Urban Utopian Ideals: Why We Ought to Break the Habit

Here, I find myself in week 6 of my independent study, halfway through Unit 4: Learning from Nature. Where I am, I feel it is a good point to draw attention to a critical error which I’ve encountered in some of the readings previously reviewed, as well as a fundamental flaw in most visionary planning: utopian ideals. Whether an architect/designer/theorist/other will admit it or not, much of what constitutes the bulk of writings in the field of ecological urban design is clearly rooted in a very utopian foundation.

Utopian ideals often do more harm than good. In a little over a century, we have witnessed many visionary concepts (Garden City, for example) as they completely turn on themselves, leaving people trapped amidst the very conditions which the utopian vision intended to change, though possibly more severe than they were at the start and often compounded with newly discovered/created issues.

Luc Schuiten’s Vegetal City

Some of my most influential authors can at times suffer the idealist dilemma. Their designs are gorgeous illustrations of the perfect world where nature and city intersect harmoniously, where communities are verdant and whimsical, very much reminiscent of paradise. I am particularly in love with Luc Schuiten’s concept of the Vegetal City (above) and Richard Register’s Ecocities; but as much as I long for a world like the ones these and other visionary architects often depict, I can sometimes feel defeated when I realize the likelihood of such places ever existing is slim to none. Yet, the truth is, paradise absolutely cannot be the answer- we cannot abandon our current cities, and we don’t have the resources to start such grand experiments.

Given the frustrating conditions of our urban environments, it’s not difficult to see why so many create a utopia in the first place. In his book, Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government, Evan McKenzie noted:

“Utopian thinkers are inspired to create their ideal worlds in large part because of their dissatisfaction with the world around them, and their solutions tend to be reactive and one-dimensional.” p. 23

It’s no wonder that many of us, in a desperate attempt to “fix” the issues of current development patterns, dream up perfect worlds where everyone is happy. After all, how many of us declared as children that we would change the world by making it a better place for all to live. In our attempts to address the current ailments of our cities, we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. So perhaps in this case, I can’t really say we’re learning from nature, but we’ve certainly learned from our many past mistakes; such valuable lessons cannot be wasted in lieu of the next best thing in urban planning.

In the same chapter, author McKenzie goes on to quote Fritzie P. Manuel, a scholar of utopian thought:

“The great utopians have all borne witness to their anger at the world, their disgust with society, their acute suffering as their sensibilities are assailed from all sides. They withdraw from this world into a far simpler form of existence which they fantasy. The escape from everyday conflicts and disappointments has a childlike quality. And their way back from utopia, their return to the real world they had abandoned, is often characterized by devotion to a fixed idea with which they become obsessed. They clutch frantically at this overvalued idea that at once explains all evil and offers the universal remedy, and they build an impregnable fortress around it.”

I tend to get that way, too- in all realms of my life. I convince myself that the cure to the clutter in my life will be more baskets, bins, and boxes. While compartmentalizing things helps (well- in planning, this is an entirely different issue for another time), it’s not a panacea. I have to change my habits and behaviors, and address the items that cause the clutter in the first place. Thinking about what both McKenzie and Manuel are saying here, I think it’s quite important to note that there are useful elements of the current conditions as well as some worthwhile features of the idealist visions, but they must be viewed together.

I believe I had mentioned earlier in this series my discontent with the greenfield alternative. After all, the greenest building is the one already standing. Wouldn’t that also mean the greenest city is the one we’re already inhabiting? Why start over? I have been disappointed with the lack of adaptive solutions until I came across an article from 2010 which describes Denver, Colorado’s planned Living City Block development. Neil Takemoto wrote in his Cooltown Studios review of the project:

“If a cell is defined as the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism, if a building were an organism, its rooms would probably be its cells (‘cellula’ is Latin for a small room). For a city though, it may be more helpful to associate cells with its blocks, fitting perhaps since a cell is often described as the building blocks of life. From the air, a city’s blocks resemble cell structure more than its buildings.” [emphasis in original]

This beautiful introduction made the article an ideal fit for my biomimicry study, but the article also happened to perfectly compliment the topic of this post. Quoting the mission of the Living City Block project, Takemoto notes goal is to regenerate existing cities! It’s such a relief. Now still, the project is very sustainably oriented, and not excessively ecologically focused, but the renderings (see below) depict a pleasing amount of green infrastructure.

Living City Block Project

It’s very important to me, and will hopefully be clear throughout this study, that existing cities are the focus of my attention. While I’m encouraged by projects like Masdar, the Abu Dhabi planned city which intends to be a sustainable, zero-waste, zero-carbon, carbon-free city, such places do not address the urban areas which are currently a main reason we’ve developed concepts like “zero-waste” and “zero-carbon” in the first place. Building efficiently tomorrow will do us no good if we allow the negative elements from today’s cities to remain.

Articles Linked in Text:

Inhabitat: Veganism and the Environment

I’ve always wanted to write a post that would go over these same numbers; but this infographic is perfect!

Veganism and the Environment Infographic Shows the Environmental Impact of Raising Animals for Food | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.

veganism, environment, food footprint, green diet, healthy eating, green lifestyle, sustainable lifestyle, sustainable foods, healthy food, vegetarian lifestyle, vegan lifestyle, sustainable food choices, co2 footprint

Deep Ecological Urbanism in Baltimore

As I was reading through Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities, I was eager to start applying what I was learning and reading to an area in Baltimore. Chapter 3 of his book had provided me with a list of indicators (Box 3.1, pages 47-49) for measuring biophilia in cities, and it really set me on the ground running with this mission of mine.

