Share // A Connected, Walkable City: Building for Urban Wildlife

Originally seen on, this article by Steven Snell tugs on my heart strings. How can we create a humane (or, as the article refers to it, a human(e)) city? What does it mean to be a human(e) environment?

Read the article here:

Research published in the ENRE Division Newsletter

July 2015 Newsletter for the Environment, Natural Resources, & Energy Division of the American Planning Association is out, and guess who’s in it! That’s right, me! As a result of my 2013-2014 Fellowship with the ENRE Division, my research has been published in their newsletter. You’ll have to become a division member to receive the publication, but here’s a snapshot of my page! ENRE Newsletter_July 2015 page

It may not be significant to some people, but this makes me extremely proud! Now, if only I could find more time to work on my research!


DEEP ECOLOGICAL URBANISM: A framework for integrating science and ethics into the planning and design of human-dominated ecosystems

Here is a copy of my finished capstone project:

Deep Ecological Urbanism

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Assistance requested for professional project:


Background: I’m an urban and regional planning student considering a new framework for planning and designing our cities….

I’ve broken human communities into 4 layers:

  1. Habitat
  2. Biota
  3. Society
  4. Cycles

Each layer has 2 sectors:

Habitat describes all physical things that are either (1) built or (2) natural
Biota includes (1) wildlife (e.g. flora, fauna, microbes, fungi, etc.) and (2) humankind
Society is made up of our (1) communities and (2) institutions (i.e. social norms)

Cycles describes “things” that are moving, and the act of moving them. BUT I’M NOT SURE HOW TO BREAK DOWN “CYCLES” INTO TWO COMPONENT SECTORS…

I’ve had a couple ideas in the past……

  • A. Networks 
  • B. Metabolisms
  • A. Networks
  • B. Commerce
  • A. Infrastructure (essentially the same thing as networks but new name)
  • B. Stocks + Flows

or something else? I’m having a super hard time and would really appreciate any input!

Essentially, it would need to cover resources as commodities (when left alone, a resource would be a part of habitat, only when it’s harvested would it be a part of cycles); energy; waste; water; trade; industry; economic activity (“economy” used to be a part of cycles, where industry and jobs would be categorized; although I currently have “economy” as a part of institutions…)

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.

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

“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

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

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

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]. Retrieved from

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!


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.

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