A Walk through the Granite Garden

“The city is a granite garden, composed of many smaller gardens, set in a garden world… Nature in the city must be cultivated, like a garden, rather than ignored or subdued.” 

In her 1984 classic The Granite Garden, Anne Spirn challenges the idea of the city in opposition to nature, advocating instead a theory of urban ecology. She contends that humans coexist with natural forces in the city, and, by applying design principles that respect and leverage these forces in urban settings, we can lead happier, healthier, and more sustainable lives. 

Spirn divides her book into six core sections: City and Nature, Air, Earth, Water, Life, and the Urban Ecosystem. Each chapter explores the failures of conventional development practices through historical examples, and then delves into ecological solutions to issues such as air and water pollution, soil erosion, flooding, wind tunnels, and heating and cooling. Her epilogue, Visions of the Future, concludes with two contrasting possibilities: The Infernal City and The Celestial City.

Diagram of passive solar house. Photo credit: passivebuilders.com.

The Granite Garden has stood the test of time and remains highly applicable, in part because design practices have advanced so little since its publication. Our failures to adopt and scale principles of urban ecology come with a high price tag, one that we pay, literally and figuratively, every day; home foundations ruined by frost heave, basements flooded during moderate rains, heating and cooling bills for thoughtlessly sited new construction, and mold-induced asthma are all the avoidable results of undervaluing⁠—or outright ignoring⁠—the power of natural forces.

Yet Spirn suggests many approaches to improve these conditions, approaches that are systemic and often synergistic in nature. For example:

  • integrating trees and other plants into urban neighborhoods in order to reduce urban heat island effects, improve the mental health of passersby, increase property values, moderate winter winds, and reduce runoff; and
  • siting new buildings so as to reduce heating and cooling costs, avoid flooding and foundation instability, protect residents from air and sound pollution, and nurture fragile ecosystems.

“[C]ities are intricate systems that confound attempts to solve one problem in isolation.” 

While Spirn’s vision of urban ecology remains only partially realized, the good news is this: 

“The celestial city is no utopian fantasy… it is necessary merely to recognize what is good in the present and nurture it, to adapt successful models already forged by cities of the past and present, and to develop new ones.” 


Anne Whiston Spirn, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1984.

Featured Image: Plants burst through asphalt road. Photo Credit: earthporm.com.

— pp. 4-5, Prologue
— pp. 235, The City as An Infernal Machine
— pp. 275, Visions of the Future

About the author: Will Curran-Groome is a first-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Prior to coming to UNC, he worked in public health and social services research with a nonprofit in Philadelphia. Will’s academic interests include land use policy, affordable housing, and the relationship between the built environment and health.