Common threads: connections among the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, and their relevance to urban socio-ecology

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.
Paul Downton, Melbourne Jane Jacobs & Robert Goodman: planning for people vs self-interest. Whose side are you on?
Johan Enqvist, Stockholm Diversity creates vibrant cities & better ways to govern commons, but how does diverse place meanings affect collaboration in communities?
Sheila Foster, New York One answer to the question of who owns the city is that we all do.
Lisa Gansky, San Francisco Something quiet and massive happened right in the middle of the 20th century: our cities stopped truly being “ours”.
Mathieu Hélie, Montreal Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom connect at the point where cities must be both economically dynamic and architecturally emergent.
Mark Hostetler, Gainesville  How to develop a societal “norm” where citizens recreate in parks in a sustainable manner?
Michelle Johnson, New York Taking a worm’s eye view enabled Jacobs and Ostrom to see systems differently and contribute design solutions.
Marianne Krasny, Ithaca Urban environmental education can work alongside other actors to enhance Ostrom’s polycentric governance systems.
Alex Russ, Ithaca Urban environmental education can work alongside other actors to enhance Ostrom’s polycentric governance systems.
Harini Nagendra, Bangalore There is much that growing cities can learn from the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, especially that local communities often intuitively know what is best for their own environments.
Raul Pacheco-Vega, Aguascaliente Would Jane Jacobs agree with the unaffordability of Vancouver, where she implemented many of her teachings?
Michael Mehaffy, Portland If we fail to fully utilize the creative power of physical people and their interactions within public spaces, we are going to be in increasing trouble.
Mary Rowe, New York Cities are a product of the natural human impulse to self–organize—how we gather, and derive mutual benefit, from all that we hold in common.
Laura Shillington, Montreal & Managua The attention to the importance of the everyday scale is, in my opinion, what made Jacobs and Ostrom so influential and visionary.
Anne Trumble, Los Angeles Jacobs described nature and culture as two separate entities that only overlap insofar as the former is an analogy for studying the latter—a position that will limit the relevance of her work in contemporary urban socio-ecology.
Arjen Wals, Wageningen Conflict and diversity can be utilised to create a mutually beneficial social learning process that can shed new light on wicked sustainability issues.
Abigail York, Tempe They refused to accept orthodoxy in the academy or bureaucracy; instead they looked out to the streets, neighborhoods, and communities.
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.

Introduction

Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were both giants in their impact on how we think about communities, cities, and common resources such as space and nature. But we don’t often put them together to recognize the common threads in their ideas.

Jacobs is rightly famous for her books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and for her belief that people, vibrant spaces and small-scale interactions make great cities—that cities are “living beings” and function like ecosystems. Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work in economic governance, especially as it relates to the Commons. She was an early developer of a social-ecological framework for the governance of natural resources and ecosystems.

These streams of ideas clearly resonate together in how they bind people, economies, places, and nature into a single, ecosystem-driven framework of thought and planning—themes that deeply motivate The Nature of Cities. In this roundtable, we ask 16 people to talk about some key ideas that motivate their work, and how these ideas have roots in the ideas of either Jacobs or Ostrom, or both.

For more of their ideas, directly from them, good places to start are:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Paul Downton

About the Writer:
Paul Downton

Founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘ecocity pioneer’, Paul and co-founders are pioneering the Ecocity Design Institute. Paul is also working on an artistic/publishing project coming soon to a crowd-funding site near you!

Paul Downton

Under the Influence

I confess, I knew little about Elinor Ostrom before being invited to join in this roundtable, but I did know something about Jane Jacobs.

The key idea that I took from my Jacobean/Goodman reading was that planning and development are intertwined and intrinsically political.

Great ideas affect many more people than the few who study them directly and this must be particularly true of the work of Jacobs and Ostrom. Whole urban populations have felt the Jacobean effect who have never heard of her. As a student of architecture in Cardiff, Wales, it was years before I knew much about Jane Jacobs directly, but her ideas and influence reached me even before I’d graduated, as I learned about Jacobs indirectly, reading Robert Goodman’s After the Planners in the early 70s.

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The book cover I remember and love. Image: www.goodreads.com

Goodman followed in Jacobs’ footsteps, denouncing bureaucratic post-war planning experiments for their impact on local communities. His approach was polemical and overtly political and suited to the mood of its times—a mood informed by what Jacobs had published a decade earlier. It was a time when growing alienation in the public realm was accompanied by the dawning awareness that professionals were not as neutral as they presented themselves to be.

Looking back at this early history, I guess the key idea that I took from my Jacobean/Goodman reading was that planning and development are intertwined and intrinsically political, and the results of that entanglement invariably lead to power struggles in which the ascendancy of money and vested interests are guaranteed. As a corollary of that, any success in the planning system that the community might enjoy was likely to be peripheral and only achievable by the community organising to mount directly political attacks on the process itself. That made sense to me in the 1970s. It still does.

As a recently graduated architecture student, I supported the group in my city that was most heavily involved in challenging the local version of “demolish and develop”. “Cardiff Housing Action Group” was made up of concerned citizens who fought against plans for the demolition of homes and communities and their replacement by—mostly—high-rise office buildings.

In 1976-77 I worked with Bob Dumbleton, titular leader of the group, producing the illustrations and doing the paste-up for his booklet about planning and development in South Wales called ‘The Second Blitz – The demolition and rebuilding of town centres in South Wales”. I don’t remember discussing Jane Jacobs with Bob, but he must have been inspired by her work.

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“Illustration from The Second Blitz”. Image: Paul Downton

Tellingly, Cardiff Housing Action is still in action today, as rents rocket and housing options dwindle for ‘Generation Rent’ and the new urban poor in the UK.

The central thesis in both Goodman and Jacobs’ work, drawn from her years of working with the warp and weft of living neighbourhoods, is that community is key. If planning isn’t about people, it’s a conceit, a convenient tool used by power élites to get the development outcomes they want.

My exposure to dangerous ideas about social justice and equity in housing was paralleled and reinforced by exposure to the wild and wonderful, uber-green phenomenon of Street Farm, who embedded their vision of “people power” in landscapes of cities taken over by vegetation, where the tall, anonymous high-rise monuments to modernism were demolished by nature to make room for healthy eco-communities.

None of these influences have left me. I’ve spent my entire career giving preference to community and ecological projects and probably enjoyed fewer lucrative commissions as a result. But the one Jacobean lesson that has stuck with me through my professional career is that in an industry with unparalleled power to shape landscapes, communities, and urban futures, you have to decide whose side you’re on.

PS: I’m going to find out more about the work of Elinor Ostrom. I have a feeling I might like it.

Johan Enqvist

About the Writer:
Johan Enqvist

Johan Enqvist is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the African Climate and Development Initiative at University of Cape Town and Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. He wants to know what makes people care.

Johan Enqvist

Making sense of diversity

“To understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations or mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.” (Jacobs 1961, p. 188).

Cities are special. Compared to most other areas, they rely less on locally produced resources and use trade and transport to meet most of their needs. However, one resource cannot be brought in from the outside, and is consequently also often scarce in cities: space. Limited public space constitutes a “commons” since users cannot easily be excluded, and one person’s use reduces the availability for others.

Sense of place varies—two people can be equally attached to the same place even though that place means different things to each of them.

Public space in cities is under pressure not only from those who want to acquire it for development, but also from being used for several different purposes by different people. A waterfront can be a gym, a science classroom, a bathroom, or a theatre; a park can be a place to forage for mushrooms, meditate, or meet friends for a picnic. In Jane Jacobs’ (1961) view, more diverse use of public spaces is better since it means people are present during more times of the day, which improves safety and promotes vibrant city neighborhoods.

But how can public spaces be managed when there are several different ideas of what their purpose should be? And how does this effect non-human “users” of a place—are diverse neighborhoods better at creating and protecting nature in cities?

In her insightful work on how to govern the commons, Elinor Ostrom (1990) joined Jacobs in arguing for the capacity and competence of local communities to determine what is best for their community. A city’s residents are the foremost experts on how their environments function, which is essential information for administrators (Jacobs 1961). With effective communication and enough trust, local communities can create norms, rules, and property rights systems to equitably manage scarce resources (Ostrom 1990). But how do you trust someone who insists on riding their jet ski in the river where you have rowing practice? Do you dare to confront the drunkards using your favorite park as a bathroom? What is the right way to communicate that you disapprove of someone washing their clothes or fishing in the lake where you want to watch birds?

Picture 1
Picture 1. Volunteer divers and students from local schools come together to clean up Coney Island Creek during an “It’s My Estuary” day in South Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Johan Enqvist
Picture 2
Picture 2.Memorial plaque of Elinor Ostrom from 2009, when she planted a tree for the community-led restoration of Kaikondrahalli lake in Bangalore. Photo: Johan Enqvist

These are all real examples of dilemmas faced by people I have interviewed in Bangalore and New York, where residents have come together to form groups to protect, restore, manage, or improve access to natural areas in and around water bodies. Both cities are great examples of how diversity can manifest in very different ways depending on culture, wealth, religion, age, and local traditions.

They are also places where access to water bodies has been severely limited (considering the hundreds of miles of waterfront in New York, and hundreds of lakes in Bangalore), but where local groups are actively engaged in restoring both quality of and access to waters (Picture 1). My current research, conducted with help from master’s student Ailbhe Murphy at Stockholm Resilience Centre, unpacks how different ideas about “what a place is for” relate to how individuals’ engage in such groups.

As pointed out recently by Saskia Sassen in the Guardian, and Harini Nagendra in this roundtable, Jacobs and Ostrom teach us that sense of place is key for understanding cities. But sense of place varies—two people can be equally attached to the same place even though that place means different things to each of them. This is why we believe it is important to see what civic engagement looks like at the individual level, how it relates to personally or collectively held place meanings, and if diversity in sense of place presents a problem or serves as an asset for groups trying to create effective institutions for managing these places. To me, this is a great example of how Ostrom’s and Jacobs’ ideas influence current research about how urban dwellers negotiate conflicting claims on public space in order to create vibrant and loved places within their communities (Picture 2).

References:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Sheila Foster

About the Writer:
Sheila Foster

Sheila R. Foster is a Professor of Law and Public Policy (joint appointment with McCourt School of Public Policy) at Georgetown University. Professor Foster is the author of numerous books, book chapters, and law journal articles on property, land use, environmental law, and antidiscrimination law.

Sheila Foster

If cities are the places where most of the world’s population will be living in the next century, as is predicted, it is not surprising that they have become sites of contestation over use and access to urban land, open space, infrastructure, and culture. The question posed by Saskia Sassen in a recent essay—“Who owns the city?”—is arguably at the root of these contestations and of social movements that resist the enclosure of cities by economic elites.

What are the possibilities of bringing more collaborative governance tools to decisions about how city space and common goods are used?

One answer to the question of who owns the city is that we all do. In my work I argue that the city is a common good or a “commons”—a shared resource that belongs to the collective, unorganized public. I have been writing about the urban commons for the last decade, very much inspired by the work of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom. The idea of the urban commons captures the ecological view of the city that characterizes Jane Jacobs’ classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It also builds on Elinor Ostrom’s finding that common resources are capable of being collaborative managed by their users in ways that support their needs, yet sustain the resource over the long run.

Jacobs analyzed cities as complex, organic systems and observed the activity within them at the neighborhood and street levels, much like an ecologist would study natural habitats and the species interacting within them. She emphasized the diversity of land use, of people and neighborhoods, and the interaction among them, as important to maintaining the ecological balance of urban life in great cities like New York. Jacob’s critique of the urban renewal slum clearance programs of the 1940s and 50s in the United States was focused not just on the destruction of physical neighborhoods, but also on the destruction of the “irreplaceable social capital”—the networks of residents who build and strengthen working relationships over time through trust and voluntary cooperation—necessary for “self-governance” of urban neighborhoods. As political scientist Douglas Rae has written, this social capital is the “civic fauna” of urbanism.

This social capital—the norms and networks of trust and voluntary cooperation—is also at the core of urban “commoning”. The term commoning, popularized by historian Peter Linsbaugh, captures the relationship between physical resources and the communities that live near them, utilize and depend on them for essential human needs and human flourishing. In other words, much of what gives a particular urban resource its value, and normative valence, is the function of the human activity and social network in which the resource is situated. As such, disputes over the destruction or loss of community gardens, of open and green spaces, and of spaces for small scale commercial and artistic activity are really disputes about the right to access and use (or share) urban resources like vacant lots, abandoned and underutilized structures, and buildings, to provide goods necessary for human flourishing.

The urban commons framework also begs the question to which Elinor Ostrom’s work provides an intriguing answer. Recognizing that there are many tangible and intangible urban resources on which differently situated individuals and communities depend to meet a variety of human needs, what are the possibilities of bringing more collaborative governance tools to decisions about how city space and common goods are used, who has access to them, and how their resources are allocated and distributed? Is it possible to effectively manage common resources without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them, especially given that regulators tendency to be captured by economic elites?

Ostrom’s groundbreaking work demonstrated that there are options for commons management that are neither exclusively public nor private. She found examples all over the world of resource users cooperatively managing a range of natural resources—land, fisheries, and forests—using “rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities”. In many of these examples, users work with government agencies and public officials to design, enforce, and monitor the rules for using and managing the resource. Ostrom called this kind of decision making “polycentric” to capture the idea that while the government remains an essential player in facilitating, supporting, and even supplying the necessary tools to govern shared resources, the government is not the monopoly decision maker.

What might it look like to bring more polycentric tools to govern the city, or parts of the city, as a commons? How might local government officials become facilitators or enablers of more inclusive and collaborative decision-making and, hopefully, more equitable distribution of resources to support the needs of a broader swath of its residents? A number of researchers, including myself, are working on these questions and experimenting in cities around the world with forms of urban collaborative, polycentric governance. These efforts undoubtedly owe a great debt to Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom.

Lisa Gansky

About the Writer:
Lisa Gansky

At her core, Lisa is a marketect and "impact junky" with a strong interest in breaking the edges of formerly happy business models and bringing together not-so-likely characters in the form of new offerings, teams and partnerships. She is also the author of "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing".

Lisa Gansky

Unleashing The WE To Reclaim Our Cities

Something quiet and massive happened right in the middle of the 20th century: our cities stopped truly being “ours”. Thanks to a postwar economic boom, money and ownership became synonymous with value and status. Anything that couldn’t easily be mass produced—think beauty, nature, health, belonging, peace and happiness—lingered either unrecognized or, for most, out of reach. In a shift that ran counter to the very essence of a city, what benefitted and mattered to the many took the far back seat to what was held precious by the few.

In past times, success and happiness were shaped by how we all were doing, and our concept of “self” was us, not me. Welcome to the pronoun crisis.
Cities, at their hearts, are not an echo chamber for the elite but rather platforms for massive sharing. Our voices, our collective participation, and our common goals and resources form the very core of what makes a city so much more than a collection of buildings inhabited by disparate people. In the words of Jane Jacobs, “Cities have the capability for providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody’’. Both Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom shaped our discourse about cities as places for people to flourish. Each brilliantly and fervently declared the supreme risk for the future of humanity in confusing the empty calories of materialism with stewardship for communities and the commons—the heart of our cities.

The umbrella of the commons includes raw materials like clean air and water, as well as the natural, intellectual and spiritual rights that inherently belong to all beings. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, our community scope had a much narrower focus and what we shared was of far greater value than anything each of us may have individually owned or desired. Success and happiness were shaped by how we all were doing, and our concept of “self” was us, not me. Welcome to the pronoun crisis.

Concurrent with the 2008 recession, people around the world began waking up and shaking off the tolerance for inequality and waning societal voice. We are all connected, and technology has played a pivotal role in making that essential reality undeniably conspicuous. In an age where climate challenges can fiercely and suddenly rearrange human existence, we are forced to acknowledge that we exist within a global society. The fantasy of the self as a unit has gone from creating a sense of security to unveiling intense vulnerability. Our connectedness is our most crucial gift, if we embrace it.

In the 20th century, most of humanity awoke into a finite game. The basic concept of a finite game is that to win, you must acquire more than me—in fact, you seek to gain from everyone everywhere. If you’re getting a Monopoly vibe, you’re on the right track, because the finite game is the very definition of “winner takes all”. So last century! In 2016, we are at the beginning of a societal shift in our Social Operating System—that is, we are rapidly adopting new aspirations, expectations and desires driven by a change in the core organizing principles of learning, work, communities and governments. We’re evolving towards the Infinite Game, where “winning” means you work to keep the most people in the game for as long as possible, and real success manifests in the game that never ends.

Interdependence

As we embark on an era of climate challenges, urban population explosion, institutional distrust, and massive philosophical polarity by citizens from Delhi to Dubai and Paris to Philadelphia, we are in the midst of a dissolution of institutional power and the rebirth of the commons. People around the world are conspicuously connected and are finding their voice unleashing the we that’s been idly enduring for decades. Nuit Debout gatherings spontaneously held nightly in Paris, rekindle public discourse while physically occupying the city’s commons—every pubic square, park and crevice holds the promise of reuniting people with a shared passion for creating community, animating citizenship and provoking unbounded participation.

Over the past eight years, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with instigators from cities everywhere. Ouishare, a French born collective of vocal, creative and inspired people, have convened thousands of people to explore topics like the new face of work, collaborative design, tools for creative autonomy and are growing their international community quite organically and powerfully. Ouishare has created alliances with governments, large established corporations, WEF’s global shapers network and vital pockets of inspiration like Enspiral. More than any other community on the planet, I’ve been equally delighted and priviledged to conspire and learn from the fertile substrate that is Ouishare.

Mathieu Hélie

About the Writer:
Mathieu Hélie

Mathieu Hélie is a software developer on weekdays and a complexity scientist and urbanist on weekends. He publishes the blog EmergentUrbanism.com .

Mathieu Hélie

When I first encountered Jane Jacobs, I was a young student of economics being taught the conventional models of neoclassical economics, models whose purpose was to describe equilibrium states of the economy, or economic perfection.

What kind of solution does complexity science offer to the kind of problem a city is? The phenomenon of emergence.

The contents of Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as the follow-ups, The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, described an economic theory based not on perfection but on change. Through simple observation, Jane Jacobs detailed how the process of capital accumulation, both social and industrial, transformed cities towards greater wealth. She described how the variety of buildings and industries in a city, through a process by which the city’s physical and social structure adapts to itself iteratively, was the reason for its success. And ultimately, she proved how attempts to design an architecturally and economically perfect city, a city that has reached equilibrium, were pointless and self-destructive.

But if cities are impossible to architect to perfection, are we condemned to suffer total randomness and noise in urban space? While this was the proposition that Rem Koolhaas held in his analysis of postmodern urbanism, Jane Jacobs foresaw the rise of a new science of multivariable problems and solutions, to which she dedicated the last chapter of Death and Life, and which has arisen in our time under the umbrella term complexity science.

What kind of solution does complexity science offer to the kind of problem a city is? The phenomenon of emergence. Emergence occurs when many individuals collaborate and form links, connecting their collective efforts into a superstructure that supports their life and growth. It has been observed in termites, in simple computer programs called cellular automata, and it can also be observed in the world’s most attractive towns and cities, built by many cooperating individuals over centuries of changing economic fortunes and technologies.

Symmetry-Emergent
Simple symmetry within window frames and sashes can connect old and new construction into larger, emergent patterns, freeing more expensive construction processes to use what is economical, and allowing adaptation of building uses to current needs. Photo: Old Montréal, by Mathieu Hélie

In these urban spaces, the connections formed by building acts over decades and centuries to create an increasingly complex landscape. Examples such as the Greek island of Santorini, or the inner city of Paris, show that emergent patterns of symmetry can generate long chains of harmonious spaces that attract residents and visitors, while providing for the perfectly adapted diversity of buildings and uses that are necessary for a city to be alive and growing.

If we can observe this phenomenon of emergence in historic cities, how can it be applied in modern cities? This is where the work of Elinor Ostrom becomes relevant. Ostrom, like Jacobs, enlarged the language of economics from its neoclassical orthodoxy by suggesting that public (state-provided) and private (market-provided) goods were not the only possible categories of economic goods, but that “common pool resources” also existed, where resources were too large and too variable to be efficiently subdivided, but could be produced through collaborating appropriators.

Emergent cities, I believe, are made through such collaborations by neighbors, similar to how emergent patterns are formed by neighbors in some cellular automata. The conditions described by Ostrom for the successful management of common pool resources could be the missing urban governance model that generates complex towns and cities.

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

Natural forest fragments within cities can be regarded as common-pool resources (CPRs) in that they are resources “used” by a wide variety of people. CPR is a term first coined by Elinor Ostrom, and city parks fit this definition because they are frequented by hikers, joggers, wildlife watchers and nature enthusiasts, and pet walkers.

How can a societal “norm” be developed where citizens recreate in parks in a sustainable manner?

At the same time, these city forests provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including birds, mammals, and insects. While this common-pool resource is owned by local or state governments, these forested areas are really self-managed by the local community, and day-to-day decisions by citizens can have substantial impacts on whether the forests continue to provide viable wildlife habitat. Thus, these forests are common property systems that need to be governed by common property protocols. An ecological balance can be achieved where people can recreate while maintaining the integrity of wildlife habitat.

A family enjoying a park in Portland, Oregon. Photo: www.travelportland.com
A family enjoying a park in Portland, Oregon. Photo: www.travelportland.com

Elinor Ostrom studied a variety of common-pool resources, such as grazing lands, and demonstrated and championed the idea that these resources can be successfully managed by the people using them instead of being managed solely through a government institution. For forest parks and other semi-natural conserved areas in cities, there needs to be an engaged community in order to promote the conservation of wildlife habitat. Daily use by various people, living nearby and elsewhere, can have dramatically negative impacts on wildlife habitat. As I have previously argued, imagine ATV vehicles running off the trails into the forest and people letting dogs run off leash. Cumulatively, these individual decisions can destroy wildlife habitat and disrupt foraging and breeding activities of wildlife in these parks.

Thus, how do we promote “win-win” situations where these parks are enjoyed by the local populace and inhabited by a diversity of flora and fauna species? City park managers can create policies that are designed to “regulate” users to prevent misuse of the parks, such as for illegal dumping of trash. However, policing the parks, especially with limited funding and personnel, is not realistic in many cities around the world. Thus, users of the park need to cooperate on a level where their collective actions create sustainable recreation activities that minimize impacts on wildlife populations.

This cooperative governance, as advocated by Elinor, works if stakeholders are motivated by an economic return and have access to information about the consequences of their actions. For example, livestock owners, in a commonly used pasture, must be able to estimate the carrying capacity of the pasture and have an adequate monitoring system that indicates when the area is overstocked. In city parks, an economically motivated and informed populace does not exist. No direct economic return comes back to the users, and most do not know the consequence of their actions concerning the ecological integrity of a park.

This is a conundrum. Most cities cannot “regulate” all the users of the park and, collectively, users have neither the economic motivation nor ecological understanding of the consequences of their actions. How to create a societal “norm” where citizens recreate in parks in a sustainable manner?

I would suggest that city parks need to have educational programs that speak to sustainable behaviors, both in and outside of the parks. Sustainable behaviors include everything from staying on the trails to actions people take within their own yards and neighborhoods located next to parks (for details, click here). For instance, an active colony of feral cats in a nearby neighborhood could have huge consequences for wildlife in a park. Nearby neighborhoods should have educational opportunities to learn about connections between management of neighborhoods and their potential impacts on parks. In addition, “Friends of [a named park]” or such voluntary groups should be established, giving opportunities for citizens to help maintain and even restore sections of a park. These activities will help promote “ownership” of the park and create a functional, cooperative governance, along the lines of Elinor Ostrom’s work.

Michelle Johnson

About the Writer:
Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson is a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service at the NYC Urban Field Station.

Michelle Johnson

Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom are both well known for developing design principles. For Jacobs, it was design principles for planning cities that considered the interaction of physical design with social space at multiple scales. For Ostrom, it was design principles, or a set of social and ecological conditions, necessary for successful community-scale management of common pool resources.

As Jacobs and Ostrom demonstrated, empirically-grounded insights can lead to new understandings of social-ecological systems.

In each case, the methods they used and the way they went about deriving these design principles are what fascinate me. Jane Jacobs wrote of the neighborhood scale, “eyes on the street”, and the way that the vitality and diversity of neighborhoods enables a city to function as a system. She understood these things through the power of observation—through essentially inductive research. Elinor Ostrom asked the question: under what conditions can common pool resources be sustainably managed by a community? She built large datasets of lists and case studies that enabled her to identify a set of conditions where sustainable management actually was possible.

Both Jacobs and Ostrom examined systems from the bottom up, using rich empirical datasets, which provided a very different picture of a system than taking a bird’s eye view. In essence, the way they approached their work enabled another way of seeing the system—of an alternative to Robert Moses’ top-down planning in New York City and Garrett Hardin’s recommendation to regulate the commons, regardless of local conditions.

It is this idea of another way of seeing that I bring to my work—both in further understanding the urban social-ecological system in which we live and also looking to the possibilities of the future. Below, I share an example of each:

Understanding the system 

At the New York City Urban Field Station, I have had the good fortune to join colleagues (Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell) that research urban environmental stewardship. In New York City, there are over 2,800 stewardship organizations that care for the urban environment, working from the scale of a street corner to the entire five boroughs and beyond. These organizations are working in shared public space, towards common and diverse ends, and in communication and isolation from other organizations and government. Walking down the street, however, you may not be aware of their presence. Social space can sometimes be rendered invisible in cities. A cornerstone of stewardship research in New York City is the Stewardship and Assessment Mapping Project (STEW-MAP), started in 2007. Through this project, we mapped social space alongside green space, enabling others to, in essence, “see” the presence of these stewardship organizations. Organizations responded to a survey that addressed organizational characteristics, networks, and stewardship “turfs”, or areas where organizations worked. We included the results on an online, public map at OASIS. Efforts are underway for a decadal repeat in 2017, to examine how this set of organizations engaged in environmental stewardship has changed over time—in capacity, in location, in emphasis, and in communication and exchange with others.

Possibilities for the future

Switching gears from what is to what could be—thinking about the future and what could be is a difficult task. Past research has shown that one’s idea of the future becomes very fuzzy or goes blank after 10 to 15 years in the future. Yet, planning efforts are for the long-term—many comprehensive plans look 20 to 30 years in the future. Using an alternative futures approach to planning enables a community to see other possibilities than what is. This is particularly important where a community does not want the status quo to remain. Alternative futures, or scenarios, can be in written and/or visual formats—in the forms of stories, pictures, graphs, and maps. I am interested in scenarios not just as a tool for seeing what could be, but also, perhaps, as tools for increasing the breadth and depth of discussion about the future in cities and regions. Some research of mine, soon to be available in the journal Land Use Policy, has focused on how seeing alternative futures may affect an individual’s willingness to participate in planning activities. Reading a set of scenarios increased willingness to participate, but also increased self-efficacy, the concept that one can contribute to an outcome. Because of this, I see scenarios as a communication tool with the potential to increase the diversity of those involved in planning for communities’ futures.

Perhaps both of these projects I describe here—of mapping stewardship and understanding the impact of scenarios—may also lead down the path from new ways of seeing towards contributing to design principles for cities and regions. What a lofty goal, but what great examples we have in Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom to point the way, through their demonstration of how empirically-grounded insights can lead to new understandings of social-ecological systems.

Marianne Krasny

About the Writer:
Marianne Krasny

Marianne Krasny is professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Director of the Civic Ecology Lab at Cornell University, and leader of EPA’s national environmental education training program (“EECapacity”).

Marianne Krasny and Alex Russ

Search “environmental education” on Google images and you will be hard pressed to find anything that looks like a city. So what does environmental education have to do with cities, let alone Ostrom’s notions of polycentric governance?

Urban environmental education can work alongside other actors to enhance Ostrom’s polycentric governance systems.

One place to look for an answer is in recent scholarship about urban environmental education. We asked 82 scholars from 18 countries to contribute to a forthcoming textbook called the Urban Environmental Education Review (Russ and Krasny, Cornell University Press, 2017). Three themes emerged from the 30 chapters in the book: place, participation, and partnership.

Place as a theme in environmental education dates back to the turn of the 20th century. Concerned about children losing opportunities to learn from nature as farm families uprooted to cities, Cornell nature educators Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey called for lessons to take place in urban nature. A century later, Richard Louv sounded the alarm about children spending too little time in nature in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapter authors in our book take the notion of place one step beyond spending time in nature. They talk about how, through engagement in hands-on community gardening, oyster restoration, and other civic ecology practices, as well as in urban planning and policy-making, environmental education participants are helping to re-construct and re-create cities and urban nature, while also developing an ecological place meaning.

Participation as a theme in urban environmental education has a more recent history. Starting in the 1970s, then-PhD student Arjen Wals was researching environmental education in Detroit. He quickly realized that the curriculum developed at the University of Michigan was not going to work. His research helped launch a participatory action trend in environmental education, where youth help address local environmental problems through activities ranging from monitoring water quality to providing testimony at city council meetings. The Danes later expanded on this work, including Jeppe Laessoe, who proposed four types of participatory practices in environmental education—participation as encounters with nature, as social learning, as action, and as deliberative dialogue.

Participation in deliberative dialogue is linked to the third theme in our book—partnerships. Nearly every chapter describes the partnerships involved in conducting environmental education programs. Two chapters go one step further and explicitly focus on how environmental education organizations are actors in urban environmental governance networks. Whether the theme is intergenerational environmental education, environmental justice, or restoration-based education, the chapters mention the government, NGO, and business partners involved in the work.

If you gaze across the Bronx River from the youth organization Rocking the Boat, you can see Soundview Park, one of thousands of actors in green space stewardship and governance in New York City. According to Svendsen and Campbell (2008), nearly 70 percent of environmental stewardship organizations in NYC provide environmental education. Similarly, according to research of the SURGE project, a quarter of civil society organizations engaged in green space governance in 20 European cities provided education, and Enqvist has described how in Bangalore, India, one of the most important achievements cited by members of a green space governance network was raising public awareness about environmental issues.

In short, organizations that conduct environmental education are actors in governance networks in cities in Europe, India, and the U.S.—these are the very networks that form polycentric governance systems, which Ostrom demonstrated are critical to management and policy. So what does environmental education have to contribute to these environmental governance networks in cities?

We contend that environmental education is more than kids hugging trees—its participants do everything from mapping green space to documenting environmental injustices in videos, from restoring dunes to helping design pocket parks. As actors in governance networks, environmental education practitioners and scholars bring expertise in participatory approaches to addressing environmental issues, and in approaches that help residents understand and re-construct urban place—including its green infrastructure. We need to look at both sides of the river. Environmental educators can become aware of their role in governance networks—and share their insights with other governance actors (using place-based and participatory approaches). And other organizations in governance networks can seek out the expertise of environmental educators. In this way, urban environmental education can work alongside other actors to enhance Ostrom’s polycentric governance systems that are desperately needed in managing urban green space.

Alex Russ

About the Writer:
Alex Russ

Alex Kudryavtsev (pen name: Alex Russ) is an online course instructor for EECapacity, an EPA-funded environment educator training project led by Cornell University and NAAEE.

Harini Nagendra

About the Writer:
Harini Nagendra

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and the author of "Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future" (Oxford University Press, 2016). She uses social and ecological approaches coupled with remote sensing to examine the factors shaping the sustainability of forests and cities in the south Asian context.

Harini Nagendra

The importance of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom’s ideas for urban commons in new and growing cities

The rapid growth of cities is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Across the world, long-enduring, sustainable rural landscapes transform into places of flux and chaos, as millions of migrants pour in to cities as far flung as Mumbai, São Paulo, and Kinshasa. What does the work of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom—scholar-practitioners of cities, whose urban work was largely located in North America­—have to say in these contexts? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Local communities often intuitively know what is best for their own environments. They must be involved.

Growing cities face a challenge of the loss of community. This is particularly visible in peri-urban areas, which are self organized, and tend to lack intervention by formal urban planners. City fringes have a unique spatial character, with high fragmentation of urban land use, large fluxes of people, the domination of renters over home owners, and of recent migrants over long-term residents. Neighbourhoods are faced with the challenge of mobilising social capital for civic action in a governance gap, where city governments do little by the way of providing basic urban services.

Yet cities are also places for being exposed to, and appreciating, the new. How does one create “new commons” that enable disparate groups of migrants from different corners of the world to not just co-habit and co-exist, but also to appreciate and capitalise on their differences, using these productively to build new ideas, devise new skills, and forge new political approaches to collaboration? Here is where the work of Jane Jacobs on the importance of the home and neighbourhood in building communities and urban commons gains special importance. In low-income areas for instance, urban ecosystems tend to become locations of disservices rather than services, with water bodies becoming polluted, disease-infested sewage ponds, and groves of trees acting as rodent-infested nodes of crime and drugs, for instance. Yet in slums of Bangalore, for instance, women often expend tremendous effort to create small patches of greenery, planting shrubs with pretty flowers and sacred trees at lane crossings to brighten up their daily lives and provide shaded spaces for women to gather, play a game of cards, groom each other, and build social capital.

Certain types of urban ecosystems act as catalysts and antidotes to the loss of community, fostering a sense of place. Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons points to the importance of local context in shaping governance of the commons. Both Ostrom’s research and Jacobs’ careful observations of city life tell us that it is for people to get involved in, and in fact to vision, drive, and shape the outcomes of urban restoration. Mere planting of trees, or restoration of degraded wetlands and lakes will not guarantee urban renewal. A good example is the much touted “Million Tree” planting initiatives in many major U.S. cities. As several cities discovered, this process was driven mostly by city governments relying heavily on short term contract labour, with the result that neighbourhoods were disengaged from this process. Planting trees purely for aesthetic reasons, or driven by seemingly abstract motivations of biodiversity, does not take into account the context-specific needs and motivations of local residents. These could be considerations of sacredness in India, or of food in South Africa, or of both in China. This is an important lesson that emerges from the writings of both Jacobs and Ostrom, both of whom were keen, astute, and engaged actors in their own communities of practice.

Community gardens are a particularly exciting example of urban renewal, where people begin with gardening but often end up going well beyond this, engaging in transformative city change via acts as diverse as community entrepreneurship and engagement with city politics. Peri-urban landscapes in growing cities, being less crowded, can offer greater possibilities of open space for community gardening in comparison to older city centres, where land availability is typically scarce. These new spatial commons can provide powerful ways to integrate disparate groups of migrants speaking different languages, with different gardening skills, into close-knit communities of practice: thereby also making cities more welcoming and livable spaces for poor migrants who may often arrive in cities under situations of distress and insecurity.

Thus, there is much that growing cities can learn from the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom. A first and important idea is that local communities often intuitively know what is best for their own environments, a fact that planning experts still refuse to recognise. Ironically, despite the lament expressed about “unplanned” urbanization in the global South, this may in fact offer unique opportunities to build sustainable local commons in new urban areas across the world. A second aspect, stressed by both Ostrom and Jacobs, is that for local commons to emerge, strong sense of place is needed, built around local socio-cultural and ecological identity. The third is the importance of co-production and of multi-level governance—of city governments to recognize that they must co-design and co-produce neighbourhoods with local communities, rather than tear down and rebuild based on supposedly modern ideas of aesthetics.

Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom pointed to the importance of getting the process right, to achieve the outcomes we desire. Growing cities represent challenges but also opportunities to do things right, if we follow the basic principles that they so clearly, and thoughtfully, outline.

Raul Pacheco-Vega

About the Writer:
Raul Pacheco-Vega

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Public Policy at CIDE in Mexico. Raul’s research is interdisciplinary by nature, lying at the intersection of space, public policy, environment, and society. He is primarily interested in understanding the factors that contribute to (or hinder) cooperation in natural resource governance.

Raul Pacheco-Vega

Two great women, two paradigms, one lasting legacy?

I am thrilled to join this global roundtable for The Nature of Cities on the topics of Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs’ strong influences in how cities are built, operated, planned, designed, and lived within. Even if many people who have read Elinor Ostrom may not think that she had something to say about how cities are governed, much of her work focused on the governance of polycentric urban systems, particularly how public service delivery in metropolitan areas could pool resources and offer a more efficient model to serve citizens. Her early work on metropolitan resource allocation followed much of what her husband, Vincent Ostrom, had posited in 1961, but expanding it to resource governance made a long-lasting contribution.

Would Jane Jacobs agree with the unaffordability of Vancouver, where she implemented many of her teachings?

Jane Jacobs is very well known for her contributions to urban planning, although much less recognized for her understanding of economic development and growth. Her legacy is undeniable, and one of the most popular models for understanding a city through walking around it, Jane’s Walks, emerged as a response to her growing influence in how we see and understand cities.

I have a personal connection to both Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs, even though I only met one of them (Elinor). My connection to Jacobs derives from the fact that I am a Vancouverite (from the Main and 16th Avenue area, in Mount Pleasant), and for 20 years of my life, before moving to Mexico, I saw firsthand the results of Jane Jacobs’ influence on Vancouver’s urban form. This urban design paradigm, called Vancouverism, is one of those long-lasting legacies of Jane Jacobs. The idea of a livable city, with high-density high rise buildings, mixed-use neighbourhoods and walkable areas, short distances to work, and sustainable transit, is at the core of the Vancouverism paradigm. Most importantly, Vancouverism as a legacy of Jane Jacobs is a way of looking at urban planning and urban design that integrates human beings and their needs at the core of the planning process. That said, and contrary to the legacy of Elinor Ostrom, Vancouverism has become a model of designing cities that has all but forgotten the need for collaborative processes to understand individual needs. Vancouver is considered one of the most (if not THE most) unaffordable cities in the world. How could a city that is so focused on being “livable” end up becoming one of the least affordable? Would Jane Jacobs agree with this unintended result of her teachings?

