In It Together

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
See the full list of Essays
Introduction, Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen and David Maddox Tearing down Invisible Walls Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White, Toni L. Griffin In It Together, Lesley Lokko Cape Town Pride. Cape Town Shame, Carla Sutherland Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives, Darnell Moore Ceci n'est pas une pipe: Unpacking Injustice in Paris, François Mancebo Reinvigorating Democracy Right to the City for All: A Manifesto for Social Justice in an Urban Century, Lorena Zárate How to Build a New Civic Infrastructure, Ben Hecht Turning to the Flip Side, Maruxa Cardama A Just City is Inconceivable without a Just Society, Marcelo Lopes de Souza Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman Designing for Agency Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination, Mahim Maher Up from the Basement: The Artist and the Making of the Just City, Theaster Gates Justice that Serves People, Not Institutions, Mirna D. Goransky Resistance, Education and the Collective Will, Jack Travis Inclusive Growth The Case for All-In Cities, Angela Glover Blackwell A Democratic Infrastructure for Johannesburg, Benjamin Bradlow Creating Universal Goals for Universal Growth, Betsy Hodges The Long Ride, Scot T. Spencer Turning Migrant Workers into Citizens in Urbanizing China, Pengfei XIE The Big Detox  A City that is Blue, Green and Just All Over, Cecilia P. Herzog An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay, Mindy Thompson Fullilove Justice from the Ground Up, Julie Bargmann Elevating Planning and Design Why Design Matters, Jason Schupbach Claiming Participation in Urban Planning and Design as a Right, P.K. Das Home Grown Justice in a Legacy City, Karen Freeman-Wilson Epilogue: Cities in Imagination, David Maddox

20. lokko

“[A city where] everything comes together . . . subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the trans-disciplinary, everyday life and unending history. —Edward Soja [1]

No other city that I know of piques the imagination quite like The African City, wherever in Africa that is. I live in Johannesburg; I grew up in Accra: two African cities that have as little—or as much—in common as Chicago or Shanghai, but whose broad geography binds them together in ways that are both entirely fictitious and entirely real. By their very nature, cities are both generic and astoundingly, endlessly specific.

An inclusive urbanism relies heavily on notions of shared values and a shared understanding of the public realm.
The same broad categories of infrastructure, environment, equality and access to amenities apply to all urban centres, almost irrespective of scale. Yet there’s something in—or of/about—The African City that defies easy categorisation. African cities, to paraphrase Soja above, are places where “everything comes together,” in an almost dizzying panoply of contradictory binaries. Black/white; rich/poor; chaotic/controlled; hi-tech/lo-tech, as though there is no space or appetite for the nuance, the in-between, or the subtleties that make up any urban narrative in which most citizens somehow locate, negotiate and recognise themselves.

When the invitation to contribute to The Just City essays project arrived in my email inbox, I was struck by its timing. It’s probably just over ten years ago that I met Max Bond in Accra, sadly for the last time, as it turned out. He was visiting the Ghanaian architect Joe Osae-Addo, and the three of us had dinner at the Golden Tulip Hotel on Independence Avenue whilst waiting for Accra’s terrible, gridlocked traffic to die down. I no longer recall our exact conversation, just its aura. Africa, the African diaspora, race, identity, architecture…the state (and not just in a physical sense) of African cities. What could African-American architects and urban designers bring to the table? What had Americans learned about race, class and culture that might prove useful to a new generation of African architects, planners, city-makers? Bond was better placed than most to answer the question: Ghana had been his home in the 1960s, in the first heady decade after independence. He’d seen more of the country than many Ghanaians, myself included, and his views were wide-ranging and broadly cosmopolitan, yet at the same time deeply personal and intuitive. We were joined a little later by another African-American architect, Jack Travis, also a close friend of Bond’s. Four architects, two continents, one and a half generations between us and many, many questions, though perhaps fewer answers.

Today, I’m sitting at my desk in Johannesburg with half an eye on the American sociologist Richard Sennett’s recent book, “Together,” a fascinating examination of the cooperative skills people need to sustain everyday life, and half an eye on the television. BBC World News has been screening a series on American cities post-Ferguson, “Summer in the City.” There’s a sense of déjà-vu: race, class, culture and the city. Plus ça change. But the blurb on the back of Sennett’s book suddenly jumps out at me. “Living with people who differ—racially, ethnically, religiously or economically—is one of the most urgent challenges facing civil society today.”[2] Both the book and the television screen provide a surprisingly neat framework for this essay, In It Together, given that so many other things have coalesced around its writing.

I teach architecture, the science of space, one might call it. More than any other discipline (and perhaps contradictory to its finished product), architecture is fluid, concerned with an endless series of translations—from idea to drawing; drawing to building; building to city; city to society; and so on. Every single one of my students at the University of Johannesburg is multilingual, sometimes in as many as four languages. It seems to me that there’s an interesting parallel between these students for whom the fluidity of daily life, moving between languages and locales, sometimes even whole worlds, mirrors the essential nature not only of their practices (as budding architects), but the daily reality of the multiple worlds they inhabit, contained uneasily within the city, in the same space and time.

For African city-dwellers—cityzens, we might call ourselves—there’s an added dimension to what it means to live in Kumasi, Kigali or Kinshasa, and it has to do with speed: of change, of movement, quite literally: from the slow-death speed of traffic to the speed of information flows, capital and stock…mineral or human, in itself a cruel comparison. For quite some time now, African cities seem perpetually to be described ‘in transition’, though it’s not always entirely clear where we’ve come from or where we’re heading. In Yorgos Simeoforidis’ 1997 essay, ‘Notes for a Cultural History Between Uncertainty and the Contemporary Urban Condition,’[3] he describes ‘the anxiety of the present,’ a new landscape of urban and architectural discourse that has sprung up in ‘an attempt to grasp a perpetually shifting reality, to describe and interpret contemporary urban phenomena.’ For anyone who has spent time in any of the continent’s cities, the terms ‘anxiety,’ ‘shifting’ and ‘uncertainty’ seem to accurately sum up their edgy, urban zeitgeist. African cities are, quite literally, hard to grasp. In the same essay, Simeoforidis makes another interesting observation that finds resonance today: “the anxious desire to understand the present shows through the most official manifestations on architectural culture, Cities and the urban condition now constitute the privileged theme of international exhibitions.[4]

Simeoforidis’ essay was penned almost twenty years ago. Between 2013 and 2016, no less than eight major global exhibitions have featured the ‘African City’ as a major theme, most taking place in locations as diverse (and un-African) as Denmark, Chicago, New York and Munich, to name a few. In each, the notion of ‘justice’, although usually writ large, is often a subliminal, only partially articulated desire: beneath the statistics (woeful); the chaos (bewildering); the infrastructural under-development (paralysing) or the resilience-in-the-face-of-it (heartwarming) that the inhabitants invariably display, there is a genuine desire to create a more just, equitable, inclusive, resilient city, mirroring the larger-scale society in which such a city might stand. But it’s a complex, difficult and at times seemingly impossible task. The “The Sound of Music” suddenly springs to mind: “how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”[4]

Contemporary architectural and urban discourses over the past decade have been profoundly influenced by events that introduce a new level of questioning. The terminology now centres around a new spatiocultural politics [of] ‘rights to the city,’ civil rights’ and ‘spatial justice,’ which theorists (like Edward Soja, quoted at the top here) believe will ultimately transform architecture and urbanism.

So what exactly is a ‘just’ city? Is it the same as a ‘city of justice’? How would we recognise and assess it? How might one go about creating it and are there rules governing its framework? The American urban theorist and architect Michael Stanton writes of the way “a city divides into forms and attitudes . . . into grand narratives and great collective generalisations. Cities are collaborative works . . . conceived passionately, formed imperfectly, understood and misread by a continually transforming and distracted collective.” If cities really are “collaborative works,” places where people of differing racial, linguistic, religious and economic backgrounds and persuasions come together to enact some form of public (and private) life, then it stands to reason that one place where we might begin the difficult task of building a ‘just’ city is with our definitions of ‘collaborative’, of ‘cooperation’ and ‘collective.’

In It Together[Image 02][Lokko]If I said earlier that no city piques the imagination quite like the African city, then I should also add that no city destabilises the idea of the ‘collective’ quite like Johannesburg. It is at once a city of anti-collectives and hyper-collectives; endless satellites of tightly-knit, tightly-policed enclaves that sit uneasily together, bound by a network of freeways, roads, taxi-routes and railway lines. For the most part, the enclaves remain intact, policed along class- rather than race-lines, although there are three or four pockets of genuinely mixed occupation (and here I invoke race not class) that have sprung up in the past decade. Within these enclaves, an exaggerated sense of community persists; an ‘us vs. them’ attitude where the terms are interchangeable—one man’s ‘us’ is another’s ‘them’, and so on. As a Jo’burger, the temptation to wallow in the city’s dystopian self-image is all too tempting. Disconnected, segregated, dysfunctional, dangerous . . . these are readily accessible, perniciously familiar tropes. Yet, thumbing through Sennett, it’s comforting (if that’s the right word) to recognise another truth: it was ever thus.

The French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, whose work has influenced architects and urbanists for half a century, famously offered three definitions of spatial practice — space as it is perceived, represented and lived. These differences find easy resonance across this continent. Most African cities are perceived (by outsiders, at least) to be chaotic and maddeningly unpredictable. They are often represented as such, from Neill Blomkamp’s dystopic District 9 and Chappie to Mad Max 4: The Road to Fury, shot on location in Namibia. However, there’s another side to the question of perception and representation, where the lived experience makes it past the outsider’s disapproving gaze and bursts onto the screen. Nollywood, the $US 5billion industry that originated in the 1960s in Nigeria, is the second-largest film industry in the world, behind the United States and ahead of India. With thousands of films released every year, a quick Google search reveals an interesting glimpse into the way the city, in the African imaginary, is portrayed. Burning City, Who Owns the City?, King of the City, City of War, City of Sin, City of Dragons. Without pressing play, a paradigm emerges of the city as a contested space, at once feared and admired. “An African City”, the new, much-hyped web series conceived, created and directed by a young Ghanaian, Nicole Amarteifio, is billed as “Africa’s ‘answer’ to Sex & the City.” Executive Producer Millie Monyo embraces the connection to Carrie Bradshaw. “It was absolutely an inspiration, and we welcome the comparison. Why can’t we have [that] on our continent?”

But have what, exactly?

Lokko Sex and the African City
Still taken from “An African City” © Nicole Amarteifio, 2015.[5]
I asked the question of Parks Tau, the current mayor of Johannesburg: is Johannesburg a ‘just’ city? How would he define it? His answer was emphatic: no, Johannesburg isn’t ‘just’. It’s a city whose very fabric has been constructed around an un-just paradigm of segregation and inequality. But it is engaged in the serious task of trying to undo its past and build a very different future. “In many ways, I think of Johannesburg as Africa’s most cosmopolitan city,” he said. “We always refer to it as a ‘melting pot’ and it’s the one African city where you have the highest concentration of migrants, peoples, cultures . . . people who bring vibrancy to the city, but also the challenges that come with it. Unfortunately, we inherited a city that was unequal by design and our task is to undo that history by creating a new form of inclusive urbanism, one that will hopefully repair the past. We’re in it together.”[6]

Tau’s use of the word together, spoken as an aside halfway through the conversation, took me straight back to Sennett. In the introduction to Together [7], he lays bare the reason behind his decision to write a trio of books about “the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” The Craftsman, the first in the trilogy, examines craftsmanship, the quest “to make physical things well.” Together, his second book, is an examination of our responsiveness to others, to “the practical application of responsiveness at work, or in the community.” In his last book, as yet unwritten, he turns his attention to cities, to the “task or skill of making cities,” which, in his opinion, we don’t “[do] very well.” In his own words, his task “is to relate how people shape personal effort, social relations and the built environment.” Although Together wasn’t written specifically with cities or urban environments in mind, Tau’s description of an inclusive urbanism relies heavily on the same notions of shared values, understandings and—perhaps most importantly—a shared understanding of the public realm which allows and encourages us to appreciate our common values and at the same time, to tolerate ‘difference,’ however it is expressed.

This notion of an ‘inclusive’ form of urbanity is appealing for all sorts of reasons, but the question of what that might be, how one might construct both a curriculum and a disciplinary framework around such a notion is unclear. In a city like Johannesburg, where the very idea of the collective, collaborative citizen remains a lofty aspiration rather than a daily fact, Sennett’s task seems improbable, even impossible. But somewhere between Tau’s comment and Sennett’s astute observations on the term ‘rehearsal’ lies a glimmer of hope. Sennett talks of rehearsals “of the professional sort, the kind necessary in the performing arts. There is a basic distinction between practising and rehearsing; the one is a solitary experience, the other is collective.” The same distinction can be made between those of us for whom ‘the city’ is both a professional and personal endeavour. We practice our craft: designing, shaping, building our built environments. We also inhabit the results of our endeavour: as citizens, city-dwellers, whether as newly-arrived migrants or natives-of-this-patch. In coming together, we rehearse a collective script that’s been around for centuries: the script of the city, the ‘play’ of urban life.

Is Johannesburg a ‘just’ city?

We’re trying to be. I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever said “we.”

Lesley Lokko


The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.



[1] Soja, E. ‘Lessons in Spatial Justice’, in Thirdspace–Journeys to Los Angeles & Other Real-and-Imagined Places, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996
[2] Taken from the jacket of Together, Sennett, R., Penguin: London, 2012
Simeoforidis, Y. ‘Notes for a Cultural History Between Uncertainty and the Contemporary Urban Condition’, in Koolhaas, R. et al., Mutations, Barcelona: ACTAR, 1999
[3] ibid., p.415
[4] “Maria,” from the motion picture The Sound of Music, lyrics by O. Hammerstein and R. Rodgers
[5] Retrieved 6 August 2015. Image: Emmanuel Bobbie/Bob Pixel Studios
[6] From a conversation between the author and the Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg, at Civic Centre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg on 4 September 2015
[7] Sennett, R., Together, Penguin: London, 2012


“Growing Place” Revisited: After 12 Years, Children’s Activity in the School Biotope Project

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

There has been a rapid decrease in the amount of open or natural space in Japan in recent years, particularly in urban areas due to the development of housing. Preserving these areas as wildlife habitats and spaces where children can play is a very important issue nowadays.

I wrote about the creation of a school biotope project in a previous article, a habitat that has gradually changed over 12 years, adding, for example, vegetation, fish species, insects and so on. With the succession of the vegetation, children’s activity is also gradually changing. It is very interesting to observe how children use the place.

One of urban landscape in Japan (Kitakyushu-city)
An urban landscape in Japan: Kitakyushu City
A typical children’s playground in Japan
A typical children’s playground in Japan

In Japan, many school biotopes have been created. Some of them have been successful but also we have many failed examples. The main reasons for such failures include:

1) The children are not allowed to approach the biotope because of the emphasis on the protection of the ecosystem.

2) Failure by the planners to consider the regional ecosystem, which has led to the destruction of that ecosystem.

3) The biotope is too small to have an ecological function.

4) The children and teachers of a school do not use the biotope because it was planned and constructed by the local council without their participation.

Because of these issues, we tried to design a new type of school garden: a design for a garden in the grounds of a primary school in Fukuoka City in the south of Japan, begun in 2002 and continuing to 2014. The aim of this project is to create an area for children’s play and ecological education that can simultaneously form part of an ecological network in an urban area.

1/100 model of the project. Credit: Keitaro ITO lab
1/100 model of the project. Credit: Keitaro ITO lab
The schoolyard, before and after construction of the biotope. Photo: Keitaro Ito

After the biotope’s construction, we conducted a survey of children’s activity. The children have learned about the existence of various ecosystems by playing in the biotope and through their participation in the workshops during the planning of it. Their teachers and a number of local residents have also been active in this process, with the result that their interest in the biotope remains strong due to the fact that they actively participated in the development of an accessible environment and have been able to propose ideas for its future management.

The school garden has gradually changed into a biotope over 12 years and the ecosystem contained in it has become more complex every year. It is important that this type of school biotope can contribute to the ecological network in the city. However, we recognize that this biotope is still an area of artificially created nature in an urban area and it remains to be seen whether the popularity of the school biotope will just be a passing phase or whether it will become established as a means of returning a degree of nature to urban areas in Japan.

Creating landscape element together with children and university students. The methods were taught by Susumu Harada, an artisan of traditional architectural skills. Photo: Keitaro Ito.
Cutting and collecting the grass(Typha latifolia L.) to manage the biotope. Photo" Keitaro Ito
Cutting and collecting the grass(Typha latifolia L.) to manage the biotope. Photo” Keitaro Ito
Finding insects in the biotope. Photo: Keitaro Ito
Finding insects in the biotope. Photo: Keitaro Ito

Landscapes and nature environments provide habitats for play and learning, as this project has demonstrated. Normally, a lack of outdoor space in which to play, fear of violence in public spaces, the longer working hours of parents and the artificial nature of most playgrounds have helped create the present‐day situation in which young children have gradually lost contact with nature.

Present‐day planners and landscape designers should consider ‘landscape’ as an ‘Omniscape’ (Arakawa, 1999, Ito et al. 2010). It is much very important to think of landscape planning as a learnscape’, embracing not only the joy of seeing, but inspiring a more holistic way of using body and senses for learning. Our project has illustrated the importance of introducing natural environments into urban schoolyards, thus enriching the learning environment for the children. Hopefully, this project will serve as an example for the future planning and development of children’s environments.

Keitaro Ito

On The Nature of Cities



Keitaro ITO, Ingunn Fjortoft, Tohru Manabe, Mahito Kamada 2014. Landscape Design for Urban Biodiversity and ecological education in Japan: Approach from Process Planning and Multifunctional Landscape Planning, Springer

Ito K., Fjortoft, I., Manabe, T., Masuda, K., Kamada, M. and Fujuwara, K. 2010. Landscape design and children’s participation in a Japanese primary school—Planning process of school biotope for 5 years. Urban Biodiversity and Design.Consrevation Science and Practice Series. Blackwell Academic Publishing, Oxford

“Community in Nature”: Reconnecting Singapore’s Urbanites with Nature

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In an increasingly urbanised world, there is a growing disconnect between the people who live in cities and the natural environment. Urbanites tend to have less contact with natural habitats and biodiversity than their country or rural counterparts, and in some cases have been known to develop a disinterest or distaste for natural settings. This “Nature-Deficit Disorder”, as described by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, is hypothesised to contribute to a range of behavioural problems, particularly in children. While Singapore is often considered to exemplify urban greenery, it is undeniably an urban city where this disconnect is manifested in much of the population. Most citizens are hard-pressed to identify even the most common of bird species, and it is not unusual to hear a child refer to the outdoors as ‘dirty’.

Singapore is a society in which nature conservation is not part of the public psyche, and much has to be done to improve general awareness of, as well as to encourage participation and stewardship in, nature conservation. While a large majority of Singaporeans recognise the value of nature, less than half is keen in participating in nature conservation efforts. The National Biodiversity Centre of the National Parks Board has developed a Community in Nature (CIN) initiative as part of a national strategy to conserve Singapore’s natural heritage. This initiative aims to synergise and coordinate all nature-related events, activities, and programmes to better reach out to the community to encourage them to bond over and with nature. To cater to the various needs of different segments of the community, CIN programmes are currently tailored to target schools, families, and citizen scientists.


As educational institutions, schools are natural targets to increase awareness of biodiversity and environmental education. As ecology and environmental education is scarce in the Singapore curriculum, enrichment programmes provide an alternative avenue for students to learn about our biodiversity. While such programmes have been around for a long time, newer programmes have made use of recent developments in pedagogy and technology to enhance the learning experience.

Greening Schools for Biodiversity

The Greening Schools for Biodiversity programme was initiated in 2014 to encourage student participation in caring for their school grounds and the environment. Open to students between the ages of 10 to 18, the programme promotes the targeted planting of bird-, butterfly-, and/or dragonfly-attracting plants guided by results from student-led biodiversity audits. Through this programme, not only are habitats created for animals, bringing the entire school population closer to nature, the resultant green network of schools also has the potential to act as link-ways for wildlife movement between nature areas across the whole of Singapore. Participants of the programme are also encouraged to learn about, appreciate, and support local biodiversity.

IMG_6501 (St Margaret's Secondary School)
Students conducting a biodiversity audit as part of the Greening Schools for Biodiversity programme.

The training programme equips students with the skills to enhance biodiversity on their school grounds. Over the course of the programme, students learn to use Google Earth to create vegetation maps and conduct land-use surveys. Subsequently, students learn to survey the flora and fauna in their school during the biodiversity audit, where they gain hands-on experience in conducting wildlife surveys while honing their observational skills. Guided by information collected from the first biodiversity audit, students identify potential green areas to plant by evaluating the site conditions around the school. They also brainstorm outreach ideas aimed to increase appreciation and raise awareness of biodiversity in their school among their peers, teachers, and beyond. Finally, as outlined in their action plan, students carry out targeted planting in their selected plots, creating new biodiversity-friendly habitats on their school grounds. Through these steps, they learn to be more aware of the biodiversity in their immediate surroundings, as well as the ecological linkages between species.

Biodiversity Week for Schools

Between 18 – 22 May, the inaugural Biodiversity Week for School 2015, was organised in observance of the International Day of Biological Diversity (IDB). Under this programme, schools could sign up for a suite of different activities, each targeted at different age groups, to celebrate our natural heritage and IDB. Here, we discuss in more detail the Green Wave initiative, the Playtime with Paddy the Flying Pulai workshop, and the All about our Trees e-learning module.

The Green Wave initiative is a worldwide biodiversity campaign that educates children and youths on the importance of protecting our natural environment. Students from around the world will plant locally important trees in their school compounds at 10 am on 22 May each year. This creates a figurative “green wave” that begins in the Far East before eventually rippling globally. This year, NParks continues to encourage schools to plant new trees within their school grounds as a way of participating in this event. In addition, existing schools are encouraged to perform mulching on their existing trees to promote their health. By participating in this symbolic international initiative, students recognise the far reaching impacts of their actions and are inspired to take the lead in conserving our natural heritage.

Preschool children displaying their completed artwork.

The Playtime with Paddy the Flying Pulai workshop was undertaken in collaboration with the Raffles Institution Ecological Literacy programme, which seeks to instill a sense of curiosity and exploration in their students to encourage environmental advocacy. Under this programme, students are encouraged to find ways to share their learning and insights with the community at large; most recently, this has taken the form of storybooks for younger learners. Due to the effectiveness of this medium in communicating environmental messages to young children, NParks has adapted the publication, Paddy the Flying Pulai, into a crafts workshop for preschool students to learn about some of the flora and fauna in Singapore’s forests. This workshop comes with an animated short following the adventures of Paddy the Flying Pulai and concludes with a folding craft activity where students assemble various characters to reconstruct the habitat depicted in the book.

The All about our Trees e-learning module makes use of information technology to communicate the importance of our trees to a new generation of IT-savvy youths. The e-learning module contains two short videos, A History of Trees in Singapore and Common Trees of Singapore, along with interactive quizzes to assess the student’s understanding of the module. Illustrated in the style of fast-motion whiteboard animation, which is popular on several educational channels on YouTube, this e-learning module carries an important message to youths in a medium with which they can identify. Many of these resources are created by student volunteers and young adults, who know best what captures the interest of their peers.

A close-up of the Playtime with Paddy the Flying Pulai folding craft.


Family groups have enormous potential for connecting and involving parents and children alike in the conservation of our natural heritage. Research into significant life experiences (SLEs) shows that early experiences in nature have a disproportionately large impact in shaping one’s interest in natural history. As families are always seeking meaningful and fun recreational activities to bond over, encouraging nature appreciation among families provides opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their children while inculcating nature ethics into their children at the same time.

My Family’s Nature Pledge is a programme which encourages families to experience nature and learn more about our biodiversity through exciting events and activities organised under the CIN initiative. Under this programme, nature appreciation is promoted as a healthy, social activity for the family to bond over. As part of the programme, families are invited to complete a series of 10 activities in our customised activity-poster and to submit a photograph of their completed work. These activities are carefully crafted to promote nature experiences and learning about our biodiversity in a fun, yet educational, way.

2015-05-03 11.06.33
Family participants at the Art in Nature workshop creating their nature collage.

In addition to these activities, participants are invited to various workshops and guided walks. One recent workshop was the Art in Nature workshop, conducted in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. During the workshop, participants were led on a guided tour around the Gardens and invited to collect fallen plant materials to create their own nature collages. Through the workshop, parents and children alike learnt to appreciate the varied forms of plants around us. The session was extremely well received due to the interactive and creative nature of the activities.

Citizen science

With increasing education and awareness, we see a growing interest in volunteers to gain more knowledge or to make a more meaningful impact through their efforts. One way to enhance the volunteer experience is to participate in Citizen Science, a decades-old movement that has intensified in recent years. In Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research, Janis Dickinson and Rock Bonney define citizen science as ‘public participation in organised research efforts’. Recognising that the public has a significant role to play in research, scientists and academics have been harnessing the power of the people to collect large amounts of data. These citizen science programmes have the potential to achieve more than conventional outreach initiatives, as the crowd-sourced data can be used to inform management strategies and decision making.

NParks has rolled out several programmes aimed at the segment of society more geared towards such active participation. On 16 April 2015, NParks launched a 10-day long nationwide bird count that saw more than 400 volunteers conducting point counts at 60 parks and nature areas. Given the relatively small birding community and a lack of birding tradition in Singapore, a large proportion of the volunteers had little or no experience with bird watching. Volunteers were thus required to attend a training session to familiarise them with 30 common birds in Singapore that formed the baseline comparison across all sites. They were also trained with basic skills necessary to conduct a point count, and were tested in the field during the training sessions. This was to ensure that data collected by both amateur and experienced volunteers could be compared across all sites, if only for the selected bird species. This programme will subsequently be run twice a year to cover both the breeding season (in April) and the migratory season (in November).

One consideration of creating programmes for a relatively nascent nature community such as the one Singapore is the lack of knowledge and awareness prior to volunteering. It is thus crucial to ensure adequate training is provided, particularly for programmes where data needs to be collected rigorously. Another birding programme, Heron Watch, teams up experienced bird-watchers with new volunteers to survey designated transects for water birds such as herons, bitterns, and egrets. This transfer of knowledge ‘on the job’ is the model followed by many large-scale bird surveys elsewhere, and forms the foundation of many established birding communities.

CIN Citizen Science programmes are not limited to birds or to the terrestrial environment. TeamSeaGrass, is a collaboration between NParks and international Seagrass-Watch, the largest scientific, non-destructive seagrass assessment and monitoring program in the world. The team actively monitors three key seagrass meadows in Singapore, which provides the baseline data necessary to identify important trends relating to the health of the meadows. This small but dedicated group of volunteers have even presented their data at a local scientific symposium, proving that citizen scientists can yield useful and reliable information.

Seagrass monitoring
Seagrass monitoring at Chek Jawa by TeamSeaGrass.

With the growth and proliferation of smartphones, there has been a growth in the number of mobile applications for citizen science purposes. CIN has tapped into this mode of crowd-sourced information by developing a new app to map the distribution of flora and fauna throughout the country. The SGBioAtlas app allows users to easily record and identify biodiversity sightings which contribute towards an existing online database (BIOME), which the public can use to analyse spatial trends or to search for the reported locations of specific species. Over time, this Atlas will become a database of biodiversity distribution that can be used as a management and research tool.

Festival of biodiversity

Inaugurated in 2012 by Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam, the Festival of Biodiversity is an annual signature CIN event organised by NParks in collaboration with the Biodiversity Roundtable (a group comprising local non-governmental organisations involved in local biodiversity issues) for the conservation of Singapore’s natural heritage. It is a national effort to communicate the importance of biodiversity and its conservation to Singaporeans and residents of Singapore.

The two-day educational event involved some 100 volunteers and 40 partners comprising nature groups, biodiversity experts, schools, corporate organisations, and government agencies, each contributing to the Festival’s programme and exhibits.

Through the Festival, the biodiversity community, public agencies, corporate groups, school groups, and individuals are galvanised to contribute to a common goal: the conservation of Singapore’s natural heritage. All the partners involved bring to the Festival their knowledge, expertise, and resources to create greater awareness and interest in our natural heritage and to instill a sense of national pride to sustain our rich biodiversity for future generations.

Festival of Biodiversity
Booths and workshops at the 2014 Festival of Biodiversity.

The first Festival, held in Singapore Botanic Gardens, attracted some 3,000 visitors; the second and third Festivals, which were held at a shopping mall, attracted at least 10,000 and 15,000 visitors respectively. Bringing biodiversity into the heart of a popular shopping mall also allows us to proactively reach out to the ‘unconverted’ passing shoppers, touching hearts and minds through the passionate volunteers showcasing a plethora of plant and animal specimens and sharing interesting nuggets of information about our biodiversity. Many young children were also given an opportunity to interact with biodiversity-related activities

Effects and Future Efforts

Even though CIN is still in its early stages, feedback to the programmes has been favorable. More data has to be collected to fully understand the impact of the CIN initiative, but responses on the ground have been encouraging. Many participants have expressed surprise at the amount of biodiversity that can be found in their surroundings and are keen to pursue nature activities in Singapore. By intensifying public awareness programmes and incorporating biodiversity into school curricula, we can enhance people’s appreciation of our native biodiversity and increase active participation in nature conservation activities. In the long run, CIN aims to cater to a wider audience with a greater variety of programming options, while also increasing presence in schools where education is most impactful. With time, we can begin to reconnect Singapore’s urbanites with their natural heritage, and safeguard it for generations to come.

Lena Chan, Linda Goh, Samantha Lai, and Zhou Boyi

On The Nature of Cities

Linda Goh

About the Writer:
Linda Goh

Linda Goh is the Deputy Director for Biodiversity Information and Policy Branch in the National Biodiversity Centre, National Parks Board, Singapore.

Samantha Lai

About the Writer:
Samantha Lai

Samantha is a biodiversity manager at the National Biodiversity Centre at the National Parks Board, Singapore.

Boyi Zhou

About the Writer:
Boyi Zhou

Zhou Boyi is a manager at the National Biodiversity Centre, National Parks Board of Singapore.

“Growing Place” in Japan—Creating Ecological Spaces at Schools that Educate and Engage Everyone

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Where will children learn about nature?

There has been so much building and housing in Japan that we’ve lost open space and natural areas. Where will children learn about nature? Where do they engage with the nature world? To solve this problem, we wanted to design biotopes within school grounds. These spaces would serve as both play and engagement areas. They also serve real ecological functions as natural areas.

Changes of the schoolyard over 10 years, from 2003-2010, in Japan. Photo: K.Ito
Changes of the schoolyard over 10 years, from 2003-2010, in Japan. Photo: K. Ito

Creating a school biotope project over 10 years

This project was started in 2003 by creating a school garden for children to play in and to help restore nature to a small part of Fukuoka City in southern Japan. The garden  continues today. We have been creating an area for children’s play and ecological education that can also form part of an ecological network in the urban area.

This area of the city has been developed mainly as a residential area with about 50 percent of its original green spaces (paddy fields, forests and grassland) having been lost over the last 40 years. However, there are still a number of streams, ponds, and other green spaces remaining on the planning site. The planning site was a courtyard in Ikiminami-primary school in Japan.

The picture of the city around the planning site, May 2003. Photo: K.Ito
The planning site within Fukuoka City, May 2003. Photo: K. Ito
The planning site in the primary school (Ikiminami primary school at Fukuoka-city). Photo: K.Ito
The planning site in the primary school (Ikiminami primary school at Fukuoka-city). Photo: K. Ito

Problems with school biotopes in Japan

In Japan, many school biotopes have been created using a number of different methods. Some of them have been successful but many have failed and are abandoned. The main reasons for failure are the following:

1) The children are not allowed to approach the biotope because of an emphasis on the protection of the ecosystem.

2) Failure by the planners to consider the regional ecosystem, which has led to the destruction of that ecosystem.

3) The biotope is too small to have an ecological function.

4) The children and teachers of the school do not use the biotope because it was planned and constructed by the local council without their participation.

Methods for the planning and design

So I thought to try two new ways of planning and design: process planning (a time scale approach) and multi-functional landscape planning (a space scale approach). The architect Arata Isozaki (1970) described 3 different types of planning process.

1) “Closed planning”, which takes every aspect of the planning process into consideration.

2) “Open planning”, which focuses on development for the future.

3) “Process planning”, which focuses on the planning process itself and not solely the end form.

Here, “Process planning” was used to plan the school garden given the length of time the process was expected to take.

Multi-Functional Landscape Planning (a space scale approach, seen below), “MFLP” (Ito et al., 2003, 2010) was used to plan the school garden for space scale planning. In other words, this is a method to think about how to manage the space for various uses. According to this method, the space is divided into a number of layers (layers of vegetation, water, playground and ecological learning), which overlap each other. However unlike “zoning”, MFLP does not divide a space into clear functional areas. The overlapping of layers creates multi-functional areas where, for example, children who are playing by the water can also learn about ecology at the same time. Thus, during the creation of a multi-functional play area, children are able to engage in various activities as its different layers are added on top of each other. In addition, they can learn something new about its ecology while they are playing there.

Multi Functional Landscape Planning. Image: Ito et al. 2003, 2010.
Multi Functional Landscape Planning. Image: Ito et al. 2003, 2010.

