Deep Ecological Urbanism | Unit 1: Human vs. Nature | Reading Review
Elephants are bent upon creating diversity! [Disclaimer: this is not my art! It’s been saved to my computer since I found it online some time ago. I never knew the artist. If you know who created this piece, I’d love to know!]
Now amid the second week of the course- which I have titled Deep Ecological Urbanism: Ecology, Efficiency, & Ethics in Urban Design– I am drawing a close to the first unit. I wanted to begin by studying the dichotomy between town and country, with hopes of better understanding the history and fundamentals of urban development as it relates to nature. I was impressed with a few of my reading choices, which ended up being ridiculously appropriate despite being selected solely based on their title and my judgement of the first few lines of text. For example, the first book I opened….
Ecological Design | Van der Ryn, Sim, & Cowan, Stuart. (1996). Ecological Design. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowen, really got to the heart of one of my main concerns prior to the course. I really wanted to investigate the term “sustainable,” which has become a buzzword of sorts, especially in environmentally friendly worlds, yet it is only partially concerned with the environment (the three legs of the sustainability stool being: economy, society, and the environment). I thought a better word to use would be “ecological” (I am naively ignoring the fact that “ecological” is becoming a buzzword of my own). “Sustainability and Design,” the first chapter of this book, immediately dove into this concept and cited David Orr’s differentiation between technological sustainability and ecological sustainability. Aha! There it was, the answer to my problem: just put the word ecological in front of sustainable and that’s the concept I’ve been after! Orr’s comparison is a great start. While technological sustainability can be described as the remedy, ecological sustainability is the preventative measure. I enjoy the medical implications of these terms, as it completely relates to my own approach towards personal health. I would much rather prevent the disease, than to be prescribed harsh drugs which are often more like a means to mask the symptoms, than they are a remedy. Still, while I do like Orr’s definitions, I recognize that I want to either find or develop a concept that is much more intricate, and I hope to build upon what I’ve gathered here. In addition to immediately addressing one of my primary considerations, the same chapter in Van der Ryn and Cowen’s book, hinted at another concept I’ve been contemplating: biomimicry. Although the 1996 book didn’t outright mention the term in this book, it did suggest value in that science which studies nature as a model- a concept which gained much popularity the following year with the publication of Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
Nature is more than a bank of resources to draw on: it is the best model we have for all the design problems we fact [Van der Ryn and Cowen, p.7].
The next reading I began was actually the next chapter, titled, “An Introduction to Ecological Design.” Yet another great foundation was set for the coming course, presenting an understanding of where ecological design has originated- going into a brief review of some key figures and advancements. I really appreciated how this chapter emphasized the importance of cross-discipline cooperation, urging for an understanding an integration of ideas. The reading suggested that no single-sided decision would be able to produce truly ecological design without the rich complexities that develop out of a whole systems approach. Here, again, I am reminded of medicine, and the idea of holistic health. Perceiving the city as one organism (another analogy that gets me really excited- the city AS nature!), allows for a broad approach which can simultaneously address multiple urban concerns. I have to find time to go back to this chapter, for it had a great list of books and authors, and a terrific chart comparing conventional design solutions with the ecological alternatives. While touching on many different approaches, this chapter encouraged me to begin asking the right questions if I ever hope to produce the right results.
Ecology in Ancient Civilizations | Hughes, J. Donald. (1975). Ecology in Ancient Civilizations. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
I then went on to read what was a last minute selection I picked up from the school library: Ecology in Ancient Civilizations by J. Donald Hughes. Chapter one, “Environment and Civilization,” was a very brief (5 pages!) but provocative read! Beginning by evaluating the relationship between human civilization- particularly of ancient cultures- and the natural environment. Ancient cultures understood and honored the value of nature; yet, clearly, and I don’t think many would argue this, we had been quite destructive of it. Hughes began to hint at a feedback, noting that nature had possibly had her revenge. I skipped ahead to chapter 11, “Ecology and the Fall of Rome,” and Hughes really developed upon the previous inclination that nature fought back. This chapter provided great insight, but I began to see that this book wouldn’t be providing me too much usable information. Explaining that the Fall of the Roman Empire could largely be attributed to anthropogenic impacts, Hughes illustration subtly foreshadows modern civilization (at least I interpreted it as doing so much). Interestingly, proving my misconceptions, Hughes explained how the Romans often prevented technological advancement, either because the present slave availability was sufficient, or for fear of economic impact. At times, some of the disregarded technologies might have conserved their natural resources. Conversely, in today’s culture, we advance technology so that we no longer recognize the limitations of our natural resources, nor our continued dependence upon them. I enjoyed reading Hughes’ book, but for the purpose of this study, I feel it acted purely as a warning.