I met Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom on a sunny afternoon in 2002, when they visited Vancouver and The University of British Columbia and spent time there as visiting professors. I went out for lunch with the Ostroms and spent hours pondering the musings of common pool resource theory: the crazy idea that communities and entire societies were able to collaborate and cooperate amongst themselves to avoid excessive overconsumption and resource depletion. Elinor Ostrom demonstrated that for many resources, cooperation was possible by creating a collaborative framework of strong resource allocation and use rules as well as robust compliance and enforcement mechanisms. This cooperative approach would be possibly escalated at the community, city, and regional levels through polycentric governance models.

While both Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs have had a very profound impact on my own work and life because of my interest and research in urban water governance, I am much more aligned with Ostrom’s work because I believe that water in cities should be governed not through a top-down paradigm (much like Vancouverism perpetuates, and much along the lines of what Jacobs would suggest), but instead through a bottom-up model where the emergence of polycentric governance is the result of collaborations across multiple stakeholders.

I celebrate both of their works, but I am keen to see whose legacy is more durable on the topic of urban planning and cities’ governance.

Michael Mehaffy

About the Writer:
Michael Mehaffy

Michael W Mehaffy, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, educator, and practitioner in urban design and strategic urban development, with an international practice based in Portland, Oregon.

Michael Mehaffy

Jacobs, Ostrom and the “Age of Human Capital”

Just now we are seeing a welcome reassessment of Jane Jacobs’ work, around the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth. Unlike previous re-assessments (e.g., on the 50th anniversary of Death and Life, her best-known book) this one does not seem to have much of a revisionist momentum. Instead it seems to take seriously the idea that there is still a lot more to unpack, and to take forward.

If we fail to fully utilize the creative power of physical people and their interactions within public spaces, we are going to be in increasing trouble.

In part this may be because the occasion of her birthday is an unseemly moment to join in the ignorant revisionism that previously painted her as a libertarian ideologue, or a quixotic warrior against inevitable “modern” progress, or a closet racist, or an elitist who happily encouraged gentrification—depictions that are all fantasies, wholly unsupported by evidence. (I commented on these issues earlier.)

Perhaps, though, the greater insight on offer this time reflects a genuine maturing of the discourse, recognizing some commonality in our understanding of the nature of our challenges today, and Jacobs’ helpful role in clarifying them. In this consilience we can see strong parallels to the works of others, and in my own work I have explored parallels to Christopher Alexander, Bruno Latour, René Thom, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry George, and others.

To that list we can make the notable addition of Elinor Ostrom, whose work on commons-based economics, and culture, won her a Nobel Prize, among other accolades. Her model can best be described as a network of polycentric organizations whose business is managing a resource commons. There are strong parallels to Jacobs’ “web way of thinking” and to Chris Alexander’s attack on modernist planning for creating “cities as trees”, mathematically speaking. Following Alexander’s work, we might summarize Ostrom’s insights as “commons governance is not a tree”.

Ostrom did express a debt to Jacobs’ insights for her own work, and the philosophical connection between them is easy to see. Aside from the web-network approach to problem-solving, both acknowledged that economic productivity is not simply about the linear transformations of inert resources within a commons, but about how human beings interact within that physical and urban commons to create and manage the transformations, whose structure is quite complex. Jacobs’ less well known books on that economic topic are marvels of insight, building on the more directly urban insights of Death and Life.

In essence, Jacobs said, economic expansion happens as the result of creative differentiation, and that creativity is firmly rooted in the physical structure of a city (or town) and its public spaces. This is the stage for the “sidewalk ballet”, the physical anchor of the social network in which people encounter one another, are introduced to strangers, make connections, and begin the process of creating “knowledge spillovers”—the exchanges that create new syntheses and new efficiencies from existing resources. (They are now called “Jacobs Spillovers” in honor of her seminal work.)

Other networks are important too—professional, electronic, and so on—but they must supplement, and not replace, the physical system consisting of physical people and their interactions within public spaces. (This is a core reason, economically speaking, why we create cities at all.) But if we try to get rid of this core network, or fail to fully utilize its creative power, we are going to be in increasing trouble. So we are.

The alternative response—very much on display around the world today—is simply to increase the rate at which we are plundering natural assets beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. This is a miserable approach, not only because it is fundamentally unsustainable, but because it systematically degrades quality of life beyond a few pockets of momentary excess. Its urban manifestation is sprawl, what Leon Krier has called our “collective obesity.” It is the “crack cocaine” of economic development—a quick and intense high, followed by a planetary hangover.

Jacobs warned of the terrible consequences of this continued approach—not only for the depletion of resources, but for the erosion of the foundations of human institutions, and the “dark age ahead” if we do not get a handle on it (the title of her last admonitory book). Ostrom, too, pointed to the dangers of an overly rigid approach, a model of “governance as a tree,” and its increasing institutional, economic, and ecological failures.

To transition away from this unsustainable era, we are going to need powerful tools and insights, and we are lucky that Jacobs and Ostrom have offered us several of the most powerful. To them we could add, among others, Henry George and his economics of the Commons, conserved in part by a taxation system that supports increases in its creative and efficient uses. (Essentially, consumption of resources including land is taxed more heavily than human creativity, which penalizes depletion and waste, and rewards doing more with less.) We urgently need these systemic changes to our economic feedback systems, especially around so-called “externalities”, as Jacobs and Ostrom both pointed out.

When she died, Jacobs was known to be working on a book with the subject of “the coming age of human capital”. By that she seemed to mean, the age in which we will replace the stripping of massive quantities of natural resources out of the Earth at unsustainable rates, with the creation of a no less prosperous time—indeed a more prosperous time, because it will focus on true prosperity: the ability to live a fulfilling life of creative richness and beauty, within our own means. We had better get to work on that essential goal.

Mary Rowe

About the Writer:
Mary Rowe

Mary W. Rowe is an urbanist and civic entrepreneur. She currently lives in Toronto, Canada, the traditional territories of the Anishinabewaki, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosauneega Confederacy, and works with government, business and civil society organizations to strengthen the economic, social, cultural and environmental resilience of the city and its neighborhoods.

Mary Rowe

Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs, and the power of self-organization

It’s interesting that two women outside the traditional field of economics have made such remarkable contributions to our understanding of the economy. Both rose to prominence in fields dominated by men, pursuing independent careers in the 1960s, just as Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring laid out their brilliant indictments of the status quo put in place by men. Up came Jacobs and Ostrom, too, calling out the emperors in their respective domains.

Cities are a product of the natural human impulse to self–organize—how we gather, and derive mutual benefit, from all that we hold in common.

Elinor Ostrom was, in fact, trained as a political scientist, having been rejected by UCLA for their PhD program in economics, because she hadn’t done the math. (We all sympathize.) She opted for political science instead, and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics some 35 years later for her seminal work on governance models for the commons, and particularly common-pooled resources, which she eventually laid out in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

Jane Jacobs had no advanced degree, other than continuing education credits from Columbia she earned while working as a magazine journalist. Her intellectual interests were famously varied; she read widely where her curiosity led, including metallurgy, geology, and biology. She went on to write arguably the most influential book on city development of the 20th century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and then subsequent volumes on the crucial role of cities in the economy. Late in her life, there was talk about a potential nomination for the Nobel Prize, but it was seen as unfathomable that it would be bestowed on a non-academic, let alone one who perhaps only graduated high school.

The incisive trait that both these women share is their power of observation, perhaps borne from their curiosity to understand how human behavior actually works. Most strikingly, each advocated for policy approaches to their domains of interest that were predicated on the capacity of human behaviour to self-organize, regulate, and course correct, without government regulation or intrusion.

Ostrom focused on ‘common pooled resources’ like fisheries and pasture-land, and how local governance strategies could be effective in both generating needed incomes and stewarding the long term survival of the asset. Jacobs’ focus was the city, which she viewed as a commons of places and spaces and functions that made possible both productive individual lives and generative collective pursuits. Both averred grand-schemed, one-size-fits all approaches, imposed by governments at the exclusion of the particulars of every circumstance. Ostrom preferred an Adaptive Governance approach, locally tailored, where layered systems could be applied and adjusted based on results. (Resilience advocates, take note).

In her last published piece (published on the day of her death, in fact) “Green from the Grassroots”, Ostrom spoke cautiously about assuming that a global agreement on climate change from the UN Rio+20 meeting would be the answer:

“Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements. Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail… “.

She concludes that article:

“…Worldwide, we are seeing a heterogeneous collection of cities interacting in a way that could have far-reaching influence on how Earth’s entire life-support system evolves. These cities are learning from one another, building on good ideas and jettisoning poorer ones. Los Angeles took decades to implement pollution controls, but other cities, like Beijing, converted rapidly when they saw the benefits. In the coming decades, we may see a global system of interconnected sustainable cities emerging. If successful, everyone will want to join the club”.

Hard to imagine a more Jacobean sentiment that that.

In a 1998 interview with the journal Government Technology, Jacobs said “I hate the government for making my life absurd”, which was more a pointed objection to how often government got it wrong and required citizen activism to oppose wrong-headed policies. But more fundamentally, Jacobs knew from observation, that the city and its economy behaved like an organism, and would naturally course-correct, and adapt to changing conditions, if enabled to do so. Like Ostrom, she deduced that people could in fact pursue their individual interests, while at the same time recognize the importance of collaboration and mutual trust. Government intervention was too often overly proscriptive and controlling, large-scale, and imposing general rules to particular conditions. And failing. Ostrom and Jacobs agreed: better that local communities—of fisherman, of park users, of stock exchanges—develop systems of self-organization that put in place locally-specific feedback loops to alert users that a course correction is needed.

Jacobs and Ostrom are thought leaders in understanding the particularity of human ecology, providing a badly needed bridge between the misanthropic purists of the environmental movement (who for decades have seen people as the problem, preferring they just go away…) and a more holistic understanding that places people, and their cities, as an integral part of the ecosystems they inhabit.

Following the success of Death and Life, Jacobs continued for another 40 years to explore the dynamics of contemporary life, and its economy, and the values systems that underpin and sustain it. Ostrom’s ideas gestated for years before Governing was released, and appear to have continued to evolve. How interested they both would be to see how digital technology is enabling a more prudent stewardship of common pooled resources—urban and rural—as a renewed sharing economy emerges that reduces deleterious impacts and economizes use.

To what extent was their perspective shaped by their gender? And their temperaments? And their personal experience: both experienced their greatest successes later in their careers, each writing well into the last years of their lives. I only knew Jacobs, but I wonder if Ostrom, too, saw the world with empathic eyes, trained by years of close observation?

Just as this blog continues to make clear, nature and cities are one. Cities are a product of the natural human impulse to self–organize—how we gather, and derive mutual benefit, from all that we hold in common.

Laura Shillington

About the Writer:
Laura Shillington

Laura Shillington is faculty in the Department of Geoscience and the Social Science Methods Programme at John Abbott College (Montréal). She is also a Research Associate at the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University (Montréal).

Laura Shillington

Everyday streets and local institutions: Jacobs and Ostrom’s everyday scales

Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were seminal figures in their respective fields. Both were on my comprehensive reading lists for my doctoral exams—albeit for different fields. Jane Jacobs was on my list for urban geography and Elinor Ostrom for my human-environment/political ecology list. My third list was feminist geography. Seemingly disparate fields, but there were two key ideas that tied these lists together: the concepts of socio-natural relations (or socio-ecology) and scale.

The attention to the importance of the everyday scale is, in my opinion, what made Jacobs and Ostrom so influential and visionary.

As a trained feminist political ecologist, I am interested in socio-nature relations at the everyday scale. And both Jacobs and Ostrom were female scholars who paid attention to the scale of the everyday. While neither Jacobs nor Ostrom considered themselves feminist scholars, their attention to the everyday scale paralleled feminist analyses of the home, streets, city and country. Feminist geographers have long insisted that everyday spaces (such as the home and community) are intimately tied up with a myriad of relations and processes in other places and scales. Such analysis has been critical to changing the way we understand different spaces, and Ostrom and Jacobs were forerunners in showing how social-ecologies are just as scaled as the social processes that feminist scholars examined. Jacobs and Ostrom used the scale of the everyday to emphasise two key points: the importance of paying attention to the everyday scale, and the embeddedness of the everyday in larger scale processes.

Both Jacobs and Ostrom showed how the decisions and negotiations that took place at the everyday scale (the household, community and streets) were critical to understanding how the city in Jacob’s case and natural resources in Ostrom’s work are used, viewed, experienced, and managed. Jacobs wrote about the link between urban neighbourhoods and urban economics. Her everyday space was the street. The street was where the private and public spaces intersected, where diversity was created and economies born. For Jacobs, the aggregation of quotidian routines was what produced vibrant city spaces and economies. Scattered throughout her early writings were references to urban nature and the importance of these to daily life and economies in cities. She saw economies, social life, and nature as very connected and necessary for a well-functioning city:

“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” —Jacobs 1992 [1961], p. 111

The neighbourhood was, for Jacobs, a key space in producing liveable, lively cities. Jacobs viewed local communities as critical resources for day-to-day well-being. She wrote about acts that took place on streets in neighbourhoods and in parks that keep them safe, lively, and diverse. Her phrase “eyes on the street” has been widely quoted. Indeed, Jacobs’ eyes on the streets can be understood as the rules and small-scale institutions in Ostrom’s work.

Ostrom’s scale of the everyday also comprised the individual and the community. She saw the community as a key player in governing society and argued that communities (of individuals) are also institutions. Ostrom was concerned about the limited definition of institutions typically used in political science (in particular based solely on the market and state) and redefined institution to include the rules and processes at work in the everyday.

“Institutions are the prescriptions that humans use to organize all forms of repetitive and structured interactions including those within families, neighborhoods, markets, firms, sports, leagues, churches, private associations, and governments at all scales” —Ostrom 2005, p. 3

Using her definition of institutions and rules, she countered Hardin’s tragedy of the commons by arguing that governing the commons is not only done by the market or state (as Hardin contends). Rather, because institutions are much more complex, diverse, and scalar, she argued that governing common resources is also done through local institutions where individuals and communities are able to create the ‘rules of the game’. Individuals and communities, Ostrom suggested, have intimate knowledge of how natural resources are understood and used on a daily basis. As such, rules created by local individuals and their institutions matter.

At the same time that they both stressed the importance of everyday life, they also recognised that everyday life was never separate from the larger scale economic and political processes. Jacobs’ early work was heavily critiqued for her lack of connection to broader processes. This is something she addresses in later works, where she makes clear links between her everyday streets and larger urban spaces and economies. Her key argument was that the stimulating effects of diverse economies and the neighbourhood scale created larger urban economies. The everyday scale caused urban economic development, which in turn produced economic development in areas outside cities. As Soja (2009) comments, Jacobs argued that cities created economic development “…not because people are smarter in cities but rather because urban densities and proximities produce a concentration of need and increased incentives to think about problems in new ways” (p. 269).

Similar to Jacobs, Ostrom also contended that local communities were very capable of managing natural resources sustainably by developing rules for extraction, appropriation, and use. She did not romanticise the community, however, and was very aware that the community was one scale in a complex landscape. In 2009, Ostrom wrote an article in Science outlining a general framework for analysing the sustainability of social-ecological systems. She argued that “all humanly used resources are embedded in complex social-ecological systems (SES),” which is shaped by interconnected scales: resource system (e.g., a coastal fishery), resource units (e.g., lobsters), users (fishers), and governance systems (organizations and rules that govern fishing on the coast)(p. 419).

The attention to the importance of the everyday scale is, in my opinion, what made Jacobs and Ostrom so influential and visionary. Without a view from the street (whether it be urban or rural), we have only a partial understanding of how socio-ecological systems function.

References:

Jacobs, J. (1992 [1961]) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books

Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2009) A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems, Science 32 (July 24): 419-422.

Soja, E. (2009) Regional Planning and Development Theories, in R. Kitchin and N. Thrift (eds) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, pp. 259-270. Oxford: Elsevier

Anne Trumble

About the Writer:
Anne Trumble

Anne Trumble is a landscape and urban designer based in Los Angeles, where she is currently working with the Arid Lands Institute.

Anne Trumble

The first armload of heavy “textbooks” I lugged out of my college bookstore included The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. As a wide-eyed teenager on my own for the first time, the weight of choosing a course of study was also heavy. An instructor presented Jacobs’ observations of the social valuables on display in plain sight in Great Cities. Her methods were inspiring, and they provided comforting answers in a complex world. As I commenced a life in landscape architecture and urban design, Death and Life remained a guide, a gospel even, frequently referenced by colleagues, clients, and citizens.

Jacobs described nature and culture as two separate entities—a position that will limit the relevance of her work in contemporary urban socio-ecology.

I carried with me her courageous resistance to the powerful city gatekeepers she saw in opposition to the well-being of regular people, especially the marginalized and poor. I carried with me her exquisite observations of the nuances of everyday city life, and their widely adopted metrics for good and bad urban design. I declared an intention to visit her New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was painted with colors she argued did not exist in the dull, lifeless suburbs surrounding the farm where I grew up. She assured me that Boston’s North End was a suitable surrogate if I couldn’t make it to the urban pot of gold on the Hudson River.

As I began to think about the similarities between urban activist Jane Jacobs and political economist Elinor Ostrom, I realized that I had not read Death and Life since college. In the 20-years since, I lived in Jacobs’ Greenwich Village and tenaciously explored the nuances of New York City. I also encountered the ideas of Elinor Ostrom.

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work on the commons in the governance of ecosystems is lesser known in landscape architecture and urban design circles. But it captured the attention of a team of geneticists I worked alongside in Madagascar. They were constructing critical habitat for the island’s endangered lemurs. Tavy, or slash and burn agriculture, and hunting lemurs as a food source, exemplified the tragedy of the commons. But the geneticists were developing their own system of reforestation, food security, and education, for mutual benefit of humans and lemurs. They were solving the commons problem locally and independently without state intervention, as Ostrom documented in cases across the world. In this context, her work explained what was happening in Madagascar. It also clearly demonstrated that understanding nature and culture as inseparable is critical to solving the commons problem.

Jane Jacobs solved a tragedy of the commons in her place and time by saving irreplaceable urban fabric and its social life from devastating urban renewal. However, Jacobs established a position in Death and Life that will limit the relevance of her work in contemporary urban socio-ecology. She described nature and culture as two separate entities that only overlap insofar as the former is an analogy for studying the latter. She explained: “By city ecology, I mean something different from, yet similar to, natural ecology, as students of wilderness address the subject”. She defined a natural ecosystem as “composed of physical, chemical, biological processes active within a space time unit of any magnitude,” and a city ecosystem as “composed of physical, economic, ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” In conclusion, she stated: “The two sorts of ecosystems, one created by nature, the other by human beings, have fundamental principles in common. Cities are natural ecosystems for humans.”

Jacobs constructed many binaries throughout her writings: powerful versus poor, city versus suburb, credentialed versus un-credentialed, good design versus bad design, and foot people versus car people. But in separating nature from city ecosystems, her nature versus culture binary is perhaps the most limiting to the future of cities. As we enter a new geologic epoch, The Anthropocene, marked by the completion and permanence of human impact on the terrestrial biosphere, the cultural perception of a pristine nature separate from humans no longer exists. The future of all species, including our own, now sits entirely in our hands. Cities are more important than ever, as hybrids of culture and nature, if we wish to create landscapes that nurture all species in the new epoch.

Jane Jacobs, like Elinor Ostrom, was more interested in the dynamics of civilization than city planning itself. She revered the accretion of culture over time; how new kinds of work in vital societies evolve from old forms. If we can learn from and evolve both the successes and omissions of her ideas to solve present day challenges of the urban commons, I believe Jane Jacobs, the unceasing contrarian and independent thinker, would be pleased.

Arjen Wals

About the Writer:
Arjen Wals

Arjen Wals is a professor whose teaching and research focus on designing learning processes and learning spaces that enable people to contribute meaningfully to sustainability. A central question in his work is: how to create conditions that support (new) forms of learning which take full advantage of the diversity, creativity, and resourcefulness that is all around us? 

Arjen Wals

Dialogical deconstruction for meaningful living within planetary boundaries: Ostrom’s and Jacob’s clues for addressing wicked sustainability issues

We have entered the Anthropocene: an era of human-caused global systemic dysfunction where human also will have a responsibility to disrupt and transform highly resilient but inherently unsustainable routines, lifestyles, and systems. A transition to, or, in some cases, a return to genius loci-based integral design of urban spaces that breathe sustainability, well-being and inclusiveness while recognizing cycles and planetary boundaries, is critical if “we” are to continue to live on the Earth.

Conflict and diversity can be utilised to create a mutually beneficial social learning process that can shed new light on wicked sustainability issues.

How to live lightly, equitably, meaningfully and empathically (i.e., towards the past and the future, towards different cultures, the non-human and more-than-human world) on the Earth is the key question of our time. People across the globe are increasingly aware of and exposed to interrelated phenomena such as: climate change, loss of biodiversity, inequity- and natural disaster-related refugees, toxification of water, soils, air and bodies, and so on. Such issues, basically manifestations of the earlier referred to global systemic dysfunction, can be described as wicked in that they are inevitably ill-structured, ill-defined, inter-connected, highly contextual, complex, and drenched in ambiguity, controversy, and uncertainty. Does the work of Ostrom and Jacobs offer clues for learning our way out of persistent unsustainability?

Although they wrote in a different time and used different words, Elinor Ostrom and Jane Jacobs emphasize self-governance, autonomous thinking, and meaningful and playful interaction. So-called dialectical encounters in heterogeneous settings appear critical for addressing wicked problems and creating more sustainable communities (indeed they did not use the term ‘sustainable’). In today’s ‘transition movements’—sometimes related to energy, food, water, sometimes to a shared economy and solidarity, sometimes all in connection—we can identify these “principles”. Ostrom’s and Jacobs’ thinking has paved the way for a more relational and organic understanding of the world. The creation of a ‘sustainable’ community or urban area requires, along with a sense of place, identity and belonging, continuous dialogue between all involved to shape and re-shape ever changing situations and conditions. A dialogue here requires that the stakeholders involved can and want to participate as equals in an open communication process which invites diversity and conflict as a driving force for transformation.

Dialogue and social cohesion are prerequisites for tapping into the change-potential of conflict and diversity. Viewed as such, dialogue becomes both a purpose and possibility for acting and forms the basis for purposeful action. The work of Jane Jacobs in particular reminds us of the importance of dialogical deconstruction, which refers to a stepwise process described by a former colleague of mine, Fanny Heymann, characterised by the unravelling and untangling of assumptions about the diverging perspectives of those involved in an interactive process revolving around sometimes controversial issues (e.g. is organic sustainable, affordable?). In the world of individual learners, images are constructed based on often fixed meanings of the elements that comprise the image, which are of a cognitive (i.e. knowledge), affective (i.e. emotions) and social (i.e. relations) nature. Deconstructing salient images requires the softening and untying of construed meanings in order to create space for alternative meanings and composite images. In dialogical deconstruction, an on-going process of deconstructing and reconstructing creates a mutual frame of reference that allows for a more open, more sensitive, and better-informed discussion of diverging, sometimes conflicting, values and interests.

Conflict and diversity can, when properly introduced and guided, be utilised to create a mutually beneficial social learning process that can shed new light on wicked sustainability issues. Individual interests may, in the end, still be in conflict with collective ones, as long as they are no longer dominated by inaccurate assumptions and implicit knowledge that distort reality and block future learning. Through dialogical deconstruction, a negotiation process can gradually transform into a process of dialogue and mutual inquiry that puts the collective interests on centre stage. Here, we meet Elinor Ostrom’s emphasis on community participation and local knowledge, and collective self-determination in governing common spaces.

A more sustainable world will require space for transformative and even transgressive learning. Such space includes: space for alternative paths of development; space for new ways of thinking, valuing, and doing; space for participation minimally distorted by power relations; space for pluralism, diversity, and minority perspectives; space for deep consensus, but also for respectful disagreement and differences; space for autonomous and deviant thinking; space for self-determination; and, finally, space for contextual differences. This reminds us of John Dewey’s views on education and democracy, almost a century ago, whose ideas can also be found in Jacob’s and Ostrom’s work. Dewey argued that education should realize a sense of self, a sense of other, and a sense of community; it should create space for self-determination as individuals and/or members of groups exercise greater degrees of autonomous thinking in a social context. The same could be argued for community engagement in livable and sustainable cities.

Abigail York

About the Writer:
Abigail York

Abigail York, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Governance at Arizona State University, where she directs the Environmental Social Science PhD Program.

Abigail York

Blessed to be a student of Elinor Ostrom, I find that, sadly, my visceral memories of her voice, warm hugs, and firm handshake are slowly fading, yet I think of her every day. Tasked with reflecting on her influence in my work all I can think to say is…I would not be me without her. Her tutelage, patience, and advice shaped who I am as a person and scholar in almost every way. As a graduate student, Lin brought me onto an interdisciplinary research project on urbanization and the environment; this incredibly diverse team used mixed methods, theories from across the sciences, and an ethic of respect for the communities that we engaged with. I attempt to replicate this approach to science, Lin’s approach to science, on every project. This apprenticeship enabled me to envision a new type of academic career that eschewed traditional academic boundaries and made an impact both within and outside the ivory tower.

Jacobs and Ostrom understood that we must leverage multiple ways of knowing and forge new interdisciplinary perspectives to tackle complex social dilemmas.

Several years ago, I nervously spoke with Lin about my tenure, worried that my interdisciplinary portfolio—including collaborations with mathematicians, ecologists, and archaeologists—would not “fit” with the standards of the day. She urged me to let my passion drive my research and not to attempt to strategize for each milestone in the academy. In her view, my science would be better if I followed my passion, and so would my sanity! Academic boundaries and the disciplinary silos of academic associations all too often stymy good work. Based on that advice, I continued to follow my academic heart from research project to project in the quest to better understand how people solve collective action problems.

Ostrom’s work transcends boundaries and silos: academic, nation-state, ivory tower and “real world”. Driven by puzzles presented through every day experience, she transformed these questions into elegant hypotheses and theories to be tested through the hard work of empirical research.

chitwan_communityforest_gravel
From the author’s research studying invasive species and community forestry in Chitwan, Nepal. Photo: Abigail York

Inspired by the sacrifice and collective action surrounding her childhood during the Depression and World War II, Lin was unwilling to accept that “everyday folks” could not self-organize to solve commons dilemmas. She demonstrated that with the right conditions, collective action was possible and that the diverse array of rules and norms created throughout the world was astounding; for this groundbreaking work she was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

In the 1970s and 80s, Lin was one of a few policy scholars pushing back against the technocratic solutions of public administration and their desire for consolidated governments. Her innovative mixed method work on policing illustrated that sometimes, but not always, local control leads to better outcomes for communities.

bhaktapur
From the author’s research in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Photo: Abigail York

While working on planning and zoning as a graduate student, Lin encouraged me to read Jane Jacobs. I found fascinating overlap in the perspectives of these two academic giants. The common threads between Ostrom and Jacobs include the respect for the common person and the need to understand things in the field. One of my favorite passages is Jacob’s discussion of planners’ who cling to the orthodoxy of theory, “when contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside (Jacbos 1961: 8)”. These women refused to accept orthodoxy in the academy or bureaucracy; instead they looked out to the streets, neighborhoods, and communities.

They understood that we must leverage multiple ways of knowing and forge new interdisciplinary perspectives to tackle complex social dilemmas. They understood that it was the responsibility of the academician to look toward the “real world” for better questions and answers. These unorthodox and wonderfully irreverent women reshaped the study, science, and practice of cities and the environment forever.

Common Trends and Conundrums in Nature-Based Solutions: Greening at the Intersection of Urban Densification and Urban Sprawl

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Nature-Based Solutions can and often do provide an impressively large set of socio-ecological benefits. But the expectations that they can fast-fix, or even mask, the deeper socio-political urban troubles behind desires for eternal and “green” economic growth are largely unfounded and bound to disappoint.
Traditional chinampa cultivation as a way to restore water-stressed ecosystem services in Mexico City’s artificial wetland areas conquered from the sea in Tianjin Harbour … a network of bug-friendly bushes and patches of green along cycling routes in Scotland … an urban forest strategy in Melbourne promoting the plantating of 3,000 trees of diverse species.

You might wonder what these seemingly unrelated programs have in common. Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), what these interventions have come to represent, is a term with varied meanings, perhaps still in flux. The European Commission (2015) defines NBS as actions inspired or supported by nature, while IUCN (Cohen-Shacham  et al. 2016) delimits NBS to projects that protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems (thus focusing more on biodiversity and social development aspects). NBS mark a surge in planners’ interest in urban greening, especially with the prospect of climate and biodiversity havoc looming close and large (IPBES 2019, IPCC 2014). In a wave of rising demand for urban renaturing, we were part of a team of six universities, located across Europe that conducted an in-depth study of more than fifty NBS in 18 world cities (Kiss et al. 2019). The study attempted to cover a diversity of geographies, and pin down innovative responses to urban sustainability challenges, while noting barriers and contestations along the way (www.naturvation.eu). We have looked into various types of NBS, including diverse plans and strategies for urban greening, comprising: parks, urban forests and greenways; eco-districts; urban gardens; green buildings and roofs; insect-based interventions; water- and river-fronts; and measures dealing with water scarcity. Insights from two years of work are plentiful.

First and foremost, one factor that intersects with the scale and extent of greening in urban areas has to do with the old urban-sprawl-versus-urban-densification conundrum. On the one hand, urban sprawl consumes more undeveloped land (including that used for formal or informal agriculture). Recently built districts with sustainability features such as Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht, Park Marianne in Montpelier, or the Ecocity in Tianjin are “NBS in the sprawl”. Yet urban sprawl consumes rather than produces (more) nature. Densification on the other hand is meant to prevent the extension of urban limits to peripheral pristine and “natural” space. Yet, densification reduces the type and amount of green space and urban nature available for residents and can conflict with land use regulations and priorities. In the case of Leipzig, for example, planting more trees is especially challenging in residential areas where vegetation siting has not been incorporated into the design of existing infrastructure, and clashes with the needs of transport, parking, water sanitation, and the provision of electricity. That said, on the ground many cities strategically opt for “green densification” in combination with “green sprawl”, an agenda fostered by the prevalent logic and imperative of eternal economic (and consumption) growth (Colenbrander 2016).

The green and the grey, how much of each for a just city? Barcelona city from Parc Guell. Photo: Filka Sekulova Tsvetlova

“Green” urban sprawl

Overall, most newly developed sprawling districts that incorporate NBS measures lack comprehensive participation processes. Examples include Utrecht’s Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood, Montpellier’s Parc Marianne building district and Tianjin’s Ecovalley. In the cases of Little France Park in Edinburgh and Two Rivers Urban Park in Cape Town, competing interests (real estate construction versus expansion of greening) resulted in an unsatisfactory or mechanistic participation process for those stakeholders with less institutional power. A perceived sense by citizen groups that proposed urbanization/NBS would go ahead regardless of public consultations has been particularly visible in Newcastle’s public parks planning, the new management plan of Barcelona’s Collserola natural zone, and in Athens’ newly planned Hellenikon Park. Generally, technical plans and (green) strategies tend to reach the public at advanced stages of development, through short-term advice and in formats that are not easy the public to digest. Furthermore, access to participation is often biased toward legally established groups.

Even worse, rather than contributing to climate resilience, biodiversity preservation, air quality, public health, and social justice, NBS interventions might actually facilitate the sprawl of new grey development and infrastructure. In Hellenikon (Athens) and Tolka Valley Park (Dublin), for instance, extensive new real estate development was needed for the NBS to realize their full potential. In addition, the flood alleviation schemes implemented in several of our cases have paved the way for new development, or made existing real estate more sustainable, attractive and thus more expensive (i.e., Newcastle Brunton Park Flood Alleviation Scheme, and Utrecht Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood).

One major concern is the inclusivity of eco-districts. In Montpellier’s Parc Marianne Eco-district, for example, a park-side real estate costs twice as much as similar housing elsewhere. In the Tianjin Eco-district, although 10% of the planned housing is supposed to be “affordable”, there is little prospect for blue collar jobs, as the proposed industries within the eco-city are mainly geared towards the so-called high-tech and creative class.

Gardening in appropriated public gardens, Barcelona, 15 May movement. Photo: Filka Sekulova Tsvetlova
Community garden L’Illa Dels 3 Horts, part of Empty Spaces project of Barcelona Municipality. Photo: Filka Sekulova Tsvetlova

“Greening” urban densification

One example of the green densification trend is the conversion of former rail corridors within the city core into new parks and greenways. Boston’s Greenway, Winnipeg’s Northeast Pioneers Greenway, and Parkbogen Ost in Leipzig are just a few examples that the Naturvation project examined. Another pattern of NBS in dense urban set-ups are insect-oriented initiatives, such as the John Muir Pollinator Way and the Square Meter for Butterflies in Edinburgh, the bee-keeping practices in Győr’s Audi Factor and in the urban centres of Newcastle and Sofia. Likewise, the role and greening potential of “free” or “derelict” urban spaces and fringes is remarkable, especially in contexts of crises and austerity.

While expanding urban “nature” is fundamental for public health, well-being or/and climate change adaptation, green densification can be expensive, and hence exclusive. Green roofs, for example, often enhance the attractiveness and appeal of buildings. The management and maintenance efforts and costs these entail, however, are high and frequently underestimated. Greened avenues tend to reconfigure local economies, attracting residents with higher purchasing power and associated local businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants). In Boston, waterfront green resilient projects that aim to protect harbour neighbourhoods against the impacts of sea level rise create spaces for business and leisure used by elite residents and consumers for their attractive and “resilient locations”. Here, weak social housing regulations frequently result in waterfronts that reflect privilege and the intersection of social and racial inequalities.

In contrast, the chronic lack of equitably distributed green space and the civil mobilizations for healthy and liveable urban space are often a motor behind community-managed urban gardens and forested areas, such as the Sofia City Forest plan or the initial stages of East Boston Greenway development. Most of the community-initiated gardens or forests areas studied within the Naturvation project emerge through acts of opposition to further construction or to enduring industrial pollution. Even though urban gardens enhance social cohesion and neighbourhood vitality, they tend to lack longstanding municipal support, (examples are the Pla Buits gardens in Barcelona or the Weaver Square gardens in Dublin). They are often rendered mobile or temporary, and implicitly granted a lower status by urban planners and private developers. Overall, combining densification with greening could potentially end up contributing more to social inclusion, conviviality, and cohesion than green-aesthetics or green-fashion urban sprawl, yet when distributed equally, and without aiming on financial returns.

“Okupa y resiste” (occupy and resist). Barcelona. Photo: Hristo Velichkov

Role of public participation

Some of the good NBS governance practices spotted in our research occur and materialize when frequent communication within and between public departments are reported, and collaboration with the local community (citizens and non-for-profit) is genuine and open. Easy-to-set, though less transformative, forms of public participation are those occurring through non-conflictive, online, or educational events and tools, for example the nomination of sites for greening in Melbourne. Our cases demonstrate that the inclusivity of public consultations looks good on paper but is difficult to operationalize, especially when it comes to the participation of vulnerable groups. Lack of trust is a strong impediment for municipalities to openly engage with civil groups in consultation and decision-making processes (as in the example of Montpellier’s Green and Blue Network, among multiple others).

Indeed, including a diversity of voices towards the co-production of NBS implies the representation and negotiation of diverse and conflicting interests, and eventually impossible socio-economic trade-offs. Some large-scale river re-scaping, for example, tend to be riddled with rather narrow techno-visions, where participation often seems tailored toward the needs of the establishment, as in the case of the Leipzig Luppe River re-wilding intervention and the Moson-Danube project in Győr.

Nevertheless, citizen engagement, whenever and however achieved, scales up the social justice component of NBS. This is particularly visible in NBS targeting water scarcity, where concerns with justice and gender have been an imminent feature of their design. The Cape Town Atlantis Aquifer Clearing Pilot Project, for example, is entirely led by community members, mostly women, who have been acting as the main protagonists of water preservation attitudes. In contexts of high inequality, the operationalization of NBS can be, and needs to be, intertwined with sustaining and transforming livelihoods where employment goes hand in hand with enhancing the provisioning and regulating functions of local ecosystems (as in the case of Mexico City Water Forest).

Needless to say, Nature-Based Solutions can and often do provide an impressively large set of socio-ecological benefits. The expectations, though, that they can fast-fix, or even mask the deeper socio-political urban troubles behind desires for, and imaginaries of, eternal and “green” economic growth are largely unfounded and bound to fail or disappoint.

