Learning from/in/of Nature

The intention of this unit was to discover the ways in which humans might learn from nature when designing cities. I am certain there is no shortage of literature on this subject, but I seem to have failed to predict what readings would be most appropriate for such a lesson. While I have nonetheless learned much from recent readings—site sensitivity, natural integration in cities, the connections between all living things—I have missed all the valuable discussions on natural inspiration. I hope such conversations will be revealed in my later readings.

I the meantime, I still have much to review. During this unit, I was able to find a few documentaries which proved insightful (see yesterday’s post), and a few chapters in books which were quite inspiring.

The City: Process & Form | McHarg, Ian. (1995). Design With Nature. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Like a few other readings before it, I cut McHarg’s book a bit short. For this unit, I had given myself the  chapter entitled “The City: Process and Form” (p. 175-186) as assigned reading.

For those who may be less familiar, Ian McHarg is a very prominent Landscape Architect. His book, Design with Nature, pioneered the concept of ecological planning and it is still a required reading for many students over 40 years after its release in 1969. However, similar to my complaints of the Douglas Farr chapter in his Sustainable Urbanism book (reviewed in yesterday’s post The Divorce Between Human and Habitat), I did not feel it revealed much in terms of the concept at hand: learning from nature. The previous statement is in no way a criticism of the chapter’s content, nor is it one of the entire book. I do believe the book is, indeed, a masterpiece for the field and continues to be a relevant piece of literature.

Although I found this chapter to be less useful for my immediate purposes, I do believe McHarg’s ideas are extremely relevant to my study overall. Denying the thought that city and country are separate, McHarg saw how critical it was and would be to incorporate nature into the metropolis; this connection is possible, though not the current norm. He rejected the common opinion that man is superior to nature, and believed that a unity can be created. To McHarg, nature was a valuable model, and its intricate and detailed web of interactions must also be understood.

Perhaps the primary cause of my dilemma was that I jumped into a later chapter without having read the beginning of the book. Or maybe a segment such as  “The Cast and the Capsule” chapter would have been more appropriate; I intend to read it in the coming week.

Modeling Cities on Ecosystems | Newman, Peter, & Jennings, Isabella. (2008). Cities as sustainable ecosystems : Principles and practices. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

I wanted to stop reading this chapter at a certain point prior to its conclusion because it was clearly getting very specific about transportation. I’ll come back to it later but, for now, I wanted to soak in what I have read.The amount of information in this chapter is almost overwhelming! Every page is filled with useful information—I almost wish it were broken down into multiple smaller chapters, from which it might be absorbed a bit more incrementally. Ideal for my Learning from Nature unit, Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems offers a holistic, or systems-based, perspective on urban processes. The chapter on the 5th of the Ten Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities (see below), which is to model cities on ecosystems. By observing the characteristics of ecosystems, cities can be designed to replicate the very same patterns and processes, bridging “the gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature” (Capra, as cited in Newman & Jennings, 2008, p. 93). The chapter identified three models of how ecosystems can guide urban development; the first two will be described briefly in this review.

A majority of the content actually elaborated upon the first model, following the ideas of Hartmut Bossel. Bossel’s model identified 5 characteristics of ecosystems, then attached 3 more which described sustainable societies.  From Bossel’s model seems to stem nine strategies, which were explained in detail.

This chapter was dense and it truly deserves its own review. For now, however, I really am trying to catch up on missed reviews. Which brings me back to Richard Register’s book, Ecocities.

Ten Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities

1. Provide a long-term vision for cities based on: sustainability; intergenerational, social, economic and political equity; and their individuality.

2. Achieve long-term economic and social security.

3. Recognize the intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and protect and restore them.

4. Enable communities to minimize their ecological footprint.

5. Build on the characteristics of ecosystems in the development and nurturing of healthy and sustainable cities.

6. Recognize and build on the distinctive characteristics of cities, including their human and cultural values, history and natural systems.