Ecocities | Register, Richard. (2006). Ecocities: Rebuilding cities in balance with nature. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
After these two books, I felt I was off to a pretty decent start. I had begun to clarify the differences between a sustainable city and an ecological city, I had learned a bit about some of the various alternative approaches, and I went back to review some of our historic relationships between man and nature. My next goal was to review the concept of city IN nature, for which I turned to Ecocities, by Richard Register. Re-reading “The City in Nature,” chapter 3 of this influential book, reminded me of how much I appreciate Richard Register’s writings. Speaking with such simplicity, Register makes our society’s failure to build in ecologically friendly manners so clear. Yet, I’ve come to see how naive, or utopian, his ideas sometimes are. Though an absolutely brilliant person, Register sometimes separates his vision from reality. This chapter illustrated that towards the end, when he mentioned the builder’s sequence. This sequence suggests that success will only be achieved when starting from the ground up. Perhaps I’m taking this too literally, perhaps he is suggesting that sustainable design practices must first infiltrate the most basic levels of society… But I just keep repeating the saying in my head: the greenest building is the one you don’t tear down. The greatest ecocities, according to this old saying, could potentially be the ones which have already been developed. Now, I know for a fact that Register does a lot of greyfield/infill development. Still, I would appreciate it if the problem-solving conversations were more often framed in an existing city context, and not the utopian ideal. That critique aside, this chapter made some great points: cities are more sustainable than suburbs (a concept I intend to explore in more detail down the line), ancient cultures used to know what they were doing, and that we as humans have much to learn by observing nature.
This reading also reminded me of a great analogy which I’ve recently adopted as an inspiration: that of the elephant. Consider the elephant at work. The elephant, just going about its business, happens to be a tremendous steward for biodiversity. Register exclaims*, it “seems like they’re bent upon creating biodiversity” (Register, p. 52). The elephant clears paths, finds water, creates more accessible shelter and food…and does all this coincidentally, while it simply tries to meet its own needs. As you can see, it impacts the environment in its efforts to thrive; yet, the impacts actually contribute to the health of the ecosystem, rather than the detriment. Like elephants, human civilization can selfishly explore ways to meet its own needs, but can do so while benefiting the environment! (More on this idea in another reading I’ll review)
Environmental Ethics | Light, Andrew, & Rolston, Holmes, III. (Eds.). (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Five different readings across 3 books and I was only half finished (I may break these posts up a bit in the future?). I went on to read from the anthology, Environmental Ethics. By jumping into this book, I think I got a bit ahead of myself, but the topics were still something I intended to review early in the semester. The introductory chapter, “What is Environmental Ethics?” by Clare Palmer, was a great gateway for the subject, but it went into a bit more detail about the philosophies and theories than I really wanted to review. However, there were still some terrific foundational concepts which worked well for the opening unit- such as the very basic question of what is nature (and does the concept of nature change over time?), or the debate over what role humans play in the environment. The key, I think, is to fully grasp the considerations of value, utility, or worth and apply them to development. I must say that I most agreed with what was written about the opinions of J. Baird Callicott and his ideas of holistic environmentalism. And while I already knew that I appreciated the writings and teachings of Aldo Leopold, I was reminded of how congruent my beliefs are with his land ethic. I think there were some great ideas here which framed a better way to view the city: as part of a much larger whole.
Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? | Campbell, Scott. (1996). Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development. In Scott Campbell, & Susan S. Fainstein (Eds.). (2003). Readings in Planning Theory (2nd Ed.) (pp.435-458). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
I was quite pleased with the first reading to kick-off my study. And while I appreciated each of the other readings I had chosen for this unit, I was pleasantly surprised with how appropriate was the text of Scott Campbell’s “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development” in the Readings in Planning Theory anthology. I think my selection of this essay was spot on; but again, completely by chance. But I was so pleased with the way this text framed the concept of sustainability in a planning concept (I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s a Planning anthology!). I just think that, for me, this essay really touched home. I truly appreciated its ability to make me see how naive I have been about this romanticized view of an eco-future, as well as about my “ecotopian” belief that our ancient cultures were living so harmoniously with nature, or that their ways were not so socially destructive . The piece really emphasized the importance of all three systems of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental), urging for a collaboration among them. I am fond of the way this text argued against the “man vs. environment” spectrum, citing that it were much more complex than we often perceive it to be. Drawing attention to the ever growing popularity of the “sustainability” buzzword, and the implications of such a growing popularity, the essay tries to better define this fuzzy and vague term. From this search for a definition, the conversation develops to consider how sustainability might be met, measured, or even known. Suggesting a few strategies and approaches, the reading concludes by repeating, once more, the significance of all three systems. I most appreciated this reading for smacking me down and off my cloud. The human-nature divide is intense but cannot be seen as two opposite realms against the other. Though I’ve always recognized this, knowing that environmentalism is not so separate from other social or economic concerns, I still continue to focus on nature a bit more than the other legs of the stool. I do still plan to focus this course on environmental issues (ecology being a primary interest in this study), but I think I have been a bit ideal in the past, perhaps a bit too ecocentric. Of course, this same argument reiterated and or proved true my thought that sustainable is clearly something different from ecological. Sustainability, like I already knew and wanted to investigate more, as was reaffirmed in the Van der Ryn and Cowen reading, is a three-legged stool and a balance of environmental, ecological, and social concerns. But what’s important is that this reading gave considerable thought to environmental justice, a leg that has been less resolved than economic and social sustainability, for which various policies and procedures already exist.
City Form and Natural Process | Hough, Michael. (1989). City Form and Natural Process. New York, NY: Routeledge.
The last reading I want to review is from the book, City Form and Natural Process, by Michael Hughes. I picked this book up in my school’s planning studio last night and it ended up being a perfect fit. It took me entirely too long to read, though, because I found myself jotting down notes every few sentences. However, I loved it for how it really flipped the scenario to have a positive outlook on nature in cities; constantly reminding the reader that city and nature, or town and country, are not so different. In fact, this misunderstanding, which has been developing ever since the Industrial Revolution, is what inhibits our ability as a society to determine better solutions for design. One of the primary issues we ought to address is our view of urban open space: we now think of parks as places solely for our recreation and relaxation. Urban open space, however, has historically served some other functional purpose; providing spaces for crops, livestock, orchards, etc. The reading encourages you to rethink the now universal schema of an urban landscape and its open spaces, and to consider more localized alternatives which have greater value and utility. Very critical of our adoption of a one-way system of energy and resource usage, Hough suggests a more cyclical system- replicating energy and nutrient flows of a natural ecosystem. Countering the conservationists theory that humans are inherently destructive, the reading suggests that humans have great potential as agents for positive change in our world (think elephants!).
Which do you think offers more value to the ecological community? The billiard-style lawn of Central Park, or the wildflower patch on these vacant lots of Baltimore?
These are very brief and subjective reviews of the readings, but I at least hope I’ve done as good a job of framing the underlying concepts as these great authors and theorists have. I’m sorry I can’t share the full texts with you, but I’m sure these or similar readings are available from your local library. And if you’re in Baltimore, I am more than willing to let you borrow them! I feel I have a sturdy base upon which to build the rest of this semester. And throughout the remainder of my study, these common themes shall act as guiding principles:
- A fundamental dilemma is that of how nature is valued and viewed. Viewing it as separate, or inferior, will delay progress on any ecologically sustainable front.
- Town and County, are not so different from one another. In fact, until we can recognize how nature is involved in our urban environments, we shall never be able to appropriately address ecological sustainability concerns. Furthermore, viewing one as sacred and the other as a deception will prevent any progress from being made.
- Sustainable and ecological, though at times related, are different concepts. Sustainability is a very vague and far-reaching term. Moreover, it has become clear that society has made much larger strides when dealing with economic or social sustainability than they have with environmental sustainability. For this reason, I find it ever more important to emphasize the importance of ecological sustainability, and wish to further study David Orr’s writings on the subject.
- Maintaining the conversation across all three systems and across many disciplines will lead to a more comprehensive and effective solution.
- Humans, though at times able to cause great damage to the environment, are not inherently destructive. Quite the opposite, we have the potential to be agents of positive change- much like the elephant!
I am also now super psyched to begin my other units. As I’ve already begun to investigate the concept of deep ecology and environmental ethics, I’m eager to read more. And there have already been hints in a few of the readings that our society has been losing touch with nature- a concept I’ll be reviewing when I read about Nature Deficit Disorder. Can’t wait to show you more!
For the syllabus and a reading list, check out my post introducing the course.
*Forgive me if this quote might be a bit off, I couldn’t quite read my own handwriting and I don’t have the book directly in front of me.