Filka Sekulova, Isabelle Anguelovski, Francesc Baro, and Bernadett Kiss
Barcleona, Barcleona, Barcleona, Lund

On The Nature of Cities

Literature:

EC (2015): Nature-Based Solutions & Re-Naturing Cities Final Report of the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities.

Cohen-Shacham, E., Walters, G., Janzen, C. and Maginnis, S. (eds.) (2016). Nature-based Solutions to address global societal challenges. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Colenbrander, Sarah. 2016. Cities as engines of economic growth. The case for providing basic infrastructure and services in urban areas; D’Alisa et al. 2014 Degrowth Vocabulary for a New Era

IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.Contribution of Work-ing Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

IPBES, 2019: Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services

Kiss, B., Sekulova, F., Kotsila, P. 2019. INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON OF NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS PROJECT REPORT, Naturvation Project https://naturvation.eu/result/international-comparison-nature-based-solutions-1

Isabelle Michele Sophie Anguelovski

About the Writer:
Isabelle Anguelovski

Isabelle Anguelovski is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She is a social scientist trained in urban and environmental planning and coordinator of the research line Cities and Environmental Justice.

Francesc Baro

About the Writer:
Francesc Baro

Francesc Baro is a postdoctoral researcher at ICTA/Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, and member of the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice. He is an environmental scientist trained in landscape and urban planning and explores the operationalization of ecosystem services in urban social-ecological systems.

Bernadett Kiss

About the Writer:
Bernadett Kiss

Bernadett Kiss is Lecturer at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics/Lund University. Her main scientific interests include system-wide policy assessment, energy efficient buildings, technology, markets, the role of actors, learning, innovation, and sustainable urban transformation.

Community Participation in Parks Development: Two Examples from Berlin

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

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

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

These green spaces serve an important role in local communities, providing recreation space and breathing room, particularly in central districts where the majority of homes are rented apartments. As a result, community activism has a strong tie to local green spaces. Berlin’s planning processes also have an extensive tradition of community involvement and are proactive in their efforts to incorporate local interests into newly designed parks, as well as into the technical Landscape Plan for the city as a whole.

Two recent, acclaimed park projects in Berlin offer different but equally striking stories of public involvement in the development process: Tempelhofer Feld and Am Gleisdreieck. In both cases, a thorough public process guided a design competition for a large-scale, reclaimed public space. Yet in one case, citizen participation successfully shaped the design outcome, while in the other case citizen activism transformed the fate of a green space beyond its initially intended use.

Tempelhofer Feld

The Tempelhof Park consultation event followed a citizen-initiated May 2014 Referendum on the future development of the 380-hectare site. Larger than Central Park in New York City, the entire site will remain as parkland due to the Referendum, leading discussions to shift from the design potential for the site, to the optimal approach to managing it as an exclusively green space. Berlin’s Senate Department of Urban Development and Environment is now in the midst of work on an EPP (“Entwicklungs & Pflegeplan” or “Development & Maintenance Plan”), until autumn 2015. The process will involve open community meetings, citizen working groups and a recently-launched online platform. Much of the discussion is likely to focus on the feasibility of continuing existing “pioneer projects” in the park and means of incorporating citizen groups into long-term decision-making structures.

Tempelhofer Feld Community Workshop for the park's emerging "Development & Management Plan", held on Friday November 28th in Tempelhof Airport Terminal Building. Photo: Katharine Burgess
Tempelhofer Feld Community Workshop for the park’s emerging “Development & Management Plan”, held on Friday November 28th in Tempelhof Airport Terminal Building. Photo: Katharine Burgess

Prior to the Referendum, public engagement and activism about Tempelhof had been underway for years. Many of the discussions initially focused on preventing the closure of the historic airport itself, which was to be phased out due to diminishing financial returns and plans for a new regional hub. However, a 2008 Referendum in favor of its continued use was void due to low voter turn-out. Subsequently, thousands of Berliners participated in the Senate Department of Urban Development and Environment’s site planning process in advance of an international design competition to determine the future of the site.

Public meetings and forums about the project began in 2007, while the airport remained open, and eventually included meetings, tours, exhibitions and lectures on broad and specialist subjects. Information-gathering included a 2007 web dialogue, which drew 68,000 users and 2,500 idea contributors, and a survey distributed to 6,000 local households and 1,000 households elsewhere in Berlin, which garnered a respectable 25% response rate. An additional 17 moderated focus groups sought to engage migrants groups which historically had not participated in surveys, with individuals contacted via associations, religious groups and the City’s Quartiersmanagement program. Meanwhile, the City developed a brief for the development of the site which called to preserve the character of the open space, proposing that surrounding development be “climate-friendly and resource-efficient,” “future-oriented” and “integrated” or inclusive.

After the closure of the airport in 2008, in-person consultation continued, with numerous large-scale public events. 3,500 attended a 2009 “Call for Ideas” held in a hangar on site, which was re-opened for the first time since the airport’s closure. 2,400 also visited a subsequent Open House showcasing the concepts developed by the six finalists in the international design competition. Proposals focused on a mixed-use development strategy to relink the site with the surrounding city, including partial use as a park alongside the development of housing and a major new public library envisioned to be an equivalent to Paris’ Pompidou Center. To the City, the site offered the opportunity to create much-needed affordable housing and include large-scale cultural uses such as the library, which would rehouse the famous America Memorial Library collection. Alongside consultation efforts about the park and site as a whole, a parallel consultation, exhibition and design competition process was also underway for the library building proposal. Public scepticism focused on the library to some degree, given Berlin’s recent history with cost overruns for large-scale public projects, such as the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport.

Tempelhofer Feld Community Gardens 2Meanwhile, community interest in the site grew, particularly after the vast space opened as a temporary park in 2010 in advance of the design competition outcome. With the runways open for biking and kitesurfing and the launch of a popular community garden, the park and its unique historical setting captured the imagination of the city. The nearly treeless setting was far different than any other park in the city, and the immense space became a canvas for community interests. “Pioneer” groups piloted projects to test out uses for the park, including the community garden, public art and sports initiatives. The success of the pioneer projects influenced the direction of the design competition, with the jury selecting a proposal that was seen to capture and reinforce the essence of the site’s wide-open spaces.

Community gardens and recreational spaces, Tempelhofer Feld, September 2014. Photos: Katharine Burgess
Community gardens and recreational spaces, Tempelhofer Feld, September 2014. Photos: Katharine Burgess

Citizen initiatives soon began to advocate for a preservation of the site as a whole, with a petition led by the “100% Tempelhofer Feld” group ultimately bringing about the Referendum that determined the future of the site. This majority vote then preserved the site as a park, eliminating the possibility of residential or community facility development and shifting public discussion towards the future management of the green space. The Referendum decision also determined that preserving the existing atmosphere and ecology of the park would be a priority—meaning that the site’s non-traditional, sparsely planted “temporary” landscape would soon become permanent.

The City’s current consultation on the “Development & Management Plan” is unlikely to attract the numbers that engaged in the prior planning process, but the project remains an interesting case study of public participation in open space development. The citizen engagement process is unlikely to be easy, as many citizens were vocal about their distrust of development proposals during the design competition phase. Another challenge will be complying with post-Referendum legal and financial realities—such as the now-prescribed lack of building—while still considering a range of ideas for the site. Finally, it is of course a challenge for the City to administer an engagement process for a project that has evolved so starkly from original plans. Regardless of these concerns, the City continues to seek a broad range of park users to advance the “Development & Management” plan, with discussions focused on the opportunities and trade-offs of maintaining a park of this size. While some individuals have shown resistance to working within the framework, the process seems to have been generally accepted and has attracted participants of a range of ages and interests.

After this month’s event and the launch of an online program, the City envisions that interested citizens will form a series of Tempelhof working groups, on topics ranging from recreation to climate issues. Their input will then influence the development of the site management plan, developed in three phases of activity:

Phase 1, Inventory, Oct 2014–Feb 2015: An extensive series of public events coinciding with an online information-gathering phase. The City anticipates using the themes and comments from online and in-person dialogue to structure and advance an overall strategy.

Phase 2, Working Groups, March–June 2015: After a public Forum on the findings of Phase 1, Working Groups will develop more detailed strategies and input on topics such as nature, sport, recreation, landscape and urban climate.

Phase 3, Analysis, Summary and Public Discussion, July 2015–Sept 2015: A final summer of analysis, collation and dialogue will lead to the completion of the “Development & Care Plan.”

Public events punctuate these three phases, from focused workshop sessions to larger plenaries on the overall findings. Moving forward, it is clear that the City intends to build on citizen commitment to the park and establish the type of open and transparent process that citizen groups would like to see. However, an ongoing challenge will be maintaining trust between all parties, as well as developing a maintenance plan which is both feasible and respectful of community aspirations for the site.

Am Gleisdreieck

While the Tempelhof community activity ultimately led to the preservation of an existing site, the Am Gleisdreieck process instead led to the development of a completely new public park, albeit one very much rooted in its particular history and ecology.

A winter view of the western half of Am Gleisdreieck Park, including the U-Bahn infrastructure. Photo: Katharine Burgess
A winter view of the western half of Am Gleisdreieck Park, including the U-Bahn infrastructure. Photo: Katharine Burgess

Northwest of Tempelhof, the 36-hectare Am Gleisdreieck Park of today is in some ways a microcosm of the many types of green spaces in its surrounding city. Located on a disused railway site, the park’s name means “Triangle of Rails” and its history is still quite visible through the historic infrastructure incorporated into the park design. The site plan transformed this previously abandoned space into “two halves,” a buzzy western park developed with sports fields, play areas and a sun terrace, and a quieter and more naturalistic eastern park, incorporating a nature preserve (das Wäldchen) and preserved sections of the historic tracks. A key aspect of the park is the preservation of the unique ecologies that proliferated in its years of abandonment, including the grove which grew undisturbed on the goods yard site over about 50 years.

The park opened in phases in 2011 and 2013 after a public process and design competition won by design firm Atelier Loidl. While now a celebrated public space, the site initially represented a complex array of stakeholder interests, ranging from the privatized railway company, to the Berlin City government, the three adjacent Bezirk (local district) governments and the developers from nearby Potsdamer Platz, which largely financed the park development. Parts of the site also served as a staging area for Potsdamer Platz—at the time, considered the “largest construction site in Europe”—for a significant amount of time prior to its identification as future park space.

As was the case with Tempelhof, community groups had an active role throughout the design process. In particular, community group “AG Gleisdreieck” was a consistent voice advocating for the preservation of the space as parkland and for the implementation of an “inter-national” community garden. The group began advocating for community gardening on site as early as 15 years before completion, with interest partially piqued by an international conference on micro-farming at the Technical University of Berlin. The group later began an intercultural local agriculture project on site, modelled after the Community Gardens of New York. These gardens moved into use before the official completion of the rest of the park and the surrounding park was then designed to accommodate them permanently.

Once the City proposed the site for park use in 2006, a public engagement process began to determine the design priorities. Initially, the City sent 1600 surveys to all within a 20-minute walk of the park, garnering 400 responses, a response rate roughly equivalent to that at Tempelhof. Walking tours of the site and its unique ecologies drew 2200 neighbors, and developed the project slogan of “Off we go to the Park at Gleisdreieck,” on account of the labelled balloons at the tour meeting points.

Other public events included workshops, exhibitions of design competition concepts and a “planning weekend” with the short listed landscape architects from the design competition. Designers who entered the competition were required to participate in the planning weekend and the City heralded the event as a success, both in terms of participation and ideas generated. Roughly 500-600 citizens attended the weekend, which featured moderated forums and an exhibition of design concepts that encouraged direct dialogue between the designers, jury and citizens. The design firms used the overall community comments from this weekend to continue to develop their proposals and the jury also used the event as a compass for selecting the overall competition winner.

A parallel online engagement process collected resident citizen concepts for the park, with roughly 500 concepts proposed through this medium. Finally, as the design process gained momentum, 32 working groups were established to inform the development of the plan. These many moving parts of the community engagement process involved people from the three adjacent districts of Kreuzberg, Schoenberg and Mitte and galvanized community interest in a space that had the potential to unite the three districts. The only criticism that City officials have articulated was a difficulty in fully engaging the immigrant communities, despite focus group invitations, translated surveys and other efforts.

The City found that two primary interest groups existed within those engaging in the consultation process: one sought a quiet, natural park and the other was interested in a heavily-programmed park offering opportunities for sports and activities. From these interests, and the unusual geography of the site, the concept of the “park of two speeds” emerged. Another main theme from public dialogue that influenced the design process was Spurensicherung—the gathering of evidence, or the protection of the traces of history (and tracks) on the site.

This wide range of uses within the park framework can also be at least partially attributed to the themes emerging from extensive public consultation. The community gardens were one clear priority for the surrounding community. In addition, the now highly successful “Experiencing Nature” pilot project—a natural area for children’s exploration—was also developed from community concepts.

Am Gleisdreieck is something special—a park that preserves unique ecologies while also providing attractive spaces for active recreation and fulfilling community visions of what the space could be. The extensive conversations with surrounding communities throughout the design competition and planning process should be considered an exemplar for other parks in Berlin and internationally.

The current process of consultation at Tempelhof is in some ways more complex given the history of the site, the legal framework established by the Referendum and the cost realities of managing such a vast green space. However, the extensive process recently launched by the City indicates an interest in finding a feasible site management approach compatible with community interests. Over the next 10 months, time will tell how community groups engage with the process and what will community-generated concepts can be embedded in the park management plan, perhaps also creating a model for interested  communities further afield.

Katharine Burgess
Berlin

On The Nature of CIties

Community, Collaboration, and Controversy: A Story of Activists, Architects, Scientists, Engineers, and a Vision to Transform Artifacts into Amenities and Oil Tanks into Oyster Beds.

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Take a abandoned industrial site in New York City, design a long-promised park, with oil tanks converted into art spaces, children’s play spaces, vertical gardens. It was imaginative reuse that honored the past and lived the present. It almost happened.
As a student, I walked the narrow river, sliding along edges to reach the massive curves of the abandoned grain elevators, rising in the sunlight reflecting off frayed elephantine concrete skins. My father worked in the steel mills of Buffalo, where I visited the incredible mile-long buildings that I felt demonstrated the curvature of the earth. I slipped out to explore the surrounding industrial landscapes including the abandoned elevators that would inspire me to become an architect.

The Grain Elevators of Buffalo, the largest collection in the world. Source:  BuffaloHistory.com

There is a surprisingly common contradiction hidden within centers and scattered along critical edges of the most diverse cities around the world: abandoned and obsolescent industrial structures. This is the narrative of one such place, grounded in its complex natural and industrial history, suspended for a moment in the center of a transforming community in the heart of a growing global city.

From the vibrant centers of expanding cities, to crumbling relics of former metropolitan centers, lurk massive and abandoned industrial architecture, structures, and artifacts. Along waterfronts, former railway lines, pressed up against highways, tracing the gaps between divided communities, we can find the detritus of a former industrial urban revolution. These are the architecture and artifacts that once drove the massive growth of cities in the industrial era, that time of extraordinary expansion from the 19th through the mid 20thcentury. These structures fueled and transformed urban expansion around the world, encouraging abrupt enormities of scale, a repetition and growth of urban form previously unprecedented in human history. Many of these complexes and structures remain but today are decrepit, polluted, underutilized, or simply abandoned, facing imminent destruction.

These former industrial sites pose one of the great urban challenges and opportunities for the early 21stcentury. In this time of the ascendancy of cities around the world, how can we address the urgent challenges that industrial scale helped to create? And how do these ruined former industrial collections of buildings offer particular opportunities on an unprecedented scale to address the current needs of our cities: greater equity, access to green spaces, habitat restoration, and the need to address resiliency in a time of profound climate change? The former industrial Brooklyn waterfront is one place that brings all these challenges together.

We were waiting in a green room in the heart of Manhattan, backstage at The Municipal Art Society Summit. At this conference dedicated to urban innovation, I was presenting our designs to encourage greater equity at Halletts Point, a waterfront community combining mixed-income housing, public schools, green infrastructure, and resilient multi-level waterfront park. Seated next to me were two young women in their early 30s, Stacey Anderson and Karen Zabarsky, who had just presented their idea for a new kind of waterfront community green space named “Maker Park”.   Their idea grew out of a previous innovative plan for the Brooklyn waterfront, which had partly gone wrong.

Stacey Anderson and Karen Zabarsky, founders of The Tanks and Maker Park, at Bushwick Inlet, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: 6Sqft.

In 2005, when New York City rezoned the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the Bloomberg Administration attempted to strike a balance between public benefits and private investment. The city’s plans rezoned an underutilized industrial waterfront to create significant new housing with 20 percent affordable residences and waterfront green spaces—including, a large public park located around a natural feature, Bushwick inlet.

Bushwick Inlet also featured the abandoned Bayside Oil works: a former industrial site containing ten cylindrical steel tanks used to store petroleum. The tanks comprised two concentric cylinders of three sizes and placed in a picturesque composition along this inaccessible waterfront on the East River overlooking Manhattan. Years before, the tanks had been emptied and cleaned; tall grass grew up between them to recreate a surprisingly lush landscape supporting wildlife on this rare natural inlet within the tidal estuary uniting Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.

The city’s rezoning was approved and executed surprisingly rapidly. New residential towers rose precipitously within former industrial sites, waterfront parks and ferry stops reconnected inaccessible waterfronts, historic warehouses were renovated, and economic, cultural, and social forces transformed a former working class community one subway stop from Manhattan into an innovative residential community—while escalating forces of gentrification and eradicating much of its history.

And one part of the plan wasn’t realized: where was the park?

Community Members post signs along Bushwick Inlet asking: Where’s Our Park?

The city unfortunately failed to gain control of the land designated for the park before the end of the administration; as values soared, owners refused to sell. With the rapid escalation of adjacent developments, the historic Brooklyn industrial waterfront was being rapidly erased by more anonymous architecture, and by 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Brooklyn industrial waterfront as one of the top 11 most endangered spaces in the United States. Stacey and Karen had looked closely at Bushwick Inlet park site and proposed a radical idea: instead of tearing down the former industrial structures, could they be reused to create a new kind of public park for this remarkable and rapidly transforming community?

Advertisement for Charles Pratt’s Astral Oil Works depicting manufacturing buildings on Bushwick Inlet / Portrait of Mr. Pratt, founder of The Pratt Institute. Source: Pratt Institute Library

I was struck by Stacey’s and Karen’s vison.  Their idea was grounded in this special site where nature, industry, and oil combined in a unique urban history: a natural inlet with significant wetland habitat. It was transformed by early industry: the site of the shipyard in 1861 for historic iron-clad, semi-submerged ship theMonitorand the site of an early American industrial story: Astral Oil Works. Founded by one of America’s extraordinary philanthropic entrepreneurs, Charles Pratt, who sold the site to arch-rival John Rockefeller and used the money to found philanthropic endeavors including social worker housing and the Pratt Institute, his progressive institution offering low-cost educations to diverse students including women and people of color. Stacey and Karen, along with the third original founder, Zac Waldman, and inspired by these stories named their proposal “Maker Park” to respond to the neighborhood’s history and current potential.

I suggested if these young activists wanted to explore making their vision into a reality, they would need concrete design proposals to galvanize support and demonstrate to the community what their park could be. My architecture firm STUDIO V Architecture worked with officials, communities, and consultants on actual waterfront projects, and I offered our services pro bono, suggesting we’d need a team to explore their vision and address the complex needs of a public waterfront park.We would need many kinds of expertise, so we reached out to world class landscape architects, scientists, environmental lawyers, remediation specialists, and structural engineers. Not a single person or firm whom we asked turned us down; everyone worked for free. Ken Smith the internationally known landscape architect signed on as our key design collaborator. And the team that created Maker Park was born.

We slipped through a narrow gap in the hoarding. An abrupt jump-cut shifting from teeming urban street to the quiet hush of overgrown urban woods surrounding a hidden inlet. Sights and sounds shift, the din of the streets fading to gentle waves lapping rocky shores, points of light fragment leaves and water surround a waterfowl rising into the sky against the modeled shadows of ten massive cylinders framing the skyline of Manhattan.

Photo of the Tanks at Bushwick Inlet Overlooking the Manhattan Skyline with one of the Original Founders, Zac Waldman

We began with a series of principles. A decade before when the city proposed the park, they conducted community outreach, and our team immediately decided to incorporate every element the public requested:  athletic fields, a great lawn, boat launches. The team also studied what was not included in the city’s 2005 studies. The proposed park made no provision for habitat restoration, no reference to the site’s history, and no facilities for the community’s innovative culture of arts and performance.

Finally, there was no mention of resiliency but the inlet was a gateway to flooding the surrounding neighborhood during Superstorm Sandy. Our team saw opportunities to combine new ideas with older ones to improve the design for the community.

Aerial view of existing site of Bushwick Inlet. Source: Bing
The design vision for Maker Park/The Tanks. Image: STUDIO V Architecture, Ken Smith Workshop

The team worked together on a collective design that incorporated these ideas, and more. The tanks, just five percent of the park area, represented a unique opportunity to create something completely new:  a series of circular gardens that would preserve and reinvent the site’s history in a new way. By removing the roof of each central tank and adding passages and openings, the former tanks would feature a unique series of circular gardens connected by paths. Each tank would offer a different garden or amenity: a grove of trees for picnicking, a pool of water encircled by vines, a children’s adventure playground wrapped with murals by local artists, and a performance amphitheater topped with an observation platform overlooking the skyline.

The Tanks would be transformed into a series of unique gardens, playgrounds, performances spaces, and galleries. Image: STUDIO V Architecture, Ken Smith Workshop
A tank converted into a vertical garden. Image: STUDIO V Architecture, Ken Smith Workshop
A tank converted into a children’s adventure playground surrounded by artwork painted by local artists. Image: STUDIO V Architecture, Ken Smith Workshop
A tank converted into a pool and lily garden with vertical vines. Image: STUDIO V Architecture, Ken Smith Workshop

There were challenges. We knew the site was polluted, so our voluntary team of scientists and attorneys utilized the Freedom of Information Law to obtain 10,000 pages of documents from multiple agencies describing the site’s conditions. The team created a RAWP (Remedial Action Work Plan) that explored options and costs for remediation. We did detailed cost analyses, determining that if the site was dug out, it would cost $220 Million, but if we filled the tanks with soil, used their concrete foundations to cap the site, the gardens would bio-remediate-in-place the limited petroleum for only $23 Million, or one tenth the cost—with the savings going to build the park faster and more safely for the community.

One early idea was the park would not be static, but offer changeable uses. Some tanks could offer changeable venues and installations while others were fixed. We included a large open lawn with a circular boat launch and curved planted berm encouraging performances while shielding the neighborhood from storm surges. And we re-designed the inlet with salt water low and high marshes, introducing gradients to restore native species and promote habitat restoration. The team began to display and publish initial designs and concepts, to gain input and support.

When we proposed our ideas, we didn’t know what to expect. Over time, hundreds of people came out in support of the vision, and the design gained recognition from state, national, and local design and non-profit organizations: the American Institute of Architects, Architizer, World Architecture Festival, and many more.

But nothing in New York is without controversy. A few key community members opposed the design, saying that the site needed to be wiped clean, and wanted all memories of the former industrial artifacts erased as a bad memory of their fight to create a park. They stated that nothing could remain, and only open space mattered.

Compromises were struck. A non-profit, the Waterfront Alliance, offered to mediate between the opposing visions– but the community leaders declined to talk. There was a debate over open space.  The original design proposed renovating an existing small building as a community “maker space” for local residents with an accessible green roof– but not everyone supported this and felt it reduced the open space.  The founders debated and decided to eliminate the building to address the community’s concerns and focus on the tank gardens.  Differences in opinion led to Zac leaving the group.  Stacey and Karen redoubled their efforts to engage with the community, and the design team rallied to support them.  As the design focused on the circular gardens they renamed their non-profit vision The Tanks.

In the final stages of the design, a final and remarkable new idea was proposed. Another non-profit group, the Billion Oyster Project is dedicated to restoring New York’s harbor through rebuilding its original oyster habitat. This group spent years exploring this idea creating oyster research stations through NYC’s waterways, and using tanks at the NY Harbor school to grow young oyster embryos on donated oyster shells from restaurants to seed the harbor to restore the necessary reefs to reestablish the harbor. Their current entire oyster-growing tank capacity reached 10,000 gallons. We proposed redesigning one tank as an oyster habitat laboratory and educational center, holding nearly a million gallons and allowing oysters to be restored directly to Bushwick Inlet, which their research had shown was one of the most favorable locations for oyster habitat on the entire waterfront. The design featured a spiraling ramp inspired by the Guggenheim Museum allowing school children to ascend the tank, engage the oyster restoration efforts, while learning the story of the destruction and restoration of the New York Harbor.

A tank would be converted into an aquarium to grow oysters in order to clean the East River. Image: STUDIO V Architecture

A social media petition went on line at savethetanks.org. It started gathering hundreds of signatures per day. But perhaps it was now too late. The machinery of government had set into motion at last.  Lacking funds to build the park, facing criticism from the community leaders who insisted on wiping the site clean, the government needed to show it was doing something after so many years. So, it did the only thing it could to show change at the site. It finally tore the tanks down.

Now the site of the tanks is an empty rubble and dirt covered lot, wrapped by fences, all the verdant greenery stripped bare.

The site of the former Tanks at Bushwick Inlet is now an empty rubble and dirt covered lot, all the verdant greenery stripped bare.

CODA to an INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Even as these industrial artifacts came down, it was ironic to see the support, including signatures and awards for the project only continue to grow. They continue to do so today.

Perhaps there are some lessons in this story. First, there is never enough community outreach, and people must speak to one another, early and often in any public process to reach consensus and show the potential. Social media can provide a tool for gathering the real support for people don’t always attend public meetings. We shouldn’t be afraid of innovative ideas to create new kinds of public spaces. And in an age of ever-increasing obsolescence of buildings and structures: we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize and address our own history and reuse structures in creative ways.

At the same time, the principals we established for our design continue to inform and transform our work today: reusing artifacts from our industrial past and giving them new life, and creating public spaces that are transformable, to respond to the ever-increasing forces of technological obsolescence. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, this example has reinforced for us more than ever that our waterfront designs must promote habitat and help our beleaguered waterfront cities address the urgent need for resiliency in a time of profound climate change.

Perhaps a few others saw the lessons as well. While showing our work for the Tanks and Maker Park, I was asked to go back to revisit those structures I explored as a young student. Today STUDIO V is redesigning the abandoned grain elevators in Buffalo, into an arts and cultural center, including a sustainable residential and commercial community within the old industrial structures.

The new design and architectural vision for Silo City, Buffalo, NY. Image: STUDIO V Architecture

And the two women that founded the original concept? One was traveling overseas recently, and was asked in Tel Aviv if she had heard of a project called The Tanks. Surprised, she answered yes—she not only knew about it, but was one of the founders, although it had sadly now ended with their destruction. They happily informed her that their city was inspired by our designs, and had designated one of their own former industrial tank farms as a public park—and was using our design as a model to explore creating a new kind of park with circular gardens in their tanks.

As designers and urbanists we all want to realize our visions for cities. And we’re disappointed when they fail to be realized. But sometimes, an idea may in itself be a beginning. And if strong enough, if it resonates with enough people, if it tells our stories, addresses our collective myths and challenges, maybe an idea is enough to carry on, and assist other communities and cultures, to help their people address their needs for new kinds of public spaces, cultural amenities, historic preservation, resiliency, and creative new designs for green open spaces.

This is how I believe we will work together to successfully reinvent our cities.

Jay Valgora
New York

On The Nature of Cities

The Tanks/Maker Park. The final design vision for a new kind of open space and public park for the 21st Century. Image: STUDIO V Architecture

THE PRO BONO CONSULTANT TEAM:

THE FOUNDERS: KAREN ZABARSKY and STACEY ANDERSON

STUDIO V Architecture, Architecture: Jay Valgora, Tom Arleo

KEN SMITH WORKSHOP, Landscape Architecture: Ken Smith

COZEN O’CONNOR, Lobbyist and Counsel: Katie Schwab

SIVE, PAGET & RIESEL PC, Environmental Attorney: Michael Bogin

TENEN ENVIRONMENTAL, Environmental Engineer and Remediation: Matthew Carrol

CAPITAL ENVIRONMENTAL CONSULTANTS, Environmental Scientist: Greg Fleischer

PENTAGRAM, Graphic Identity: Luke Haymen

TILLOTSON LIGHTING ASSOCIATES, Lighting Design: Suzan Tillotson

6 SQFT, Editorial Partner: Dana Schwartz

 

 

Comparing Apples to Peaches: Cities in the United States and Canada

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of America’s Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border, by Ray Tomalty and Alan Mallach. 2016. ISBN: 9781610915960. Island Press. 312 pages. Buy the book.

Canada and the United States share the longest unprotected border between two sovereign nations in the world. Current electoral politics in the U.S. aside, that status is unlikely to change, ever. Connected as they are by geography and commerce, it’s reasonable to assume that high degrees of similarity across several domains (economy, culture, etc.) will continue to exist. But, strangely, there are many fundamental differences between American and Canadian ‘ways’, many of which America’s Urban Future, published by Island Press in February, expose.

If I had to choose one word to describe the difference between U.S. and Canadian cities, it would be: more. In the U.S., more innovation. More poverty. More complexity.

I was born in Canada and spent the first half of my working life living there, working on civic issues—mostly in cities. As my consulting practice grew, more and more of my clients were in the U.S., and I have worked in the U.S. for 25 years. Ten years ago, I accepted a fellowship with a U.S.-based foundation, and moved. My tenure living in the U.S. has been largely spent in two very distinct cities: New Orleans and New York. In both cases, when Canadians have asked how I find living in the United States, I have replied: “I don’t live in the United States, I live in New Orleans (or New York).”

Cities in the U.S. are not monolithic, and the two I have found myself living in are quite different both from each other and from any other place in America. My living experience has been both inspirational and dispiriting, often at the same time. I think if I had to choose one word to describe what I know to be the difference between U.S. and Canadian cities, it would be: more. In the U.S., there is more innovation. More poverty. More culture. More commerce. More stress. More opportunity. More complexity.

When I was growing up in Canada, there was an enormous northward flow of popular culture, and there was a not-always-so-subtle hubris Canadians harboured towards the United States: that somehow we were better, more evolved. (I think it’s still the case in many quarters: particularly among those who elected the new federal regime in Canada, looking down on our current national election discourse in the U.S.) Our values were more progressive; we weren’t as materialistic; our native culture was purer. Canada, with all its economic and cultural insecurities, was less brash—and yes, nicer—and that was a good thing. It wasn’t until much later, as my professional life took me to the U.S., that I was confronted with the much harsher reality of the cultural differences between the two countries, and how those have manifested in the ways cities have formed in each country.

The sheer numbers of cities in the U.S., and the scale of its urban regions, are truly hard to forget when you live here.

As more people move to cities in Canada and the United States, and our economies continue to evolve away from resource extraction and manufacturing to the service, knowledge creation and creative sectors, and tech, I am hopeful we’ll have better learning networks connecting urban practitioners across the 49th parallel, who can report on what is working, and what is not. America’s Urban Future is a solid start.

coverRay Tomalty and Allan Mallach have done an exemplary job at analyzing various historical factors that have influenced the development of cities in Canada and the US. They’re both practitioner academics: one based in Montreal and the other in Washington, and they bring an appropriate mix of data analysis and more subjective commentary into this book.

As a bi-national citizen, it continues to strike me as odd that we don’t have more mechanisms to foster learning between communities in Canada and the U.S. There are surprisingly few such mechanisms, particularly focused on urban life, and this volume is a worthy addition to what I hope will be a growing inquiry between the two most urbanized countries in the world. But the framing of this volume reflects a salient reality: the authors set out as their goal to look to Canada to find solutions to the problems in U.S. cities. American geo-political power and—when compared to Canada—sheer population numbers, constitute one explanation of the ethno-narcissism that is America. It pretty much is always about us here (I live in New York City). But surely, cities in both countries have lessons to learn and teach.

In Chapter 22 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban sage Jane Jacobs, who chose to live in arguably the two most successful cities in the U.S. and Canada —New York and Toronto—set out “The kind of problem a city is ….”. She proceeded to debunk the pathologising of cities, advancing instead an analysis of cities as complex systems. Raised in a mid-sized city in Canada (London), I always found the literary depictions of cities as centers of depravity far from my experience—obviously I didn’t get out much). But in the U.S., cities come by that reputation more honestly because of a raft of trends, encouraged by horribly wrong-headed policy directions, that literally drove people from living downtown in dense, diverse neighborhoods, to moving to spacious, mono-cultural suburbs. The racial history of segregation, and the dynamics that remain to echo it, are unique to American cities and simply unavoidable. I was working here for more than a year before someone tipped me off that ‘urban’ was actually code for ‘black’, as was ‘inner-city’.

What the urban exodus of the 1970s in U.S. cities, colloquially referred to as ‘white flight’, left in its wake is sobering: sparsely populated neighborhoods with boarded up properties and vacant lots, stark public spaces euphemistically called ‘parks’, long-forgotten movie theaters and desolate main streets stripped of any vibrant retail.

I suspect one of the dilemmas these authors faced was trying to glean useful observations from the ‘success’ of Canadian cities that U.S. policy makers could actually implement. That’s pretty difficult because the socio-cultural circumstances, and resultant policy differences, are so fundamental, and so much of the ‘damage’ is already done. The federal government in Canada did not raze entire neighborhoods and destroy historically significant urban fabric; there was no ‘redlining’; and freeways, with a few notable exceptions, were not run through downtown cores, eradicating commercial corridors.

On the face of it, in general Canadian cities are superior by many measures. America’s Urban Future lays that out, chapter after chapter. They are denser, they have better transit, fewer vacant lots, less intense racial segregation, better mechanisms for regional cooperation and, in some cases, planning (!). But a Canadian reading this book may be less than satisfied with its focus on comparing the performance of Canadian cities to American ones: it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the challenges many Canadians experience living in their own cities.

For instance, Canadian cities have their own versions of contemporary segregation, often relegating newcomers earning lower incomes to the inner and outer suburbs. And particularly in the west, cities such as Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Winnipeg have serious poverty challenges that disproportionately affect the aboriginal populations that have relocated over the last 40 years from rural communities. Granted, Canadian cities weren’t hollowed out to the extent that American ones were over the last few decades. And they didn’t experience the rampant demolitions of urban renewal that continue to scar so many U.S. downtowns.

Nevertheless, both countries saw development trends, beginning in the post war period and ramping up in the 1980s and 90s, that favoured new housing development in the suburbs. So even though Canadian urban dwellers may not have been fleeing anything in particular, they certainly bought into the notion of large homes, lawns, and country clubs. When I drive now to Canmore (Alberta) or Sherbrooke (Quebec) or Owen Sound (Ontario), I am staggered by endless stretches of new housing developments with twee names: Harrison Creek, Chemin Bleu. The main drag of my hometown, Dundas Street in London, still languishes in its efforts to draw shoppers away from the vast parking lots and chain shopping of the White Oaks mall, some 12 miles away from the once lively downtown core.

In both countries, car-centric policy and investment continues to prevail. I remember a workshop I led in Calgary a dozen years ago to focus on the pressing controversy at the time: the siting of two new highway interchanges. Only last year, the Toronto City Council rejected an option to dismantle a section of its crumbling lakeside Gardiner expressway and replace it with a boulevard, instead opting—at double the cost—to shore it back up, ostensibly maintaining a three-minute commuting advantage! This, at a time when fewer and fewer teens are bothering to get their driver licenses, and the car industry—vital to both nation’s economies—is sputtering. And here in New York City, we can’t secure a commitment for funding for the busiest transit center on the continent—Penn Station—but billions are spent restoring a bridge across the Hudson River.

The population of the United States is roughly 10 times bigger than that of Canada. A slightly higher percentage of the Canadian population is urbanized, but more highly concentrated in three urban regions, whereas the U.S. has dozens of mid-sized cities in addition to its half a dozen mega-city (10 million +) regions. One of the ways you notice this is in terms of labour mobility: Americans with a professional education move more than Canadians. My colleagues here have done stints in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Miami, and New Orleans. My colleagues in Toronto or Montreal tend to have made their careers in only one place. This matters, not only to the kind of housing stock needed (more rentals in U.S. cities), but also to how experience is shared across jurisdictions and how Canadian cities learn (or not).

Although I am not an academic, I have a grudging respect for scholarly analysis that informs public policy. America’s Urban Future, despite its reflection of the U.S.’s cultural narcissism, presents a thoughtful case as to why Canadian cities, in the main, work better. In its concluding chapter, it recommends:

  • integrating local planning into regional and state systems that ensure sustainability and regulate growth
  • better coordinating land use and transit planning through a strong legal and fiscal framework
  • making more municipal service delivery systems more efficient, potentially through new state ‘machinery’ that make consolidation and reconfiguring boundaries possible
  • more state leadership in ensuring levels of funding to city schools and transit infrastructure
  • broader application of impact fees/development charges on developers to offset the real costs of infrastructure provision
  • altering tax policy that currently encourages automobile travel and the assumption of higher mortgages to finance suburban housing
  • create incentives for mixed income and use developments
  • reforming immigration rules and practices to encourage and support newcomer settlement back into cities

Of all these, to my practical mind, the biggest challenge facing most of America’s cities is their lack of population: immigration to the U.S. has significantly lagged behind immigration to cities in Canada. Last year I spoke at a conference of New Jersey Mayors, which happened to follow the weekend North American media was flooded with images of Syrian refugees arriving to various European cities. I asked the New Jersey contingent: what if you were having to prepare to receive several thousand new residents over the next few days? To which, to a person, they replied: bring them on! Canada’s significantly higher rates of foreign immigration continues to revitalize its cities, perhaps making lower levels of internal migration moot.

