The greening imaginary: urbanized nature in Germany’s Ruhr region

Hillary Angelo

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Angelo, H. (1). The greening imaginary: urbanized nature in Germany’s Ruhr region. Theory and Society, 48(5), 645–669.

Green space , Morality , Social imaginaries , Urban greening , Urban nature , Urbanization

This article provides a sociological explanation for urban “greening,” the normative practice of using everyday signifiers of nature to fix problems with urbanism. Although greening is commonly understood as a reaction against the pathologies of the industrial metropolis, such explanations cannot account for greening’s recurrence across varied social and historical contexts. Through a study of greening in Germany’s Ruhr region, a polycentric urban region that has repeatedly greened in the absence of a traditional city, I argue that greening is made possible by a social imaginary of nature as an indirect or moral good, which I call urbanized nature, that is an outcome of, and subsequently becomes a variable in, urbanization. I draw on processual accounts of urbanization and the sociology of morality to explain urbanized nature’s emergence in the Ruhr at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its use to fulfill two competing visions of urban democracy in the postwar period. I find that rather than an ideological reaction against cities, greening is an aspirational practice that can be mobilized by a range of actors in a variety of places and times. By showing how a new social imaginary made new forms of moral action possible and how those ideals were then materialized in urban space, this article draws attention to the role of cultural imaginaries in urban change and to the material consequences of moral beliefs.

Main finding
The author argues that urbanization has transformed nature into a moral issue that has allowed greening projects to be used in many different ways to “solve” problems in large cities. Urban greening often does not fix the deep structural issues it seeks to address, but in the Ruhr region of Germany it has been used to develop both a Habermasian functionally divided city with large parks and a reimagination of a workers’ colony. Thus, this article depicts greening not as an ideological reaction to the size and density of cities but as the many varied physical transformations relying on a new social imaginary of nature. The Ruhr has consistently greened since the beginning of the twentieth century without the presence of industrial slums or large densely populated cities. As the industrial revolution changed social and material relations, Ruhr’s flagship “garden city” saw the use of nature shift from direct subsistence uses to indirect moral ones.

Description of method used in the article
Data were drawn from a larger research project tracing 150 years of greening in the Ruhr region of Germany. The data were collected through archival research, interviews, and participant observation carried out between 2011 and 2013. Three greening projects were analyzed: the construction of Ruhr’s flagship garden city in the early 1900s and two competing visions of postwar democracy in the 1970s, a series of large regional parks known as the Revierparks and the New Left movement to reimagine the Eisenheim workers’ colony.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Other or N/A
Archival / Historical Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Geographic locations