Children, university students, and teachers participation

Planning workshop:
Children at the school, their teachers and students of our Lab participated in the planning and construction phases of the project and in making improvements to the school biotope. The children made lots of suggestions for the water biotope, in particular regarding the shape of the bridge and the depth of the water. They also came out in favour of planting fruiting trees to attract birds and evergreen and deciduous trees to attract small animals and insects. In this way, they were able to gain a basic knowledge of the regional ecosystem and its flora and fauna.

Children’s ideal image of the space and they make presentation in planning workshop (1/100), 2002. Photo: K.Ito.
Children’s ideal image of the space and they make presentation in planning workshop (1/100), 2002. Photo: K. Ito
Completed model (1/100) of the school biotope by the children, 2002. Photo: K.Ito.
Completed model (1/100) of the school biotope by the children, 2002. Photo: K. Ito
The model(1/100) of the school biotope by Keitaro ITO Lab, 2003. Photo: K. ITO
The model(1/100) of the school biotope by Keitaro ITO Lab, 2003. Photo: K. Ito

Construction workshop:
From January 2003 to March 2003, we visited the school to give classes and oversee the construction of the biotope. This process involved the same 83 school children, 20 teachers and 12 students from Kyushu Institute of Technology. The process of the construction was a really enjoyable time for children, teachers and university students because their ideas were realized in every workshop.

Children’s participation in construction with university students, 2003. Photo: K.Ito
Children’s participation in construction with university students, 2003. Photo: K. Ito

Using workshops:
Between April 2003 and the time of writing, July 2013, 230 workshops have been held to make improvements to the biotope. These included the construction of a new bridge, a water purification project and more discussions which particular species the children wanted to attract to the biotope. Through these workshops, we have fulfilled our original goal of enabling the children to directly experience the life cycle of plants and changes in the local fauna.

Children’s experience directly the life cycle of plants, 2003. Photo: K.Ito
Children directly experience the life cycle of plants, 2003. Photo: K.Ito

Importance of the process design

“Process planning” (Isozaki, 1970) was used in the planning and design phases of this project. This does not place emphasis on the finished object but allows changes to be made during the actual process and is thus a very flexible method of design. The children have learned about the existence of various ecosystems when playing in the biotope and through their participation in the various workshops.

Children’s activity in the school biotope. Finding small insects and herbs, 2005. Photo: K. Hidaka
Children’s activity in the school biotope: finding small insects and herbs, 2005. Photo: K. Hidaka

MFLP provides a variety of activities for the children as they are able to learn more about nature when they play in the biotope. Some children enjoyed running around, jumping from one side of the stream to the other side or just sitting there and talking whilst others were observed trying to catch insects or just looking at the grass and flowers. 186 kinds of play were observed in the biotope.

Children play in the school biotope. 2005. Photo: K. Ito
Children interacting with the school biotope. 2005. Photo: K. Ito

Affordances for the design:
Gibson’s theory of affordances (1979) was used for the design. The children’s activities corresponded according to the composition of the environment’s function. According to his theory, perception of the environment inevitably leads to some course of action. This biotope not only provides the children with a place to play in a variety of ways but has also become a habitat for a number of living creatures such as birds, insects and fish.

Children use the biotope's design features as a playground. 2003. Photo: K. Kirihara.
Children use the biotope’s stream as a playground. 2003. Photo: K. Kirihara.

Biotope network in urban area

This biotope succeeded in attracting various birds (for example, the grey heronArdeas cinerea) to the site. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were born in the biotope. It was suggested that the biotope could become one of a number of habitats for birdlife in this urban area. The school garden has gradually changed into a biotope over the past ten years and the ecosystem contained in it has become more complex every year. This type of school biotope would contribute to the ecological network in the city.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) born in the biotope. 2005. Photo: K.Shibata)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) born in the biotope. 2005. Photo: K.Shibata

The children have learned about the existence of various ecosystems by playing in the biotope and through their participation in the workshops during the planning of it. The teachers and local residents have also been active in this process and have actively participated in the development of an accessible environment and been able to propose ideas for its future management.

Schoolyard today in 2013, workshop and discussion is continued with teachers and our lab. students for keeping biodiversity. Photo: K.Ito
Schoolyard today in 2013, workshop and discussion is continued with teachers and our lab. students for keeping biodiversity. Photo: K. Ito

Consider “landscape” as an “Omniscape”  

A lack of outdoor space to play in, fear of violence in public spaces, the longer working hours of parents, and the artificial nature of most playgrounds have helped create the present-day situation in which young children have gradually lost contact with nature. It is thus vital that planners and landscape designers consider “landscape” as an “Omniscape” (Numata 1996, Arakawa, 1999). It will be more important to think that landscape planning should embrace “the five senses”; not only sight but also touch, taste, hearing and smell (and more?).

Keitaro ITO
Fukuoka, Japan

On The Nature of Cities


Gibson, J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

Isozaki, A. (1970) Kukan e (Toward the space), bijyutu shuppan, Tokyo (in Japanese)

Ito, K. Masuda, K., Haruzono, N., Tsuda, S., Manabe, T., Fujiwara, T., Benson, J., Roe, M.(2003) Study on the biotope planning for children’s play and environmental education at a primary school –The workshop with process planning methods-, Environmental Systems, 31, 431-438 (In Japanese with English summary)

Ito, K., Fjortoft I., Manabe T., Masuda K., Kamada M.,  Fujiwara S., (eds.) N. Muller, P.Werner, J.G.Kelcey (2010) Urban Biodiversity and Design, “Conservation Science and Practice Series”, Landscape Design and children’s participation in a Japanese primary school – Planning process of school biotope for 5 years -, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 441-453

Numata, M.(1996) Landscape Ecology, Asakura shoten, Tokyo

“Immigrants Don’t Like Trees” and Other Myths of Urban Nature Management in Multicultural Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In many cities, urban nature is managed in a multicultural landscape. The ethnic and cultural diversity seen in many western cities today, mostly driven by recent immigration, is unprecedented. For example, Toronto boasts a foreign-born population of about 50%. In Australia, 25% of the population is foreign-born. In many European cites, this is about 15-20%, or higher.

Promoting the urban-nature agenda in multicultural environments may involve evoking a different language, one that speaks to the different values and meanings we attach to urban nature, instead of simply advancing one-size-fits-all solutions and techniques.

One of the goals of managing urban nature is to create successful human-nature interactions in cities. If the population of a city is ethno-culturally diverse, it must account for what these diverse people want from urban nature. However, previous research has suggested that immigrants and ethno-culturally diverse people don’t like trees or urban natural areas as much as others. These diverse people also tend to live in areas with less access to urban nature than non-immigrants. Today, new research is helping us overcome this chicken-and-egg puzzle, and revealing how diverse people attach meaning to urban natural areas, although this meaning is not what is expected.

Different people assign different uses to urban natural areas. Photo: Pexels

In this article I wish to discuss the evidence on how immigrants and people of ethno-cultural diverse backgrounds value urban nature, based on my own review study in urban forests. My tree-centred lens, albeit limited, provides a more concrete way to understand how diverse people relate to tangible features of urban nature, instead of just looking at the loose concept of “green space”, which may or may not include natural elements. Ultimately, trees are a common element of urban nature, and the ones being planted, removed, and distributed in our cities.

Race, culture, or both?

Ethnicity has different interpretations. Here, I define it broadly as the social boundary that defines who is inside or outside a group of people based on a shared culture or a physical characteristic, where culture is the system of symbols, such as language, and shared values of a group of people. What defines the borders of any human group usually depends on a context. In the United States, ethnicity is usually interpreted racially (i.e., Black vs. White). In Europe, it is interpreted to mean a non-European, or foreign-born. Canadians use a variety of terms that reflect different aspects of ethnicity, including visible minorities (i.e., non-White), non-European origin, and foreign-born (i.e., not born in Canada).

Here, I use the term ethno-cultural diversity to emphasize the cultural aspect of ethnicity. Race is an inherent aspect of ethnicity, and it is not my intention to separate them. However, by focusing a bit more on culture I can discuss the differences driven by immigration, such as those between a recent arrival from Mauritania in Canada and a native black Canadian, both of whom, although visually similar, carry a distinct cultural baggage. Other experts on this blog will touch upon issues of race. Also, this lens lets me discuss the nuances of managing urban nature in a multicultural world. By multiculturalism I mean the condition and principle of politics and planning embedded in many national agendas (e.g. Canada; Australia), that recognizes, accommodates, and integrates cultural differences.

A little bit about me

When we speak about ethnic issues it’s also important to speak about where we stand in relation to them. So, I’ll put myself out there. I am Colombian and I see myself as a diverse person. People obsessed with visual differences may not see me that way (see my bio picture!), but, like many Latinos, I am of mixed Spanish, Indigenous, and Black background. My mixed background is indicative of the complexity that emerges when you define yourself based both on what people think you represent and how you see yourself.

I have a personal fascination with issues of multiculturalism due to personal experiences. I am a researcher on urban nature, but I’m also a Latino immigrant to Canada. Early in my life I had the opportunity to study at an international school that promoted multiculturalism, and have lived in seven different countries, including India and Germany. These experiences have predisposed me to think deeply about identity, race, culture, ethnicity, and immigration.

What the research says

I want to write about the science and not the politics of race and immigration. By this I mean the research studies that are based on the views that diverse people have about urban nature. Given this interest, I do not cover studies that focus on the distribution of urban nature resources. Many excellent studies have demonstrated the uneven distribution of urban parks and urban trees and vegetation in the social landscapes of cities, and the consequence of this unequal distribution for service provision, such as low health outcomes in minority groups. Nevertheless, as important as these studies are for managing the distributional aspects of nature, they do not give people of different ethnicities a voice to inform us how they see their relationship with it.

Of those studies that do give a voice to the people being studied, many of them, particularly those that use surveys to capture data and focus on people’s preferences, show that immigrants and/or ethno-culturally diverse people prefer more manicured natural landscapes with less trees than those of European, White decent. A small amount of studies, particularly more recent ones that focus on the meanings diverse people attach to urban nature and that use different means to capture data, such as interviews, say that ethno-culturally diverse people value urban forest spaces greatly, mostly for social interaction and integration—the most frequently mentioned idea by far— escape from urban life, stress reduction, and reminiscing childhood memories. This contrasts with the meanings attached to urban forests by the general population, which focus on aesthetics, environmental benefits, connection to nature, and feelings of calmness and relaxation (for examples, see my review study).

What the research (may) mean

To put it bluntly, much of the evidence to date suggests that immigration and multiculturalism are inconvenient for advancing the agenda of solving urban environmental problems with nature-based solutions, such as planting more trees, or making natural areas wilder. This is why the idea that “immigrants don’t like trees” has settled deeply in many of us, whether we are urban planners, architects, managers, or researchers.

Hanging out in the park after school or work in Cali, Colombia. Photo: Camilo Ordóñez

However, the studies on immigrant perceptions of urban nature, particularly those on urban forests, vary so greatly in areas of focus, research designs, and approaches to capture ethnic identities, that it is actually very difficult to generalize across them. For instance, most studies (see the 30 studies covered in my review) take place in the US and Europe, where the most common definition of an ethnic group is a person of non-European/non-White background. This is understandable given the broad definitions of ethnicity in many countries (see above), yet it puts people who may be very different, such as our friends from Mauritania and Canada described above, in the same basket. This is what we in the field call intra-ethnic variation, or differences within ethnic groups, and many studies do not account for this.

Another caveat is the wide range of areas of focus. Most studies either investigate people’s preferences of aspects of urban nature in a specific context, such as trees in front of a house, or investigate the uses people give to urban natural areas, such walking or picnicking in a park. Preferences and uses can be context-specific and variable. A problem here is that the lower preference for trees held by immigrants and ethno-culturally diverse people may be conflated with the fact that trees are not well distributed in the places these people live. Research has demonstrated that people’s preferences for trees depend on whether they have a tree in front of their house. Although studies on preferences and uses are vital to answer questions about attitudes and uses, and to compare dominant vs. non-dominant groups, most of these studies don’t answer the question that is most interesting: what meanings diverse people assign to urban nature?

People enjoying a multi-use trail surrounded by trees in Toronto, Canada. Photo: Camilo Ordóñez

The few studies that try to address this question (see the studies covered in my review) have not only revealed different meanings attached to urban nature, but also new ways of thinking about the role of ethnic background in our perception of nature. The meanings attached to urban forests, usually social interaction and integration, stress reduction, and childhood memories, among many others, emerge for a variety of reasons, some of which have not been fully explored and are opening new avenues of research. For instance, people’s previous lifestyles, such as urban and rural lifestyles, may influence people’s perception, as does childhood experiences in nature. People who come from countries where lack of investment in green infrastructure and lack of security are more prominent issues may be more aware of the disservices of trees and, perhaps, more fearful of crime in treed areas. Moreover, people’s ecological background, that means, the natural landscape they grew up with, such as a tropical coast, or a dessert, may influence people’s perceptions of urban forests. Undeniably, the different paths people follow to immigrate to a new country, such as those taken by refugee and economic migrants, will influence people’s relation with their immediate urban environment. Finally, people’s cultural differences, such as those between collective and in individualistic cultures, or spiritual and materialistic cultures, may also influence people’s perception of urban nature.

Managing urban nature in multicultural cities

If you live and work in a multicultural city, and if you have something to do with the design or management of urban nature, you may agree in principle with the idea that the meanings attached to urban nature by people of a diverse ethno-cultural background must be accounted for in the way urban nature is managed. However, you may struggle with this idea in practice, since previous research has shown that “immigrants don’t like trees”. Although there has been an excellent amount of research on the topic, I believe that this conclusion is premature. I don’t think there is enough evidence to fully understand the importance urban nature has for people of a diverse ethno-cultural background in multicultural cities. The reality is certainly more complicated than simply saying that some “immigrants don’t like trees”. Only future research, that focuses on decoupling cultural background from lifestyles, childhood experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, immigrant paths, ecological background, will clear the way for a better understanding.

I believe that the urban-nature agenda does not necessarily collide with the multicultural agenda. However, to manage urban nature in a multicultural city, we must adopt a broader view about what urban nature means to people. Urban nature means many more things to people than we expect, especially people who have recently arrived and come from a very different ecological and cultural background. We have to be open to new ways of envisioning the ideal we have come to embrace. The fact is that engaging immigrants and people of ethnic minorities is vital to advancing the urban-nature agenda in multicultural cities. But this may involve evoking a different language, one that speaks to the different values and meanings we attach to urban nature, instead of simply advancing one-size-fits-all solutions and techniques. If you don’t know what your diverse constituents think, go out and ask them, involve them, give them a voice. What you will find may surprise you.

Camilo Ordóñez

On The Nature of Cities

(R)Evolution and Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

(This is a recasting of an essay of the same title recently published in the limited circulation Ecocity World newsletter)

“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world”
—Lennon & McCartney 1968

When evolutionary processes arrive at solutions which survive they are, one way or another, effective and place specific. They are fit for purpose. As our ideas evolve, so must our cities, and given the perilous state of the biosphere it needs to happen with urgent rapidity.
Can we talk of evolution and cities in the same breath when “cities” is a term that applies to human settlements that range in population size from a handful of thousands to multi-millions and when “Evolution” is in danger of going the way of “sustainability”, a term diminished and distorted by mis-use, mal-appropriation, and cynical expediency. There is, after all, a car called “Evolution”…

We can, but we need to pay attention to where ideas come from and how they have been understood in different ways. For example, Charles Darwin’s work was co-opted to serve the ideological spirit of capitalism when Thomas Huxley focused on the competitive “red in tooth and claw” aspects of his theory.

But as, neatly summarised by Nigel Barber, the dominant feature of evolutionary behaviour is actually cooperation. Alfred Russell Wallace, co-discoverer of Evolution, wrote that. . .”the popular idea of the struggle for existence entailing misery and pain in the animal world is the very reverse of the truth. What it really brings about is the maximum of life and of enjoyment of life with the minimum of suffering.” Forty-two years after The Origin of Speciesthe great Russian anarchist geographer Prince Petr Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid (1902) in response to Huxley’s brutally competitive take on evolution to demonstrate through a series of case studies and reasoned arguments that cooperation is normal in nature.

Our cities, for all their faults, rely on cooperation and shared endeavour to exist at all. The converse truth of the fact that occasional murders and obscene events are headline news is that they are sufficiently rare to make the headlines on a planet of over 7.6 billion people.

In 1915, over a century ago, Patrick Geddes published Cities in Evolution. Fifty years later, the flawed visionary Paolo Soleri presented his “arcology” (architecture + ecology) conception of cities as a tool of evolutionary progress. My first exposure to his marvellously outrageous ideas was as a student at the Welsh School of Architecture in the early 1970s; I had a “Soleri phase”, as I rather gracelessly told him when I was able to interview him during my sabbatical in Phoenix in 1990. For a little more background on Soleri and his influence by the radical evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin see my previous TNOC article “Half Earth Cities”.


Soleri’s concept of cities as evolutionary tools was predicated on the idea that human mind and spirit could be developed and perfected by creating an appropriate physical environment. Observing a correlation between density and complexity and noting that greater levels of intellectual and spiritual endeavour arose from denser congregations of people in cities, his proposition was that the denser the city, the greater the number of interactions there would be to amplify the collective mind power and spiritual awareness of the congregation. At the same time, with less physical space required by urban systems they would be more efficient, and the ecosystems of the natural world could be released from the consumption and denaturing of the landscape by sprawling suburbs.

His was an extreme vision, but it favoured the growth of consciousness and the health of living systems over profit and the perverse ideas of what constitute “development” that we’ve all become used to. Although Soleri’s efforts to physically manifest his vision are restricted to a handful of buildings in the Arizona desert, he has been responsible for one of the great thought experiments linking urbanism with evolution and has produced important insights, like the now largely accepted view that urban sprawl is antithetical to healthy landscapes.


 Despite these ideas being around for some time, they are not at the heart of modern discourse about what cities are and what they can do for the natural world. Richard Register’s proposition that ecocities should be places where the great human invention of urbanism should be set in balance with nature shifted the ecocity idea from the spiritual vagaries of Soleri to a more concrete goal of working with nature to enable people to meet all their needs and be healthy, happy and fulfilled at the same time as maintaining the functions of natural systems that are crucial to the continuation of life.

There is nothing intrinsically “smart” or technologically advanced about this line of thinking – which is one of its great strengths (I am reminded of Lloyd Kahn’s “Smart but Not Wise’” essay from the early 1970s here he makes the distinction between smart and wise, it’s an observation that has stuck in my mind ever since). The human settlement that is established and maintained within the limitations of its immediate environment achieves almost complete ecocity status and fits the definition of wise, rather than smart. It is worth recalling that amidst all the rhetoric and advocacy about the wonders of a smart new digital world, that technology can help or hinder and smart can be nurturing or lethal. One thinks of smart bombs and weaponised drones.


As I’ve pondered these ecocity concepts over the years I’ve become fascinated and increasingly disturbed by the realisation that cities are epicentres for the destruction of the natural world.

Drawing on everything I’d read, seen and believed about cities I have long since come to the conclusion that there is something crucially important about the idea that cities, evolution, human development, and protection of the biosphere are intrinsically linked and that it deserved a great deal more attention and focus intellectually, philosophically—and in practice. I explored this in some detail in my book Ecopolis: architecture and cities for a changing climate (2009). What does it mean to say that a city is an evolutionary tool? How do these concepts interact?

In an attempt to link these strands of sometimes divergent thought, looking for the points of connection in what Gregory Bateson might have called “the pattern that connects”,I put together a set of propositions.The propositions describe cities and their relationship to both the biosphere and human culture and lead to a tolerably concise definition of the purpose of cities—which is to create and manage complex living systems that are the primary habitats for human survival. It seems to me axiomatic that human survival depends on the integrity of the natural world. Much of the following is taken directly from my 2009 book Ecopolis.

The term Ecopolis is drawn from “eco” (strictly, from the Greek oikos, or house, but conventionally understood to mean ecological) and “polis” (which Lewis Mumford describes as a self-governing city “where people come together, not just by birth and habit, but consciously, in pursuit of a better life”). Thus eco refers to ecological purpose and polis to the ideas and ideals of governance that encompass community and self-determination. I adopted the term in 1989, constructing the word from first principles. It has been independently discovered or constructed around the world: in late 1970s Russia (according to Ignatieva 2002), in Finland (according to Koskiaho 1994), in Italy (Magnaghi 2000), adopted by others (Girardet 2004), and it has been used to name conferences in Russia (1992), China (2004) and New Zealand (2004).

Although Ecopolis is about creating human environments specific to their time and place, the concept is timeless and universal. To make places for everyone, in every land, for all time, cities need to be different, reflecting the characteristics of people, place and processes unique to their place and time. This “universal regionalism” can only come about through the consistent and persistent application of principles embedded in an explicit culture of city-making. The challenge is to embed processes in the life of a city that are as natural to it as bones are natural to our bodies. Fully realised, Ecopolis is a manifestation of a developed ecological culture, standing in contrast to the expressions of exploitative culture that are our present-day cities.


 At the beginning of the Twenty First Century Alberto Magnaghi and the Italian “Territorialists” proposed a “New Municipalism” which is very close to the Ecopolitan idea and bears strong influences from Murray Bookchin and his Municipal Libertarianism. It deals with what Anitra Nelson might call “the grainy level of community-inspired action” (Nelson 2007) and has more to say about citizenship and the purpose of cities than New Urbanism. It offers much more than prescriptions for civic pleasantries and transit-oriented commuting. Partly, this reflects the birthing environment of the ideas. The New Urbanists are largely from (and a much-needed reaction to) the New Worlds which spawned mindless sprawl, soul-less shopping centres and big boxes of possessions masquerading as homes. The European Territorialists are from the Old World, where enough remains of pre-consumerist, fine-grained, functional, equitable humanist urbanism and its relationship to the productive landscape that the recent dominance of industrialism and the motor vehicle can be placed in the perspective of a deeper historical context. When it comes to interpreting the patterns and purposes of the urban and the rural, the New Urbanists are, at heart, traditional modernists. The Territorialists are radical traditionalists.

The purpose of cities

The making of architecture and cities is not something we choose to do, as if there was something else we might do instead, it is fundamental to our nature and as essential to our capacity to procreate and thrive as nest-making is to birds. Until the development of modern human civilisation, there had never before been a situation in which a single species so dominated the planet’s biota, taken up so much of its productive potential or affected so many of its ecological processes. We have achieved this dominance and its associated impacts by city-making and its associated processes. As we learn how to deal with managing the consequences of climate change and come to terms with our role as the planet’s dominant species, we must understand how this phenomenon of building cities is central to our survival.

The purpose of the city must be to create an environment that generates health and enhances sustainability. This is a major historical shift, but the city has the power and reach to achieve it, for as Ian Douglas observed 35 years ago, in 1983: “The urban eco-system is the most elaborate geographical control-system or integrated resource-management system in human experience.”

A city is more than the sum of its buildings; it includes services and infrastructure, hinterland and agriculture that its inhabitants use to consume energy, resources and land. The making and maintenance of cities creates the greatest human impact on the biosphere and it is vital that we understand their processes and purpose. Because cities are the drivers of environmental degradation the challenge is to turn them into agents of ecological restoration, supporting massive human populations and simultaneously repairing the damage to the world that humans have already done. The survival of our species’ civilisation depends on how we make our cities work.

What are cities?

Cities are what we have been making for nearly 10 millennia without regard to environmental consequences; an Ecopolis or, if you will, a fully developed ecocity, creates an environment that generates health and dynamic ecological stability. I propose that successful city-making is about the construction of living systems and that a truly “ecological” city is exemplified in an urban system through which biophysical environmental processes of a region are sustained through conscious intervention, active engagement and collective management by its human population. In other words, the citizens of the urban ecosystem seek to fit human activity within the constraints of the biosphere whilst building environments that sustain human culture. Defined by the need to minimise ecological footprints (biophysical) and maximise human potential (human ecology) to repair, replenish and support the processes that maintain life, Ecopolis is about process; about the cultural patterning of the way we organize knowledge and how we see ourselves.

A city is primarily a place of culture and for the sake of our own survival we must rapidly evolve a culture capable of constructing cities as urban ecosystems that make a nett positive contribution to the ecological health of the biosphere. Even more than this, on a planet so thoroughly urbanised, with every function of the biosphere in some way mediated by its engagement with urban systems, the capacity of the biosphere to sustain civilised humans depends upon the nature of our civilisation. Cities need to be consciously designed and understood as living systems embedded in the processes of the biosphere as key regulators of the global ecology and, I would now add, sentinels for achieving the goal of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project, which is a call to conserve half the Earth’s land and sea in order to provide sufficient habitat to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.

I’m not a Marxist, but Karl Marx was a first-class analyst and in true Marxian (or is it Hegelian?) fashion it seems to me that there might be some logic in the idea that if cities were the centres of destruction they could and must become the tools for reconstructing and healing the biosphere. From this it is arguable that the ecocity is an evolutionary tool—remembering that evolution can go in any direction. In EcopolisI set out a number of propositions built around that idea. 

The Ecopolis Propositions  

The ability to transmit in symbolic forms and human patterns a representative portion of a culture is the great mark of the city: this is the condition for encouraging the fullest expression of human capacities and potentialities…
—Mumford 1961

Fitting Cities

We need cities that fit their purpose as global pattern makers and provide fitting places for the realisation of the best of human aspirations. We need cities that generate and are generated by appropriate cultural patterning for achieving this, including the way we organize knowledge and manage human affairs. The over-arching proposition and underlying theme for the following set of Ecopolis conditions is simply that cities are the means by which civilised societies achieve a physiological fit with the biosphere.

I propose that these are the 4 conditions that form the basis of ecopolis.

Proposition 1: CITY-REGION: City-regions determine the ecological parameters of civilisation

  • Cities must be regarded as habitats for human survival and evolution.
  • Cities are places for procuring, managing and distributing resources for the mutual benefit of their inhabitants and are inseparable from their hinterlands.
  • Human impacts on the processes of the biosphere are mediated by land-use patterns that achieve their quintessential expression in city-region morphologies and processes.
  • Cities, through their immediate and associated impacts (especially via its coevolved cousin agriculture) are the primary means by which humans act on the biosphere.
  • An Ecopolis is an urban system consciously integrated by its community into the processes of the biosphere in order to optimise the functioning of the biosphere for human purposes and for the health of all other organisms.

Proposition 2: INTEGRATED KNOWLEDGE: Ecocity concepts generate an imperative to integrate extant knowledge

  • The concepts, principles and techniques that are required to create human settlements that fit within the ecological systems of the biosphere whilst sustaining their biogeochemical functionality already exist.
  • Concepts, principles and techniques already exist which are capable of creating urban systems consciously integrated into the processes of the biosphere in order to optimise the functioning of the biosphere for human purposes and the health of other organism, but they are not yet embedded in a cultural framework (arts, sciences, humanities, vernacular and popular culture) that integrates and facilitates their application in the design, development and maintenance of such systems.
  • Architecture and urban design are major components of culture and must be conceptually expanded as part of a life sciences approach to recognising the central place of human settlement as an evolving agent of change in the biosphere.

Proposition 3: CULTURAL CHANGE: Creation of an ecological civilisation requires conscious, systemic cultural change

  • The collective consciousness and unconsciousness of human inter-relationships with the biosphere is embedded in culture.
  • An Ecopolis cannot exist except as the consequence of the creation and maintenance of a society capable of sustaining the responsiveness necessary for managing such a settlement.
  • The inter-dependent nature of elements in urban ecosystems requires communication and decision-making structures based on mutual aid—which recognises inter-dependency, and direct democracy—which shortens channels of communication, improves information flow, and more closely relates decision-making to place.
  • The foundations of society are cultural and lasting social change depends on deep levels of cultural change.
  • To create ecological cities in the form of Ecopolis it is necessary to effect cultural change.

Proposition 4: URBAN FRACTALS: Demonstration projects provide a means to catalyse cultural change

  • Changes in city making can be catalysed by demonstration projects of ecocity fractals.
  • A living system of human relationships that displays the essential characteristics of the larger culture of which it is a part can be thought of as a ‘cultural fractal’.
  • Cultural change can be catalysed by the creation of cultural fractals that display essential characteristics of the preferred cultural condition.
  • An ‘urban fractal’ is a network that contains the essential characteristics of the larger network of the city. Each fractal will possess nodes, or centres, and patterns of connectivity that define its structure and organisation, and it will exhibit characteristics of community associated with living processes. It is a particular type of cultural fractal.
  • Ecopolis demonstration projects must be urban fractals, containing sufficient characteristics, in process and form, to represent a whole in microcosm (see my 2012 essay for TNOC).
  • These catalysing urban fractals can only be brought about with a high level of participation from the community in their design, development and maintenance.
  • That participation represents the conscious engagement of the human community with the urban ecosystem of which it is a part.

Register found that the urban fractal idea “describes very well” his own “integral neighborhoods” and “ecological demonstration projects” (Register 2006), and supports the idea that an urban fractal as “a fraction of the whole city with all essential components present and arranged for good interrelationship with one another and with the natural world and its biology and resources for human activity” and because such fractals are only a small fraction of the size of a whole town or city they are much more achievable than whole new cities, particularly in developed countries.

Fractal Trim Tabs make differences

Looked at from the point of view of information theory, Gregory Bateson might have said that an urban fractal is a physical manifestation of a cultural pattern that is sufficiently different from the norm to change the deeper pattern of the city. It is, systemically, sufficiently different to make a difference. It is also a device that fits the definition of Buckminster Fuller’s “trim tab factor”.

An urban fractal acts as a trim tab to the larger society and its patterns of urbanism, turning the direction of development of a part of the city so that the direction of development of the whole city is affected, with the whole city, in turn, redirecting the evolutionary arc of the larger civilisation of which it is part.  

Architecture and graphics by Paul Downton.

It was in 1983 that a singular experience brought home to me the capacity of urban civilisation to consume its hinterland. I was working in Jordan as a lecturer in architecture at Yarmouk University, which was an unforgettable and, overall, positive experience that taught me a great deal about any number of things but especially the nuances of different cultures. Chérie (later to be the key organiser of the EcoCity 2 conference in Adelaide) and our young family of three kids had joined me there and we typically spent weekends exploring the countryside, meeting local people and getting to know the ancient and pivotal history of this place—one of the world’s most fascinating countries. A friend who was in the Royal Jordanian Airforce was one of our informal guides and on one occasion he took us to the old stone building of Qasr Amra sitting out on the gibber plains of north-east Jordan. The sun was setting by the time we got there but there was enough light to go inside the building, which hadn’t been dressed up for tourists at all and we were able to make out the hunting scenes painted on its walls. It had been built as a hunting lodge and it used to be surrounded by the forest and its animals that were the subjects for the paintings that, although faded, still decorated its interior. Stepping back outside of that building we were in the middle of one of the most barren landscapes I’d ever seen.

What had happened?

When the Ottoman empire was pushing its way across the region a century before it had constructed a railway line southwards from Turkey and in making the line, timber was hewn from the forest (that used to be there) for railway sleepers and to feed the furnaces to fire the boilers of the steam engines that took the timber to build their cities. We could see that there was now barely any sign of the railway, and no sign of the forest and its denizens. Civilised consumption had struck it all down and all that remained was the evidence of an empty stone hunting lodge and its fading murals.

A few years later, after we had emigrated to Australia and after I had spoken at the First International Ecocity Conference in Berkeley in April 1990 (where I met Richard and our friendship began), I was a delegate and speaker at the 1990 International Conference and Exhibition on Architecture of Cities in Calcutta, India (which came about through my acquaintance with Professor Santosh Ghosh that began during my two years in Jordan). By then I had done some considerable research into the impact of cities and urbanisation and concocted a summary statement for the conference declaration that became The Charter of Calcutta.

The 1990 Charter remains my most succinct summary of how I view the impact of cities, both their capacity for damage, and their potential for hope and regeneration.

Twenty-three years earlier in my fourteenth year on this planet, I drew a tongue-in-cheek image of a “green” building that was a prescient commentary on what I now think about much so-called ‘sustainable’ architecture. Given that the fundamental shift in thinking needed to get beyond image-mongering to real consideration of ecological and social function in architecture and urbanism has barely begun, the concept of evolutionary cities is nothing if not ambitious.

Image by Paul Downton

Evolution appears to be purposeful because it produces results that are fit for purpose but there is no evidence that there is anything at all conscious about the way it proceeds. Which is where we come in (see the Ecopolis Propositions, above). The more we understand about how evolution works, the better the chances are that we can augment, anticipate, facilitate or mimic evolutionary processes and work towards a state of conscious evolution. But we must be aware of what we are conscious of. Evolution is not equivalent to progress. We humans are constantly presented with choices that are pertinent to the future of our species. Do we choose war or peace, murder or life? Etc… These are evolutionary questions where choice can be the agent of destiny. Do we want to be a war-like species or peace loving? Chimp or Bonobo? And how do we build to accommodate that decision?

When evolutionary processes arrive at solutions which survive they are, one way or another, highly effective and place specific. They result in designs that are fit for purpose. If they weren’t they wouldn’t survive. That will always be the measure of anything that lays claim, as I believe we must, to the idea of consciously evolving ecological cities. As our ideas evolve, so must our cities, and given the perilous state of the biosphere it needs to happen with extraordinary and urgent rapidity.

