No harm in a little self-pride?

I apologize if this comes off in poor taste, but I absolutely must recognize what I’ve accomplished in less than a year. I am often the humble type, but right now, I have no shame!

Not only did I accept the challenge of managing a student organization for my graduate, but I opted to take that opportunity to launch a full-fledged APA-certified Planning Student Organization. With a simple yet clever name, I gave the new Morgan Association of Planning Students (MAPS) a brand [logo, color scheme, graphic style, etc.]; using a pre-existing social media account on Facebook, launched a WordPress website, a LinkedIn account, a Twitter account, and a Google+ account with support from my colleague and the Director of Social Media and Communications, Michael Burton; I’ve distributed (semi)regular newsletters and campaigns to our membership; organized two fall events [Park(ing) Day and a presentation from a U.S. Census Bureau individual]; and managed to pull off a largely successful Professional Development Institute (PDI), from which I’ve just come home.

Still riding the high from this morning’s event, it’s difficult to play down how great I feel! The turn out may not have been overwhelming, but our program, after all, only has a graduating 2014 class of 3 students (including myself)!! You can learn more about the event by taking a visit to the MAPS blog. [Take a look at the MAPS 2014 PDI program!] Below is a photo of me (right) with my aunt Cindy Foster, a career adviser and founder of the B’More Hireable, a career club for women. Cindy presented two (out of nine) sessions at this morning’s event.


Not only am I proud, however, but I also feel enriched. In addition to the great company I kept this morning, I was energized from hearing an accomplished alumni remind me why I’ve chosen this profession; I had discussed with a planning consultant how I to prepare now for my interest in eventually consulting; I spoke with a career adviser about optimizing my resume; I listened to the principal at a leading local landscape architecture firm talk about using my skills as a planner to fit in wherever I can find an opening; I received pointers for acing the interview process; I probed recent graduates about life after grad school; and I had a blast networking with my peers and with local professionals….all before 1:00 p.m.!!

I’m hoping to get some of the presentations uploaded to our website (with permission from the speakers). But in the mean time, here are a few more photos!



See my short MAPS Blog post about the event!


Planners’ Opinion Survey : ECOLOGY + PLANNING

Planners’ Opinion Survey : ECOLOGY + PLANNING

This is a call to all professional planners out there! It’s professional project crunch time and there’s work to be done. If you can spare 10 minutes, I’d like to request that you take a moment to visit and complete my Planners’ Opinion Survey: ECOLOGY + PLANNING. Let me tell you why it’s worth your time!

If you follow my blog, you may already be aware. I am a May 2014 graduation candidate and the recipient of the 2013/14 Fellowship of APA’s Environment, Natural Resources and Energy Division. The ENRE Fellowship is supporting the research of my professional project which investigates the potential of a new planning approach, called Deep Ecological Urbanism, for improving urban development through the understanding and integration of natural sciences and environmental ethics into urban and regional planning processes.

As a component of my research, I am identifying current practices and opinions about sustainability, resiliency, and ecology issues to understand, support, and identify the potential need for a new planning approach that is focused on ecology, and to identify how cities are currently addressing sustainable development with an emphasis on ecological health.

It is my hope to develop a vigorous knowledge of current practices, progressive planning approaches, innovative policies, and emerging priorities, as well as any challenges and limitations to the implementation of planning projects.The information I will collect through this survey will help me to understand what tools planners need most, and how to best provide these resources.

Results from this survey are crucial to my studies. In addition to identifying areas for further research, this results will help to shape the recommendations that I put forth. Furthermore, I would like note that I will be presenting the findings of my research at the upcoming American Planning Association 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta, GA, at 12:00 p.m. on Monday, April 28th.

So please, take a moment (about 10 minutes) to complete this survey and share the link with your colleagues! Your help is greatly appreciated! Thank you!

