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Urban Natures
Véronique Fourault-Cauët


This introduction focuses on the main directions explored in this issue. Urban protected areas appear to be more and more frequent spatial configurations that reveal the limits of the traditional nature/culture partition. The different field cases also reveal the lack of urban governance about socio-ecological issues of these urban parks, underlined by their multiple and changing statuses. Although protected areas appear to be a useful tool to affirm their metropolitan rank, many cities fail to manage the conflicts generated by the exclusion processes caused by these parks; reversely, urban parks often make urban social injustice more visible.

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1Exploring the particular relationships between protected areas and cities: such is the purpose of this thematic issue of Articulo – Journal of Urban Research.

2From a classical – “modern” some may say – point of view, these relationships seem to associate opposite notions. Protected areas are indeed said to be portions of Nature, whereas cities are considered as main expressions of culture (Arnould et al. 2011; Bourdeau-Lepage 2012). This approach is partly a legacy from romanticism, which has created landscapes as symbols of Nature or wilderness since the 19th century in the Anglosphere. Mountains, coastal areas or forests thus became symbols of Nature in the occidental representations, and got overrepresented in the first protected area locations. For example, the National Park of Yellowstone, gazetted in 1872, contains some volcanic points of interest but also wooden landscapes which were considered as high-potential tourist attractions and therefore as places to preserve in order to maintain the possibility for American people to feel what pioneers had experienced during their first confrontation with the American “Nature” (Moumaneix 2012; Gunnell 2009).

3Very few national parks were developed in urban areas, considering that the biological and physical elements that needed protection were far from the city and its artificial composition (Depraz 2007).

4On the other hand however, global urban growth has contributed to getting protected areas to come closer to cities. The National Park of Nevado da Toluca (Heritier and Lebreton, this issue; Depraz, Salinas Rojas and Rees Catalan, this issue) or the National Park of Nairobi are quite interesting examples of some old protected areas, initially gazetted far from the city, and which are today under its strong influence or in direct contact with buildings. The global increase of protected areas has also led to the diversification of the types of landscapes and ecosystems that were protected; step by step, in many countries, the constitution of protected areas has become more diverse. (Depraz 2008).

5On the other hand, the modern partition between Nature and culture is today debated vividly for anthropological but also philosophical reasons (Latour 2013; Descola 2005; Tollis 2012). As many researchers think that the world should be considered as a coalescence of hybrid objects – “attachements risqués” in Latour’s analysis – the geographical and ontological opposition between artificial cities and natural areas that have to get protected from it seems to weaken.

6This thematic issue of Articulo – Journal of Urban Research, focusing on different types of articulation between protected areas and cities across the world is one of the extensions of the BiodiverCities International Seminar held in Marseilles, France, which aimed to generate discussions between inhabitants, city planners, national parks’ managers and researchers from various countries. This seminar has been an opportunity to foster exchanges of views between stakeholders such as the Port Cros National Park (France), the Kajiado County (Kenya) or the researchers involved in ANR programs such as UNPEC (Urban National Parks in Emerging Countries), Selina (Socio-Environmental Laboratory for policy Innovation in National park management) or EFFIJIE (L’EFFort environnemental comme Inégalité: Justice et Iniquité au nom de l’Environnement). Such discussions are indeed still quite unusual although urban or peri-urban protected areas have become an increasingly significant issue for metropolises across the world.

7These six contributions have allowed us to explore some of the greatest questions raised by this original contact.

To protect urban “natural” areas does make ecological sense… in a social perspective

8The ecosystemic specificity has to be discussed. For the last decades, on the one hand, studies on urban biodiversity have shown that cities do shelter some complex ecosystems thanks to parks of significant dimensions but also thanks to very small interstices (remote trees, flowerboxes, etc.) in built areas. The island biodiversity theory developed in the 1960s by Mc Arthur and Wilson has for instance been used in a metaphorical way to understand the urban ecosystems. If the application of this theory to urban areas appears to be questionable, most of the ecology studies consider that ecological functions still persist in urban regions. On the other hand, many studies have described the specific urban influence on biodiversity due to habitat fragmentation and the high number of introduced species, etc. (Kowarik 2011). Consequently, it seems interesting to analyse the place given -or not- to the ecological functions in the various policies including a reflexion on the protected areas in the city. Girault’s text demonstrates that Helsinki’s protected areas do not share the same ecological purpose, and that many of these parks are considered more as contemplative or leisure places whose function has more to do with education and sensitization of the inhabitants to biodiversity than with creating patches of ecological interest. This confirms former findings (Dearborn and Kark 2010; Shwarz and al. 2012): although there are still few studies explaining clearly the positive consequences of urban biodiversity conservation (Shwarz and al. 2014), “nature” in cities is of great interest regarding not only children’s education but also global acceptance of policies aimed at reducing the negative environmental impacts and developing the physical well-being of the inhabitants. So, if we consider as expressed above that the partition between nature and culture does not make sense, defining some protected areas in an urban context contributes to raising citizens’ awareness to ecological connections. The worldwide success of citizen science is partly due to the presence of biological elements in the heart of the cities that urges people to participate in insects counting or bird watching. Many national parks such as Nairobi, Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Marseilles often organize animal counting sessions trusted to the urban inhabitants of the area. The observation of lions, birds or large groupers contributes to raising the awareness of the parks’ users and initiates discussions between single users or NGO’s volunteers and park managers. Consequently, the urban protected areas, and their hybrid benefits, contribute to demonstrating how much physical and social facts are intertwined and how artificial the nature/culture partition is.