Paul Downton

On The Nature of Cities



Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I spent a year documenting the on-the-ground reality of local farmers and villagers, in an attempt to provide an alternative to development maps offered by centralized planners.

#watchingthericegrow is a hashtag I created on Instagram on 4 August 2016, tagging a photo I took from a bicycle survey along a winding rural road on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The initial framing marked a memorable composition at the center of a territorial survey that would spiral out from this center. The posting announced my commitment to an on-line audience to take a picture on that same spot for the entire growing season. My goal, to not only watch but document the rice grow for the following three months was extended to a full calendar year, as my last post was on 4 August 2017. In the year, I documented the growing and harvesting cycles of two crops of rice. I supplemented the Instagram posting with various forms of videography: drone, handheld from a moving bicycle, and contemplative close-up still shots of the community irrigation weirs that dot the landscape.

As an architect and urban designer from a generation that made the transition from analogue to digital media, I have been interested in how forms of new media create new publics and audiences for mapping as well as new forms of social agency in urban design decision making. #watchingthericegrow will provide material, for on-line and in gallery exhibitions, which defines the villagers and farmers of Chiang Mai as the land artists and the owners of the map of the Lanna Territory, and important agents in deciding its future. Local narratives and visions provide alternatives to standard development strategies hatched in Bangkok. It is imperative that artists, designers, and social activists endeavor to assist in communicating local knowledge.

Three pictures from every month for one year. The two planting cycles can be clearly seen from the newly transplanted field on the upper left, in August 2016 during the rainy season, to harvesting in mid-November. The field is filled with irrigation water in mid-January 2017 for seed broadcasting during dry season. This second crop is harvested in May. The field is ploughed and flooded in July for the next year’s planting cycle. Photos: Brian McGrath

Marking a start

View of a rice paddy near Tha Thum temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand, August 6, 2016. Photo: Brian McGrath

I was looking for a composition I would remember. I frame a lush tree in the middle of the straight rows of seedlings in my view finder. A narrow irrigation canal cuts an angled path across two paddies, a giant check mark formed by two raised berms channeling water to the fields. There is a slight grade change between the higher paddy on the right, and the lower one on the left, with a cut in the berm, allowing the adjustment of the water level between the two paddies. The edge of the rural road is in the foreground, and a black and white painted sign post marks my vantage point. My weekly posting documented the growing and harvesting cycles of two crops of rice between August 4, 2016, to August 4, 2017.

This rice field sits between the village and Buddhist temple of Tha Thum, seven kilometers east of the center of the historic city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The field, village, and temple are an example of the hundreds that dot the Chiang Mai/Lamphun Valley in Northern Thailand. The region, historically called Lanna, which means “a million rice fields”, is one of the most fertile in Thailand, and a complex gravity-fed, wet rice growing irrigation system developed over hundreds of years. The system was both royally supervised and locally managed through a community-based, water sharing network called muang fai, which refers to the weirs and canals that divert river water to fill the thousands of rice paddies that comprise most of the historic valley.

Drone view of the rice field surrounding the marker tree near Tha Thum temple. Pilot: Santipab Sonboom, October 2016

I intended to survey this system outward from this marked point by bicycle and foot, limiting the area geographically, but not focusing on a single village. The area I studied was bounded by the new national highways recently constructed across the valley—the outer ring road to the east, Doi Suteph Road to the north, and new San Kamphaeng Road to the south. The western border was the busy rural San Phranet Road. The rural open matrix of the muang fai system is transforming to a fragmentary urban/rural mix as land is fenced and filled for new houses.

The site study area measures almost 3 KM east/west and just over 8 KM north/south, encompassing an area where the Mae Kuang passes into the urban area within Chiang Mai’s Outer Ring Road (the bow-like curve to the east). Credit: Gabor Janos Suranyi, Mapping Assistant

New developments along the radiating highways and ring roads generate commercial strips and gated residential communities, but the within this superblock there are many dead-ends and overgrown vacant areas that remain from a previous period of land development and subdivision. In addition to the bounding roadways defining the site survey, at its heart is where the Mae Kuang River passes in and out of the urbanizing area encircled by the outer ring road. The area is approximately 12.6 km2 considering the boundaries of the highways and the village road. The east-west distance is approximately 2.8 km between the village road and the ring highway. The north-south distance is approximately 8.2 km between the two intersections of the radiating highways and ring road.

My bicycle survey comprised the circuitous route between these fragments, never crossing the obstacles of the highways. The area is like the one that Terence McGee described as Desakota, named after the rural and urban mix he identified in Indonesia. A major trigger for this kind of dispersed urbanization is the arrival of motorcycles to relatively dense rice growing landscapes. My two-wheeled survey was intended to help me understand the spatial imagination of the locals navigating between farm, village, and city, rather the mindset of the city’s planners and traffic engineers.

Video: The field survey was conducted by bicycle in order to acquire the two wheeler understanding of the farmers and villages.

The Mae Kuang River is a major tributary to the Mae Ping, and the two rivers occupy seismic fault lines, forming the valley and the alluvial plain that allowed the Kingdom of Lanna to flourish from its founding in 1296. Chiang Mai means “new city”, and it is located on a slightly higher elevation west of the Mae Ping, with its western gate leading to the royal gardens at the foothills of Mount Doi Suteph. The main rice fields were in the “belly” of the valley, southeast of the city, around the older city of Lamphun, located on the Mae Kuang River. The muang fai system begins with the royal project of diverting the rainy season excess from the Mae Ping through a long canal parallel to the river. The weir construction was an enormous effort, necessitating the marshaling of thousands of laborers to annually reconstruct the weir (fai) and dredge the canal (muang). Once this conscribed labor was complete, villagers were free to manage and maintain smaller muang fai, under the local supervision of a weir headman.

The Chiang Mai Comprehensive Planning with site area at the periphery of the historical city in green. The valley is dominated by a built landscape that follows the pattern of the ancient river and canal irrigation system. Credit: Gabor Janos Suranyi, Mapping Assistant

The Mae Kuang watershed is drier than this flood plain at the bottom of the valley, and a modern dam and irrigation system built by the national Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was overlain on top of the traditional muang fai irrigation system. However, the majority of the land is still farmed using an upgrade to the traditional wood, bamboo, rock, and silt fai. Called the “people’s irrigation program”, RID converted many of the old fai into concrete foundations that farmers could adjust to continue their practice of diverting river water to muang.

Same-same but different

 Eventually, I discovered four fai within this stretch of the Mae Kuang. The one at Tha Thum and San Si villages were quite easy to find as they were located near bridges over the Mae Kuang on two of the narrows rural roads that I bicycled over to survey the area. San Si includes of two shallow fai and a major diversion muang that feeds an enormous rice field located below an area of more recent industrial farming activity. Tha Thum is the highest fai I found, a spectacular four-meter high falls located just below a royally initiated fish hatchery and water plant harvest area. At this time, I conducted a drone survey to locate additional fai in the area of the river not accessible by bicycle.

Video: Drone from Tha Thum weir. Pilot Santipab Sonboom, October 2016.

With the onset of the dry season, at the start of the new year, I was able to bike along the river embankments south from the weir at San Si and soon discovered a third fai, directing a muang westward towards the village and temple of San Phranet. While the muang from San Si fed the enormous field adjacent to this fai, this muang disappeared into the forest on the other side of the river. I chose to continue surveying the field fed by the San Si muang fai, which continued as a lush farm to the south before the muang drained back to the river. The gravity fed loop of the irrigation system was now apparent in this closed circuit, where the river water fell approximately one meter at the San Si fai and another two meters at the San Phranet fai. The muang gently sloped, and the scores of paddies slightly stepped over the course of this drop.

San Phranet weir. Photo: Brian McGrath

I discovered the fourth fai by biking through the rice fields beyond the temple at Tha Thum. The temple, like my original marker tree, is surrounded by lush, active paddy. I was able to find the water source of the fields and trace a minor branch to a major muang, biking along its embankment, through the small settlements of a chicken farmer and woodworker before I found a spectacular fai that was feeding the Tha Thum fields. This bucolic spot was only accessible by foot, but the sound of the falls led me on, even when the pathway gave way. This fai was a short distance upriver from the village of Yang Phrathat, where a riverfront pavilion created a covered meeting space for the area’s villagers.

Yang Phrathat weir. Photo: Brian McGrath

I followed the last muang from Tha Thum fai through an urbanized area with scattered fields. East of the Mae Kuang, where the ring road bows away from the river, scattered fields fed by an unknown fai surround Wari Sutthawat village and temple. Finally, south of the old San Kamphaeng Road, a branch of the fai fed a few rice paddies, but most of the field was not fed by the system. However, I met a farmer, pumping water up from the Mae Kuang to mechanically irrigate an organic asparagus field he was cultivating, for export to Europe. This area along the river is dotted with earlier developments, many of them incomplete, vacant and overgrown. The 700-year anniversary celebrations of the founding of Chiang Mai were followed in 1997 by a severe economic crisis, and countless real estate developments were abandoned with bankruptcy. If the upper half of the site is dominated by the two large rice fields, to the east and west of the Mae Kuang as it winds around Tha Thum temple, the bottom half is dominated by a secondary forest covering these abandoned landfilled zones.

Asparagus farm. Photo: Brian McGrath

 Scaling up

The four villages and four muang fai discussed here are both in a particular position with the urban/rural interface of Chiang Mai, but also can be generalized to understand the challenges the entire valley faces as urbanization pressures rural life. The Chiang Mai Comprehensive Plan designates the land in between the radiating highways along the ring road as an agricultural preservation zone. However, the new ring has triggered much new development. Within my site boundaries, the Mae Kuang is marked as the boundary between agricultural preservation and low-density urban development, even though as the survey shows, farmland is fed by a muang fai system on either side of the river. A specific solution for this important site where the Kuang River passes through urban land is to preserve these large rice fields and two-wheel paths as important open spaces and trail ways within the city periphery. This proposal is also a model for the rest of the territory as urban development spreads from the newly widened radiating highways.

The Mae Kuang watershed covers an area of dispersed by densely populated farming villages. Credit: Gabor Janos Suranyi, Mapping Assistant
Image: Local farmer. Photo: Brian McGrath

During my survey year, there were many community meetings as another road is planned to cross the site below Tha Thum. In these meetings, villagers are presented with schematic planning maps and asked to offer input. They are not the “owners” of these planning maps, yet they are subject to the planning map’s ordering of their land. My project seeks to understand the farmers and villagers own mental maps of the territory and to use that as a basis for an alternative planning and design process for Chiang Mai. I borrow the term “owners of the map” from anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti, who’s ethnography of motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok revealed their keen tactical knowledge of the city. As Thai scholar Thongchai Winichaikol has written, maps conform on us a “geobody”, usually of belonging to a nation-state. I hoped to embody this two-wheeled understanding of the Lanna territory through this year-long survey.

Weir fishermen. Photo: Brian McGrath

The farmers and villagers seem ready to fully engage in creating a more comprehensive transformation of the territory. Smartphones and a 4G internet network are widely present in the area. In fact, villages have formed “Line” social media groups to post images and discuss many issues of concern. I wonder if planning agencies located in Bangkok and provincial capitals are ready to hear the villager’s messages and understand their alternative maps of the territory, rather than relying on the simplistic ones created in their offices. I wonder if Terry McGee’s Desakota, created through the accessibility afforded by two-wheeled mobility, will be embellished and maintained by modern social communication and networking technology.

Brian McGrath
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

lowlands—Small-Scale and Nimble Projects that Create Resilient and Just Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A research and design framework, lowlands looks at public housing projects in environmentally vulnerable locations—specifically, low-lying lands, often on former marshes. A quick survey of New York City public housing projects demonstrates that this is a common condition; in many cases, land available for public housing wasn’t previously developed because of its ecological vulnerability. Historical research, landscape performance, public space politics, design, and community engagement are key elements of the following two projects, one looking at the intersection of green infrastructure and public space, and the other an interactive kiosk

Low-lying urban neighborhoods are vulnerable on a daily basis due to failings of our combined sewer infrastructure.

A little context

I was working on two speculative projects in New York City—one in Long Island City in Queens and one in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn—during which I was studying historic maps of those areas. I am lover of maps, all maps really, but with a particular affection for topographical ones. I find their fluid lines mesmerizing, the legibility of steep and shallow transforming an abstraction into an imagined physicality. Historic maps, with their odd hatches and nubbly features, communicate folds and ridges in the landscape and the movement of water; topo maps of the past can tell us where water may have once been, now lost or long buried.

[1] 1776map
1781 Map showing the extent of marshlands of Red Hook and the Gowanus Creek and Bay “A Plan of the Environs of Brooklyn Showing the Position of the Rebel Lines and Defenses on the 27th of August, 1776”. Image: Courtesy of the Hall of Gowanus Digital Library
I THINK these are all 1873 Beers Maps, for Newtown/Long Island City/Astoria
1873 Map of Ravenswood Queens, now Long Island CIty, showing Sunswick Creek. Image: Courtesy of Steve Duncan / Watercourses

In both of these neighborhoods, as is the case throughout the archipelago we call New York City, there were once extensive marshlands. And in both these former marshlands, there are now New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, campuses, public housing complexes with multiple buildings and lots of open space. A walk with the official Borough of Queens historian, Jack Eichenbaum, confirmed that the land where Long Island City’s Ravenswood Houses currently are was once a low-lying wetland, with now buried Sunswick Creek running through it. The historic Gowanus Bay and Creek, fully filled in (with the exception of the Gowanus Canal) today hosts two NYCHA properties, the Gowanus Houses and Red Hook Houses.

This got me thinking about the overlap of historic wetlands and contemporary public housing. Low-lying urban neighborhoods are not just vulnerable from one storm to the next, but on a daily basis as our combined sewer infrastructure is increasingly unable to meet the capacity of an expanding city and a changing climate. Such vulnerabilities threaten the viability of our cities: transportation is hindered, homes are flooded, water quality is compromised, and fish and wildlife are threatened. The NYC metropolitan region is increasingly subject to rainfall events above the current 1 inch or less norm. According to Cornell Climate Change Fact Sheet, NYC will experience an increase in average annual precipitation of 5 percent by 2020; 10 percent by the 2050s; and 15 percent by the 2080s; this year has seen rainfall patterns that exhibit these trends.

gowanusmap_historicalmarsh_best copy
Red Hook Houses overlaid on historic Gowanus Bay. Image: thread collective

I am trained as a landscape architect and, along with two fellow Berkeley graduates from the architecture department , Gita Nandan and Mark Mancuso, am a founding principal of thread collective, a multi-disciplinary design firm in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to more traditional built architectural work, we research and explore solutions that require relatively small initial investments and shorter mobilization periods, are integrated and responsive to the particulars of a given context, activate a sense of agency and self-determination, and engage residents in improving the resiliency of their communities. Our designs layer multiple social and ecological benefits, or, to use a Wendell Berry turn of phrase, “solutions that beget solutions.”

lowlands Red Hook

The first iteration of lowlands is a research project focused on the Red Hook Houses, 38 acres in South Brooklyn sited on former wetlands and devastated by Hurricane Sandy. During the summer of 2014, thread collective and Pratt Institute students Acacia Dupierre and Christopher Rice worked closely with the Social Justice Fellows of the Red Hook Initiative to explore the idea of using green infrastructure as a vehicle to develop and improve public space on NYCHA properties. The Social Justice Fellowship is ”a community organizing program for young adults ages 19-24, who work to challenge institutional injustices and bring about positive social change in Red Hook”. How could we leverage the need for stormwater solutions, and the funding available for those solutions, to radically rethink the design of the inaccessible, unactivated lawns that characterize most of public housing’s current open space? And how could our design process create a platform for residents to have a voice in the shaping of their environment?

The scale of NYCHA properties, with their impressive density of mature trees and low pervious-to-impervious surface ratio ensures that they are already positively contributing to the overall ecological health of the city. A conservative calculation demonstrates that around 800,000 gallons of water per year are intercepted, and therefore not directed into NYC’s overtaxed combined sewer system, by the mature trees alone on the two Red Hook Houses sites. How could this role within the neighborhood be further enhanced? Over half of the site, about 25 acres, comprises pervious, fenced-in grassy areas. In addition, there is potential for adding close to 19 additional acres in stormwater capture by retaining or detaining water from building rooftops, impervious sidewalks, and parking lots. Together with the Social Justice Fellows, we developed a set of recommended interventions to create beautiful, socially active places for the residents and to reframe public housing campuses as local assets for their surrounding communities.

[4] dutchkillstour
Tour of Dutch Kills Park in Queens with Social Justice Fellows. Photo: Chris Rice
Through a series of presentations, site visits, and discussion, the Fellows became versed in concepts of green infrastructure and innovative public space design. Walking tours led by the Fellows and community mapping exercises clarified for us both challenging policy issues and spaces and activities that many residents wished for, but did not have access to. A design charrette built on these previous workshops, and the Fellows identified locations with missed opportunities, and generated a compelling list of design solutions. Major themes included:

[1] creating more places for just hanging out, “a swing on every block”, small gardens “to center or find yourself”, or to “read a book”,

[2] “green infrastructure everywhere”,

[3] access to more diverse activities, such as movie night at the basketball court, outdoor fitness spaces, where you can “sweat and then feel the breeze”, and

[4] affordable retail within walking distance—food, particularly, but also beauty salons and banks, and pop up markets for “people to sell things they make”.

Other specific design ideas included a Welcome to Red Hook sign, an urban beach, and a craft market in the slightly derelict arbors that bookend the Centre Mall. Old warehouse spaces of Red Hook were re-imagined as spaces programmed with activities that appeal to the youth of Red Hook Houses, including an indoor skating rink and a LGBTQ center.

[5] charrette
Design Charrette with Social Justice Fellows. Photo: Acacia DuPierre
Building on the design charrette, the lowlands team developed a set of initial green infrastructure / public space hybrid concepts called Fast Hacks. Fast Hacks include reclaiming street dead ends, sites of illegal parking, trash dumping, and blocked storm drains into places of gathering, framed by bioswales. Specific ideas for these spaces included pop-up cafés, organized sports for kids, and solar charging stations to serve as a community hub and an important resource during an emergency. Programming was seen as a critical part of the success of many of the spaces, particularly safe outdoor activities for small children.

Rethinking Movement included an analysis of both the pathways in the Houses and the city streets, improving circulation, and improving public space through the introduction of green infrastructure. For example, Centre Mall, deemed a tedious and somewhat unsafe space by the Social Justice Fellows, is recast as a linear stormwater garden, maintained by a stewardship program connecting older residents with youth. A preliminary calculation shows significant stormwater capture potential: during a 1 inch rain storm, capturing water from the Red Hook Houses rooftops yields approximately 210,000 gallons, with an estimated 9 million gallons over the course of the year. The current topography supports the movement of water toward the Centre Mall, adding surface runoff to the overall calculation.

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Street End Fast Hack : Informal Public Space / Green Infrastructure hybrid. Image: thread collective
Rethinking Spaces is a more ambitious set of recommendations, ranging from reworking basketball courts to function as water plazas to defining more legible, usable spaces throughout. As a companion to the more immediate recommendations, this includes a careful reframing of the open space, creating specific front and backyard zones with site-specific green infrastructure to combat the no-man’s land quality that currently characterizes the Houses. Our work with the Social Justice Fellows underlined that while it is critical that the Houses link with the neighborhood as a whole, there must be activated spaces that the residents can call their own—not just grass behind layers of fence.

Red Hook lowlands remains a research project, a set of recommendations that integrate green infrastructure and true public space at a particular NYCHA campus. We are currently developing a set of metrics to assess existing ecosystem services throughout NYCHA property in order to demonstrate, in turn, the current ecological value of these large green spaces and the opportunity to dramatically increase this value through the design and implementation of robust stormwater strategies.

We began the project with an academic understanding of the broken windows policing theory and how it is being applied at NYCHA properties. But the stories from the Fellows made it vividly clear how much the open space use in the Red Hook Houses’ is curtailed by NYCHA policy. Anecdotes included grandmothers gathering with their young grandchildren on a hot summer evening rudely told by the police to go inside (all NYCHA parks close at dusk), and groups of friends being accused of “plotting something”. And as reported recently in the New York Times, “In New York housing projects, police officers can demand identification from people who are hanging out in a public space, like a building lobby. Even if they prove that they live in the building, officers may cite them for ‘lingering.’ It is not a crime, but it is a violation of the New York City Housing Authority’s rules.” In the same article, a NYCHA resident notes, “We can’t even walk in our own parks,” he said. “It makes no sense.” This is certainly the experience of the young adults we talked with. Fundamentally, the project does require a shift in NYCHA policy, to one that does not criminalize basic social behavior, that develops and supports community programming, and that allows open space to become true public space. Now is the time.

lowlands West Harlem

Mother David’s Valley, West Harlem with outline of Manhattanville and Grant Houses. Image: thread collective

125th street in West Harlem does an odd thing: it diverges from the strict grid that organizes most of New York City, suddenly angling north just before Morningside Avenue. The nature of the shift becomes very clear when one looks at the topography of the area. The street turns to follow a natural valley and former waterway. Known as Moertje David’s Vly during the Dutch era and Hollow Way during the Revolutionary War, the valley was once marked by a series of small creeks, being both an area of inundation from the Hudson River and drainage from the surrounding high points.

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Current West Harlem map with historic creeks and Lenape trails. Image: Oasis NYC/Manahatta
The creeks are gone now, and two large public housing projects, the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, sit alongside the valley where those watercourses once curled. While Sandy did not inundate these public housing projects as it did in Red Hook, the storm made evident the perils of climate change, which are particularly acute for poor and working-class communities throughout New York City. WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a local not-for-profit with an illustrious 30-year history, ran workshops as part of a six month community planning process in which residents identified key local resiliency issues and action points. The result, The Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, or NMCA, released in the summer of 2015, strongly links the political and the environmental, and makes an urgent case for community-led change.

West Harlem Climate Action Kiosk

As noted in the NMCA: “After Hurricane Sandy, locally produced signage played an important role in connecting people with networks and resources that supported recovery efforts. Public signs and stands should be created across the City to provide information on cooling center locations, evacuation zones, and other important resources.” Building on this recommendation, thread collective, in collaboration with WE ACT, has recently begun an intensive community design process that will shape the specifics of this interactive public space installation. The Climate Action Kiosk is being developed through CALL/City as Living Laboratory’s BROADWAY: 1000 Steps project in partnership with WE ACT.

A series of design meetings with local residents will determine highest community priorities for the kiosk, consider ways in which the kiosk can catalyze a conversation about engagement and public space, and link the kiosk with local public health and landscape performance data collection studies. Other project activities with Harlem participants include visiting precedent projects in New York City, and workshops and walks addressing climate resiliency in relation to the local ecological conditions. Design charrettes will be held to explore additional innovative elements of the kiosk, such as rainwater collection and air pollution monitoring. In addition to providing event-specific emergency information for local residents, the information kiosk will be a platform for other issues defined by the community. This may include sharing information about current political issues, highlighting relevant historical events, and/or creating a resource exchange program. The primary kiosk will be located within the public housing projects around 125th Street. We are currently analyzing several sites, with particular focus on working with and highlighting existing topography. Ultimately, our hope is that the concept and process, including developing site-specific responses, be replicated throughout New York City Housing Authority properties.


While large-scale, resource-intensive projects seem necessary given the scale of predicted climate change, we believe smaller-scaled, more nimble and precisely targeted solutions are better for creating cities that are not only capable of bouncing back, but that work actively to make our urban environment better ecologically and more socially just. Government investment in essential environmental solutions can and will have an exponential impact when public space solutions are integrated into the ecological systems. Job opportunities, senior and children’s programming, and youth development must also be linked to ecological improvements, creating long-lasting dividends for NYCHA and NYC residents at the same time.

Elliott Maltby
New York City

On The Nature of Cities 

10 scientists and 10 practitioners walk into a bar…what would they talk about? How can research and knowledge generation be co-created to better support practitioners and evidence-based decision making?

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
List of writers
Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Myla Aronson, New Brunswick Scientists and practitioners may have more questions than answers, but we are communicating, and this is the start for successful biodiversity conservation and management in our world’s cities.
Georgina Avlonitis, Cape Town Vulnerability and passion are the links between the science and policy arenas.
Keith Bowers, Charleston Biohabitats recently created Bioworks, an intra-disciplinary practice dedicated to integrating robust research into the practice of ecological restoration and conservation planning. 
Sarah Charlop-Powers, New York A new initiative called NYC 2050 Nature Goals is designed to bring academics, public land managers, and the non-profit conservation community together in New York City.
Ana Faggi, Buenos Aires Researchers should work on more effective collaborative forms by emphasizing concrete problems and by paying attention to regional or, if applicable, global, problems.
Haripriya Gundimeda, Mumbai Scientists and practitioners agree that the scientific community needs to mobilize to design programs and indicators that are pragmatic to support conservation decisions.
Bram Gunther, New York City A new initiative called NYC 2050 Nature Goals is designed to bring academics, public land managers, and the non-profit conservation community together in New York City.
Amy Hahs, Melbourne We need to make the feedback and evaluation stage a common element of project delivery wherever possible, either through formal mechanisms or informal mechanisms.
Fadi Hamdan, Beirut Scientists and practitioners regularly take decisions in their careers. These decisions must be subject to the same scrutiny as the “official” decision making process.
John Hartig, Detroit For several decades the International Association for Great Lakes Research has worked with others to better inform policy-makers to advance sound public policy and decision making.
Mark Hostetler, Gainesville I think the conversation that ecologists and practitioners would have in a bar is how to make an online tool that is menu driven.
Maria Ignatieva, Uppsala The most difficult questions are how to “translate” research results to make them understandable not for only practitioners such as city planners, landscape architects, or engineers, but for city administrators and politicians.
Michael Jemtrud, Montreal Research that embraces the counterfactual is a mode of provocation that agitates the disciplining inherent to disciplines—it’s a critical device in collectively imagining what we ought to do, not just what we can do. 
Deborah Lev, Portland In Portland the Urban Ecology Research Consortium makes connections between researchers and practitioners.
Louise Lézy-Bruno, Paris By de-compartmentalizing academic and operational fields and promoting teamwork, we can help researchers, practitioners, and decision makers work together.
Yvonne Lynch, Melbourne We need to focus the lens on reality and combine intellect and resources to advance the outcomes for urban nature.
Ian MacGregor-Fors, Veracruz Many actors can be identified in bridging the gap between knowledge and its application; however, willingness will always be a cornerstone.
Charlie Nilon, Columbia We need to view conservation issues as collaborative projects that involve residents, managers, and researchers rather than just implementing management practices or conducting research.
Diane Pataki, Salt Lake City Science informs, challenges, and verifies, but it can also inspire.
Jose Puppim, Tokyo Over-reliance on technical information and on the opinion of experts is occurring side by side with neglect of local knowledge and lack of effective public participation from non-technical actors in decision-making.
Rebecca Salminen Witt, Detroit Successful collaborations require shared goals, focus, and a commitment to plain language.
Eric Sanderson, New York City A new initiative called NYC 2050 Nature Goals is designed to bring academics, public land managers, and the non-profit conservation community together in New York City.
Philip Silva, New York City Knowledge co-creation cuts two ways. How can scientists help make valid management knowledge that isn’t scientific?
David Maddox

About the Writer:
David Maddox

David loves urban spaces and nature. He loves creativity and collaboration. He loves theatre and music. In his life and work he has practiced in all of these as, in various moments, a scientist, a climate change researcher, a land steward, an ecological practitioner, a playwright, a musician, an actor, and a theatre director.


A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks: “Why the long face?”

Countless jokes start with an introduction of odd couples and diverse sets entering a bar to set up a joke or observation about differences in perception. And so: 10 researchers and 10 practitioners walk into a bar…

Many researchers desire to see their work used in policy and practitioner action. Many practitioners crave knowledge that they can use to make better decisions or to take more effective, evidence-based action. It’s a match, no?

Yet across disciplines—from biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services to community gardens and landscape design—researcher-practitioner interactions can be distant, fraught, or unsatisfying. Sometimes this is just a lack of effective fora for communication. Sometimes it is the lack of a shared vocabulary. Other times it is a disconnect of modes of working, in which researchers are rewarded for synthetic and theoretical work, but practitioners have more basic knowledge needs.

The respondents to this question include practitioners, city managers, international NGO policy analysts, scientists (biophysical and social), and designers. How can we evolve modes of interaction that advance both research and practice? Can such diverse actors co-create useful knowledge?

Myla Aronson

About the Writer:
Myla Aronson

Myla Aronson is an urban ecologist at Rutgers University, NJ. Her research focuses on the patterns and drivers of biodiversity of cities to better conserve, restore, and manage biodiversity in cities.

Myla Aronson

Urban ecologists are looking for their research on the ecology of cities to be applied to conservation and management of biodiversity in cities. Practitioners are looking to urban ecologists to help bridge research findings into practical applications of day-to-day management. But how do we bridge the gap between scientists and practitioners?

Communication, data sharing, and collaborative research are key to bridging this gap. Communication can be enhanced through data sharing and collaborative research, but also through initiatives such as The Nature of Cities and UrBioNet. My colleagues and I recently established UrBioNet: A global network for urban biodiversity research and practice, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. UrBioNet has been established to develop a network that brings together researchers, practitioners, and students with an interest in biodiversity in cities. The network provides a forum for discussion, data sharing, and collaboration on topics relevant to urban biodiversity research, management, design, and planning. Communication between scientists and practitioners can also be achieved with college level ecology courses that incorporate project based learning through internships or projects with practitioners.

Practitioners have treasure troves of data. This data spans from hard numbers on endangered species populations to knowledge from trial and error on restoration practice. Rarely do managers have opportunities to synthesize these data and knowledge. Data offer an avenue for knowledge transfer and collaboration between scientists and practitioners. Sharing data across cities, countries, and continents has allowed us to better understand the role cities play in biodiversity conservation (for example, see Aronson et al. 2014). At the local level, sharing data will allow us, together, to develop best management practices for biodiversity.

Ecological research in urban areas is inherently collaborative. However, we need more opportunities to bring together scientists and practitioners. Better mechanisms for funding of research, better facilitation for scientists to perform their research in cities (i.e., less red tape), and research that incorporates practitioner experience and knowledge are all needed. Collaborative research efforts such as the Center for Resilient Landscapes, which combines academic scientists and students with practitioners at Rutgers University, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, are starting points for successful collaborative research.

Incredibly, we don’t even know the full biodiversity of cities. Recent research in cities has shown that cities house a surprisingly high diversity of species. At the global scale, cities house over 20 percent of the world’s bird species (Aronson et al. 2014). The discovery of new species is no longer confined to far-off, exotic places such as the Amazon Basin. In New York City, Jeremy Feinberg, a graduate student at Rutgers University, recently discovered a species of frog, hidden cryptically on Staten Island, and never described before, despite the long history of natural sciences in New York City (Feinberg et al. 2014). In Los Angeles, Emily Hartop and colleagues at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles discovered 30 new species of flies in urban backyards (Hartop et al. 2015).

Despite these new and exciting discoveries and the explosion of research by natural and social scientists in cities, we still have a limited understanding of how biodiversity—the plants, animals, insects, fungi, and even soil bacteria—function in urban habitats and how we can effectively conserve and manage biodiversity in these landscapes that have been designed and managed for humans.

So, when scientists and practitioners and get together, what do we talk about? We talk about how we can work together effectively to conserve and manage biodiversity in our cities. We ask big questions: How can we manage habitats in cities at multiple spatial scales? How can we use the data we have to create targets/thresholds for urban management? What are realistic goals for invasive species management? What are the best management practices for restoration of native habitats? What are the factors important to measure for monitoring urban forests? What tools can we use to communicate and synthesize management/restoration findings?

We may have more questions than answers, but we are communicating, and this is the start for successful biodiversity conservation and management in our world’s cities.


Aronson, M.F.J., F.A. La Sorte, C.H. Nilon., et al. 2014 A global analysis of the impacts of urbanization on bird and plant diversity reveals key anthropogenic drivers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20133330.

Hartop, E.A., B.V. Brown, and R.H.L. Disney. 2015. Opportunity in our Ignorance: Urban Biodiversity Study Reveals 30 New Species and One New Nearctic Record for Megaselia (Diptera: Phoridae) in Los Angeles (California, USA). Zootaxa 3941: 451-484.

Feinberg, J.A., C.E. Newman, G.J. Watkins-Colwell, M.D. Schlesinger, B. Zarate, B.R. Curry, H.B. Shaffer, and J. Burger. 2014. Cryptic Diversity in Metropolis: Confirmation of a New Leopard Frog Species (Anura: Ranidae) from New York City and Surrounding Atlantic Coast Regions. PLOS One: 10.1371/journal.pone.0108213.

Georgina Avlonitis

About the Writer:
Georgina Avlonitis

After finishing up her Master’s degree in urban ecology from the University of Cape Town in 2009, Georgina worked on biodiversity informatics and ecosystem based adaptation at ICLEI’s Cities Biodiversity Center. She then joined the Greenpop team. When she is not heading up Greenpop programmes across Southern Africa, you can find Georgina walking the soles off of her shoes or cooking up a Greek storm in the kitchen.