I came away from reading America’s Urban Future worrying that it presented too favourably the relative success of Canadian cities, attributing it largely to there being better mechanisms for regional cooperation and the heavier involvement of the provinces. There is a subtext of paternalism here, which rubbed me the wrong way, as I tend to defer to options that maximize local autonomy and control. But I sympathize: there are so many struggling mid-size cities in the U.S. which seemingly continue to abandon common sense and permit development that will ultimately prove unsustainable. In the absence of any limiting, or even guiding, state authority, such ill-conceived development proceeds unchecked.

Yet many Canadian urban leaders have expressed a kind of ‘empowerment envy’ for the strong mayor system often present in the U.S. But, as these authors point out, that’s not always a good thing in the long run, as these mayors pine for policy leadership from ‘senior’ levels of government. (And Canada has had its share recently of flagrantly awful mayors, where a ‘weak’ mayor system thankfully limits the damage.) As in Canada, in the U.S., the federal government is where the public money lands, so suggesting that there be strings attached that incentivize transit investment and dense development is logical—but because the U.S. is so dominated by sophisticated federal lobbyists, the manifestation of such a system is hard to imagine any time soon.

To wit, the recommendations in the book’s final chapter which I summarized above included that the U.S. ‘create stronger state machinery to further [the] consolidation and reconfiguration of municipal boundaries and service delivery systems’—as if they’ve been such a raging success in Canada—is a terrible idea. Toronto is still suffering the extraordinary ill effects (financial, service delivery, local identity) of a forced amalgamation in the late 1990s, and a similar sweeping change imposed on Montreal by the Province of Quebec was actually overturned.

Just as the elders in my childhood could demonize America, I am apprehensive that these authors have tended to idealize Canadian cities for many of the wrong reasons. Are Canadian cities better because their provincial or federal overlords were more enlightened? Hardly. I think some of the reasons they are ‘better’ is simply because Canadian cities didn’t have the extraordinary concentration of wealth that spurred industrial development across the post-war United States of America, obliterating everything in its wake. Economic booms and busts in the U.S. are more like bumps and sneezes in Canada: it has a very stable banking system, and the peaks and valleys are much shallower. That insulates it: in good and bad ways.

So what if Canadian cities are more ‘livable’? What is curiously missing from this volume are any measures that speak to the economic or cultural productivity of each city. Which have the higher GDP? Are making better civic spaces? Generate more patents? Attract more visitors? Create better art? Obviously, measurement is difficult, especially when it comes to the intangible things that make cities wonderful. Both of the authors are planners, so of course they’re going to focus on those outcomes that planning influences. But so much of what a city is, what makes it great, is outside of the immediate purview of planning.

At the same time, I recognize that the quality and attributes of places do shape our experiences of them, and, over time I suspect, the values we bring to them. Are Canadian cities generally more livable because of the values of those Canadians who designed them, or, are the values of urban Canada evolving, reflecting their experience of living in their cities?

To, alas, return to a common observation: in the main, Canadians are nicer—and so are their cities. But that just may not be enough of a reason for the U.S. readers of America’s Urban Future to adopt its recommendations. The U.S. remains the most productive economy in the world, and its economic success is largely driven by its cities. Until the costs of bad urbanization threaten to imperil the success of the U.S. economy, I think major course corrections are unlikely, just to make cities tidier, or nicer. Perhaps for their next book, Messrs Tomalty and Mallach could write about America’s Future, period, and the crucial role its cities will play in ensuring it.

Mary Rowe
New York City

On The Nature of Cities


Complex and Useful, Green Is Infrastructure

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach, by David C. Rouse and Ignacio F. Bunster-Ossa. 2013.  ISBN: 978-1-611900-62-0. Report Number 571. Planning Advisory Service. American Planning Association. 157 pages. Available here

GreenInfrastructureCoverThis PAS Report, in line with the current principles of sustainability, discusses green infrastructure (GI) as the visible expression of natural and human ecosystem processes that work across scales and contexts to provide multiple benefits for people and their environments. Unlike other approaches that envision green infrastructure from the standpoint of social infrastructure (e.g., by building capacity in improved health, job opportunities, community cohesion, etc.), this report addresses it first within the matrix or context of hard infrastructure.

The authors D. C. Rouse and I. F. Bunster-Ossa, two landscape architects and designers, along with contributions from a number of professionals, transmit their holistic views of an integrated landscape, in which ecology, community health and identity, infrastructure, recreation, and public art merge. They also urge professionals involved in these issues to apply multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches in their projects.

The authors renew the holistic call of many anonymous voices from distant civilizations and seminal work from the 19th and 20th centuries to work with Nature and not against it. The need to interconnect natural or “green” systems with the ecosystem services they provide to sustain a functioning community is not new. This concept was applied by many ancient civilizations and held up by important professionals like Penn (1681), the Olmsteds (1870-1900), the Eliots, Manning (1923), McHarg (1969) and A.W.Spirn (1984) and by concepts developed by the present sustainable, ecological and biourbanism. Unfortunately this conception lost strength with the advance of modernity, and because involved professionals have tended to operate independently of one another. Nature devaluation became apparent by the middle of the 20th century, engineered infrastructure eclipsed landscape as the primary driver of urban development. The progress of urbanization and associated infrastructure (roads, utilities, and flood control works), based on hard engineering, had huge and exponential impacts on the landscape, increasing problems instead of bringing solutions.

Rouse and Bunster-Ossa show clearly that GI is a complex system, that spans planning and design disciplines, urban, suburban, and rural contexts and scales. As a term, GI is relatively new to the lexicon of urban planning and landscape design. It appeared in the late 1990s with the intent of elevating the societal value and functions of natural systems to the same importance level as grey infrastructure.

In four chapters the authors present GI as a multifunctional system with components (trees, soil, and constructed infrastructure); organized into a pattern (the landscape); and that performs functions (e.g., stormwater management and the removal of air and water pollutants) that provide benefits. Moreover, they note that GI is part of a hierarchy: it incorporates multiple subsystems (e.g., hydrology, vegetation, and movement) and in turn is a subsystem within a larger system (e.g., region, city, or neighborhood), where it interacts with other systems such as transportation, economy, and governance.

Chapter 2 elaborates on the evolution and basic attributes of GI as a multifunctional system. Chapter 3 addresses its implications for practitioners, with a focus on integrating the work of urban planners and landscape architects. Here the authors bring a set of six unifying principles that can be used by different professions to advance green infrastructure solutions at different scales. In each GI planning practice the principles of multifunctionality, connectivity, habitability, resiliency, identity and return on investment must not be forgotten. Half of the report—Chapter 4—is devoted to eleven American case studies illuminating examples of green infrastructure at the regional scale, in large cities and in smaller communities. Four of these examples discuss parks, greenways, and river corridors. As a bonus, at the end the authors show how the reported case studies embody the six principles laid out earlier in the report.

The Appendix includes a model of an integrated regulatory framework for GI that brings together existing regulations and review processes with new approaches to optimize the interactions between natural and built systems.

The key chapter in this book—Chapter 3—shows how, planners can plan and promote green infrastructure to achieve triple-bottom-line benefits at different scales in different contexts, strikingly presented using the six principles  mentioned above.

Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach gives the reader a framework for a sustainable urban and regional future, how can it be implemented, and how  planners and designers can play leading and responsive roles in addressing these issues. Although this report was intended for planners, landscape architects, architects, civil engineers, scientists, and others interested in the spatial structure, functions, and values (environmental, economic, and social) of natural and built landscapes, its simple and enjoyable writing makes it useful for educators, students, citizen groups and conservationists. While all case studies were drawn from communities within the United States, implementing the mentioned principles through green infrastructure initiatives, the variety of contexts and scales make them applicable worldwide.

I strongly recommend this book.

Ana Faggi
Buenos Aires

Composing Raingardens in Performing Landscapes

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

On a tree-lined boulevard that leads to the central business district of Melbourne lies a building that trains performers. Few would know that the landscape surrounding  the Victorian College of the Arts is also performing. This is one site among many in the city of Melbourne and its suburbs that are performing as a catchment for the citizens’ supply of water. Nature is fundamental to the process, working for the city as green and blue infrastructure.

Melbourne is at the forefront in creating performing landscapes that harvest, treat, and store stormwater for reuse. Every year, an equal volume of water is diverted as stormwater from the city to Port Phillip Bay as is consumed as potable water from the dams. Raingardens, grassy swales, wetlands, lakes, and other pieces of green and blue infrastructure are being constructed to harvest, treat, and store stormwater for fit-for-purpose use. Harvesting stormwater for treatment and reuse will provide water to supplement potable supply from dams. It will decrease the quantity and increase the quality of drainage flow to waterways in urban areas, with environmental benefits. It can ease the demand on existing infrastructure, so that its replacement can be delayed or avoided. It can mitigate the urban heat island effect, contributing to improved thermal comfort. It will certainly change the appearance of the city. It is assumed by many promoting green and blue infrastructure that landscape amenity will be improved, but how will the residents of Melbourne respond to the new form and structure of the city as a catchment?

Green and blue infrastructure is “the network of natural landscape assets which underpin the economic, sociocultural and environmental functionality of our cities and towns—i.e. the green spaces and water systems which intersperse, connect and provide vital life support for humans and other species within our urban environments”. These green spaces and water systems perform sustainable stormwater management, using natural processes to passively treat the water and store it for later use.

The system is very simple. Let’s look at raingardens. A raingarden is a shallow trough densely planted with vegetation that tolerates alternating wet and dry periods. Appropriate contours within the landscape direct stormwater run-off towards the raingarden. The water is then held within the raingarden and allowed to percolate through its carefully designed and structured soil media. Contaminants in the water are removed by entrapment or absorption by the soil media or adsorption by organisms on the media or roots of the plants. The treated water might then be diverted to the stormwater drainage system, where it passes to a local creek, river or bay. Alternatively, it might be stored nearby, for later use in irrigation of surrounding parklands, car washing, or some other approved purpose. Similar principles apply in the performance of grassy swales, street trees in bioretention pits, and even wetlands.

In front of the Victorian College of the Arts—a heritage-listed Victorian building—an interconnected series of seven raingardens, with an area of almost 58 m2, has replaced the lawn. The detail is quite playful and the water remains visible in order to engage passers-by and to alert them to the performance of the landscape in stormwater management. Downpipe spouts, in the form of eel heads, deliver water from the building’s roof into the raingardens, over which pedestrians can move on walkways.

st kilda road_www.flickr.com

Top: St Kilda Road, Melbourne, looking north. Image: www.flickr.com  Bottom: Landscape of Victorian College of the Arts before 2008, without a raingarden. Image: essential-architecture.com. The Victorian College of the Arts sits on St Kilda Road, a leafy boulevard leading to the centre of Melbourne. Before 2008, the heritage-listed building was fronted by a lawn. This was replaced with a series of seven raingardens in 2008, which harvest and treat stormwater before it is discharged to nearby Port Phillip Bay.

Raingardens are appearing in the suburbs of Melbourne, too. In the streets of high-density inner suburbs, such as Richmond, with narrow footpaths and limited space, raingardens have been constructed within the road reserve, often defining on-street parking locations. In lower-density suburbs more distant from the city, such as Mentone, raingardens replace the traditional grassed nature strips that lie between the footpath and the road.

Raingardens in front of Victorian College of the Arts. Image: en.wikipedia.org.

Ways of looking: Four ways to perceive the environment around us

What do we know of the residents’ reactions to these raingardens? Do they appreciate them? Joan Nassasuer argues that cultural sustainability of ecologically functioning landscapes, such as these streetscapes with raingardens, demands that they be appreciated, valued, and cared for. If we know how people perceive these landscapes, we can design them to fulfil both technical and aesthetic functions. Such performing landscapes require maintenance to ensure their effective function. Participation of local residents in this maintenance, e.g. by removing rubbish, is important support for the local councils, which are responsible for the raingardens’ upkeep and the effective drainage of the suburbs. Are residents likely to help maintain these raingardens?

Of course, each individual perceives a landscape in a unique and personal way. Perception is a transaction between the individual and the landscape; the way in which a person perceives a particular landscape depends on particulars of the person and landscape, but also on the context in which this transaction occurs. Despite the millions of people looking at millions of landscapes, in Western cultures there are four main ways of looking at or perceiving a landscape. These perceptual lenses have been described as the scenic aesthetic, the ecological aesthetic, an aesthetic of care and the effect of knowledge, and an aesthetic of attachment and identity. The distinctions can help us understand what people want in their urban environments.

IMG_3533_Stawell Street, Mentone_M.Dobbie-min
Two streets in Melbourne suburbs with raingardens: Cremorne Street, Richmond (top), and Stawell Street, Mentone (bottom). Both images: M. Dobbie.

The scenic aesthetic appreciates a landsc
ape as a static picture: Nature is idealised, stylised, and pristine. This aesthetic is thought to have arisen from 17th and 18th century aesthetic theory, expressed in paintings by such artists as Claude Lorrain and in landscape designs, typically by ‘Capability’ Brown. The elements within the landscape are appreciated visually according to formal design principles. The scenic aesthetic often applies in the appreciation of wildscapes, to which responses are predominantly affective (i.e. emotional).

Wildscapes can also be appreciated with an ecological aesthetic, but this involves a deeper understanding of nature and its processes. Knowledge is fundamental to an ecological appreciation of a landscape, which is recognised as dynamic and changing. All senses are engaged and the response is both cognitive and affective—that is, both thinking and feeling are involved. The aesthetic of care also requires knowledge, but knowledge of the role of humans in creating and managing the landscape.

The aesthetic of care applies to the appreciation of agricultural landscapes, in which order and stewardship harmonise with nature. Cues to human care are important in their appreciation. Thus, neatly fenced paddocks with even rows of crops are seen as beautiful. Overgrazed paddocks with tumbledown fencing and bare patches of earth showing through pasture grasses are not.

Finally, an aesthetic of place attachment and identity is active in the appreciation of cultural landscapes. In this aesthetic, appreciation is for cultural patterns at the landscape scale and material cultural artefacts at the site scale. For example, the inner suburbs of Melbourne have narrow cobbled lanes lined with tiny Victorian terraced houses, interspersed with industrial and commercial sites. Residents of such streets might feel a special attachment to these streets as a physical expression of the history of settlement of Melbourne. Living on these distinctive and historic streets might be an important aspect of these residents’ identity. If they were to live elsewhere, they wouldn’t feel as comfortable or as ‘at home’. Visitors to such streets might look at the crowded old houses squeezed between factories and office buildings and wonder how anyone could see beauty here. But with an aesthetic of place attachment and identity, residents of these streets do see ‘beauty’.

quadrevised
Graphic: M. Dobbie and L. Booth

Which of these perceptual lenses, or ways of looking, might apply in the appreciation of streetscapes with raingardens?  How might the choice of lens affect acceptance of the change in landscape after raingardens are retrofitted into a suburban street? What can we do to enhance appreciation and acceptance of performing landscapes in our cities?

I am exploring all of these questions within a research project funded by the Co-operative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities. The research is almost complete and preliminary results suggest that more than one perceptual lens is used in the appreciation of streetscapes with raingardens. Which perceptual lens a person uses varies with individual context and the situational context of the landscape.

There is evidence to suggest that an aesthetic of care predominates in the perception of streetscapes with raingardens. Sedges, rushes and other tussocky plants are often used in raingardens because of their tolerance of periodic inundation and their ability to remove contaminants from the stormwater. As a consequence of the informal and loose shape of the plants, the raingardens can be perceived as messy, untidy, and uncared for. They might not be appreciated with this aesthetic, nor accepted.

Knowledge about form and function is important in appreciation of raingardens. This knowledge might moderate unfavourable perceptions derived from an aesthetic of care, or cause an ecological aesthetic to operate. Knowledge that raingardens require a certain type of plant to perform in stormwater treatment might moderate a negative initial perception of ‘messiness’ associated with an aesthetic of (lack of) care. Although the planting might appear messy, the informed person would understand that this messiness is necessary and, indeed, intended. The raingarden is not neglected and uncared for; rather, it is a fabricated, functioning ecosystem, intentionally designed to fulfil an important technical role in sustainable stormwater management. In these circumstances, then, the raingarden might be appreciated and accepted. Alternatively, knowledge might trigger an ecological aesthetic in the appreciation of the raingardens. In this case, the streetscape with the raingardens is appreciated as a dynamic landscape, performing important ecological functions. In any case, appreciation is active and experiential. Appreciation with an ecological aesthetic is likely to lead to acceptance.

An aesthetic of place attachment and identity might operate in people very attached to their street, and for whom the street is integral to their sense of who they are. If the installation of raingardens complements the existing appearance of the street, the place attachment and sense of identity of the individual perceiving the raingarden might be preserved. In this case, the raingarden is likely to be appreciated and accepted. If the raingarden does not complement  the appearance of the street, the individual’s place attachment and sense of identity might be challenged, with negative consequences for appreciation of the raingardens and their acceptance.

Using aesthetics to improve design

Understanding the perceptual lens through which people view their suburban landscapes can inform the design of raingardens in performing landscapes. Raingardens can then be designed so that they work well and look good, especially to the people who live on the street in which the raingardens are constructed. We can understand the perceptual lens of residents on a particular street simply by looking at their own gardens. People declare their landscaping preferences, and thus their perceptual lenses for suburban streetscapes, in their domestic gardens.

Most domestic gardens are neat and tidy; often, but not always, they have a formal layout. These gardens express an aesthetic of care. To accommodate this aesthetic in the design of a raingarden, selection of plants for the raingarden can be extended to include plants with a less ‘messy’ habit. Many of the plants used in the nearby gardens could be included in the raingarden, so long as 50 percent of the plants operate in removing contaminants from the stormwater. Maintenance regimes can ensure that plants are pruned regularly, and that the raingardens do not accumulate rubbish and appear untidy.

Some domestic gardens have a more unruly appearance, using indigenous plants in more organic and natural layouts. The owners of these gardens might use an ecological aesthetic in their appreciation of landscapes. Thus, raingardens installed into streets with predominantly naturalistic gardens need not be so ‘tidy’. A greater percentage of the plants within the raingarden could be those occurring in wetlands, so well adapted for alternating cycles of wet and dry, but often with a more ‘messy’ habit. Rubbish should always be removed, but regular pruning might be less important.

Operation of an aesthetic of place attachment and identity is less easily identified by simply looking at a residential street. Nevertheless, the same strategy applies, in that  the design of the raingarden should reflect the landscape preferences of the residents of the street. These can be identified simply by observing their gardens. Plant selection and layout of the raingarden can be based on those of nearby domestic gardens.

Regardless of perceptual lens, appreciation for raingardens can be increased by providing information  about the role of raingardens and their function, and the myriad benefits that they confer. The information can be disseminated through signage, letter drops, and other communication strategies. This knowledge might then trigger an ecological aesthetic or moderate the aesthetic of care or the aesthetic of place attachment and identity.

Performing landscapes are fundamental to cities operating as water supply catchments. Green-blue infrastructure will provide the stage for performances. Landscape amenity is certainly a potential benefit–sweet music–of this infrastructure. Attention to careful design of raingardens, one of the instruments of the orchestra, can ensure it.

Meredith Dobbie
Victoria

On The Nature of Cities

Confronting the Dark Side of Urban Agriculture

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

How do you like roller coaster rides? I love them—provided that I am sitting in the operator’s cabin and not in one of the small, shaken carts frantically moving up and down. In two of my last posts, The Nurtured Golem: A Nantes Neighborhood Transforms Environmental Bad into Good, and Is There any Type of Urban Greenspace that Addresses the Rural-Urban Continuum? Urban Agriculture, I praised urban agriculture as the cornerstone that could help reconfigure more sustainable cities by bringing people together and, eventually, reshaping the whole urban fabric.

It is misleading to greenwash, without caveats, conventional or high-tech agriculture in the city as sustainable.
Is it as simple as that? Sounds too good to be true and, as always, it is not simple. All urban agricultures are not sustainable, and some may even produce deleterious effects on the city inhabitants as well as on the city itself.

Let me be crystal clear: Community gardens, kitchen gardens, organic micro-farming, and rooftop farming are very positive for a city’s sustainability and for the well-being of its inhabitants. I am not trying to disparage urban agriculture. Quite the contrary, my intention is a kind of whistle blowing: to distinguish between the different types of urban agriculture and to denounce those which, under the disguise of promoting agriculture in the city, promote practices that are absolutely unsustainable.

Basically, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. Although both are about growing edible plants in the city, we can distinguish between three very different categories, which share few things in common:

First are kitchen gardens and community gardens, as well as organic micro-farming characterized by collective or family type organization. These flourish at ground level of on rooftops. Second are parcels of conventional industrial farming land, which remain where urban growth incorporates farmlands into the urban fabric. This form is particularly pertinent for cities located in vine-growing or grain-growing regions. Third, is what has been described as “tree-like” skyscrapers for farming, a type of high-tech agriculture—in contrast with the two first categories, which can be considered low-tech—that is often associated with smart cities.

The new craze for urban agriculture, which began 20 years ago, primarily concerned organic micro-farming, and kitchen and community gardens, a type of agriculture that can enrich and transform the city positively and make it more sustainable. But it generated a sudden interest for urban agriculture in general, and drew the attention of many economic and political players, large building companies, architects looking for inspiration (and celebrity), and big farmers doing conventional farming. They generally did not have interest in bringing people together, or in fostering inclusiveness and ownership. Urban agriculture was a label used to sugarcoat the pill to maintain conventional farming in the city or to develop urban projects—like high-rise buildings—that otherwise would have been taken very badly by the people living in or on prospective sites.

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Design for vertical farming by Chris Jacobs and Rolf Mohr. Image: Wikimedia Commons by Cjacobs627

Urban agriculture’s mania opened a window of opportunity to impose high-rise buildings or to turn intensive agriculture in the city “green”. All a sudden, concrete and glass towers became acceptable in places where not a single inhabitant would have accepted them before, provided that the buildings looked “green”. At the ground level, conventional urban farming became nice and acceptable, though it can generate nuisances such as dissemination of pesticides and fertilizers that have a negative impact on health and on the biodiversity in the city.

Those who greenwash conventional or high-tech agriculture in the city as sustainable mislead. It is deeply problematic, as I will show with two very different cases that are connected in one important way: the exposure to pesticides of city-dwellers living alongside fields cultivated under intensive conventional agriculture, and the potential destruction of the urban fabric by skyscrapers camouflaged in green.

Towers camouflaged in green

Let’s begin with the case of skyscrapers camouflaged in green, which, by the way, are paradigmatic of the problems that can be generated by mixing intensive agriculture with high-rise buildings. Have you never heard of these new architectures, which have been proliferating since the nineties in the wake of the Smart Cities movement? Tree-like skyscrapers, cultivating plants or breeding animals within tall greenhouse buildings or vertically inclined surfaces? The point of this farming laden with eco-technologies is to exploit synergies between the built environment and intensive—if not industrial—agriculture. Naturally, its promoters emphasize the supposed positive effects of tree-like skyscrapers on the urban environment: recirculating hydroponics and aeroponics that significantly reduce the amount of water needed, collecting rain and treating wastewater, producing photovoltaic green energy, etc. But, curiously, they forget to mention the dark side of it. There are many huge problems inherent to these agritectures:

  • Even if a building is largely fenestrated, plants still need soil and additional sunlight to survive. When sunlight is replaced by LEDs, it has a huge energy cost.
  • Controlling humidity and air circulation and evacuating the heat released by LEDS also has large energy costs.
  • Fertilizers are always necessary, as are pesticides, due to the mildew and other pests found in greenhouses today.

Besides, how could the urban fabric be inclusive of this type of farming? As highlighted by Saskia Sassen, in the broader perspective of the Smart Cities movement: “These technologies have not been sufficiently ‘urbanized’. It is not feasible simply to plop down a new technology in an urban space”.

As beautifully put by Stan Cox and David Van Tassel, tree-like skyscrapers look like a dreamy idea with a solid financial and political hidden agenda, which could ultimately become even more industrialized than modern rural agriculture. Indeed, to defend this type of urban farming, many authors argue that fossil fuels, fertilizers, and government subsidies to industrial farming are also expensive. In doing so, they implicitly assert that vertical farming and industrial farming should be of the same nature and have the same standards, which says a lot about the financial interests and real objectives of urban agriculture. Such a type of urban agriculture is all but sustainable, and can certainly not foster urban sustainability. There is obviously a huge discrepancy between the dream—or the nightmare—and the reality.

These “castles—or skyscrapers—in the sky” are not the most worrying misappropriations of the notion of urban agriculture. They have not been built, anyway (except for Stephano Boeri’s “Vertical Forest” in Milan, in the aftermath of the Expo 2015 “Feed the Planet, Energy For Life !”, but these buildings are not truly high-rise constructions, and besides they are not agricultural holdings but rather residential towers with trees, more like the hanging gardens of Babylon).

Photo2
Bosco verticale / Vertical Forest in Milan. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Luca Nebuloni

Get back to the ground level: conventional farming within cities is potentially a much graver concern, be it located in a skyscraper or just in the ground. The big issue here is the dissemination of pesticides and fertilizers as well as of the wastes and the by-products of industrial urban agriculture, especially in vine-growing or grain-growing regions—two agricultural productions with high added-value—where vines and fields are frequently incorporated in the city. The inhabitants of such cities are exposed to critical levels of pesticides on a daily basis without them even knowing. Well, they are beginning to know, and it appears that they are not happy at all. In France, many cities are concerned, such as Bordeaux, Reims (the capital of Champagne), and the medium-sized cities of the Parisian basin, such as Orleans or Chartres. It is probably the same elsewhere in Europe and worldwide.

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Epernay’s vineyards. Photo: Wikimedia commons, Fab5669

Conventional urban farming: Would you enjoy a nice cup of pesticides?

Take the very well-documented example of Bordeaux. An emblematic case indeed, considering the reputation of Bordeaux wines. Today in France, vine-growing is the second largest consumer of pesticides (20 percent by volume of all the pesticides in France, for only 3.7 percent of farmland in use). You can imagine what the neighbors of these vines passively inhale and swallow. After years of omertà, the inhabitants of the Bordeaux urban area finally started standing up against this agriculture. Farmers and pesticide producers—and local authorities or farmer’s unions, who are sometimes considered as accomplices—are getting sued in court.

All this began in 2014, when twenty-three children and their teacher had been poisoned in their schoolyard in the city of Villeneuve. Last February, the people living near Bordeaux vineyards successfully organized a huge protest against the use of pesticides in urban areas. Several surveys had been disclosed in the preceding weeks that warned them about the impacts of plant protection products on health and on the urban environment. Wine-growing monoculture was especially targeted due to the very frequent spraying of chemicals, including fungicide treatments. According to one of these surveys, hair samples of children going to schools surrounded by vineyards in the Bordeaux region tested positive for 44 pesticides—authorized and unauthorized. Another report mentioned the risks of cancer linked to glyphosate (a systemic herbicide and an organophosphorus compound) used in wine production. The French Ministry of Environment called on the ANSES (Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire de l’Alimentation, de l’Environnement et du Travail) to revise this chemical’s existing authorization.

This situation is stupid, considering that many of these chemicals are ineffective, especially those targeting blight, oidium and gray mold, as demonstrated in 2015 by the INRA (French National Research Institute for Agronomy). Why should anyone keep on applying pesticides that yield no results? Well, it gives work to phytosanitary manufacturers and distributors. Besides, wine is an economic sector that carries weight in the Bordeaux area: wine production represents a yearly turnover of 4 billion euros, and is the largest employer in the region. Thus, among the different stakeholders nobody dares to call into question a system of which everyone benefits financially.

Monsanto pesticide to be sprayed on food crops.
Hmmm, it smells good…Photo: Wikimedia Commons, USDA
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So good! Photo: miel-abeilles.monsite-orange.fr

The case of Bordeaux is just an example of a much broader issue. In 2015, the NGO Générations Futures carried out tests in houses and apartments located nearby vineyards, cornfields, and industrial orchards, with amazing results. The analysis showed that the inhabitants were living in what the report calls “a pesticide dust-bath.” On average, 20 different chemicals were detected in each dwelling: 14 when near cornfields, 23 when near industrial orchards, and (no surprise) 26 when near vineyards. Even diluron—a herbicide whose use has been officially banned in France since 2008—was discovered in many places. Among those chemicals are 12 endocrine disrupters, which represent 98 percent by weight of all the chemicals detected. Endocrine disrupters are suspected of provoking prostate, testicular, and breast cancers; of triggering hormone system disorders such as diabetes; and of generating fetal development disorders. How about that? Yes, living nearby intensive industrial agriculture in urban areas is not without consequences, and is certainly not sustainable.

When spraying foliage with a plant-protection chemical, only 30 percent to 50 percent of the active product hits its target. Where does the rest go? It is transported in the atmosphere, gets deposited on the ground, and eventually reaches groundwater by leaching. Supposing that you live nearby: you breathe it, you drink it, and—provided that you grow your own vegetables in the contaminated soil and irrigate them with polluted water—you eat it. South of Lyon, people living close to large orchards complain “When we see our neighbor, the farmer, arriving on his tractor wearing his ‘spacesuit’, we lock the kids and ourselves in the house with the doors and windows well closed”. This happens more then 20 times per year between March and September during the growing season, which is when people like to stay outdoors. Not only people living nearby need to be concerned: airborne pollutants are transported quite far from their source. AirParif (an agency accredited by the Ministry of Environment to monitor the air quality in Paris and in the Parisian Region) recently detected (2014) more than 80 different phytosanitary chemicals used in cereal farming in the very center of Paris.

Within the city, farmers and their non-farming neighbors share more than fencelines, and it can be quite challenging to live near industrial agriculture. A hammer can be used indifferently to knock in nails or to shatter skulls, but the hammer is neither bad nor good. It is the person that uses it who decides. The same goes for urban agriculture: All relies on who does what on its behalf.

When trying to determine if urban agriculture may contribute to a sustainable future, the primary question to ask is: Will this agriculture be at the service of the inhabitants? Its success depends on its objectives, its form, and its local ownership by the people concerned.

Once again, my objective here is not to discredit urban agriculture. Conversely, my objective is to illustrate the difference between type of agricultures that help reconfigure more sustainable cities—which I have developed in former posts—and agricultures that endanger sustainability in the city.

François Mancebo
Paris

On The Nature of Cities

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A Shack and a garden at La Fournillère (see last post). Photo: Miraorti
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Montmartre: micro-vineyard in Paris. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, credits Basili

 

Connect Urban Planners and Urban Ecologists to Create Sustainable Canadian Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

To move towards more sustainable and resilient cities, it is essential that we connect urban ecology researchers and practitioners to find and implement solutions to urban environmental issues. The question, though, is how to do this?
The Challenge of Managing Urban Ecosystems

Cities are increasingly understood as mosaics of grey, green, and blue infrastructure that interact in complex ways to affect the wellbeing of urban residents (Ahern 2007, Svendsen and Northridge 2012). In particular, green and blue infrastructure provides important benefits to urban residents (Lovell and Taylor 2013) such as flood protection by urban wetlands and forests (Lennon et al. 2014), improved mental health from greener streets and park visitation (Bragg and Atkins 2016, Shanahan et al. 2016), and food production from community gardens (Russo et al. 2017). This ecological infrastructure also supports key wildlife populations in urban areas (Hough et al. 2004). However, with this new view of cities comes a key challenge: how to integrate specialized knowledge and ecologically-sound management practices into urban planning in order to maintain natural areas and promote urban ecosystem services.

Urban parks and green infrastructure like Calgary’s Nose Hill (left) and Montreal’s Mount Royal (right) parks protect important ecosystems and provide key benefits to urban residents. Photos: M. Mitchell

Just as grey infrastructure can falter without proper care and maintenance, green and blue infrastructure—and the benefits it provides—can break down if urban ecosystems are not properly managed. Improper selection of street trees can lead to increased allergen exposure or property damage (Roy et al. 2012), failure to effectively manage forested areas in or near cities can lead to infrastructure damage when wildfires occur (Calkin et al. 2014), and unfamiliarity with animal movement corridors can lead to car accidents and loss of both animal and human life (Malo et al. 2004). Added complexities include understanding the social aspects of the workers who are maintaining urban green and blue infrastructure (Bardekjian 2016), as well as navigating the values and preferences of the multicultural communities that make up today’s cities (Wilkerson et al. 2018).

Managing urban ecosystems is not simple; it requires understanding of both the ecology of these ecosystems—how living organisms relate and interact with each other and their surroundings (Lepczyk et al. 2017), and the socioecology of cities—how human, built, green and blue infrastructure, ecosystems, and social-economic systems interact across urban areas (Andersson et al. 2014). In other words, decision-making must draw on and effectively integrate urban ecology and urban planning/management knowledge (Aronson et al. 2017, Groffman et al. 2017).

In order to move towards more sustainable Canadian cities, our municipal governments need to adopt a collaborative systems approach, where conversation and cooperation among urban planners, managers, arborists, landscape architects and ecologists is the norm rather than the exception.

Canada and the integration of urban ecology and planning

Eighty percent of Canadians that live in cities are directly affected when urban temperatures increase, urbanization leads to flooding, or species shifts lead to human-wildlife conflict in cities. Urban ecology focuses on topics that have direct implications for the ecosystem services that contribute to human wellbeing in urban areas (Ziter 2016) and thus can provide valuable information about how to manage the places where most Canadians live. However, despite the rapid increase in attention to urban ecology around the world (Mayer 2010, McDonald 2016), there has historically been relatively little focus on urban ecosystems among the Canadian ecological community compared to other regions (e.g., Europe, US, Australia). Rather, there has been an emphasis on ecology in “natural” areas, or production systems (e.g. forestry, agriculture), which cities don’t readily fit into. For example, an urban ecology session has been only been part of the two most recent (i.e. 2017, 2018) annual conferences of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, despite the organization’s 13 year history. If Canadians want to build sustainable cities where green and blue infrastructure is effectively managed, urban ecology research that can inform—and is informed by—urban planning needs to be accelerated, supported, and valued.

Edmonton’s river valley green space provides key recreation, wildlife, flood regulation, and urban cooling benefits to local residents. Photo: Merijana cc by-sa

Furthermore—or perhaps consequently—urban planning and ecology research in Canada (as often occurs elsewhere) currently operate too often in parallel, rather than cooperatively. Several key challenges to effective collaboration exist in cities. Academics and city staff may have different goals, unequal understanding of the concerns of urban residents, and thus ask different types of questions. Planners and decision-makers must operate within the constraints of economic systems and budgets that are often unfamiliar to academic ecologists. Different professions often speak different “disciplinary languages” that must be bridged. Early career researchers (e.g. students, postdocs) may be new to a region or on a short term contract, and thus lack the time or connections to build the relationships necessary for co-produced work. And academic incentive structures may not sufficiently support or encourage collaboration of this type. In Canada, it is a particular challenge that federal agencies explicitly separate funding for natural science (NSERC), social science (SSHRC), and health research (CIHR). This means there is limited support for research that explores complex urban socio-ecological systems (Conway 2018).

Increasing awareness of urban ecology in Canada, however, offers an opportunity to ensure that urban ecologists work together with Canadian urban planners/decision-makers to produce rigorous and practical solutions for Canada’s cities. Development of a national culture emphasizing collaborations among urban ecology researchers and practitioners will have two primary benefits. One, it will ensure that ecologists engage in research that can be meaningfully applied to urban management challenges. Two, municipal planners will more rapidly gain the knowledge they need to effectively design and manage green and blue infrastructure in cities. To move towards more sustainable and resilient cities, it is essential that we connect Canadian urban ecology researchers and practitioners to find and implement solutions to urban environmental issues.

The question though, is how to best do this?

Fortunately, we can look towards a number of Canadian case studies as examples of urban ecology initiatives that successfully transcend disciplinary boundaries and overcome some of the above challenges to connect ecologists and planners for the benefit of Canadian cities and their residents. The following three examples (contributed by participants of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s inaugural urban ecology symposium in 2017) demonstrate the benefits of building partnerships between researchers and practitioners, connecting ecological knowledge to people, and speaking the language of urban governments. 

Case Study 1: Managing urban invasive species

The District of North Saanich, British Columbia, increasingly has to deal with invasive species that threaten parks and natural areas. For example, recent invasion by Carpet Burweed (Soliva sessilis) has reduced the use and enjoyment of public spaces for recreation. However, dealing with invasive species can be extremely expensive, and can be controversial since some people like problematic species (e.g. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) for its fruit). Faced with difficult decisions around invasive removal, North Saanich staff recognized the potential for ecologists to advise on best strategies. In 2012, North Saanich developed an Invasive Species Management Strategy (Manton and Schaefer 2011) that was widely successful. It provides clear direction and a coordinated approach for dealing with the invasive species, and has subsequently been a model for other locations (e.g. Kathrens et al. 2016). Integral to this success was the establishment of strong partnerships between ecologists, planners, municipal staff, and the public.