7. Empower people and foster participation.

8. Expand and enable cooperative networks to work towards a common, sustainable future.

9. Promote sustainable production and consumption, through appropriate use of environmentally sound technologies and effective demand management.

10. Enable continual improvement, based on accountability, transparency and good governance.

Learning from Nature, in the chapter “The City in Evolution” (p. 38-40), and Wilderness and The Wildness of Cities (p. 18-23) | Register, Richard. (2006). Ecocities: Rebuilding cities in balance with nature. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

I will always love Register’s book, Ecocities—his illustrations alone are just magnificent. But the more I read this book as a part of my Deep Ecological Urbanism study, and as I compare the concepts within to others which I’m reviewing, the less concrete I feel his ideas actually are. These two brief sections describe the living ecocity—calling for a restored wilderness within as well as describing how much a city is like a living system in its own right. He writes as if it’s an Atlantis-like tale, and I am growing ever more skeptical of its practicality, as I mentioned in the Utopia post. Also, I just don’t really get the sense that his ideas can be applied to existing cities very easily.

Framing the city as a living system, as he discussed in “Learning from Nature”, is an appropriate outlook, which I do very much agree with. After all, is the city not a living system, bustling with life, experiencing growth and age, home to a plethora of complex interactions? However, using the 19 very technical subsystems of living systems which James Miller described in his book, Living Systems, seems a little too farfetched. While it has its merit, breaking a city down into so many subsystems would be a very laborious process that might only further separate each operation from the rest. Conversely, I think there is a more critical need to illustrate the complex relationships between each of the 19 systems, and see how each works with the others.

Early on, we focused mainly on setting aside space for nature that’s apart from the city, but “right up to the urban edge” (Register, p. 19). We need it IN our cities, and as a part of them! Register went on to describe four different types of landscapes:

  1. the ecological city, town, and village
  2. human supported land (agriculture, mining, etc.)
  3. Semi-natural but inhabited by humans who are a part of it
  4. nature alone

I do really like the differentiations, and I think they will be pertinent for my scale study. Furthermore, I think the four levels suggests the various amounts of control. Whereas we currently exert a great deal of control over our lands, the four landscapes suggest that we might, in the future, learn to let nature manage the land; hopefully sooner rather than later!

Designing Urban Ecosystems | Spirn, Anne Whiston. (1985). Granite Garden: Urban nature and human design. New York, NY: Basic Books.

I am always surprised when I read a book that may be decades old, but speaks of issues that are still so relevant. Mostly, I am disappointed at the lack of progress which has been made; I presume, in much the same way that Severn Suzuki, “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes,” must now feel—20 years after her moving speech at the first Earth Summit—to find the world in much the same condition, if not worse. In 2012, Severn Susuki was invited back to the Earth Summit to speak, and proclaimed the following:

“Twenty years after Rio, we have not come close to achieving the sustainable world we knew we needed back then. I think we need to be honest about that.”

Both of Severn’s speeches are embedded below.

Yet it’s very important to remain positive, despite the struggles we continue to battle twenty years later. I think Spirn’s piece, though not contemporary, helps to maintain a positive outlook. Spirn writes very matter-of-factly, as if she already knows (knew) how to fix our cities. In fact, this chapter is very prescriptive—so much so that I was really inspired as I was getting great ideas to explore during my thesis or professional project next year. Like many of the other authors I’ve read, Sprin advocated for a closed-systems city. To do so, she encourages we apply the systems approach to every level (like each of Miller’s living subsystems, perhaps), creating a set of nested systems. When we conceive of buildings as systems in themselves—which are also part of the much larger system if the city—it only seems logical that we can begin to design more efficiently.