To protect urban “natural” areas stimulate debates on both metropolises governance and integrative protection

9The status of the protected areas located in the vicinity close of large cities and their needs to is a problematic issue. Therefore, the juxtaposition of highly restrictive areas and growing cities turns out to be nonsense. Getting partly or entirely ungazetted is a frequent evolution of urban national parks: Nairobi, Banco, Mumbai have all experienced it recently. In a way, the original proximity between huge cities and protected areas points out some more general spatial conflict configurations related to the parks, which are based on the restrictions of local people’s rights (Depraz 2008). Various texts on this issue demonstrate this ungazetting trend. The case of Nevado de Toluca (Mexico), studied by Depraz, Sanial Rojas, Rees Catalan for one part and Héritier and Lebreton for the other, is emblematic of a certain management option which allows for some local uses with a less protective status. The case of the Calanques National Park (France), studied by Cadoret and Daumalin and Claeys, Deldrève, Barthelemy and Herat, is one of the French National Parks created after 2006, with the help of a new law, less restrictive than the previous one. The debate on Switzerland’s urban national parks explored by Salomon Cavin (this issue) is also representative of the hesitations between a restrictive conception of nature protection and a protection that considers people’s needs more broadly.

10In a sense, the debate on urban protected areas participates in the larger discussions on the best way to protect ecosystems between the very restrictive position of preservation advocates – the “Fortress Conservation” option – and the community-based conservationist approach. These two narratives of conservation have faced each for nearly 35 years. IUCN tool book “Beyond Fences” (1997) takes sides with this sustainable approach, considering that natural resources management cannot succeed without the agreement of local populations and their participation, while some authors have pointed out a “Back to the Barriers” movement in conservation policies (Hutton, Adams and Murombedzi 2005). Nevertheless, the community-based narrative, even if initially dedicated to rural communities, offers some theoretical perspectives to natural resources managers who simultaneously develop many practical guidelines. Some recent publications of the main NGOs -The Nature Conservancy or the IUCN – therefore insist on the importance of proposing management tools for urban protected areas, considering the ecological complexity of cities, and also that there is no other choice than implementing clear governance practices in a devolved metropolitan context.

11If poaching, wood cutting or endemic plants picking still exist in many (peri)urban parks, some important leisure practices should also be considered. In Marseilles, leisure fishing or rock-climbing account for important activities in the Calanques National Park. But unlike well-identified rural communities - although many studies point out the frequent confiscation of participation in this context, urban users of national parks appear to be much more difficult to identify. Consequently, huge inequalities appear between the different groups of stakeholders of Calanques National Park (Claeys et al., this issue) or Nevado de Toluca ‘s advocates and opponents (Héritier et al., this issue). It reflects the extreme social gradient of metropolises, and the socio-spatial consequences of metropolization, creating both gated communities and ghettos. Moreover, some stakeholders appear to benefit from a wide experience of local governance and its issues while some others don’t. Although protected areas correspond to places of interest for both social categories: as a leisure and social space of recognition for middle and upper-class inhabitants and as a necessity for many people who use it in a very material way, some groups manage to confiscate attention from the main stakeholders. This unequal capacity to face urban governance processes generates great socio-environmental injustices (Blanchon Moreau Veyret 2009). To Claeys and al. (this issue), the theoretical approach of environmental justice demonstrates the fact that all groups do not benefit equally from the protected areas and may be “more solicited to contribute to such policies even though the ecological impact of their production and consumption patterns is largely inferior to other, wealthier groups”. Depraz et al. (this issue) insist on the fact that these conflicts and obvious injustices are often more related to symbolic appropriation of the protected area than to its concrete use; nevertheless, the unequal governance process leads to both symbolic and concrete dissymmetric “environmental efforts” (Claeys and al., this issue).

