Alesi on Mathis and Pépy, 'Greening the City: Nature in French Towns from the 17th Century'

Charles-François Mathis, Émilie-Anne Pépy
Danielle Alesi

Charles-François Mathis, Émilie-Anne Pépy. Greening the City: Nature in French Towns from the 17th Century. Cambridgeshire: White Horse Press, 2020. 340 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-912186-13-6

Reviewed by Danielle Alesi (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) Published on H-Environment (February, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Greening the City: Nature in French Towns from the 17th Century, by Charles-François Mathis and Émilie-Anne Pépy, is a fascinating and comprehensive walk through the changing relationship between France and its public green spaces. While many of us take for granted the presence of greenery and “the vegetal” in cities and public places, Mathis and Pépy show a much more purposeful evolution of integrating plant life into urban ecosystems, playing their own critical role in blurring the artificial line between nature and culture in scholarship. A clear strength of the text is that the authors chose to begin with the seventeenth century, thereby creating a comprehensive timeline that truly highlights the ways that green urban spaces were culturally, socially, and politically constructed. Further, while the geographical analysis is confined to French cities, the overall conclusion feels applicable for other places, encouraging similar inquiries and inviting complementary scholarship.

Greening the City shows the progression of plant life used to map, decorate, enhance, and manipulate urban space. The book shows that the inception of using the vegetal in urban spaces, “greening” the city, started with purely human-centric motivations and goals. Interest in nature for nature’s sake is only a very recent phenomenon and still rather niche compared to practices of using plants for anthropocentric intentions. Starting with the seventeenth century, and to an extent the eighteenth century as well, situates the book’s argument in time, providing the first moments where, though not always purposeful or uniform, plant life was incorporated in cities to address the anxieties brought on by increased urbanization, with an overwhelming focus on aesthetics and hygiene. Urban green spaces are thus reflective of a human-driven desire for order, where the seemingly “wild” elements of nature are curated, manipulated, and controlled to match aesthetic ideals. As the authors so eloquently state, “to ask questions about nature in the town is basically asking questions about the nature of the town” (p. 11).

While aesthetics played an important role in enhanced plant life in urban spaces, this book points out the other key factors at play. By the eighteenth century, much of the city “greening” came from investments in public health. Health discourse increased dramatically by this point, adding to a general push for public gardens, promenades, and air-purifying trees. As doctors increasingly prescribed and touted the benefits of mild outdoor activities, emphasizing the positive effects of fresh air and consistent, light exercise, interest in urban green space increased accordingly. This was particularly a preoccupation of the social elites, who had not only the interest but also the time and resources to invest in health and hygienic practices.

Greening urban spaces was intended to foster the physical well-being of city dwellers and to employ order in response to social anxieties about race, disease, and poverty. The vegetal was another response to the perceived problems of urbanization. As the authors point out, vegetation was employed to “both police and cleanse the urban fabric” (p. 30). Of course, this entire process was also largely imperial. The majority of the “vegetal” was imported from foreign places deemed “exotic” and fashionable, adding to the demonstration of cultural taste and access elites craved. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries specifically, plants from the Americas were particularly popular and implemented in French urban gardens at great expense and effort. In more recent times, however, ecology has played a role in urban green spaces, with an increased awareness of the importance of biodiversity and the detriment of invasive species.

Other fascinating points the book brings to light include the nineteenth-century use of small, personal gardens, in attics or terraces, to improve the lives of poor women. The sale of inexpensive flower seeds encouraged women to green their own homes as a pastime, reinforcing beauty, health, and parochial values in the urban home. One cannot help thinking of the vast increase in the popularity of similar apartment gardens in urban spaces during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns.

Greening the City includes many more interesting and worthwhile lines of inquiry, like the overwhelming efforts cities had to employ to protect and preserve urban green spaces vulnerable to disease, parasites, or vandalism, or requiring staggering amounts of water and care to survive. As early as the seventeenth century, for examples, cities put in place large-scale watering systems in the form of horse-drawn wagons holding pierced barrels in order to efficiently spread water. The concern about efficient watering techniques has only grown more serious over the centuries in the face of increasing environmental concerns, reinforcing the political nature of urban greenery that this book highlights.

Citation: Danielle Alesi. Review of Mathis, Charles-François; Pépy, Émilie-Anne, Greening the City: Nature in French Towns from the 17th Century. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.