Georgina Avlonitis

Some ‘Touchy-Feely’ Stuff at the Bar

During my post-graduate years studying urban ecology, I eagerly ranted about my research findings to city officials and to my dismay, I watched eyes glaze over and feet start to shuffle as the communication disconnect set in. This was not due to any lack of fervent intonations and gesticulations from my side—I was convinced of the importance of my findings—but I was, of course, focusing on all the wrong aspects of my work. It may as well have been a soliloquy in Greek. And now, during my professional career, I realise I could not blame them, because when forced to sit in a room of scientists debating complex and unfamiliar methodological approaches, I’ve ashamedly found my mind beginning to wander and my feet doing that same shuffle, while half expecting my head to explode.

Street art by Mark Samsonovich
Street art by Mark Samsonovich.

Scientists and policy-makers certainly do all sorts of ‘talking’: they talk at each other, on top of each other, about each other, past each other. More often than not, they speak across each other—speaking about the same issues, but in completely different languages. For example, scientists often define evidence from a methodological perspective while policy makers define evidence from a relevance perspective—this is why policy priorities often drive the use of research, rather than research stimulating policy recommendations.

But how to create bi-directional, collaborative communication, where scientists and policy makers communicate with each other?

I could write about suggested solutions such as: the use of third party science-communicators; how to jointly involve decision-makers and scientists in all phases of research, including the development of the questions and the interpretation of results; or approaches for the development of effective platforms for dialogue—but we’re still not addressing the heart of the issue: that collaboration and co-creation needs connection. Which is why I’m choosing to focus on something a bit ‘softer’ and much more fundamental.

If I had to stick policy makers and scientists into a hypothetical bar, I’d probably first hand them over a strong whisky, to soften the edges and loosen them up a bit. Then I’d get them to speak about what makes them passionate about what they are doing and then—no cringing allowed—I’d get them to make themselves vulnerable. And by vulnerable, I don’t mean walking around with a box of tissues crying about things. I mean having an open conversation about some of the deeper, more human, more visceral elements of work: explaining where you’re unsure; talking about the complex challenges that wake you up at 2am; describing what gets you out of bed in the morning to go to work; explaining what excites you or completely devastates you about the field you’re in.

More often than not, vulnerability and passion are the links between the science and policy arena—it’s where the bravado dissipates, where the commonalities lie, where the challenging, exciting realities surface, where humanity is exposed; it’s where the conversation opens up and where the ground is leveled for better relationships, for honesty and communication. It’s something as simple as admitting: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing right here, with this.’

Policy-makers typically aren’t interested in science per se (although some are); they are interested in research evidence insofar as it helps them to make better decisions (because without adequate information—let’s be honest—they wouldn’t really know what they were doing). Scientists are enamored with their fields of inquiry and, coupled with an interest in promoting their work and ensuring research funding, this can sometimes lead to convoluted reporting of results and, very occasionally, exaggeration. But ultimately, if policy makers and scientists could open up about where they are unsure, could make themselves vulnerable around the effectiveness of their work and decisions, could share the real reasons why the potential impact of their work excites them (or doesn’t)—therein lies the connection! Only then can parties help to better fill the gaps, to reshape the objectives, and to enhance the relevance and impact of each other’s work.

Some ‘touchy-feely’ suggestions:

  • Reinvent the meet-and-mingle: Formalise more informal networking events/sessions where individuals from science and policy arenas can socially interact in your institutions/departments and most importantly have fun while doing so.
  • Personal relationships run the world: Take some time to get to know scientist/policy-maker peers, before launching into hard work-talk. Look for a common spark and learn what really matters to them and how you can help. It goes without saying that people are more likely to want to engage in your work if they feel a personal affiliation with you.
  • Stick your neck out: Be interested and ask more questions. “You can make more connections in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” — Dale Carnegie
  • Get outside: There is no better way to remember why it is you’re doing what you’re doing and share some common ground than by taking meetings/workshops into nature. (It also boosts creativity and productivity.)
  • And lastly and most definitely, build in more time at the bar: This goes without saying.
Keith Bowers

About the Writer:
Keith Bowers

For nearly 30 years, Keith Bowers has been at the forefront of applied ecology, land conservation and ecological restoration. As the founder and president of Biohabitats, Keith has built a multidisciplinary organization focused on regenerative design.

Keith Bowers

More than once, while enjoying a pint with a group of my fellow restoration researchers and practitioners, I have wondered how many of us occasionally covet each other’s jobs.  Don’t get me wrong, as the leader of Biohabitats, Inc., my passion and vocation is the practice of ecological restoration. But when I talk to researchers, I sometimes find myself thinking: “I wish I had the time and resources to integrate controlled, replicated experiments into all of our work.” And conversely, I suspect that my research colleagues may occasionally think: “How cool. I wish I had the time to participate in the design and implementation of restoration projects like Biohabitats does”.

Practitioners and researchers are united in so many ways. Our passion for restoration, our desire to continually improve the success of ecological restoration and our aspirations for healing damaged or destroyed ecosystems keeps us all going. Why, then, is our work so often disconnected? Although Biohabitats includes dozens of team members with academic research experience, and we often attend scientific conferences and review the latest journal articles, we seldom come across academic research that can be directly applied to our current body of work.

Conversely, while we have so many lessons learned to share from the design and implementation of hundreds of projects, we neither have the time nor resources to publish the work. And even if we did, we would most likely not meet the standards of peer-reviewed journals. In our daily work, Biohabitats rarely has the opportunity (time and funding) to embed experimental designs to evaluate hypotheses in an academically rigorous way, and our colleagues in universities rarely address the myriad constraints that we encounter in the real world of implementing restoration projects.

How can we let this continue? If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that the problems our work tries to solve are substantial and mounting. And as a society, we don’t have the time or resources to perpetuate failure.  We need practical solutions based on rigorous science now.

We need practitioners informing experimental designs; we need researchers working with us to evaluate projects; and we need to pool our resources to find the best solutions out there. Some of these challenges can be addressed by purposeful collaboration between private companies and like-minded universities and research institutions. Others would benefit from third party support, such as grantors that explicitly require collaborations that bridge not only disciplines but also sectors.

In response to these felt needs, Biohabitats recently created Bioworks, an intra-disciplinary practice dedicated to integrating robust research into the practice of ecological restoration and conservation planning. Our goals are threefold. One, to develop hypotheses and embed applied experiments into all of our work, thereby establishing a rigorous foundation for collaborative research with universities, research institutions and non-government organizations. Two, team with these same organizations to purse funding to jointly research cutting edge solutions to some of our most pressing problems in achieving successful outcomes for ecological restoration. And three, to widely share this information in a practical, easily accessible way with the thousands of practitioners that are toiling day-to-day in the rivers, wetlands, woodlands and fields across the planet.

We know this important work cannot be done alone in a silo, by a single entity, institution or discipline. So if you are interested in joining this collaboration, join me for another pint and let’s make this happen!

Haripriya Gundimeda

About the Writer:
Haripriya Gundimeda

Dr. Gundimeda is a Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay; and the President of URBIO. Her main interests are green accounting, mitigation aspects of climate change, energy demand and pricing, valuation of environmental resources, and issues relating to the development in India.

Haripriya Gundimeda

What does it mean to make the two ends—biodiversity science and policy making—meet?

Scientist: Biodiversity is very essential for life. However, we are losing it at a faster rate than before and the number of endangered and extinct species are increasing. For conserving biodiversity, the underlying biological processes need to be understood well and adequate emphasis has to be given to building stable and resilient systems.

Practitioner: Yes, biodiversity needs to be conserved, but the goal is harder to achieve than to say. Biodiversity is not just a mere collection of individuals, but is characterized by highly complex and nested interactions among the species. Further, the complexity of scale and level of organization makes it more complicated to build into the planning process. Do we have some rules to set conservation policies and what conservation requires?

Scientists: We need habitat inventories for the presence and abundance of various dominant and associated species.

Practitioner: Given that there is dearth of ecologists, can we meaningfully inventory all the habitats? How can we decide which is more important—bryophytes, invertebrates, mosses, lichens, vascular plants, etc.? Do we have closely aligned practical indicators to measure the success of various conservation efforts?

Scientist: One can measure the success of conservation in already protected areas through measuring changes in the number and relative abundance of species—keystone, flagship, umbrella, threatened, endangered, endemic, and focal species—and the distribution, turn over, diversity, and quality of ecosystems. However, it requires time and resources. Numerous measures may have to be identified. Classify the areas as risky and non-risky areas and ensure full conservation in risky areas.

Practitioner: It is not possible to carry out inventories in all areas; protected areas may have some of the above indicators already, but what about areas which are not protected, yet are important. Resources are limited, and there are trade-offs. Can we use some criteria? For example, we say biodiversity should be conserved because it enhances the well-being of people now and in the future. Can we look at nature as providing ecosystem services to people and should we be considering the economic value of these benefits to people? Such an approach helps policy makers in prioritizing areas that provide maximum benefits and also justify investments.

Scientist: We differ. Ecosystems are complex and the services are not separable. Moreover, values are dynamic and change as the structure of society changes, despite that ecosystem services remain the same. Moreover, there may be conflict in this case as the ecosystem service provided in many cases may not have market value attached. Quantifying cultural, spiritual, and existence values is difficult. The studies are still limited and it is possible that pristine ecosystems are left out. This would have deleterious impacts for the conservation of ecosystems.

Practitioner: Yes, we agree that there are trade-offs in functions provided by ecosystems and prioritizing one would be at the cost of another. But we need a metric to measure what to conserve and the outcome of our actions. How to measure the outcome and the actions needed to conserve for effective policy making? We need something which is cost-effective. Can scientists offer right indicators and legitimate criteria to choose one area above another?

Scientist: Yes, it is a bit difficult, complicated, and contentious, but we agree that the scientific community needs to mobilize to design programs and indicators that are pragmatic to support conservation decisions. Probably while we get the right science and science right, can we at least agree that biodiversity conservation is an integral part of development plans? And can we rope in private communities to finance conservation?

Practitioner: Yes, whatever it means to make both the ends—biodiversity science and development policy—meet.

Bram Gunther

About the Writer:
Bram Gunther

Bram Gunther, former Chief of Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources for NYC Parks, is Co-founder of the Natural Areas Conservancy and sits on their board. A Fellow at The Nature of Cities, and a business partner at Plan it Wild, he just finished a novel about life in the age of climate change in NYC 2050.

Bram Gunther, Eric Sanderson, and Sarah Charlop-Powers

“Never doubt that a group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — attributed to Margaret Mead

This is a quote that could have come from a conversation over a beer. But now it’s the adopted motto of a new initiative called NYC 2050 Nature Goals, designed to bring academics, public land managers, and the non-profit conservation community together in New York City. The Natural Areas Conservancy, a new voice in the urban conservation world, is leading this initiative in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, founded 120 years ago to conserve wildlife globally and teach about wildlife through urban zoological parks such as the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium.

NYC Nature Goals 2050 brings together people who work in over 25 different institutions and are invested in New York City urban conservation and ecological restoration. What makes this effort interesting is that (1) as a group we are focused on all resources within the city lines, from the estuary to the uplands, from the natural to the built, and from the public to the private; (2) we are not explicitly policy focused, but rather aspiration focused; and (3) at the first three workshops each individual is representing his or her own values. Only in the last workshop do we sync our individual values with our institutional missions. To this end, we will hope to write a “constitution” to facilitate alignment among groups in different spheres (research, government, NGO, community), so that our sum is greater than our pieces.

Our conversation about goals follows a trajectory from function to composition to structure (Redford and Richter 1999). Function is about what interactions we want from nature, answering the question: “why have nature in the city?”

We held a meeting on this topic in March and the five top consensus answers that emerged were:

  1. Biodiversity and habitat—NYC nature provides living environments for species
  2. Coastal protection/resilience—NYC nature mitigates damage from coastal storms
  3. Water quality—NYC nature absorbs and filters water from runoff
  4. Connectivity—NYC nature enables movements of species through the city
  5. Inspiration—NYC nature encourages humanity creativity and appreciation of beauty.

Composition focuses on what components of nature are necessary to fulfill the functions outlined, helping us articulate: “what nature in the city?” We just held a meeting on composition and are digesting the results now (native species as opposed to introduced ones were strongly endorsed, for example.)

Structure is perhaps the hardest of the three: it answers, “how much nature or in what configuration is it required to fulfill the functions outlined”. Here we expect to come up against some difficult questions about nature in the city: how much salt marsh provides coastal protection? What configuration of nature assures connectivity for migratory birds? How large does a natural area need to be to inspire? We expect to generate a set of research questions tied to the nature goals of this kind.

At a fourth meeting, to be held in December, we will ask members of the advisory group to speak to the goals not as individuals, but as members of institutions.

In this initiative, we are making a space for individual values to be aligned ultimately with institutional values—this combination is a powerful force and hews to the Margaret Mead quote above. The driving goal of the NYC 2050 Nature Goals is to ask folks to think in a visionary way. This vision and the long-range aspirations for our City that we identify as a group will influence our short-range goals, capacity to coordinate efforts and initiatives, and decide our ultimate directions.

In our workshops, we’re deliberately staying focused on the process rather than the outcomes per se, so that our ideas can fly above the usual and lead to places not envisioned before, drawn from and shared by researchers and practitioners.

If this conversation does spread to “bar” talk, the more the better.

Eric Sanderson

About the Writer:
Eric Sanderson

Eric Sanderson is a Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.

Sarah Charlop-Powers

About the Writer:
Sarah Charlop-Powers

Sarah Charlop-Powers is the Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy, with a background in land use planning, economics and environmental management.

John Hartig

About the Writer:
John Hartig

Dr. John Hartig is a Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor where he is undertaking interdisciplinary research on the cleanup, restoration, and revitalization of the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes.

John Hartig

Strengthening the Science-Policy Linkage in the Great Lakes

Human population growth has caused numerous stresses on ecosystems, including habitat destruction and modification, chemical contamination, introduction of invasive species, and more. Recognizing the need to strengthen the science-policy linkage, the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) has long been involved in addressing this in the Laurentian Great Lakes. IAGLR is a scientific organization of over 900 researchers studying the Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds. IAGLR members encompass all scientific disciplines with a common interest in management of large lake ecosystems.

Informing public policy with sound science has long been recognized as a vital need for effective management and protection of the Great Lakes. However, delivering scientific findings to policy-makers in a timely, useful manner has been problematic. Policy-makers have often lacked timely access to scientific information. And when they do have access, this information is often too technical and needs interpretation to be truly useful for decision-making.

For several decades IAGLR has worked with others to better inform policy-makers to advance sound public policy and decision making. IAGLR efforts have included:

• Identifying research needs to better guide management;
• Advocating for sufficient funding to support better science-based decision making;
• Convening an annual conference that disseminates science to a variety of audiences;
• Converting all back issues of the Journal of Great Lakes Research (the foremost collection of multidisciplinary Great Lakes scientific knowledge in the world dating back to the 1970s) into an electronic format with public access;
• Building a web-based directory of IAGLR scientists to provide advice to policymakers;
• Helping educate elected officials and key policy-makers through periodic briefings;
• Issuing routine news releases on timely research from its journal and annual conference; and
• Developing specific recommendations on strengthening the science-policy linkage on specific issues like aquatic invasive species, contaminated sediment, and “How clean is clean?”

More recently, IAGLR was a partner in the U.S.-Canada Detroit River-Western Lake Erie Indicator Project that compiled long-term trend data on 50 indicators that were interpreted and translated for policy-makers and managers. Over 20 IAGLR members were involved in this project that resulted in many restoration and enhancement projects. Another project provided specific advice for a more strategic approach to habitat conservation in the watershed of the Detroit River and western Lake Erie.

Recommendations included:

• Greater emphasis should be placed on quantifying habitat targets to help evaluate and select appropriate habitat conservation techniques, and to measure project success;
• Pre- and post-project monitoring requirements should be added to all federal, state, and provincial permits for habitat modification;
• Partnerships should be established at the outset for monitoring the effectiveness of each habitat modification project, including use of citizen science;
• Sound science can help increase the ecological effectiveness of habitat conservation efforts;
• Technology- and science-transfer sessions should be convened regularly to share ideas and knowledge, and to achieve cooperative learning relative to habitat management.

A third recent example of strengthening the science-policy linkage was the Great Lakes Futures Project designed to assess past and potential future states of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin, inform strategic policy formulation, frame research priorities, and help train the next generation of Great Lakes leaders.

Professional societies like IAGLR can use their credibility and resources to strengthen the science-policy linkages and better support practitioners and evidence-based decision-making. Clearly, a long-term commitment will be needed and such professional societies can provide continuity over time. The work of the IAGLR in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem could be a model for other professional societies to help strengthen the science-policy linkage and better support practitioners and evidence-based decision-making. See this link for more information.

The Great Lakes
Ana Faggi

About the Writer:
Ana Faggi

Ana Faggi graduated in agricultural engineering, and has a Ph.D. in Forest Science, she is currently Dean of the Engineer Faculty (Flores University, Argentina). Her main research interests are in Urban Ecology and Ecological Restoration.

Ana Faggi

Researchers should work on more effective collaborative forms in order to become visible to the community by emphasizing concrete problems and by paying attention to regional or, if applicable, global, problems. This points out the role of the scientist at present: an individual who is dedicated to generating and communicating the necessary knowledge to reduce the risk and uncertainty in decision-making.

Researchers of the Flores University explaining the advantages of phytoremediation at the ExpoBIO, in Buenos Aires.

A researcher is a creator as well as an innovator who increasingly understands that his work must become a tool for new prosperity. The image of isolated researchers who are interested in creating further knowledge for their cognitive motivations only is obsolete. But, the new researcher requires active interaction with decision makers and practitioners.

In many countries, specialization and the prioritization of basic research has caused separation between “research” and the generation of knowledge that is relevant for future management decisions.

As an example, in Argentina, the National Parks Administration originally had a scientific body dedicated to the generation of that knowledge necessary for conservation and management. Over time, research moved to the universities and other institutions, where researchers studied other topics and the significance of knowledge of parks management lost relevance.

Considering that scientists are part of a collective enterprise, opportunities to do collaborative work with different stakeholders should be a strength. These scientific-technical or scientific-administrative synergies can, through debate and controversy, create the missing knowledge that will reduce uncertainty and will facilitate the work of practitioners.

We are currently working on a collaborative project between the city of Buenos Aires and our university, the Flores University. The Environmental Protection Agency was interested in rehabilitating the banks of a polluted river with native trees. They asked the university for advice, as we have experience in phytoremediation with marsh plants. In the end, both organizations began in March with a pilot project planting native vegetationalong 100m of the “Riachuelo” riverbanks, which we are analysing and monitoring. Through this collaborative research we are attempting to develop expertise that can be replicated to other municipalities and transferred to practitioners.

People from the University and the Buenos Aires Environmental Protection Agency working on a collaborative project to remediate contaminated riverbanks at the Riachuelo River.
Amy Hahs

About the Writer:
Amy Hahs

Dr Amy Hahs is an urban ecologist who is interested in understanding how urban landscapes impact local ecology, and how we can use this information to create better cities and towns for biodiversity and people. She is Director of Urban Ecology in Action, a newly established business working towards the development of green, healthy cities and towns, and the conservation of resilient ecological systems in areas where people live and work.

Amy Hahs

In my personal experience of integrating science and practice, the best discoveries and insights have emerged through the direct interactions and conversations with other members of the cast, who come from different disciplines, institutions and perspectives. Therefore, while I think there are some opportunities to improve the way actionable science knowledge and outcomes are shared between groups, I strongly believe that the engine room for change and evolution will be at the level of individual interactions.

When it comes to these individual interactions, how would I describe the ideal scenario? I think that open channels of direct communication are critical, and they need to be ongoing. There may be great interactions and collaboration over the course of a project, but too often they effectively stop once the project has been delivered. The evaluation of the project itself, and the process that was undertaken, then ends up being conducted internally within individuals or perhaps disciplines, if it happens at all. This means that we are missing out on an important opportunity to continue learning and evolving our modes of interaction. We need to look for ways of making this feedback and evaluation stage a common element of project delivery wherever possible, either through formal mechanisms (i.e., written into the proposal) or informal mechanisms (committing to catch up for a coffee and chat shortly after the project delivery).

A common communication loop I have experienced during projects integrating science and practice. Most of the communication and learning (thick arrows) occurs during the project itself, and rarely during the evaluation stage (narrow arrow). An ideal scenario would see a much greater volume of interactions occurring outside of the project phase, either as a debriefing session focused on that specific project, or as a longer ongoing conversation.

We also need to find ways of respectfully expressing feedback and initiating dialogue around the things that didn’t work. These conversations may be difficult, but they are imperative if we are to address any tensions arising from institutional or disciplinary perspectives.

Steven Handel proposed that ecology and landscape architecture are in a period of their relationship where marriage therapy may be required. Relationships between people can only fully evolve if we are willing to share our full experiences, and we are committed to listening and working through our differences.

One idea which may help navigate these differences would be to think about disciplines as producing paintings with different styles. We become very good at recognising and interpreting the key features within the paintings we are familiar with, but it is more difficult to interpret works produced in a contrasting style. If we are experts at Impressionist landscapes, it is difficult to understand how to incorporate Romantic portraiture into our work. This is where the ongoing dialogue between diverse actors is critical. The best outcomes will emerge when we can become better “art historians” and increase our fluency of interpretation across a broader range of painting styles. This shared understanding may even lead to an entirely new movement, with a style all of its own.

When it comes to more formal avenues of communication, I suspect there is something about the process of peer review, as well as the expectations of journals about what is “of interest”, that limits the type of information and learning that can be shared in these forums. Personal conversations may continue to be the most effective way of sharing this information, and often can occur at conferences and other settings. Options for increasing the number of participants in the conversation may involve online fora and other activities that make the most of our sophisticated virtual technologies.

Something to keep in mind throughout these discussions is that some actors may not have the means or desire to navigate new disciplines. This means that a person who does enter this interface of science and action essentially becomes an Ambassador within the different realms. Amongst our colleagues and peers we may become a point of contact for others who are interested in engaging with this collaborative model of thinking and working. When we visit the realms of our counterparts, we help to bridge the divide between disciplines. If we continue to do our jobs well, then we will not only deliver better outcomes ourselves, we will also have helped to grow the momentum of effort in this area.

Evolutionary change often occurs in response to pressure. Our current efforts to integrate science and practice have evolved in response to the pressures of developing sustainable, resilient, biodiverse cities and towns. The evolution within our efforts will be shaped by the internal pressures related to how this diverse range of actors start bringing together their different perspectives to deliver outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Fadi Hamdan

About the Writer:
Fadi Hamdan

Fadi has more than 25 years of international experience in analysing the interaction between development, urbanism, disaster risk, climate change, conflict, and state fragility. Fadi cooperates with various companies, cities, and countries to protect people, assets, and the environment

Fadi Hamdan

Several scientists and practitioners walk into a bar. After deciding on drinks, they began discussing how research and knowledge generation can better support evidence-based decision making.

One of the scientists, who is trained to make a hypothesis and then to test it either to confirm its validity or modify it accordingly, started the conversation by making an assumption that scientists rarely bother to test. Namely, the scientists believed that they do not take any decisions, they simply apply scientific tools effectively and objectively. It is the fault of “practitioners” or “decision makers”, who are not always capable of understanding the scientist’s “objective” scientific advice, when things don’t go smoothly.

One of the practitioners commented that decision makers come in different shapes and forms. But they all know that the decision making process is far from straightforward; even in the best of the functioning democracies, the decision making process is subject to gate keepers, as well as legal and illegal lobbying and legal and illegal modes of expressing and withdrawing support. And that was even before the age of globalisation, whereas nowadays, big capital and large multi-nationals can more easily void or threaten the prospects of effecting change as a result of a democratic election simply by threatening to withdraw their support, including in terms of investments and jobs.

That is why we find near unanimous agreement that the decision making process in any field must be subject to a governance framework, with checks and balances to ensure that all perspectives and points of view are being accounted for “as far as reasonably practicable”.

Another practitioner agreed and gave an example from the field of Disaster Risk Management, where there is agreement that the decisions related to the use, production, and distribution of natural and government resources (e.g. water, land, tax payers’ money, air, etc.) lead to a particular distribution of benefits, exposure, vulnerability, risks, and, increasingly, disaster losses. Furthermore, these benefits and associated exposure, vulnerability, risks, and losses are unequally distributed between sectors (e.g. industrial vs. agricultural or, increasingly, financial vs. industrial and agricultural). They are also unequally distributed between countries (if we look at the earth resources as a whole) and, indeed, within any country. That is why, in functioning democracies, these decisions are, as far as reasonably practicable, subject to scrutiny that practitioners like myself call a “Risk Governance Framework”.

Another scientist agreed that scientific advice is not always subject to the same scrutiny within this Risk Governance Framework. She gave an example of the decision to construct a risk map for a particular hazard in a city (e.g. earthquakes) that accounts only for the physical and natural factors contributing to vulnerability (i.e. severity and frequency of earthquakes and the state of building and infrastructure stock). Such a map is based on a decision that it is acceptable to ignore the social, economic, and institutional factors that contribute to vulnerability. She continued that this is equally true in other cases for other hazards affecting cities, including flooding, storms, sea surges, drought, etc.

Another practitioner commented that, in many instances, we end up with a situation where the decision makers know they are right, the scientists believe they are right, and affected people living in cities with deteriorating infrastructure feel something is not quite right.

After a few drinks, the scientists and practitioners agreed to ask non-specialists, their fellow citizens, sitting in the bar for their perceptions. Based on their reaction, most of the two groups then agreed that to improve the science-policy interface, to promote evidence-based decision making, and to account for societal apprehensions and concerns, decisions and recommendations provided by scientists should lie within the Risk Governance Framework.

Mark Hostetler

About the Writer:
Mark Hostetler

Dr. Mark Hostetler conducts research and outreach on how urban landscapes could be designed and managed to conserve biodiversity. He conducts a national continuing education course on conserving biodiversity in subdivision development, and published a book, The Green Leap: A Primer for Conserving Biodiversity in Subdivision Development.

Mark Hostetler

I can imagine a conversation about urban development between scientists and practitioners sipping on their favorite beverages would go something like this:

Practitioners: When designing a site for development, there are many constraints that basically boil down to time and money. Conserving open space here and there means less buildable space. Even conserving vegetation on lots and between lots and saving individual trees and small patches of trees, buffers, and soils takes effort and planning. Where should our efforts be placed to retain biodiversity and minimize impacts? When moving a road or adjusting the location and size of built and conserved spaces, can we quickly evaluate the impacts on different species? We need to balance the developers’ needs and economic realities with biodiversity concerns, so we need rapid assessments of the biodiversity value of different designs.

Scientists: Well, how a site design impacts biodiversity depends on the species in question, the landscape context, and the spatial configuration of built and conserved areas, such as the sizes and locations of forest patches. It is complex and there is not an easy way to assess different species across several designs.

Typically, scientists and practitioners both fall back on generalities: saving large patches of land and trying to connect remnants across a landscape. But how big must the patches and corridors be for different species? Can small patches and built areas be designed with biodiversity in mind? Built areas (e.g., native landscaping and conserving trees within home lots) and small fragments (e.g., utility easements) can serve as habitat for a variety of species, such as small birds, insects, and small mammals. Further, built areas need to be compatible with conserved areas in order to minimize impacts. But these areas typically get lost in the shuffle and are not incorporated into a conservation design.

The realities of urban development leave very little time to conduct field research in order to determine the best designs for biodiversity. Practitioners need a quick way to assess different designs so they can demonstrate “bang for their buck”. Is saving those strips of trees, native landscaping, and natural remnants worth it? For what species?

Moving forward, I believe collaborations need to ensue where ecologists and practitioners develop a biodiversity evaluation tool that would work with the realities of urban planning and design. In a previous blog, I mentioned that if ecologists developed biodiversity metrics for different species, these metrics could be linked to a GIS-based evaluation tool (CommunityViz®). This tool would output indices that are related to how various designs impact different species. However, I now think the tool needs to be much simpler—not GIS-based—because many developers and planning departments do not have the time or money to run CommunityViz® analyses. This comes from conversations with practitioners and the reality that running CommunityViz® analyses may be a barrier to evaluation of urban designs.

I think the conversation that ecologists and practitioners would have is how to make an online tool that is menu driven. This would mean ecologists would assign (through systematic reviews of the literature) some relevant metrics that are linked to specific taxa and to spatial geometries that practitioners could manipulate. Practitioners could input, for instance, the patch sizes of conserved areas, how much tree canopy is conserved, and whether native landscaping is used across built areas and percentages landscaped this way. Ecologists would create equations that are species specific and, when linked to patch sizes, tree canopy cover, and percent of native landscaping, could generate diversity scores. These diversity scores should be easily interpretable and transparent about how different designs benefit or negatively impact species.

This is not easy! For example, some migrant bird species, such as forest-interior birds, need “core habitat” during the breeding season and practitioners need to know how big a patch (and shape!) gives enough core habitat for a good chance of successful reproduction. Complicating things, these same forest-interior species can use smaller patches as stopover sites and overwinter areas; thus, both large and small patches are important during different life history stages. The tool would not only need to have diversity scores that account for large patches and shapes during the breeding season but smaller ones for migrating and winter seasons.

In the end, I think there will be several iterations of an effective biodiversity evaluation tool, and the discussion between our scientists and practitioners would turn towards what practitioners could easily calculate and manipulate in urban design, and what ecological data could be formatted and linked to these design variables. Ultimately, this evaluation process would give comparable outputs, leading to optimal solutions.

Maria E Ignatieva

About the Writer:
Maria E Ignatieva

Maria is working on the investigation of different urban ecosystems and developing principles of ecological design. Her latest FORMAS project in Sweden was dedicated to the lawn as cultural and ecological phenomenon and symbol of globalization.

Maria Ignatieva

How can our scientific research can be effectively used in practice?


Rain garden (top) vs. Conventional local cleaning facilities, CLFC (bottom, showing reconstruction of engeneering networks and elements of stormwater sewage). Rain gardens are much cheaper and do not need special legal agreements. They help decrease the pressure to CLCF for up to 80-90 percent of surface water. A rain garden is a landscape architecture (LA) design element compared to CLCF, which needs special LA design considerations.

Use of research results is one of the most desirable slogans in modern landscape architecture. However, the most difficult questions is how to “translate” the research results and make them understandable not for only practitioners such as city planners, landscape architects, or engineers, but for city administrators and politicians who make final decisions and proof the cities’ budgets.

Actually, in all grant applications today, scientists are required to think about communications of their results with a stakeholders. I would like to share with you one example, in which I was involved directly, with such a “translation” of the research into practice in a real neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Here a group of young landscape architecture practitioners (Andrey Bashkirov and Sergei Shevliakov) were inspired by my lectures for master’s and PhD students about new ecological designs, particularly on implementations of Low Impact Design—an environmentally friendly ecological design approach aimed at managing urban stormwater and promoting biodiversity. The area of Novoe Devyatkino neighborhood, with multistory residential buildings, required immediate help due to flood issues in common green areas. In 2013, the landscape architecture firm Sakura presented a concept design based on the introduction of LID devices such as rain gardens. Realizing that LID requires an interdisciplinary approach, social research (questionnaires, interviews, and observation studies) were also conducted in the summer of 2014. The analysis of these questionnaires has shown the importance of water (a lake). The majority of people valued the lake as a major attraction and expressed a need for the development and improvement of the shoreline. People found rain gardens very attractive and were satisfied with their appearance and conditions.

Rain Garden. June 2014
Rain Garden. June 2014
Social survey (Biana and Tuula). June 2014
Social survey (Biana and Tuula). June 2014

From the very beginning of this project we realized that the most effective tools for attracting politicians, administrators, and contracts was the economic factor. That is why the conceptual design was combined with a calculation of costs. Our economic research comparing costs of design and implementation of traditional waterstorm management practices and LID practices (rain gardens and swales) clearly indicated that rain gardens are much cheaper and do not need special legal agreements (figures above). They help to decrease the pressure on Conventional Local Cleaning Facilities (CLCF) for up to 80-90% of surface water. A rain garden is, in itself, a landscape architecture design element compared to CLCF, which need special landscape architecture considerations. The cost of creating the rain garden was 1557 rubles (including plant material) compared to 1862 rubles per hectare for conventional facilities (not including design, legal negotiations, and plant material costs). The management costs of LID new devices are also very low compare to traditional methods.

Team work of young administrator Olga (on the left), landscape architect (Andrei) and the researcher (Maria). November 2013.
Team work of young administrator Olga (on the left), landscape architect (Andrei) and the researcher (Maria). November 2013.

One of the conclusions of this project was that conventional thinking is still strong in Russia, but young administrators are more open to new, innovative designs, especially when they can see an economic profit. We also found out that for the success of the new LID practice, it is crucial to educate contractors and implementation teams in the “right” management approach.

Other positive lessons from the realization of the Novoe Devyatkino project were the introduction of a social survey practice (directly involving local citizens in the design and management process) and the implementation of educational boards. The positive attitude of local administrators and local citizens toward this innovative landscape architecture practice gives us hope for the introduction of LID into a wider urban context within Russia.