What I want is a small, manageable area of Baltimore that can, in many ways, represent the many diversities of Baltimore City as a whole. It should have a mix of development types- both historical and modern; rowhomes, apartments, and perhaps even single family- it should be a part of the Inner Harbor to provide a view of tourism and recreation, it should feature some other hydrology, should also have more development in the near future, and I would like it to be near one of Baltimore’s larger parks. I hadn’t thought too much about demographics since I really don’t know if I have the time to spend on that detail but, ideally, it would mirror Baltimore’s general population. After choosing an area, I think it would be an interesting exercise to use Beatley’s indicators.

I went about studying some of Baltimore’s conditions and setting priorities to determine an area which I think would yield interesting results. I considered the following:

  • Areas with current Urban Renewal Plans
  • Historical districts
  • Rate of calls for dirty streets
  • Rate of calls for clogged storm drains
  • Food Deserts
  • Concentrations of minority populations
  • Areas showing high levels of diversity
  • Medium- to High-density areas
  • Mix of zoning classifications
  • Areas with the fewest trees
  • Areas around unhealthy waterways (all Baltimore waterways are…)
  • Areas with low voting activity
  • Diverse housing typology

Using a very broad brush, I loosely outlined areas which met the above conditions and produced the map below.

Choosing a study area in Baltimore

Choosing a study area in Baltimore; base map is the Baltimore Floodplain Map

Some other elements which I hadn’t considered in this exercise, but am now thinking about, include access to city parks (any size), income level, and transit accessibility. But I think this exercise produced sufficient results even without mapping those characteristics.

You can already see a concentration of overlapping conditions in the area just northeast of Patterson Park, as well as the area west/southwest of the Inner Harbor. Actually, before I did the mapping exercise, I had considered Federal Hill for this study- it has both historic and recent architecture, has a range of building types, is expecting new development in the coming years, and has access to a larger urban park and the Inner Harbor. As I did the layering study, I noticed that Federal Hill was not as diverse as I would like the study area to be. Still, I think it presents the right physical conditions for my future study and I plan to pursue this area in more depth. At the same time, I can’t really ignore Patterson Park. Although it is farther from the Harbor than I wanted (still only a few blocks away), it seems to present all the different characteristics in which I was originally interested. I think I’ll include this area in my study as well; perhaps it will yield different results.

As I read more and progress in the semester, I hope to use these areas as a base upon which I can visualize and analyze the concepts I review. In the end, I intend to propose ecological design recommendations.

Memories of My Wild Youth

I wanted to take a moment to come back to my personal life. I really appreciate the opportunity that this blog and this study have given me, allowing me to evaluate my own understanding and involvement with these issues openly and in a very intimate way. As I was reading about this natural disconnect, I kept going back to my own childhood. Although I don’t think I could pass the nature identification survey author Timothy Beatley describes in the beginning of his book, Biophilic Cities, I do think I’ve been very fortunate to have spent a great deal of my youth outdoors and in wild spaces. Particularly, from the time I was 3 until I was 10 years old, I lived in an older suburban house on a little less than 1 acre, nestled along a street that had remained fairly secluded and forested. I don’t think that friends who lived in the more typical suburban developments weren’t as fortunate as I was because, on my street, my parents felt comfortable enough to let me wander about unsupervised. I don’t recall any real restrictions which I was given in terms of where I could go- there weren’t too many large roadways within a kids walking distance. Certainly, I would have to be home before dinner, but it’s not as though I always wore a watch as a kid, and this was before cell phones. I really do think I must have had a decent amount of freedom! I spent a lot of time exploring the forest in my backyard- allowing me to be creative while I would learn, experience, and develop among nature. When I get together with the girls on the street, we would be brave enough to venture much deeper into the forest across from my home. We would wander up the hill, through the forest and follow a trail- about a quarter mile distance from my home- until we came upon a clearing of a small meadow patch, soaking in the sun aside a bubbling brook. It seemed like a long walk from home, well beyond shouting distance, and I am certain we didn’t tell our parents where we were headed every single time we would hike out there. If someone got hurt (only once did we have a minor emergency, no worse than a knee scrape), or should we have encountered a dangerous person (the only other humans we ever saw were some suspicious teens one afternoon), who would know to come looking for us, and how long would that have taken? But still, I have absolutely amazing memories of those adventures, and I can’t imagine a childhood without that experience!

My mom with my brother and I at the Loch Raven Reservoir

My mom with my brother and I at the Loch Raven Reservoir

My friends and I would also build forts, collect specimens- including patches of fur and bones from deceased animals, snake skins, and interesting rocks- and climb the occasional tree (it wasn’t until my family moved to a new subdivision that I would really hone my tree-climbing skills, probably because there wasn’t as much nature to play with). I also remember running off to a filed which would later be developed into your typical suburban neighborhood. I remember running off to that construction site and playing quicksand in the swampy ditch which would become the bio-retention pond. All of this, our parents must have known at least something about (we were honest kids!).

