Boundaries of Nature and the American City

Environmental Law and Contrasting Ideas of Nature: A Constructivist Approach (Keith Hirokawa ed.) Cambridge University Press, 2013

25 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2013

See all articles by Stephen R. Miller

Stephen R. Miller

University of Idaho College of Law - Boise

Date Written: August 5, 2013


This chapter presents a framework for understanding how legal approaches have guided and defined the relationship between nature and the city since the wilderness movement. The purpose of presenting a selective and concise, but by no means exhaustive, version of these changes is twofold: first, this chapter satisfies a need to identify the dynamics that govern and organize the disparate policies through which we navigate the boundaries between nature and the city; second, because the city and its legal tools will be tasked with driving human adaptation to climate change, this chapter will serve as a guide for further exploration into the capacity and potential of these legal tools in a changing environment. The five approaches to city boundaries explored here illustrate the variety of tensions constructed in the law between humans, nature, and place. The first two approaches, both of which fit under the larger rubric of growth management or smart growth policies, primarily concern the city’s sprawl into nature. These approaches are driven by a felt need to maintain the boundary between human, civilized places and nature. The first approach uses legal tools that would bind a city geographically through preservation of natural elements at the city’s border, such as open space acquisition, land trusts and conservation easements, agricultural easements and working landscapes, transfer of development rights, greenbelts and urban growth boundaries, and large-lot zoning. A second approach to sprawl has been to restrain the speed of the city’s geographic growth through land use tools such as tempo and sequencing controls, and linking land use and transportation planning.

Beyond addressing sprawl, a third approach to boundaries of nature and the city has sought to revitalize neglected natural elements located geographically within the city — rivers, native species, and agriculture — enhance them, and integrate them into city life. A fourth approach has sought to change how cities’ built environment relates to nature by reducing and mitigating the built environment’s effects on nature. This has included use of legal tools such as mandatory environmental review of new projects, new legal regimes governing how the built environment’s use of resources affected nature globally through climate change, as well as regulations of even small parts of the built environment, such as street lights, that can have an outsized effects on wildlife. A fifth approach has sought to change how a city’s community relates to nature, including using law to address environmental justice and empowering sub-local communities to seek environmental benefits.

After reviewing these five approaches to boundaries of nature and the city, the chapter concludes by evaluating how the relationship between nature and city is being redefined through rapid population and ecosystem migrations. As both nature and the city morph and change, new, forward-looking legal tools will be needed to renegotiate nature and the city’s boundaries at both the hyper-global and hyper-local levels.

Suggested Citation

Miller, Stephen R., Boundaries of Nature and the American City (August 5, 2013). Environmental Law and Contrasting Ideas of Nature: A Constructivist Approach (Keith Hirokawa ed.) Cambridge University Press, 2013. Available at SSRN:

Stephen R. Miller (Contact Author)

University of Idaho College of Law - Boise ( email )

514 W. Jefferson St
Boise, ID 83702
United States
208-364-4559 (Phone)
208-344-2176 (Fax)

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