CONCEPTS AND TRENDS
IN URBAN ECOLOGY

 

By Tom Baugh, Science
Fellow

Science Policy
Initiative

The Green Institute

 

This year…2007…is a landmark year in human history.  This is not the year during which war was
abolished. This is not the year when hunger and crushing poverty vanished.  No, this year…2007…is the year of Urban
Humanity.  This is the year when over
half of us now live in what we call cities.

 

One would think that after all of these centuries, in
response to this great migration of the human tribes, the cities would be
places of choice by virtue of the quality of the environments they
provide.  But this is not the case and most
of us know it.

 

The air in an increasing number of our cities is foul.
Transportation, if we can call it that, is abysmal. The very structure of so
many of our cities mitigates against good health practices. We drive
everywhere, we walk nowhere and obesity has become the rule rather than the
exception among urban dwellers.  Our cities
leave much to be desired.

 

In 1995, I had the opportunity to make a job choice that led
me into a field now called Urban Ecology. 
I spent the five years between 1995 and my retirement from federal service
working under the title of ‘Urban Ecologist.’ 
It was a fascinating half decade. My work in some of the Southeastern
cities caused me to change a view common to those of us with training in field
biology and ecology. 

 

I would have to admit that so many of us with my education
and background would simply write the cities off.  We are mostly men and women of the wild
country, of unsettled lands, of wild herds and flocks.  It is challenging and often difficult to
merge the concepts with which I was raised and in which I was trained with the
city as concept and as reality.

 

It was while living and working in Atlanta, Georgia
that I learned of some of the more unique aspects of cities. I learned, for
example of what is called the ‘heat island effect.’  Because of the exhaust of heat as a waste
product of the human enterprise, many cities are warmer than the surrounding
countryside.  They are covered or
enveloped in a bubble of essentially waste energy and gases.  In some cases, these bubbles are so dense
that they create their own weather and can have an impact on the weather of the
surrounding countryside. 

 

I learned about something else in Atlanta. 
I learned about what happens when the integrity of rivers and streams
are not honored.  If you put a map of Atlanta on a flat surface
and look at the streams the flow into it…those streams vanish as they enter the
city.  They don’t actually vanish, they
go under ground.  It is amazing to see
these blue lines of life simply vanish, as if the city inhaled the streams.  Atlanta
is not alone in these problems.

 

I learned some other things during that time, however.  I learned what a wonderful thing it is when
citizens band together with a dream. I remember, while serving on a team called
the Urban Resources Partnership, visiting with a group of people who wanted to
create a little niche park in their community. And when I say little, that is
just what I mean.  A house, a very old
house, in one of the toughest sections of Atlanta,
with a stone basement cut into the side of a hill, had decayed and collapsed
into its basement. Over the decades an oak had grown from the stone wall.  When I visited the site, I saw a mess but the
local citizens saw a small, pocket park. 
We gave them the funds and provided some technical expertise.  The citizens cleaned the site, put in a small
path, added some flowerbeds, and a couple of benches, and had a park.

 

In the mid-1980’s, while still wandering the deserts of the
Southwestern US, I came upon Anne Winston Spirn’s book The Granite Garden in which she discusses the cities from the
perspectives of urban nature and human design.  I bought the book and have had it all of these
years, never thinking when I made the purchase that I would have a small part
in the contemporary movement to reinvent that which we call ‘urban.’  I’m sure that in those days I probably
shrugged when I read the opening words in preface saying that “Nature pervades
the city, forging bonds between the city and the air, earth, water, and living
organisms within and around it.” That may also have been the first time I
experienced the conscious recognition that cities matter in a ‘natural’ way, or
can be made to matter in a natural way.

 

Much has been accomplished since The Granite Garden was written. For example, in 1990 Black Rose
published David Gordon’s book Green
Cities
dealing with ecologically sound approaches to the use and management
of urban space.  In 1994 Platt, Rowntree,
and others published a book titled The
Ecological City
focusing on preserving and restoring urban biodiversity.  In 2001 Richard Register, a member of the
urban ecology group in the Berkeley/Oakland area of California and leader in
the Ecocities movement, published Ecocities:
Building Cities in Balance with Nature
, and then in 2006 revised it and
reissued it as Ecocities: Rebuilding
Cities in Balance with Nature
.  And,
these are only a few of the conceptual achievements of those who have provided
intellectual and practical guidance on urban ecological issues.