P.S. The recent lack of posts on this blog is by no means an indication of my laziness! Quite the contrary, I simply don’t have the time to post! However, when I’m finished my professional project (in about 80 days), I will share the results of my research and make it a point to post more frequently. Until then, I will do my best to post more often!

Deep Ecological Urbanism | SCALE

I’m falling quite a bit behind in my posts, I do apologize. I have indeed read so much information that I wish to share, but I seem to lack the time to do so. Alas, I must keep my posts brief as I try to catch up to review what I’m currently reading. So, where did I leave off? Oh yes, scale….

Unit 5 reviews concepts relating to scale; that is, sprawl (and all the issues created by it), the varying levels of natural integration, the sense of place established by the communities we inhabit.

 It’s a Sprawl World After All | Introduction, pp. 1-13

“In spite of all our possessions, entertainment options, and economic opportunities, many Americans still feel alienated, isolated, and alone” [p. 1].

I covered the immense disconnect from nature that we now suffer in one of my earlier units, but it bears repeating as I now discuss scale. The more we design without regard to the appropriate scale, the greater that separation becomes. Our outward growth, our move into the exurbs, has left us with sprawling development which strips us of our freedom. “The automobile was once a symbol of freedom. Now it has become a prison” [p. 8]. In the following reading, it was even said that “people who can’t drive cars are made dysfunctional” [Home from Nowhere, 125].

Sprawl began to emerge around 1945, and it led to disconnected, secluded, violent, and formless development. We, as residents of sprawl, lack the sense of belonging that is rooted in a sense of place. Instead, we must “protect ourselves from the society in which we live” [p.4].

The author criticizes, as have others, the Garden City movement. Though the original idea, and some of the earlier implementations, had been sophisticated, it has led overall to a bad case of suburban sprawl.

What we need are genuine communities. Despite an ever expanding collective intelligence, Americans are getting more confused each day, forgetting how to design quality environments. How could this happen? While technological and academic advances have made knowledge much more accessible, our changing lifestyles further divide us from some of the most basic truths of the world. As we forget those things which our ancestors understood so well (as I discussed in more detail in previous biophilic conversations) we also lose a sense of what it meant to be part of a community and local geography. Almost entirely responsible for this disconnect is suburban sprawl as described in the introduction of Douglas E. Morris’ book, It’s a Sprawl World After All.

Home from Nowhere | Chapter 5: Creating Someplace.

So why can’t we do anything about it? “It is literally against the law almost everywhere in the United States to build the kind of places that Americans themselves consider authentic and traditional” [p.109]. It’s mostly a zoning problem, we restrict the ways in which we can develop, and instead allow sprawling forms. Additionally, we separate everything—again, this goes back to zoning. “Zoning is quantitative rather that qualitative…abstract, not particular,” and its institution created unanticipated problems [122].

“As primitive settlements evolved into true towns and cities, people learned to solve many of the practical and spiritual problems of life by controlling the physical arrangement of things in their everyday world” [p. 119].

What is needed are designs that are democratic, which are able to be understood by all. The answer may lie in what is called traditional development. Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), and similar design concepts or tenets which embrace the trends which predated modern urban development are now taking root in planning and architectural fields.

Portland: A sense of Place | E2 Video Podcast

In this podcast, with Peter Calthorpe, the ingredients of a great community were listed. It all starts with a complete neighborhood, bringing a broad range of individuals to the table. Next, a mix of local destinations provide a diversity of place. Together, these elements create human scale and pedestrian friendly environments, which result in walkable places, offering pleasant experiences. The product is an attractive community that provides its residents with a positive and strong sense of place. This podcast focused on Portland as an example of this sort of design. In many other cities, however, elements of the public domain have such little value, which leads to overcompensated, private “escapes” (i.e. large yards and sprawl).

