Nature's Metropolis

by William Cronon

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

William Cronon explores the growth of one great city, Chicago, in the context of the region where it is located. He situates urban growth and expansion as part of, not disconnected from, the ecology of the central area of the United States. In doing so, he not only chronicles an epoch of US industrialization and expansion, but he also encourages the reader to examine their own understanding of concepts such as “natural” contrasted to “artificial” and “unnatural,” and “urban” versus “rural.” He shares his own questioning of such definitions as an important step toward beginning the book. All inhabited places, including agricultural fields and second-growth forest, show changes that humans made.

Why had I seen some human changes as “natural”—the farm, the woodlot, the agricultural countryside—but not the other changes that had made “nature” into “city.” How could one human community be “natural” and another not?

The importance of transportation is a key theme of Cronon’s work. Roads were difficult to build and maintain so they were developed slowly. Navigable rives already existed and had been used for centuries before European arrival. Within the expanding nineteenth-century settlement that turned former Native-held lands into individual, European American farmsteads, getting materials to and from market was increasingly crucial. The watercourses had several advantages.

Given the poor state of frontier roads, the rivers were its highways. Farmers often sought to float their goods to market, for the land’s flatness meant that prairie rivers had rapids and were easily navigable when they held enough water.

The third part of the book, “The Geography of Capital,” explores the vast commercial apparatus needed to support urban and regional growth.

[T]he city’s monuments obscured . . . much of the human economy, that second, constructed nature of which the city itself was the most visible expression . . . The commodities that flowed across the grasslands and forests of the Great West to reach Chicago did so within an elaborate human network that was at least as important as nature in shaping the region . . .

Size and accessibility may have been the abstract features of second nature that placed Chicago atop the regional hierarchy of the Great West. But they found their concrete embodiment in things like steel rails, telegraph wires, flour mills, log drives, icing stations, and the like—to say nothing of factories, department stores, millionaires’ mansions, and workers’ cottages.

Cronon also shows that Chicago became a victim of its own success. The centralization of commerce and transportation through the metropolis at first facilitated the expansion of other Midwestern cities. Before long, however, transporting goods through the increasingly congested business district became a liability, and dangerous road and railroad intersections saw many accidents, some of them fatal.

Congestion—with its attendant costs in time, money, and human life—was an inevitable price of Chicago’s success as a railroad metropolis . . . [C]ongestion set a limit in railroad centralization, and Chicago had already reached that threshold by the 1880s and 1890s . . . [A] host of investment decisions by the same people and institutions that had financed Chicago’s growth would begin to work against it.

Leisure also was another factor in Chicago’s regional role. The increasing population and hot city summers encouraged people to get away. Cronon turns in the latter part of the book to the development of tourism along with railroad and automobile travel. He uses his home state of Wisconsin as an extended example, explaining developments of the turn of the twentieth century.

Dense populations of well-to-do tourists spent large amounts of urban money there [in Wisconsin] during the summer, and sparse local populations did their best to get by during the winter . . . The economy of such places, and the urban-rural amenities they offered, rested on their hinterland status.

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