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!

The Divorce Between Human and Habitat

I’m falling behind a bit when it comes to my literature reviews. I realized they were taking up a bulk of my “class time”, and I preferred to do things, read things, rather than just write. So without much fluff, I’ll try to catch up with the following reviews before I move onto Unit 5 | Scale.

Deep Ecological Urbanism | Unit 4: Learning from Nature | Literature Review

Biophilia | Farr, Douglas. (2008). Sustainable Urbanism. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This book had me really excited but, in truth, I’m quite disappointed. It’s a great resource, indeed, but it’s framed more like a design-manual than a piece for learning about concepts. It’s great for providing technical details of sustainable practices, but this chapter didn’t at all talk about what the term Biophilia actually means. The book does, however, have a great terminology section at the ends, and is very good at providing timelines. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to review those items. Additionally, it has in-depth reviews of various case studies. It’s formatted like a sustainable urbanist’s guide for design, which is terrific. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t as useful for my studies at this stage.

Then again, some discussion earlier in the book provided some good insight. In Chapter 2, Sustainable Urbanism: Where We Need to Go, I found the definition I was in search of:

Biophilia:  “human love of nature based on  intrinsic interdependence between humans and other living systems.” [page 48]

The chapter went on to describe how humans evolved outdoors, and were previous an integral part of the cycles of nature. Then came the idea of private property. Today, there is a tendency of all types of development to suppress nature. Meanwhile, the truth about the impacts of our actions are hidden from view where we will not be bothered by the stress our lifestyles place on nature. Consequently, we are a disconnected society- disconnected from nature, from each other, from our environments… This disconnect went on to be a primary focus for the rest of this unit.

Nature Deficit Disorder | Egan, Timothy. (March 29, 2012). Nature Deficit Disorder. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/nature-deficit-disorder/

“And then, in less than a generation’s time, millions of people completely decoupled themselves from nature.”

The phrase Nature Deficit Disorder was coined by author Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. I have owned this book for years now, but I have yet to pick it up and read it. I didn’t want to do so for this course, however, because I think I’d prefer to read it in its entirety. But Timothy Egan’s article on The New York Times website provided a nice overview of his concept. The results of our disconnect with nature are devastating: obesity, stress and anxiety, depression, asthma, ADD/ADHD, and the list goes on…  As Egan points out, “medical costs associated with obesity and inactivity are nearly $150 billion a year.”

The list above primarily covers health effects, but the disconnect leads to economic disparities, professional and academic barriers, higher crime rates, and so on. In a later post, I plan to share a list of the benefits of a restored connection with nature which will also shed light on the risks of a disconnect with such.

All Things Are Connected | Ethics Online (Producer), & Jenkins, Joe (Director). (2009). All Things Are Connected [Motion picture]. UK. Watched from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/all-things-are-connected/

All Things Are Connected is a short [35:03] documentary reviewing our (humans’) history on this planet, telling the story of Earth as if it were that of a 45-year-old woman, Gaia. In her life, it was only…

  • 30 minutes ago that humans invented the wheel…
  • 26 minutes ago that we constructed Stonehenge…
  • 10 minutes ago that Christianity was developed…
  • 2.5 minutes ago that Europeans arrive at the New World
  • 1 minute ago that the Industrial Revolution was sparked, “and our relationship with the Earth changes forever”
  • 57 seconds ago when the human population exceeded 1 billion. Electricity, railways and cars were invented
  • 33 seconds ago, the first world war erupts, followed by the second world war only a few seconds later
  • 22 seconds ago then nuclear age is spawned
  • 10 seconds ago, we first enter space.
  • 3 seconds ago that the population reaches 6 billion; scientists warn that while Gaia will certainly survive…

Our existence has been less than an hour of this woman’s life. The point is, “we owe everything to this membrane of life,” which some will refer to as Mother Earth.

“Gaia is no doting mother, tolerant of our wrong doings, nor is she some delicate damsel in danger from brutal mankind…..She is stern and tough, always keeping the earth comfortable for those who obey the rules but ruthless in her destruction of those who misbehave”. {James Lovelock – Scientist and Author: Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth, 2008}

The film appropriately points out, however, that although we may think of ourselves as stewards, we are actually the slayers. Biodiversity decreases as we kill off other species; yet, at the same time, the number of creatures on this planet grows as we not only expand our own population but also that of the animals we use as food. There are 2 chickens for every person, and a total of 2 billion pigs.

Such misinformed views may be based in Christianity. We confuse the “dominion“, which is spoken of in the Christian Bible, with domination. And they were surely intensified with the introduction of Francis Bacon’s scientific method- which was based on the idea that only human beings have intrinsic value, while everything else had value only for our use. This idea is caused a major shift in our philosophical views.

