Greening cities in children’s book

Greening cities in children’s book

Review: Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan to Rewild Every City on Earth, Steve Mushin, Allen & Unwin

Alan Kay, a computer scientist, once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. On our current trajectory, there are plenty of predictions of dire consequences, but the way to avert these is to use human ingenuity to create a more positive future. 

The point of Steve Mushin’s book is to envisage and illustrate outlandish ideas, based on science, that can be, as he says, fertile ground for more practical ideas. The application of wild imagination helps us see the world differently and therefore see how it might be changed. Mushin calls it a sort of brain training for innovation.

He writes about the industrial revolution, and how the inventor of the steam engine, James Watts, could never imagine the scale of change his invention would make. This is what is termed a ‘disruptive technology’. The internal combustion engine is another example, and Mushin notes that in only ten years cars took over cities, against virtually all predictions. It is often hard for us to envisage how quickly and comprehensively the status quo can be turned around.

There is no reason for there not to be ecologically positive disruptive technologies, and in this book, which is part picture book, part graphic novel, Mushin conducts thought experiments about possible ways we can create greener cities, thereby tackling the twin evils of extinctions and warming, and puts them to paper (or iPad). Broadly, his inventive solutions entail reducing road cover and greening public spaces, create more animal habitats, restoring water supplies, making tall buildings into vertical gardens (which would incorporate growing more local food), and making transport greener. 

If that sounds a little like a green government paper, fear not, as Mushin splashes the pages with crazy but sort-of realistic drawings of utopian cities with submarines patrolling sewers and robot animals creating jungles, appealing to children’s love of complicated, crammed pictures with jokes and facts sprinkled liberally throughout. Compositionally they are a little like the ‘Where’s Wally’ books, the drawing style a little like that of the Treehouse series illustrator Terry Denton. (I find the digital colouring a little flat, but I realise most illustrators these days are illustrating digitally, and it is a way of not extending what must have been a very long process of intricate illustration anyway.) 

In the book there are pages about 3D printing birds, canons that fire compost balls made from human manure onto city walls to make vertical gardens (thereby introducing some poo jokes that many kids’ book illustrators feel they must include) and using thermals generated in cities to launch cyclists on bikes with wings into the air… or something. 

As outlandish as these ideas (and drawings) are, Mushin has based them on rigorous scientific research, and the book also contains information about how to find scientific papers online, concepts like trophic cascades, and the latest statistics and research about greening endeavours, some of which are being realised, such as South Korea’s policy of ‘daylighting’ waterways (basically uncovering rivers that were previously encased in drains), some of which are only being tested, such as using chicken manure to grow algae which can then be turned into bioplastics. So while children (and adults) can revel in the silliness, there’s plenty to learn as well. That’s along with the inspiration Mushin’s enthusiasm may provide. 

Over a few pages, illustrated starkly in black and white, he is honest about the scale of the problems, and how, a couple of years ago, this provoked feelings of hopelessness, but he also notes that there has been a recent acceleration of innovative solutions and take-up of green technologies, so the book is one of cautious hope. 

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big. 


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