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  • Forget the Damned Motor Car

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    December 21, 2014

    Eric Sanderson

    Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.
    Lewis Mumford, My Works and Days (1979)

    Humanity managed for the better part of 400,000 years without cars and did just fine. Julius Caesar, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and Abraham Lincoln lived in cities and never drove an automobile. They didn’t need one, or thought to need one. And you wouldn’t need one either if we could arrange our lives such that you can get where you need to go without a car.

    terra nova cover with boxWhat does this have to do with the nature of cities? Cars are Enemy #1 for the nature of cities. Not only do gas-propelled vehicles pollute the environment and contribute to climate change, the roads they require take up space, robbing room from us and from nature at large.

    Standing on a sidewalk, a person occupies about four square feet (0.4m2) of land; most cars take up 80 square feet (7.4m2), twenty times more, and that’s before they start moving. In the United States suburban zoning regulations commonly require three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet (92.9m2) of office space.

    Because a standard parking space measures 330 square feet (31m2), this regulation means that a one-story building requires as much asphalt as floor space; a three story building requires paving the soil at a rate of three times the footprint of the office itself!

    So, as a result of car dependence, most cities blithely commit 30% percent or more of their valuable urban space not to people or nature, but to cars, counted in millions of square feet (or meters) of streets, parking spaces, garages, and parking lots.

    Think how absurd it is that skyscrapers, a thousand feet high, can be … Continue Reading

  • Magical Thinking in the Age of Green

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    December 17, 2014

    Stephanie Pincetl

    We are not in the Age of Aquarius that had brought—to some of us—radical hope about societal change and a turn toward ecology, steady state growth, and different GDP metrics, including happiness. The age was about love, unity, integrity, sympathy, harmony, understanding and trust. The Age of Aquarius was about doing things differently, building the ‘share economy’, where cooperation and frugality were goals that would reduce our heavy human footprint on the planet. Community gardens, composting toilets, making clothes, raising chickens and making preserves, riding bikes and walking, job sharing and creating worker owned cooperatives that shared profit equitably was the stuff of change.

    Today we are in the Age of Green. Green cities, green businesses, urban greening, green buildings, green energy, green cars, making green money from green. The Age of Green is deeply different than the Age of Aquarius as there is an assumption that a transition toward a sustainable “green” society is possible with continued economic growth by using better technologies, enlisting nature’s services, and employing market incentives—that is, without changes in consumption patterns. Stormwater runoff a problem? Simply build infiltration trenches. Air pollution a problem? Plant more trees, add a green roof. Carbon emissions a problem? Just buy green products. Create a market for the emissions and use the profits to invest in forests and wind energy. With the proper quantification of nature’s intrinsic processes and recognition of them, we can unproblematically mitigate human impacts on those very processes. No longer do we need to address the difficult questions about the concentration of wealth and concomitant resource use, or fundamental institutional changes to create more level playing fields among nations and their peoples.

    This magical thinking is an interesting turn of events. As Norgaard points out (2010), it blinds us to the complexity of ecosystems, the … Continue Reading

  • Celebrating the Wilderness Act of 1964—and Celebrating Wildness in Cities

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    December 14, 2014

    Tim Beatley

    September 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing into United States law of the Wilderness Act. A watershed act and a cornerstone of contemporary environmentalism, it  put into place new and important safeguards on the protection and development of some of the nation’s most impressive wild areas.

    As we celebrate the accomplishments of this act and the incredible wild and wondrous places it protects, it is timely perhaps to re-consider the concepts of wilderness and nature in our lives, and to consider they ways they will necessarily need to evolve and change in an increasingly urbanized planet.

    The Wilderness Act of 1964 contained an essential and oft-repeated definition of wilderness: lands that are “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”, and an area “retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation”. The Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), and now protects more than 9 million acres, placing important restrictions on road building and development in these areas, and ensuring the preservation of their wilderness qualities and habitat values.

    The Act was a remarkable accomplishment, and a ringing endorsement of the value of wild places and the quiet solitude of nature in a modern world. But the Act has also had the unintended consequence of helping to solidify the particular notion that genuine or “authentic” nature is remote, pristine, necessarily large in size, and for the most part absent human beings.

    Re-thinking urban wildness 

    Perhaps on this important anniversary it is time to broaden our view of wilderness, not to deny the value of experiencing remote quietude, but to acknowledge the equally valid experiences of wild nature in and around cities, where most people live.

