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

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!

Baltimore Riots … Blame the Urban Planner?

Blame the Urban Planner

With my City in turmoil, I’ve been asking myself about the role of society, citizens, and my profession in contributing to, and then resolving, conflicts like this.

As a practicing Urban Planner who is relatively “fresh” out of grad school (one year, now), I have found myself wondering these past weeks (well, to be honest, my whole life, but especially in these last few weeks) what society must do to remedy tragic and unequal conditions in urban neighborhoods. As a minority majority member in a City whose population is 63% African American/Black, it becomes an issue about race whether you want it to or not (I know, we thought racial inequality ended decades ago…well it very certainly did not).

Being connected to many white people through facebook, posts this past week have created deep chasms between polar opposite viewpoints.

This presentation, which I gave yesterday morning to the Planning and Urban Design team at my office, talks about how structural racism has contributed to a cyclical and viscous inequality among Baltimore’s residents.

Despite its name, the presentation is not so much an attack on Urban Planners, but a criticism of society and urban policy as contributors to urban inequality and the resulting violence. However, the presentation is intended to be a call for action for urban planners and designers, and citizens alike.

Megan_May2015_TeamResearch_lores links

Why the Lack of Writing?

Well, I’ve been busy!

I started a new job in June at a Landscape Architecture firm that’s had my interest since my undergraduate studies; then, just two months later, my husband and I purchased our first home! Proud to say that I am FINALLY a Baltimore city-dweller (and my twitter handle—@theurbangranola—is now validated by my truly urban lifestyle :)).

Between those two major life events, I haven’t had much time for anything else!

I suspect I’ll have time once again soon, but I’m also preparing to take the AICP exam (the professional certification test for urban and regional planners) in May 2015. Thus, I’ll surely be spending a good deal of time studying. But maybe there’s a way to make my studying a writing component?

Stay tuned!

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…)

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.

“Man the Conqueror” or “Man the Biotic Citizen”

Unit 2, which I began in week 2 and which will continue into week 3, was titled Deep Ecology. Now, a good bit of discussion on the concept of Deep Ecology was reviewed in unit one, but I have indeed begun to get a bit more involved with the morality of the subject. While this unit is not yet complete, I’ll review some of the readings I’ve investigated thus far.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

From Commons to Commons | Platt, Rutherford H. From Commons to Commons: Evolving concepts of open space in North American cities. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.21). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

This reading was from a book I can’t wait to read fully. It was interesting, providing a very thorough review of planning movements (in very few pages) which have impacted urban open space, particularly in North America. It moves from the idea of the “commons,” resources or land held in common by all of a society, all the way to a very intriguing idea of residual natural patches, and every concept in between – offering a criticism of the successes and failures of each. Platt notes key figures and dates, making this a great source for planning history investigations (I’ve pulled this information and am in the process of constructing a timeline of paramount events influencing the field of ecological sustainability). He also goes into the idea of value, how society views nature, much in the same way that many of the readings before this have. Often, as Platt notes, nature is seen as a resource to be drawn upon; only occasionally cherished as something sacred but, even still, those feelings are always extremely localized or concentrated, based mostly on personal ties or emotions (think of how the “cute” endangered animals always get the most attention). What I liked most about Platt’s piece was the concept of residual spaces. Explored in more detail by the environmental author David Nicholson-Lord, this concept suggests that the unused urban spaces offer many ecological surprises. And while such spaces certainly aren’t the answer to our urban-ecological problems, they not only continue to produce their eco-benefits, but they are a reminder to urbanites of the larger whole of which the city belongs. Though it wasn’t described by Platt, I was constantly thinking of the resilience of nature here, considering the perseverance a nature to grow wild again in places where humans either forget or dare not venture. From a study I conducted along Baltimore City’s Howard Street, I have become quite familiar with this omnipresent wildness lingering in the cracks and corners, and I am very much in love with this concept! Thankfully, I was to read more of it…

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issue | Hough, Michael. Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issues. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.40). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

I went on to read the next chapter, titled Design with City Nature: An overview of some issues, of this same book. If you’ll recall, I read some of Michael Hough’s writings last week from his book, City Form and Natural Process. Alas, he segment included in this book was a bit of a recap, but did indeed cover some more ground than I had already read. It was a great review of Hough’s key ideas, and like the Platt reading before it, this segment also mentioned the forgotten, “waste” spaces of the city.  Unlike Platt, however, Hough’s reading went into more depth, suggesting the resilience and regeneration of urban landscapes within these spaces. Going back to the recurrent discussion of how society views nature, Hough sites our failure to recognize the ecological value of such spaces as a fundamental hindrance to ecological progress. Furthermore, with the ever more universal schema of open space within cities, our sense of identity is fading without our native/natural context. On this topic, Hough actually mentioned Tucson, AZ and their story about renouncing the short grass lawn bandwagon they previously jumped on. Hough commends the city for its shift after recognizing this universal ideal landscape as a contributing factor of water scarcity. Since the transition back towards native plants, there has been a renewed sense of belonging to the land. That phrasing really got to me: rather than the land belonging to the people, the people are now seen as belonging to the land…how amazing is that!? However, though stories like Tucson’s are encouraging they only prove, as Hough explains, that our society will not, or cannot, adopt rational environmental practices until they are absolutely necessary for our own survival. Arguing that the very same technological advances which have made our lives more comfortable (sanitary and storm water management, for example) are also degrading our environment (I agree), Hough ends with a few sections describing alternatives to our conventional design; suggesting there are better ways to organize our food, park, resource, and development systems.