Exclosures like this one at Cattle Point in Oak Bay, adjacent to the District of Saanich, help contain the spread the invasive species Carpet Burweed by people and pets. Photo: V. Schaefer

The Strategy has largely been successful because it was developed through an inclusive process that allowed it to be harmonized with other local municipal and provincial plans, policies, and legislation. The process included presentations and publication of comprehensive educational materials; facilitator-led workshops and interviews with politicians, management, operations staff, volunteers and the public; and an Open House and online survey to facilitate input from the public. This extensive consultation process introduced the public to the technical, logistic, and political issues of invasive species management. This was critical to deal with challenges such as collaboration and sharing of resources across different municipalities within the region.

The inclusive process helped inform the urban ecology contributions to the Strategy and their harmonization with the policy goals of North Saanich, and provided a valuable learning opportunity for the ecologists involved. For example, urban ecologists helped to develop “Watch Lists” to identify which species should be publicized amongst staff and the general public to report new sightings. Ecologists also guided management and removal efforts for heavily impacted public areas; prioritizing removal of species that affect important ecosystem processes (e.g. Garlic mustard) or present public health threats (e.g. Giant hogweed). Finally, ecologists worked with municipality staff to determine which species should be maintained at current levels rather than eradicated, which frees municipalities from some public pressure to undertake costly and often unfeasible complete eradication of invasive species.

Ecologists, in turn, learned how to effectively work within the political and regulatory framework familiar to urban planners and decision-makers. Guidelines integrated into the Strategy couldn’t be based solely on ecological values, but had to agree with the values and goals of several additional plans (e.g., the Saanich Park and Natural Areas Guidelines, Bylaw Policies and Legislation, and Provincial and Federal Environmental Protection Legislation, to name only a few). By virtue of substantial involvement of volunteers and community organizations in regional invasive species management and the development of the Strategy, ecologists also gained insight into community engaged approaches to science that are often outside the traditional academic repertoire. Taking adequate time to ensure that all involved groups were “speaking the same language” was a key component of long-term success.

Since its inception, the Strategy has resulted in a strengthened working relationship between local stakeholders in the region, clear statements of the vision and goal for invasive species management in North Saanich, and a plan for optimizing municipal resources for invasive species control. This has, and continues to be, facilitated by the strong academic-municipal-public partnerships built during the creation of the Strategy.

Further Resources:

  • Kathrens L, Jennings J, Schaefer VH. University of Victoria Invasive Species Management Strategy. Victoria, BC: Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability. University of Victoria; 2016. Available at: https://www.uvic.ca/sustainability/assets/docs/fund/CSF003-invasive-species-mgmt-plan.pdf
  • Manton C, Schaefer VH. Invasive Species Management Strategy for Saanich. Saanich, BC: District of Saanich; 2012. Available at: http://www.saanich.ca/assets/Parks~Recreation~and~Culture/Documents/InvasiveSpeciesManagementStrategy.pdf

Case Study 2: Providing guidance for urban forest climate adaptation and design

Metro Vancouver—a federation of 21 municipalities, one Electoral Area and one Treaty First Nation that collaboratively plans for and delivers regional-scale services—has identified climate adaptation as an important piece of building and maintaining a livable region. Consequently, the region is currently incorporating climate adaptation into its policies and regulations to both conserve biodiversity and enhance quality of life.

Urban forests, including park forests and street trees, were identified as a particular policy focus due to their contribution to multiple ecosystem services and role in climate adaptation. However, practical region-specific guidance on how to plan and manage urban forests within the built environment and in a changing climate was lacking. To address this knowledge gap, an advisory panel of planners, urban foresters, and ecologists (from academia and government) worked together to develop the Urban Forest Climate Adaptation Framework and Design Guidebook based on the most recent science. This work includes a tree species selection database with 144 species to support evidence-based decision making. Multiple perspectives were critical to finalizing these recommendations. For example, the database was specifically designed to balance the practical difficulties of tree survival in harsh conditions (a frequent planning justification for planting of non-native trees) against the need to be cautious about planting invasive species (a value often held by ecologists and conservation groups). Navigating this challenge required careful consideration and discussion of the concerns and goals of different stakeholders, including negotiation of values held by different parties. Discussions ultimately resulted in a compromise among planners and ecologists, recognizing the validity of arguments on each side. This compromise involved inclusion of a strong communications strategy around invasive species built into the resultant products, and recommendations to prioritize native plantings in locations in close proximity to natural areas—but without eliminating non-native trees from the guide altogether.

Metro Vancouver’s Urban Forest Climate Adaptation Framework and Design Guidebook will ensure that street tree selection and management in the region takes into account likely future climate change. Photo: Canuckdon cc by-sa

The creation of the Framework and Design Guidebook demonstrates the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to develop strong, evidence-based recommendations for urban planning. Those involved in the process also highlighted the importance of identifying the unique levers and barriers for each stakeholder group to make progress, and the need to take time to appropriately tailor their messages. Planners learned to be open to the suggestions of ecologists, while ecologists in turn learned the importance of recognizing values outside of their own, and of adapting their language and messages to a new audience. The next step—and an ongoing challenge—of this project includes looking at ways to increase the ease and accessibility of this information to different end users, which will be critical to support the implementation of urban forest plans and climate adaptation strategies across the Metro Vancouver region. A promising early success has been the recent incorporation of the Framework into the University of British Columbia’s Urban Forestry Masters Program, which educates the next generation of urban foresters.

Further Resources:

Case study 3: Partners in Action: A shade policy in the City of Toronto for skin cancer prevention

It is not often that medical doctors, dermatologists, urban foresters, researchers, health consultants, planners, architects, landscape architects, urban designers and municipal employees come together to address a common goal. However, the creation of Toronto’s shade policy represents a successful synergy linking ultraviolet radiation awareness and skin cancer prevention with public health, city planning, urban forestry, civic design and health promotion policy. Integrating the expertise of these diverse groups to inform policy in Canada’s most populous city demonstrates the strength of building diverse partnerships across academia, practitioners, and other stakeholders, and the importance of aligning ecological knowledge with key urban policy goals.

The provision of shade (natural, built, and mobile) is a key method of preventing skin cancer caused by environmental ultraviolet radiation. Public policy to support shade creation is thus an important component of skin cancer prevention. The Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition Ultraviolet Radiation Working Group (TCPC – UVRWG) successfully put shade on the city’s cancer prevention agenda through collaborative pilot projects. Although the group’s goals were medically motivated, an ecological perspective was important to the success of the strategy as outdoor access to shade is a result of urban planning, site design and landscaping decisions, requiring strong knowledge of urban forestry.

Selection of urban street trees in Toronto will now have to incorporate consideration of shade. Photo: Vanessa Sabino cc by 3.0

The formation of such a large, interdisciplinary group, as TCPC-UVRWG represents, presented challenges in negotiating multiple perspectives and agendas. Ensuring that each member was heard necessitated the creation of mechanisms whereby everybody had an opportunity to speak or contribute – particularly in a situation where a wide array of educational and professional backgrounds was represented. Ultimately, this broad representation was critical to the policy’s success. The City of Toronto is now the first city in Canada to have implemented a Shade Policy (2015), including guidelines for the selection of shade trees. The official nature of the policy has resulted in an increased awareness of the relationship between green spaces and public health, at both the general public and institutional levels. Additionally, several communities across Canada have since approached the TCPC for help in developing their own shade policies, encouraging urban forestry initiatives in cities more broadly.

Further Resources:

Conclusion

Incorporating urban ecology knowledge into urban planning and policy is increasingly essential as Canadians seek to improve human well-being and biodiversity outcomes in cities. The challenge is how to do this effectively in the complex social-ecological landscapes cities represent. Our case studies exemplify how urban ecology, when attentive to the social, governmental, and practical considerations that come into play when managing urban systems, can help inform urban management and lead to positive outcomes.

Key to this are processes that facilitate communication and understanding between the diverse groups involved in urban planning. Urban ecologists, in particular, must be prepared to adapt their language and approach for new audiences, and embrace the need for compromise when faced with alternative value systems. In addition, improved incentives within the Canadian university system for this type of work are also required, including more opportunities to develop long-term research partnerships with city governments. In the meantime, urban ecologists and planners in Canada and worldwide—whether working for government or as part of academic or NGO organizations—should continue to strive to work collaboratively to ensure that urban management strategies are based on sound, current, and relevant ecological knowledge.

Carly Ziter1, Matthew Mitchell2, Adrina Bardekjian3, Tenley Conway4, Angela Danyluk5, Michelle Molnar6, Marcin Pachcinski7, Justin Podur8, Valentin Schaefer9, Josephine Clark7, Sinead Murphy7

On The Nature of Cities

1Department of Integrative Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
2Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
3Faculty of Forestry, Department of Forest Resources Management, University of British Columbia, and Tree Canada
4Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto
5Sustainability Group – Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, City of Vancouver
6David Suzuki Foundation
7Parks, Planning and Environment Department, Metro Vancouver
8Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
9Department of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria

Acknowledgements

This article is the result of a symposium organized by Carly Ziter and Matthew Mitchell at the 2017 Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution Annual Meeting entitled “Accelerating urban ecology in Canada: Identifying current research approaches, gaps, and needs in Canadian cities”. Ziter is supported by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship and a PEO Scholar Award. Mitchell is supported by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship.

References

Ahern J.  Green infrastructure for cities: the spatial dimension. In: Novotny V., Brown, P., editors. Cities of the Future: Towards Integrated Sustainable Water and Landscape Management (pp. 267-283). London, Great Britain: IWA Publishing; 2007.

Andersson E, Barthel S, Borgström S, Colding J, Elmgvist T, Folke C, Gren Å. Reconnecting cities to the biosphere: Stewardship of green infrastructure and urban ecosystem services. Ambio 2014;43(4):445-453.

Aronson MFJ, Lepczyk CA, Evans KL, Goddard MA, Lerman SB, MacIvor JS, Nilon CH, Vargo T. Biodiversity in the city: key challenges for urban green space management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2017;15(4):189-196.

Bardekjian A. Towards social arboriculture: Arborists’ perspectives on urban forest labour in Southern Ontario, Canada. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 2016;19:255-262.

Bragg R, Atkins G. A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care. Natural England Commissioned Reports 2016; Number 204.

Calkin DE, Cohen JD, Finney MA, Thompson MP. How risk management can prevent future wildfire disasters in the wildland-urban interface. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 2014;111(2):746-751.

Groffman PM, Cadenasso ML, Cavender-Bares J, Childers DL, Grimm NB, Grove JM,  Hobbie SE, Hutyra LR, Jenerette D, McPhearson T, Pataki DE, Pickett STA, Pouyat RV, Rosi-Marshall E, Ruddell BL. Moving towards a new urban systems science. Ecosystems 2017;20(1):38-43.

Hobbs RJ, Arico S,  Aronson J, Baron JS, Bridgewater P, Cramer VA, Epstein PR, Ewel JJ, Klink CA, Lugo AE, Norton D, Ojima D, Richardson DM, Sanderson EW, Valladares F, Vilà M, Zamora R, Zobel M. Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global Ecology and Biogeography 2006;15:1–7.

Hough M. Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability (2nd Edition). London, Great Britain: Routledge; 2004.

Lennon M, Scott M, O’Neill E. Urban design and adapting to flood risk: the role of green infrastructure. Journal of Urban Design 2014;19(5):745-758.

Lepczyk CA, Aronson MFJ, Evans KL, Goddard MA, Lerman SB, MacIvor JS. 2017. Biodiversity in the city: Fundamental questions for understanding the ecology of urban green spaces for biodiversity conservation. BioScience 2017;67(9):799-807.

Lovell ST, Taylor JR. Supplying urban ecosystem services through multifunctional green infrastructure in the United States. Landscape Ecology 2013;28(8):1447-1463.

Malo JE, Suárez F, Díez A. Can we mitigate animal–vehicle accidents using predictive models? Journal of Applied Ecology 2004;41:701–710.

Mayer P. Urban ecosystems research joins mainstream ecology. Nature 2010;467:153–153.

McDonald R. Urban ecology for the urban century. Ecosystem Health and Sustainability 2016;2(7):e01221.s

Roy S, Byrne J, Pickering C. A systematic quantitative review of urban tree benefits, costs, and assessment methods across cities in different climatic zones. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 2012;11:351–363.

Russo A, Escobedo FJ, Cirella GT, Zerbe S. Edible green infrastructure: An approach and review of provisioning ecosystem services and disservices in urban environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 2017;242:53–66.

Shanahan DF, Bush R, Gaston KJ, Lin BB, Dean J, Barber E, Fuller RA. Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific Reports 2016;6:art28551.

Svendsen E, Northridge ME. Integrating grey and green infrastructure to improve the health and well-being of urban populations. Cities and the Environment 2012;5:art3.

Wilkerson et al. 2018. The role of socio-economic factors in planning and managing urban ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services 31: 102-110.

Ziter C. The biodiversity-ecosystem service relationship in urban areas: A quantitative review. Oikos 2016;125:761-768.

Matthew Mitchell

About the Writer:
Matthew Mitchell

Matthew Mitchell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His work focuses on identifying ways to better manage human-dominated urban and agricultural landscapes for both people and nature.

Adrina Bardekjian

About the Writer:
Adrina Bardekjian

Dr. Adrina C. Bardekjian is an urban forestry researcher, writer, educator and public speaker. She works with Tree Canada as Manager of Urban Forestry and Research Development. Her current academic research examines women's roles, experiences and gender equity in arboriculture and urban forestry. She is also an Adjunct Professor with Forestry at the University of Toronto.

Tenley Conway

About the Writer:
Tenley Conway

Tenley Conway is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Her research explores on socio-ecological interactions in urban landscapes, with a focus on urban forests and green infrastructure.

Angela Danyluk

About the Writer:
Angela Danyluk

Angela Danyluk is a Senior Sustainability Specialist at the City of Vancouver. Angela is a biologist and works across disciplines on projects and programs related to adaptation to sea level rise and heat as well as ecology and biodiversity.

Michelle Molnar

About the Writer:
Michelle Molnar

Michelle Molnar works at the David Suzuki Foundation as an Environmental Economist and Policy Analyst, where she focuses on the conservation of natural capital using various tools of ecological economics, policy analysis, and public outreach.

Marcin Pachcinski

About the Writer:
Marcin Pachcinski

Marcin Pachcinski oversees planning for Metro Vancouver’s Electoral Area A and leads the regional planning environment portfolio, which is focused on advancing ecological health in the region.

Justin Podur

About the Writer:
Justin Podur

Justin Podur is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Ongoing projects in his lab include research on urban parks and on urban human-squirrel relations.

Valentin Schaefer

About the Writer:
Valentin Schaefer

Val Schaefer is the Academic Administrator for Restoration Programs at the University of Victoria. He is a biologist and ecologist by training who has developed a unique expertise in ecological restoration and the emerging field of Urban Ecology.

Josephine Clark

About the Writer:
Josephine Clark

Josephine Clark is a Regional Environmental Planner at Metro Vancouver. As a professional biologist and GIS specialist, her work focuses on using geospatial analysis to inform complex ecological issues.

Sinead Murphy

About the Writer:
Sinead Murphy

Sinead is a sustainability strategist and environmental planner with expertise driving strategic initiatives to create impact at the intersection of human and ecological health in cities.

Connecting Cities and Resources: UBHub Offers Map and Database of Hundreds of Urban Biodiversity Activities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

UBHub arose as a response to gaps and bottlenecks in urban biodiversity planning and management. Developed with practitioners in mind, its goals are increasing capacity of local governments and their partners to develop knowledge-driven biodiversity strategies
Cities that plan for biodiversity recognize the potential of healthy ecosystems to mitigate urban problems and enhance quality of life but, due to limited capacity, can struggle with developing and managing their biodiversity strategies. Our team at the Urban Biodiversity Hub (UBHub) has compiled thousands of examples of biodiversity work from local governments and environmental NGOs around the world that can help. After two years of development, we have now publicly launched the largest public database of urban biodiversity activities worldwide. Our database is a one-stop shop that makes it easier for people to explore urban biodiversity practices and select from helpful resources.

In defining the scope of the database, we use a broad definition of urban biodiversity that encompasses all activities and information related to urban nature and the influence of cities on conservation, including individual species plans, green and blue infrastructure, impact on regional landscapes and global conservation goals, environmental education, and more. Together, these data consolidate information previously scattered across hundreds of sites into one searchable location.

Clockwise from top left: Some examples of urban biodiversity and green infrastructure include Crystal Springs Creek, a Salmon-Safe urban stream in Portland, Oregon; an Oregon ensatina salamander from a suburban backyard; white storks nesting on a roof in Skalla Kallonis, Lesvos, Greece; an urban rooftop park on the Emporia Mall in Malmö, Sweden; some of the largest U.S. population of the endangered Shaw’s agave in Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California; and a Eurasian coot nesting in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photos © Melissa A. Barton.

The UBHub database has two parts, now available and free to explore at www.ubhub.org: (1) an interactive map of biodiversity in practice, consisting of plans, reports and activities, and (2) a resource guide that organizes and compares tools for urban biodiversity.

Screenshot showing the largest database of urban biodiversity activities worldwide, by the Urban Biodiversity Hub. Image from www.ubhub.org/map.

About the map

The UBHub map visualizes global and regional patterns of what cities and other actors are doing to improve local biodiversity. Each of the map’s 1,200+ markers (as of October 2018) contains a list of urban biodiversity activities, documents, programs, and awards related to that location, along with links to the original sources. The data can also be filtered by city parameters to locate comparable biodiversity efforts. Markers on the map can be searched by keyword and can be highlighted by program or filtered according to several variables, including scale, population, density, biome, and conservation status. The map database is also available in a summary or in table form.

The data available via the map are already proving useful for practitioners and researchers. Staff at the City of Los Angeles, in preparation for creating their own biodiversity strategy, used the UBHub map to locate other municipalities that have instituted specific programs and activities of interest.  Researchers have used the database to quickly locate government documents and summarize current practices in urban biodiversity. Our team also harnessed the database to put together a summary report of current practice as contributors to The Nature Conservancy’s Nature in the Urban Century assessment (McDonald et al. 2018).

Of the variety of document types (reports, plans, declarations, maps, etc.) in our database, the most comprehensive data so far are on municipal biodiversity reports and plans. We have identified at least 123 cities from 31 countries that have produced a biodiversity report and/or a biodiversity plan; 108 of these have published biodiversity plans, 46 have published biodiversity reports, and 31 have published both. Cities around the world have taken part, although the majority of documents were produced by cities in Europe, followed by North America and then Asia. Cities of all sizes are planning for biodiversity, from towns with populations of less than 100,000, such as Curridabat, Costa Rica, to megacities such as Shanghai, China.

Graph of the number of cities (by continent) that have published urban biodiversity plans and/or reports. A biodiversity plan is an official government document that indicates the intended strategy for biodiversity conservation. A biodiversity report is a document that summarizes the current conditions of biodiversity within a particular area. Data are based on the public database at www.ubhub.org/map and originally produced for McDonald et al. (2018).

Another comprehensive data set is a compilation of municipal participants in biodiversity programs. Programs help cities manage or plan for biodiversity by offering a standardized index or series of steps that sometimes comes with institutional support. Examples of such programs include the Singapore Index (also known as the City Biodiversity Index or Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity), the Ecological Footprint, the Biophilic Cities Network and other international programs. We mapped municipal participants in 26 frameworks and programs that are specific to urban biodiversity and are in use in more than one country.

Graph of municipalities participating in various international urban biodiversity programs. Note that these data do not include city-states, such as Singapore. Data from www.ubhub.org/map, produced for McDonald et al. (2018).

About the guide

In addition to the map, the UBHub website also includes a guide, which is a collection of resources that are useful for urban biodiversity practitioners. The resources are organized by category and linked back to the original source. Categories include public engagement, regulations, data repositories, conferences, measurement tools, blogs, and more.

One feature of the guide is a program comparison to help practitioners make an informed decision about their biodiversity approach by comparing nine systems at once. The comparison includes a basic description of each program, the program steps, participation requirements, and the pros and cons of each. This comparison can help a city more efficiently select a program that is right for them. Practitioners often have little time to research comparable efforts in other cities or compare approaches, and may end up either developing a system on their own or adopting a pre-existing framework without having the opportunity to analyze or even find out about alternatives. With the many numerous urban biodiversity strategies and programs being applied around the globe, it is difficult to discover and select an appropriate program. We hope that this comparison will help practitioners identify the most suitableprogram for their city or community.

Forum

We recognize that capacity and needs vary from region to region and city to city, and that knowledge of urban biodiversity and related topics is spread around the world. We therefore believe that an international exchange of knowledge and resources can bring important insights and offer opportunities for future collaboration. To that end, the UBHub website also includes a dedicated discussion forum accessible to logged-in users. On the forum, users can post or respond to questions and vote up or down on content to ensure quality. Positive votes on a user’s contributions add to the user’s reputation points in recognition of their contribution to the dialogue.

Future plans

We are now developing the myIndicators web platform for cities and their partner organizations to select and manage biodiversity indicators. City representatives will be able to log in, connect to the dashboard for their city, invite collaborators to join their dashboard, select their indicators, and start managing their biodiversity strategy. They may choose from several pre-existing index programs or create their own custom set of indicators. Indicators can include quantitative trends such as the amount of tree canopy cover or number of participants in education programs, or qualitative steps such as approval of a biodiversity plan by city council. The myIndicators dashboard will provide practitioners with a summary of their city’s progress and downloadable reports to use and share. It will also link to the forum, where practitioners can connect with researchers and one another to compare approaches and share techniques.

We are working with several cities and NGOs in our beta testing program to refine the myIndicators platform over the upcoming years. These beta testers are leaders in the field of urban biodiversity and pioneers in the measurement and management of urban biodiversity indicators. Ultimately, the myIndicators platform will help cities and communities manage their indicators, track their data, generate reports, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their biodiversity planning and management.

Collectively, UBHub’s components—the map, guide, forum, and myIndicators—arose as a response to the gaps and bottlenecks in urban biodiversity planning and management. While developing UBHub, we spoke with many researchers and practitioners who told us that urban biodiversity is generally championed by one or a few passionate staff members who take on the city’s biodiversity or conservation-related efforts on top of other responsibilities. We developed UBHub’s components with these practitioners in mind, with the goals ofincreasing the capacity of local governments and their partners to develop biodiversity strategies and of making urban biodiversity resources more widely available. 

Clockwise from top left: A ringtail possum explores the University of Melbourne, Australia, campus at dawn; the saffron finch is the most common passerine in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and it has adapted its nesting behavior to use human infrastructure; the SwayambhunathTemple in Kathmandu, Nepal, is home to about 400 free-ranging rhesus macaques; the Pacific pygmy owl is one of the most common owls in the urban areas of Guayaquil, where it helps control plague-carrying animals. Photos © JuandeDiosMoralesPhotography (The Wild GYE Initiative).

As we move forward in partnership with our beta test cities in developing myIndicators and other tools, we invite interested parties to join us in promoting the value of urban biodiversity and facilitating better urban biodiversity management by adding and using data, as a volunteer, or as an organizational partner.

Melissa Barton, Jennifer Rae Pierce, Mika Mei Jia Tan & Juan de Dios Morales
Portland,
Vancouver, Los Baños & Guayaquil

On The Nature of Cities

 

Reference:

McDonald RI, Colbert M, Hamann M, Simkin R, Walsh B, Ascensão F, Barton M, Crossman K, Edgecomb M, Elmqvist T, Gonzalez A, Guneralp B, Haase D, Hillel O, Huang K, Maddox D, Mansur A, Paque J, Pereira HM, Pierce JR, Weller R, Seto K, Tan MMJ, Ziter C. 2018. Nature in the Urban Century: A global assessment of important areas for safeguarding biodiversity and human well-being. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA. http://www.nature.org/urban100

About the UBHub Team:

Our team at UBHub originally came together in December of 2016 at the 13th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, out of mutual interest in promoting measurable biodiversity actions in cities around the world. We have members in 18 countries who all volunteer their time to create a one-stop shop for current practices in urban biodiversity.

Jennifer Rae Pierce

About the Writer:
Jennifer Rae Pierce

Jennifer Rae Pierce heads the Urban Biodiversity Hub’s Partnerships and Engagement team and is a steering committee member. She is a political ecologist and urban biodiversity planner. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on the topic of engagement in urban biodiversity planning.

Mika Mei Jia Tan

About the Writer:
Mika Mei Jia Tan

By night, Mika Mei Jia Tan leads the Urban Biodiversity Hub’s Steering Committee. In the day, she is Coordinator of the ASEAN Youth Biodiversity Programme at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Biodiversity Centre. An interdisciplinary thinker, she holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies (Conservation Biology) from Middlebury College, USA.

Juan de Dios Morales

About the Writer:
Juan de Dios Morales

Juan de Dios Morales is the founder of the Wild GYE Initiative, which promotes Guayaquil’s biodiversity through photography. He has worked on different aspects of environmental management, communication, and education and is knowledgeable on ecological research, environmental policy and planning strategies, and project management. He has dedicated more than 8 years to nature photography and become an environmental communication leader.

Connecting the Wonderful Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

(Nota: A versão em Português segue imediatamente.)
The tropical urban landscapes of Rio de Janeiro, a city of 6.3 million inhabitants, are really impressive and unique. It is the outcome of five centuries of nature-human interaction. Last week UNESCO elected part of the city as a World Cultural Heritage.

It is quite meaningful that most of the selected images show the high biodiversity Atlantic Rainforest that have regenerated after centuries of natural resources exploitation and agricultural practices that had eliminated most of the native land cover (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1100/ viewed 07.05.2012). Actually the forests are fragmented, surrounded by dense urban occupation, and under pressure of further expansion repeating the same mistakes made in the past. The urbanized areas occupy mainly the lowlands, where ocean lagoons and wetlands were land filled with the devastation of several hills. One of the elected sites, the Flamengo Park, is a huge 1.2 km² created land, where the world renowned landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx was responsible for the magnificent gardens.

View from the Tijuca National Park, Christ the Redeemer (left) and Sugar Loaf (far center): reforested hills and the city. Photo by Cecilia Herzog.

In the Tijuca massif, where the famous Christ the Redeemer oversees the city, coffee plantations replaced forests and then were abandoned leaving a grassy and dry landscape until the XIX Century, when their slopes were partially replanted to restore the water sources. Nature took care of the rest, with the regeneration of vast areas of the two major massifs: Tijuca and Pedra Branca. Both are protected areas today. Tijuca National Park is one of the UNESCO elected sites. In the last 25 years a successful city reforestation program called “Mutirão Reflorestamento” (“common effort to restore forests”) has effectively replanted trees on slopes to prevent landslides, mainly close to the favelas. It is a social-ecological program because local people are hired and trained to work in the planting and monitoring process, becoming stewards of the forest.

View from the favela (slum) Santa Marta, with formal city in the lower areas. Christ the Redeemer in the right side. The city has high contrasts of forests and dense urbanized areas. Photo by Cecilia Herzog.

Green Yields to Grey

Although nature is present in our scenic views, the urbanized areas are heavily impervious and gray, especially in the Northern zones with almost no remaining green areas, not even public squares. The city has diverse environments, with pleasant forests and nice parks contrasting with arid, hot and noisy streets where the majority of the population lives. Most of the time the city is fairly hot. For instance, today is winter and the temperature is 29°C (84.2°F) at mid-day. I live very close to the forest, where it is quite pleasant with many trees, birds and insects. Native and invasive species are present, and should be permanently managed. Biodiversity abounds even close to the ecosystem remnants. In fact, if we let the windows open in the morning, monkeys (Cebus apella) come inside our apartment. Many residents feed them, consequently they keep coming back after easy junk food. Meanwhile, if I walk down one block, the traffic jam is constant, the temperature is much higher, and the street trees are old, under severe pressure in unsuitable situations, and many are dying and not being replaced.

Monkey in our balcony, with an onion. Photo by Alex Herzog.

People value the forested hills and the beaches mainly for recreation, biking, walking, hiking or just contemplating. I am not sure how they acknowledge and value the ecosystems services the forests and the urban trees provide. There is a great opportunity for further research about urban ecology and urban/regional landscape planning in Brazil, but there still isn’t formal education in these fields. Urban biodiversity and human-nature relations are not current issues in the majority of the Brazilian cities either, where in the last 20 years shopping malls and manicured gardens of gated communities are replacing open public spaces as recreation areas.

Urban Nature is not a Rio de Janeiro Decision-maker’s Priority

The decision makers in Rio de Janeiro do not make urban nature a priority. There is a lack of real comprehension of the role of biodiversity for a healthy city. The urbanized areas are subject to frequent floods and landslides because of the historic change in land use and vegetation cover. The World Cup and Olympic games that will take place here in the coming years drive a fast urban expansion that follows the same land cover pattern transformation in the remaining lowlands located in the western zone, in the Jacarepaguá and Guaratiba watersheds. Wetlands are being filled to create land for new expressways (cars and BRT’s) and by the real estate speculative process. The last legally protected mangrove remnant is under threat of excessive salinization because a new highway was built with traditional engineering techniques that interfere with the hydrologic flows, block the fresh water in the residential side, and, according to residents, cause more severe and recurrent floods. Other roads are under construction with no care for the landscape ecological processes and flows, eliminating biodiversity and changing water flows.

Aerial view of Jacarepaguá lowlands: Modernist urbanization based on car transportation, gated communities and shopping malls. Parks along the riparian corridors designed by Fernando Chacel. There is an opportunity for the Green Corridors plan to protect and enhance nature-human interaction for more sustainable and resilient urban landscapes. Photo: courtesy of Carvalho Hosken S.A.

Planning for Green Corridors

On the other hand, the City’s Environmental Department is working on a new Green Corridors plan to reconnect fragmented forested patches and to try to contain irreversible ecological damages in the urban expansion areas. Celso Junius, the head of the Mosaico Carioca, together with 20 specialists from 8 city departments constituted the working group that developed the initial proposition for the Green Corridors (available at http://mosaico-carioca.blogspot.com.br/search?updated-max=2012-05-23T22:41:00-03:00&max-results=3). The Environmental Department has done a great job of mapping all the Atlantic Rainforest ecosystems fragments and making it available on line ( http://sigfloresta.rio.rj.gov.br/ viewed 07.05.2012). “Sigfloresta” mapping is an important tool to effectively monitor the land cover in real time and is being used to develop the Green Corridors plan.

Green Corridors proposal connecting Tijuca, Pedra Branca and Gericinó massifs. City Zones: (1) Central; (2) South; (3) North; (4) Jacarepaguá watershed – Olympic Green Corridor; (5) Guaratiba watershed; (6) West. Most of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Landscape is in zone 2, except the Tijuca National Park that separates the city. The Jacaperaguá watershed is delimited in red. Image adapted from Mosaico Carioca – Corredores Verdes – SMAC-RJ.

Design that Mimics Nature in the City

INVERDE is collaborating, on a voluntary basis, to further develop the green infrastructure plan, focusing first on the Jacarepaguá watershed, where the construction of many of the Olympic venues is driving urban expansion with high impact on the ecological landscape. The watershed is vulnerable to sea level rise, with most of its area no more than 1 meter  above sea level. The wetlands and the low areas are being landfilled and rivers are being rectified and channelized.

Pierre Martin, a French landscape architect (partner of Embya studio located in Rio), and I are committed to helping improve the final report for the “Olympic Green Corridors”, which will link fragments of Tijuca and Pedra Branca massifs through the Jacarepaguá lowlands.  The objective is to deepen and illustrate the proposals at the watershed and the site scale for a better understanding of the huge opportunities there are to shift to a new paradigm of social-ecological multifunctional and high performance urban landscape planning and design that mimics nature in the city.

Illustration of the urban green infrastructure new paradigm to reconcile multiple functions: road, clean mobility, pedestrians and bicycles, biodiversity and water. Illustration by Embya Studio, Rio de Janeiro.

We also believe that education and raising public awareness is vital to gain support for the proposition. We coordinated and recorded an open lecture at INVERDE in May 2012, which will be available on Youtube soon. We also co-organized a seminar with the City Environmental Department and the Botanic Garden Research Institute during the Rio+20 congress. It was an official event that focused on specialists and scientists working together to enhance the plan with a scientific foundation.We are all committed to taking this plan further on a continuous basis, with more research on urban ecology to better understand the abiotic and biotic processes and flows, as well as social-ecological relationships.The idea is not to greenwash the urban expansion, but to shift to a new transdisciplinary planning process and to design methods that incorporate science-based social-ecological knowledge.

City flood prone areas. Source: Gusmão, P.P. et al., Rio Próximos 100 anos, 2008.
River being canalized, a new road will be built where once there were the riparian corridors: monofunctional hard engineering to drain water, in Jacarepaguá lowlands. Photo by Gisela Santana.

Fernando Chacel

There are already local examples of ecological restorations that were designed by Fernando Chacel, a pioneer landscape architect with a systemic vision. He planned and designed state-of-the-art parks along the lagoons of Jacarepaguá, the urban expansion lowlands where Rio+20 took place. He started the designed restoration of the lagoons riparian corridors in 1980’s until he fell sick in 2009 (unfortunately he passed away last year). He recomposed degraded landscapes, beautifully reintroducing native ecosystems and respecting the phytosociology. He worked with a multidisciplinary team.

Landfill in Jacarepaguá lowlands. Photo by Celso Junius.

His legacy must be known, and therefore serve as inspiration to new professionals: he developed the “ecogenesis” theory, where he learned from nature to restore degraded mangrove, sandbank and wet forests. His book Landscape Architecture and Ecogenesis should be available in all Brazilian schools (it is in Portuguese and English).

Fernando Chacel ecogenesis concept: park design with mangrove and sandbank ecosystems, at Peninsula in the Jacarepaguá lowlands. Photo by Cecilia Herzog.

Rio de Janeiro’s Green Potential

Rio de Janeiro has an enormous potential to be one of the greenest cities in the world, not only in GHG emissions mitigation or garbage collection and disposal (main targets of this administration).

The urban scale green infrastructure is outstanding and should be preserved and enhanced through the connection of the forest remnants, so they can exchange genetic faunal and floral material, in addition to providing clean human mobility for pedestrians and bicycles.

It is urgent that our decision makers have a real understanding of the role of urban biodiversity for healthy, safe, sustainable and resilient communities. Urban nature may offer numerous ecosystems services where people live, work and play: along the streets, in renaturalized canals, in roofs and yards, and in high performance, designed parks and squares with dense plantings of native trees.

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Conectando as Magníficas Paisagens do Rio de Janeiro

As paisagens da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, uma cidade com 6, 3 milhões de habitantes, são realmente impressionantes e únicas. É o resultado de cinco séculos de interações entre o homem e a natureza. Na semana passada a UNESCO elegeu parte da cidade como Patrimônio Cultural da Mundial.

É muito significativo que a maioria das imagens premiadas tenha os maciços cobertos por Mata Atlântica com alta biodiversidade que se regenerou dos impactos causados por séculos de exploração de recursos naturais e de práticas de agricultura que tinham eliminado a cobertura vegetal nativa (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1100/ visitado em 07.05.2012). Na verdade as florestas estão fragmentadas, cercadas por densa ocupação urbana e sob pressão de expansão que repete os mesmo enganos feitos no passado. As áreas urbanizadas ocupam prioritariamente as terras mais baixas, onde lagoas oceânicas e brejos foram aterrados com o desmonte de muitos morros. O Parque do Flamengo (um dos locais eleitos) é um enorme aterro com 1,2 Km², onde o paisagista Roberto Burle Marx, reconhecido mundialmente, foi o responsável pelos magníficos jardins.

No maciço da Tijuca, onde se situa o Cristo Redentor que olha sobre a cidade, plantações de café substituíram as florestas e depois foram abandonadas deixando uma paisagem seca coberta por gramíneas.  No século XIX suas encostas foram parcialmente replantadas para restaurar as fontes de água, com a regeneração natural que ocorreu em vastas áreas dos dois maiores maciços da cidade: Tijuca e Pedra Branca. Ambos se tornaram áreas protegidas. O Parque Nacional da Tijuca é um dos locais eleitos pela UNESCO. Nos últimos 25 anos, o bem sucedido programa da Secretaria do Meio Ambiente “Mutirão Reflorestamento”, efetivamente replantou árvores com intuito de conter deslizamentos, muitos próximos a favelas. Trata-se de um programa sócio-ecológico porque emprega e capacita moradores das comunidades locais para o plantio e monitoramente, que acabam se tornando guardiões da floresta.

