Deep Ecological Urbanism in Baltimore

As I was reading through Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities, I was eager to start applying what I was learning and reading to an area in Baltimore. Chapter 3 of his book had provided me with a list of indicators (Box 3.1, pages 47-49) for measuring biophilia in cities, and it really set me on the ground running with this mission of mine.

What I want is a small, manageable area of Baltimore that can, in many ways, represent the many diversities of Baltimore City as a whole. It should have a mix of development types- both historical and modern; rowhomes, apartments, and perhaps even single family- it should be a part of the Inner Harbor to provide a view of tourism and recreation, it should feature some other hydrology, should also have more development in the near future, and I would like it to be near one of Baltimore’s larger parks. I hadn’t thought too much about demographics since I really don’t know if I have the time to spend on that detail but, ideally, it would mirror Baltimore’s general population. After choosing an area, I think it would be an interesting exercise to use Beatley’s indicators.

I went about studying some of Baltimore’s conditions and setting priorities to determine an area which I think would yield interesting results. I considered the following:

  • Areas with current Urban Renewal Plans
  • Historical districts
  • Rate of calls for dirty streets
  • Rate of calls for clogged storm drains
  • Food Deserts
  • Concentrations of minority populations
  • Areas showing high levels of diversity
  • Medium- to High-density areas
  • Mix of zoning classifications
  • Areas with the fewest trees
  • Areas around unhealthy waterways (all Baltimore waterways are…)
  • Areas with low voting activity
  • Diverse housing typology

Using a very broad brush, I loosely outlined areas which met the above conditions and produced the map below.

Choosing a study area in Baltimore

Choosing a study area in Baltimore; base map is the Baltimore Floodplain Map

Some other elements which I hadn’t considered in this exercise, but am now thinking about, include access to city parks (any size), income level, and transit accessibility. But I think this exercise produced sufficient results even without mapping those characteristics.

You can already see a concentration of overlapping conditions in the area just northeast of Patterson Park, as well as the area west/southwest of the Inner Harbor. Actually, before I did the mapping exercise, I had considered Federal Hill for this study- it has both historic and recent architecture, has a range of building types, is expecting new development in the coming years, and has access to a larger urban park and the Inner Harbor. As I did the layering study, I noticed that Federal Hill was not as diverse as I would like the study area to be. Still, I think it presents the right physical conditions for my future study and I plan to pursue this area in more depth. At the same time, I can’t really ignore Patterson Park. Although it is farther from the Harbor than I wanted (still only a few blocks away), it seems to present all the different characteristics in which I was originally interested. I think I’ll include this area in my study as well; perhaps it will yield different results.

As I read more and progress in the semester, I hope to use these areas as a base upon which I can visualize and analyze the concepts I review. In the end, I intend to propose ecological design recommendations.

Biophilic Cities

This review will be of the first three chapters of Timothy Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities.

Biophilic Cities | Beatley, Timothy. (2011). Biophilic Cities: Integrating nature into urban design and planning. Washington, DC: Island Press.

The cover of Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities

 

[Chapter 1 | The Importance of Nature and Wildness in Our Urban Lives]

After just one chapter, I could already tell that this would be an influential book. Author Timothy Beatley introduces the reader to the idea of a Biophilic City in this first chapter by initially drawing attention to the depressing disconnect which separates younger generations from the natural world. He emphasizes the importance of nature in cities, citing economic, physical, psychological, social, and aesthetic benefits while noting measurable statistics. And, much to my liking, he concluded the first chapter by criticizing what he calls the “green urban agenda” for its failure to really address the literal green elements. As I’ve mentioned before, this has been a very big focus of my own concern, and I’m glad to have seen it addressed up-front. This chapter focused on the measurables and quantifiable reasons explaining why we need nature in our cities; yet it only provides a brief glimpse on how we can bring this nature back in. It left me in great anticipation of what was ahead. (This chapter also encouraged me to look back on my own experiences with nature, which I have written about in the post Memories of My Wild Youth)

[Chapter 2 | The Nature of (in) Cities]

The enthusiasm and optimism with which Beatley writes is incredibly inspiring without doubt, it has rubbed off! Reading about the fascinating collections of nature currently thriving in our cities, but that all too often goes unnoticed, ignites a sense of wonder and curiosity.  I must say that Beatley’s optimism is even more encouraging, for not only does he have hope for the future, but he doesn’t ignore the current overlooked presence of many wild elements! It gives me an urge to explore, and I would actually like to go about in Baltimore and document the hidden wildness of the City! It’s possible to bring nature into the city, he explains, and it’s happening! After this chapter, I am thoroughly enjoying this book!