Bashkirov, A., Shevliakov, S., Petter, B., Irishina I., Eriksson, T., Ignatieva, M. (2015) Implementation of Low Impact Design (LID) in Russia. In: M.Ignatieva, N. Thorne, E.Golosova, P. Berg., P. Hedfors, T. Eriksson, D. Menzies (eds). History of the Future. 52nd World Congress of the International Federation of Landscape Architects Congress proceedings. 10–12 June 2015. Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Peter the Great Saint-Petersburg State Polytechnic University Polytechnic University Publishing House, St. Petersburg. Pp.22-23.

Michael Jemtrud

About the Writer:
Michael Jemtrud

Michael is an Associate Professor of Architecture at McGill University and Founding Director of the Facility for Architectural Research in Media and Mediation (FARMM).

Michael Jemtrud

A Case for the Counterfactual Project

There are moments when a problem quite simply has to be solved and consolidating resources and expertise is a relatively straight forward, sensible, and effective thing to do. There are numerous examples in which researchers effectively collaborate with practice, industry, and government to solve problems (see Note). However, the “pragmatic efficacy” of instrumentally linking research and practice has significant limitations in imagining alternative futures, practices, and ways of acting in an era defined as the anthropocene. It is here I would like to make a case for the counterfactual as a productive and mediating mode of collaboration between research and practice.

As Graham Harman states, “pragmatic success often occurs on the basis of half-truths or outright falsehoods. In such cases we do not always leave our theories intact simply because they seem to be working. Quite often, we change our theories to give them wider applicability and a better capacity to handle possible surprising cases.” He goes on to say, “Architecture might make theoretical decisions that are unnecessary in the current practical state of the art, for the simple reason that truth has a greater power, reliability, flexibility, and allure than mere practical success” (Harman 2013, p. 213).

Research-through-design is a formally recognized methodology of inquiry that is productive and characterized by its fabricative nature. Proposals are made and outputs are varied, from drawings, models, simulations, and time-based representations to policy and strategic documents. In its most potent form, it is an inclusive, multi-stakeholder, cross-disciplinary, project-based activity. As such, it is messy and gains its value as research and practice from this messiness. It is most often context specific and accepts the inevitably contested constraints, concerns, and worldviews brought to the table by the participants. As a productive mode of inquiry, it is self-aware of the fact that “praxis distorts the reality of things just as much as theory” (Harman 2013, p. 211).

Engaging in “What if? scenarios” can occur at a variety of levels, either historical reconsiderations or future propositional. For example, speculation ranges from the formalized and sensible “Urban Futures Method” for designing resilient cities to the utterly fantastic and counterfactual (Lombardi et al. 2012). Collaborating in this manner is a way of dragging the real world into the academy and the academy into the real world. It is a distortion of the conventionally formulated problematic wherein problem solving is surpassed but not left behind. Significantly so, research that embraces the counterfactual is a mode of provocation that agitates the disciplining inherent to disciplines. Like Harman, I am encouraging the counterfactual in all fields of inquiry. It is a critical device in collectively imagining what we ought to do, not merely what we can do.


It can be argued that this is in fact the predominant model of research in the academy since WWII signaled by Eisenhower’s famous military–industrial complex speech in 1961. Suffice to say, this is not the place to get into the corporatization of higher education but it is a significant factor lurking behind the question at hand. Also see: Readings, B. (1997) The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Chomsky, N. (2011) “Academic Freedom and the Corporatization of Universities”. Online at: [Accessed 11 December 2014]: “it seems pretty clear that the shift toward corporate funding [for research in universities] is leading towards more short-term applied research and less exploration of what might turn out to be interesting and important down the road.”


Harman, G. (2013) Non-Relationality for Philosophers and Architects (2012). Found in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism.

Lombardi, D.R., et. al. (2012) Designing Resilient Cities: A guide to good practice. Watford, UK: BRE Press.

Deborah Lev

About the Writer:
Deborah Lev

Deborah Lev is about to retire from the position of City Nature Manager for Portland Parks & Recreation in Portland, Oregon, overseeing natural area management, environmental education, urban forestry, and community gardens.

Deborah Lev

400 urban ecology researchers and practitioners walk into a symposium. What happens? Research is summarized, questions are answered, contact information is exchanged and relationships are kindled.

In Portland (Oregon, USA) this is an annual event of the Urban Ecology Research Consortium (UERC). “UERC is a consortium of people from various educational institutions, state and federal agencies, local governments, non-profit organizations and businesses, as well as independent professionals and students, interested in supporting urban ecosystem research and creating an information sharing network of people that collect and use ecological data in the Portland/Vancouver area. The mission of the UERC is to advance the state of the science of urban ecosystems and improve our understanding of them, with a focus on the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan region, by fostering communication and collaboration among researchers, managers and citizens at academic institutions, public agencies, local governments, non-profit organizations, and other interested groups.” (from the UERC website).

The 13 year-old annual symposium provides a forum to present research findings in 8 minute presentations in sessions which have included topics such as wildlife, stream health, ecological processes, vegetation, water quality, public perception, and urban canopy. A poster session and inspirational keynote speakers (including David Maddox, convener of this Roundtable) as well as networking opportunities complete the daylong event. Proceedings of past symposia can be downloaded from the UERC website.

UERC 2015
UERC Symposium 2015. Photo: Mike Houck

The regional focus has indeed fostered ongoing relationships within the Portland, Oregon/Vancouver, Washington area. Attendees are encouraged to directly contact researchers and a listserv keeps people connected with announcements and events. Popular presenters are invited to present at longer format brown bag presentations scheduled throughout the year.

As a local government natural resources manager, I have tried to base natural resource management decisions and policy on science and data. I understand from direct experience how hard it is to stay abreast of applied research related to invasive species control, stormwater best management practices (BMPs), and visitor attitudes, let alone academic literature in related fields such as ecology, ecosystem services, and climate change. I appreciate having UERC to provide connections in my region and the opportunity to share our own work. What else can practitioners do to build better relationships with the research community? I offer a few suggestions here hoping that others will add to the list and colleagues in the research community can offer suggestions for researchers to better connect with practitioners.

Suggestions for practitioners:

  • Collect data and make it available to others. Monitoring your treatments? Doing baseline assessments or before-and-after counts of plants and animals? Document your methods or adopt methods already in use by others. Share. Researchers may be interested in following up on your work or may find your results useful in identifying potential research sites.
  • Invite academic research on your property. Are you a land manager? Think of your land as an urban ecology research lab. A permit system can help ensure that you receive reports of data collected on your property and a better understanding of management issues. Have a particular management question? Consider sponsoring a graduate student’s research project at your local research institution.
  • Attend meetings and conferences. Organizations such as the Society for Ecological Restoration and professional organizations hold regional conferences that help connect research and practice.
  • Follow publications in your field. Journal subscriptions and individual reprints are expensive but many journals offer free subscriptions to regularly receive the journal’s table of contents and allow free abstract downloads.
  • Take advantage of outreach materials from agencies and research institutions. In the United States, the Forest Service does a great job of making research accessible.
  • Gather nine of your practitioner colleagues and head to a bar with some researchers. Bring those troubling questions from your applied work; let the conversations begin.
Louise Lezy-Bruno

About the Writer:
Louise Lezy-Bruno

Louise is Deputy Director of the Environment in the Paris Region. An Architect-Urban Planner with a PhD in Geography, she works on the cities-nature relationship. She is a member of the IUCN-WCPA.

Louise Lézy-Bruno

Is it a dialogue of the deaf?

In 2010, during the BiodiverCities conference we organized in Paris, I heard the manager of a national park of a large city in East Africa say that he and his city official counterpart had met for the first time on the plane to come to Paris. Two administrations, two jobs, with no conversation between them. But both had already met the researchers who came to ask both park managers and city officials questions about their fields.

The objective of this conference was, precisely, to gather around the table cities, parks managers, and the researchers working on the relationship between cities and parks. The researchers assumed the role of middle ground between the different tribes of managers.

But at the end of the conference, there was still a hint of disappointment in the air: the practitioners (in cities and parks) had presented the results of the actions they had managed to set up and the researchers had analyzed, even criticized, everything that had been accomplished…No wonder! The researcher is there to raise questions, the practitioner, to find solutions.

They are made for each other, it seems! Both are needed to develop an applied research process, even if they each intend to call into question the certainties of the other party. In practice, the researcher is the “troublemaker on duty” that comes into the practitioner’s field to analyze everything that goes wrong. The practitioner breaks his back to find solutions, which are inevitably a compromise between local knowledge, social demands, political pressures, limited human resources and budget constraints. In his mind, he has just resolved the squaring of the circle. Of course, he doesn’t greet the “researcher of problems”, coming into his field to give him lessons on what is good and what is not, with pleasure.

How can we be sure that the theoretical analysis of the researchers can be working tools for the practitioners? How can independent research support operational choices on the field?

We need to be more malleable with each other, more attentive.

For me, the answer is like cocktails: varied recipes produce different effects. The “Caipirinha” and the “Sex on the beach” are different. First, it is a matter of substrate: in the hot alcohol, the cachaça, and in the iced alcohol, the vodka, produce different results. The ingredients of the first are mixed in a shaker; in the second, the difference in densities of the ingredients makes up the whole. In the end, both results could be very good.

In other words, there is no single recipe for the dialogue between research and operational practice. We must simply have a common goal towards which to combine our different ingredients: either the mixture of different components forms the whole, or the superposition of the strata supports the entirety.

For example, long-term research deepens the questions that the immediacy of practice does not allow. In turn, the practitioner provides the fertile ground for the production of the researcher. In this way, the results of the scientific research should be able to fertilize the management practice. The wealth and independence of scientific research should be the substrate of practitioner action, the elements combining to both inform and support decisions. Likewise, the application of theory in practice enables checks of the theory’s validity.

In addition to basic research, the academy could incorporate more applied research. But it should also develop tools to disseminate scientific information and translate scientific language into technical and popular languages. We could develop more research programs associated with field actions, with research funding, or with orders from the field stakeholders.

By de-compartmentalizing academic and operational fields and promoting teamwork, we can make researchers, practitioners, and decision makers work together.

The trick is to know how to combine the minds and the spirits, and we will have a good cocktail!

Yvonne Lynch

About the Writer:
Yvonne Lynch

Yvonne is an Urban Greening & Climate Resilience Strategist who works with Royal Commission for Riyadh City.

Yvonne Lynch

If 10 scientists and 10 practitioners were walking into a bar, it’s entirely possible that they would not be walking in together. As the benefits and value to be gained through scientist-practitioner collaborations remain largely untapped, the time has come for the confluence of these divergent communities, so I hope this bar has a late trading licence!

A key challenge for urban nature-focused scientists and practitioners is the ability to affect the process of urbanisation itself. We know that nature and green infrastructure in cities is still regarded primarily for its amenity value instead of its essential ecosystem services provision. Grey infrastructure and the built form command priority and investment in both city planning and market processes. You could say that we have a relatively simple formula for how we grow our cities, and that formula is: grey in, green out. With climate change looming and population growth booming, there is no doubt that we need to transition toward a new way of developing our cities and towns.

What we need is the rapid co-production of relevant knowledge that can inform and transform urban policy and practice. This requires that research and practitioner communities establish effective partnerships, engage in an ongoing dialogue, and formulate research questions together. Currently, scientists and academics have limited incentives to undertake research that is focused on practice because research is normally orientated towards other academics rather than practitioners. There is often an optimism that the research will make its way back to practice. More direct contact between scientists and practitioners would go some way to remedying this situation and it would dramatically improve both the quality of research and policy practice.

So why is there limited interaction between scientists and practitioners? At this stage, I’ve been to more conferences, seminars, and symposiums than I’ve had hot dinners. I’ve yet to see a beautiful blend of scientists and practitioners together in major conference programs. I think it’s an area for improvement. Joint seminars and conferences between scientists and practitioners can help demonstrate the relevance of research to practitioners and the relevance of practitioners to researchers. It would definitely lead to more bar-time together.

National Urban Forest Master Class
Attendees in Melbourne at the National Urban Forest Master Class, 25 June 2015.

On 25 June, the City of Melbourne convened a National Urban Forest Master Class with the Victorian State Government and the 202020 Vision to advance planning and implementation of urban greening across Australia. We brought together over 200 local government officers, practitioners and researchers and provided them with a “How to Grow an Urban Forest” guidebook. The most important aspects of the Master Class for the practitioners were the focus sessions on demystifying the data and the science, communication, and effective partnership development. For the researchers and scientists, the critical component was an insight into the political and community contexts that frame policy development.

Neil Brenner’s work demonstrates urbanization is a process of constant transformation that leads continuously to the production of new urban configurations and constellations. We need to collaborate to understand that. Cities are the ideal canvas for research and we’ve never had more at stake in terms of how we’re developing. The deliberation at the bar needs to focus on how we can advance our ability to understand and solve complex problems together, how we can develop a shared understanding of our similarities, and, ultimately, how we can focus the lens on reality and combine intellect and resources to advance the outcomes for urban nature.

Ian MacGregor-Fors

About the Writer:
Ian MacGregor-Fors

Ian MacGregor-Fors is a researcher at INECOL (Mexico). His interests are broad, but he focuses on the responses of wildlife species to urbanization.

Ian MacGregor-Fors

Science and its diverse disciplines have both basic—or fundamental—and applied components. On the one hand, basic science relies on the exploration of unknown phenomena regardless of the potential applicability. The reason behind focusing on any given phenomenon, hypothesis, or topic in any basic science research varies from mere curiosity to continuation of previous findings in a similar line of thought. Applied science seeks to address specific needs or to solve practical problems based on preexisting knowledge gained through basic science research. However, there are cases—occurring more frequently in recent decades—where basic and applied sciences work together to generate the new information needed to tackle specific concerns from scratch.

Currently, planet Earth is experiencing important changes that have resulted in unprecedented environmental and social disasters. Poverty, water insufficiency, food scarcity, disease epidemics, climate change, and pollution, among other devastating problems, are at the top of the list of news headlines. Among other factors, this has resulted in a biased perception of science as a problem solving activity, setting aside and, often, excluding some of its most fundamental expressions. I agree that the basic/applied science ratio is dynamic and responds to a complex array of external factors; yet, some of those driving forces could tip the ratio out of balance.

The path that runs from generating scientific knowledge to its potential immediate application, if any, can be as diverse as the universe of evidence-based findings. It is important to underline that for scientific knowledge to be applicable, it needs to be robust and sufficient to integrally solve a given problem. Robustness of science usually depends on the spatial and temporal scale of its design, which often requires more than a single view to represent the nature of the phenomenon being studied. So not only are multiple studies generally recommended to have a complete enough picture of the tested hypotheses or described phenomena, but diverse views—venturing into the multi-, cross-, inter-, and even trans-disciplinary schemes—are also necessary to successfully achieve the desired results.

From my perspective, the cornerstone of scientific knowledge application is willingness from all implied stakeholders. Aside from the actors facing the problem, there are two other main components involved in this process: scientists and practitioners. One important ingredient behind the complexity of applying evidence-based knowledge is the number and type of involved actors. The number of scientists and practitioners needed in solving a practical issue generally depends on the magnitude or specificity of the problem. Although it may seem intuitive that having more actors solving a problem could increase its probability of success, it can also escalate potential complications. Something similar happens with the type of scientists and practitioners involved in the application of knowledge to address a specific need, where a trade-off arises as the degree of complexity increases due to including multi- to trans-disciplinary approaches. Nonetheless, emerging additional actors joining this interesting equation are currently bridging the gap of complexity when large and diverse stakeholder groups are required to address a specific problem; the most important of these additional actors are “evidence-based knowledge translators”—a blend between applied scientists and decision making practitioners.

Once the actors are defined and all parts share a common goal, an initial step could be to search for preexisting studies that could shed some light on the matter; there is an overwhelming amount of top-notch knowledge gathering dust in science journals! I am not suggesting that preexisting knowledge is generalizable and ready to use; however, it could represent a basis to depart from, saving valuable time and resources. Also at the initial stages of a project, languages—including technical ones—need to be equalized if one primary objective is to level the comprehension of all edges of a given problem based on first- or second-hand evidence-based knowledge.

Charlie Nilon

About the Writer:
Charlie Nilon

Charlie Nilon is a professor of urban wildlife management at the University of Missouri. His research and teaching focus on urban wildlife conservation and on the human dimensions of wildlife conservation. Since 1997, he has ben a co-principal investigator on the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES).

Charlie Nilon

This is an interesting and important topic, one that is certainly relevant to those of us who are trained as ecologists. This Roundtable’s question comes, in part, from the way that the field of urban ecology has developed over the past 20 years. Urban forestry and urban wildlife management are older fields with a strong focus on addressing issues and problems in cities. Lowell Adams (2005) reviews the history of urban wildlife management, noting the development of urban wildlife in the 1970s and 1980s as a sub-field of wildlife ecology and management, the field’s ties in the U.S. to urban planning and to state agency programs, and the strong connection to urban nature conservation programs in Europe, specifically those in the U.K. and Germany. Those programs all emphasized strong science but also application of that science to questions relevant to managers and planners. Two larger urban ecology initiatives from this period, the Man and the Biosphere program (MAB) and the U.S. Forest Service’s urban forestry research program, all combined research with an applied focus on management and conservation.

The last 20 years have been an exciting time in urban ecology. The start of major research efforts in the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. in the mid 1990s brought the study of urban ecosystems into the mainstream of ecology and mainstream ecologists into cities. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation’s long term ecological research projects in Baltimore and Phoenix consciously focused on addressing important ecological questions and continued their emphasis on a human ecosystem approach in studying cities. This research is important and has advanced our knowledge of urban ecosystems, but it does not always translate into information that urban residents can use or that managers can apply.

The gap between researchers and managers is in large part due to the distancing of questions that are important to ecologists from those that are important to managers, planners, and residents. Questions raised by urban residents and managers are viewed by those who fund research as “lacking conceptual focus” or as “unexciting”, or simply as topics not worthy of study by serious ecologists. Peer-reviewed journals often have similar views of applied questions and ask that authors limit management recommendations to statements on what managers should consider. Finally, many university faculty view students interested in careers in management as being not quite good enough, forgetting that universities educate the large majority of managers.

But managers raise questions that are difficult for researchers. Managers are responsible for a large number of native and non-native species across a diverse landscape. Managers often work at a site-scale rather than the landscape or ecosystem scales preferred by many researchers. Managers work with constituents who have perspectives on management that are often different from both managers and ecologists, and managers work for agencies and organizations that may not place a priority on nature conservation. And, managers may not view urban ecologists and the research they do as useful or helpful.

A solution to bridging the gap between researchers and managers in cities may be in viewing conservation issues as collaborative projects that involve residents, managers, and researchers rather than just implementing management practices or conducting research. An example of this approach is Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s urban forestry program’s efforts to replace street trees in low-income neighborhoods. The forestry program worked with residents and with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to identify neighborhoods that were poorly served by the existing tree planting program. The project led to a new approach in working with neighborhoods as part of the city’s tree management program.


Adams L. (2005) Urban wildlife ecology and conservation: A brief history of the discipline. Urban Ecosyst 8:139–156.

Diane Pataki

About the Writer:
Diane Pataki

Diane Pataki is a Professor of Biological Sciences, an Adjunct Professor of City & Metropolitan Planning, and Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Utah. She studies the role of urban landscaping and forestry in the socioecology of cities.]

Diane Pataki

This topic is timely as I’m one of the many researchers who would like to do more to translate knowledge into action. Yet, the notion that progress has been slow and difficult is familiar. In addition to common concerns about communication and process, I see an additional barrier to the integration of science and practice.

Scientists are trained to be critical. We are constantly critiquing ideas, methods, and results. Critique comes in many forms: manuscript and proposal reviews, supervision of student work, and discussions of new projects and findings with colleagues. There are always alternative ways of looking at data, uncertainties in methods and extrapolations, and better ways of conducting experiments and observations. Critique and skepticism are the scientific habits of mind, and with good reason—this is one central way in which we advance scientific understanding.

However, cities can’t be built on skepticism. To construct livable places, we have to envision, inspire, plan, design, and implement. We have to create instead of tearing down. Yet scientists are trained to continually challenge ideas, point out uncertainties, and highlight dubious assumptions. This must be done—there is an important role of examining uncertainties and assumptions of new ideas from a scientific perspective. But there is also a role for science that inspires. The opportunity to integrate scientific knowledge into a new vision for cities, one which translates our increasingly nuanced understanding of nature and human-environment interactions, has never been greater. How can we take advantage of these opportunities?

I have spoken with many practitioners and decision-makers in the cities in which I live and work. There is truly a desire to integrate good science into practice in these places. My research focuses on costs and benefits of different types of vegetation and landscaping in cities. There is wide consensus that re-vegetating cities has many benefits, as evidenced by many posts here and elsewhere. But “the devil is in the details.” Currently, I see a dichotomy in how scientists and practitioners approach this issue. On the one hand, the call for “more green, everywhere” has swept through cities the world over. But the possible configurations for constructed greenspace are virtually endless. Our research has shown (not surprisingly) that these configurations matter—particular plant types, species, and spatial arrangements have a large influence on the outcomes for greenspace, both positive and negative. In many cities, the commonly cited option of restoring native plant assemblages to urban areas is not feasible or even desirable (in arid cities, for example, where trees and other culturally important vegetation is not native). Given the range of options, science can and should inform new greenspace designs, which could be monitored and evaluated with the wide array of instrumentation used to study non-urban ecosystems. But to date, there is still a wide gap between urban ecosystem science and practice.

One way to bridge the gap may be to focus on developing the collective vision of scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders about the cities in which they want to live. Beyond the experiments, the methods, and the data, scientists have a role to play in helping to shape a vision of the future in which our best understanding of place-based ecology, the built environment, and well-being are all integrated. Such visions can be aspirational—even unattainable. And they will change over time. The process of envisioning and working toward a common goal may be enough, even if the goal is later refuted by new information, or otherwise never fully realized.

Critiques have their place, but so does the process of developing a shared vision in which scientific advances are part of an exciting new future for cities and urban nature.

Jose Puppim

About the Writer:
Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira

Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira is a faculty member at FGV (Fundação Getulio Vargas), Brazil. He is also Visiting Chair Professor at the Institute for Global Public Policy (IGPP), Fudan University, China. His experience comprises research, consultancy, and policy work in more than 20 countries in all continents.

Jose Puppim

Urban planning in many countries is a profession, so planning researchers work closely with practitioners. Indeed, the questions posed by this roundtable are objects of research in planning. The issue is broader than knowledge generation, but encompasses knowledge use and acceptance of knowledge. Knowledge in the urban planning context is embedded in the political, social, and cultural context. This is particularly relevant when knowledge is applied in practice and has economic and political implications.

For example, if a new road is been proposed, there are many ways the road could be designed (different routes, different widths, etc.), and each design will have a social, political, and economic implication. For instance, if the road is close to my house, it will increase the value of my house, but if it is too close, it may be a disturbance. Thus scientific and technical knowledge can help the decisions, but the final decisions in the urban context will be a political decision. There is no “definitive truth” or “neutral knowledge” in urban planning, and that is why cities are so different.

As a scientist/researcher, I truly believe that research can advance practice. But I am critical about the use of scientific knowledge in certain instances, which many times is used to empower the powerful (who can buy and use the best knowledge and hire the best technical people) and disempower the powerless (in general, the poor or the weakest in society, such as minorities). Over-reliance on technical information and on the opinion of experts is occurring side by side with negligence of local knowledge and lack of effective public participation from non-technical, other actors in decision-making. This creates an imbalance in the political process and also a sense of overconfidence regarding scientific knowledge that can be dangerous in many instances. Thus, the right direction for good planning is to figure out how to balance the different kinds of knowledge to make better planning processes and outcomes.

The best way to increase and advance interactions between different kinds of knowledge is public participation, which is a political process. Even though public participation can be a means to inform, consult, involve, collaborate, or empower (citizens and scientists); it can also lead to manipulation, coercion, and misinformation. How participation is integrated into decision-making process determines the benefits for specific land use planning outcomes along with legitimacy and fairness of the process. However, there is still a lack of understanding and scarce empirical research done on how the participation of different actors can effectively affect public interventions in land use planning, particularly those promoted by government and developers. What we know is that there is no “right way” to do participation, and an interesting point of participatory/interactive processes is that the outcomes can be very different, even among the same group of stakeholders or with the same people.

Rebecca Salminen Witt

About the Writer:
Rebecca Salminen Witt

Rebecca is the President of The Greening of Detroit, a 25 year old non-profit environmental organization that works to secure the ecosystem of Detroit.

Rebecca Salminen Witt

Consider this recent interaction between a medical researcher and a community leader in Detroit, Michigan:

Researcher: “We are currently studying the interaction between chemical and non-chemical environmental stressors in urban environments. We are planning to study the construction of Detroit’s new light rail system in this context. How can we engage nearby neighborhoods in our research?”

Leader: “Well, my neighborhood is not located along the new light rail line. All of the investment in this City is happening downtown. We need resources in the neighborhoods. We are constantly being studied, but no one is offering us any resources. Y’know what I’m sayin’?”

Both the researcher and the community leader are working to improve Detroit’s environment. Both are committed and passionate about their work. Each could be helpful to the work of the other. But clearly, they don’t have a common starting point from which to develop this potentially fruitful relationship. They aren’t even starting in the same neighborhood, much less walking into a bar together!

This exchange gets to the crux of our focus question. How can we fortify the hyper-local and generally self-interested work of the practitioner with the work of researchers dealing with theoretical concepts often designed to be applicable in a global context and rarely grounded in individual realities?

First, identify common ground. The researcher in this example wants his research to help reduce stress-induced disease. The community leader wants her neighborhood to benefit from the economic development that is the source of the stress that the researcher is studying. Could the researcher study the stress caused by being “left out” of the surge in economic development happening in other parts of the City? Could the Community leader draw attention to the needs of her neighborhood by participating in the study? If they were discussing this over a beer instead of in a conference room, would the conversation be more productive?

Next we should examine the language that these partners are using. Remember the community leader’s question in my example “Y’know what I’m sayin’?” Without thoughtful consideration of the language that they are using in their conversation with one another, neither one of these Detroiters is likely to know what the other is saying. The community leader is looking for resources to get vacant houses demolished and the empty lots mowed on her block. She hasn’t got the slightest concern for the “chemical and non-chemical environmental stressors in urban environments.” Yet she is clearly impacted by the environmental stressors in her neighborhood, and would likely benefit from the results of the proposed research.

Similarly, the researcher needs data, and just wants to talk to some real people who are likely to be affected by his target stressor. If the researcher had simply asked to chat about what was causing neighbors to stress out, he may have engendered a more helpful response. The community leader may have been able to recognize that she is suffering from stress brought on by her environment and might have seen some personal relevance in the research, leading her to participate. Similarly, if the community leader had focused her response on the proposed research instead of the needs of her own neighborhood, she may have found that the research was a resource in its own right.

What this conversation needs is focus and plain language. The next time these two walk into a bar together, I hope they’ll order a beer, take the time to figure out where their interests overlap, and work hard to communicate clearly about opportunities to pursue their common objectives.

Philip Silva

About the Writer:
Philip Silva

Philip's work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. He is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

Philip Silva

Let’s imagine that the scientists at the bar are out celebrating a new publication in a prestigious academic journal and the practitioners are celebrating the successful completion of a big environmental restoration project. Both groups raise their glasses to mark the end of two different knowledge-intensive processes. Their methods for creating new knowledge may be similar, such as natural resource managers using environmental sensing tools to collect data on the outcomes of their restoration efforts. But practitioners and scientists have different motives in their work and different rewards for a job well done. They make different kinds of knowledge for different purposes and they have different long-term expectations for the knowledge they produce.

We often speak of science as if it has a monopoly on the process of making new knowledge. Yet not all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Not all claims made on the basis of observation and evidence are exclusively scientific claims. Not all knowledge is codified using scientific standards, such as blind peer review or reproduction of research results. Science creates scientific knowledge. Other processes and practices produce other kinds of knowledge. We might debate whether science is an exceptional way to create exceptionally reliable knowledge or whether it is just one of many different methods for constructing stable meaning out of the chaos of reality—but that’s a debate for a different forum. For now, let’s just agree that knowledge making isn’t solely a scientific endeavor.

Harry Collins (2007) argues that, “Science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” Practitioners are often faced with day-to-day puzzles that go far beyond the knowledge found in textbooks or journal articles. Laws are passed, ecosystems are restored, polluters are punished, and natural resources are managed on the basis of sound scientific knowledge. Yet in plenty of cases, practitioners have to learn as they go and create their own useful insights into the problem at hand—either because the knowledge produced by science is incomplete or, in cases of complex and emergent systems, because the science doesn’t match reality. Waiting around for science to catch up with the chaos can lead to disastrous results, as Brian Wynne (1996) showed in his study of sheep farmers and regulatory scientists in northern England struggling to manage radioactive fall-out from Chernobyl in 1986.

Knowledge for management needn’t make a detour through the methods and conventions of science. It can, and often must, find its own path. When we speak of practitioners and scientists getting together to co-produce knowledge, we shouldn’t always give priority to the co-production of scientific knowledge, forcing practitioners to carve out a space for themselves in the practice of science and rarely expecting the same of scientists in the service of management. Funtowicz and Ravetz (1991) proposed the idea of “post-normal science” to deal with these issues nearly a quarter century ago, and though they came close to honoring the practical knowledge that comes out of daily management, they nonetheless created a theoretical framework that shoehorned all forms of knowledge production under the heading of science. Mainstream science, in return, has largely ignored their prescriptions—and rightly so. Science is science. Post-normal science is, well, something else; something like the knowledge making practices we see at play in day-to-day environmental management.

I’d like to see more practitioners becoming aware of the knowledge-making and knowledge-managing dimensions of their work. They may find useful insights and ideas in the knowledge that comes from science, but they also need to see themselves as insightful puzzle-solvers with wisdom to share with others in their fields.

In turn, I’d like to see scientists grow comfortable with the notion that other forms of knowledge production can bear a striking to science without having to actually be science. Intellectually informed management and epistemologically humbled science? It’s hardly an inspiring toast to rally our revelers, but all the same, I’ll drink to that.

2046, year of our lady The Fog

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

This is part of the TNOC poetry and fiction series “The City We’re In”.

Lea el poema en español, su idioma original.
Lisez le poème en français.

2046, year of our lady The Fog

Poems by Claudia Luna Fuentes
Translation from Spanish by Gerardo Mendoza Garza

• Fog
It is said that fog is a very low cloud, which is made of tiny drops of water that never stop falling. It is said that fog in order to be fog, must be so thick that it obstructs the vision; that if you look ahead, it is possible to see no more than one kilometer. All that is true, but we say that Fog is the will of Water, the Water that walks standing behind a veil. We say the Fog is our Lady and it is sacred.

• The devotees of the Fog
In the fifth season of the year the city is inhabited by fog
It is when the molecules in their compassion
          kiss the sick gardens
          cool faces of smoldering lovers

Only when there is fog
the streets become empty
and there's some fear
the golden dragon comes
and behind
the devotees of the fog advance

In this city
where sour agreements bind the water
          in polished containers of greed
you and I are going to meet them
          we deliver supplies and metals

the devotees bring in their gaze the horizon of the desert
that as wild and free paradise
it's waiting for us

• Brief testimonies of souls
It was a time of Water subdued
          of Water in concrete cavities
          Water guarded by militia
                    that embroidered with rifles a black limit

of Water that only went to the throat
          of whom their kindness paid
it was a time
of corrupted rivers
          by cultivated greed
          between men of science and miserable strains

As well
it was a time not narrated
of those who fight for a drink

of ours
          fallen to the edge of firearms
          brief testimonies of souls
          who finally bathed in the Water
          and dyed it red

          the dejected
          have become our most sacred offerings

• Clouded their eyes with so much peace
And we shape many temples
spaces safe from review
sites where even
when the military enter
divine buildings they found
emblems of great beauty
          because we consider Our Lady
          in the category of supreme deity
while looking
with an open mouth they fell on their knees
clouded their eyes with so much peace
in that state they retreated

safe were our inventions
with its circuits encrypted in the manner of divine symbols
          safe our studies
          in golden iconography on the wall
          with rosaries of formulas
          that are certainly the way to make Her come

No one but us would ever understand
how science and devotion were one thing
that they are
Night and day
we beseeched to Her all together
with prayers of prototypes
and brains in acceleration

• May everything be confusing
We have arrived here
to hunt a dawn with humidity at ninety or one hundred percent

we want everything to be confusing before our eyes

We beseech
to discover healthy Fog for our children

We implore
not to see beyond a thousand meters

and birds alight on the mist catcher
this manifestation fills us with fervor

• Notes of converts on exceptional days
You must first understand that spirit and matter are vapors
united to Her very fine veil
trust She will come soon
and these months
are the stairs of her steps

if you want to fill in your mouth with Her name
your prayer should be like the noise of the leaves
your song like the wind sifted by a grave rock
you must become love
because Our Lady is love
falling without distinction on every living thing

Meanwhile She returns
sitting on the side of the dam
you must let your singing be heard by the snipers
and hope for one of them
to bend before your gaze
and deliver his canteen
because today is the strongest sunny month
and there's thirst in our children

Can the water of your body
converse with the water that you contemplate?
Diario de montaña. Photo: Claudia Luna Fuentes


2046, año de Nuestra Señora la Niebla

Poemas de Claudia Luna Fuentes

• Niebla
Se dice que la niebla es una nube muy baja, que está conformada por diminutas gotas de agua que no terminan de caer. Se dice que la niebla para ser niebla, debe ser tan espesa que obstruya la visión; que al frente, sólo sea posible ver no más de un kilómetro. Todo esto es cierto, pero nosotros decimos que la Niebla es la voluntad del Agua, el Agua que camina de pie tras un velo. Nosotros decimos que la Niebla es Nuestra Señora y es sagrada.