 

From all of this theory and professional practice has
developed an evolving movement that is making inroads, some small, and some very
large.  Early on, the American Forestry
Society turned its attention to urban forest cover and developed guidelines for
the reforestation of urban areas.  Roofing
materials have been developed that reflect light and thus heat from urban roofs
rather than absorb energy and requiring air conditioning.  Increasingly now, we hear of living roofs, specially
prepared and specially planted  to reduce
the heat absorbed by the buildings they shelter and to encourage urban
biodiversity.  In some places, porous concrete
has been used to replace asphalt in order to make more efficient and
environmentally sound use of the rainwater that falls on the thousands of acres
of urban hard surface. Special devices are being used in parking lot drains to
collect the oil that sometimes oozes into our storm water systems and then into
our rivers and streams.

 

Urban Ecology study centers have been established at a
number of places including the Centre for Cities in London…Sustainable Cities
in Japan…the Urban Ecology Center in Wisconsin…and the Urban Ecology Institute
in Boston…among many, many others. The United Nations has a sustainable cities
initiative, interestingly enough linked with its biodiversity program.

 

We see all of this energy and movement being reflected, on
the community level, in literally thousands of organizations in communities,
cities, and towns across the world. 
These community organizations often take on the role of advocates.  In a number of areas we have seen the
formation of nonprofit consultative groups that concentrate a substantial
amount of professional skills focused on green building.

 

Government is also involved in the greening of our towns and
urban centers, sometimes through the acquisition and disposition of the funds,
sometimes through planning, and sometimes through ordinances and laws.  In this regard, the Green Institute (www.greeninstitute.net) has initiated
GreenPro  (www.greenpolicy.us), an effort to list
policy positions, resolutions, and ordinances that foster ‘green’ communities.

 

A lot of the greening movement within communities has
centered on the stabilization and restoration of streams, and where they exist,
rivers.  These projects have ranged from
removing trash from streams, to planting vegetation or structures to slow or
stop erosion, to day-lighting streams that were covered over in the past.  I served as Cochair for the Chattahoochee
River Committee of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative.  That Initiative was under the Council of
Environmental Quality. CEQ responded to the office of Vice President Gore.  That was a time when environmental issue were
not an embarrassment to the Administration and where the federal government
provided what assistance it could to the cities.

 

The urban ecology movement has been around some decades.  In a way, it has been around as long as there
have been those sensitive to what it means to be urban in a human context. This
movement seems to have merged, to a great degree with the broader
sustainability movement, and to some extent with the permaculture movement. Now
we talk about ‘sustainable ecocities.’ In fact, the first International
EcoCities Conference was held in 2000 and there has been one conference a year
since then, with the 2006 conference being held in Bangalore, India.

 

Also, an increasing number of very fine colleges and
universities now offer undergraduate training in the field of Urban
Ecology.  The University
of Washington in Seattle
offers a PhD in Urban Ecology and as recently as 2006, the University of Chicago
initiated a PhD in Urban Ecology These are just a few of the academic
institutions offering undergraduate and graduate work in this field.

 

There are other factors stirring out there that will have an
effect any decisions we make concerning the nature of our cities, our place in
them, and the place of other species. 
The cost of energy and the increasing cost of water are not the least
among these factors.

 

Living in community requires that we reach agreement about how
to proceed on the greening of our cities. 
The Platform of the Green Party of the United States (http://www.gp.org/platform/2004/ecology.html#759678)
says that “Rather than move populations back to the land, it is important to
bring the land back to cities.”

 

In my life, I have stood looking out over hundreds of acres
of wildflowers after the rains of spring had moistened the earth just enough
for one of those very infrequent desert wildflower blooms, an incredible sight.  I have floated over a hundred feet down
alongside a massive wall of corals. 
These are wonderful experiences for a biologist/ecologist, but I have
also experienced the incredible joy of seeing the first river otter to return
to a clean and stable stream whose rehabilitation I had a small something to do
with.  I have been part of the
day-lighting of a stream that had been buried under a city for decades and I
learned the joy of linking previously detached patches of seriously degraded
urban ‘wildlands’ into corridors that allowed the movement of native animal and
plant populations.  Perhaps the most
important thing I learned was the power of people when they decide they are
just ‘not going to live like this anymore’ and begin to green and replant their
city.

 

References

 

Gordon, D.  1990.
Green cities: Ecologically sound approaches to urban space.  Black Rose Books. Montreal. 299 pp.

 

Platt, R.H., R.A. Rowntree, and P. C. Muick.  1994.  U. of Mass.
Press. Amherst.  291 pp.

 

Register, R. 2001. Ecocities: Building cities  in balance with nature. Berkeley Hills Books,
CA. 320 pp.

 

Register, R. 2006. Ecocities: Rebuilding cities in balance
with nature.

 

Spirn, A.W. 1984. The granite garden:Urban nature and human
design.  Basic Books Inc. Publishers. New York. 334 pp.