[Chapter 3 | Biophilic Cities: What Are They?]

This book really has some exciting conversations. Although I think this chapter was a bit longer than necessary-I found the text to be somewhat repetitive – it was a good piece to read to understand the key principles and some possible metrics of biophilic urban design. At the start of it, Beatley was listing examples of good biophilic design; yet most of these precedents were greenfield development (entirely new construction on previously undeveloped land). This has been most frustrating to me, knowing that new development, despite whatever green initiatives it may boast, is a waste of resources. Meanwhile, infill development and rehabilitative design would be a much better alternative. Although the intention is good, I can’t help but disagree with the process. I recognize that some new green developments have been able to accomplish much more than would have been possible had there not been a clean slate; but, for me, it is more important to address our existing cities. As I read on, however, I found Beatley was referencing more and more redevelopment and retrofit projects, and was more than pleased with their inclusion.

I think this chapter emphasized the significance of language and knowledge. This reminded me of a Paul Gruchow quote mentioned in the first chapter:

“Can you imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know?”

That is such a powerful question, how can we expect people to respect nature if we do not even ensure they know what there is to be protected? The chapter also talked about spirit and sensibility. The understanding and connection we can build between humans and the environment is like a glue which holds everything in this world together.

Beatley also shares a similar criticism of mine: that green urbanism is seriously lacking in the green department! Although the elements of green design (efficiency, conservation, transit, etc.) are very necessary pieces of the sustainability puzzle, they fail to address ecology and biodiversity.

While reading this chapter, every idea just clicked with me and made perfect sense- my views are very much in line with Beatley’s. Incorporating concepts of organic architecture and biomimicry (see some links I’ve shared at the end of this post) in his description, he paints a beautiful picture of the ideal city that never sounds excessively utopian or farfetched. Everything he describes can be accomplished within our current means and capabilities, and have already been proven successful elsewhere. It’s just a matter of combining all of the individual success stories in one place. I didn’t really intend for this to be a review of Beatley’s book more than his ideas, but I really do think that’s what has happened. I completely recommend this reading, especially for planners. So far, it is terrific!

_____

There are some great topics in this book that I wish I had more time to review. Until I do, I recommend checking out the follow sources:

Biomimicry Strategies for Cities (as described by Janine Benyus, on p. 53 of Biophilic Cities)
1.Use waste as a resource.
2.Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat.
3.Gather and use energy efficiently.
4.Optimize rather than maximize.
5.Use materials sparingly.
6.Don’t foul their nests.
7.Don’t draw down resources.
8.Remain in balance with the biosphere.
9.Run on information.
10. Shop locally.

The Ethics and Considerations of Humans, Cities, and Ecology

I have concluded Unit One | Humans v. Nature, and I’m finishing up Unit Two | Deep Ecology this weekend. There are a few more Deep Ecology readings that I’ll be getting into; however, I think now is a good point to review the two units before I delay that process any longer.

Let me begin by reviewing [Unit 1 | Human v. Nature]. The first core concept that I wanted to cover was the meaning of the term sustainable and how it differed from ecological. It would seem that the word “sustainable,” in recent times, is thrown into every conversation where it might even remotely apply. I suppose this is a good thing, as it would imply people are generally more aware of the concept and its significance; but as many writers have already investigated (Campbell, Van der Ryn & Cowan, et al), perhaps the word has become too broad. It has certainly been “greenwashed” and cheaply used as a marketing spiel. Yet I’ve been dissatisfied with word lately because it doesn’t fully express my hopes for cities. Of course, I want cities to be sustainable, but it’s the ecological leg of the sustainability stool which I want to encourage most enthusiastically. Knowing that the terms ecological and sustainable would have related, but varied implications for cities, I wanted to investigate their comparison some more. I would have to say Van der Ryn and Cowan presented the best discussion, citing David Orr’s separation of sustainability into two separate categories: technological and ecological. Furthermore, this discussion opened up an entirely new debate about remedy and prevention. Clearly, as we approach the health and sustainability (in all three senses of the word) in cities, we need to be proactive rather than reactive.