• Los devotos de la niebla
En la quinta estación del año la ciudad es habitada por la niebla
es cuando las moléculas en su compasión
          besan jardines enfermos
           refrescan rostros de amantes que arden

Solo cuando hay niebla
las calles se quedan vacías
y hay cierto miedo
el dragón de oro viene
y detrás
avanzan los devotos de la niebla

En esta ciudad
donde agrios acuerdos aprisionan agua
          en pulidos envases de avaricia
tú y yo vamos a su encuentro
          les entregamos provisiones y metales

los devotos traen en su mirada el horizonte del desierto
que como paraiso salvaje y libre
nos espera

• Breves testimonios de almas
Era el tiempo del Agua sometida
          del Agua en cavidades de concreto
          Agua custodiada por milicia
                    que bordaba con fusiles un negro límite

del Agua que solo iba a la garganta
          de quien pagaba sus bondades
era el tiempo
de ríos corrompidos
          por avaricia cultivada
          entre hombres de ciencia y estirpes miserables

era el tiempo no narrado
de quienes luchamos por un trago

de los nuestros
          caídos al filo de armas de fuego
          breves testimonios de almas
          que finalmente se bañaron en el Agua
          y la tiñeron de rojo

          los abatidos
          se han vuelto nuestras más sagradas ofrendas

• Nublados sus ojos con tanta paz

Y dimos forma a muchos templos
espacios a salvo de la revisión
sitios en los que incluso
al entrar los militares
edificaciones divinas encontraban
emblemas de gran belleza
          pues consideramos a Nuestra Señora
          en la categoría de suprema deidad
al mirar
con boca abierta caían ellos de rodillas
nublados sus ojos con tanta paz
en ese estado se retiraban

De esta forma
a salvo estaban nuestros inventos
con sus circuitos cifrados a la manera de símbolos divinos
          a salvo nuestros estudios
          en iconografía dorada sobre la pared
          con rosarios de fórmulas
          que ciertamente son la vía para hacerla a Ella venir

Nadie fuera de nosotros entendería jamás
cómo ciencia y devoción eran una cosa
que lo son

Noche y día
rogábamos a Ella todos juntos
con rezos de prototipos
y cerebros en aceleración

• Que todo sea confuso

Hemos llegado aquí
a cazar un amanecer con humedad al noventa o al cien por ciento

Buscamos que todo sea confuso ante nuestros ojos

descubrir Niebla saludable para nuestros hijos

no ver más allá de los mil metros

y aves se posan en el atrapaniebla

esta manifestación nos llena de fervor

• Apuntes de conversos sobre días excepcionales
Debes entender primero que espíritu y materia son vapores
unidos a Su velo finísimo
confiar que Ella pronto viene
y estos meses
son los peldaños de sus pasos

si quieres llenarte la boca con Su nombre
tu oración debe ser como el ruido de las hojas
tu canto como el viento tamizado por una roca grave
debes volverte amor
que amor es Nuestra Señora
cayendo sin distinción sobre todo ser viviente

Y en lo que Ella vuelve
sentada tú a un lado de la represa
debes dejar oír tu canto por los francotiradores
esperemos que alguno
se doblegue ante tu mirada
y entregue su cantimplora
que hoy es el mes de sol más fuerte
y hay sed en nuestros niños

¿Puede el agua de tu cuerpo
conversar con el Agua que contemplas?


2046, année de Notre Dame la Brume

Poèmes écrits par Claudia Luna Fuentes
Traduits de l’espagnol par Joel García Govea et Carmen Bouyer

• La Brume
On dit que la brume est un nuage bas, formé de fines gouttelettes d’eau qui ne tombent pas sur terre. Aussi, on dit que la brume pour qu’elle soit appelée brume, doit être tellement dense qu’elle obstrue la vision ; qu’à l’horizontale il soit impossible de voir au-delà d’un kilomètre. Tout cela est vrai, mais nous disons que la brume est la volonté de l’Eau, L’Eau qui marche derrière un voile. Nous disons que la Brume est Notre Dame, et qu’elle est sacrée.

• Les dévots de la Brume
Pendant la cinquième saison de l’année la ville est habitée par la brume
c’est alors qu’en sa compassion les molécules
          embrasent les jardins malades
          rafraîchissent les visages des amants qui brûlent

Seulement lorsqu’il a de la brume
les rues se trouvent vides
et une certaine peur est là
le dragon d’or vient
et derrière lui
avancent les dévots de la brume

Dans cette ville
où d’aigres agréments emprisonnent l’eau
          dans des contenants polis d’avarice
toi et moi, allons à leur rencontre
          nous leur donnons des provisions et des métaux

les dévots portent dans leur regard l’horizon du désert
qui, comme un paradis sauvage et libre,
nous attend

Brefs testaments des âmes

C’était le temps de l’Eau soumise
          de l’Eau dans des cavités de béton
          de l’Eau gardée par la milice
                     qui brode avec ses fusils une limite noire

de l’Eau allant seulement jusqu’à la gorge
          de celui qui payait ses bontés
c’était le temps
des fleuves corrompus
par l’avarice cultivé
entre hommes de science et lignées misérables

c’était le temps non narré
de ceux qui luttent pour une gorgée

des nôtres
          tombés au bord des armes à feu
          brefs testaments des âmes
          qui en dernier lieu se sont baignées dans l’Eau
          et l’ont teinté de rouge

          les abattus
          sont devenus nos offrandes les plus sacrées

Les yeux assombris par tant de paix

Et nous avons donné forme à de nombreux temples
espaces protégés de la révision
des endroits dans lesquels
les militaires en y entrant
rencontrèrent des édifices divins
des emblèmes de grande beauté
          car nous plaçons Notre Dame
          dans la catégorie de divinité suprême
en la regardant
la bouche bée, ils tombaient à genoux
les yeux assombris par tant de paix
dans cet état ils se retirèrent

De cette manière
nos inventions étaient sauvées
avec leurs circuits cryptés à la manière de symboles divins
          nous sauvions nos études
          iconographie dorée sur le mur
          en chapelets de formules
          qui certainement sont la voie pour La faire venir

Personne, autre que nous, ne comprendra jamais
que la science et la dévotion soit une seule chose
et elles le sont

Nuit et jour
nous La supplions tous ensemble
avec des prières de prototypes
et des cerveaux en accélération

• Que tout soit confus
Nous sommes arrivés ici
Pour chasser l’aube avec une humidité à quatre-vingt ou cent pour-cent

Nous cherchons à ce que tout soit confus devant nos yeux

Nous priions
découvrir de la Brume saine pour nos enfants

Nous implorons
de ne pas voir au-delà des mil mètres

et des oiseaux se posent sur le capteur de brume
cette manifestation nous remplit de ferveur

Notes de convertis sur des jours exceptionnels

Tu dois comprendre d’abord que l’esprit et la matière sont des vapeurs
attachés à Son voile infiniment délicat
sois confiant qu’Elle arrivera bientôt
et ces mois-ci
sont les échelons de ses pas

si tu désires remplir ta bouche de Son nom
ta prière doit être comme le bruit des feuilles
ton chant comme le vent tamisé par une grande roche
tu dois devenir amour
car Notre Dame est amour
tombant sans distinction sur tous les êtres vivants

et pendant qu’Elle revient
assis toi à côté du barrage
tu dois laisser les francs-tireurs entendre ton chant
espérons que l’un d’entre eux
s’incline devant ton regard
et qu’il rende sa gourde
puisque nous sommes désormais au mois du soleil le plus fort
et que la soif étreint nos enfants

L’Eau de ton corps
peut-elle converser avec l’Eau que tu observes ?

40 Years of Success Protecting Backyard and Endangered Species

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

2013 is the 40th anniversary of two important moments in wildlife conservation history. In 1973, Congress enacted and President Nixon sign into law the Endangered Species Act. The ESA has become the U.S.A.’s most important wildlife conservation law, helping rescue from extinction the American bald eagle, the Florida panther, and hundreds of other at-risk species. It also has unleashed countless wildlife and habitat restoration projects across the country and served as the model and inspiration for endangered species laws and programs around the globe.

A whooping crane plucks a blue crab from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by David Sager, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
A whooping crane plucks a blue crab from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by David Sager, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been a major supporter of this “safety net for wildlife” since its inception, helping to shape the legislation and the implementing regulations, helping to secure needed funding, and defending the law against the efforts by special interests to weaken. We also have participated in numerous on-the-ground efforts to restore endangered species, such as the historic reintroduction of the gray wolf into the Yellowstone and central Idaho ecosystems and the restoration of thousands of acres of habitat for the whooping crane along the Platte River.

1973 was also the year that the National Wildlife Federation launched its Certified Wildlife Habitat (CWH) program, in which homeowners, business owners, parks agencies and others voluntarily commit to providing the habitat elements needed by native wildlife in their communities. Today, over 160,000 properties are enrolled in the program. Perhaps most importantly, many local officials today are using CWH as a vehicle to organize community-based wildlife conservation efforts. Soon we will have secured participation from 175 certified communities, representing 10 million residents, committing to restoring and maintaining wildlife habitat in their communities.

For endangered species, habitat is the key

Cuyahoga River fire, 1952 - Jefferson St. and W. 3rd. Photo by James Thomas, courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.
Cuyahoga River fire, 1952 – Jefferson St. and W. 3rd. Photo by James Thomas, courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.
What do these two programs have in common besides their anniversary? On the surface, seemingly little: the federal endangered species program is a massively complex legal framework and CWH is a small and simple volunteer program. However, in the course of their 40-year histories, both programs have helped to demonstrate the great things that can be accomplished for wildlife in urban and suburban spaces.

The importance of urban wildlife restoration was not a subject of national debate in 1973. The American people were focused on declining environmental quality, but when it came to the cities, the big topic was the sorry state of the air and water and the inadequate regulation of industrial pollution. When the Cuyahoga River again caught fire just outside of Cleveland in 1969, the national outrage boiled over and spurred an avalanche of pollution control initiatives, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Michigan Rep. John Dingell being sworn into Congress in 1955.
In contrast, much of the national conversation about wildlife in that era was focused on areas outside of the cities. For example, when wildlife champion Rep. John Dingell (a Democrat from Michigan) went to the floor of the House of Representatives in January 1973 to speak in support a new Endangered Species Act, he cited six species that live (or once lived) in the wide open spaces: the timber wolf, the red wolf, the wolverine, the kangaroo, the Asian elephant, and the eastern cougar. Like most of his contemporaries, he was rarely if ever heard discussing the plight of endangered wildlife in and around the places where most people live.

Fortunately, the authors of the ESA were sufficiently visionary to offer protections to any plant or animal species threatened with extinction, regardless of where it might reside (although in the U.S., plants and invertebrate animal species would get significantly less protection than vertebrate animal species, and species outside of the U.S. would get far less attention). Beginning in 1973, for the first time ever, developers and local governments in the U.S. cities and suburbs were required to think seriously about the implications of their proposed actions on endangered wildlife.

Innovative protections for threatened plants and animals

This endangered Mission Blue Butterfly was found on Milagra Ridge near Pacifica, California. Photo by Kirke Wrench, entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
This endangered Mission Blue Butterfly was found on Milagra Ridge near Pacifica, California. Photo by Kirke Wrench, entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
One of the key innovations that would drive urban and suburban wildlife conservation was the habitat conservation plan (HCP) under Section 10 of the ESA. The first HCP was crafted in the early 1980s by developers and local officials in San Mateo County, California, just south of San Francisco. Seeking to build subdivisions in the habitat of listed butterfly species, the developers recognized that winning approval of their plans from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would require habitat acquisitions and restoration measures to offset the harmful impact. The result of their efforts was the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan, operated to this day by the San Mateo Parks Department and funded by developer fees. In its 1982 update to the ESA, Congress cited this plan as basis for the new Section 10 “incidental take” permitting and HCP provisions.

Implementation of Section 10 has not been without controversy. I represented NWF and other conservation groups in the late 1990s and early 2000s challenging some implementation decisions in the courtroom and as an advocate before the Clinton Administration to help ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the needs of developers and those of wildlife.

Where do urban and suburban habitats come in?

The golden cheeked warbler is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Gail Buquoi, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
The golden cheeked warbler is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Gail Buquoi, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
Today, 40 years after the passage of the ESA, dozens of large-scale HCPs, and hundreds of single-parcel HCPs, have been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The large-scale HCPs are the most noteworthy because most have substantial involvement with local governmental entities charged with land use. Metropolitan areas ranging from Austin, Texas, to Pima County, Arizona, to San Diego, Orange, Contra Costa and Placer counties in California now have large-scale efforts underway to restore urban and suburban wildlife thanks to the ESA. Cities in the Pacific Northwest have become leaders in watershed protection and restoration thanks in part to the addition of salmon to the threatened and endangered species list in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, many urban and suburban leaders in places without ESA listings are also pioneering new approaches to wildlife restoration, while helping reconnect people to the nature in their communities. The core idea of the Community Wildlife Habitat certification—that city leaders will harness community pride and volunteer spirit with just a simple recognition and thank you from a national conservation organization—is spurring exciting wildlife restoration efforts in big cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and small suburbs such as Davie, Florida, an ethically diverse town just outside of Fort Lauderdale with 96,000 residents.

Studies on how best to conserve biodiversity in urban yards and parks are in their relative infancy. One recent study of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program found that participants were providing significantly greater habitat for native wildlife than non-participants. However, to date, no one has studied how best to organize efforts at a landscape scale to ensure that measurable benefits to targeted species are achieved. NWF has begun reaching out to partners such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Geological Survey to address this challenge for the Community Wildlife Habitat program.

In the meantime, groups such as Monarch Watch, initially focused on using citizens to gather scientific data on the Monarch Butterfly, are shifting to a more active approach, challenging their members and supporters to carry out the restoration actions needed to address threats to long-term survival. Thanks to the internet, the typical urban dweller now has a wealth of information on how to make a difference, both on the science and on the groups who are working on the ground to make a difference.

Residents restoring native plants in Davie, Florida.
Residents restoring native plants in Davie, Florida.
Many people I know feel daunted by reports of species decline and extinction. Virtually every day they hear some frightening new statistic on the enormity of the biodiversity crisis. Just a few days ago, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change revealed that almost two thirds of common plants and half the common animals could see a dramatic decline this century due to climate change.

Although it may be tempting to conclude that there is little that can be done given the vastness of the threats facing wildlife, the past 40 years of experience with the ESA and CWH suggests otherwise. These programs show that with a strong Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws, complemented by strong voluntary restoration programs, substantial progress on wildlife conservation can be made in the very communities where we live.

John Kostyack
Washington, DC

The Nature of Cities

This post was also published on NWF’s Wildlife Promise.

A picture of the side of a building with several metal staircases and fire escapes coming down with greenery around them

A Balcony Greenhouse: Food and Wellbeing in the City

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
A balcony greenhouse is like having a little tiny piece of the planet, at home. The first time I successfully grew a tomato, I was happy! Too bad my landlord didn’t let me keep it.

Urban building codes and design standards play a crucial role in how a city adapts to contemporary challenges, like climate change and urbanization. I live in Montréal where, like many cities in the world, building codes largely came into force on account of two big urban phenomena: fire and disease. In Montreal’s case, fire was of particular concern. In fact, our building codes are largely responsible for the presence of the iconic outdoor staircases typical of Montreal architecture. They’re everywhere … “Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones” … as famous author Mordecai Richler once wrote in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

A picture of the side of a building with several metal staircases and fire escapes coming down with greenery around them
Photo: Lrdgcampus

I’ve been thinking about building codes because I recently had a run-in with them. For quite a few years I’ve been wanting a balcony greenhouse to grow food, protect my houseplants, and gain some reprieve from Montréal’s six-month-long winters. So, one weekend I gathered a couple of people and finally built one. It was spectacular. All of my plants were immediately happier. With near full sun on most days from my south-facing balcony doors, I could see clearly just how a full four seasons of growing was possible in this 4 x 2 square meter wooden house of light and warmth. As the installation came to a close, and I could feel the new space wrapping in around me, I started to wonder to myself: at this late stage of advanced capitalism, and with dwindling time to adapt and mitigate the effects of our changing climate: why aren’t people building more of these?

A picture of a woman sitting on a stool in a greenhouse looking out the window
Photo: Bogdan Bondarchuk

Looking out over both sides of my balcony there are rows and rows of other balconies which sit empty for the most part. But, at the same time, I live in a neighborhood where the waitlist for a community garden plot is close to five years long. In fact, just a few years ago to help with this the city finally completed the Woonerf project ― a 1.5-million-dollar investment to build an incredible green Woonerf complete with expanded community gardens. This helped, but it merely put a dent in the 3000+ waitlist with just 30 or so new spaces. And, at this scale and expense, it is unlikely that we will see more garden plot expansion anytime soon.

Well, the answer to my question was delivered to my inbox in the shape of one angry landlord who promptly told me to take it down citing: building code violations. I did check, and honestly, there is nothing in there that says I can’t, but it doesn’t say that I can either. So, herein lies the problem, and one that catapulted me into a world of thoughts leading me to conclude: cities need to allow this. Re-visiting and changing building codes to reflect the changing needs of cities ― just like the winding staircases in the age of fire and disease ― is critically important in this case, for two main reasons: One of them has to do with Capitalism and the other with basic human needs: food and wellbeing. Let’s start with the first one.

21st Century Capital is a Vegetarian 

You may have noticed this in your city too, but capital investors love green projects. Anywhere there is a plant, garden, green-lane, or the promise of one from the city, these kinds of developers are somewhere lurking in wait for the opportunity of a lifetime: the promise of more profit. Not every developer in a city behaves like this — but far too many of them today do. My neighborhood recently experienced this. In Montréal, I live in a neighborhood called, Saint-Henri. Over the past 15+ years of living here, I’ve fallen in love with the funky edgy undercurrents of the neighborhood. The Saint-Henri – Little Burgundy – Point Saint Charles triangle in the Sud-ouest is historically one of the poorest sectors of the city and is also lovingly remembered as the home and birthplace of quite a few famous jazz musicians, including Oscar Peterson. Last nod: you can also catch a historical glimpse of this part of town’s industrial poverty past as portrayed by the well-known Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy in The Tin Flute.

Over the past 10 years, Saint-Henri underwent a long and slowly drawn-out cadastral surgery where any perceived to be old, run-down, slightly slanted, or otherwise, lot or building ripe for profitable growth was put under the magnifying glass, earmarked by realtors, and targeted by developers for implantation and sale. As beautiful an initiative as the city’s Woonerf project was, it was also unmistakably a driving force for a lot of the mayhem. The city’s investment to revitalize the area sent a signal. A concerted front moved into the neighborhood. We were rebranded as the new “up and coming” place to be in Montréal. Within a short 6 years, the old homes and duplexes that were waiting for gradual baton passing from older generations to slower growing new homeowners and younger families, who would regenerate the cycle and character of the neighborhood, were swooped up to market on the investors’ assembly line. It was impossible to compete with the middleman and the new price tags. A lot of us felt like Saint-Henri had been grabbed, turned upside down, and shaken for any possible pocket change we had. The community organized a housing committee to deal with the onrush of demand for affordable housing, from people who had been displaced.

When I was a student in university, and very much in the abstract, I learned the academic term used for this is called: gentrification. I understood it to mean the rich move in and the poor are pushed out. But, I had yet to live through one. Experiencing it has colored in the nuances. A lot happens before affluence moves in, and it isn’t really the people buying the turned properties you have to worry about — it’s the market signals and the oftentimes unchecked greed of the developers who bought them in the first place. It influences everything from the choice of materials, the speed of construction and design, and the economic class of citizens being catered to and prioritized for marketing and sale purposes. All of these decisions are predominantly dictated by the thought and desire: how much more profit can we make? When the ‘up and coming’ train starts moving, there isn’t much you can do to stop that market force. And annoyingly, there is no centrifugal point, tangible surface, or person to throw stones at. The business of this machine is concluded behind office doors and in paperwork long before you know it’s happening.

It’s impressive, actually. Capitalism is a beautifully clear and simple system that works to motivate and move people “effectively”. I only wish the motivator and end goal was different and that more meaningful driving forces could move as quickly and swiftly as the urge to make profit and power. Unfortunately for us, the leading global economic system is designed around infinite capital growth on a planet that is comprised of finite resources. There is nothing more unabashedly parasitic about the human condition than capitalism. We’re an organism that lives on and drains the resources of many other species to derive benefits and nutrients entirely at the expense of the planet. When I look at gentrification now, I see that giant complex problem in a micro dose, pulsating in my city as one node among many, many, many other incidents of the same thing all around the globe. So, how are balcony greenhouses a potential answer to the failures of giant green urban investment projects?

Firstly, they’re much smaller. They could give more decision-making ability, choice, and access to the citizens ― both renters and owners ― who would be using them according to their needs and context. Changing building codes to allow for this kind of action where citizens and landlords would be allowed, by law and design, to build a balcony greenhouse on existing building stock where feasible, helps make access to nature less scarce and could potentially more justly distribute it. It could provide access more rapidly across the island, by just giving people those tools so we could start to cut into these long waitlists. They could build and choose how they grow. Lastly, you could arguably get more done with the city’s budget if you’re not just concentrating the greening effort on massive, centralized projects. In being smaller, we could afford to incentivize more of them, and the direct benefit of the expenditure is potentially more impactful as a result. Especially for rental stock — it becomes a food asset that stays with the building regardless of the particular renter or owner. Which brings me to the second critical point in support of the balcony greenhouse: food and well-being. In the process of decentralizing greenspace and creating more just urban nature, as a co-benefit we create more space for urban farming and gardening. As the world continues to urbanize and food costs continue to rise as a result of global geopolitical instability, we desperately need to be building infrastructure like this in cities now, for the future.

Food insecurity & urban farming: A marriage proposal

In my city, there is a demand from citizens for more space to garden and farm that is going un-met. At the same time there is growing food insecurity. Food insecurity comes from two things predominantly: a) you can’t afford to buy food, and/or b) food isn’t located close enough to you to access it. After your rent, the second biggest bill is your grocery bill. Saint-Henri is an area of Montreal that has traditionally been food poor. We suffer from both phenomena. Great new places to do your groceries have popped up over the last few years, but people’s access to them remains inequitable. As the neighborhood continues to evolve, more of us are now more affluent, but those new shops are, for the most part, catering to those new affluent neighbors. We are closer to achieving the 15 min city ideal than we ever have been, but 15 minutes for whom? Food is more expensive than ever. St-Henri remains an area where hundreds of people choose between their rent and good quality healthy food each month because they don’t have enough money to do their groceries. And did you know that we are also a neighborhood that wastes food at alarming rates? I volunteer with a community fridge project called Feed the Hen, and I am constantly shocked by just how much free food there is to go around in one tiny neighborhood.

A map next to three photos of people in a group, a loaf of bread, and sacks of various vegetables
Photo: Feed the Hen, Frigo Communautaire

Picture this: Every Tuesday and Thursday, a local bakery (now a small regional chain) donates their end-of-day surplus which is usually between 30 and 50 loaves of bread per day. Each week, just for those two days, that’s roughly 60 – 100In one year that is approximately 2,880 and 4,800 loaves of bread we re-distribute! Another example: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a dairy transporter (Quebec has a free milk program for public schools) contacted us to see if we wanted crates of milk products. He was set to deliver close to 600 milk cartons and yogurt cups to the local school, which he learned too late, was closed due to an outbreak. It took us the entire day to find homes for it all. So, this is not a food scarcity problem. What we have is a connection and communication issue. I haven’t been able to find any data on this, but I do wonder how many of the 3,000+ people on the wait list for the community gardens in my neighborhood, are also those homes suffering from food insecurity, and relying on our community fridge? I think many of us have the image of the tinkering middle-aged white gardener looking for ways to fill their time when we think of gardening. Maybe this is part of the problem too. So, to round off my second point: balcony greenhouses can contribute to food security and well-being by creating better access to quality food for those who need it. They may also create more secure long-term access to a place to grow for the grower. Community garden plots can be plagued by hierarchies and troubling power dynamics because there are too few spots, so they are carefully guarded by those who already have them. Currently, there are just over 12,000 community garden plots on the island of Montréal that service a population of approximately 1.78 million. Saint-Henri is not the only neighborhood with a waitlist. They all have them. From just those that I called and spoke to and from speaking with other experts and community activists working on food, I believe that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 people on waitlists in my city. That is a lot of potential urban farming stock in a long old, centralized pipeline waiting for the city to build more plots on land. It is of concern for another important reason too. Traditionally, we have always grown food in rural areas, and it is then transported to the city. But agriculture is an aging challenge in Quebec, and Canada as a whole.

A picture of a field of cows
Photo: M’Lisa Colbert

Young people in Canada on mass do not want to farm and live in rural towns. If you look at studies conducted in Quebec alone, there are roughly 5000+ farms across various crop and animal production industries that are operated by farmers 55 years and up, who would like to retire within the next 5 – 10 years and currently have no plan for their successors. That is a lot of local food we potentially stand to lose. In a colder climate like ours, urban greenhouses will need to be part of the solution. Moreover, bringing farming into the city allows the urban grower to practice growing. I spent my last year working on a rural farm project, and I have been incredibly humbled by just how much I didn’t know about food. As an urbanite, my foodscape was ruled predominantly by aesthetic experience, health preoccupations, and marketing: color, shape, vitamin levels, taste, and brand names guide me through my preferences and needs as an urban eater. But the real important things that get us to the aesthetics we are lucky enough to preference: Soil, water, manure, climate, temperature, and time were nowhere in my repertoire. The first time I successfully grew a tomato, I was only happy I’d grown something I could actually eat! I was pathetically triumphant. In a way, ‘I had made fire!’ like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. In a city, this knowledge set is critically important and often lost in comparison to those of us still living in rural areas. Lastly, a balcony greenhouse is like having a little tiny piece of the planet, at home. The warmth and green give your mind and body reprieve and connection to the important natural beauty that is at times hard to come by in our urban jungles of glass, concrete, and stone, to quote David Byrne.

Exhibit C: Sobering Reflections

The end of my journey is a mixed one. Unfortunately, my landlord didn’t consider any of these points to be valid ones. And I will not be allowed to keep my balcony greenhouse. He was worried about his building investment, and the potential damage or safety risk it may pose. Let me interject here with a minor point to let you know that tenants are allowed to have BBQs on their balconies. The irony here teaches a great lesson about possibly the greatest challenge we face in building more sustainable cities. If we are worried about safety, but we are okay with letting anybody and their mother hook up a 30L propane cylinder to an ignition system on a balcony, I think the real challenge here isn’t an engineering or safety one. The real issue is our urban imaginaries. What I proposed is not a common or normalized use for a balcony, just as how we see the gardener is clouding our understanding of for whom we would be building gardens, and thus distilling the real urgency. A lot of work needs to be done to change how we imagine cities can be used, and who is using them.

There are some understandably hard and sad moments to getting a no. One of which is that as a renter, you are stuck having to ask, which is the majority experience for most people living in cities. When you are not the property owner, oftentimes your needs, desires, and wants as a citizen in the city are left unattended to because you do not have the power or positionality to make them a reality. It is frustrating to have to sacrifice your own autonomy. That isn’t so great for well-being.

I did feel a silver lining to all of this though: I feel encouraged to continue to move and push for better more human cities, and I feel happy to have had the experience to build an idea that I was dreaming of, even if it meant I had to tear it all down at the end.

I had the privilege to live in my dream for a day. And it was a beautiful day.

M’Lisa Lee Colbert

On The Nature of Cities


A Barley Field Grows on Soviet Concrete

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In the summer of 2016, the largest Soviet-era residential area of Estonia was living a new life. The district Lasnamäe, including Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, was built in the late 70s, but it has fallen into stagnation. Little has changed since its inception, and those big plans are still unfinished. A vast traffic channel to the city center is waiting for a planned-but-never-built central tramway. The road, the bridges, and the stairways-to-nowhere are completed, desperately waiting for the tram.

The installation of a barley field where a planned tramway lays empty reminds us of the cycles of nature and life.

This summer, Lasnamäe’s urban plan got a new mid-term solution: I and another young designer planted a barley field on the unused stairs in the middle of the highway. Ann Press and I are both practicing interior architects and Master’s degree students at the Estonian Academy of Arts’ Interior Architecture Department. What started off as schoolwork for us grew into a significant urban installation.

The idea of a barley field installation came from history—barley was the earliest crop grown in Estonia and was grown in the area of Lasnamäe in circa 500-600 BC. Because the culture of barley growing was brought to Estonia from Russia, and the tramway stairs mark the border between Estonian- and Russian-speaking districts, the art installation carried an idea of integration for us. The aim of the barley field was to bring some contrasting softness, some life and progress to this industrial area, but also to encourage the locals to take steps towards changing their living environment, instead of waiting for the authorities to do it, given that the tram has still not arrived after over 40 years.

This project was founded by a crowdfunding campaign, built and cut with the help of volunteers. The soil—45 tons of it—was carried on the stairs bucket by bucket. By the end of September, the crop was ripe and we held a harvesting party for the stair-field.

We made the harvested crop a gift for the crowdfunders; some if it is now living a new life as jewelry, while some of it was taken to a laboratory for tests that will calculate air pollution levels of the area.

Throughout the summer, the stairs of barley offered the district a new puff of life—young, verdant seedlings growing and turning into a ripe yellow barley field, reminding us of the cycles of nature and life.

The installation begins. Photo: Hendrik Osula
Spring 2016. Photo: Markus Tamm
Late Summer 2016. Photo by Tõnu Tunnel /
LasnaViljaMäe lõikuspidu
Photo: Madis Veltman
LasnaViljaMäe lõikuspidu
Photo: Madis Veltman

Thus far, the locals  and the media have given us only positive feedback, which is the most important thing; some of the residents of Lasnamäe have even contacted us to ask how to get the permissions to build their community gardens in Lasnamäe. And this was what our art installation was aiming for—to encourage people to make changes in their district themselves, not to wait for a tram that has not still arrived for 40 years.

Andrea Tamm & Ann Press
Tallinn, Estonia

On The Nature of Cities

A Bengaluru that Endures in Essence, Yet Constantly Transforms

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future, by Harini Nagendra. 2016. 214 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0199465927 / ISBN-10: 0199465924. Oxford University Press. £ 25.99 (Hardback). Buy the book.

There is a need for an “inclusive commons” a new form of nature in cities, one that can bring city residents together around the common cause of securing a sustainable and resilient future.
In her book Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future (OUP, 2016) Harini Nagendra suggests we draw on the “cultural imagination and capacity for coexistence” demonstrated through the long history of the city of Bengaluru as we strive for sustainable and resilient modern cities. This call for considered and creative action is an appropriate directive in an age of rapid and dynamic urbanization. Her book is fascinating in that it simultaneously meets the directive of contemporary urban ecology in addressing the social and the biophysical, and also shares a personal lived experience of a city. The book opens with the personal marker “… this area has transformed almost literally in front of my eyes in the past decade …” (p. 1), and so we are introduced to the author and the city of Bengaluru, bound up together. Nagendra grew up in Bengaluru and reflects on her childhood, and the text is peppered with references to her personal space, experience, and identity, and this sets a tone for the book which is immensely engaging.

While the book is about nature in Bengaluru, the story one feels is really hers and while full of robust science, anchored spatial analysis and sound anthropological insights, it has the accessibility of an autobiography. It is the story of a city told through the eyes of a resident and globally recognized urban ecologist. Nagendra emerges from a childhood steeped in nature as an adult who holds it dear. Nagendra situates herself as child, adult, participant, learner, academic, witness, and activist. Her activism is restrained and she resists the temptation to gripe but makes clear and directed points around government and governance failings to manage according to well-defined plans, a circumstance which resonates with other cities in the global south. Her activism is expressed through views and frustrations that are clear, directed, and linked to grounded examples. For example, she labels Nehru’s directive that Indian cities develop and grow in strict accordance with agreed plans, “grandiose”, and “futile” (p. 56). That said, she acknowledges herself as part of the system and responsible too for the emergence of a sustainable city, and she refrains from general and obstructive denigration.

The book tells the story of the emergence of the city, laying out the biophysical and natural history of the original site of Bengaluru, from the early establishment of villages and initial settlement, the growth and development of the complex system of lakes, the subsequent British rule and the import of a particular type of nature and the social division of the city, and ultimately to independence and a contemporary Bengaluru which faces global and local environmental challenges. The book never deviates from its intention to share an understanding of nature in the city as a constant that Nagendra describes as both, “enduring in essence and substance”, yet is also, “… constantly transforming its form and function” (p. 7). Against this backdrop, Nagendra picks up on a broad array of urban ecology topics and presents a series of neatly packaged chapters that read like essays and range in scale and focus from the goings on in private yards to the public spaces of streets and lakes. Urban ecology requires a multi-disciplinary agility and Nagendra is undaunted by the task as she moves easily between landscape considerations around significant shifts in vegetation cover through time, to places of worship, and down to the social anthropology of life under individual trees. She states as her intent to “depict to the reader how nature has played a changing role during the evolution of the South Indian City” (p. 5) and she certainly achieves this.