During these same years, I recall days at my grandmother’s house. I have this engrained image of my lying on the floor, watching Nickelodeon while eating Doritos and drinking Coke (Mimmi always spoiled us!); but I also have these incredible memories of playing in her yard. There was a creek there, too, right next ot the house. I’d follow it down the front hill, would pick up rocks where the water collected to see what neat creatures were underneath, and I would even crawl through the narrow culvert directing it under the street (in retrospect, this actually grosses me out as I think about all the spiders and creepy crawlies!). I remember watching the birds at Mimmi’s bird feeder, and I remember scaling the hill in the backyard up towards the water tower on the adjacent lot. Even there, at the site of this very human element, I could explore the wildness of the world around me. The image of that water tower- which I can see from my bedroom window- evokes such great emotions of discovery, playfulness, and family. At my grandma’s, I would eventually be able to combine both memories- TV and nature- when Mimmi put a TV on the screened-in porch. Talk about balance and/or hypocrisy!

When my family moved to our new neighborhood, I managed to find some gems: a river, much bigger than my old brook, but twice as far away; an exotic bamboo patch behind a neighbor’s yard; and the most magnificent climbing-tree ever. But it was suddenly more difficult to immerse myself in nature without the distractions of cars, people, and homes. I fought these hurdles for some time, but eventually gave in. As I was transitioning from elementary to middle school, I equated less time in nature with growing up- and playing in nature became just something of my childhood, right alongside the Barbie Dolls.

Today I’m not sure if I spent so much time outside because my parents and grandmother forced me to, or because of my own desire, or both- but I’m really glad I did. I just wish I hadn’t let go of it for that period of my adolescence. I didn’t relize how important it was to me until I moved to New York City for college. The excitement in the City was something else, and I loved it at first. But Fall would soon come, and the City became colder, darker, and lonelier. Where I used to enjoy solitude in a serene forest, the City gave me no environment in which I could retreat. During that semester, I would visit home on the weekends, and I particularly recall one visit on a Fall day, driving along a windy country road watching these warm and vibrant autumn leaves fall on my windshield- a golden fire, falling from the heavens. It was so beautiful and mesmerizing; I never wanted to return to New York after that. After I completed the semester, I moved home.

It was clear to me then how much my environmental was influencing me (it should have come as no surprise- I was after all pursuing a degree in interior design for that very reason). After moving home, I found more time to hike, picnic, and explore, but I was still missing some connection with nature a few years later. As I’ve noted already in these posts, I began to discover Earth Religions which would recognize the cycles of the moon, the seasons, and the connections between all living things.

I very much agree that people need a connection with nature. As I make more efforts to be a part of nature, even for only brief moments, I notice how much happier, focused, and productive I am. Furthermore, as Beatley and many others have suggested, the more involved I have become in nature, the more inclined I’ve become to protect it.

Recognizing how valuable my experiences in nature were to me, I think that all people should have the opportunity to experience nature every day. And I am determined to find a way to bring nature back into our cities.

Biophilic Cities

This review will be of the first three chapters of Timothy Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities.

Biophilic Cities | Beatley, Timothy. (2011). Biophilic Cities: Integrating nature into urban design and planning. Washington, DC: Island Press.

The cover of Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities


[Chapter 1 | The Importance of Nature and Wildness in Our Urban Lives]

After just one chapter, I could already tell that this would be an influential book. Author Timothy Beatley introduces the reader to the idea of a Biophilic City in this first chapter by initially drawing attention to the depressing disconnect which separates younger generations from the natural world. He emphasizes the importance of nature in cities, citing economic, physical, psychological, social, and aesthetic benefits while noting measurable statistics. And, much to my liking, he concluded the first chapter by criticizing what he calls the “green urban agenda” for its failure to really address the literal green elements. As I’ve mentioned before, this has been a very big focus of my own concern, and I’m glad to have seen it addressed up-front. This chapter focused on the measurables and quantifiable reasons explaining why we need nature in our cities; yet it only provides a brief glimpse on how we can bring this nature back in. It left me in great anticipation of what was ahead. (This chapter also encouraged me to look back on my own experiences with nature, which I have written about in the post Memories of My Wild Youth)

[Chapter 2 | The Nature of (in) Cities]

The enthusiasm and optimism with which Beatley writes is incredibly inspiring without doubt, it has rubbed off! Reading about the fascinating collections of nature currently thriving in our cities, but that all too often goes unnoticed, ignites a sense of wonder and curiosity.  I must say that Beatley’s optimism is even more encouraging, for not only does he have hope for the future, but he doesn’t ignore the current overlooked presence of many wild elements! It gives me an urge to explore, and I would actually like to go about in Baltimore and document the hidden wildness of the City! It’s possible to bring nature into the city, he explains, and it’s happening! After this chapter, I am thoroughly enjoying this book!

[Chapter 3 | Biophilic Cities: What Are They?]

This book really has some exciting conversations. Although I think this chapter was a bit longer than necessary-I found the text to be somewhat repetitive – it was a good piece to read to understand the key principles and some possible metrics of biophilic urban design. At the start of it, Beatley was listing examples of good biophilic design; yet most of these precedents were greenfield development (entirely new construction on previously undeveloped land). This has been most frustrating to me, knowing that new development, despite whatever green initiatives it may boast, is a waste of resources. Meanwhile, infill development and rehabilitative design would be a much better alternative. Although the intention is good, I can’t help but disagree with the process. I recognize that some new green developments have been able to accomplish much more than would have been possible had there not been a clean slate; but, for me, it is more important to address our existing cities. As I read on, however, I found Beatley was referencing more and more redevelopment and retrofit projects, and was more than pleased with their inclusion.