Bogota: Building a Sustainable City | E2 Video Podcast

Another great example of an environment with a positive sense of place is the Colombian city of Bogotá. Known for its effective strategies for increasing pedestrian mobility, Bogotá presents a wonderful case of how much more valuable a place may become when cities are planned for sustainability and, perhaps more importantly, for their people. Enrique Peñalosa, a previous mayor of Bogotá, is a New Urbanist (CNU mentioned above) and major proponent of pedestrian friendly environments. Included in Peñalosa’s accomplishments as mayor is a long list of transportation projects, but his ideologies are perhaps what I find most precious. Peñalosa believes that people will behave in the way that they are treated. Therefore, a city must treat its residents well if it hopes to be treated kindly in return. Peñalosa saw a need for new measures of success; instead of materials (consumerism) perhaps happiness and quality of life indicators should be considered. Additionally, we need more than just physical changes to happen. A major hindrance to the sustainability progress which is so needed in our cities may primarily be attributed to an image problem. Peñalosa noted that Portland needed to first change the image of its transportation system before it could encourage the “yuppies” to ride. This same problem faces nearly all modern cities, and disproving any poor perceptions (be them of transit or another urban element) will be crucial.

The two resources above were video podcasts. I also listened to quite a few audio podcasts during this unit, and have grown particularly fond of Michael Gosney’s Eco Evolution podcast, which is available for free on iTunes. In an October 8, 2012 episode about Arcosanti, Gosney spoke with Jeff Stein, president of the Cosanti Foundation. Arcosanti, for those who may be unfamiliar, is a dense and sustainable development that was constructed in Scottsdale, AZ in the early 1970s. The architecture is stunning, and fits perfectly with the natural landscape. Architect Paolo Soleri studied in Frank Lloyd Wright’s school, where part of the curriculum required students to be immersed in nature. The visceral sense of the land/-scape led him to develop a concept which he called “arcology.” A great deal of literature explains his idea and the basic principles of arcology. A portmanteau of the word “cosa”-meaning before-and “anti”-meaning things-Arcosanti suggests there ought to be a place for ideas which might answer the question, how shall we live? It urges us to seek for PLACE before THINGS. Soleri’s concept of Arcology is another portmanteau, combining the words architecture and ecology. Today, we trade nature for buildings and separate all entities, as if compartmentalizing life. The average amount of time spent outdoors each day is a mere 72 minutes. That’s appalling! The excess time spent indoors stands to explain how buildings account for 50% of all energy use. Moreover, our buildings are inefficiently designed. As Frank Lloyd Wright has said, today’s buildings are constructed “as if architects from past generations didn’t know what planet they were on.” Conventional architecture does not work efficiently, but as Stein says about Arcosanti, “our architecture works harder than your architecture does.” It accounts for only 1/6th of the energy used. Stein notes that there are simple but thoughtful ways that architecture can work complexly.

The Arcosanti model can be scaled-up, but if we build in tune with the size of the modern mega-lopolis, it is ever more important to integrate nature into the environment. In this podcast, Michael talks about the concept of Ecocities and Ecovillages. We need to transform existing landscapes. The smaller scale infill development projects in urban areas can become the framework for an Ecocity. Even smaller scale developments become what are known as Ecovillages.

The problem with today’s design is that we “consume ourselves into disaster.” We design for the automobile, and need to spend vast amounts of capital to support these patterns of life. People cannot make connections physically (with nature or one another) because of poor design. This goes back to the issue of democracy mentioned above. Without democratic designs, people are not pressured to act as a community. Likewise, since children are not seeing, nor are they growing up among, the patterns of nature, they will feel no pressure to act in ways which foster or protect it.

Regenerative Design and the Ecology of Leadership, March 11, 2013 | Eco Evolution

In a March 2013 episode of Gosney’s podcast, James Stark and Katia Sol, of the Regenerative Design Institute, speak about the concepts of regenerative design and the need for a new evolution, called “the great turning.” The two guests discuss their consideration of “inner-permaculture,” the internal cultivation of a balance: ecological harmony that is both within and without. I feel this is a valid consideration for the scale unit, as these same ecological concepts which I would suggest we apply to cities must also be wholly adopted by all individuals.

Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Chapter 6 | Sense of Place

I’ve already mentioned this briefly, but sense of place is a major contributing factor of a good city. Distinctiveness is one way that a community may develop a sense of place. It is important when considering sustainability in part because it helps to create communities that earn a lasting appreciation, but also because “care for the environment…grows out of a sense of the sanctity and worth of particular places” [Lilburne, 1989, quoted on p. 144].

Developing a sense of place requires a region to understand the local culture, geography, history (both social and natural), and the underlying indigenous context. . A life-place culture “recognizes the limitations of potentials of the immediate region” [Thayer, quoted on p, 145]. Fostering a feeling of connection, immersion in nature and attachment to a natural region instills a deeper sense of belonging in an individual, and hels us to understand ourselves within nature. This psychological enrichment encourages sustainable investment.

The reading listed five strategies for fostering a sense of place:

1)      Protect existing heritage

2)      Design to make current and historic social ena ecological processes visible

3)    Connect with the wider bioregion (through greenways, heritage and nature trails, using biodiversity corridors, etc.)

4)      Utilize culture and art

5)      Discover city “songlines”

“Songlines” are quite interesting. A customary tradition in some aboriginal cultures, songlines are phrases conveyed through the songs that pass through generations which describe the local landscape and share the stories of ancestors. Information about place is stored in these enduring traditions. Stories and storytelling are key to planning [154].

Integrating ecological processes into the urban fabric helps to further develop a local sense of place. Bioclimatic design, likewise, recognizes local conditions which are used to inform design decisions.  Processes like place profiling, bioregional mapping, and ecoliteracy initiatives help to establish and sustain a positive sense of place.

One technique which I was most fond of was the bioregional celebration. For example, in Baltimore, that might mean we host an annual harbor festival, celebrating our local natural icons.

More than just a concept of physical dimensions, scale encompasses the metaphysical realm of emotion. Our sensory understanding or perception of a place constructs an emotional feeling towards that area. Cities that have a strong sense of place offer meaningful connections for the people within them. A good sense of place is also critical for encouraging behavior which protects an area. Fostering such feelings in inhabitants is a key strategy for sustainability, and can be achieved through conscious design. This is a very good chapter, and its brevity made its lesson much more valuable.

Urbanized | Documentary

The documentary, Urbanized, was a great piece. As the title would suggest, the documentary considers what it might mean that our societies are becoming increasingly urbanized. Cities offer tremendous possibilities, but as more population shifts back into our cities, we strain existing resources. While about 50% of the population is living in a city, 1/3 of the world lives in slum-like conditions.

Since American cities developed on previously undeveloped lands, they failed to acquire the same grand legacy of European Cities. This made them much less prepared to face the auto-oriented designs of the 1950s. In the documentary, one of my favorite quotes was spoken:  “A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves,”- Jan Gehl. People forget place and time, and stay simply because they are enjoying what’s there.

The documentary also reviewed the appropriate range of the daily environment. There may be cultural, economic, or social differences among us all, but we are of the same animal kingdom. At times, standardization may be useful. For example, 100 meters is accepted as the maximum distance a person will travel in a day. This measure has apparently remained fairly consistent for centuries.  But now, as our developments are sprawling, that distance is stretched further every day. In recent decades, livability is ignored and cities have been designed with economic interests in mind. Another great quote: “sprawl is like pornography, you know it when you see it.” It is now easier to communicate generally with the entire world (via internet) than it is to speak with a neighbor. I know I’m guilty of this truth.

Our cities compete with suburbs but their density offers a much more efficient lifestyle- potentially, that is. Currently, our cities are consuming 75% of the world’s energy.  Like some appliances may be considered “greedy” for using more electricity than others, perhaps our way of life may also be so “greedy.” The American lifestyle, now, has become quite distinct. And as people visit our country for eduction or other opportunities, their home countries much try harder to lure their people back. This means that developing countries are beginning to adopt the American recipe. It is unselfish for us to suggest other countries restrict their growth, but it is a sad truth that the lifestyles we currently live are not sustainability.