The Land Ethic | Leopold, Aldo. (1948). The Land Ethic. In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

To end my reviews for this post, I turn to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. If you’ll recall, I jumped into this anthology, Environmental Ethics, last week when I read Clare Palmer’s “What is Environmental Ethics?” In that introductory chapter, Palmer mentioned Leopold’s Land Ethic. This week, I re-read Leopold’s piece, which I read about 5 or 6 years ago. Leopold’s piece was the first reading of this study which really pushed for, and emphasized, the moral need for an environmental ethic. While I’ve read of this need for environmental ethics already, and the various sects of such, no author has yet spoken of the moral significance so profoundly as Leopold. Having read this before, I think I was more receptive this time around. Leopold begins by reviewing the evolution of ethics: from the individual/individual relationship, on to the individual/society relationship, and the final individual/land relationship. Defining such relationships is integral to the concept of ethics, which Leopold explains “rests on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (p.39). Whereas our instincts push us to compete with these parts, it is our ethic which encourages us to cooperate (as Leopold says, perhaps this cooperation ensures the competition will continue). A land ethic, as Leopold defines it, is an “ethic dealing with human’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Land, as Leopold emphasizes, is not just soil but the entire biotic community. This community, however, has conventionally been a slave and servant to society, who plays the role of the conqueror. Alas, we should have learned by now, as Leopold hopes, that the conqueror role is self-defeating.

Leopold goes on to criticize the trends of conservationism. Based wholly on economic value, the conservationist system does not address the unrecognized economic value of the land. The word unrecognized was used here because the profitability of something is sometimes only realized once it is gone (to clarify, everything is profitable, but we don’t always see that on the surface). Leopold also strongly believes than an organism has a biotic right to survival, regardless of its perceived lack of economic advantage to us. Furthermore, Leopold notes how conservation measures are usually relegated to the government, which often lacks the resources necessary to adequately conserve the land. To sum up his ideas here, I’d like to share the following quote:

“Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use.”

This matter of economic value is intriguing because, as we are coming to realize, all organisms play some essential role in the ecosystem, However, until we see how each role can impact us as humans, we’re quick to let one “un-economic part” disappear as if the “economic parts” will function just as well (p. 42). This inter-connectivity leads to Leopold’s discussion of the Land Pyramid. As we still barely understand the natural mechanisms which operate to maintain the land, Leopold discredits the common phrase, “the balance of nature.” Instead of this idea of a balance, he opts for the biotic pyramid, representing the hierarchy (for lack of a better term) of all living units and the food chains that link them together. As a vegan, I’m not entirely sure where I fit in! Connecting the flow of energy between these links is an open-circuit. However, as humans have moved about and disrupted the native systems of the land, these circuits are no longer localized or self-contained. And so, Leopold asks, is the land able to adjust itself to this new order> Here, we have the issue of resiliency once more. Leopold suggests the land’s ability to regenerate depends on local biota, and while some regions have already shown their robust flexibility, other have been more disorganized.

Leopold ends with his very more idea of the land ethic, saying that such an ethic requires an ecological conscience, which requires a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Since this piece was published, more and more individuals have adopted this sense of stewardship – or so I believe. Rather than be “man the conqueror” we can be “man the biotic citizen.”

Conclusion

If I may be a bit open about my personal life, I’d like to express some thoughts which came to mind during Leopold’s reading. I relate most to the idea of a “whole,” as well as to Leopold’s almost spiritual appreciation of the land. A few years ago, disappointed with modern organized religion, I decided to investigate some of the older or more natural religions. I became fascinated mostly with pagan regions honoring and respecting the earth. Many of the earth-based religions which I studied view our spirits as being a part of a larger whole. It is in this idea that I truly feel connected to Leopold’s ethic, and it is the same fundamental idea which has encouraged me to approach my own health, and that of our cities, in a holistic manner. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Really, though, Leopold, as well as a few other authors which I’ve read thus far, have been preaching to the choir. I’m a vegan for the very reason that I think all organisms are entitled a right to survive; I don’t kill an animal for food because I don’t see them as resources solely for my benefit. And this same outlook is what has led me to become a steward of the planet, an environmentalist.

While these ideals are already underlying within me, I still am not sure how to apply them to my work as an urban planner/designer. Hopefully, the coming units will help the solution to evolve.