbanization and asks: is there a theological hermeneutics that can read maps like these from a place of creative possibility? How must we re-envision nature in the city to enhance the lives of the creatures – human and nonhuman – who live there? 

There is a long history of theological reflection and spiritual practices that embrace the “book of nature” as a place for religious experience. Typically, these are in the face of mountain grandeur or spacious sunsets. If God speaks through the nature of the city, what do we learn? How are we changed? How can we experience the creative presence of God in the small, complicated, contested spaces of the book of urban nature?  

By 2050, it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s human population will be located in urban centers. Imagine the Chicago maps from above, stretching across the world and extending for twenty more years. Nature needs to find a home in the city. Conditions of urbanization, climate change, and research on the importance of nature for human wellbeing give these questions urgency and immediacy.  

Yet Jane Jacobs’ classic work on urban planning warns about drawing hasty conclusions from maps like these. Thinking about cities from abstract design, population predictions, and conceptual maps provides little pragmatic relevance for nurturing vital, living cities for the future. Enhancing lives in the city requires knowing the city from the street or, even better, the sidewalk, running trail, or bike path.

Consider The Bloomingdale Trail, also known as the 606. This greenway corridor is almost three miles of trail connecting parks and neighborhoods through the west side of Chicago. It has a hard surface for wheels, like bikes and strollers, next to a softer path for runners. Trees and a mix of native and ornamental plants will flank these paths and turn this old railroad line into an “environmental sentinel” for the seasons, lake effect, and climate change.

Eventually, more than 450 serviceberry trees will be planted from one end of the trail to the other. “Each tree has a scannable tag to measure their phenology - how their blooming cycles change over the seasons - and visitors will be able to compare on their phones how the lake effect alters when the trees flower from one end of the trail to the other, and how the flowering changes year to year,” writes Emily Ornberg in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Consider it the canary in the coal mine for Chicago’s environment.” The trees will give even one-time visitors a way to connect their single visit to the cycle of the seasons, the effects of the lake, and the changing climate. This is urban nature – and it is a laboratory, a classroom, and an art studio.

Or take The Plant. With my eyes closed, I might have guessed that I was at a spring-fed stream in the bluffs of northeast Iowa. The air was fresh and wet with the scent of vegetation and mushrooms, and my ears were full of the bubbling sound of running water. Nothing about the space would have suggested that I was standing in the basement of an old meat-packing plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago.

The Plant is a 93,500 square foot experiment in urban agriculture. It is an intricately designed system that will connect plants, fish, an anaerobic digester, a turbine generator, heating and cooling systems, a commercial kitchen, and breweries. The plan is for a net-zero energy system that provides food and beverages, soil, economic opportunities, and pathways to divert waste away from landfills without the use of fossil fuels. It is a networked ecology that grows plants and animals and upcycles waste. Could this be urban nature, too?

Answering yes demands unhooking ideas of nature from the ideal of pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. It means reimagining nature in multivalent ways. Urban nature is a classroom and a laboratory and a spiritual retreat and a gallery and a transportation corridor and a migratory pathway and a place for God’s creative activity. 

Theologically, the book of urban nature opens up a sacramental vision of the infinite in the finite. For example, The Plant embodies the ways God works with “so-called” waste. As Farmer Jonathan Scheffel from Healthy Soil Compost, a community-based composting and organic recycling organization, told me: “It’s only waste if it’s wasted.” One can see urban expressions of hope renewed in an old meat-packing plant, where decay is transformed to life. Here we have the seeds for a theology of urban nature.

Just as urban planners need to walk the city, theology needs embodiment in spiritual practice. My research project website,, uses art, nature, and the blog form to ignite the urban spiritual imagination. The red sprawl of “development” need not have the final word for the future of our cities. Perhaps we should find a way to layer these maps, with green spaces and development stacked next to and on top of the other. On this reading, nature and God’s creative activity can dwell together to enhance lives in the city. 

Read a Q&A with Lea Schweitz about her research here.

Photos by Thomas Oord. Maps from the Burnham Plan Centennial.