Blog 7: The Unseen City

unseen city book

Since humans started to settle down from being nomadic creatures, cities have began to be built all across the world, and eventually started to grow rapidly, and now over half of humans live in cities I believe.  Cities were created to serve one singular species, humans.  These humans that live in their cities like to think they love and have reverence for nature; but only when that nature is far away and not affecting their daily lives.  On a daily basis, humans ignore the hundreds of synathropes that co-inhabit the world around them.  Synathropes are the species “that manage to live all around us, thriving along side humans” and are “rarely celebrated for their ingenuity” and adaptability [1].  Instead, humans see many of these creatures, especially rats, as pests and try to remove them from “their” environment.

The story of urban nature is what Nathaniel Johnson tries to open his readers’ eyes to in Unseen City:  The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.  Johnson began to ask himself about the nature around him after taking his toddler daughter to daycare, in which during the walk over she would simply ask, “What’s that?”, to which Johnson could only offer simple answers at first, such as a tree [2].  However, he began to notice continuously more about nature that he has missed every single day on his commute.  Through this book, Johnson tries to show how there is beautiful nature around city dwellers that they simply take for granted every single day of their life.  While Nathaniel Johnson’s book focuses primarily on pigeons, snails, gingko trees, and snails, his ideas and practices of examining the common everyday nature of the city around him can be applied to all of urban life including rats.

Kate Aurthur, the former rat columnist for New York Magazine believed that rats were at the heart of life in the city [3].  The This American Life podcast has a very interesting interview in it, from a man who was born and raised in the streets of Brooklyn saying that growing up he had to learn street mentality to live and he sees that same mentality in rats in how they live and do what is necessary to survive in the cities.  Rats, as with all other wildlife mentioned by Nathaniel Johnson in Unseen City, have learned how to adapt to the conditions humans have set forth in cities and learned how to cope with these living conditions and be able to multiply rapidly.

During the 99% Invisible Podcast, Roman Mars and Nathaniel Johnson discuss how cities have become this way and how people have begun to naturally take for granted all the wildlife living around them [1].  Since moving to the city, such and Johnson did, people are no longer as exposed to what they perceive as nature as often, creating a sense of apathy for the synanthropes that do thrive alongside them.  A major problem in humans’ view of nature is their “biodiversity blindness” in which urban biodiversity goes virtually unseen by humans, such as what Johnson discusses [4].  This biodiversity blindness and apathetic view of urban nature work along with traditional views of rats as dirty, disgusting creatures that carry disease to create a sense of hatred of rats.

In conclusion of both this post and blog series as a whole, I want to discuss a few overlapping ideas that I believe are very important.  One major point is how humans try to control nature around them, especially with cities.  Humans have tried to push nature completely out of cities, which they consider their own private domain.  They label the unwanted nature as pests and try to find ways to either exterminate it or at least control the populations of these pests.  This can be seen in rats, pigeons, weeds, any common pest.  This point ties in along with my second major point, nature should not be labeled as pest, simply because it is not wanted in a certain area.  Certain animals are only viewed as pests in certain situations; squirrels are a major example being considered a pest to farmers and some city dwellers by adored by many people in cities.  Rats too can fit in this example; rats are extremely beneficial to humans in ways such as lab test animals and even as pets to some people.  Maybe like how Johnson’s Unseen City makes readers rethink nature around them, this blog series will get readers to rethink their view on rats.