While the focus of the book is unashamedly the city of Bengaluru, the book should readily make it on to the reading list of any postgraduate urban ecology course in any city across the globe. The book is far-reaching in its treatment of urban ecology topics and gives us history, resilience, nature and poverty, blue nature, sacred nature, public nature, and private nature. A student could readily find some point of traction here, and the opportunities to compare and contrast to their own circumstances are evident throughout. The theme of resilience runs through the book, but is taken up directly in Chapter 3, “Resilient City: From Colonial to Independent Bengaluru”. The concept of resilience is debated, and Nagendra wisely does not engage in this debate but rather presents an environmental history of Bengaluru that provides just the kind of empirical material on which to consider resilience irrespective of how one might choose to define the term. The detail of this chapter, researched in evident depth, is gratifying. The use of mapped trees through time, interpreted in association with historical texts, or failing that, speculated on, provides a degree of detail that is powerful and convincing.

Through environmental narratives, the history of Bengaluru and its resilience (or lack thereof) to change is presented. The narrative starts with a clear depiction of the biophysical backdrop, to early settlement with a landscape defined by agriculture and manipulated to this end, to one of separate development and variable landscape views in colonial times, through to transformation for real estate and light industry. The most recent dramatic and unchecked transformations of remnant agricultural land to hard urban surface Nagendra notes as, “much to its disadvantage as a garden city” (p. 56). While the dominant voice of colonial authorities is undeniable in the evidence base, she effectively dispels the myth that nature in Bengaluru is wholly defined by this period, but adds with a wry tone, with particular reference to the predominance of narrative from this period, “one does not know what the Indians thought of it all” (p. 50). Rather what is presented is an honest account of a long history of an urban nature that is a function of an amalgamation of views, emerging in response to mutable power relations, planning schemes, and variable implementation, through time.

This urban fusion is captured nicely in the description of a resident German horticulturalist that drew on the writings of a classical Sanskrit poet for inspiration in selecting plants for an historical greening campaign. The complex and diverse social history of the city and how this relates to urban nature is captivating. “As the form and function of nature in Bengaluru have changed over millennia, the players and actors that shape nature in the city have also transformed in various ways. Biodiversity is valued for productive recreational, and spiritual purposes in diverse ways in different types of land uses, ways that have profoundly altered over time.” (p. 60). As a temporal concept any understanding of resilience must be linked to environmental history and Nagendra reminds us not to judge Bengaluru on the basis of its contemporary nature but rather to see this as a function of a long and important history, and one throughout which nature has been central to much of what makes Bengaluru what it is today.

The same attention to empirical detail is evident in all the thematic chapters. In Chapter 4 “Nature in Personal Spaces: Home Gardens in Bengaluru” the reader is offered insights into Indian gardens that give voyeuristic pleasure. Here nature is presented as a signifier of status with gardens ranging from the useful to the purely aesthetic, the wealthier designed with elements to screen private gardens from “the curious (and often envious) eyes of the proletariat” (p. 61). Chapter 5 on “Nature and Poverty: Vegetation in Slums” presents detailed data on vegetation and tree cover across the socio-economic spectrum of Bengaluru and flags the fact that, “Slums have a particular relationship with nature” (p. 79). The complex livelihood and socio-cultural systems operating in these marginal communities are described through detailed examples, such as the case of slum cattle which are in turn lost as a function of the loss of grazing land with social repercussions in securing marriage partners. The risks and vulnerabilities associated with shifts in, or lack of access to, urban nature for the urban poor are well described. We are reminded that “nature in slums cannot be descried solely in terms of exposure to environmental hazards.” Where these “congested pockets of poverty also constitute parts of the city that have a strong relationship with nature”, as “almost all slums in Bengaluru have at least one sacred tree where nature is worshiped outdoors” (p. 80).

Informality and its relationship to nature tends to be overlooked, or worse caricatured, in the literature and Nagendra chastises the audience for the persistent lack of research on women, poverty and the environment. The ensuing chapters each offer more than enough to engage the reader covering most aspects of the city with insights on nature in relation to road networks in Chapter 6, “Nature on the Road: Street trees in Bengaluru”, public nature in Chapter 7, “Parks: Nature in public spaces”, and urban water systems in Chapter 9, “Blue Nature: City of Lakes”. Chapter 8, presents “Sacred Nature: Places of Worship”, which for me is a highlight of the book and warrants particular mention in that sacred nature, or at least how it manifests, is somewhat particular to the Indian city. Here specific species and their respective roles are described, different religions are engaged, and fascinating insights are offered on practice. Sacred trees are described as “planted in specific patterns believed to symbolize cosmic order” (p. 149) and we are reminded again to take nothing at face value when it comes to interpreting nature in contemporary urban form. Stories are shared of shifting power among deities in response to changes in the places and spaces of worship in relation to land cover change. Nagendra ties these considerations back to resilience, noting that “Sacred spaces in Bengaluru thus form resilient locations for the conservation of urban nature in the face of rapid change” (p. 161). We are reminded again of the surreptitious activist as she ends the chapter by raising the question of whether we can use these insights to good effect, and warns that the current movement for a, “… pan-Indian form of Hinduism, as some political institutions are attempting to fashion (…), cannot facilitate a pluralistic pathway forward” (p. 162). The potential to draw on socio-cultural uses and engagements with nature in addressing contemporary environmental problems is evident, but one that as Nagendra notes will take an inclusive and engaged approach.

In her final chapter Nagendra reflects on the story of her city among the broader global trends in urban ecology drawing in particular on other global south cities for lessons in plotting a sustainable future for Bengaluru, one that renders the City, “adaptive and resilient to change” (p. 195). She closes with words, “Challenges abound, but the need is obvious” (p. 195), and certainly, this is the sense with which she is imbued. The indispensable role of nature in a city, demonstrated repeatedly through periods of history and from multiple angles, is evident. So are the challenges in securing this nature into the future as shown by past reflections of periods of decline and recovery. Nagendra notes the need for something new, and reminds the reader of growing environmental justice issues in modern cities, particularly evident in cities of the global south. There is a need for an “inclusive commons” a new form of nature in cities, one that can bring city residents together around the common cause of securing a sustainable and resilient future.

The work is thought-provoking and I cannot imagine that anyone could read this book without thinking, “how would this play out in my city?” In this respect, Nagendra inadvertently invokes the holy grail of urban ecology which is how much can we generalize about the ecological functioning of cities? While she speaks to the broader project of understanding South Indian cities, Nagendra never promises to make comparisons and makes no significant attempt to address the broader question of generalizing across cities. She does, of course, reflect on her own work in relation to the published findings of others and in this sense the City of Bengaluru is somewhat positioned.

And at the end she again invokes other global south cities in seeking lessons for the future, but her intention is not to compare, but rather to give depth and texture to one city. What she gives us is the “horizontal and vertical” of one city, and what the book does do is invite others to do what she has done. The book immediately calls for other urban ecologists to put together the kind of detailed insight offered here for their own city. The power of a shelf full of such books would be tremendous.

I look forward to seeing what this book inspires in urban ecologists in other cities around the world, and in particular in the global south.

Pippin Anderson
Cape Town

On The Nature of Cities

To buy the book, click on the image below. Some of the proceeds return to TNOC.

A City Designed by Trees

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Seeing trees as sacred is not an anomaly; it’s the fact that we’ve somehow lost this fellowship that’s the anomaly.
Awake a few hours earlier than necessary, we are on bicycles heading through urban infill, in a part of town that used to be Osaka Bay. Moving inland, we pass through a few old shopping arcades, and several dozen close-knit neighborhood blocks where century-old homes with wood frames and soil walls, mingle with newer concrete apartment towers.

Ten minutes later, we pass a 12th century wooden lighthouse. Previously at the ocean’s edge, today it stands several kilometers inland, thanks to the gradual land-reclamation and urbanization projects that have taken place here from around 1610, and continue today. The lighthouse is no longer lit, but for a moment, I imagine it still working, its light shining not into the ocean, but into a sea of buildings.

We continue past the lighthouse. Our destination is the well-forested park just across the way.

Once a week, my wife Suhee and I make this short morning trip to say hello to one of our favorite trees in the city, a towering, sprawling Camphor. The Camphor tree is around two centuries in age, and has captured our affection since we first came upon it. On that first meeting our bikes halted in unison at the tree. Not only the shape and size, but the way this tree held the space was somehow mesmerizing. We both put our feet on the ground, heads slowly bent upwards, mouths agape. Since then, we’ve brought many friends to meet this tree: artists, farmers, and even a botanist from the United States who remarked “That’s a Camphor alright. Golly. I’ve just never seen one so huge.” Golly was a pretty strong word for this man.

Our favorite tree on a morning in early Spring in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

In our weekly visits to the tree, we normally have a bow and a smile, touch the tree, and enjoy some time sitting under its canopy with a cup of tea or coffee. As we sit, the sparrows, crows and turtle doves actively chirp, caw, and rustle above and around, and the “Nankai Line” train, on the opposite side of the park, rattles past with typical punctuality, shuttling people in or out of the city center every three minutes and thirty seconds. But time has a habit of slowing down here. Sometimes those three minutes and thirty seconds seem like hours.

This past week I didn’t have the time – aka dedication – to visit the Camphor, but Suhee did. She reported that while she was there, a cute old couple approached her, and the tree. The couple happily talked about the grand tree, informing her that it was the oldest in the park. After touching the tree, the old couple said goodbye  and continued on their way.

It was moving for Suhee to see this old couple, who have the same habit in visiting the tree as we’ve adopted. Hearing the story of a couple who have been at it for much longer than we have brought a sense of respect, and of comfort.

Saying hello to our favorite tree in Summer in Osaka, Japan / photo: Suhee Kang, cc by-sa]

Indeed, when one looks for it, there is much proof that we humans know ways to live with this Earth.

Though large urban forests are not common in most Japanese neighborhoods, old trees are many. These trees are found variously in the small parks occurring every few blocks, or in the Buddhist temples punctuating the urban landscape, nearly all of which prominently feature at least a few large, old trees.

So too do the numerous Shinto shrines in the city host tree elders. In these sacred spaces, trees are often honored like royalty, with entire complexes dedicated to nature, torii gates leading up to five-hundred-year-old trees, and regular visitors who stand in awe and pray to these tree elders.

“Bow. Two Claps. Pray to the Tree Kami.”

This is what an old man once told me as I approached one of the old enshrined trees in Osaka. The word “Kami”, which the man used, is sometimes translated to “God” in Western writing. More accurately in this case, it refers to the essence or spirit of a natural element.

Sumiyoshi Taisha (left) and Tenjinnomori Tenmangu (right), two of the many urban Shinto shrines in Osaka, Japan. Photos: Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

The old man was more or less instructing me how to pray to the essence of a tree.

Even where not explicitly stated, such places play the role of guardians of the urban forest. More than this, they are spaces where urban dwellers can connect to something older and grander than themselves, whether it’s through tradition and ceremony, or by simply walking through these spaces on a regular basis, as many do.

Some will call this an antiquated thought.

Perhaps it is.

Is there room for such “old ideas” in the future of sustainable cities?

Seeing trees as wise elders

With this question in mind, I’d like to try an exercise in imagination. If you will be so kind as to play along, try to imagine a curiously beautiful tree in your own neighborhood. Any tree will do, but it’s best if it’s a tree in a place nearby that you can remember.

With the image of that tree in your mind, now imagine that someone wraps it with a ribbon, gives it a wooden sign to signify its birthday, species, and perhaps some interesting fact about it, and then constructs a permeable border—not a chain-link fence, but something like an informal area of acknowledgment—around it. People in the neighborhood, too, are intrigued by the tree, and even more so, by the way one of their neighbors has thus highlighted it. Imagine that these neighbors also begin to develop some matter of friendly affection for the tree. When they pass by, they give a nod, one elderly woman gives a bow. Even those who don’t physically acknowledge the tree nevertheless maintain an awareness of its curious beauty. Imagine further now, that a few times a year, some of these neighbors begin to gather to have a celebration around the tree. Formally, the celebration may not necessarily be about the tree. Informally, the tree is the master of ceremonies.

Now imagine this happening at the same site, with the same tree, for a few hundred years.

By this point it would be improbable that some deep relationship had not been formed between the community at-large and this tree. Although this story may not be familiar to many of us, it is somehow easy for many of us to imagine. This is because it is not an isolated or new story. It is a part of the story of humanity, ever since humanity began. The importance of fellowship with trees is historically, a large part of who we are as a species.

Indeed, seeing trees as sacred is not an anomaly; it’s the fact that we’ve somehow lost this fellowship that is an anomaly.

An elder man on a bicycle admires a late-blooming tree in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

There is an essence about this story—and these spaces as they exist in the real world—that tugs at the deepest parts of our being, an essence which is the product of generations of grateful interactions between human beings and trees.

Throughout human history and in every part of the world where they grow, trees have been held as a symbol of the natural and inevitable cycle of life and death which we are all a part of, and further, as our wisest living elders. Quite literally, our oldest trees hold the knowledge of beings who have lived for thousands of years, interacting with the Earth and universe along wholly different modes and timespans than we humans can ever experience.

Nearby where I grew up in California, there are trees living that were born before recorded human history, before any Greek philosopher uttered a word, before any religious text was written, before the rational mind was idolized. Surely, if wisdom comes with age, then trees are among the wisest living beings on this Earth. Good reason then, why the ancient roots of the word “wisdom” are found in the Scandanavian word for wood or forest.

Is it possible to re-ignite such an understanding and reverence in the places we live today?

It is possible; and it’s happening as we speak.

Cultivating the seeds biophilia

Biophilia is not a quality that some humans have and some humans lack.

So far as we can see, it is a quality that all human beings have, but which has been suppressed by various contemporary cultural beliefs that run contrary to it. In this way, we might see biophilia as a seed, sometimes dormant, waiting as seeds do, for the right conditions to grow. Today’s cultural rituals of consumerism and the quest for endless monetary growth are quite effective means of keeping these seeds dormant.

But what are the conditions for growing these seeds?

For some hints, we can simply look to examples where biophilia is alive and growing. These examples exist not only in Japanese Shinto shrines, but in nearly every corner of this Earth, from the sacred and culturally valued trees across India, to laws like Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, giving rights to nature in Bolivia and now dozens of other countries, states, and cities. And lest you think that the United States is bound to be woefully behind in this respect, remember that it was an American lawyer and court justice who gave us serious pause to consider the inherent rights of nature—see the 1972 legal essay Should Trees Have Standing, and the dissenting remarks that it spurred in a court case—almost 50 years ago.

Practical, on-the-ground actions are also many, from The New York City Tree Map and Trees for All in the United States, to efforts in tree-culture-cultivation in Singapore, in Uganda, and in the EU, just to name a few examples from contributors here at The Nature of Cities.

The author visits a favorite California Oak in San Jose, USA. Photo: Suhee Kang, cc by-sa

At the intersection of these two categories—the cultural and the practical—there are ecological artists who have been working for several decades, to help us question and better understand the possibilities in human-tree relations. These efforts range from Alan Sonfist’s proposal in the 1960s to return small pockets of New York City into forests that reflected the city’s pre-colonial state, to the Joseph Beuys’ act of dumping 7,000 large basalt columns in a public space, and demanding that each one can only be removed if an oak tree is planted along with it. Sonfist’s project helped form a serious culture of re-greening New York City, and Beuys’ work likewise, resulted in 7,000 oak trees being planted in Kassel, Germany, a movement which spread to other cities soon after.

More recently, the ecological artist duo Tim Collins and Reiko Goto lassoed some biologists and musicians to help them listen to the breath of a tree. They built a living installation called Plein Air, where visitors can do just that; trees breathe, visitors listen. The work of Collins and Goto gives a technological twist to an age-old understanding that yes, humans can learn to listen to trees.

The question we face now, is what we’ll do with our listening ability.

Trees are fundamental for life

On the most basic of levels, without trees, our cities could not exist.

This is not to say that a city with no trees will suddenly disappear, for surely there are cities built within naturally treeless landscapes , but rather that we must acknowledge the ways in which the tree supports our very lives here. It cleans and produces the air we breathe; it regulates our microclimates, cools our sweltering asphalt and concrete landscapes; it provides stability to our soil, our rivers, mountains, and fields; it creates the conditions for increased biodiversity, offering home, habitat, and shelter for so many other living things who, in turn, lend their services to innumerable other parts of our urban ecosystems.

Recent research tells us that the tree is no less than a keystone structure for life on this earth.

Can a building, street, sidewalk, or parking lot offer any more than this?

In some cases, this question is rhetorical. In others however, perhaps the balance of the needs of humans and trees might necessitate the street winning this argument. This depends on where you’re looking from however, and we can quite easily argue that all too often, our view is exclusively from the human point. Without much thought, we have a nasty habit of saying yes to convenient infrastructure, and no to what we view as “encroaching” nature.

But when a tree asks for more space in the city, who is encroaching on who?

A lone tree survives after the razing of a neighborhood for future development in the middle of Seoul, South Korea. From the series “Trees Thriving in Glorious Nature” by Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

Our attempts to answer such questions inevitably turn to economic quantification, which in turn, can only render trees as mere commodities. For this, we can never rely solely on economic justification, either remove or to save trees. Look no further than the Sheffield Tree Massacre for the end result of this logic.

If a tree offers so much to us beyond the economic, if a tree is sacred, if a tree is indeed a keystone of our environmental wellness, and a reason for our continued existence here, then why not at least learn to listen to its voice?

If we did listen, how might the things we hear transform the landscape of a city over years, decades, and centuries?

A city infrastructure, dictated by trees

One way to answer this, would be to follow a road similar to that of the aforementioned legal efforts to value and honor trees. These efforts however, still inherently suffer a deficiency in forcing trees to answer to the human legal and monetary system. From the point of view of the tree, this must surely be absurd.

As a practicing ecological artist, I propose an alternative, in the form of a framework for a municipal code. Treat this framework as an open challenge to the municipal leaders who truly believe in building an ecologically sustainable, resilient city, which goes as such:

In the case where a mature tree requests more space within the urban domain [as in the case where a tree’s roots or branches encroach into existing or planned public or private space or utilities, or when said tree obstructs human rights of way, or otherwise leads to the deterioration or instability of public or private infrastructure] the tree will not be altered, killed, or otherwise harmed. Instead, the tree will be allowed to grow, and human habits and existing city infrastructure will be altered in order to accommodate the tree’s request for more space.

Is the above request outlandish?

Tongue-in-cheek. Admittedly it sides with the tree.

We’re not used to siding with a tree.

We’re not used to accepting that a tree’s intentions and needs might hold as much value as our own.

Inasmuch, the above text is a reversal of our current anthropocentric ways of dealing with trees.

Today, we assume that urban structures are the most important things on Earth, and so these structures, and the perceived human needs tied to them, necessarily control how cities develop. This is so even when we claim “ecological” development.

But what would a city look like if trees had complete control over development? Would trees allow concessions to humans, judging them by nature’s growth requirements rather than human industry’s, holding high court to decide whether a human development was sufficiently benefiting nature’s economy?

What would the bottom line judgment from a convening of trees?

Image from the series “Trees Thriving in Glorious Nature” by Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

The suggestion goes far beyond what most of us would consider reasonable.

In doing so, where does it draw our imaginations?

When I imagine the city of the future, I imagine scenarios such as those involving the elder trees in so many Japanese neighborhoods. I imagine unfathomably sacred spaces in which one feels closer to the real world in which our cities are built; spaces where one feels respect and reverence for the living world which we inhabit. I imagine cities centered around trees, cities that grow organically, not brazenly existing in spite of their trees, but gently morphing over time together with their trees.

Collective experience from our biological sciences, from ecopsychology, from environmental law, and as well from thousands of neighborhoods, cities, and cultures around the world that favor their trees, all would suggest that this kind of future is not only desirable, but deliverable.

As more nature is incorporated into the places we live, humans will naturally become more closely attuned to the rhythm and reality of their inherent individual relationships with nature. The dormant seeds of biophillia can be cultivated within us, and when they are, our culture may again stand a chance to make decisions that ensure the well-being of our future, and of the Earth’s. Together.

A shrine in the deep mountains of Nara Prefecture, Japan. Photo: Patrick M. Lydon, cc by-sa

As a culture, we need to be unflinchingly realistic with ourselves and what we are doing as human beings on this Earth. Our contemporary mainstream view—a cocktail of continued economic growth, waste, resource extraction, and technological fixes, all of it divorced from really knowing nature—is perhaps the most unrealistic, and dangerous, proposition one could possibly imagine for humanity.

If we are serious about our calls for sustainability, for environmental equity, and for resilience, we must begin to work together to build something more truthful, honest, and realistic.

That something cannot be dictated by any human being. Whatever form it takes will require us to learn to work with nature, to learn to listen to nature, and like any good team player, to do things like giving our tree elders a chance to call the shots once in a while.

We don’t necessarily need a tree shrine, an eco-artwork, or municipal code to do any of this—though these things likely won’t hurt.

All we truly need is a tree and some intention.

This, at least, is within the capability of each of us.

All of which makes me think, I shouldn’t miss the next visit to our favorite camphor.

Patrick M. Lydon

On The Nature of Cities

References and Suggested Reading:

Anderson M.K. (2013) Tending the Wild, Berkeley: University of California Press

Stone C.D. (1972) Should Trees Have Standing?–Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects, Southern California Law Review 45: 450-501

Hageneder, F. (2005) The Meaning of Trees, San Francisco: Chronicle Books

Manning A., Fischer J., Lindenmayer D.B (2006) Scattered trees are keystone structures – Implications for conservation, Biological Conservation 132:3 311-321

Naess A. (2010) The Ecology of Wisdom, Berkeley: Counterpoint Publishing

Sewall L. (1995) ‘The Skill of Ecological Perception’ in T. Roszak, M. Gomes, A. Kanner (eds) Ecopsychology, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, Sierra Club

A City That Is Blue, Green and Just All Over

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
See the full list of Essays
Introduction, Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen and David Maddox Tearing down Invisible Walls Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White, Toni L. Griffin In It Together, Lesley Lokko Cape Town Pride. Cape Town Shame, Carla Sutherland Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives, Darnell Moore Ceci n'est pas une pipe: Unpacking Injustice in Paris, François Mancebo Reinvigorating Democracy Right to the City for All: A Manifesto for Social Justice in an Urban Century, Lorena Zárate How to Build a New Civic Infrastructure, Ben Hecht Turning to the Flip Side, Maruxa Cardama A Just City is Inconceivable without a Just Society, Marcelo Lopes de Souza Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman Designing for Agency Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination, Mahim Maher Up from the Basement: The Artist and the Making of the Just City, Theaster Gates Justice that Serves People, Not Institutions, Mirna D. Goransky Resistance, Education and the Collective Will, Jack Travis Inclusive Growth The Case for All-In Cities, Angela Glover Blackwell A Democratic Infrastructure for Johannesburg, Benjamin Bradlow Creating Universal Goals for Universal Growth, Betsy Hodges The Long Ride, Scot T. Spencer Turning Migrant Workers into Citizens in Urbanizing China, Pengfei XIE The Big Detox  A City that is Blue, Green and Just All Over, Cecilia P. Herzog An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay, Mindy Thompson Fullilove Justice from the Ground Up, Julie Bargmann Elevating Planning and Design Why Design Matters, Jason Schupbach Claiming Participation in Urban Planning and Design as a Right, P.K. Das Home Grown Justice in a Legacy City, Karen Freeman-Wilson Epilogue: Cities in Imagination, David Maddox
11. HerzogSince humans settled about 10,000 years ago, we have significantly altered and explored the landscape to create the civilization we now have. The landscape has been a source of material and non-material resources, feeding us in all senses. Ecologically rich landscapes associated with technologies were essential for all societies to emerge. The shape of landscapes along our history, have reflected how we produce our habitat and the goods that sustain us, our economies, and the way we live and relate to each other.

Every single urban dweller deserves the right to green landscapes—safe and healthy with trees and clean waters, silent and peaceful.
What do I mean by “landscape?” Landscape is the outcome of human interventions and natural processes and flows that transform environments along time; they are a dynamic and continuous change in urban, suburban and rural areas. The result is a mosaic of gray (buildings and infrastructure—transportation, water, sewage, and energy systems), and green and open areas (ecosystem remnants; parks and squares; rivers, lakes and ocean fronts; urban trees; green roofs and walls and so on). Urban landscape is where we live, work, play, learn, create and get together. Therefore, healthy urban landscapes are indispensable for just cities.

Healthy landscapes are multifunctional and biophilic—they prioritize people and biodiversity over other uses—and are closely correlated with human’s physical, mental and spiritual health and well being. For instance, in Boston, the Emerald Necklace was conceived in the late 19th Century to regenerate the polluted industrial city. It is an early example of a green infrastructure along the Muddy River that connects parks, squares, the Jamaica Lake, and the first built wetland. After more than a century, the greenway protects the river from diffuse pollution, erosion and rainwater run-off, biodiversity thrives and people move and have multiple passive and active activities. So, there are genuine intrinsic material and non-material values of a green-blue landscape.

Why is that? I believe we need nature in our lives, and the landscape we live in and access everyday matters a lot! Every single urban dweller has the right to such green landscapes—safe and healthy with trees and clean waters, silent and peaceful. Ecological components (parks, squares, green streets, community gardens, green school yards etc.) should be distributed in the urban tissue, accessible to all people. In Rio de Janeiro some beaches are known to be the most democratic spaces, where all people meet and enjoy nature.

The market has ruled over the urban landscape, with economies prioritizing urban sprawl and segregation from the early times of industrialization, investing in high and fast economic return. Today, the city is a huge business, and the land is the precious asset that is in an unfair dispute between the corporations and the population. Corruption is a tremendous driver to maintain the urban expansion changing the landscape, and perpetuating the concentration of decisions and financial gains in the hands of few, in spite of the needs of the common.

There is a factor that plays an important role in many societies: fear. Security comes first, and what is the response of frightened urbanites? Divide the city! Divide the landscape! Live in “safe” gated developments. The market loves and uses this fear in its favor. And what about the rest of the working population? Depending on the educational opportunities to which they had access, they may have to live in poorly serviced degraded landscapes, in distant neighborhoods with precarious transit systems, or in worst-case scenarios, slums in vulnerable areas where the formal market cannot operate. In both cases most of the landscape has been depleted and converted into inert inhospitable surfaces, and their gardens and plants play a mere cosmetic role.

Rio de Janeiro is an excellent example of hostile and segregated urban landscape, in spite of its stunning hills and ocean views. The area was originally covered by Atlantic Rainforest. The steep hills and waters in the lowlands dominated the landscape until the late 1800s. In the process of the fast urbanization after the 1900s, the landscape was deeply transformed, land was created and ecosystems disappeared. Most of its wetlands and rivers vanished underground or in drainage canals connected to sewage disposal. The city has sprawled since the 1960s, driven by car-oriented transportation. The lack of proper social housing left almost no choice for less privileged people but to live in areas vulnerable to landslides (the steep slopes in the massifs that divide the city) and floods (the lowlands), or in distant regions. The city is socially segregated, with wealthier people living in areas close to the ocean and green areas, and poorer residents residing in the favelas (slums) located in the slopes facing the fabulous sights. Air, water and even beach pollution is a serious issue that threatens the health and well being of the population, both rich and poor. Fear dominates residents from all social classes. Old and new buildings, residential and commercial complexes are gated and hire private security.

How to achieve safe and healthy landscapes for all is a huge challenge. I believe people and biodiversity have to be the top priorities. The urban form matters and requires a proper balance between multiuse built and open vegetated areas in dense, socially diverse urbanization. Urban sprawl impacts not the only the landscape but also requires heavy investments to keep the entire territory healthy (pollution free) and safe under official public control.

There must be effective participation by the residents, not only in the process, but in the choices and outcomes that affect their daily lives. There is a people-nature reconnection movement that is happening all over the world. Citizens are fighting and working together to protect and enhance green and blue (water) areas, they are collectively planting food. These civic movements are improving the sense of community and the local culture. There are many examples that are blooming and transforming hearts, minds and landscapes, gathering people in public spaces to learn about the sources of life. They are even inspiring an increasing number of cities to prioritize the conversion of gray surfaces into high performance landscapes, building green infrastructures and emphasizing mass and clean transportation for all. Social media is playing an important role to connect people with varied social, cultural and educational backgrounds and enable the exchange of knowledge and experiences.

An excellent example of citizens’ engagement power is Verdejar, a social-environmental NGO founded 18 years ago. It is located in one of the largest and most problematic favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Their activities started with one resident planting native trees in a degraded slope at the Misericordia Hills to provide shade, prevent erosion, and protect it against further invasions. Others joined and became dynamic members. People gained environmental and civic awareness. The result today is a vigorous shift in the former depleted landscape. Part of the hills is covered by replanted forest, agroforestry and vegetable gardens. Landscape social and ecological functions are restored, with a focus on local culture enhancement. The mission of Verdejar is both educate and apply local sustainable development in a very harsh social environment.

The quality of the landscape can be measured to assess how just and livable an urban landscape is. Ecological, social, and disaster loss indicators (quantitative and qualitative) can be used to evaluate how the landscape performs, and how it both benefits and threatens people (e.g. biodiversity, waters, air, Urban Heat Islands, well-being and happiness, health, access to green public spaces, mobility, degree of concentration/pulverization of land ownership, floods and landslides). Freiburg, Germany is a pioneer green city, where residents articulated to fight against a nuclear power in their vicinity in the 1970’s. The city is now a reference on green technologies, but not only. It has developed new green districts based on landscape planning and design, as Rieselfeld and Vauban. The development strategy was to sell the public land in small lots, combining privately financed and subsidized housing construction. The districts’ landscapes have integrated built and green areas, natural drainage systems, bioclimatic architecture, clean energy and transportation. The results are high living standards in safe, healthy, socially active and ecological diverse landscapes for all.

In the current scenario, the risk of extreme weather events affect mostly—but not only—poor and vulnerable people. Adaptation of cities to a changing climate based on ecosystems is a smart decision and residents must be aware of how the landscape can be planned and managed, know what is at stake, and decide on what they want for now and for their future. I believe Verdejar is an excellent model of how ecological education and resident’s engagement valued and transformed the landscape into a more resilient and adaptive form, where heat waves, strong storm threats and pollution are mitigated.

Ecological landscape planning and design with the introduction of green infrastructure have a great potential to reshape lifeless cityscapes, regenerating natural processes and functions, enhancing people’s lives. In Seattle the Thornton Creek landscape project regenerated a water course that was buried under a parking lot, with community’s participation reaching public and private goals to support economic development and environmental sustainability.

Committed interdisciplinary practitioners and scientists’ teams, stakeholders representing all segments of society with a deep landscape comprehension, combined with education and engagement of decision makers may be a strategic approach to leverage the urban transformation we urgently need.

I believe it is time to reshape our modern paved urban landscapes that reflect the social and ecological predatory society we have been living in for the last two centuries. We must recreate resourceful new habitats for all of us, and for the biodiversity we depend upon.

My vision of a just city has a green-blue landscape that permeates human interventions, and offers well being for all residents on a daily basis. This landscape has clean waters surrounded by greenways, mimics nature and the natural flows, is full of life, and connects people and biodiversity in urban environments. The green landscape incorporates built structures with green roofs and walls, has productive gardens and the aesthetics looks like the native ecosystems, requiring low maintenance. The landscape is essential to enable all urbanites to understand how biodiversity and waters are critical to just, safe, prosperous, sustainable, resilient, and livable cities.

Cecilia Herzog
Rio de Janeiro

The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.

A Collaborative Project in City Planning for Urban Biodiversity in Japan

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

From 2014, we have been taking part in a project in city planning for urban biodiversity in Fukutsu city, Japan. Our lab (Keitaro Ito laboratory, Kyushu Institute of Technology) has been directing the project in collaboration with Fukutsu city and high school students from Fukuoka Koryo high school and Fukuoka fishery high school. The project’s origins result from the city government’s desire to make environmental planning part of the basic city planning, resting on the ecological characteristics of the city. They asked us to collaborate in this planning.

The site

Fukutsu city is located in the southern part of Japan. The land area of the city is 52 km2 and the population is 58,000. The city has coastal area to the west and is hilly to the east. In the tidal areas, we can find designated endangered species such as Horseshoe crab. In wintertime, migrating birds (such as Black-faced spoonbill) stay for several months around the coast and in paddy fields. There is a fishport at the sea coast where we have extensive ecological system services. Japanese people, especially the local people around here, they like fish for eating. (I usually eat vegetables and like fish for observing…) Anyway, if we lost Fukutsu’s beautiful environment, nobody would get receive the benefits of ecosystem services, such as fish.

For example, Horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus), Black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor), and Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta ) are thought of as icons of this area of nature, and the existence of these species is an index of nature’s richness and biodiversity. They were classified as an endangered species and they choose the area for their habitat. Therefore, the city has rich biodiversity, even located beside a big city. People are living with nature.