O Verde se Submete ao Cinza

Apesar da natureza estar quase sempre presente em nossas belas vistas, as áreas urbanizadas são altamente impermeáveis e cinzas, especialmente na Zona Norte onde não há quase nenhum remanescente de área verde, nem mesmo praças públicas. A cidade tem ambientes extremamente diversificados, com florestas luxuriantes e belos parques contrastando com ruas áridas, quentes e barulhentas onde a maioria da população vive. A maior parte do tempo faz muito calor. Por exemplo, hoje é inverno e a temperatura no meio do dia é de 29°C. Moro perto da floresta, onde é bastante agradável com muitas árvores, pássaros e insetos. Espécies nativas e exóticas invasoras estão presentes e deveriam ser permanentemente manejadas. A biodiversidade abunda especialmente perto dos remanescentes dos ecossistemas florestais. Na verdade, se deixar as janelas abertas de manhã macacos-prego (Cebus apella) entram no meu apartamento. Muitos moradores os alimentam, portanto retornam atrás de comida fácil e não apropriada para eles. Ao mesmo tempo, se eu descer um quarteirão, o engarrafamento é constante, as temperaturas são mais elevadas e as árvores das ruas estão velhas, sob intensa pressão em situações inadequadas, muitas estão morrendo e não estão sendo repostas.

As pessoas valorizam os morros com as florestas e as praias principalmente para recreação, para caminhar, andar de bicicleta ou apenas para contemplar. Não estou certa de como reconhecem e valorizam os serviços ecossistêmicos (ou ambientais, como são mais conhecidos) prestados pelas florestas e pelas árvores urbanas. Existe uma enorme oportunidade para pesquisar sobre ecologia urbana no Brasil, mas ainda há não educação formal nos campos de ecologia urbana e planejamento urbano/regional da paisagem. Biodiversidade urbana e as relações pessoas-natureza também ainda não são preocupações presentes na maioria das cidades brasileira, onde nos últimos 20 anos shopping centers e jardins cosméticos com tendências globalizadas localizados em condomínios fechados têm se tornado as áreas de lazer de grande parte das cidades, substituindo os espaços públicos abertos onde o encontro com diversidade social acontece.

Natureza Urbana não é uma prioridade para os tomadores de decisão do Rio de Janeiro

Para os tomadores de decisões do Rio de Janeiro a natureza urbana não é uma prioridade. Existe uma falta de compreensão do papel da biodiversidade para a qualidade de vida em uma cidade saudável. As áreas urbanizadas estão sujeitas a enchentes e deslizamentos devido às mudanças históricas do uso do solo e da cobertura vegetal. A Copa do Mundo e os Jogos Olímpicos irão ocorrer nos próximos anos e estão levando a uma rápida expansão urbana que segue os mesmos padrões de transformação dos remanescentes de áreas alagáveis localizados nas baixadas de Jacarepaguá e Guaratiba. Áreas alagadas estão sendo aterradas para dar lugar a estradas (para carros e BRT’s) e para o processo especulativo do mercado imobiliário. O último remanescente de manguezal legalmente protegido (Reserva Biológica de Guaratiba) está sob ameaça de desaparecer pelo excesso de salinidade, devido à nova estrada que foi construída com técnicas tradicionais de engenharia que interferem nos fluxos hidrológicos, que estão causando enchentes mais freqüentes e recorrentes nas áreas residenciais do outro lado da estrada, segundo seus moradores. Outras estradas estão sendo projetadas e construídas sem o devido entendimento da ecologia das paisagens, e seus processos e fluxos, com a eliminação da biodiversidade e alteração na dinâmica das águas.

Planejando Corredores Verdes

Por outro lado a Secretaria do Meio Ambiente da Cidade (SMAC) está trabalhando em um novo plano de Corredores Verdes para reconectar os fragmentos florestais e tentar conter danos ecológicos irreversíveis nas áreas de expansão urbana. Celso Junius, coordenador do Mosaico Carioca, junto com 20 especialista de 8 departamentos da cidade constituíram um Grupo de Trabalho que desenvolveu a proposta inicial para os Corredores Verdes (disponível em http://mosaico-carioca.blogspot.com.br/search?updated-max=2012-05-23T22:41:00-03:00&max-results=3). A Secretaria do Meio Ambiente fez um excelente trabalho com o mapeamento dos remanescentes de ecossistemas de Mata Atlântica da cidade e de disponibilizá-los amplamente na internet, onde é possível emitir relatórios de acordo com os diversos interesses ( http://sigfloresta.rio.rj.gov.br/ viewed 07.05.2012). O “Sigfloresta” é uma ferramenta importante para monitorar de forma efetiva a cobertura vegetal e está sendo usada para desenvolver o plano dos Corredores Verdes.

Projeto que Mimetiza a Natureza nas Cidades

O INVERDE está colaborando de forma voluntária, para desenvolver mais detalhadamente o plano de infraestrutura verde, focando inicialmente na baixada de Jacarepaguá. A bacia hidrográfica local é vulnerável à elevação do nível do mar, com a maior parte de suas áreas não tendo mais do que 1 metro acima do nível do mar atual. As áreas alagáveis e as áreas baixas estão sendo aterradas e os seus rios e córregos retificados e canalizados pelo sistema de macrodrenagem, que também é do século XX, quando se tinha a pretensão de controlar as forças da natureza.

Pierre Martin, paisagista formado na França (sócio do escritório Embya ) e eu estamos comprometidos a contribuir para incrementar o relatório final dos “Corredores Verdes Olímpicos”, os quais irão conectar os fragmentos protegidos pelos maciços da Pedra Branca e da Tijuca através da Baixada de Jacarepaguá. O objetivo é aprofundar e ilustrar as propostas na escala da bacia hidrográfica e local para uma melhor compreensão do imenso potencial que existe ao se mudar para o novo paradigma sócio-ecológico que mimetiza a natureza na cidade, e de planejar a paisagem urbana para que tenha alto desempenho em diversas funções: para as águas, a biodiversidade e as pessoas.

Nós do INVERDE, também acreditamos que educação e conscientização das pessoas é fundamental para que possamos obter suporte para a proposta. Nós promovemos e gravamos uma palestra aberta ao público de maio de 2012, a qual em breve estará disponível no Youtube. Nós também coorganizamos um seminário com a Secretaria do Meio Ambiente da Cidade e o Instituto de Pesquisas do Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro durante a Rio+20. Foi um evento oficial focado em especialistas e cientistas para trabalhar em conjunto para aprimorar o plano com base em ciência. Estamos todos comprometidos a dar andamento a esse plano de forma contínua, com mais pesquisas em ecologia urbana para melhor compreender os processos e fluxos abióticos e bióticos, bem como as relações sócio-ecológicas. A idéia não é fazer uma “maquiagem verde” (greenwashing) para a expansão urbana, mas mudar para um novo processo de planejamento transdisciplinar e para desenvolver métodos de projeto que incorporem conhecimentos científicos sócio-ecológicos.

Fernando Chacel

Existem exemplos locais de restauração ecológica que foram projetados por Fernando Chacel, o paisagista pioneiro com uma visão sistêmica. Ele planejou e projetou parques “estado-da-arte” ao longo das lagoas de Jacarepaguá, a baixada que sofre pressão de expansão urbana onde se localizou a Rio+20. Ele começou a projetar a recuperação dos corredores marginais das lagoas na década de 1980 até ficar doente em 2009 (infelizmente, faleceu no ano passado). Ele recompôs paisagens degradadas, reintroduzindo com grande beleza ecossistemas nativos e respeitando a sua fitosociologia. Ele trabalhou com equipes multidisciplinares.

Seu legado deve ser reconhecido e servir de inspiração para os novos profissionais: ele desenvolveu a teoria da “ecogênese”, onde foi aprender com a natureza para restaurar e proteger os manguezais, restingas e florestas paludosas de baixada. Seu livro “Landscape Architecture and Ecogenesis” deveria estar disponível em todas as escolas brasileiras que ensinam sobre o tema.

O Potencial Verde do Rio de Janeiro

O Rio de Janeiro tem um enorme potencial para ser uma das cidades mais verdes do mundo, não apenas em mitigação de gases efeito estufa e em coleta e disposição de resíduos sólidos (dois alvos prioritários dessa administração).

A infraestrutura verde na escala urbana é espetacular e deveria ser preservada e aprimorada através da conexão dos remanescentes florestais, para que possam fazer a troca de material genético de fauna e flora, além de oferecer mobilidade multimodal, sistêmica, limpa, confortável e segura para as pessoas, principalmente para pedestres e bicicletas.

É urgente que os tomadores de decisões tenham uma real compreensão do papel da biodiversidade urbana para comunidades saudáveis, seguras, sustentáveis e resilientes. A natureza urbana pode oferecer inúmeros serviços ecossistêmicos onde as pessoas vivem, trabalham e se divertem: ao longo das ruas, em canais renaturalizados, em tetos e quintais, em parques e praças projetados para ter alto desempenho sócio-ecológico com plantio intensivo de árvores nativas (não palmeiras!).

 

Connective Tissue Matters in the Nature of Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The TNOC Roundtable for October 2014 focused on green corridors in cities to support nature, and the ‘natural’ ecology that resides in the city.  I am focused on the ecology of the city.  The aim of ecologists and scientists to strengthen the capacity of the city to connect nature within and across it, is the same instinct that those of us who focus on the physical shape and function of city have: to enable connectivity than enhances the overall function of the whole.

I wrote in a previous post on this site about how cities are fundamentally natural—they are of a piece with nature, created by the interaction of people and place, and not artificial constructs, fated to  always-at-odds-with-the-natural.

The contributors to the green corridor roundtable reinforced this for me.  They’re eager for ways to enable connection, build and exchange natural capital, explore how linear spaces and corridors can encourage biotic movement, dispersal, address the challenges of predators and invasive species, and encourage ‘biotic connectivity’.

Look at how similar the challenges are for building the physical city for its human inhabitants, and how similarly people actually behave, with the other species with whom they share their urban home, in their use of it.  We face various kinds of predators: over-heated real estate markets fueled by speculation; growing mono-cultures of single land-uses; sprawling residential development that bulldozes down diversities of all kinds.

The ways the physical city and its built environment can be created, in more authentic and organic ways, is a wonderful illustration of ‘biomimicry’: how human processes mimic natural ones.

I first came across this term when its conceiver, author and natural scientist Janine Benyus, came to Toronto in 1997 to speak at a conference on cities convened to celebrate the work of Jane Jacobs.  Benyus had written a then little-known book of the same title, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and Jacobs’ had requested she speak.  The book soon catapulted to broad popularity and has spawned a movement to encourage innovation in all forms of design that learns from nature. A primer on the concept, written by Benyus, can be found here, and also another book here in which she writes about the connection of her work to city-building, published by the Jacobs’ inspired Center for the Living City, with Island Press.

In the TNOC Roundtable Kathryn Lwin writes “But to feed itself, a city must first feed its pollinators…[and] facilitate the ‘flow’ of wild pollinators and plants between the built environment, urban farms and nature reserves”.

Kathryn could easily be describing the role of various forms connective tissue in a city, that link people with the resources, contacts and opportunities they seek to meet their needs and fulfill their aspirations.  When I was a grant-maker working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was surrounded by colleagues from various other foundations also investing in the recovery, most of whom were guided by a ‘Theory of Change’ they had inherited or developed, an hypothesis that underpinned their granting strategy and helped guide their decision making about what they would invest in.  I was very new to that foundation and arrived without the benefit (or constraint) of any preconceived strategy of where investment would be most ‘strategic’.  In fact I bristled at the hubris of some of the assumptions of my colleagues, although I, over time, became more sympathetic that funders need some parameters.  But my strategy was initially just to watch and learn from the locals, and see what emerged, see where the early stirrings were, where the new shoots of growth—new ideas—were taking root.

After a while we settled in on two things: cities need hubs and links: the connective tissue of a city.  Both are needed to feed the human pollinators of the city.

Elevated walkway Rotterdam. Photo: Mary Rowe
Elevated walkway Rotterdam. Photo: Mary Rowe

The forms these hubs and links take are highly idiosyncratic, forming up in unique ways that reflect the particular circumstance, maybe influenced by topography, or local preferences.  My work over the last several months has taken me to events in various cities where I see ingenious, indigenous forms of connective tissue springing up.  Often this is organic, seems to have just emerged serendipitously, and in other cases smart urban planning and investment has encouraged it.

In the Colombian city of Mendellin, which hosted UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum  (WUF) this Spring, we saw two extraordinary examples of contemporary urban connective tissue.  The escalators of Communa 13, which brought connection to the lower income hillside communities that were isolated from the commerce and cultural center of the city in the valley below.  The effect of this intervention, which allows school children and workers access to previously in accessible opportunities, was obvious to the thousands of WUF delegates.  Adjacent to the escalators are wonderful locally create murals, and there was even evidence of local business activity at the landings of each escalator, with small signs offering cell phone minutes, baked goods and tailoring services.  Neighboring houses were provided with paint.

Medellín escalators. Photo: Mary Rowe.
Medellín escalators. Photo: Mary Rowe.
Medellín escalators. Photo: Mary Rowe.
Medellín escalators. Photo: Mary Rowe.

Also in Medellin is an aerial gondola system, again connecting the city across class and geography.  Interestingly, in addition to citing a significant public library branch at the upper terminus of one of the lines, the city has even added a small biblio in one of the stations, where you can take a book along for the ride (although it’s hard to imagine the view from one of the ride ever getting old ..)

Also part of the WUF program was a side trip to see the Walk of Life—an ambitious construction and landscaping project to create walking paths being constructed to circumnavigate the top of the bowl in which the city sits, again, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.  (I was reminded of this when reading TNOC Roundtable contributor Na Xiu’s description of the ring corridors in Chinese cities).

Entrance to the Walk of Live. Phjoto: Mary Rowe
Entrance to the Walk of Life. Phjoto: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe

This is a perfect example of where the fostering and encouragement of social and natural capital meet—the project is part of an effort to protect the environmental and rural attributes of the Aburrá Valley’s mountainside.  But what I also observed was the opportunity for people to connect.

In communities there can be anxiety when new forms of connective tissue are introduced that better connect people across class and race.  (In the Roundtable, Colin Meurk asks the question whether green corridors enhance biodiversity, or accelerate pest dispersion. There is a human version of that question too, not as innocuous.)

Shot from Nola bridge obstructing access to the Lower 9th Ward: no pedestrians beyond this point. Photo: Mary Rowe
Shot from Nola bridge obstructing access to the Lower 9th Ward: no pedestrians beyond this point. Photo: Mary Rowe

But a city’s capacity to adapt, self-correct, and thrive is totally dependent on connectivity and connection.  Isolation of any one group of neighborhood spells disaster.

What’s interesting is to think about the interchangeability of infrastructure that provides these connections.  Abandoned railway lines and elevated roadways being converted to linear parks brings social and ecological benefits to cities.  Other assets created years before but no longer relevant to contemporary urban life are also suitable for transformation.  The danger is that governments may lack resources, or imagination, or both—and miss opportunities to convert these assets into places that better meet contemporary urban needs.  The High Line in New York City has become the much touted poster-girl of adaptive reuse of an obsolete elevated cargo rail spur.  But that initiative came from two community members, who saw the possibility in that place and then marshaled the resources of government, local businesses and philanthropy to develop the most fabulous designs and transform it.  So what was industrial—man-made—has been brought back to the natural (although with significant engineering and design help).

As cities become denser and less attractive to cars, streets (a city’s prime connective tissue) are being transformed into shared places for cycling, walking, and watching. Similarly, what people in Britain call ‘meanwhile spaces’—places in transition waiting for development—can easily be converted to civic uses, and made available for natural purposes (as Timon McPherson has argued so persuasively in this space).  But this kind of transformation is only possible when city residents have the agency to make creative uses emerge.  And these initiatives needn’t be as ambitious as New York’s High Line: they can be much more modest and simpler, requiring next to capital investment.  Just a table, or two.  And permission.  Streets and sidewalks continue to be used as commercial and social corridors—through formal retail, or informal exchanges, used by self promoters or community groups.

Walking in the city of course is the best form of connective tissue, encouraging serendipitous connections, either informally or through the intentional programs to build urban literacy like the international Jane’s Walk.

Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
church jumble sale. Photo: Mary Rowe
Church jumble sale. Photo: Mary Rowe
cards and plaiying fields. Photo: Mary Rowe
cards and plaiying fields. Photo: Mary Rowe
Bryant Park (New York) tai chi. Photo: Mary Rowe
Bryant Park (New York) tai chi. Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Jane's walk Queensbridge. Photo: Mary Rowe
Jane’s walk Queensbridge. Photo: Mary Rowe

I’ve been pretty much consumed for several months, with support from the Knight Foundation here in the US, looking at how cities can better harness the potential of the physical assets they, or another level of government, own—libraries, community centers, pools, rinks, armories, markets, post offices, community hospitals, parks and parkettes—to better fulfill the purposes for which they were intended, that is to support the serendipity of the city that brings city dwellers together for common purposes.

And those purposes are really varied: they can be social, economic, cultural, spiritual, recreational.  And its not just public facilities that cater to this fundamentally urban need to connect with ‘the other’.  Private and institutional spaces provide this too: as we know by visiting our favorite coffee shop or gallery or faith place.  People in cities look for hubs, places where they can do things they can’t, or would prefer not, to do alone or must do together. We’ve been referring to this mix of assets in any city as its civic commons, which I think mirrors the system of natural capital that courses through it, and that green corridors are intended to enable.

civic commons as network

Kara Walker domino sugar factory installation. Photo: Mary Rowe
Kara Walker domino sugar factory installation. Photo: Mary Rowe

The nature of these shared activities has changed.  We used to have public bathing.  Town squares were used for hearings, public meetings, exchanges of goods and services.  Port cities, like the one in which I live, have a deep history of enabling exchange.  Although containerized shipping altered the nature of our ports, those spaces remain pivotally located along waterfronts, prime real estate often occupied by aging buildings and crumbling infrastructure.

But these places are ripe for reimagining into a new contemporary civic purpose, ideally located on the edges, the liminal spaces,  where urban meets nature.  Similarly, old industrial spaces offer opportunities for art and expression, attracting a diverse following.  The gob-smackingly poignant Kara Walker exhibit, staged by Creative Time in the soon to be demolished Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, attracted thousands this summer.

In addition to changes in transport, over time lots of other factors have contributed to alter our places and patterns of collective experience and pursuit.  We can buy a lot of things on-line; people of means can build their own swimming pools and private clubs.  But still that urban urge to congregate, to intersect with difference and recombine to create something new and innovative persists.  And our preferences continue to evolve.  We may not bathe in public anymore, but more and more of us are looking for places to do our freelance work alongside others.

Or buy a hand-made piece of jewelry.

Or watch a movie.

La Boheme in Lincoln Square, New York. Photo: Mary Rowe
La Boheme in Lincoln Square, New York. Photo: Mary Rowe

TNOC readers know that monocultures of every kind, if operating in isolation, will eventually die.  The hubs we see in cities can become too self-similar, serving a smaller and less diverse user base, and offering a narrower band of activities and programs. They’re doomed: to shrinking funding sources, to diminishing variety of programs.  Whether they’re run by governments or as a business, places with a diverse client base are much more resilient to change and circumstance, than ones that only serve a narrow band of users.  Bringing connectivity between these often vibrant hubs can inject new energy and resources to them, and the system of which they are a part.

One of the ways to up the diversity of the user base may be to introduce more flexible programming, management, financing and governance of these spaces.  In San Francisco, the city government offered a local architect/developer Doug Burnham an opportunity to create something on a few vacant lots adjacent to a narrow green park.  He created Hayes Valley Proxy, a pop up space that uses shipping containers to house start up businesses, and a communal space for outdoor exercise classes, movie showings and various cultural events offered by neighbors.  A local, apparently homeless, person voluntarily planted the borders of the lots and maintains them. (You see, people even mimic the concept of biotic ‘volunteers’!).

Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley pop up. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley green volunteer patch. Photo: Mary Rowe
Hayes Valley green volunteer patch. Photo: Mary Rowe

In the large and small cities of Europe you see the story of the flexible, evolving civic commons every day, with ancient buildings having alternatively housed religious, secular and civic purposes over the centuries (and perhaps all three at the same time).  Civic squares, part of the vernacular design of traditional cities, are now used to host flash mobs, farmers markets, outdoor concerts, protests and public health clinics. Part the work we are beginning to advance here in the US is to think of a city’s civic assets as a system—an ecosystem—the civic commons, that could operate much more optimally were it better connected, coordinated, integrated.

And the provenance and current ownership of these spaces and places matters less and less, as city dwellers move freely between the public and private realms, often not knowing who actually owns what.  Community hospitals house coffee shops; transit stations house libraries; parks host exercise classes.  Can we move to a more sophisticated model of cross sectorial sharing- where civic functions are co-housed, co-curated, co-managed, co-financed by all sectors (no longer just government), and playing to the strongest skills, talents and capacities of each sector?  We think yes. Lots of things are propelling us in that direction: scarcer public resources, innovative private/public partnership tools, and new demands from users.

The civic commons as matrix. Courtesy WXY Studio
The civic commons as matrix. Courtesy WXY Studio

New technologies make an aligned and integrated civic commons much more possible. Public libraries have been the early adopters of digital technology enhancements: we can reserve, borrow and return hard copy and e-books and movies. Parks are offering free wireless access, as are pubs and cafes, and Laundromats!

Nomat book club. Photo: Mary Rowe
Nomat book club. Photo: Mary Rowe

The potential is even greater than just the benefits of new apps and digital reading tools. The Estonian city of Tallinn has led the way in exploring the potential of digitizing civic services and functions—from postage to parking.  Surely we’re not far from a time when our library card can also be our drivers license, be swiped at the local park to reserve a basketball court, used to redeem bonuses for fruit and vegetable purchases, or entrance into a public art gallery.  The City of New York is joining other US cities in offering a municipal photo identification card to all city residents, regardless of immigration status, that also includes free admission to various cultural institutions.  Access to the city: and the connective tissue that makes it work: its civic commons!

As is crucial to the natural life of cities, tools that enable the free movement of people and the social capital they create—civic corridors of connection—provide opportunities for both stimulation/pollination and respite.  These are critical to the sustainability of the city as an organism, offering an attractive feature to a transient work force looking for a productive and attractive place to land and live.

But the best is always when the natural and human elements of the city intertwine, as they did for me on a recent visit to New Orleans, where I came upon the oldest form of self-fueling, aided by a local.

Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe
Photo: Mary Rowe

Finally, nature and city perhaps most poignantly intersected most recently in the various marches and civil actions stage in cities around the word in September, acts of solidarity concerning the need for action to halt and adapt to climate change.

I happened to be in London, UK that day. The tube enabled our travel. The streets and public spaces of Westminster allowed us to congregate and express our collective aspirations for a sustainable future. We refueled in cafes (and later, pubs) along the route.

climate march green. Photo: Mary Rowe
Climate march green. Photo: Mary Rowe
climate march giraffes. Photo: Mary Rowe
Cimate march giraffes. Photo: Mary Rowe

We cross-pollinated throughout, making the most pointed and profound case that we are, in fact, all connected in the ecology of the planet, of which cities are the crucial element.

As Marina Alberti said in her TNOC essay of spring 2014:

Paul Hirsch and Bryan Norton in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, (2012, MIT Press) articulate a new environmental ethics by suggesting that we “think like a planet.” Building on Hirsch and Norton’s idea, we need to expand the dimensional space of our mental models of urban design and planning to the planetary scale.

Mary Rowe
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

Banksu Nola and NYC Climate March kid. Photos: Mary Rowe
Banksu Nola and London Climate March kid. Photos: Mary Rowe

Conquering the Sea: Expanding Turkey’s Black Sea coast with stones, apartments, and promenades

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The Black Sea, streaked with sun rays, stretches out as far as I can see on one side of the highway. Buildings housing thousands of people living their dreams line the other side of the road.

There’s another one. And another one. And another one. And, yes, there’s one more over there…and over there.

I’m noticing the many new apartment buildings dotting—defining—Turkey’s Black Sea coastline. From Hopa to Samsun, and nearly all of the cities and towns in between the 500-kilometer stretch we have done so far in this country, it’s hard not to notice these high-rises. They seem to be everywhere, in various states of construction.

New construction dots the Black Sea coastline. Photo: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot.

This stretch of the route took us from Batumi, Georgia, primarily along the Black Sea Coastal Road/state road D-010 to Samsun, Turkey. Some of the cities we passed through include: Hopa, Rize, Trabzon, Görele, Giresun, Ordu, Fatsa, Ünye, Çarşamba and Samsun.

We notice other things, too.

Our route takes us around the jagged coast. The smell of salt air and, in some places, tea wafting through plantations and out of processing plants hangs heavy. Through this stretch, we’re lucky to see some kiwi groves and hundreds of hazelnut trees (Turkey produces 75 percent of the world’s hazelnuts, and most of that comes from the Black Sea region, according to Turkey’s Hazelnut Promotion Group (FTG); walking so many months along roads without many trees makes every one we see that much more special. Snow-capped mountains in the distance make us happy to be in the sun looking at a blue sea on a chilly autumn day, even as we wonder about the impact new and under-construction airports will have on maritime ecology. We walk slowly under the weight of 23+-kilogram backpacks on the wide shoulder of the D-010, a regionally important and well-maintained coastal highway bridging east-west trade routes. Giant stones, scooped out of the earth, mark the limit where land and sea meet. Sometimes, these boundaries, especially in larger cities, blend with bike lanes, jogging straightaways, parks with public exercise equipment and promenades where locals walk, sit, and sip the region’s beverage of choice, tea.

Black Sea stone coast. Photo: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

But when I’m not looking at the small waves hitting the stone coastline or minding the constant flow of long-distance trailer trucks moving contemporary conveniences, I’m wondering about these new buildings. The sheer number of them along our way gives me pause. “What’s happening here?” is a question that turns over in my head and rolls out of my mouth when in conversation with locals.

Development is what’s happening here. Like in other places in the world, Turkey’s strategy to leap forward, in part, involves new construction to house its citizens, stimulate the economy, create jobs, and raise the quality of life of its residents.

New buildings in various states of construction dot Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Photos: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

More than a few people tell me that the Black Sea development—read, these new buildings—is linked to Turkey’s nationwide modernization efforts. Central government incentives, usually in the form of what we interpret to be short-term, low-interest loans, has allowed individuals and families to tear down outdated and, perhaps structurally unsound, buildings and replace them with multi-story dwellings that, superficially at least, shine with a “Look how great we are doing” feel.

Developers, people tell us, have won permission to erect buildings, businesses, and commercial centers, among other things, which are converting many once-rural or suburban towns into bigger urban hubs. I later read reports in several publications, including We Build Valuethe Daily SabahPwC, about the billions and billions of dollars of investment being poured into Turkey’s ambitious economy-boosting Vision 2023 plan, which calls for nationwide construction of new airports, bridges, roads, tunnels, railways, high-speed trains, irrigation canals, electricity generation capacity, and a Panama-like canal that will serve as an alternate route to the Bosphorous Strait linking the Black and Marmara seas. I read other reports about people protesting the environmental impact of a planned gold mine and questioning if the housing construction boom will soon burst.

My head spins. Again, like in other places I have walked, I can’t help but think about the price of progress and the trade-offs that may eventually affect all of us, one way or another.

I believe, of course, that the world’s citizens—in this case, Turkish citizens—deserve a place where they can live with dignity, pride, and comfort. Having a safe place to sleep every night has taken on a deeper meaning during my two years of being a homeless nomad. I also appreciate that people want to spend their hard-earned money on a piece of property that creates long-term value and, hopefully, well-being and contentment. It’s just and equitable to give people access to public and private funds, resources and other tools so they can improve their lives and those of their families, participate in urban planning initiatives and walk along their seaside and through open green spaces without getting plowed down by an 18-wheeler.

But, I’m deflated by a question I find myself pondering over and over again during this 14,000-odd kilometer journey home and can’t seem to resolve: “Is this the best we can do?”

The root of my frustration largely revolves around long-term sustainability.

Hauling stones and reconstructing the coastline. Photo: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

Why is the widespread view of development the world over still entangled with the idea of cutting down forests, expanding our environmentally insensitive footprint, extending our shores with questionable materials, raising houses on unstable foundations and selling the capitalist dream of high profits, big returns and having the best new house, car, phone or whatever else defines “doing well.”

At the same time, I benefit from development efforts wherever I go in the world. Transportation, energy-acquisition, and infrastructure improvement projects allow me to move, communicate, and connect with other people with relative ease and comfort.

I’m not alone in sorting through the mental mess development like what I see in Turkey creates in my head and heart. Different points of view on this surface as we walk through Turkey’s northern coast and share conversation with locals holding small glasses of fresh brewed tea.

New buildings dot Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Photo: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

One man, a seaman, working on international cargo ships who has a soft spot for the wide-open mountain spaces he discovers on his motorcycle, tells us the region’s fast development over the last 10-15 years has helped many families who were struggling to keep up with repairs on their single-family homes. By leveling those properties and moving into recently constructed ones, people have a new lease on life, a stronger sense of security, and a feeling that they are progressing. Their quality of life is better now than before, he says, adding that the construction boom has ushered in economic, logistics and infrastructure improvements throughout the region.

Many plots of land are up for sale as development initiatives continue along the Black Sea. Photo: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

A younger cyclist and outdoor enthusiast shares with us his concern about the stability of the buildings and the high price that comes with development like this: Losing the coast’s natural beauty and resources to accommodate the growing number of people who are leaving behind their rural inland homes, farms, and livestock grazing areas to become city dwellers. Heavy rain is common in this part of the country and increasing floods in areas where erosion-stopping trees no longer exist put many more people at risk, he laments. We recall a news report that ran on TV a few days earlier showing part of a house wrecked during a downpour that triggered flooding along a river up the coast. We shake our heads with dismay.

I see both perspectives but understand less and less as I come to know more about the places I pass. Conquering the sea, conquering nature, has liberated many people. Conquering the sea, conquering nature, has also unlocked a wave of unpredictable outcomes.

Besides new buildings, development has also brought parks, seaside promenades and open spaces for residents to enjoy. Photos: Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

I walk on, glad to be on the promenade made for walkers, runners, cyclists and picnickers instead of hugging the shoulder hoping trucks and cars don’t weave in my direction. The Black Sea, streaked with sun rays, stretches out as far as I can see on one side of the highway. Buildings housing thousands of people living their dreams line the other side of the road. For a moment, everything appears in balance. But, is it?

Jennifer Baljko
Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

On The Nature of Cities

Count Me In: Urban Greening and the Return of Primates in Kampala

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

As urban areas explode around us, competition is heightened between nature and built landscapes. There is a salient competition between biodiversity on the one hand and structures—infrastructure installations—on the other. In Kampala, this competition is manifest in how deliberate actions of development clear natural areas for housing structures and infrastructure, thereby accelerating biodiversity loss. But it also manifests in the form of desire for aesthetically pleasing landscapes in the built-up patches of urban landscapes that are considered for leisure more than for ecological benefits.

Given the current debates around sustainable development and climate change mitigation, this competition is taking an interesting twist in which publically initiated programs and activities are starting to recognize the importance of nature and biodiversity as one among the various solutions.

In this article, I present a case of a municipally initiated effort to ‘green’ the city of Kampala with the motive of addressing climate change mitigation. This initiative has its good aspects, enhancing green patches and biodiversity, but also comes with problems depending on the choice of species planted for greening the city. Caught in the midst of global and regional debates about dealing with climate change, this low-emitting city of Kampala is embarking on a number of climate smart initiatives for mitigation and adaptation. One of these activities that the municipal authority is planning to embark on is the planting of 500,000 trees in the city. This sounds like good news for biodiversity and ecological enhancement, but it also comes with challenges from which lessons can be drawn on urban space creation and biodiversity.

Urban space as understood from everyday life

Urban space is an interesting combination of structures and green areas, as illustrated by many cities including Kampala. From a practical point of view, urban space goes beyond physical space to include social relations, processes, nature, and actors. Different urban spaces change in time according to function and the actors involved. For example, it is important to think about specific areas as residential zones to which people retreat to rest from work and vibrant city life. But these residential spaces are understood from everyday life experiences based on how an individual, group, or neighborhood makes use of the space.

To this end, it is possible to find commercial and/or production activities within residential spaces. It is this mix of functions, people, and relations that creates urban space. To illustrate this view, the street has also been described as an important spatial entity of understanding urban space, where a series of activities from trading, social relating, communication, networking, to commuting occur. There is little consideration of biodiversity as a component of residential urban spaces, yet we know that trees and animals exist in these spaces. It is also known that enhancing these spaces with urban forestry can pave the way for a return of animals if the forests measure up to habitats for such species. The return of animals such as primates and other medium sized animals redefines the urban space and can be a practical strategy for living in harmony with nature in cities such as Kampala.

Count me in1
Photo: Shuaib Lwasa

Greening Kampala and the return of primates

As I mentioned earlier, Kampala City Council Authority is in the process of embarking on planting trees in Kampala, with a high target of planting 500,000 The species are yet to be determined, as this has to be elaborated by the Landscaping Unit of the city authority. The planting of trees is part of an effort to ‘green’ the city, where greening was initially conceived as getting more tree coverage in a city that is already considerably green. But greening has been expanded to include low carbon development and institutional energy balancing by the City authority. The loss of trees is occurring at an alarming rate, especially on hilltops and lowland areas in this tropical landscape known for dense vegetation and tree canopy. The city is located in an area that previously had natural land cover dominated by tropical rain forests that were habitat for primates. The remnants of these forests still accommodate primates, but these animals have moved or have been killed through time as built up areas intensified.

The greening activity is part of the effort to build climate resilience in the city, which has been envisaged to have multiple benefits. Green cover would enhance aesthetics, reduce common flash floods through increased infiltration, and sequester greenhouse gases. But one unforeseen possibility of the greening program is the return or increase of the primate population in the city as habitat is re-created. To this end, it is important for planners and practitioners of urban space re-creation in Kampala to think about tree species that would attract the return of primates, whose persistence has continuously communicated that they will not be left out of the city. Given this potential for the return of primates in big numbers, should greening be KCCA-led or led by a private developer? If there is appreciation of urban spaces that create harmony between nature and built forms, how can the greening activity be utilized to improve habitats and return primates to Kampala? What would be the motivations for increased biodiversity in the city?

Photo: Shuaib Lwasa

Competing motivations

In the process of greening, there are competing issues. The desire to identify with global initiatives of reducing emissions by sequestering greenhouse gases is motivated also by existing resource envelopes from which finances can be tapped by the city authorities. Thus, the selection of tree species is likely to be those with a high uptake of greenhouse gases—species that may not provide food and proper habitat for primates. Primates live in habitats with plenty of wild fruit trees from which to forage.

The other competing motivation for greening is the production of food by practicing urban agriculture. Though this can provide food for primates, urban agriculture tends to promote crops with high-value niches, which may not provide the right habitat for primates. And although, at the individual plot level, the motivation of aesthetic appeal achieved through landscaping may promote the return of primates, acceptance of their existence may not be guaranteed, as they may be seen as pests that should be driven out of urban spaces, residential or otherwise. Therefore, important considerations for the return of primates include tree species, planting systems, and who gets involved. Whereas the city authority’s plan to take the lead on planting the trees is plausible, the authority has very limited land, meaning that achieving their goal of 500,000 trees will remain challenging. Yet, this obstacle is also an opportunity if the authority recognizes the role that individual developers can do on their plots of land to plant trees towards the 500,000 goal. Since most land is held and owned by individuals, it is prudent that the approach to planting systems should involve the developers. A good number of hilltops are still covered by trees, and those cleared of trees can be replanted. The return of primates also has ecosystem co-benefits down the food chain, including increases in protein-rich insects, pollination, seed dispersing and ecosystem productivity.

How can greening pave the way for the return of primates in Kampala?

I summarize below the various ways that can be deliberately planned for the return of primates in Kampala.

  • The city is in an area that receives substantive amounts of rainfall ranging from 1200 to 1500 mm annually. With the established correlation between rainfall amounts and primate populations, there is a high possibility that well-targeted greening will pave the way for the return of primates in the city.
  • City authority-initiated greening is plausible, but may not be sufficient to achieve the targeted number of trees. Involving developers either through incentivizing tree planting or the inclusion of tree coverage on plots in development standards will most likely achieve the target in a more efficient way.
  • Tree species for planting are critical in that the inclusion of fruit-trees is important for the return of primates. This will ensure availability of food for primates, reducing fears about primates becoming pests and attacking homes in search for food.
  • Common fruit tree species in the area, such as fig trees, could be planted for the purpose of attracting primates.
  • Lowland areas and hilltops are appropriate areas for increasing tree cover and habitats for primates. There are co-benefits of focusing on these areas for increased tree coverage; if connected through vegetative corridors, these areas can enable primate thrive in the city. Hilltops and lowland areas covered mostly by wetlands in Kampala have a co-benefit of regulating hydrology of the city.
  • Incentivizing tree planting will be critical for Kampala to achieve its 500,000 tree target. Incentivizing can be in different forms. Municipal charges for development can be discounted with a clear tree-planting plan as part of the development. Providing seedlings and, where appropriate, subsidies for purchase may also be another way to incentive developers to engage in greening.

