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

Originally seen on Planetizen.com, 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: http://www.planetizen.com/node/87396?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-07212016

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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!

Assistance requested for professional project:

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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)
BUT….

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…)

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.

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.

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!