I think this chapter emphasized the significance of language and knowledge. This reminded me of a Paul Gruchow quote mentioned in the first chapter:

“Can you imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know?”

That is such a powerful question, how can we expect people to respect nature if we do not even ensure they know what there is to be protected? The chapter also talked about spirit and sensibility. The understanding and connection we can build between humans and the environment is like a glue which holds everything in this world together.

Beatley also shares a similar criticism of mine: that green urbanism is seriously lacking in the green department! Although the elements of green design (efficiency, conservation, transit, etc.) are very necessary pieces of the sustainability puzzle, they fail to address ecology and biodiversity.

While reading this chapter, every idea just clicked with me and made perfect sense- my views are very much in line with Beatley’s. Incorporating concepts of organic architecture and biomimicry (see some links I’ve shared at the end of this post) in his description, he paints a beautiful picture of the ideal city that never sounds excessively utopian or farfetched. Everything he describes can be accomplished within our current means and capabilities, and have already been proven successful elsewhere. It’s just a matter of combining all of the individual success stories in one place. I didn’t really intend for this to be a review of Beatley’s book more than his ideas, but I really do think that’s what has happened. I completely recommend this reading, especially for planners. So far, it is terrific!


There are some great topics in this book that I wish I had more time to review. Until I do, I recommend checking out the follow sources:

Biomimicry Strategies for Cities (as described by Janine Benyus, on p. 53 of Biophilic Cities)
1.Use waste as a resource.
2.Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat.
3.Gather and use energy efficiently.
4.Optimize rather than maximize.
5.Use materials sparingly.
6.Don’t foul their nests.
7.Don’t draw down resources.
8.Remain in balance with the biosphere.
9.Run on information.
10. Shop locally.

How the Other Half Lives

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with tenement housing, nor will you find any Jacob Riis photos here. But at least it’s planning-related and is totally against crowded, dirty and unsafe cities!

After reading a lot about ethics and beginning to dive into this whole “nature disconnect” idea, I really felt it would be an interesting exercise for my Deep Ecological Urbanism study to conduct an interview which might portray the environmentalists’ enemy, if you will, and I had the perfect interviewee: my husband.

Lovers, enemies, same thing… You say tomato, I sayokay, so that saying loses all meaning when typed, but you get the point. Or maybe not; point is, we’re opposites and that does indeed pit us against each other at timesespecially in metaphysical disagreements like thisbut today, sleeping with the enemy worked out in my favor!

Well, I just love nature; and it’s a no-brainer to me that we need more of it in our lives, especially in cities. I also completely grasp the urgency behind environmental protection, restoration, conservation, and reintroduction efforts. Climate change is a serious threat: the numbers are all there, the situations are before us… and so, I am utterly baffled as to why there is ever any disagreement over our planet’s health. I’m not sure why I haven’t really pried into my husband’s mind regarding this matter before tonight, but I’m really glad I did and I was quite impressed to learn he actually DOES care about the environment (although, to most readers, the “feels” he has for nature will seem obscenely trivial). From this interview, I had hoped his outlook would help me to experience the widespread contention which inhibits progress on the sustainability front.


The husband and I on our honeymoon to Harpers Ferry, WV

Now, I wasn’t thinking and didn’t record our conversation; so I don’t have his answers for all of the questions word-for-word. But I’m really good at writing fast notes and, after 8 years with him, I think I’m pretty good at conveying his point. Here’s our paraphrased transcript:

[Me | Him]

Do you have any strong emotions toward anything in nature? If so, what? Yes. Mostly animals…all animals. Why? Because I grew up around them, with a lot of pets. I think I have a better understanding of them.

About how much time did you spend outdoors as a kid? Doing what? About 20% of the time. In the woods, riding my dirt bike or doing things with boyscouts.

Are they fond memories you have of being outside? Yes.

Do you think your life would be much different had you not spent that time outside? Yes, but I’m not sure how, specifically. I know I wouldn’t be the same. Do you think you would be worse off? Definitely. Why’s that? Because I would be missing that whole part of life and experiences.

And now, why don’t you spend as much time outside? Because I don’t have as much free time. I only used to go outside because I was bored, because I had so much free time. Now, whatever time I have, I’d rather spend it using technology.

What was your last positive memory of being outside? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is our walk in the city. [at Cylburn Arboretum] Did you enjoy that? Yes. Would you do it again? Maybe. Would you do it on your own? Probably not, because I’m lazy. [his words!!]

Do you consider anything in nature valuable to you? What and why? Yes, everything. Our resources…food, water, oxygen. We need all of it. So you see it as valuable because it serves our own benefit? Yes.

Similarly, do you see anything in nature as having measurable worth? Yea, like oil and coal…gold. [commodities]

Do you respect natural things? Yea. I wouldn’t purposefully pollute. I’d never go out of my way to hurt something.

Do you think your actions impact other living things? If so, how far might that impact reach? Myself, I mean my own actions…all of our actions…they’re not having a positive effect. So then why don’t you try to make changes? Because I’m lazy. I don’t see myself—I don’t see it as having any immediate result.

In what ways do you feel you are a part of, or separate from the environment? Separate. I live in a house with electricity— I’m really tied to my electronics which is about as far from nature as you can get.

What role do you think we as humans play in an ecosystem? We’re supposed to have no effect at all. We’re just supposed to be a part of it, but we’re just hurting it. Do you think humans are more important than other parts of the ecosystem? No.