12Moreover the protected area seems to reactivate some old conflicts between the different uses of the peri-urban area, as underlined by Cadoret and Daumalin (this issue): inhabitants have fought against industrial use of their living environment for more than a hundred years in Marseilles. The environmental and leisure/tourist issues of the new protected area stress these conflicts but cannot be considered as external to the former urban debates and governance.

13Consequently, “classical” national parks – that means parks that belong to IUCN category II- may seem inappropriate in the urban context because of their strict core zone in contradiction with the high population density and the various urban and rural mixed use of their inner resources. That is the reason why the urban vicinity can be considered as a propitious context for more global reflexions on the appropriate importance of constraints associated with such protections. The different field cases studied in this issue reveal how difficult it is to find the appropriate levels of protection and use of the protected areas. The Mexican experience analysed by Héritier and Lebreton and Depraz et al. is an interesting example of degazetting experience. To recategorize the Nevado de Toluca from national park to an area of protection for Flora and Fauna is considered by some stakeholders tantamount to officially allowing some activities in the perimeter of the protected area. The Swiss experience, precisely described by J. Salomon Cavin (this issue) is also highly representative of the willingness to create some specific status to urban parks in Switzerland: although the legal establishment of the “Urban Nature Park” has been rejected, the “Nature Discovery Park” can be considered as a specific protection that partly takes into account the vicinity of the main cities and the specific urban use of these places.

14Creating a protected area can be considered as an eviction of the local users of the area (Depraz 2008). That is the reason why the different cases studied show tensions between national governments and local authorities: both want to affirm their control on territory. This probably explains why the Helsinki metropolis has supported no Urban National Park. Along the same lines, this also explains why a local and powerful “constellation of stakeholders” (local authorities, timber industrials, etc.) does not oppose to Nevado de Toluca downgrading process. On the contrary the many “Agglomeration Parks” whose rules are part of the Swiss cantons’ spatial planning policy reveal how protected areas sometimes are fully integrated into the city policies, although this often leads to less ecological protection.

Creating protected areas: a tool for meeting the international green requirements as an international metropolis?

15A pessimistic interpretation leads to considering the urban protected areas as single land reserves and some public authorities undoubtedly consider the parks located in strategic places as such. The recent conflict in Kenya between national government and Nairobi National Park’s main stakeholders about the construction of new railway and bypass reminds us that environmental protection in growing cities - and maybe even more in emerging countries – can be considered as opposite to development (Rodary Castellanet, Rossi 2004). Nevertheless, the place given to ecology in international standards has led many metropolises to promoting their environmental policies. Cape Town can be quoted as an example of a highly controlled and structured discourse associating the metropolitan status of the city to Table Mountain National Park (Donaldson et al., 2016). On a lower level, Helsinki’s “Vision 2050” City Plan analysed by Girault reveals how much green networks are considered nowadays as a part of the metropolitan project with the increasing value given to green spaces. In France, the Calanques National Park also contributes to giving a positive image of Marseilles even if the ecological purposes of such a structure are clearly undervalued in the Marseille Provence agglomeration’s Master Plan (called SCoT for “Schéma de Cohérence Territoriale”).

16Although these networks are, one among other initiatives, considering the connection of urban protected areas, sometimes mixed with single green spaces encourages the different stakeholders to build an overall metropolitan vision, beyond municipal boundaries. From a local point of view, as stressed by Girault (this issue), some city councils (for instance Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa) use environmental issues as a thematic way to build policies at the metropolis scale, without considering the single municipality boundaries.


17To conclude, urban protected areas appear to be a highly heuristic spatial configuration. Many common issues appear, in both emerging and developed countries. On the one hand, the structural conflictual dimension of this kind of ecological protection, which has always resulted in excluding some uses of a territory, is probably peaking in urban context. On the other hand, urban protected areas express, at times violently, the growing social inequalities in metropolitan areas. The unequal restrictions beyond different groups of stakeholders associated to these areas, and the inner imbalance of participation processes both contribute to some environmental and metropolitan injustices. The downgrading process of some national parks and the concomitant integration of these areas in metropolitan masterplans reveal that no equilibrium has yet been reached between the different statuses of these areas and their objectives.

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Electronic reference

Véronique Fourault-Cauët, IntroductionArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 16 | 2017, Online since 30 November 2017, connection on 28 February 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Véronique Fourault-Cauët

Véronique Fourault-Cauët is an Associate Professor at the Department of Geography at the University Paris Nanterre and a researcher at the UMR LAVUE. Email:

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