Then came the industrial revolution, which caused a major shift in our attitude towards nature. We pursued human progress at all costs. We perceived the natural world as an inert machine, only there to serve humans. We think of ourselves as a glorified species, but how can we argue that we express much intelligence when we have grown so ignorant of the planet? Are we really superior?

The Superior Human? | Meng, Jenia (Producer), & McAnalle, Samuel (Director). (2012). The Superior Human? [Motion picture]. Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/superior-human/

After watching All Things Are Connected, I went on to watch The Superior Human?, a 2012 documentary about our mislead beliefs of superiority. It was a funny little piece that proved the nonsense behind our thoughts of superiority by framing each argument frequently made in defense of human greatness as being tailored to our specific species. Our elaborate architecture would not suit the lifestyles of other creatures, yet the homes they build (some are arguably much more technical and elaborate) are perfectly suited to their own needs. We do not have the largest population, we are not the longest living species, yet we claim our “intelligence” makes us better than all others.

As the previous documentary noted the detrimental effects of Bacon’s Scientific Method, this film noted the introduction of Descartes’ ideas- that mind and body were separate from one another, and that animals lacked the “mind” aspect. Soon came the defense of vivisection. Descartes’ was indeed refuted by some; David Hume, a philosopher and “the greatest skeptic of all time,” apparently made an argument similar to the following:

“The one thing only an idiot would deny- meaning Descartes is that animals have thoughts and feelings.” [Dr. Bernard Rollin in The Superior Human?]

In our history, it is unfortunate that we’ve needed to invent words like racism, sexism, ageism, culturalism, and homophobia. Sadly, we must add one more to the list: speciesism. The term, coined by Richard Ruder, draws attention to the unjustified preference of the human species over all others. “We are all related, other species should be like kin, not like objects.”

Realigning Nature and the City, Coyote Style | Chuck. (February 12, 2013). Realigning Nature and the City, Coyote Style. Myurbanist. Retrieved from http://www.myurbanist.com/archives/9529

I found an interesting article online. The author, simply referred to as “Chuck”, tells of his experience encountering a coyote on an urban street. We commonly think of this idea of the “city in nature” (see Garden City), but what about “nature in the city”? The more artificial examples of nature would be replaced with wild spaces. The article emphasizes coexistence, and the future potential to “reprogram places from built to natural.” The author shares discussions with landscape architects which ponder such a merger. One of the landscape architects talked about this approach and noted his understanding:

“At core, there is nothing natural in the city, he said, and anything we can do that resonates with the public and creates a sustainable result, is defensible, proper and legitimate.”

I really liked the article. However, though it started out by describing a very unexpected and informal encounter, the examples discussed later on were still very manicured and planned. I believe we need to allow for more opportunities of wild growth and development.

I’d like to include one last review before I end the post: another documentary.

The Fuck-It Point | Savage Revival. The Fuck-It Point. [Motion picture]. Savagerevival.net Retrieved from   http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-fuck-it-point/

Pardon the french! This film had the shock factor from the start with its title. What does it mean? The video starts with the following statement:

‘When you have had enough. When you decide to take matter into your own hands and don’t care what’s going to happen to you. When you know that from now on you will resist with whatever tactic you think is most effective.’

It goes back to the disconnect that was mentioned earlier. People don’t care about the planet because they live in cities, they are separated from nature and also from the destruction of so many natural things. So we need to rethink the term sustainability. One major issue, then, which we must face is the continual importation of resources; not very sustainable at all. If it is not possible to sustain civilization, then we have two options. One, we can wait for the end. Or two, we can switch to an alternative. While some people are already working tirelessly to change our current habits, others are oblivious and passive. The idea that humans are separate from nature is a relatively new development.

In the past, we have needed an entire generation to pass before the next would be open to new truths, such as the fact that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Today, however, we cannot wait for the old generation to go before the non-human centric earth belief is accepted.  We view everyone and everything as resources, not as beings with which to share this planet. But it is the best cooperating species who survive together, not the strongest will survive alone.

The documentary concluded with a recommendation that viewers take matters into their own hands, though not necessarily in a peaceful or constructive way. While I don’t exactly agree with this stance, I would recommend this film for the valuable message which was its foundation: that we are no better than other species, we are not separate from nature, and we need to change the way things are…immediately.

Clearly I was much farther behind on my literature review than I thought, as I actually have quite a bit more to share. I’ll have to get to those pieces another time.

Until then, I’d love to hear what you think about all of this! I’ve shared the links to the documentaries; all can be seen for free!