How do you think you personally benefit from natural things? Emotional ways. It’s nice, it makes you happy. Besides that, it’s a we-need-it-to-live kind of thing. So why don’t you see a need to make your actions environmentally sensitive? I do see a need to, the path we’re on isn’t a good one.

Then what keeps you from feeling a need to protect, conserve, or restore the environment? Because I don’t feel the direct impact. What about when you think about your (theoretical) kids or future generations? I just don’t think that far ahead.

Do you agree with scientific evidence showing the climate is changing? I’m sure it is; I don’t think it’s to the extent people are saying. Yet you don’t think we need to act now? I mean, I think we need to make changes, but the problem is getting people to change.

What are your thoughts on the future? I hope we’re fine. Everyone will just have to change their lifestyle. Then how do you suppose that will happen if you don’t even want to change yours? We would need government to step in, enforce it. So if the government restricts your energy usage Not like that, that wouldn’t work. Okay, then say you were given something, like money for every hour of energy not used? Well, hah, yeah! Basically, it would have to be incentive-based…and directly affect your life? Yes.

And how do you think humans would cope without nature? We’d die.

So, very brief responses (try carrying on a conversation with him about anything that isn’t video games and you’ll be pressed to keep it going for more than a minute…), but I think it was quite enlightening. To be honest, I thought he could care less about the environment, but now I know he actually does care; and he recognizes the impending doom (okay, may be over-exaggerating a bit). What else did I learn? As long as nothing else changes culturally or socially, the only way we can hope for improvement is if we somehow force people to make changes- either through restriction or incentive. But perhaps, as the book Biophilic Cities suggested in the first chapter (I can’t wait to write about this book), if we reconnect people with nature, we can restore the bond which will then spark a beautiful chain reaction where people actually WANT to restore the environment!

This was a really fun little exercise, and I am so thankful to have my other half to show me how the other half lives! Thank you, Shane, for being so cooperative and maintaining that necessary balance I so desperately need as a Libra!!

The Ethics and Considerations of Humans, Cities, and Ecology

I have concluded Unit One | Humans v. Nature, and I’m finishing up Unit Two | Deep Ecology this weekend. There are a few more Deep Ecology readings that I’ll be getting into; however, I think now is a good point to review the two units before I delay that process any longer.

Let me begin by reviewing [Unit 1 | Human v. Nature]. The first core concept that I wanted to cover was the meaning of the term sustainable and how it differed from ecological. It would seem that the word “sustainable,” in recent times, is thrown into every conversation where it might even remotely apply. I suppose this is a good thing, as it would imply people are generally more aware of the concept and its significance; but as many writers have already investigated (Campbell, Van der Ryn & Cowan, et al), perhaps the word has become too broad. It has certainly been “greenwashed” and cheaply used as a marketing spiel. Yet I’ve been dissatisfied with word lately because it doesn’t fully express my hopes for cities. Of course, I want cities to be sustainable, but it’s the ecological leg of the sustainability stool which I want to encourage most enthusiastically. Knowing that the terms ecological and sustainable would have related, but varied implications for cities, I wanted to investigate their comparison some more. I would have to say Van der Ryn and Cowan presented the best discussion, citing David Orr’s separation of sustainability into two separate categories: technological and ecological. Furthermore, this discussion opened up an entirely new debate about remedy and prevention. Clearly, as we approach the health and sustainability (in all three senses of the word) in cities, we need to be proactive rather than reactive.

I intended to also review issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and resiliency in this first unit, yet I only briefly touched upon those subjects. A common theme tying them together is that conflict of humans versus the Earth. Our societies and cultures have come to be so anthropocentric. We tend to feel that humans hold a special place in nature and conduct our affairs entirely around human wants and needs; there is an unexplainable need to overcome nature. While this usually awards us a sense of power on the surface, we are ultimately humbled by the power of Mother Nature herself. By channeling a river into a culvert, for example, we disrupt countless natural relationships and interactions. In many instances where we’ve ignored the rules of nature, we suffer the consequences down the road. These consequences are expensive annoyances at best, but devastating and lethal events at worst. Climate change can at least partly be attributed to our own actions and, therefore, the more frequent and intense weather events which have so unfortunately razed cities and taken lives can largely be seen as our own doing. It is easy to blame nature for such catastrophes, but we should not so easily accept such events as natural.*  But on the more menial scale of things, we have also forced ourselves into the tedious role of manager. We are forced to manage “pests”; meanwhile, the number of creatures which we categorize as pests increases daily. Deer, for example, are such passive creatures. But as we take over more and more of their land and kill off their primary predators, we are left to “manage” their population on our own. Aldo Leopold recognized it back in the 1940s: predators are needed to maintain the balance of the “wilderness.”

I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain

This idea is not limited to the wilderness; our cities are very much in need of the same balance. It’s a controversial subject that I don’t know enough about, but some areas have long considered the reintroduction of predator species to help control pest populations. In other places, like where I grew up, humans gladly accept the role of hunter. To clarify again, however, this issue is not related to the wilderness, nor does it only apply to predators and their game.

In a similar situation, we are left to deal with invasive plant and animal species. We pour chemicals on weeds (which are often just undesirable native plants) and feel a constant need to address the invasive species which so effortlessly kick out the native plants. An interesting and related aspect of nature that I really wanted to investigate in more detail is resiliency. As humans, we are so determined to fight back, but if we look away for more than a second, nature has already begun to reclaim a previously urbanized environment (and it’s why I sometimes secretly root for invasives). If the city is ignoring a crumbling building, you can bet that nature isn’t: nests in the eaves, vines up the walls, dens inside the empty structure… Clearly, if we don’t intend to make room for nature in our cities, nature will find its own way in.