Conclusion

This article illustrates that urban spaces have largely been understood in physical terms and dominated by human population. Space definition, however, can be enhanced by including function such as biodiversity enhancement. Re-creating urban spaces in response to diverse motivations, such as climate change mitigation, is creating possibilities for the return or increase in the population of primates in Kampala. Though this may not be seen as an opportunity by many, the ecological benefits of primates in the city outweighs the risks associated with an increased number of primates. Living in harmony would be supported by targeted greening that includes planting trees that provide food for the primates while creating corridors that can enable migration, access to water, and a variety of food between lowland forests and hilltop forests. Given that Kampala lies in a tropical zone that receives substantive rainfall, the current small population of primates is likely to multiply, but attraction from nearby forest zones will also increase the primates in the city.

Shuaib Lwasa
Kampala

On The Nature of Cities

References

Daily Monitor Tuesday, February 19 2013, Creation of urban forests will help maintain good, predictable weather

Ministry of Lands and Environment, 2001, The Uganda Forestry Sector Policy

Steve Amooti Nsita, DECENTRALISATION AND FOREST MANAGEMENT IN UGANDA Forestry Department, P.O Box 7124, Kampala, Uganda

Urban Forestry, Resiliency. Sustainability. Habitat. http://sacredseedlings.com/urban-forestry/

Covid has upended all the normal routines in our lives and work. How do you imagine you might be changed by it, both professionally, but also personally as you negotiate a new post-virus “normal”?

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.
Pippin Anderson, Cape Town The differences in the lives of our students is stark. With everybody heading home for lock down, the somewhat levelling experience of a shared campus has gone like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight. Some get to leave the ball as they arrived, and others are left with pumpkins and rats.
Isabelle Anguelovski, Barcelona The balance between keeping but delaying essential community engagement meetings, moving them online, or cancelling them all together, will be some of the many difficult decisions we will have to make in the near future.
Janice Astbury, Buenos Aires I hope that many people around the world are enjoying the sounds of voices and birdsong, and the experience of cleaner air flowing into their homes, and will want this to continue.
Carmen Bouyer, Paris I will keep dancing half an hour a day on Zoom with people from all over the world, and join the direct local actions that bring wonder, trust and care among people and among species, learning from the ways of trees and the songs of bees, together.
Lindsay Campbell, New York For those of us privileged to be sheltering at home, the crisis has created a new sense of simplicity and attention to place. May we carry that forward wherever the future takes us
Sarah Charlop-Powers, New York While we’re all navigating through this extremely stressful—and sometimes downright scary—moment, I can’t imagine what my life, and the lives of all New Yorkers, would be like without our local parks.
Katrine Claassens, Montreal The pandemic teaches us this: rapid, coherent change is possible. It has also laid bare that there is much to be actively dismantled, and much to be actively built.
M’Lisa Colbert, Montreal I am confronted with how much I need trees, grass, and fresh air to remain a sane human being. Being stuck between the four walls of my apartment all day feels foreign and unnatural.
Marcus Collier, Dublin I have a new resolve to overcome my despondency and try harder to find a means to engage urban communities with wild nature. In this case, the first step is literally on the doorstep!
Paul Currie, Cape Town Covid has surfaced a key reality for me: choice. I will be paying more attention to how cities increase the promise and attainment of choice for their citizens, who are so often restricted by cost, geography or demography, to one option.
Samarth Das, Mumbai Being locked up in the comfort of our homes is certainly a privilege. Social distancing in a time like this is a luxury afforded by a few—over 55% of Mumbai city’s 13 million inhabitants live in slums where 6-7 people share a single room.
Gillian Dick, Glasgow We definitely need to take the opportunity to build back better, but we also need to pause and not rush when we hit the reset button. We need the right rebuilding, in the right place, at the right time, for the right communities.
Paul Downton, Melbourne COVID-19 has forced changes that have given nature a breathing space, but I’m betting when the capitalist engine of destruction returns to “normal” it will raid the stores of nature like a selfish bully in a candy shop. It won’t be pretty.
Emilio Fantin, Bologna Talking about coronavirus, egoism needs to be switched into solidarity and sharing, but this cannot be done as a reaction to contagion fear or daily body count. It has to be the result of a long path towards the achievement of a new existential consciousness.
Todd Forrest, New York A garden feels empty and pointless without people to enjoy it. So does nature. While I have always felt strongly about the importance of nature to a person’s well-being, I have never been so keenly aware of the essential partnership people have with the natural world.
Andrew Grant, Bath I have learned to take time to notice, and perhaps I have learned that however devastating Covid-19 is being, it has taught me to reflect on my Life, my Art, and my Nature.
Eduardo Guerrero, Bogotá The dilemma for a healthy planet is not: nature or people? The right approach must be people in nature, planning, and building resilient cities following ecological principles. Quoting Garcia Márquez: “I believe it’s not too late to build a utopia that allows us to share an Earth on which solidarity could become a reality”.
Bram Gunther, New York Instead of opening the streets up to cars again, muscling each other and spewing their nasty exhaust, we should keep the cars where they are now, inert. The city would transform itself, streets into nature trails lined with aster, sweet pepperbush, and oak trees. Our world-class electric-powered mass transportation system would connect all our neighborhoods as one equal family.
Dagmar Haase, Leipzig COVID-19 is not just a natural, virus, or health crisis, it is a societal crisis. The response has to be given by the whole humankind. Urban nature, its maintenance, care and fair use, forms an important part of this global response.
Annegret Haase, Berlin The crisis also sheds light on existing inequalities and injustices of our urban societies—in terms of how people can adapt to and cope with restrictions: It is much easier to stand restrictions in a large flat with balcony, garden or rooftop access and close to green spaces than in a small flat packed with people.
Fadi Hamdan, Beirut What we need is a value change in order to effect a paradigm shift in the way we produce, consume and live as societies.
Cecilia Herzog, Rio de Janeiro I am investing my time in isolation to improve my capacity to contribute to a wide discussion about urban nature, how it is important to sustain healthy lives and adapt to the ever-growing threat of extreme weather events.
Alex Herzog, Rio de Janeiro I believe there will be a strong enhancement of circular economy, increasing the value of local, its people and its businesses. Consequently, waste will decrease, and much of what before was seen as such, will begin to be reused. In other words, a syntropy in restauration.
Mike Houck, Portland I will spend more time, personally and professionally, focusing on the green interstices of our city, the small, often scrappy, bits of nature nearby for my own psychological and physical health, and that of my city. 
Matthew Jensen, New York But who hasn’t dreamt about snapping their fingers and making air pollution go away? And all of a sudden we realize it is optional. Those scroll bar images are fun. Before. After. Before. After. What else is optional?
Panagiota Kotsila, Barcelona The balance between keeping but delaying essential community engagement meetings, moving them online, or cancelling them all together, will be some of the many difficult decisions we will have to make in the near future.
Gilles Lecuir, Paris The confinement makes me feel intimately what I have known and said for many years now: the presence of nature in the city is not a decoration, it is a vital need for the city dweller. // Le confinement me donne à ressentir intimement ce que je sais et dis depuis de nombreuses années maintenant : la présence de la nature en ville n’est pas un décor, c’est un besoin vital pour le citadin.
Nina-Marie Lister, Toronto For now, I take solace in the routine of daily bread. The measured pace of the knead, the proof, and the rise offers structure to my blurry days. Ultimately, it is the realization that this simple, measured act and its alchemy are both literally and figuratively what sustains us in its slow and patient way.
Kevin Lunzalu, Nairobi The COVID-19 curfew has given me the space to reflect on viable alternatives to my common practices: I am rethinking my food, modes of travel, entertainment, and forms of meeting people. Working from home for certain days may prove to be one of the best environmental practices. These ideas will greatly shape my post-crisis personality.
Patrick Lydon, Osaka What will be the new normal? Perhaps now is our chance to slow down, take care of ourselves and our fellow living beings a bit better, look to nature, and figure it out.
Yvonne Lynch, Riyadh I remain positive regarding a post-virus era because, notwithstanding the gravity of this situation, crisis always presents opportunity for positive transformation. Professionals in my field have always struggled to convince decision makers of the benefits of urban greening and climate adaptation. Not so much now.
Antonia Machado, Portland The coronavirus has exposed deep structural weaknesses, reinforcing the notion that working across silos and centering equity is imperative to building resilience and moving towards transformative change.
François Mancebo, Paris Hidden behind any disaster, there always is a cost-benefits analysis that went wrong. Yet, more than often those who decide on the acceptability of a risk are not those who will be most exposed once the disaster happens. For the future, it is crucial to decide now who and what actions should be priority in the aftermath of Covid-19, and by whom these choices should be made.
Rob McDonald, Washington I have often been someone who threw himself at work, who saw work as not just a job but as a calling, who perhaps spent too much time working and not enough time at home. So, it is humbling to realize that, at this moment in time, perhaps the most important thing I can do in the universe is be with my family.
Brian McGrath, New York I with others have recently postulated a metacity framework—a more flexible and adaptable form of architectural space—for the future adaptation of cities as we face a global climate crisis—such as the current pandemic. My hope for a positive outcome of this tragic virus is the development of new infrastructures in solidarity towards a just transition based on the feminist/ecologist metacity matrix.
Siobhán McQuaid, Dublin We are facing now into a pivotal moment in time where it is possible to contemplate an alternative recovery plan. Governments and decision-makers need to take time out to reflect on the importance of small business, local business and nature-based business for community resilience.
Ragene Palma, London I call for urban practitioners and legislators to immerse in the daily lives of those who have been sidetracked for the longest time, and work from there to begin championing spatial equality—visit slums, converse with the homeless, and know what it’s like to live on the verge of the city. Our previous “normal”should not be recreated. // Hinihikayat ko ang mga nasa larangan ng pagpaplano at mambabatas na pananaliksik ng pamumuhay ng nakararami—bisitahin natin ang mga iskwater, kausapin natin ang mga walang tirahan, at alamin natin kung ano ang kalagayan ng mga namumuhay sa loob at labas ng mga lungsod.
Diane Pataki, New York What about poverty, inequality, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, climate change, and pollution? Now that I know we can act in response to COVID-19, there’s no turning back. Our society can change – completely and rapidly. The next time we have a daring solution, let’s not take “no” for an answer.
Mitch Pavao-Zuckerman, College Park Not all of our students have the desire to learn online, and not all have the resources to do so. There is talk about impacts to university budgets and student enrollments. This experience is teaching many about the real lives and experiences of our students, and we need to be sure that any transformations in the new normal reflect on inequities in access to time, technology, and privacy.
Steward Pickett, Poughkeepsie This changes everything … again. Will those of us who survive learn this time? All of us are on some verge.
Mary Rowe, Toronto I think the most profound challenge for any of us working in urbanism through and after COVID, is now that we have seen how our cities truly function at their most vulnerable, what possible excuse do we now have to not emerge solely committed to fixing it?
Andrew Rudd, New York I am frequently in mourning that after this crisis the world will never be the same. I am also hopeful that after this crisis the world will never be the same.
Eric Sanderson, New York What is life, if not hope? What are our cities, if not an investment in our future? Great things will come again. Take care, my friends; hold on; and invest what you can into the long now.
Olivier Scheffer, Bordeaux We are standing at the edge of the cliff, and the coronavirus is right behind us…So how do we urgently change the urban metabolism to something highly resilient?
Huda Shaka, Dubai I have been reminded of the privileges I have which others do not: having the option to work remotely, having access to quality public space and amenities at my door step, having a choice about how I travel and where I spend my leisure time—and having leisure time. I will work harder personally and professionally to bring those privileges to others, I hope.
Laura Shillington, Montreal While we may be sharing a global experience of living in a pandemic, how we experience it is very specific to place, age, class, race, and gender. Can we use this experience to create a new normal with each of us as more ethical subjects to imagine new worlds?
Elisa Silva, Caracas It is clear that the way we have been living and the patterns of governance we have chosen could be very different, they could change the second we decide to make them a priority and work collectively toward their fulfilment.
David Simon, London The adaptational effort will be immense. While certain other activities are amenable to onlin-isation, others are not—some activities will simply be impossible. All bets are off.
Mary Hall Surface, Washington At its best, theatre is a unique forum where communities can imagine together. We gather and literally align our beating hearts as a story unfolds told by actors who breathe our same air. My nightmare new normal is a Romeo and Juliet who never touch, watched by a masked audience too afraid to believe the story.
Erika Svendsen, New York I am grateful for all those who are working outside during this crisis and the sacrifices they have made all these days. Nature’s stage crew, so to speak. In the future, I’d like to explore ways to help strengthen our green workforce and support those within it that are most vulnerable during times of crisis.
Abdallah Tawfic, Cairo Planting is a representation of peace and hope and we should continue to encourage, support and spread it in such critical time, for the sake of our health and wellbeing. Let’s be hopeful and revive victory gardens again all over the world, let’s get back to our roots, and grow food and hope inside our cities.
Christine Thuring, Vancouver I’m contemplating alternative and new ways by which to engage my energy, expertise, and love for the world. It is a bit of an existential place, which enlists the whole range of my creative and scientific faculties. If this is the new normal, where “business as usual” no longer applies, then how do I wish to contribute?
Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem Since we are supposed to go no more than 500 meters from our homes, this is clearly a good time to see if we have all we need within that perimeter. A grocer’s? A small park? A school? A community garden?… Perhaps it is time to think just what is needed for a happy neighborhood and ask whether we have it.
Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro, Paris Can we, as artists, organize ourselves to inspire our institutions and societies to keep the engine on slow and never start again the machinery of neoliberal destruction? We talked long enough about politics in art. Time for action and art-as-politics.
Andreas Weber, Berlin I wonder what we will make of the insight that we are suddenly so vulnerable. I watch the glittering insects in the sun, much less numerous than some years ago behind this same window, and listen to the nightingale that plucks those insects from the twigs to feed their young. I sit in silence, until the first bat is out and shatters the pale sky with its ragged path.
Diana Wiesner, Bogotá We are the birds that make up their nest with everything they find: branches, bark, feathers, leaves, hair, and even strands of wool, any material to protect the essential: creatively reinventing what will emerge from this process of caring for the global nest. // Somos las aves que componen su nido con todo lo que encuentran: ramas, cortezas, plumas, hojas,  pelos, y hasta hebras de lana, cualquier material para proteger lo esencial: reinventando creativamente lo que va a emerger de este proceso de cuidar el nido global.
Darlene Wolnik, New Orleans My work supporting farmers’ markets across the U.S. remains very much the same. The markets are innovating contactless procedures at a furious pace: new “drive-thru” markets, ticketed entry walk-thru markets, curbside pickup, “click and collect” pre-ordering procedures. My days start early and go late, and at the end of each I wonder if I could have done more. Yet it is such hopeful work
Xin Yu, Schenzhen Will the pandemic flame urban residents’ passion to get in touch with Nature? I really hope so. Will people further respect and take care of Nature after the post-pandemic world becomes the new normal? We need to find out and do more.
Carly Ziter, Montreal I desperately miss interacting with family, friends, and colleagues in person—but I do plan to be more intentional about the choices I make, and to appreciate every family visit, conference, and chat in the hallway a little bit more as we make our way to a new normal.
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.

Introduction

We are all confined to our homes—if we are lucky (more on that later). Which is something, since most of us are “outdoor types”, “people types”.. Can we find meaning, motivation, and renewed spirit for action in this contemplative but deeply strange time? We find ourselves wondering, doubting, planning our next steps or perhaps second-guessing our last ones. We are trying to keep all the parts of lives still stuck together and not flying apart. Good luck with that. Bonne chance. Buena suerte. In bocca al lupo. सौभाग्य.  בהצלחה. Boa sorte. Viel Glück. 頑張れ. Buti na lang. حظا طيبا وفقك الله
(Please pardon any clumsy use of Google Translate.)

Now that we have seen how our cities around the world truly function at their most vulnerable, what possible excuse do we now have to not emerge solely committed to fixing it? Maybe in searching for a new post-Covid “normal”, we need to act on the idea that the old normal was a big part of the problem.
Perhaps we are somewhat like ascetics in caves, contemplating a potentially perfectible life outside, somewhere else and out of reach. For myself, I have been wondering how we will be changed by this experience: as people with dreams, families, and styles of behavior; and also as urban professionals.

So we, as we tend to do, gave a wide variety of people—artists to architects, scientists to planners—the following prompt: How do you imagine you might be changed by Covid, both professionally, but also personally as you negotiate a new post-virus “normal”?

In this prompt we intended to ask a professional question, but also a deeply personal one. All of us now know people personally who have been sick; many (even all?) of us know people who have died. All of us have had lives upended, lost opportunities, had careers and livelihoods set back or even wrecked.

How do we pick up the pieces? What pieces are even still available to us? Which pieces should we cast aside, and leave on the ash heap?

There are a few key threads in this collection of 58 people from 24 countries, and many hopeful responses:

We see (or can simply hear more clearly) more wildlife. Can we hold on to this and build on momentum for and the dream of greener cities for all?

New modes of communication and teaching have a lot of potential, but are also fraught. Meeting in person has real, intangible, and alchemical  value. Not all of our students have the desire to learn online, and not all have the resources to do so.

Many of us are slowing down, “smelling the lilacs”, baking more bread, finding new ways to connect to others. Can contemplation and mindfulness be sustained?

Many are amazed at the clean air and reduced consumption. Can a new normal for the fight against climate change and for livability be embedded in our social actions?

Several note that after years of hearing “no you can’t change that”, or “these activities are not optional”, suddenly in a matter of days or weeks we changed fundamental ways of operating. Paraphrasing Diane Pataki below: let’s not take “no” for an answer next time. Or quoting Matt Jensen: “What else is optional” in our lives?

Let’s make sure not be too glib or tin-eared about the joy of greenery and songbirds, wonderful though they are. Most in this collection have jobs at big organizations that continue to pay salaries. Some in this collection work for small organizations or are free-lancers. Their lives are not simply changed by working at home until they go back to the office; life trajectories may be fundamentally altered. Some have lost opportunities that may not exist in the future.

We are lucky to be sheltering at home. Many beyond this collection have to go to work, brave public transportation. Or have no work at all. David Simon in this collection has two children who are emergency room physicians. (Our gratitude to them.) The New York Times and others reported recently that most new Covid cases are people who are working outside the home, such as in grocery stores. They probably don’t have a choice. Covid’s consequences seem to hit hard communities that already are challenged. For example, 70% of Covid deaths in Louisiana are African American. In Kibera, Dharavi, and other slums of the world, who knows?

We are The Nature of Cities—that is, the character of cities that we believe in: green, certainly, but also a thriving mix of communities, and immigrants, and restaurants, and performing arts, and cultural institutions, and civil society, and innovation, and diversity, and opportunities, and … people. I love cities. I fear for their immediate future and the people who live in them. Let’s remain focused on what we can now see are the fault lines and the possibilities for change in cities. As Mary Rowe says below: “now that we have seen how our cities around the world truly function at their most vulnerable, what possible excuse do we now have to not emerge solely committed to fixing it?”

Maybe in searching for a new post-Covid “normal”, we need to act on the idea that the old normal was a big part of the problem. Both personally and professionally, let’s take nothing for granted.

* * *

The banner image above is a nested necklace, jewelry by Ligia Ceballos de Wiesner, who happens to be the mother of one of our contributors here, Diana Wiesner Ceballos. (Photo by María José Velasco.) To me the piece symbolizes much of what we discuss in this roundtable: the act of nesting in our homes (our nests) during quarantine, the interconnectedness (the intricate tagle of nests) of communities, and the new life and ideas (eggs) nurtured within nests.

Pippin Anderson

About the Writer:
Pippin Anderson

Pippin Anderson, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, is an African urban ecologist who enjoys the untidiness of cities where society and nature must thrive together. FULL BIO

Pippin Anderson

The differences in the lives of our students is stark. With everybody heading home for lock down, the somewhat levelling experience of a shared campus has gone like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight. Some get to leave the ball as they arrived, and others are left with pumpkins and rats.
The comma is used to package ideas and thoughts, to give meaning to phrases strung out across a sentence. Importantly, it also signals to the reader when and where to breathe. I recall as a child reading aloud and skipping over the commas, uncertain of their purpose, and being quite desperate for air by the end of the sentence. I like to think this pandemic is a comma in my life. It’s a pause. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a moment of idleness, of downed tools (this is no luxurious paragraph break). It is a pause that packages what came before into one entity, and similarly will give meaning to what comes after.

Professionally I have been moving all my teaching and supervision engagements to online platforms. This is a novel, and rather fun challenge in it is most basic form. I am not technologically savvy and have been on some steep learning curves. Less cheering is navigating paths with students who do not have access to internet services or devices or live in circumstances that preclude participating. The differences in the lives of our students is stark. With everybody heading home for lock down, the somewhat levelling experience of a shared campus has gone like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight. Some get to leave the ball as they arrived, and others are left with pumpkins and rats. The route ahead for these students through their degrees is at best difficult, but most likely devastating. This harsh reminder of the true South Africa, one of such gross inequity, is certainly reason to pause for thought. This is something to be tackled with greater conviction into the future. I hope the second half of this sentence has healing, and optimism.

To be at home in lock down with my family has been a pleasure. My husband is a delightful office companion, and my children drift into our office to chat, share an idea (did you know Genghis Khan has 16 million male offspring?), or to ask a question (can I tie-dye the bedsheets?) and then bumble off to get on with school work (we hope). Lunches have a holiday atmosphere of bread and cheese in the sun. I have had the time to notice the daily passage of light through my house at this time of year. Like other parts of the world with the muted city we hear birds as we never have before. I am aware this is not everyone’s experience of being home in lockdown and count myself lucky. It’s most certainly a pause, and one to be relished. We all know what lies ahead will be difficult to navigate. This brief time however will give us happy memories and familial resilience. We are certainly drawing breath for what is to come.

I hope the second half of my sentence will be slower, more thoughtful, and less cluttered than the first half. I hope it has resolution in it, healing, and optimism

Isabelle Michele Sophie Anguelovski

About the Writer:
Isabelle Anguelovski

Isabelle Anguelovski is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She is a social scientist trained in urban and environmental planning and coordinator of the research line Cities and Environmental Justice.

Isabelle Anguelovski and Panagiota Kotsila

The balance between keeping but delaying community engagement meetings, moving them online, or cancelling them all together, will be some of the many difficult decisions we will have to make in the near future.
One most recent and direct impact we have had in our practice is the need to rethink and cancel multi-stakeholder meetings we were preparing as researchers and academics from the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability on the topic of creating more just and sustainable cities, and which were going to take place in Barcelona during spring-summer 2020.

One of them, focused on ongoing urban socio-environmental conflicts and struggles, was originally planned for March 19, 2020. The event was going to bring together activist platforms in the city who are working to address real estate speculation and large-scale redevelopment in their perspective neighborhoods while, at the same time, fighting for greener and sustainable neighborhoods for long-time residents – rather than for visitors, tourists, or high-income residents. Our idea as conveners was to reflect with participants on the common issues they are facing and to strategize on possible alliances and coalitions. Our meeting was going to be supported by short videos that filmmaker Alberto Bougleux was in the process of filming about each neighborhood struggle. Needless to say, both the event and the videos have been postponed for later this summer. Because of the topic of the event and the types of activists—vulnerable residents, local groups within one city—the idea of moving the meeting online is not in order. The challenge here lies in being able to grasp how the epidemic has changed activists’ priorities and abilities to participate amidst a process of recovering from a pandemic, while also in maintaining a thematic focus that is relevant, as the timeliness of activist oriented events is key to their meaningful outcomes.

The second event was a European wide Arena event in Barcelona, planned for June 4th and 5th 2020, which would bring together academics, urban planners, practitioners, and civic groups from across Europe and thus invite a transversal (cross-domain, transdisciplinary, intersectional) dialogue on the manifestations and drivers of urban injustice in the context of sustainability planning. Some of the questions on the table have been: How does racialized or ethnically exclusionary urbanization create inequalities in access to green amenities? How does tokenistic participation in urban planning reproduce exclusion in planning more sustainable and equitable food systems? How does urban regeneration create new inequalities in planning sustainable neighborhoods and eco-districts?

For this event, organized within the framework of the UrbanA EU project, the greater uncertainty surrounding international travel, even within Europe, for the next 3-6 months, has prompted us to transform it into a two-day series of small webinars (Agenda available here). The event will thus host already registered participants and hopefully welcome additional participants who might not have been able to participate before (due to time or travel restrictions)  but now might find renewed opportunity to attend and—and can now apply online.

Apart from the different type of interaction that an online event can bring (and this restrictions in building connections between our participants and Community of Practice), an important caveat here is that people will probably be “Zoomed out” by June 2020 and thus might be discouraged by the prospect of online meetings. Our plan is to have highly interactive, short webinars, with concrete outputs, rather than long online sessions. We also intend to invest quite some time in engaging participants with the ideas and the people that will be “present” in each online conversation.

The balance between keeping but delaying community engagement meetings, moving them online, or cancelling them all together, will be some of the many difficult decisions we will have to make in the near future.

Panagiota Kotsila

About the Writer:
Panagiota Kotsila

Panagiota Kotsila has a PhD in Development Studies and is a postdoctoral researcher at ICTA-UAB and the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ). Her research examines the unequal distribution of health risks and how the very concepts of disease, health and well-being are constructed, mobilised and interpreted through and for power.

Janice Astbury

About the Writer:
Janice Astbury

Janice Astbury is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield where she is working on the Breathing Infrastructures project undertaking action research related to green infrastructure, air quality, wellbeing and connecting schools with urban nature in Buenos Aires.

Janice Astbury

I hope that many people around the world are enjoying the sounds of voices and birdsong, and the experience of cleaner air flowing into their homes, and will want this to continue.
I arrived in Buenos Aires on March 3rd. That was the day that the first case of Covid-19 was identified here. I came to collaborate with colleagues at the University of Buenos Aires working on green infrastructure in schoolyards, with a goal of reducing the concentration of air pollutants that reach children, and also generating other benefits associated with greening and enhancing nearby nature for children to interact with. I had barely got started when the national quarantine began. Today is day 40.
Street trees of Buenos Aires. Photo: Janice Astbury

I was lucky to find somewhere to live in the neighbourhood of Palermo. The first things I noticed were the tall beautiful street trees, the balconies from which people could interact with the street, and the array of small local shops and cafes. The next things I noticed were the high volume of traffic on my residential street, the noise it created, and the exhaust fumes that seemed to flow directly into my second floor apartment. Sitting on my balcony felt like sitting on the side of a motorway and I soon stopped doing it.

Now I sit on the balcony to work most mornings and enjoy the immersion in the street life, beginning with the custodians of the various apartment buildings chatting to one another and the swish of their wet brooms as they clean the pavement outside their buildings. I think how nice it would be if they were also watering gardens. The high-end buildings across the street feature only a few stalks of bamboo in pots—one arrangement is in a glass case.

Post-green planting. Photo: Janice Astury.

Later come the deliveries, I like the ones from the local shops where staff push shopping carts up the middle of the street. Less appealing is the daily visit from the massive truck delivering bottled water. I’m not sure about this “essential” service in an area with perfectly good tap water. I think one of the important things to come out of this experience is thinking about what’s essential, as governments all over the world deliberate on what should be included in necessities and what special permissions should be allowed. Allowing access to green space and nature is continuing to challenge many countries (including this one) and I am hoping that accessible nature will come to be seen as essential, not only during crises.

Having come here to work on a project with a focus on air quality and its impact on children’s health and development, I am thinking about the widely presumed essentialness of driving. Currently, if people want to drive somewhere, they have to fill in an online declaration stating which of the allowable exceptions justifies their movements during this health emergency.

By day 9 of the quarantine, air pollution in Buenos Aires was halved. If this can work to confront the Covid-19 health emergency, why shouldn’t it work to combat the greater illness and death caused by air pollution? Some people would still drive in the city but it would be considered exceptional, they would need to justify their travel by car. Rather than being the obvious choice, it would be the last resort. This will involve, among other things, maintaining online work practices, facilitating more active transport, and adapting public transport so that people feel it is safe to use.

I hope that some cities in the world will show the way by applying the sorts of systems they have put in place for the coronavirus pandemic to tackling the air quality and climate change crises. I hope that I myself will continue my work with greater confidence that big, rapid, creative interventions that change urban life for the better are possible. And I hope that many people around the world are enjoying the sounds of voices and birdsong, and the experience of cleaner air flowing into their homes, and will want this to continue.

Notes:

[1] Pollution in Buenos Aires went down to half due to the quarantine “La contaminación en Buenos Aires bajó a la mitad por la cuarentena” Clarin, 29 March 2020 [2] In 2016 (last WHO global assessment) 91% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met and ambient air pollution was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide. (WHO, Ambient air pollution: a global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, 2016)
Essential service? Photo: Janice Astury.
Carmen Bouyer

About the Writer:
Carmen Bouyer

Carmen Bouyer is a French environmental artist and designer based in Paris.

Carmen Bouyer

I will keep dancing half an hour a day on Zoom with people from all over the world, and join the direct local actions that bring wonder, trust and care among people and among species, learning from the ways of trees and the songs of bees, together.
There is a place in the village where I live that beautifully embodies what I wish for the post Covid-19 era. It is a public orchard, imagined about two years ago by Nathalie, a woman living here in a small village by the Seine river, about one hour South of Paris. Last November, the first trees were planted in a great community gathering on a land belonging to the municipality. Pear, Peach, Plum, Apple, Cherry trees, blackcurrant, gooseberry bushes, borage, cosmos, rowan, etc. all bought and planted collectively by the town’s inhabitants. The orchard belongs to no one and to everybody. It is a collective good, a common that has been reclaimed. Open to all, everyone can grow food for everyone. Orchestrated as a food forest, this urban edible landscape is a space of freedom, conviviality and pedagogy. There, villagers can learn how to plant roots, how to grow food for strangers and for themselves, and how to respect the soil and biodiversity that enable us all to do so. This place embodies collectivity among humans and non humans. Indeed a third of the garden is wild and looks just like how it was when the orchard group came, and it will stay so. As my life both slows down with the quarantine and is shaken by the daily news of Covid-19 related sanitary and economical crisis, I feel the deep urge to participate in such communal initiatives. Not only to grow food as it is vital that we reclaim our knowledge in that sacred field, but also to grow profound intimacy with the earth and the local community. This time asks us to practice deep self care and in such deep care for the world, and this is political. We are experiencing how deeply we are all inter-related, intertwined in the fabric of a world that we all share. I feel the call to be more radical in this statement today, as work projects might become more scarce, time opens to nurture these relationships with the natural world, with neighbors of all kinds, with old time friends, dear ones and the unknown. I know that art will bring poetry, colors and balm to this humbling period of collective uncertainty. It will enable us to experience togetherness in ways so new and old, and accompany a much needed transition to more grounded ways of life. I will definitely try to participate in this movement, using the creative skills I developed since many years, but with more energy because of how pressing this need is now. I will keep dancing half an hour a day on Zoom with people from all over the world, and join the direct local actions that bring wonder, trust and care among people and among species, learning from the ways of trees and the songs of bees, together.
“Le verger citoyen”, a communal orchard supported by both the municipality and the locale association La Manufacture de Samois, in Samois-sur-Seine, France. Photo: Carmen Bouyer
Lindsay Campbell

About the Writer:
Lindsay Campbell

Lindsay K. Campbell is a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service. Her current research explores the dynamics of urban politics, stewardship, and sustainability policymaking.

Lindsay Campbell

For those of us privileged to be sheltering at home, the crisis has created a new sense of simplicity and attention to place. May we carry that forward wherever the future takes us.
I find myself hesitant to write this post, to say anything for public consumption just yet, in the midst of so much rapid change and crisis. When time has become so fluid—is it Monday or Thursday?—yet one week ago feels like an eternity.  Speculating about the “post-virus” era feels like begging to offer something dated and irrelevant. Most of all, I feel so privileged to be salaried, housed, healthy, and home with my family. But at the same time my life is completely transformed, as are all of our lives. So I write this dispatch in the midst of the “during-virus, non-normal” moment, from a quiet corner in Red Hook, Brooklyn—proximate but worlds away from the epicenter here in New York City.

Over the years, my thinking and writing has focused on reciprocal relationships of care between people and their environments. Along with three of my colleagues (Erika Svensden, Michelle Johnson, and Laura Landau), we started a collective journaling effort of our observations of our changing experiences with nature, stewardship, civil society, and environmental governance in the time of COVID-19, all throughlines in our pre-existing research. The effort began with a series of text exchanges and then a shared google document we started on March 13. We have been writing near-daily since then from our homes across Brooklyn and Queens, sharing our reflections, photos, links: messages of hope and sadness that we encounter in our virtual and physical communities. The process has been deeply therapeutic for me and I think will feed our research for years to come. On a personal level, it led me to the story I’d like to share today.

Lilacs are one of my favorite plants and a wonderful signal of spring and warmer days ahead. Last week I saw some images online from the (closed) Brooklyn Botanic Garden of their beautiful lilac collection and it made me have a visceral yearning to see and smell the plant. I knew we had some in Red Hook, but I couldn’t recall their location. So I texted my plant-savvy friend and neighbor, Gillian, to ask if she knew some lilac whereabouts and she immediately responded, telling me she had smelled some yesterday just a few blocks from where I live. So my husband, daughter and I immediately walked over to visit them; and it was certainly the highlight of my day.

I think this vignette is revealing of how I—and perhaps many others—are experiencing nature in the time of COVID-19. I braid together virtual communities (the botanic garden post), personal social networks aided by technology (the text message exchange), and embodied experiences with my immediate family in my hyper-local environment. I tune into the simple beauty and sensuous experience of nature. I slow down and move at my toddler’s pace. I don’t mind if it takes me 20 minutes to walk one block to my neighborhood park, because I literally have nowhere else to go. My daughter has learned the words daffodil, tulip, and dandelion (or candylion, to her); she logrolls in the grass, because the playgrounds are closed. I walk and walk and walk, grateful to live just a block from the harbor, where I can smell the salt spray and watch the setting sun.

I appreciate this keener observation of our socio-natural world and I know that others around the globe are tuning in as well—to birdsong, to the wind on their face, to the sun shining through their window, to the sound of applause and cowbells from our neighbors—separate but together—cheering for the frontline workers. For those of us privileged to be sheltering at home, the crisis has created a new sense of simplicity and attention to place. May we carry that forward wherever the future takes us.

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.

Sarah Charlop-Powers

While we’re all navigating through this extremely stressful—and sometimes downright scary—moment, I can’t imagine what my life, and the lives of all New Yorkers, would be like without our local parks.
When I present about the work of the Natural Areas Conservancy, I frequently lead with two research findings: NYC’s forests  are surprisingly healthy—85% of canopy trees are native species; and 50% of New Yorkers primarily rely on NYC’s parks for recreation and access to nature. New York City’s 7,300 acres of forested natural areas are a critical form of nearby nature. And, they require financial and community investments to ensure their longevity and to continue providing significant social and environmental benefits.

While I often speak about these important points, COVID-19 has made them even more significant and real for me personally. In March, as I shed my everyday routine—like my subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan; bus rides with my son to preschool; Saturday morning trips to the farmers market, followed by muffins on a park bench and a visit to the local playground—I started feeling as if life in our very dense urban neighborhood was unbearable.

As my wife and I began splitting our days into a relay of childcare and working from home, I started a new daily ritual: visiting natural areas with our three-year-old. I anxiously put on our masks, and as we ride the elevator from the fourteenth floor to the lobby I remind my son not to touch anything. When we arrive at a park and take that first step into the woods, we both exhale. During a recent hike in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, we spotted a skunk, a herd of deer, and an eagle catching a fish. In Forest Park in Queens,  my son spent 30 minutes throwing sticks into a pond. And in Brooklyn’s Marine Park, we wandered through the park’s shrubby maritime forest and experienced the thrill of exiting the woods onto a smooth beach. Together, we are experiencing the simple pleasures that come from spending time in nature.

Right now, many families are relying on their local parks for respite, breathing room, and relaxation. With playgrounds and recreational facilities closed, we are seeing increased visitation in our natural areas, not only in New York City, but in cities around the world.

The lines between my personal and professional identities have now blurred. I am experiencing first hand the importance of local parks and natural areas—not simply in a “nice to have” context, but out of necessity. And while we’re all navigating through this extremely stressful—and sometimes downright scary—moment, I can’t imagine what my life, and the lives of all New Yorkers, would be like without our local parks.

Katrine Claassens

About the Writer:
Katrine Claassens

Katrine Claassens' paintings reflect her interest in climate change, urban ecology, and internet memes. She also works as a science, policy and climate change communicator for universities, think tanks, and governments in South Africa and Canada.

Katrine Claassens

The pandemic teaches us this: rapid, coherent change is possible. It has also laid bare that there is much to be actively dismantled, and much to be actively built.
I write this on the day I was meant to be hanging my paintings in a Cape Town gallery, an event now indefinitely postponed, as so many things have been.

Here in Montreal, my home studio window looks out onto Parc Laurier. With this view, I have been drawn with a cord of tenderness into the intricate politics of neighbourhood cats, the love between a chickadee couple, the diligent industry of iridescent black birds nesting in a nearby tree, the aesthetically pleasing daily walk of the man in the red coat with the dalmatian, and the ceaseless antics of the squirrels.

This year has been one of partings without end: one billion animals dead in the Australian fires, swarms of locusts in Africa on a scale never seen in living memory, mass bleaching of the coral reefs, the warmest January on record. And now, with COVID-19, partings of a different kind, that rob us nonetheless of the same precious thing: of life and of a map for the future.