Escape from Suburbia | Documentary

I’m running out of time, where is it going? I have to cut back on the length of these reviews. This film covered the concept of peak oil, and our dependence on the resource. We developed our cities when it was cheaped, and we continue to operate under the belief that there would always be more. Our energy demands, however, are straining the planet. When people do not see the pressure, however, we don’t try to address it. Or, we just assume there will be appropriate technology to fix it all. Yet, more than just a shift in resources, we have to change our behaviors. No combination of “green” energy sources will be able to support our devotion to corporations like Disney, WalMart, and McDonalds.

The ecosystem is finite, and when we ignore its limits, we also lose touch with the basics. Realizing our mistakes and getting back to the basics may be difficult, but it is necessary. Are lives are too comfortable, and lack the innovative edge required to address the challenges we face. The solution partially includes focusing on local answers. Building on local strengths and communicating with neighbors is the first step.

One last key statement has stuck with me, it doesn’t matter when you probably should have started, you just need to start, whether your may be late to join the game or not.

When I began reading the selected pieces for the scale unit, it no longer made sense to me why the “local” discussion was so many units in the future. Although of lot of the content I planned was economy-based, studies of local topics go hand-in-hand with sustainability. Additionally, I may do the same with the resources unit and pull those readings forward.

 Other Notes

In addition to the readings which I enjoyed for the purpose of this unit, I came across a few valuable quotes that apply to other units, or to this independent study overall:

In the popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore talks about old technologies. We cannot continue to think in the same way with our evolving technologies, as the consequences will vary differently. Our technology is growing- it’s scale is increasing- and we must accommodate it so that we do not lose context in smaller scales when such grand technologies are utilized.

In her TED Talk, Janine Benyus, the wonderful visionary I mentioned in the Biomimicry discussion, had explained that it is not a lack of information which inhibits our progress or healthy development. Rather, it is a lack of integration. I believe part of this statement applies to the jumping between scales. In planning, there is not always efficient communication between local and state efforts. Similarly, the engineers may be out of the loop with the goings on in the architecture office. This gap must be bridged. As Benyus has said before, “the answers to their questions were everywhere. They just need to change the lenses with which they saw the world” [TED Talk, Benyus].

A similar relationship between the Biomimicry and Scale conversations evolved. In a Biomimicry conversation of the October 2012 Eco Evolution podcast titled Evolutionary Design through the Lens of Biomimicry, interviewer Michael Gosney speaks with Janine Benyus about how we focus on nature. The topic noted a common trend among vacationers who take pictures throughout their trips. At first, the photos are framed with a rather broad lense- the hotel, the landscape- but as the trip goes on, the photos are more macro-focused, often focusing on the details of nature.

On FernGully, Avatar, and Princess Mononoke: Why they are arguably the same movie (aka my favorite movie)

Someone once told me there are only so many “different” stories re-told in film; and really, the list of central themes seems to be capped at ten. From these ten story lines, we receive more than 600 feature films each year in the United States alone (610 in 2011, to be exact). Some of those themes are so common that we barely bat an eye when we see them repeated (think good v. evil, love conquers all, triumph over adversity, individual v. society…). Some, however, are told  somewhat less frequently, and when a story seems too similar, the viewers apparently get annoyed. This was the case when James Cameron’s film, Avatar, was released in 2009. If you saw the film, you either loved it or you hated it, but I think the general consensus was positive. The critics went crazy; those who opposed the film offered criticism with frustration over its repeated theme. At first, Avatar was compared to the story of Pocahontas, which was reasonable, but not until the similarities were drawn between it and the 1992 animated children’s movie, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, did the arguments really hit the nail on the head.