Nature steps in; The owner could care less about this structure

Nature steps in; The owner could care less about this structure

For the introductory units, I also wanted to think of the 4W’s and 1H of Ecological Urban Design: who|what|where|when|why|how. While most readings actually did not make the urban connection (at least related to design or form) with the concepts they reviewed, I was still able to develop my own answers. The whos, wheres, and whens can best be summarized in a timeline that I’ve been slowly building to include relevant events. This product will be shared upon completion of the course. But the whats, whys, and hows are, I think, more interesting questions that can be talked about at some length. What exactly is ecological urban design, why do we need it, and how do we implement it? Obviously, these questions will not be fully answered until the end of the course (and even then, I expect much will be left unanswered), but I intend to address them in each unit along the way. The first unit, Human v. Nature, made me interpret my own answers. Although nothing was spelled out in the text, reviewing what was NOT ecological urban design (crowded and dirty cities, excessive use of resources, universal and boring, concrete jungles/gardens, and so on) has given me a better idea of what ecological urban design should be; that is: open, healthy, green, local, and so on and so forth.

This is a good segue into [Unit 2 | Deep Ecology]. A lot of what should inform ecological design depends on our society’s view of ecology in general. The Deep Ecology perspective sees the human being within and as part of the larger ecosphere, and not simply as an independent entity that inhabits it [Bettercities.net]. This perspective paints a picture of Ecological Urban Design.

 Before I opened any book for this course, I composed my own definition of Deep Ecological Urbanism:

Deep Ecological Urbanism is a form of urban design that acknowledges the importance of all species as well as the interconnectivity between all living things. Systems are designed to have minimal adverse impact- or even a positive gain- and operate so that all living forms in the city are given an opportunity to thrive.

At this stage of my study, my understanding of the “Ecological City” is still very theoretical. My definition, still, is evolving. Deep Ecological Urbanism is a design where humans recognize the non-human world of our environment. Values must come into play; however, they are not to be perceived based on the usefulness for human purposes. Rather, a biocentric belief holds that all creatures have rights and values; it is also the center of much environmental-ethical debate: is value inherent in all things? I certainly think so. Deep Ecological Urbanism recognizes the importance of biodiversity, and thus, development should not limit another organism’s ability to flourish. Informed by the principles and successes of Public Health Reform, the Urban Parks Movement, Garden Cities, and City Beautiful among many other tenets and movements, Deep Ecological Urbanism reintroduces nature into our cities. I’m eager to see how this definition will evolve more!

*I don’t want to go into detail on this topic right now, but for a more clearly articulated expression of this idea, I strongly recommend Neil Smith’s short essay, There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.

The Considerability Question

Okay, so I think I’m getting a little bogged down by all the ethics discussions. Still, I know they are valuable considerations with which to approach the coming content of this course. So, just two more readings on the subject, and I’ll move on.

The Ethics of Respect for Nature | Taylor, Paul W. The Ethics of Respect for Nature . In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

To be completely honest, I actually gave up on this reading after about 2 pages. It is a great piece; however, at this point, I think I’ve had my fill of ethics. I decided that, if I am to read any more on ethics, I’d like it to be more applicable for urban issues. That being said, from what I did read of Taylor’s piece, I gained a better understanding of the moral concerns like I had hoped. Also, Taylor emphasized how necessary it is/will be for society to recognize that nature is valuable in the first place; only then will nature be rightly considered.

What this piece did inspire me to do, however, is interview someone about their views of nature and its value- someone who I know rarely thinks twice about how their actions impact the environment: my husband. My husband is my complete opposite and unfortunately, when it comes to the environment, he only does “green” things to satiate my demands. So I wondered, what’s keeping him from considering nature and how can his view be changed? I’ll post the results once I find a moment to conduct this interview!


Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems | Cahen, Harley. (1988). Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems. In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

I know I said I was done with the ethics talk; but, if I wasn’t fully behind that statement before, I think I can safely say I am now completely through with the ethics part of my study. I did find this particular piece online, and you can click the link above if you’re interested in reading it yourself.

Although I’ve nearly had my fill with ethics, I appreciate how this reading effectively tied together everything that I’ve read on the subject thus far. Additionally, it encouraged me to consider my own stance, just as a few other readings have. The big question in Cahen’s piece, however, was whether ecosystems were morally considerable. Up to this point, most of the ethical discussion has been a very basic consideration on the value of nature in general; whereas Cahen’s piece looked at the collective whole of an entire ecosystem. I should mention, the phrase moral consideration was thrown around quite a bit in these last two readings; and while it was explained somewhat, my understanding was still quite vague. I looked online for a definition and apparently I’m not the only one who’s a bit hazy on the meaning. Although the blog, The Misanthropic Principle, featured a 2007 post about the term, I commiserate with commenter “Bobbo”s distress: the description is still too broad. Nevertheless, the definition provided by the author was a great start…

“First, moral considerability is essentially the technical jargon in the field of morals that is used to indicate whether or not one is worthy of moral consideration. As moral people tend to grant moral considerability to all other humans, the term is primarily used in relation to other species.”

