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  • TNOC Encore: Vacant Land in Cities Could Provide Important Social and Ecological Benefits

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    July 28, 2014

    Timon McPhearson

    (This encore publication originally appeared at TNOC on 21 August 2012.)

    Walk through any major city and you’ll see vacant land. These are the weed lots, garbage strewn undeveloped spaces, and high crime areas that most urban residents consider blights on the neighborhood. In some cases, neighbors have organized to transform these spaces into community amenities such as shared garden spaces, but all too often these lots persist as unrecognized opportunities for urban improvement. In densely populated cities with sometimes few opportunities for new park or green space development, small vacant lots could provide green relief, especially in low-income areas with reduced access to urban parkland.

    And yet, few cities are taking advantage of these underutilized spaces to improve urban biodiversity and provide additional ecosystem services. What’s even more surprising is the vast amount of urban land that is categorized as vacant. Take New York City for example: in this urban metropolis there are 29,782 parcels designated by the city tax code as vacant within the city boundaries, not counting vacant land in the surrounding suburbs and exurbs. This totals more than 7,300 acres of land that could be providing important social and ecological benefits for urban residents.

    Here is what we know:  Local and regional urban ecosystems provide important services that urban residents rely on for daily living. For example, ecosystems can supply clean water, produce food, absorb air pollution, mitigate urban heat, provide opportunity for recreation, decrease crime, and more. A recent publication from TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) details the list of ecosystem services that can be provided by urban ecosystems.

    And yet, all cities do not have the same level of food production, clean water supply, or air pollution removal. Different levels of ecosystem services among cities are due to a myriad of reasons. However, research … Continue Reading

  • Ecological Landscape Design for Urban Biodiversity, Ecological Education and Nature Restoration in Kyushu, Japan

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    July 24, 2014

    Keitaro Ito

    We have been designing school gardens, river banks, urban forests and city parks over the last 12 years. I’ve written about school garden and city park design project in former articles. The aim of these projects are to create areas for children’s play, ecological education, and biodiversity preservation that can simultaneously form part of an ecological network in an urban area. In this blog, a nature restoration project at a riverbank has been planned in the northern part of Kyushu, Japan. The ministry of Ministry on Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism asked us (Keitaro ITO Lab., Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan) to design a new fishway and river mouth surrounding area as an ecology park. In this blog, I would like to focus on river landscape design process and nature restoration and discuss urban ecology.

    The Planning and design site

    The River Onga in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan, has a total length of 61 km and a catchment area of 1,026 km2. The urbanised areas have dramatically expanded at the surrounding area of the river. The population at the surrounding area of the river is around 670,000 people, and the population density is around 650 per square km. The surrounding area of the river is composed of mountains (80%), agriculture area (14%) and residential area (6%). The river has contributed to local society, economics and culture over the centuries, thus there have been many linkages between local people’s life and the river.

    Planning and Design process

    We conducted our basic design process during October 2008 through March. As in our previous projects in school gardens and city park, we used “process planning”. The fundamental principles of our landscape design are as follows: (1) using local materials; (2) avoiding artificial shapes; (3) creating play spaces for children; and (4) enhancing native biodiversity. According to … Continue Reading

  • Is There Any Type of Urban Greenspace that Addresses the Urban-Rural Continuum? Urban Agriculture

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    July 20, 2014

    Francois Mancebo

    In my last post, I wrote that efficient urban sustainability policy should be inclusive, in the sense that it should address sustainability in an area large enough to encompass urban centers, but suburban, periurban and dependent rural, or natural places. I called for planners to abandon the “false dichotomy between urban and rural areas,” and replace it by a rural-urban continuum.

    Among the comments received, there was this one from Darien Simon. She mentioned that sooner or later there will be—there already is—an intense competition between land required for non-residential uses, and cities growth. And she wrote: “The limit will be reached in the finite system unless one or more of the system conditions themselves are somehow transformed…Perhaps our best approach is to focus first on trying to learn from previous incidents, and then apply those lessons with due caution and precaution as we move toward greater sustainability across the entire urban-rural, human-environment system.”  Well, it sure makes a lot of sense, but how to do that concretely?

    I started thinking: is there already some type of urban arrangement addressing the urban-rural continuum—it does not necessarily result from “incidents”—that, if generalized, would deeply transform urban systems conditions while contributing to a more sustainable future? Yes, there is one, and its name is urban agriculture. Urban agriculture defines a spatial pattern that goes far beyond the urban-rural continuum. It postulates that some type of agriculture can flourish within the city, in addition to the existence of an urban-rural gradient of the whole urban area. It considers that urban multifunctionality should also include farming.

