Urban Re-wilding and Community Projects

In 1851, Henry David Thoreau began a public lecture in his home town of Concord with these words:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil…”


Native oak planting at Prospect Hill Cemetery, Omaha.

It might seem odd to talk about “nature” and “wildness” in an urban context, but in fact, that is exactly what Thoreau did. Even his beloved Walden Woods was a public place, more of a busy suburban park than a wilderness. The genius of Thoreau, a thoroughly urban man who lived in a bustling town his whole life, is that nature and wildness can be discovered in cities and in back yards, in so doing we begin to restore the nature of our humanity.

A century and a half later, Gary Snyder amplifies Thoreau’s theme in his essay “Is Nature Real?” He concludes: “Wild is a process that surrounds us all, self-organizing nature: creating plant-zones, even humans and their societies, all ultimately resilient beyond our wildness imagination.”

In the traditions of Thoreau and many other naturalists who have found themselves at home in cities, The Naturalist School helps our urban partners invite nature home. Urban ecosystems are resilient, beautiful, and self-sustaining to the extend that they can behave wildly. This does not mean wild in appearance or untidy. It means that living and non-living members of the community create a life-sustaining web with minimal inputs of chemicals, human labor, and money. This is true for planting street trees or a butterfly garden, designing a backyard nature center, or creating wild habitats right in the middle of town.


We partner with homeowners to make backyard nature centers.  The future of the planet is intimately linked the the American back yard. The vast swaths of landscape and huge petrochemical inputs diminish the health of the planet and her creatures and the damage by all accounts is growing. Even the so-called “green” and “sustainability” movements have resulted in green sterility of exotic plants and monocultures while many attempts at sustainability have accomplished little more than increasing the carbon footprint of American communities. That’s the bad news.


The good news is that detoxifying our homes and yards and increasing the ecological contribution of the bit of earth under our care need not be difficult or expensive. In fact, our front and back yards can be more beautiful, more friendly to wild creatures, and less expensive to care for with expert advice and design. That is how The Naturalist School can help.


The Naturalist School partners with non-profit groups and agencies on planting and green space projects with an emphasis on creating native plant communities and healthy neighborhoods. Some of our current and recent urban partners and projects include: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Cope Linder Architects (PA), Douglas County (NE) Environmental Services, City of McCook (NE), City of Ottawa (ON), Calgary Zoo (AB), City of Saskatoon (SK), City of Regina (SK), City of Winnipeg (MB), Emmanuel Cemetery Charlestown (SC), New Skete Monastery (NY), Omaha Downtown Improvement District, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, Omaha Open Door Mission, Omaha Public Schools, Westside Schools (Omaha), Prospect Hill Cemetery, Trees Winnipeg, and many other partners across the continent.

Bur Oak Acorns, Loess Hills Ecotype. Photo by Jacob Phillips

Tashka-hi, Ponca bur oak acorns collected by TNS from Missouri River bluffs. (Photo by Cubby Phillips.)

Jack Phillips and The Naturalist School have received awards from The Arbor Day Foundation and Iowa Urban Tree Alliance for their work with communities across the continent. If your organization would like to partner with us for a project or program, contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com.