…but I have want for more detail. Regardless, in Cahen’s reading, interests were requisite for something to be granted moral considerability. This, however, raised a swarm of additional questions in the considerability discussion; particularly in the case of ecosystems. Can we defend that ecosystems have interests because they have a tendency to maintain and heal themselves (an argument made by Kenneth Goodpaster et al.)? Getting to this question meant having to first decide how important sentience was in the matter. Can plants and other non-sentient beings be seen as having interests? But then, how do we define interests in the first place? As you can imagine, I felt like I was stuck on a never-ending roller coaster ride: at times much like the merry-go-round, circling back to the same questions; and occasionally like the extreme coaster, shooting passengers up amid the clouds of one theory just to be dropped back down to the grounding concepts of another.

Even if we do conclude that non-sentient beings have interests, how can we attribute those interests to an ecosystem? And then we face yet another dilemma:

“Once we admit non-sentient beings into the moral considerability club, how can we bar the door to ordinary inanimate objects?” (p. 117)

Enter goal-directedness. (Ay-yi-yi! You thought this was supposed to be a course about urban ecological sustainability, didn’t you!?). Distinguishing between true goals and incidental, systematic outcomes gets to the root of the problem (I think). Interests, as it turns out, cannot be easily attributed to ecosystems because, although ecosystems have a tendency to maintain themselves, how can we say stability is not just a happy byproduct? Even though the many individual parts of an ecosystem can be seen as being autonomous, it is not so easy to see them all as working collaboratively.

I am certainly not an ecologist or evolutionary biologist (and thankfully so; after these discussions, I’m positive I’ve made the right career choices). However, I must say that I don’t entirely agree with the arguments put forth by Cahen. Though sound they were, I question whether or not his arguments – or those of his contenders, for that matter- even make a difference; at least in my case. Let me explain. Perhaps Cahen and others are right, maybe ecosystems do not have interests of their own. Surely, however, it is in our own best interest to protect them or at the very least consider them! Our species is intelligent enough to recognize the many valuable ecosystem services which serve us tremendously. All the constituent parts may not be cooperating intentionally, but my- cooperate they do! Oh, how the individual actions of one species often just happens to produce a positive effect for the others!?

Perhaps I should have considered reading more about systems ecology, but I didn’t know enough about ecology in general to even realize there was a specific sector that could have been more appropriate for my purpose. Anyway, to conclude, Cahen made a fantastic effort to illustrate both sides of the spectrum, and it was indeed effective.  I still personally refute his argument, but he provided the right material and provided a great debate which allowed me to see where I fit amongst it all.

There we have it, the end of my environmental ethics readings. The concepts may arise again, but hopefully in a more evolved discussion. Keep an eye out for my next post, coming shortly, which will summarize my interpretation of the study so far!


The Misanthropic Principle, post titled “Moral Considerability – What does it mean? To whom does it apply?

University of Minnesota, pdf version of Harley Cahen’s essay.

“Man the Conqueror” or “Man the Biotic Citizen”

Unit 2, which I began in week 2 and which will continue into week 3, was titled Deep Ecology. Now, a good bit of discussion on the concept of Deep Ecology was reviewed in unit one, but I have indeed begun to get a bit more involved with the morality of the subject. While this unit is not yet complete, I’ll review some of the readings I’ve investigated thus far.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

From Commons to Commons | Platt, Rutherford H. From Commons to Commons: Evolving concepts of open space in North American cities. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.21). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

This reading was from a book I can’t wait to read fully. It was interesting, providing a very thorough review of planning movements (in very few pages) which have impacted urban open space, particularly in North America. It moves from the idea of the “commons,” resources or land held in common by all of a society, all the way to a very intriguing idea of residual natural patches, and every concept in between – offering a criticism of the successes and failures of each. Platt notes key figures and dates, making this a great source for planning history investigations (I’ve pulled this information and am in the process of constructing a timeline of paramount events influencing the field of ecological sustainability). He also goes into the idea of value, how society views nature, much in the same way that many of the readings before this have. Often, as Platt notes, nature is seen as a resource to be drawn upon; only occasionally cherished as something sacred but, even still, those feelings are always extremely localized or concentrated, based mostly on personal ties or emotions (think of how the “cute” endangered animals always get the most attention). What I liked most about Platt’s piece was the concept of residual spaces. Explored in more detail by the environmental author David Nicholson-Lord, this concept suggests that the unused urban spaces offer many ecological surprises. And while such spaces certainly aren’t the answer to our urban-ecological problems, they not only continue to produce their eco-benefits, but they are a reminder to urbanites of the larger whole of which the city belongs. Though it wasn’t described by Platt, I was constantly thinking of the resilience of nature here, considering the perseverance a nature to grow wild again in places where humans either forget or dare not venture. From a study I conducted along Baltimore City’s Howard Street, I have become quite familiar with this omnipresent wildness lingering in the cracks and corners, and I am very much in love with this concept! Thankfully, I was to read more of it…

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issue | Hough, Michael. Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issues. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.40). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

