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:

Baltimore Ecosystem Study Long-Term Ecological Research (BESLTER) Annual Meeting and Fun events!

Dearest readers, please mark your calendars for this very cool event in Baltimore this month. The BESLTER is having a number of opportunities to engage folks interested in sustainability in the city during their 2014 annual meeting—including a Science for a Sustainable City session on the 21st (see this flyer: BES Sustainable City Flyer 10-21-14), and a open house on the 22nd.

Being held at the Vollmer Center at Cylburn Arboretum, 4915 Greenspring Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21209.

Hope to see you there!



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!


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:

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.

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!