However, the populations of these species are reported to be decreasing these days.

The city view from the hill top Photo: Keitaro ITO
The city view from the hill top Photo: Keitaro ITO
Horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus) found at low tide in. Photo: Tsuyazaki-higata
Horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus) found at low tide in. Photo: Tsuyazaki-higata
The migrating bird, Black-faced spoonbill, in winter time. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The migrating bird, Black-faced spoonbill, in winter time. Photo: Keitaro ITO

Some of the forests have big problems too, such as the expansion of bamboo.Because of the lack of maintenance of forest by people, the forested landscape around the city has changed. As the bamboo comes to dominate the forest, the forest floor is goes dark in deep shade and other biodiversity is significantly reduced.

And unfortunately, people sometimes don’t realise how the nature they live with is important. A lack of daily connection to nature has become normal for them, a situation one can easily observe in visiting local places in this country.

So, one of our important roles is this. How shall we lead the people in a return to thinking about nature in Fukutsu?

The problem of the forest, bamboo population is expanding
The problem of the forest, bamboo population is expanding


The city environmental plan is aiming to evaluate the characteristics of the city’s nature through a collaboration with young people and local residents. We think it is very important hear the voices of younger people who are living in and loving this city.

So we conduct project meetings with city government every month and hold workshops about environmental planning with high school students and local citizens every three months. High school student participation has had an especially good effect in this project because they live in the city; sometimes the parents also take part in the workshops. In this series of workshops we continue to discuss how to plan the engagement and how to participate. Typically in Japan, the majority of the participants tend to be elderly people. But in this workshop, students from University and high school students and local residents are actively participating in roundtable discussions, in a format called “World Café.” The mixing of younger and elderly people in discussion is so interesting because we have been able to compare generational experience, discussing present day problems in relation to the environmental situation in former times .

Students making a survey in the coastal area.
Students making a survey in the coastal area.
Round table discussion, students and local residents together.
Round table discussion, students and local residents together.
Fish market: Ecological system services from the sea.
Fish market: Ecological system services from the sea.
The biotope map in the city. Credit: T. Nakamatsu, Y. Hanada and K. Ito
The biotope map in the city. Credit: T. Nakamatsu, Y. Hanada and K. Ito

Analysis and the plan

Now, we are trying to evaluate the present condition of the natural and city environment by using GIS and a field survey. Through this survey, we made a biotope map for preserving the nature in the city that includes, for example, important places for habitat and biodiversity in the city. There are various types of biotopes included in the map, such as forest, river, ponds for irrigation for the paddy fields and coast.

We are aiming to evaluate each biotope for habitat and also people’s activity, because many of the natural elements are preserved alongside human activity, such as paddy fields. For example, paddy fields have water spring to summer. In that period, there are various creatures in the water, and biodiversity is changing by the season. So, we are also creating the calendar of biodiversity in each season.

The plan should be completed in 2017. We are challenging ourselves to make the plan effective for preserving biodiversity and ecological system services. Each biotope has functions, not only as habitat for creatures but also for providing places for ecological learning by children. Landscapes and natural environments afford habitats for play and learning. For example, children are not allowed in some river banks, but if we could evaluate and think of such places in terms of nature restoration and education, such areas could be multifunctional. Therefore, this project also aims to provide natural sites for children’s play and activity. It will help to create places in which young children will have sustained contact with nature in the city.

In this plan, we are thinking of sustainability and ecological services very close to our city. The farmers are producing vegetables in the fields and fisherman catch fish around the coastal area. As we think of sustainability and biodiversity in the city, the plan will be very important for managing the city environment, but also in sustaining people’s connection to nature. Such connection is a key factor in sustainability, since without knowledge of nature, people will be less engaged with the idea of sustaining nature.

Keitaro ITO
Fukutsu, Japan

On The Nature of Cities

A Comic Book Sparks Kids Toward Environmental Justice

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In my first blog post for The Nature of Cities, I wrote about environmental justice as a bridge between traditional environmentalism and an increasingly urban global population. I suggested that we had work to do to makes environmental concerns salient to a new, ever-more urban generation. Since then, I have been working to test this hypothesis. To that end, I developed an environmental justice education project being implemented in New York City schools. This project is built around Mayah’s Lot, the environmental justice comic book I co-wrote with artist Charlie LaGreca for the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER). Funding for the project came from the CUNY Law School Innovation Fund. You can read the book here, and listen to an audio version with pictures here.

Mayah's Lot: An environmental justice comic book. Credit: Rebecca Bratspies
Mayah’s Lot: An environmental justice comic book. Credit: Charlie LaGreca and Rebecca Bratspies

(Full-disclosure, I am the founding director of CUER, and the Center’s mission in many ways mirrors my own—connecting scholarly research with social change advocacy, particularly around issues of environmental democracy and community empowerment.)

Why environmental justice?

The roots of the Mayah’s Lot educational experiment go back more than a decade. In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus sent shockwaves through environmental communities with their provocatively-titled essay “The Death of Environmentalism.”

The Death of Environmentalism by Shellenberger and Nordhaus
The Death of Environmentalism by Shellenberger and Nordhaus

Claiming that environmentalists in the United States were like generals fighting the last war, the authors urged that tackling climate change requires a rethinking of the most basic assumptions about the nature of environmental problems, and the solutions needed to overcome those problems. In particular, the authors urged that environmentalists abandon what they call an overly narrow conception of environmental issues, and instead make common cause with unions, industry and others to frame environmentally beneficial social change in terms of economic growth and prosperity. While I agreed with some of these points, I parted company with the authors’ narrow focus on co-opting the rhetoric of economic prosperity. Instead, I became convinced that environmental sustainability had to put social justice squarely at the center of its mission.

The IPCC's climate modeling of carbon dioxide emissions.
The IPCC’s climate modeling of carbon dioxide emissions.

Nearly a decade into this Death of Environmentalism debate, what we are seeing may actually be the death of the environment itself. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations hover at the 400ppm threshold, human population is headed toward 11 billion, 2012 Arctic sea ice hit its lowest extent ever, and we are losing species up to 10,000 times faster than background extinction rates. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenario, laid out in 2007, looks increasingly over-optimistic. Yet, the same debate is still raging over the same set of environmental versus economic tactics: even as the world drastically changes for the worse.

It is to one small subset of this ongoing debate that my work in New York City schools is directed. Too often, New Yorkers bracket environmental issues as happening “elsewhere,” or minimize those issues as the province of “liberal white people.” Yet, many of the ills that plague New York’s poor neighborhoods, especially its communities of color, are directly related to toxic waste dumps, excessive truck traffic, bus depots, waste transfer stations and other “locally undesirable land-uses” (often called LULUs, hence Lulu is the villain in Mayah’s Lot).

Enter LuLu: the villain in Mayah's Lot.
Enter LuLu: the villain in Mayah’s Lot. Credit: Charlie LaGreca and Rebecca Bratspies

I am convinced that environmental justice is the way out of this conundrum, and I am convinced that youth education is the place to start. In an era of climate change, environmental concerns are the core of social justice. It is no accident that Mayah’s Lot begins with Mayah, saying:

Environmental Justice, I bet you don’t even know what that means…I had no idea that it actually affects every one of us. That is, until it came to my home.”

Why a comic book?

Once scorned as representing “an all-time low” in education, comic books have recently come into their own as educational tools. Rechristened “graphic novels,” many comic books now grapple with weighty social issues on a regular basis. In 2011, the United States Center for Disease Control released Preparation 101: Zombie Pandemic—a graphic novel targeting emergency preparedness. That same year, MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber published a political primer in comic book form entitled Health Care Reform: What It is, Why It’s Necessary, How it Works. Educators are increasingly realizing that comic books have an untapped potential. Their bright colors and simple story lines make them accessible, and few people are intimidated by being asked to read a comic book. That makes these books an attractive tool for reaching non-traditional audiences, reluctant readers, and young readers. Organizations like Comicbook Classroom are using comics to great effect with these populations.

Graphic artist Charlie LaGreca.
Graphic artist Charlie LaGreca. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies

It certainly helps that artist Charlie LaGreca created a visually-stunning book. Mayah’s Lot stands alone as a storybook, but it also provides valuable environmental justice lessons. It is an ideal tool for bringing environmental messages to a generation steeped in highly visual and interactive ways of learning. Students learn alongside Mayah, the young heroine, as she organizes her already environmentally over-burdened neighborhood to prevent the siting of a hazardous waste facility on a nearby vacant lot. To succeed, she must navigate administrative law hurdles, produce compelling advocacy grounded in fact-based reasoning (a big component of the new Common Core Learning Standards), and mobilize popular support.

The resulting story offers an environmental justice message that has won praise from state environmental protection agencies around the country (Mississippi and Illinois will be adopting the book in their community outreach efforts), has been featured in Colorlines and mentioned on NY Times Parenting blog. Better still, it resonates with children like my very urban daughter and her friends—many of whom tend to think of “the environment” as existing elsewhere, rather than where they live and learn.

Why public schools?

With funding from the Greening Western Queens Fund, CUER piloted use of Mayah’s Lot in six-week educational workshops with 200 fifth and sixth graders at two Queens schools (Public School (PS) 85Q and PS122Q). Far too many public schools in places like New York City are struggling—underfunded and overcrowded. Even the most dedicated teachers are hard-pressed to meet ever-changing curricular expectations. Projects like Mayah’s Lot can help teachers and students think about learning in new ways, and by integrating science, art and civics with students’ lived experience bringing a new excitement to the classroom (having an amazingly talented artist fresh from organizing the Denver Comic Con come into the classroom and draw with the students doesn’t hurt either).

Denver Comic Con founder Charlie LaGreca, in center. Photo: Denver Post
Denver Comic Con founder Charlie LaGreca, center. Photo: Denver Post

And the results are dramatic. In pre-tests taken before the program began, few students knew whether agencies were part of the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government. They were fuzzy on how laws are made, and had no idea about implementation. None could name three agencies or define environmental justice. By the program’s end, students could comfortably identify multiple agencies, fit those agencies into a scheme of governmental separation of powers, and virtually all knew that fair treatment and meaningful participation were key components of environmental justice.

In a helpful bit of critique, Mike Ewall of pointed out that the program really should include the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice articulated at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The next iteration will definitely do so.

The comic book challenged students to translate their grade-school civic lessons into a real-world appreciation for how to use law to achieve environmental justice. The environmental justice curriculum built around Mayah’s Lot, helped these students cultivate not only an understanding of how public policy decisions are made, but also a keen appreciation for the points at which citizens can fruitfully intervene in that process. It taught them to use citizen science to generate data, and to make their interventions as persuasive as possible. Students began identifying environmental problems in their neighborhoods.

With help from artist Charlie LaGreca, each class of students created its own environmental villains. Here are a few of the more notable ones: Evil Jimmy (who sprayed polluted water from his hoses); the Bear King (who killed animals indiscriminately and destroyed their habitat) and the Litterer (whose villainy is self-explanatory).

Evil Jimmy: environmental villain.
Evil Jimmy: environmental villain. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies
The Bear King: environmental villain
The Bear King: environmental villain. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies
The Litterer: environmental villain. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies
The Litterer: environmental villain. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies

Many students used these villains to create their own environmental justice comic books, addressing environmental issues in their communities. And, because every good comic book has a hero, here is one of the student-created environmental justice heroes for good measure: Super Rex the Recycler.

Super Rex the recycler: environmental hero.
Super Rex the Recycler: environmental hero. Photo: Rebecca Bratspies

The most encouraging part has been the reaction from the students. One note left by a 10-year old on EPA’s Environmental Justice in Action Blog (which featured Mayah’s Lot on June 27, 2013), really says it all.

“Hola, mi nombre es Itzá y vivo en El Paso,Texas y tengo 10 años. Yo creo que deberían seguir enseñando acerca de la justicia ambiental. Me interesó como un grupo unido de ciudadanos detuvieron a otras personas que querían tirar cosas tóxicas que causaban daño a la gente del barrio. Me impresionó el valor de los activistas que defendieron a su comunidad. Gracias por el mensaje.
(estoy usando el correo de mi papá).”

Translated to English from the original:

Hello, my name is Itzá and I live in El Paso, Texas and I am 10 years old. I think they should continue to teach about environmental justice. It interested me that a united group of citizens stopped others who wanted to dump toxic things that would damage the neighborhood. I was impressed by the courage of the activists who defended their community. Thanks for the post. (I’m using my dad’s email).”

Rebecca Bratspies
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

A Democratic Infrastructure for Johannesburg

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
See the full list of Essays
Introduction, Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen and David Maddox Tearing down Invisible Walls Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White, Toni L. Griffin In It Together, Lesley Lokko Cape Town Pride. Cape Town Shame, Carla Sutherland Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives, Darnell Moore Ceci n'est pas une pipe: Unpacking Injustice in Paris, François Mancebo Reinvigorating Democracy Right to the City for All: A Manifesto for Social Justice in an Urban Century, Lorena Zárate How to Build a New Civic Infrastructure, Ben Hecht Turning to the Flip Side, Maruxa Cardama A Just City is Inconceivable without a Just Society, Marcelo Lopes de Souza Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman Designing for Agency Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination, Mahim Maher Up from the Basement: The Artist and the Making of the Just City, Theaster Gates Justice that Serves People, Not Institutions, Mirna D. Goransky Resistance, Education and the Collective Will, Jack Travis Inclusive Growth The Case for All-In Cities, Angela Glover Blackwell A Democratic Infrastructure for Johannesburg, Benjamin Bradlow Creating Universal Goals for Universal Growth, Betsy Hodges The Long Ride, Scot T. Spencer Turning Migrant Workers into Citizens in Urbanizing China, Pengfei XIE The Big Detox  A City that is Blue, Green and Just All Over, Cecilia P. Herzog An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay, Mindy Thompson Fullilove Justice from the Ground Up, Julie Bargmann Elevating Planning and Design Why Design Matters, Jason Schupbach Claiming Participation in Urban Planning and Design as a Right, P.K. Das Home Grown Justice in a Legacy City, Karen Freeman-Wilson Epilogue: Cities in Imagination, David Maddox
15. BradlowThere are two main legacies that define urban inequality in South Africa: housing and transport. Apartheid was not only a racial ideology. It was also a spatial planning ideology.

Johannesburg’s development into a wealthy, white core of business and residential activity, with peripheral black dormitory townships, was a result of specific legislation and government action accountable only to white citizens. Black people were confined to houses in townships that had little economic value. Black townships were synonymous with urban poverty. These houses were far away from business activity and jobs. As population movement controls eroded in the late 1980s, informal settlements began to concentrate next to formal townships. The story of Johannesburg, the financial center of South Africa, can help understand how the struggle to build these connections defines the extent to which Johannesburg can be considered “just.”

Key is linking opportunities for expression of political will beyond the ballot box to policies concerning the distribution of resources for which the public can both advocate and hold authorities accountable.
Today, Johannesburg offers unique insights into the prospects for other cities in Africa. This is not because most cities in Africa are similar to or are likely to become similar to Johannesburg. But Johannesburg has a basic historical characteristic that resembles that of many African cities: it was planned for inequality. Johannesburg’s uniqueness also marks it as a lodestar for other African cities. It is a meeting point of migrants from all over the continent, and an economic engine of growth on the continent. These flows of people, money, and goods, in and out of the city, mean that the impact of the city is continental.

The notion of a just city in Africa will have to accommodate the extent to which the hopes of earlier generations of social scientists and policy-makers for rural-led development on the continent have now been rendered moot by economic patterns that are both global and local. In Johannesburg, one of the most industrialized cities on the African continent has become a magnet for rural South Africans, and international migrants from other African countries. The primary infrastructural challenge is not only about identifying technical shortcomings or mere numbers of delivery. It is about generating the voice from below to demand that infrastructure reach those who need it most, and to ensure the political will to manage contentious distributional decisions about land and public finances.

I want to show why this is so difficult, and how, in order to make the decisions that are “just,” we need to first make sense of the history that lies behind those decisions.

To consider the meaning of a “just city” is not a new endeavor. Cities have been sites of struggle for as long as humans have realized advantages to living and working close together. But the gains to urban agglomeration are founded on major infrastructural needs. A fundamental role for government institutions in cities has been to provide the basic services and infrastructure such as water, sewers, roads, and trash collection, which are required for the health and opportunity of the people who live in cities. Building the infrastructure of a just city requires a consideration of the political relationships that underpin what might otherwise seem like a simple question of technical engineering.

Behind infrastructure lies the basic consideration of a just city: politics. And the stakes are always high. To those with easy access to land, services, and infrastructure, both health and economic opportunity are much easier to come by than to those who must navigate life in the city without basic services and economic infrastructure.

Often, proposals to address the severe strain on services and infrastructure that characterize the rapid urbanization process in the Global South fall into three not entirely distinct categories. (1) The state should provide through big, top-down plans; (2) the market should provide through privately-funded infrastructure that addresses business needs; (3) communities of urban residents should provide through self-help mechanisms because of failures of both the state and the market.

Though I have observed and participated in such debates in cities throughout Africa over the last 5 years as an urban planning professional and researcher, I am disheartened at how little the debate seems to be moving towards generating practical processes for achieving meaningful scale of delivery of services and infrastructure. This is especially alarming when one considers the persistent growth of inequality and exclusion in cities, which are the primary hope for improving health and economic outcomes.

In this essay I propose a basic barometer of just city-making that can help move beyond old debates that have resulted in benefits for a few and a persistent struggle for the many in African cities. In short, the extent to which a city is just will depend on the extent to which a city has the institutional mechanisms to effectively connect the state with both the market and ordinary residents.

The ballot is only democracy in its crudest form. A city that moves towards more “just” outcomes anticipates both conflict and collaboration with representative groups of various segments and interests of society. These social groupings express themselves not merely during periodic elections. Without effective connections between the state and residents, cities will struggle to have the information and political will to address their infrastructural requirements in order to access health and opportunity. Likewise, without effective connections between the state and the market, cities will find it difficult to create the conditions for privately sourced investments that address public needs.

We are faced with what is, in practice, an often confusing cycle: just processes will depend on just outcomes, and just outcomes will depend on just processes. Primarily, this means linking opportunities for expression of political will beyond the ballot box to policies concerning the distribution of resources for which the public can both advocate and hold authorities accountable.

When South Africa made the transition to parliamentary democracy in 1994, municipal government structures across the country were in flux. After the first elections, a delayed process of urbanization took flight. On the one hand, new migrants from rural areas heralded an explosion of informal settlements near black townships and in the traditional central business district. On the other hand, new inflows of private investment heralded an explosion of new shopping malls and corporate offices that sprawled northwards. Taken together, these two processes strained the existing infrastructural capacities of the city.

While talk of infrastructure often foregrounds considerations of engineering and construction, the changes brought on by population growth and private development highlighted considerations that were not technical, but political. The challenge of the past two decades has been to link hard infrastructural investments to pathways to economic opportunity for the poor majority still excluded from so many of the benefits of the city. In Johannesburg, a municipal government designed to serve only white residents, was progressively merged with neighboring municipalities to integrate overwhelmingly poor black townships with much more affluent and white areas. In the early 1990s, a semi-formal body known as the Metropolitan Chamber represented a possibility of constructing a post-Apartheid city that would highlight principles of equity. Some community groups, key NGOs, business leaders, and officials from all local municipalities in the Johannesburg region, all sat together to develop a participatory vision of possible spatial transformation of the city. While some community-based activists have complained to me that this institution was not wholly inclusive of all parties in the city, it did produce a plan that represented a significant integration of a city planned to exclude, especially through public transport and more inclusionary location of public housing.

By 2000, the city was formally amalgamated into a metropolitan municipality, which unified the tax bases of poor and rich areas. In interviews that I have conducted with private developers who work in different areas of the city, the overwhelming majority report next to no interaction with city authorities on planning matters prior to the amalgamation of five separate municipal authorities into the metro municipality in 2000. Likewise, city officials note that no spatial development framework existed for the city until 2003, and that spatial planning was more or less a dirty word up to that point, because spatial planning was the essence of Apartheid planning. A fiscal crisis in the city in 1997-98 led to a corporate reorganization of the city that ring fenced departmental budgets, which created a number of municipal-owned entities for electricity, trash, and roads. While this solved a short-term financial crunch, it meant that operational management of the city was increasingly fragmented.

Most significant is that grassroots organization has diminished in the past 20 years. Community-based activism was strong in Johannesburg in late 1980s and early 1990s, helping to bring down Apartheid through rent boycotts, strikes, and protests against illegitimate “local authorities” in black township areas. The civics movement, as the community-based activist groups were known, had joined hands with the trade union federation COSATU to form the United Democratic Front (UDF), the most significant part of the internal struggle to bring down Apartheid. When leaders of the ANC returned from exile, they resolved to dissolve the UDF. Civic movements and organizations, which had once comprised a large part of the UDF, struggled to survive as the new, democratically-elected government, led by the African National Congress, pledged to deliver what was essentially a technical fix: housing and services for all. It was difficult to organize without an obvious common enemy, especially when so much has been promised.

Yet, despite great success in terms of the technical scale of delivery, so much of post-Apartheid opportunity in Johannesburg remains linked to where one lives. The South African government has built over 2 million houses across the country in the past 21 years. But the scale of need in cities, especially in the fast growing urban centers like Johannesburg, has grown faster. There are an estimated 180 informal settlements in Johannesburg today. Moreover, the public housing investments that have been made, are primarily located far away from economic opportunity. Building large amounts of housing on cheap land makes it easier to achieve scale in delivery, but compounds the spatial legacies of Apartheid. Despite major public investments in basic infrastructure in township areas in Johannesburg, especially in the southern parts of the city like Soweto, only some retail development, and no major corporate development, has followed.

Absent effective state intervention or well-directed public investment in infrastructure, developers have told me that they sought cheap land, producing spatial change in the city that is uncoordinated and encourages single use. The sprawl northwards has stretched the bulk infrastructure of the city, which depresses the possible effects of significant public investment. The city has been unable to build or encourage more inclusionary precincts based on principles of mixed-use, high-density, and mixed housing.

The state, developers, and community organizations have progressively moved apart at the same time that only strong political will could have reduced the spatial gap that defines post-Apartheid inequality. Across the city, opportunity literally evades the poor by virtue of their distance from jobs.

The current city government has plans for public transport-led development to stitch together the divided city. The mayor, Parks Tau, calls this plan the “Corridors of Freedom,” in which projects like a bus rapid transit system will make it cheaper and quicker for poor workers in township areas to reach their places of employment. The city plans to use its own land holdings and is buying up land around the corridors linking townships to business nodes. But it will be difficult for the city to reshape the property market along these corridors using only its existing land holdings. Tools to incentivize development, such as tax increment financing, and cross-subsidization of market-rate development for more affordable development are still embryonic. The uncertain political will to direct land and public finances toward a more equitable development trajectory remains at the heart of the urban infrastructure story of Johannesburg. It is difficult for civil society groups to coalesce around a citywide vision for inclusion in the city because of a historical institutional trajectory that has fragmented planning responsibilities and progressively shut down opportunities for public deliberation.

Johannesburg’s future prospects hinge on the same issues that define other rapidly urbanizing cities and city-regions on the continent. Indeed, the infrastructural deficits are even greater in most other major African metropolises than those in Johannesburg. Every city has its own particular stories and trajectories. Yet, there is a general thread that emerges from the experience in Johannesburg—especially for other rapidly urbanizing contexts—across Africa. These are contexts in which the demands for new infrastructure to accommodate new urban residents dovetail with severe inequalities due to historical legacies. In this sense, the challenge of urban development in African cities is to create the institutional spaces for deliberation and democracy that can enable civil society to articulate a vision of citywide change. This voice and this vision will be the basis of capable institutions of urban governance to actually deliver this change.

African urban futures are not wholly path-dependent. But technical fixes alone will not solve the highly consequential challenges of what is emerging as Africa’s first urban century. A half a century ago, people in many countries on the continent struggled for the end to colonial rule. Now there is a new basis of struggle for opportunity: urban space and infrastructure.

The gap between the slum and the gated villa is characteristic of African urban development today. This makes the deficit of “democratic infrastructure” a fundamental issue. Inclusion, equity, and justice, in Africa, will be defined by how social demands for infrastructure and spatial integration in the city are both articulated and realized.

Benjamin Bradlow

The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.

An aerial view of a marshy area

A Disappearing Lake in Three Parts

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. In part due to drought and climate change, and in larger part, due to direct human activity. Some wonder what we will call the city once the lake is gone.

Part I: Falling in Love

Part II: A Broken Heart

Part III: Finding Joy in the Smallest of Things

This is a collection of stories about a disappearing lake. The Great Salt Lake. It is told in three parts through poems, prose, and multi-media artwork.

These first excerpts are from Part I: Falling in Love. The others are soon to follow.

* * *

Love in the desert is found in water.

Tales of a Great Lake

I stood by her side and listened for a while. She told tales of a great lake from long ago. I found it hard to believe. Yet as I turned my head, the rings around the surrounding mountains echoed her words. “I remember feeling so full of love,” she said as she gazed across the horizon. “I was showered with gifts of melted snowpack that poured down from the mountains and brought me great happiness. I was so overjoyed, and with no outlet to the sea to share it with, my waters overflowed, spreading wide and far.”

“What changed?” I asked, hesitantly.

She cast her eyes slightly downward as she answered: “As the ice slid back into the shadows of the north and the air warmed, it caused my heart to shrink.” She hunched over like an old woman, but I could see wisdom filled the spaces where the water had evaporated into thin air. “As my water rose and fell with the seasons, it turned salty as I cried.”

“But through my tears came new life and renewal. I first fed algae and then brine flies and brine shrimp began to thrive. These tiny Artemia, who some later called Sea-Monkeys, were nearly transparent. They fluttered their legs and quickstepped through my saline waters as if an enormous ballroom dance was unfolding in every direction.”

“That sounds so lovely,” I said.

“It was,” she responded with half-closed eyes. “But it didn’t stop there,” she continued, “I called out to the birds through a ballad I sang each morning as the sun rose over the mountains warming my shallow waters, and each evening as it dropped over the horizon reflecting its fond farewell through a syrupy display of color. I sang the sweetest serenade I could. And after a while, they came.”

“They arrived from great distances north to south, south to north. First to stop and find respite on their long journeys as there were great wetlands along my eastern border. Some decided to stay awhile and made nests to raise their young in the river deltas that provided wet meadows, mudflats, and playas for them to feed and frolic. Such a delight,” she softly sighed. “As great colonies formed, there were so many I lost count.

“There have been nearly 10 million recorded!” I added.

She smiled and went on. “Some of the first to arrive were the Great Blue Herons, said to be a sign of good fortune. The Western Gulls, with their screeching search for love, were always abundant, and the snowy white feathered Pelicans preferred it over all other places. Egrets of all kinds were there, but it was the Snowy Egret with their black stockings and yellow shoes that I adored the most. There were so many different duck families with shimmering emerald-green heads, blue bills, red bills. Some black as night while others blazed cinnamon and copper. Nearly half the birds were the diving, red eyed Grebes that intricately danced as they flirted with each other. The long legged, long-billed Marbled Godwit traveled the furthest, skipping from place to place through their migration north and south and back again. Many others arrived from the ancient Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, and Bald Eagles to Wilson’s Phalaropes with their swirling rueda. And I cannot forget the Avocets nor the White-Faced Ibis and chubby Western Sandpipers with their soft, billowy cheeps…maybe I attracted so many because, like Narcissus, they could see themselves in my mirror-like reflection. My surface often mirrors all that happens above it. The reflection is only broken by the wind and the gentle lapping on the shores of my island companions.”

“Are there other lakes like you?” I wanted to know.

“There are some,” she replied, “but only distant cousins.”

“And what brings you happiness now?” I asked, but she had already closed her eyes and was floating, as if in a dream, on her own salty waters.

An aerial view of a marshy area
Photo: Wendy Wischer

Rising and Falling in Reverse

Circling the shores from above, one might imagine the bright white rim is a pure white sand. The kind of sand found on tropical beaches that tourists stash in their suitcases as they bring their memories home from afar. Yet this white is coarse and rugged. It crunches underfoot. Its snowy soft appearance is but a mirage. It argues with the senses. Salt crystals are masters of capturing sunlight and tossing it about before reflecting it back to us. It is the rock that plays by its own rules, I’ve heard, salacious and divine.

The rich blend of water that is surrounded by this white rim on the eastern shore, is magic in its greenness. It holds an abundance of gems like jade and emeralds. The kind of green where life of the smallest universes, blossom and thrive. I imagine a giant petri dish where I am witness to the interface between life and death.

As the sun glistens on the surface, the colors fan out in a spectacular array of texture, softly connecting them to one another. Brown meets green meets white meets gray meets ochre. The citrusy sting of lime, and the salty savor of olive, to the sharpness of mint and freshness of pine. I can almost taste the deep-seated surrender of sage and spicy forest of juniper as they swirl together like the waters in an eddy.

An aerial view of a red sand beach
Photo: Wendy Wischer


Soaring above
On the wing of a bird
She is a Red Lady
Crimson, scarlet, cherry and wine
The color of passion
And warning
And blood
Pricked by the thorn
A young girl’s blush
And an old woman’s rage
Like Plath, her redness speaks directly to my wounds
The savory tears linger on my tongue
As she weeps onto her salty shores

A field of grass and a cloudy sky
Photo: Wendy Wischer

Water’s Edge

The sky illuminated shades of steel blue and gray. At times ominous and foreboding while at others it glowed with sun streaks that escaped through the tattered dark blankets of cloud. Captivating energy filled the air as the wind howled and danced a provocative tango with the tall grasses. They swayed back and forth, forth and back, synchronized, clinging to each other, as they bent over with immense passion. Surging collectively, waves swept and undulated across the land giving rise to the wind’s stories as they were transposed into visual form. Gusts of wind spun in audible frequencies that persuaded the stalks and seed heads to vehemently rub against each other creating a cacophony of yearning and desire.

The air was electric and alive. The muted colors amplified with the wetness of rain that fell from the sky in wide, windswept columns, visible from every angle. Lavish shades of flickering green tantalized retinas. The pure warmth and yellow glow of reed grass was only outshone by the vibrancy of the magical sunflowers kissed directly by our own nurturing star.

Off in the distance, the mountains were shrouded in rolling streams of water vapor that glowed from the light above and muddied all below in their shadows. The contradictions from looming heaviness to bleached billows delighted with a cautionary alertness. Birds huddled near their nests for protection. A few braved the wind only to fly in place and be pushed off course as they headed to their temporary homes. Surrounded by storms, escape was in vain. As beautiful as any setting sun, the day was making a dramatic and glorious farewell. Thunder growled as the light dimmed, and raindrops fervently rippled outward as they fell upon the surface of the wetlands promising the future of a new day to come.

A bison in the wild standing in a field with a blue sky
Photo: Wendy Wischer

Flawed Connections

He was watching me. He was always watching me. Even though his head was bent down, his eyes never left mine. They dissected me through the dried sagebrush. Winter had muted its fresh, earthy aroma leaving the crisp morning with the faint nostalgic smell of the past. Like the closet of someone who hasn’t been home in a while.

I approached at a careful distance, full of excitement as adrenaline whipped through my body. Every cell was at attention. I was thrilled to be close to this majestic beast. Our eyes met and I had nowhere to hide my human shame.

His thick fur coat shared shades of coffee, hickory, and chocolate with a hint of rust as if it had been dyed with a somber Henna. It contrasted with the clear blue sky bringing out the orange tones in the ways that only the compliments can. He stood by the hard-hearted rock. Worn smooth, it revealed the history of this tale that unfolded many times before. All around were patches of white snow. The air was unsympathetic. The landscape melted into a muted rainbow of the palest of green, ochre, and burnt umber mixed with countless shades of gray from charcoal to ash.

He slammed his enormous body into the rock before vigorously rubbing against it as he worked the fur loose. An annual shedding, teeming with purpose, as the long hair between his horns pulsated in a staccato rhythm. At one point, he lifted a hind leg to let the weight of his gravity lean even more into the wedge-shaped rock. Black tongue licking at the long, foul, strands of drool that fell from his mouth. The mounds and ridges of his massive physique mimicked the mountains just behind him.

After a few moments, he abandoned the boulder and slowly sauntered away without looking back. It was after while reviewing the caught footage, that I saw his tail was slightly raised. A sure sign I was an intruder.

A yellow, blue, and white sunset over a beach
Photo: Wendy Wischer

Island Shores

The sun’s dimming light transforms the melancholic yellow-brown grass into golden embers as it makes its daily exodus. Flaming streaks of gold and tangerine. Earthy lavender and the sweet smell of violet bleed into the pale, powder blue sky. Black silhouettes skate over the water as flight flocks descend for the night. The mirror sharpens its focus. Above and below crescendo, erasing familiar notions of time and space. Certainly, heaven is near. Only the sliver of another distant isle breaks the illusion.

She pretends to leave us, but it is us who withdraw as we spin off into the nocturnal shadows. The script is flipped. The sky gets all the attention. These dark shores inspire fantasies where the hostile city lights remain hidden and let us wish upon the stars as we glide through them.

What songs do the birds sing to the setting sun? They must miss her ― they begin to croon at the first hint of her return.

Wendy Wischer
Salt Lake City

On The Nature of Cities