    But well, as usual, things are not that simple in the wonderful world of sustainability planning. Urban agriculture is both an oxymoronic and elusive term. What do we call urban agriculture? … Continue Reading

  • Tehran, the City of River Valleys, Needs a Landscape Ecological  Approach to the Design and Planning of Its Waterways

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    July 16, 2014

    Kaveh Samiei

    “A goal of landscape ecological urbanism might be to design and plan cities to increase, rather than to decrease, ecosystem services. This suggests exciting new areas of research in landscape and urban planning, from ways to measure landscape.”
    —Frederick Steiner, Landscape ecological urbanism: Origins and trajectories. (Steiner, 2011)

    Cities should be an extension of our natural environment. But nature has rules by which it operates, and these must be built into urban designs that mesh the organic and inorganic parts of the city (Samiei, 2013).

    During recent years, the municipality of Tehran began to work on rehabilitation of river valleys. Three projects now are completed or near completion. This great movement can improve and develop the quality and quantity of Tehran environment, which is in a dangerous and catastrophic condition — but only if planners, designers and other decision makers pay attention to all aspects of rehabilitation, especially ecological and environmental principles like connectivity, coherent hydrology, compatible plantation, controlled interfering, considering buffer zones and so on. The river valleys often are a neglected part of Tehran’s urban landscape and most of them have tragic stories and inelegant features. Planning for their conservation and restoration should start for the remaining and unprotected rivers quickly because Tehran is the city of river valleys!

    Tehran takes advantage of having this potential,but the approach and the circumstances and specific plans for carrying out rehabilitation projects are critical. Bringing the dream of a significant urban project into being needs the consideration all aspects of multipurpose and multilayered planning.

    River valleys as ecological elements have always had key roles in creating mutual relations between man-made city spaces and nature. River valleys play important roles in the provision of fresh water resources, natural green and blue corridors for climate moderation, green open spaces, biodiversity, parks, recreational areas, as well as places … Continue Reading

  • The Puzzle of Delhi’s Air Pollution

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    July 6, 2014

    Radhika Khosla

    The recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report on Ambient Air Pollution for 2014 showcases a variety of alarming results: across 1600 cities from 91 countries, and covering the period from 2008 to 2013, the cities with the lowest levels of urban air quality in the world lie in India. Delhi ranks as the worst globally for the highest measurement of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5 (smaller than 2.5 microns) of 153 micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air. For particulate matter with less than a 10 micron-meter aerodynamic diameter, PM 10, the cities of Gwalior, Raipur and Delhi rank amongst the highest in the world.

    These are startling results, which corroborate the anecdotal evidence that populace in Delhi are beginning to experience through the deteriorating respiratory health especially of babies and infants. There have been a range of official reactions to this statistic, including suggestions that pollution levels are being overestimated. Irrespective, the fact that air pollution in Delhi is a growing and serious problem is unambiguously understood and acknowledged by a range of experts. The graphic below shows that Delhi’s air quality is now even worse than Beijing’s, a city which has battled with high pollution levels in the last decade. It is imperative that we unveil the reasons and analysis behind Delhi’s pollution puzzle — an issue that is slowly gaining relevance amongst the government and civil society.

    India’s Central Pollution Control Board categorises respirable particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen, ozone, sulphur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, benzene and ammonia as pollutants, with national threshold values set for each. Data is currently collected at stations across Delhi by multiple agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. A first … Continue Reading

  • What Do People See in the Landscape? The Metamorphosis of Ecosystem Services After Disaster

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    June 25, 2014

    Paula Villagra

    My interest in learning about the services that natural areas provide to the community begun after the earthquake that hit south-central Chile on February 27, 2010. Though no major infrastructure damage occurred, the earthquake, tsunami and countless aftershocks caused great fear in the population, who were in particular insecure to return to their homes. For this reason, the community gathered in the open space, including natural areas. As it has been recorded in other parts of the world (Link 1; Link 2; Link 3), the open space was mostly used for camping, refuge and as escape routes, while natural areas, both inside and outside the city limits, became a source of provisioning services such as water and firewood (for heating), and cultural services, for gathering, camping and the provision of urban supplies.

    The various studies we have undertaken since 2010 have made us realize that the services provided by natural areas in particular, or ecosystem services, are context specific and are conditional to what people see in the landscape. Ecosystem services vary on one hand, on the physical attributes of natural systems, meaning their elements and organization, which in turn, affect their provisioning capacity, their appearance and the way people perceived them. On the other hand, ecosystem services vary with the socio-cultural aspects of a community, which influence the possibilities of people to value natural areas as useful for their specific needs at specific times. Our studies also support the idea that people’s perception of nature and their capacity to perceive potential uses after disaster depends on their knowledge and familiarity with the landscape. For instance, ecological knowledge can help to differentiate between water bodies useful for drinking, among others which are useful for washing only. Similarly, a high familiarity with the landscape … Continue Reading