I went on to read the next chapter, titled Design with City Nature: An overview of some issues, of this same book. If you’ll recall, I read some of Michael Hough’s writings last week from his book, City Form and Natural Process. Alas, he segment included in this book was a bit of a recap, but did indeed cover some more ground than I had already read. It was a great review of Hough’s key ideas, and like the Platt reading before it, this segment also mentioned the forgotten, “waste” spaces of the city.  Unlike Platt, however, Hough’s reading went into more depth, suggesting the resilience and regeneration of urban landscapes within these spaces. Going back to the recurrent discussion of how society views nature, Hough sites our failure to recognize the ecological value of such spaces as a fundamental hindrance to ecological progress. Furthermore, with the ever more universal schema of open space within cities, our sense of identity is fading without our native/natural context. On this topic, Hough actually mentioned Tucson, AZ and their story about renouncing the short grass lawn bandwagon they previously jumped on. Hough commends the city for its shift after recognizing this universal ideal landscape as a contributing factor of water scarcity. Since the transition back towards native plants, there has been a renewed sense of belonging to the land. That phrasing really got to me: rather than the land belonging to the people, the people are now seen as belonging to the land…how amazing is that!? However, though stories like Tucson’s are encouraging they only prove, as Hough explains, that our society will not, or cannot, adopt rational environmental practices until they are absolutely necessary for our own survival. Arguing that the very same technological advances which have made our lives more comfortable (sanitary and storm water management, for example) are also degrading our environment (I agree), Hough ends with a few sections describing alternatives to our conventional design; suggesting there are better ways to organize our food, park, resource, and development systems.

The Land Ethic | Leopold, Aldo. (1948). The Land Ethic. In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

To end my reviews for this post, I turn to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. If you’ll recall, I jumped into this anthology, Environmental Ethics, last week when I read Clare Palmer’s “What is Environmental Ethics?” In that introductory chapter, Palmer mentioned Leopold’s Land Ethic. This week, I re-read Leopold’s piece, which I read about 5 or 6 years ago. Leopold’s piece was the first reading of this study which really pushed for, and emphasized, the moral need for an environmental ethic. While I’ve read of this need for environmental ethics already, and the various sects of such, no author has yet spoken of the moral significance so profoundly as Leopold. Having read this before, I think I was more receptive this time around. Leopold begins by reviewing the evolution of ethics: from the individual/individual relationship, on to the individual/society relationship, and the final individual/land relationship. Defining such relationships is integral to the concept of ethics, which Leopold explains “rests on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (p.39). Whereas our instincts push us to compete with these parts, it is our ethic which encourages us to cooperate (as Leopold says, perhaps this cooperation ensures the competition will continue). A land ethic, as Leopold defines it, is an “ethic dealing with human’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Land, as Leopold emphasizes, is not just soil but the entire biotic community. This community, however, has conventionally been a slave and servant to society, who plays the role of the conqueror. Alas, we should have learned by now, as Leopold hopes, that the conqueror role is self-defeating.

Leopold goes on to criticize the trends of conservationism. Based wholly on economic value, the conservationist system does not address the unrecognized economic value of the land. The word unrecognized was used here because the profitability of something is sometimes only realized once it is gone (to clarify, everything is profitable, but we don’t always see that on the surface). Leopold also strongly believes than an organism has a biotic right to survival, regardless of its perceived lack of economic advantage to us. Furthermore, Leopold notes how conservation measures are usually relegated to the government, which often lacks the resources necessary to adequately conserve the land. To sum up his ideas here, I’d like to share the following quote:

“Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use.”

This matter of economic value is intriguing because, as we are coming to realize, all organisms play some essential role in the ecosystem, However, until we see how each role can impact us as humans, we’re quick to let one “un-economic part” disappear as if the “economic parts” will function just as well (p. 42). This inter-connectivity leads to Leopold’s discussion of the Land Pyramid. As we still barely understand the natural mechanisms which operate to maintain the land, Leopold discredits the common phrase, “the balance of nature.” Instead of this idea of a balance, he opts for the biotic pyramid, representing the hierarchy (for lack of a better term) of all living units and the food chains that link them together. As a vegan, I’m not entirely sure where I fit in! Connecting the flow of energy between these links is an open-circuit. However, as humans have moved about and disrupted the native systems of the land, these circuits are no longer localized or self-contained. And so, Leopold asks, is the land able to adjust itself to this new order> Here, we have the issue of resiliency once more. Leopold suggests the land’s ability to regenerate depends on local biota, and while some regions have already shown their robust flexibility, other have been more disorganized.

Leopold ends with his very more idea of the land ethic, saying that such an ethic requires an ecological conscience, which requires a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Since this piece was published, more and more individuals have adopted this sense of stewardship – or so I believe. Rather than be “man the conqueror” we can be “man the biotic citizen.”


If I may be a bit open about my personal life, I’d like to express some thoughts which came to mind during Leopold’s reading. I relate most to the idea of a “whole,” as well as to Leopold’s almost spiritual appreciation of the land. A few years ago, disappointed with modern organized religion, I decided to investigate some of the older or more natural religions. I became fascinated mostly with pagan regions honoring and respecting the earth. Many of the earth-based religions which I studied view our spirits as being a part of a larger whole. It is in this idea that I truly feel connected to Leopold’s ethic, and it is the same fundamental idea which has encouraged me to approach my own health, and that of our cities, in a holistic manner. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Really, though, Leopold, as well as a few other authors which I’ve read thus far, have been preaching to the choir. I’m a vegan for the very reason that I think all organisms are entitled a right to survive; I don’t kill an animal for food because I don’t see them as resources solely for my benefit. And this same outlook is what has led me to become a steward of the planet, an environmentalist.

While these ideals are already underlying within me, I still am not sure how to apply them to my work as an urban planner/designer. Hopefully, the coming units will help the solution to evolve.