    Much has changed, of course, since 1964 and our knowledge of the history of land … Continue Reading

  • Community Participation in Parks Development: Two Examples from Berlin

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    December 10, 2014

    Katharine Burgess

    On a Friday night at the end of November 2014, nearly 200 people arrived in the departures zone of Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport for five hours of presentations, working groups and community-led exhibitions. A projection screen stood on the baggage carousel, and former glass-walled airport offices held bulletin boards and tables of sticky notes for brainstorming sessions. Exhibition boards in the front half of the hall featured topics ranging from community gardening to unicycling and performance art. The occasion? A consultation on the management strategy for Tempelhof Park, Berlin’s former inner-city airport, once the site of the Berlin Airlift and now preserved for green and community uses. A prominent theme in discussions was the ecology on site, particularly the “pioneer programs” for urban agriculture.

    While arguably the most talked-about new park in Berlin in recent years, Tempelhof is by no means the only green space in the city that has received this type of attention recently. Berliners are passionate about their neighborhoods (or in local terms, Kieze) and the city is known throughout Europe for its green spaces—whether parks, protected woodland or “leftover spaces” found along historic stretches of the Berlin Wall. 338 Natural Protection Areas and 112 Landscape Protection Areas fall within the city’s boundaries, and about 45% of the city is occupied by green space or water, including 20% protected woodland. Berlin’s parks often feature a mix of these types of spaces, and as a result have led to a rich tradition of the study of urban ecology.

    These green spaces serve an important role in local communities, providing recreation space and breathing room, particularly in central districts where the majority of homes are rented apartments. As a result, community activism has a strong tie to local green spaces. Berlin’s planning processes also have an … Continue Reading

  • If We Plant the Plants Will the Insects Follow?

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    December 7, 2014

    Denise Ford

    Remnants of indigenous vegetation in urban and rural areas often are the only remaining examples of ecosystems that were once more extensive before human settlement. They are therefore vital for preserving and promoting biodiversity. Remnant vegetation also serves as a refuge for indigenous plants, fungi and animals that would not otherwise be found in an urban environment. A major influence on the flora and fauna of natural remnants is the type of surrounding habitat (for example, Doody et al. 2010). In cities, the surrounding matrix is often residential houses and their gardens. These gardens can provide food, shelter and connectivity between green spaces making them an important habitat for some wildlife, including invertebrates. Terrestrial invertebrates are a major component of biodiversity in all ecosystems including urban environments. They are logical choice for studying the effects of urbanisation; they are diverse, have short generation times, are fairly easy to sample, represent a spectrum of trophic levels and are important components of human altered landscapes. They fulfill many important and roles such as decomposers and pollinators therefore are an ideal subject for monitoring biodiversity in urban ecosystems.

    And here we begin today’s story……

    Christchurch City, New Zealand is an ideal urban environment to explore questions about invertebrates in indigenous remnants, private gardens and also restored native vegetation. And the dispersal or otherwise of invertebrates between different vegetation types. There is a large (c. 8 ha, Riccarton Bush) indigenous forest remnant in the city, thousands of private gardens and also quite a number of areas of native woody vegetation that have been planted over the last 20 years. And, as luck would have it, a scientist (Richard Toft) investigated the invertebrate communities of all 3 vegetation types in 2003. He sampled beetles (Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera) and fungus gnats (Diptera). So that … Continue Reading

  • Invisible City Life: The Urban Microbiome

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    December 3, 2014

    Marina Alberti

    Microbes play a key role in the function of ecosystems. They contribute to biodiversity (Fierer et al. 2012), nutrient cycling (Fenchel et al. 2012), pollutant detoxification (Kolvenbach et al. 2014), and human health (Gevers et al. 2012). Since they control the composition of the gases in the atmosphere, they also play an important role in climate change (Bardgett et al. 2008). In urban ecosystems, microbes account for most of the biodiversity and are major agents in nature’s material cycles and food webs (King 2014). Thus the sustainability of cities over the long term is inextricably linked to microbes and their evolution.

    But how does urbanization affect the microbiome? Are urban microbes resilient in the face of rapid environmental changes? This is mostly unknown.

    The tiniest urban dwellers can change the planet

    Microbes might be the tiniest of urban dwellers, but they are powerful. While known primarily as pathogens and potential threats to human health, microbes play a key role in maintaining major ecological functions that directly support humans and city life. Microbes include bacteria, viruses, archaea, and single-celled eukaryotes such as amoebas, slime molds, and paramecia. Since microbes are invisible to humans, we tend to underestimate their importance in maintaining ecological and human wellbeing.

    Microbes play a significant role in the evolution of planet Earth. They have been living on the planet for 3.8 billion years: 2.3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria triggered the Great Oxidation Event, the most significant extinction event in Earth’s history, by producing the oxygen that enabled the evolution of multicellular forms. The extraordinary capacity  of microbes to adapt to novel environments makes them particularly interesting to scientists trying to understand evolution on an urbanizing planet. They are tiny and ubiquitous and exhibit vast genetic and metabolic variability as well as … Continue Reading