I intended to also review issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and resiliency in this first unit, yet I only briefly touched upon those subjects. A common theme tying them together is that conflict of humans versus the Earth. Our societies and cultures have come to be so anthropocentric. We tend to feel that humans hold a special place in nature and conduct our affairs entirely around human wants and needs; there is an unexplainable need to overcome nature. While this usually awards us a sense of power on the surface, we are ultimately humbled by the power of Mother Nature herself. By channeling a river into a culvert, for example, we disrupt countless natural relationships and interactions. In many instances where we’ve ignored the rules of nature, we suffer the consequences down the road. These consequences are expensive annoyances at best, but devastating and lethal events at worst. Climate change can at least partly be attributed to our own actions and, therefore, the more frequent and intense weather events which have so unfortunately razed cities and taken lives can largely be seen as our own doing. It is easy to blame nature for such catastrophes, but we should not so easily accept such events as natural.*  But on the more menial scale of things, we have also forced ourselves into the tedious role of manager. We are forced to manage “pests”; meanwhile, the number of creatures which we categorize as pests increases daily. Deer, for example, are such passive creatures. But as we take over more and more of their land and kill off their primary predators, we are left to “manage” their population on our own. Aldo Leopold recognized it back in the 1940s: predators are needed to maintain the balance of the “wilderness.”

I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain

This idea is not limited to the wilderness; our cities are very much in need of the same balance. It’s a controversial subject that I don’t know enough about, but some areas have long considered the reintroduction of predator species to help control pest populations. In other places, like where I grew up, humans gladly accept the role of hunter. To clarify again, however, this issue is not related to the wilderness, nor does it only apply to predators and their game.

In a similar situation, we are left to deal with invasive plant and animal species. We pour chemicals on weeds (which are often just undesirable native plants) and feel a constant need to address the invasive species which so effortlessly kick out the native plants. An interesting and related aspect of nature that I really wanted to investigate in more detail is resiliency. As humans, we are so determined to fight back, but if we look away for more than a second, nature has already begun to reclaim a previously urbanized environment (and it’s why I sometimes secretly root for invasives). If the city is ignoring a crumbling building, you can bet that nature isn’t: nests in the eaves, vines up the walls, dens inside the empty structure… Clearly, if we don’t intend to make room for nature in our cities, nature will find its own way in.

Nature steps in; The owner could care less about this structure

Nature steps in; The owner could care less about this structure

For the introductory units, I also wanted to think of the 4W’s and 1H of Ecological Urban Design: who|what|where|when|why|how. While most readings actually did not make the urban connection (at least related to design or form) with the concepts they reviewed, I was still able to develop my own answers. The whos, wheres, and whens can best be summarized in a timeline that I’ve been slowly building to include relevant events. This product will be shared upon completion of the course. But the whats, whys, and hows are, I think, more interesting questions that can be talked about at some length. What exactly is ecological urban design, why do we need it, and how do we implement it? Obviously, these questions will not be fully answered until the end of the course (and even then, I expect much will be left unanswered), but I intend to address them in each unit along the way. The first unit, Human v. Nature, made me interpret my own answers. Although nothing was spelled out in the text, reviewing what was NOT ecological urban design (crowded and dirty cities, excessive use of resources, universal and boring, concrete jungles/gardens, and so on) has given me a better idea of what ecological urban design should be; that is: open, healthy, green, local, and so on and so forth.

This is a good segue into [Unit 2 | Deep Ecology]. A lot of what should inform ecological design depends on our society’s view of ecology in general. The Deep Ecology perspective sees the human being within and as part of the larger ecosphere, and not simply as an independent entity that inhabits it [Bettercities.net]. This perspective paints a picture of Ecological Urban Design.

 Before I opened any book for this course, I composed my own definition of Deep Ecological Urbanism:

Deep Ecological Urbanism is a form of urban design that acknowledges the importance of all species as well as the interconnectivity between all living things. Systems are designed to have minimal adverse impact- or even a positive gain- and operate so that all living forms in the city are given an opportunity to thrive.

At this stage of my study, my understanding of the “Ecological City” is still very theoretical. My definition, still, is evolving. Deep Ecological Urbanism is a design where humans recognize the non-human world of our environment. Values must come into play; however, they are not to be perceived based on the usefulness for human purposes. Rather, a biocentric belief holds that all creatures have rights and values; it is also the center of much environmental-ethical debate: is value inherent in all things? I certainly think so. Deep Ecological Urbanism recognizes the importance of biodiversity, and thus, development should not limit another organism’s ability to flourish. Informed by the principles and successes of Public Health Reform, the Urban Parks Movement, Garden Cities, and City Beautiful among many other tenets and movements, Deep Ecological Urbanism reintroduces nature into our cities. I’m eager to see how this definition will evolve more!

*I don’t want to go into detail on this topic right now, but for a more clearly articulated expression of this idea, I strongly recommend Neil Smith’s short essay, There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.