Spirn also emphasizes the importance of knowing the environment intimately, making the links between all the different elements. Like was studied in the early unit, knowing the issues and knowing the names of wild things is the very first step. Richard Register also noted in his introduction:

“According to an ancient Chinese proverb, the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names.” (Register, p. 23)

This knowledge is critical, and it can then inform every future decision. Spirn compliments the comprehensive ecological studies carried out by cities like Toronto and Dallas, and recommends similar studies be done in every city. Taking advantage of the overwhelming amount of information available at the time (which cannot even compare to what’s available today!), such studies would not be difficult to conduct. For a book that’s almost 30 years old, it is extremely relevant and a must-read for any planner.

Part One, Definitions and Perspectives | George, Carl J., McKinley, Daniel. (1974). Urban Ecology: In search of an asphalt rose. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill.

Part One of George & McKinley’s book, Urban Ecology: In search of an asphalt rose, provided a great, if perhaps brief, overview of ecology and the basic operations of ecosystems. It would have been a great read for earlier units. I believe this book will do a better job of framing the concerns than it will the solutions (it is also somewhat dated), but it is helpful to understand the mistakes our societies have made in terms of ecology. The chapter, “The City Defined,” drew attention to the early population decline in center-cities. THe authors could not have foreseen just how extreme that shift would grow to become just decades later, but they fully grasped the primary symptom of this new way of life: “apartness.” Separation between races and classes were widened; between professionals and age groups as well. But the worst “apartness” of all was that of humans from wilderness. Our societies cut ties between natural resources and the products we have harvested: water now comes from the faucet, eggs from a carton, and so on. I have often, in recent years, heard the story of the child who did not know that milk came from a cow. I thought it was absurd, some tall tale that was being told to scare people into imagining a world with such ignorance; after all, I grew up in a suburb myself, and my family purchased these items from supermarkets, not farms, and yet I still knew from where or what they came. But it wasn’t some joke…the story is true and it’s not confined to just one case.

This separation has become a roadblock. We now see humans as being completely apart from nature, hence expressions like “man versus nature” and “man apart from nature.” It has led us to believe ourselves to be “masters” or “stewards” of wildlife, and we eventually came to find “natural” to mean ecologically good while “unnatural” implies ecological evilness (George & McKinley, p. 5). This is not the case. But as we search for ever more ways to escape from the pressures of our own human lives, we lose the meaning of what it really is to be one with nature. The chapter ended with a warning of destruction caused by such misinformed patterns of development, and questioned what should be done to prevent it.

The second chapter, “Ecology in Perspective,” reviewed some of the basic concepts underlying ecosystems. Understanding how ecosystems function and what constituent parts come together to support the ecosystems helps to identify where our cities are currently failing. What pieces of the puzzle are missing, and what does that mean for the future? The basics are all present—energy, matter, information—but we have disrupted the processes. As we have pushed countless species to extinction, diversity is limited- so limiting our own ability (as we as that of the surviving species) to thrive, the ability of an ecosystem to regenerate, and the capacity of all organisms to make informed “decisions.”

Mother Nature’s Child

A lot of what I’ve chosen to read up until this point have been to emphasize the importance of nature, to recognize how valuable it is to us as human beings, to notice how connected (both physically and psychologically) we are with nature; and why that’s all important. I actually think that a lot of the discussions on children in nature frame this question quite well: if we are not exposed to nature, we cannot truly appreciate it; if we do not appreciate it, we will not protect it; and if it is not protected; it will continue to be degraded threatening not only the lives of humans, but the lives of all species and organisms. Whether or not that appreciation originates from scientific, spiritual, or recreational exposure does not seem to matter. The key is that exposure exists in the first place.

I do not have a copy of the documentary, Mother Nature’s Child, but I have seen the film in the past, even spoken with an individual featured in the film, and I must say it is a moving piece. Like Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, it covers this idea of nature deficit disorder, and the many issues that may arise when a child is not exposed to nature. I suppose that, rather than learning from nature, this documentary is more about learning within nature. Using nature as the classroom, growing skills through natural environments. Studies have clearly proven the strong benefits of such educational exposure. Imagine the possibilities if this concept can be adopted by entire cities, for residents of all ages!


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