As a kid, FernGully was one of my favorite movies (along with another movie with a similar environmental agenda, Once Upon a Forest. But if you don’t remember FernGully, I doubt you’ll remember this one). While I watched Avatar, I recognized the similarities, but it didn’t frustrate me as much as it seemed to have frustrated others. As I see it, regardless of whether or not the two films have “identical” plots, there’s no doubt the message is a powerful one. Going on, an article on Script Lab defended the film industry by declaring, “It’s not the story itself, but the way the story is told that makes a movie great.” To be honest, I was just pleased to see this less common theme explored in a hugely successful film. Better yet, not only was it a major Hollywood film, aimed at an older audience, but it now holds the spot for highest worldwide grossing movie– earning $2.78 Billion overall- just above Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, which earned $2.19 Billion (James Cameron has an uncanny skill).

But getting back to the point; FernGully and Avatar aren’t the only movies which have explored this environmental theme, nor was Disney’s Pocahontas (also part of the list, I should probably include Dances with Wolves among many others). This story- as one Yahoo! article summarizes it: “a would-be tree-chopper discovers the hidden beauty of an environmental treasure and changes his mind about its destruction” – is actually, in my humble opinion, one of the most enjoyable, and the movies which retell it tend to rank high on my list of favorites.

I have never actually been able to compose a list of my favorite films but if I could, the list would certainly include the following 3 movies:

  1. Princess Mononoke
  2. Avatar
  3. FernGully: The Last Rainforest (actually, today, this might not top my list; as a kid, however, this film was without doubt ranked number 1)

Princess Mononoke, a Studio Ghibli (artist Hayao Miyazaki) animated film, tells the story of a village prince, Ashitaka, leaves his village to save his people, and avenge the death of the demon that cursed him (no, you read that right- avenge….not revenge- this is a monumental message in itself!). He seeks out the Forest Spirit for help, but in his journey encounters “Iron Town,” a nearby village which had effectively clear-cut the neighboring mountainsides and killed and corrupted the remaining species while developing violent technologies (firearms) which would further their mission of controlling nature. Ashitaka learns that the leader of Iron Town is also on a mission to kill the very same Forest Spirit which he is in search of- hoping its death will grant them wealth and power. The movie ends (spoilers) with Ashitaka saving the Forest Spirit (and thus the entire forest) while teaching the people of Iron Town the importance of respecting the nature around them. I cannot describe how much I love this movie. If it gives any indication, I am getting a tattoo of the Forest Spirit in a few hours, right next to a tattoo I currently have of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s other forest spirit creations: Totoro.

Sketch of Mononoke's Shishigami (Forest Spirit)

Sketch of Mononoke’s Shishigami (Forest Spirit)

The film follows an extremely obvious environmentalism/colonialism theme. Only slightly different is the story in FernGully.

The IMDB profile for FernGully describes the story as follows:

The magical inhabitants of a rainforest called FernGully fight to save their home that is threatened by logging and a polluting force of destruction called Hexxus.

That about sums it up. Now, what if we change just a few key words, 5 in all:

The Na’vi, magical inhabitants of a moon called Pandora, fight to save their home that is threatened by mining and a polluting force of destruction called Humans.

Well that sounds like Avatar! Okay, I’m also pretty sure some specific shots were near mirrors of the animations in FernGully; and then, of course, there’s the sappy underlying love story in both. But I don’t care! The point is, these were both great movies that tell the same story, essentially a warning of destruction of the environment. Part of what I really like about both FernGully and Avatar is that the protaganist was ultimately changed to see the opposite of himself. I really don’t think plagiarism is a valid argument (I’m interested to hear what the folks behind FernGully would have to say about this); I mean, Shakespeare doesn’t get his panties all in a bunch when variations of Romeo and Juliet are produced ad nauseum.

In addition to some of the themes I referenced in the first paragraph, there is man v. nature (apparently, there’s a man v. nature theme to almost everything, but I’ll explore the opposite of this theme in another post for Unit 4). All of the films mentioned in this post follow a similar theme, offer a similar cautionary tale, and plot a similar story. The takeaway is the value of the message being delivered.

All I know is that, from these movies, I am left with overwhelming optimism. Why, you ask? Because Nature always wins.

3.8 Billion Years

Prior to submitting this piece, my blog had a total of 38 posts. When I searched my University’s library catalog for the availability of Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry. It was in stock; the LCC: T173.8 .B45 2002. Now, surely these were just coincidental; but why would I get so excited about these numbers?

Over 3.8 billion- that’s how many years of experience our planet, Earth, has spent on research and development.[1] Quite a resume, wouldn’t you think? Biomimicry 3.8 Institute certainly thinks so. On their “about” page, Biomimicry 3.8 Institute explains:

The “3.8” in our name refers to the more than 3.8 billion years that life has been adapting and evolving to changing conditions on the planet since the very first life forms emerged. If you think about it, that’s a staggering and, in many ways, unfathomable amount of R&D which humankind can learn from, actively apply, and use to innovate for a better world.

Although Benyus’ book was supposedly in-stock, I could not find it on the shelves of my library. I am already fairly familiar with the idea of Biomimicry, however, so I decided I would instead just do some research online. I found this great TED talk:

Janine Benyus: The promise of biomimicry | Video on

The concept of Biomimicry was explored for Unit 4 of my research: Learning from Nature. More on this subject soon!


[1] BBC, History of life on Earth. Retrieved March 3, 2013 from

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:

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.

“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.

Of Elephants and Humans

Deep Ecological Urbanism | Unit 1: Human vs. Nature | Reading Review

Elephants are bent upon creating diversity!

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?

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.

Deep Ecological Urbanism

As some of my readers may know, I am currently a Masters student in Baltimore pursuing my degree in City and Regional Planning. With intentions to specialize in sustainable urban design, I have sadly discovered that the course selections offered on this topic are limited, if present at all. Hoping to fill the void, I proposed to my chair that I immerse myself in an independent study this Spring. Much to my surprise (an independent study is something that my undergraduate program would have never allowed!), he approved my the idea. And so, here we are.

Empty tree pit on Howard Street, filled with "weeds" and trash

Empty tree pit on Howard Street, filled with “weeds” and trash

Over the winter “break” (Hah! what break, I was busier than I had been during the actual semester!), I composed a sort of syllabus (and actually, since it’s student-created, it’s technically a work plan) for my course. I wanted to set out my goals for the course, as well as my plans for making the most of the opportunity. I decided what topics I wanted to investigate more closely, and chose readings which I felt were applicable. Some are from books that I own but have yet to read (only a few short readings are from one book that I’ve read but would like to review once more- Ecocities by Richard Register. This is actually the book that encouraged me to pursue urban planning and focus my studies on sustainability issues in the first place),while some readings are from books held in the University Library.  I also noted various podcasts, documentaries, and websites to enjoy, and set out a schedule of classes explaining how I plan to progress through the 10 units over the weeks of the semester.

For anyone who is interested, I am very open to others following along during my study! My very long and intense syllabus can be found here: Deep Ecological Urbanism Syllabus

I am unfortunately unable to share my reading materials, nor are (m)any of them available online. However, if a fellow Morgan State student is interested, I have a list of library materials that I think should be great resources. I’ll just trust that whatever books I have planned for a unit will still be in the library when the time comes! Check out my list of suggested readings!

Keep in mind, a huge part of this course is fully immersing oneself in the ecological on-goings of the community. The last page of my syllabus has a calendar including various “green” or “sustainable” events taking place in my city, Baltimore. If someone residing elsewhere in the city wants to do the same thing, the internet is a great resource!

And finally, if anyone is interested in following along without doing the work, I will be posting my unit work weekly! Expect the first posts- a review of the first readings and some quick exercises- to be posted in the next few days!