In this context of extreme ecological collapse and human despair, I have found some comfort in the stories of nature “rebounding” as documented by locked-down urban residents from their windows around the world. Shy but adventurous wild boars, coyotes, and deer wandering the empty streets; skies clearing to reveal faraway mountain ranges not seen from industrial cities in a lifetime; the canal waters of Venice almost crystalline (with rumours of dolphins!). It is breathtaking, the sudden clarity, the speed, the utter brilliance of the blue, and green, and the rough fur of the wild against our city surfaces.

And these visions of a different world are a powerful thing. While COVID-19 restrictions are unlikely to meaningfully move the needle on climate change and its attendant horrors, these stories offer a peephole to another kind of city. One that is wilder, one that is allowed to go to seed, one with cleaner water and skies. Once you have seen the mountains, you will know to miss them.

And through this eyelet of possibility comes a lesson, a warning, a flare. The pandemic teaches us this: rapid, coherent change is possible. It has also laid bare that there is much to be actively dismantled, and much to be actively built. For guidance on how to do this we can ask the questions that a gardener asks at the time when seasons change. What will we bury, and put to sleep? What seeds will we save? When will it be safe to sow? What wild seeds have travelled to our soil on the wind, and lie dormant waiting to be weeded or to delight?

Down in the park, I found the body of a young squirrel, small and sleek, under a tree. I marked its place with the most ancient of human writing, pushing sticks into the frozen ground, setting a circle of stones around it. An act to bear witness to life at a time when life seems so worth witnessing, and as a call for dog walkers and gentle children to observe the perfection of its paws and the almond shape of its closed eyes.

M'Lisa Colbert

About the Writer:
M'Lisa Colbert

M'Lisa works to assemble connections and collaboration between diverse groups in cities. She is also Associate Director of The Nature of Cities.

M’Lisa Colbert

I am confronted with how much I need trees, grass, and fresh air to remain a sane human being. Being stuck between the four walls of my apartment all day feels foreign and unnatural.
I am changed by it. Everything in my small apartment looks more precious to me than it did a few months ago. I keep thinking about how to be careful with everything—the dishwasher, brushing my teeth, not wasting any food—because finding a technician, taking a trip to the dentist or risking it at the grocery store are all incredibly difficult and dangerous things to do right now. I feel constrained, uncomfortable, and anxious, and yet I am also ashamed of this because the majority of people around the world live like this on a daily basis.

My best friend sent me a GIF from Venezuela that asks of the rest of the world: “Oh, rationing, first time?”

It also makes me think about arguments I’ve made for increasing density in cities. Let’s build up. But how much do we build? And where? Is there a point where it because unsafe? I live in an area of Montreal that is food poor. They built condos, and leased main strip commercial space to expensive restaurants and boutique clothing stores to build out marketing campaigns for realtors that raised housing prices, but groceries stores and other practical services are scarce. This is ordinarily a heavily contested urban planning problem we argue about in our community, but the pandemic is highlighting just how critical it is, and will be for the future, to mix public services and access to diverse services in each borough in a city.

Mostly though, I am confronted with how much I need trees, grass, and fresh air to remain a sane human being. Being stuck between the four walls of my apartment all day feels foreign and unnatural. If this isn’t a stark reminder of just how much a part of nature humans are, I am not sure anything will push us to remember. I remain hopeful though, that this just might be the thing to do it.

Marcus Collier

About the Writer:
Marcus Collier

Marcus is a sustainability scientist and his research covers a wide range of human-environment interconnectivity, environmental risk and resilience, transdisciplinary methodologies and novel ecosystems.

Marcus Collier

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis”; one brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” John F. Kennedy, April, 1959

I have a new resolve to overcome my despondency and try harder to find a means to engage urban communities with wild nature. In this case, the first step is literally on the doorstep!
While the first part of this quotation is now recognised as a mistranslation followed by a misinterpretation of Chinese characters, in my opinion the second part is more relevant as an aphorism for me during the COVID crisis. As an ecologist and sustainability scientist, I am well aware of how crisis or disturbance in an ecosystem can negatively impact some species, even to the point of extinction, but also provide opportunities for others. We live in a world of both natural disturbances and, as we all know, significant anthropogenic disturbances. Cities are, for me, the ultimate of anthropogenic disturbances. Their presence and operation does not permit “natural” processes to adapt and/or recover at the same rate as would historically have occurred, and therefore cities are a continual “danger” and “crisis”, to follow JFKs sentiments. This is the part of my work that fascinates me, and this is why I am a more than a little obsessed with urban novel ecosystems! While urban areas of all sizes and scales are increasingly dominating our global ecosystem, within them we observe many differing life forms coping, adapting, and in many cases, thriving. So while I am “trapped” indoors during the COVID crisis, I feel myself wanting to emulate these urban life forms and forcing myself to cope, adapt, and (I hope) thrive. You see, my mission to understand and quantify urban novel ecosystems has been faltering lately, and I have been growing increasingly despondent particularly with my inability to attract funding and interest for creating a citizen science approach to recording the effects of urban novel ecosystems on human behaviour.
Photo: Marcus Collier

However, during the COVID lockdown period I have noticed a significant increase on observations of nature in cities with a plethora of new websites, social medial feeds, and mainstream media observations of nature in cities. The absence of large numbers of people and vehicular traffic is permitting many animals to be brazen; unashamedly wandering through what were once busy streets. It should be said here that it is not the case that there are more animals or more bird song, however it is the case that we are better able to observe them now that the noisy, chaotic background of human activity has been removed and we are forced to “stop and smell the roses”. I love that people are posting their observations, some of them for the first time, and this will make my job a lot easier when I am trying to convey the diversity and resilience of species in urban environments. What is even more exciting is that urban ecologists are being provided, free of charge, with a growing data resource complete with images and geolocations. We are being given a snapshot of what cities could be like when nature is permitted to do its own thing, and thus we have more opportunities for generating theory and measuring urban ecological processes and characteristics. Indeed, this data resource could be an opportunity, in combination with data from transport, air and water quality, and so on, for convincing urban communities, planners and policy-makers of the values of adopting urban regreening strategies. Moreover, this is possibly our best opportunity to definitively prove to our fellow humans that by changing our behaviour we can have greener and healthier cities, and that these greener cities will make us healthier in mind and body; yes, we can cope, adapt and thrive!

Photo: Marcus Collier

Wait, I’m beginning to think that COVID might be doing me out of a job! Well no. With all sorts of tiny wildernesses appearing on walls, or in cracks in the pavement, or in the unmanaged corners of parking lots and parks, for me personally this crisis is providing an opportunity for some of the poorest members of our society, who perhaps cannot afford to visit a national park some distance from the city, to experience what wild nature really looks like. I have been speaking of the potential values of urban novel ecosystems for many years, and finally I am starting to see people voluntarily commenting on the emergent wildness of cities; emergent nature in cities! So, I am excited by the prospect of being able to demonstrate the values of urban novel ecosystems “in the flesh” as it were, and this has provided me with a new resolve to overcome my despondency and try harder to find a means to engage urban communities with wild nature. In this case, the first step is literally on the doorstep!

Paul Currie

About the Writer:
Paul Currie

Paul Currie is a Senior Professional Officer in Urban Systems at ICLEI Africa. He is a researcher of African urban resource and service systems, with interest in connecting quantitative analysis with storytelling and visual elicitation.

Paul Currie

Covid has surfaced a key reality for me: choice. I will be paying more attention to how cities increase the promise and attainment of choice for their citizens, who are so often restricted by cost, geography or demography, to one option.
I am caught in tension between two hopes: I hope everything can return to normal: that no one suffers further loss of life and loved ones. And I hope that nothing is ever the same again: that everyone’s calls to action for a transformed post-covid society will bear fruit.

Covid has shown how quickly we can dismantle our globally interdependent society. It has shown the disastrous consequences of negligent leaders, and offered the basis for solidarity and pride. It has shown the stark differences between what we consider to be necessities. It has shown how meaningless these words are when cash flow stops and we can’t feed ourselves and our dependents. And unfortunately, it has reminded us that true commitment and action is so often dependent on a crisis.

Have we not for decades been demanding radical transformative action to realize social justice, environmental restoration, and equity across multiple realities or expressions? How do we get the powers that be to acknowledge the slow crises? How do we get them to acknowledge the crises of climate change, structural inequality, racism, gender-based exclusion and violence, child stunting and environmental degradation? I am moved by our president in South Africa, who has issued the first call to a nation since 1994. I am moved by his acknowledgement of the failings to achieve an equal post-apartheid society. I hope now that when the declared national disaster for Covid is lifted, he immediately declares another national disaster that has been decades in the making, and coordinates action to address structural, rather than surface, ills.

In my work, I trace the hidden flows in cities that we tend to take for granted. These are the flows of resources that support our lives: where does our water flow? How does food grow and find us? How do we power our homes? And whither our waste be gone? A crisis shows these ignorances plain and none more so now than food and mobility. I have ever argued that some of the best infrastructure systems are based on people, and we see now the great losses as people are halted, as workplaces are closed, as informal workers are deemed non-essential, as cities grind to a halt. But we also see the new infrastructures of solidarity emerge as communities share supplies and food. In the imaginaries of future cities, I hope we don’t lose sight of the importance of people in shaping their homes, communities, and societies.

Covid has surfaced a key reality for me: choice. I will be paying more attention to how cities increase the promise and attainment of choice for their citizens, who are so often restricted by cost, geography or demography, to one option. In our efforts to improve food, water and energy security, how are we considering choice and agency? The city of the future lays options before all citizens, regardless of circumstance.

Samarth Das

About the Writer:
Samarth Das

Samarth Das is an Urban Designer and Architect based in Mumbai. Having practiced professionally in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, and subsequently in New York City, his work focuses on engaging actively in both public as well as private sectors—to design articulate shared spaces within cities that promote participation and interaction amongst people.

Samarth Das

Being locked up in the comfort of our homes is certainly a privilege. Social distancing in a time like this is a luxury afforded by a few—over 55% of Mumbai city’s 13 million inhabitants live in slums where 6-7 people share a single room.
The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly brought normal life to a grinding halt. Following the spread of the virus worldwide, the Indian government under Prime Minister Modi took the bold step of enforcing a nationwide lockdown—initially for a period of 3 weeks which has since then been extended for another 18 days. India has done surprising well so far and the numbers speak for themselves.

This duration of the lockdown has offered a lot of time to reflect and critically think about work and other daily engagements. We all certainly have found ways to ensure that the work flow of our offices are not too hampered. As an architectural practice such as ours, it was difficult to cope and manage design work. But this was overcome through adapting several modes of communication and a certain up-skilling that individuals have undertaken. This testing time has certainly thrown light on finding efficient ways of communication, collaboration and co-producing work. Human desire to succeed in tough situations prevails, and with it brings copious amounts of positivity and hope.

But being locked up in the comfort of our homes is certainly a privilege. Social distancing in a time like this is a luxury afforded by a few. Over 55% of Mumbai city’s 13 million inhabitants live in slums where 6-7 people share a single room in most cases. The fate of daily wage workers who live hand to mouth is truly deplorable. With industries and businesses coming to a standstill, these workers are completely cut off from their daily source of income. Despite the state’s efforts in providing food and water to this vast and mobile people, are isolated, stranded in cities with no way home to the comfort of their loved ones. It does hit one hard.

We are all hyper aware of the pandemic at this moment in time, but the fact is that a majority of the urban poor in our country live in and encounter pandemic like scenarios on a daily basis with no access to formal housing, affordable healthcare, stable employment or any other sense of social security. It has certainly made me think about how we utilise our resources be it water, energy, produce, products, etc.

The Covid-19 pandemic has paralysed the world economy and taken countless lives. It has been close to 100 years since the devastating Spanish flu of 1918, but the frequency of such epidemics is bound to increase as we move forward. As an architect, it certainly fuels my drive to pursue large scale affordable housing as well as promote the development of accessible amenities and open public spaces for the urban masses. The general quality of everyday living must improve for the vast majorities who are often neglected in our development agenda. The change must happen now. A structural change in the way we approach policies and strategies that promote equitable distribution of resources, housing, healthcare, education and livelihoods must be taken up immediately.

The silver lining amidst this crisis has been the respite that our natural environment is receiving. With no human activity, our beaches and waterfronts are cleaner than even before, coastal marine life has come to the fore, the air is the cleanest it has been in decades and the continuous noise of cars has been replaced by the swelling sounds of bird calls. Nature is getting its much deserved break, albeit temporary. What will be the new ‘normal’ we aspire to achieve once this is behind us?

Gillian Dick

About the Writer:
Gillian Dick

Gillian is the Manager of Spatial Planning – Research & Development team within the Development Plan Group at Glasgow City Council.

Gillian Dick

We definitely need to take the opportunity to build back better, but we also need to pause and not rush when we hit the reset button. We need the right rebuilding, in the right place, at the right time, for the right communities.
Looking Back to discover the new normal

It crept up slowly, the tension building. Work on Friday 13th March was relatively normal. Work on Monday 16th March was not. The train was crowded and uncomfortable. People looked worried. We were still in “herd immunity” policy. Social distancing had started and we were playing a waiting game. By the time I went home we were heading towards lock down. A week later we were there. We offered a collective sigh of relief. Then into how to we make this work. Our IT systems were not ready and some of our team members found themselves in full on hack mode. It took us a week to get our planning service up and running again. Unlike our colleagues dealing with Parks, Roads and Environmental Health, we quickly discovered that there was lots of work that we could do from home. Planning applications still need to be processed; government consultations still need to be responded to and, as Planners, we started to think about how to get our communities back on their feet once we come out of lockdown. The sheer tenacity and resilience of my team astounds me every day

Firth of Clyde—Home. Photo: Gillian Dick

I revisited a set of essays that were published after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. They were grouped under a set of headings that to my mind builds a framework for the future and makes me think differently about what the new normal of urban planning will be and where modern British Town Planning came from:

  • Making Plans: We’ve always made spatial plans. The idea goes right the way back to the UK response to the Cholera epidemic in 1848. The first planned places came from the first Public health act that recognised that in order to be healthy people need space.
  • Selling the plan: The Boar War exposed the poor health of recruits and led directly to the first UK planning legislation in 1909.
  • Rewriting the rules: The idea to plan for places grew following the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which led to a greater emphasis on the need to have open space within housing areas and on to the garden city movement.
  • Considering the common good: The devastation of WW2 led to the 1947 Planning Act that viewed unregulated market forces as a threat to public health.
  • Thinking Big: Post war urban planning sought to rethink and reimagine communities that were fit for modern living
  • Acting Small: Gradually planning and health disconnected. But communities started to think that there was a better way. Community empowerment and activism started to grow.
  • Meeting in the middle: Covid-19 is changing everything. Are our resilient communities still going to be there? Is a new community spirit emerging?
  • Building back better: In lockdown people need space both within and around buildings that they can call their own. Balconies, roof gardens and more generous building space requirements are needed.
  • Reimaging recovery: There is a new normal coming for our communities. A new way of being and a new way of living. Will we embrace a more locally connected world? Will we return to the old normal?

Covid-19 has upended all my normal routines. I’m optimistic that the new normal creates a more resilient; equitable place where more people work flexibly and in different ways. I don’t think any of the folk that I work with think that we will go back to where we were four weeks ago. It’s an opportunity to reset, reinvent, and reimagine. We definitely need to take the opportunity to build back better, but we also need to pause and not rush when we hit the reset button. We need the right rebuilding, in the right place, at the right time, for the right communities.

Paul Downton

About the Writer:
Paul Downton

Founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘ecocity pioneer’, Paul and co-founders are pioneering the Ecocity Design Institute. Paul is also working on an artistic/publishing project coming soon to a crowd-funding site near you!

Paul Downton

COVID-19 has forced changes that have given nature a breathing space, but I’m betting when the capitalist engine of destruction returns to “normal” it will raid the stores of nature like a selfish bully in a candy shop. It won’t be pretty.
“Let us talk, I will isolate myself.”

The title and all other quotations are from “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, first published in 1909.

The usual routines of my wife and I are minimally affected by the pandemic as I work from home and have long relied on electronic communications. The dog gets a walk on the beach every day but I no longer plan to do anything else. In a world turned on its head my frustrations are trivial. But I’m angry.

Australia has dealt quite well with COVID-19 but we hold a fraction of the world population. Trump wants to sacrifice lives to rescue the US economy whilst making “democracy” and “freedom” meaningless globally. America is fighting a bizarre civil war and I’m wondering when “the Hunger Games” will start in earnest…

Imagine, if you can, a small room…

In Forster’s prescient 111 year old story “The Machine Stops”, Vashti lives a static life in a single room, nevertheless, like an avid Facebook user:

She knew several thousand people…

Dealing with the pandemic would be unthinkable without the internet. 

…in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously…

COVID-19 has accelerated changes already underway. Our doctor offers phone consultations and our grandchildren are attending school virtually; families are zooming in to teleconferencing…

“I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you.”

We accept being isolated in order to talk to others, we accept a simulacrum of someone’s image on a screen and mechanical reconstitution of their voice as if they were the real thing.

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.

Public space has been central to urban civilisation but life in personal bubbles mediated by machines is part of modern urbanism and pre-COVID-19 we were already abandoning meetings in the flesh.

She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light; she ate and exchanged ideas with her friends, and listened to music and attended lectures; she made the room dark and slept… Those funny old days, when men went for a change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!

Air-conditioning and artificial light have separated urban generations from reliance on diurnal cycles and a sense of how the earth moves through space has been eroded to a point of irrelevance for much of our industrial civilisation. COVID-19 seems likely to exacerbate this condition. As we connect on-line, we disconnect from the planet. It becomes harder to understand the poison gas we can’t see and that other great invisible force pressing on our civlisation. Global heating will take many more lives than this pandemic, and there’s no quick fix. 

“Have you been on the surface of the earth since we spoke last?”

Few people experience anything wild in a world of industrialised civilisation. Children ape their elders thinking that farmland is “nature”. Many will never stand on the pre-industrial surface of the earth.

 And if Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside her at last, what profit was there in that? She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.

Tactility is part of being human but now it’s anti-social and dangerous. Social distancing, facilitated by reliance on the virtual, presages a disaster in terms of healthy human evolution. How is it not possible to feel angry and worried about this? Is it just too “abstract”?

“You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say ‘space is annihilated’, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves.”

Like many of us, I’m reviewing assumptions about the way physical social space functions in our cities. I don’t have any answers yet. Then there’s our relationship to the rest of nature. COVID-19 has forced changes that have given nature a breathing space, but I’m betting when the capitalist engine of destruction returns to “normal” it will raid the stores of nature like a selfish bully in a candy shop. It won’t be pretty. But it’s hard to be an optimist as the Trumps and Bolsanaros make things unnecessarily worse and the world outside our “western” universe isn’t looking too good, with estimates of 3 million or more likely to die in the next 12 months in Africa alone.

Forster’s story doesn’t end well but allows a glimmer of hope, with others “…hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilisation stops…”.

I think it’s time to take the dog for a walk.

Emilio Fantin

About the Writer:
Emilio Fantin

Emilio Fantin is an artist working in Italy on multidisciplinary research. He teaches at the Politecnico, Architecture, University of Milan, and acts as coordinator of the “Osservatorio Public Art”.

Emilio Fantin

Talking about coronavirus, egoism needs to be switched into solidarity and sharing, but this cannot be done as a reaction to contagion fear or daily body count. It has to be the result of a long path towards the achievement of a new existential consciousness.
Many people define this pandemia as a war. If you look at what has been happening since second world war, I would say that nothing is going to change in a short time. In Italy, after the first moment of depression, we had the economic boom. That meant the improvement of health, poverty, and social conditions due to the circulation of a huge amount of money, as a consequence of reconstruction of houses, streets, bridges. A new man arose, apparently happier, but more cynical and more individualistic than before. So, if you look at the long term situation, you can understand that war didn’t bring a real change in ethics and moral. What happened, was exactly the contrary.

Talking about coronavirus, egoism needs to be switched into solidarity and sharing, but this cannot be done as a reaction to contagion fear or daily body count. It has to be the result of a long path towards the achievement of a new existential consciousness.

Many reflections and essays deal about the relationship between chemical and electromagnetic pollution and coronavirus. Some others speculate on how to reinforce our immunity system, but all conclusions bring to the same result: respect humans and not humans, love nature, take care of the environment, be sympathetic.

That’s why the new urbanism has to be thought as a care for the environment. The design of the city has to switch from a logistic and pragmatic vision to the consideration of those aspects which balance broken down rhythms and neurotic habits of city life. Time and space cannot be seen only in term of mobility and economic value, but we need to consider both in term of preserving human health end preventing possible diseases (I am not talking only about virus, but also about neurotic behavior and poisoning). We have to start such a process from below, reducing the number of our cars, limiting the use of our smart technologies, asking for new cycle lines, walking in our cities. The immunity system of the city will improve its force which depends on its inhabitants’ behavior. To fund healthcare doesn’t only mean to build more hospitals and provide new technologies. This approach comes from considering the view point of the “effects”. What should be done is taking into account also the “causes” (which mean low life quality). Rather than using the term urbanism we might find a more appropriate word in order of re-thinking the city as a living organism. If we don’t want this organism to get sick, we should ask politics to limit private interests in the building industry, to avoid the abuse of power into water business and not to break the balance between natural and artificial elements inside the city.

It looks simple, but it is extremely complex. Why? Because of profit, private interests, economic strategies, political conveniences? Yes of course, but it is also a matter of our action, in term of considering ourselves as a part of a “city organism”, by feeling its skin, heart and brain.

A city like a human body and soul.

Todd Forest

About the Writer:
Todd Forest

Todd Forrest is Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections at The New York Botanical Garden. He oversees the team of managers, horticulturists, and curators who steward the Garden’s plant collections, natural areas, gardens, and glasshouses and has been a leader in the development of the Garden’s celebrated program of interdisciplinary exhibitions.

Todd Forrest

A garden feels empty and pointless without people to enjoy it. So does nature. While I have always felt strongly about the importance of nature to a person’s well-being, I have never been so keenly aware of the essential partnership people have with the natural world.
All is (too) Quiet in the Garden

Not long ago an accountant friend gleefully told me about an article he had read claiming that accountant and horticulturist are professions attractive to misanthropes. Knowing us both, it made sense to me. Each of us tends toward the gloomily irascible and neither of us would be the first person you would invite to a dinner party if you wanted to cultivate a fun, chatty vibe.

I didn’t consciously choose a career in horticulture because of its apparent appeal to grumpy people—I was fortunate to follow my lifelong passion for nature into the world of plants. Ironically, perhaps, given what my chosen profession says about me, I have spent nearly my entire career at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), an institution founded in 1891 to educate, delight, and serve people.

But when my friend shared this observation, I thought a bit and realized that most public horticulturists I know do spend maybe a little too much time grousing about the sins an oblivious public delivers upon their beloved plants. Footprints in flower beds, bouquets of pilfered peonies, branches broken by would-be Tarzans. The tragedy of the commons! The only negative aspect about public gardens, a colleague once cracked, is the public.

But what is a garden if not a distillation of nature’s miracles organized just so for the enjoyment of people? People are not an imposition on a garden, they are its raison d’être. If I suspected this all along, the past six weeks at NYBG have proved it true. As a beautiful spring has unfolded in the eerie emptiness of pandemic New York, this magnificent place, which generations of gardeners have cultivated in partnership with nature for the benefit of the public, feels only half alive. Yes, there aren’t any footprints in the flower beds, but neither are there exclamations of amazement and wonder. This garden needs people just as much as people need this garden.

A garden feels empty and pointless without people to enjoy it. So does nature. While I have always felt strongly about the importance of nature to a person’s well-being, I have never been so keenly aware of the essential partnership people have with the natural world. We struggle to preserve nature; we thrill in revealing nature’s complexities; we delight in sharing nature’s beauty with others. We do this not for sake of nature, but for the benefit of humanity.

A now-questioning misanthrope, I look forward to seeing visitors here at NYBG soon so that the NYBG I love will feel whole again. I hope that those whose lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic will find some joy and solace here when they are allowed to return. I hope that once we have had a chance to put our lives and the lives of our loved ones in order, we will rededicate ourselves to nurturing our partnership with nature for the good of all.

Andrew Grant

About the Writer:
Andrew Grant

Andrew formed Grant Associates in 1997 to explore the emerging frontiers of landscape architecture within sustainable development. He has a fascination with creative ecology and the promotion of quality and innovation in landscape design. Each of his projects responds to the place, its inherent ecology and its people.

Andrew Grant

I have learned to take time to notice, and perhaps I have learned that however devastating Covid-19 is being, it has taught me to reflect on my Life, my Art, and my Nature.
I have just read Station Eleven by Emily St.John Mandel. Published in 2014 and based around a global flu pandemic that wipes out 98% of the population, it is very hard not to use this book to imagine the potential consequences of an even more virulent Covid-19 outbreak leading to a total breakdown of life as we know it. No vehicles, ships, planes. No electricity, gas, clean water, gadgets. No government structures, schools, hospitals, prisons. Yet there are things that endure in the book. Art, music, reading, play, albeit on a basic analogue level. Then nature recovering and reclaiming the abandoned landscapes and cityscapes. People reverting to hunting, foraging, and farming for food. Life, Art, and Nature as enduring themes.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 has brutally illustrated how our values have been corrupted and I think it is time for Life, Art, and Nature to reassert themselves as fundamental components of our culture and approach to urban development. The images of streets and squares empty of vehicles all across the world just makes you wonder why we ever need to fill them up again with such a polluting, undemocratic model of people movement. At the same time, the spotlight on parks and green spaces and walks highlights how they are universally beneficial to our health and enjoyment. I hope we can move towards landscape based cities rather than road based cities from here on.

I also hope Covid-19 proves to be the “Tree Shaker” for my professional world. We were already seeing a distinct move towards nature-based systems, greening cities and inviting nature into our lives. The climate and biodiversity emergencies were, and still will be, key drivers for change in the way we all work. Can Covid-19 be the accelerant to that? Shifting urban planning and design from vehicle and economics dominated systems to people and nature motivated place making? To social, creative, and ecological models rather than financial?

At the heart of both our professional and private lives will be the need to adapt to the new post Covid-19 world. It might be one or two years before we are able to even think about this but in that time we are all going to change how we live and work. It will strip out waste and inefficiencies. It will make us understand the value of our life support systems of clean air, water, fresh and healthy food. It will see the end of unsustainable industries and perhaps even the rapid demise of anything fossil fuel and petrochemical related. It will inevitably mean all designers have to focus on cost effective sustainable solutions informed by resilience, circular economy concepts and availability of materials. Landscapes in cities will move away from hardscapes to softscapes. Rural landscapes will move towards rewilding in those areas of poor agricultural performance and to more productive farming in the better soils. Forest and woodlands will spread across the planet. Landscape as art will also become more relevant as we try to make marks on the land that make sense about our place in the world.

This Easter I sat outdoors each day watching the world turn green. Slow at first but then rapid unfurling of leaves of multiple hues of green fill my valley view. Birdsong almost saturates the soundscape. Sunshine warms the soil ready for planting out seedlings. For the first time we have had a hedgehog in the garden, newts and frogs bring new life to our natural pool. We have had a pink moon illuminating the nightscape. I have learned to take time to notice, and perhaps I have learned that however devastating Covid-19 is being, it has taught me to reflect on my Life, my Art, and my Nature.

Eduardo Guerrero

About the Writer:
Eduardo Guerrero

Eduardo Guerrero is a biologist with over 20 years of experience in projects and initiatives involving environmental and sustainable development issues in Colombia and other South American countries.

Eduardo Guerrero

The dilemma for a healthy planet is not: nature or people? The right approach must be people in nature, planning, and building resilient cities following ecological principles. Quoting Garcia Márquez: “I believe it’s not too late to build a utopia that allows us to share an Earth on which solidarity could become a reality”.
Pandemic prevention and management needs healthy nature in cities

Global crises as COVID-19 remind us that our cities are intrinsically part of nature, not only social and economically interconnected, but also part of ecologic corridors. So, in addition to social, health, and economic measures, solutions should be also nature-based.

From politics and economic perspectives, we human beings pretend to be apart from nature but, we ourselves, our economic models and our cities are functionally part of nature. If you prefer let’s call urban areas “transformed nature”.

A satellite image of the Earth at night (left image) resembles fungal mycelia (right image) which is like a natural internet connecting the forest through soils

Condominiums are like honeycombs or coral reefs; highways seem like a school of fish and our social networks resemble the fungal mycelia which are like a natural internet.

We are nature for good, not for bad. The problem is not to be a social animal that evolves by building an interconnected global society. The problem is acting as if nature is something alien to us instead being part of us. The problem is the air contamination and particulate material that causes cardiopulmonary diseases and facilitates virus dissemination. The problem is the illegal traffic of wild fauna and their habitat fragmentation which disrupt ecological balance and allows the zoonotic transmission of a virus from a wild animal to people.

The new coronavirus emergency has moved humanity to feel united in diversity and, at the same time, has obliged leaders and governments to make synergic decisions relating economy and human health.

Under this crisis, links between human health and environment have emerged more clearly than ever before. Biodiversity loss, climate change, and COVID-19 challenge humanity in similar manners. They are not just themes under a single-sector responsibility, not unidimensional problems assigned in a simplistic way to Environment or Health Secretaries. They are multidimensional and complex matters which require comprehensive approaches.

I hope government and corporate leaders will no longer act according to false dichotomies like economy vs social well-being or economy vs environment.

As many under this crisis, I feel anxious, expectant and concerned and, at the same time, I feel motivated and optimistic about the opportunities and challenges we face.

I imagine a post-COVID world in which human relationships are less physical in terms of contacts but emotionally closer with more real solidarity. I imagine a post-COVID stage in which nature is organically integrated into urban planning, not just as a “must be”, but as a “all of us appreciate it and want to”.

The dilemma for a healthy planet is not: nature or people? The right approach must be people in nature, planning, and building resilient cities following ecological principles.

The global crisis of COVID-19 poses a challenge to the dense and compact city model. However, the solution cannot be a radical change in urban development models, but the development of tools, redesigns and environmental adaptations that contribute to preventing, controlling and mitigating public health threats.

Many actions for a healthy urban environment are at the same time good practices for a healthy population to prevent and/or mitigate epidemics and other public health threats. Landscape architects and ecologists must talk and work together, as must economists, biologists and health professionals.

So, an effective management of post-COVID emergency will require integrative nature-based solutions.

We can develop approaches such as the following:

  • Sanitary safe access to green public space. Adaptation and / or redesign of public space, in order to generate functional, spatial and / or temporal isolation in the access of citizens.
  • Redesign and adjustment of green infrastructure, to reduce the risks of contagion.
  • Trees cleaning air contamination. Green areas and trees that capture particulate matter and generate wind tunnels to dissipate it.
  • Urban mobility solutions, strengthened of bike networks and rationalization of public transport.
  • Sustainable and sanitary consumption of green and local products. Involves the development of biosecurity measures for productive and commercial activities associated with the circular economy, green businesses (bio-commerce, urban ecotourism, etc.) and urban agriculture.
  • Urban forest restoration.

Today more than ever the challenge is to achieve economic, social, and ecological transitions towards sustainability, equity, and health.

Quoting Garcia Márquez: “I believe it’s not too late to build a utopia that allows us to share an Earth on which solidarity could become a reality”.

Bram Gunther

About the Writer:
Bram Gunther

Bram Gunther, former Chief of Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources for NYC Parks, is Co-founder of and Development Officer for the Natural Areas Conservancy, a Fellow at The Nature of Cities, and an Associate at Plan it Wild, an ecological start-up. He is working on a novel about life in the age of climate change in NYC.

Bram Gunther

Instead of opening the streets up to cars again, muscling each other and spewing their nasty exhaust, we should keep the cars where they are now, inert. The city would transform itself, streets into nature trails lined with aster, sweet pepperbush, and oak trees. Our world-class electric-powered mass transportation system would connect all our neighborhoods as one equal family.
Let me indulge myself, as I need some utopian escape during this dreadful moment.

In these images from my brother I can imagine the future, in part because I’ve walked these blocks thousands of times as a lifelong New Yorker. Its emptiness is its blank slate.  The pandemic forced (most of) us inside, leaving our cars parked and silent, and the air is cleaner and so are our waterways. This then is the time to re-imagine the famous thoroughfare—Broadway and Times Square.

Four hundred or so years ago, Times Square area was composed of an oak-tulip forest, Appalachian oak-hickory and oak-pine forests, a red maple swamp, and marshy and rocky headwater streams.

The wildlife then—otters and whales in the harbor, wolves and bears on the land, the bees asteroids of yellow and black—was so abundant it was more biodiverse than that of Yellowstone National Park in the western United States.

Photo: Matt Gunther
Photo: Matt Gunther
Photo: Matt Gunther

We’re a forward-looking city but at the moment we’ve been forced into a more old-fashioned way of life.  Things are quieter (for most of us), work is more fluid, and I can take longer breaks in between meetings and assignments to cook a hot lunch and talk with my son.  I take stock of my relationships and make sure to express my feelings to those I love. I’m less focused on myself than the health of my community, my region. When I go out, cautiously, I go into nature as there is no Covid-19 hanging menacingly from a tree’s bark or on the flower of a daffodil.

Looking forward, instead of opening the streets up to cars again, muscling each other and spewing their nasty exhaust, we should keep the cars where they are now, inert, and let’s develop a program to buy automobiles back from owners and recycle their materials. I’m in! Then dig up the streets and sidewalks of Broadway and Times Square, where I’ve had numerous concrete jungle experiences, and restore it with some of the ecosystems, in miniature and in-between the towers, that used to thrive in this place.

Slowly, the whole city would transform itself in this way, streets turned into nature trails lined with aster, sweet pepperbush, and oak trees. (Our world-class electric-powered mass transportation system would connect all our neighborhoods as one equal family.) This would allow us to keep our emissions down and our rivers and harbor clean. Starting with Broadway as it intersects with 7th Avenue and forms Times Square, the city will brim with forest (but no bears and wolves), wetland, and garden, and it will change how we live: where cars used to be there is now nature, clean air and water, and because of this more time spent outside with neighbors and loved ones, especially the kids, surrounded by and healthy within the renewing biodiversity all around us.

Matt Gunther

Can you imagine a New York City like this? I can.

Photos: Matt Gunther is a New York City-based documentary and advertising photographer and director.  He’s worked on photography campaigns for MSNBC, Harvard Business School, and NIKE, among other businesses and institutions.  He has won numerous awards. He first monograph, Probable Cause, was published in fall 2017.  He’s in the process of editing a film homage to summertime in NYC.

 

Photo: Matt Gunther
Photo: Matt Gunther
Dagmar Haase

About the Writer:
Dagmar Haase

Dagmar Haase is a professor in urban ecology and urban land use modelling. Her main interests are in the integration of land-use change modelling and the assessment of ecosystem services, disservices and socio-environmental justice issues in cities, including urban land teleconnections.

Dagmar Haase and Annegret Haase

COVID-19 is not just a natural, virus, or health crisis, it is a societal crisis. The response has to be given by the whole humankind. Urban nature, its maintenance, care and fair use, forms an important part of this global response.
Reflections about Corona pandemic and the nature of cities

An urban ecologist and an urban sociologist sharing under current social isolating measures in Germany one home office and—due to the nature of this matter—are constantly exchanging thoughts, experiences, and perceptions, wish to share the following reflections with a wider community interested in TNOC: Dagmar is convinced that, firstly, we need to rethink what we as urban ecologists mean be “co-evolution” in urban systems. Evolution in wilderness systems—regardless being situated in a city or beyond—has been continuously endangered by humans in a way that it—finally—endangered humans, in cities or beyond, with zoonosis. For cities, this means, sharing a larger habitat together, humans and wildlife need real niches in urban systems where wildlife can develop without disturbance surrounded by buffer zones access of humans and livestock is limited. Refraining from current increasing living space per urban capita, we have to understand that it is the size of the niches for wildlife in and around cities that has to increase first!

We have considerable knowledge about ranges of wildlife and diversities of healthy ecosystems in urban ecology discipline(s): we have to make use of them! Having understood that co-evolution does not always mean co-habitation, we will be able to create healthy cities embedded into a larger landscape that respect wildlife. Another core principle of urban ecology needs revival in relation the aforementioned:

Secondly, we should strictly follow the idea of a real network of open spaces in cities and its peripheries that allow for both human outdoor stays—also in such bad times of a pandemic—as well as safe outdoor life for wild animals. Providing space for a healthy stay outside without crowding effects and respective—when and whatever distancing, also in a non-pandemic sense—is possible in a “fair way” seems mandatory. Thus, we need clear limits for infill and densification in cities. We need space. When spatial resources are understood—at least in parts—as a commons, values like affordable flats and house prizes along with open green and blue spaces for humans and wildlife should be as rewarding as any economic return rate. Full accessibility of green and blue spaces for all would be prerequisites. And—what is important and relates back to the argument above—the human-used open space network does not interfere with the wildlife space. This way, we allow wildlife in and around cities to find space to form stable biocoenosis, including all vectors that belong to, and thus prevent the formation of zoonosis as best as we can. How can we achieve such conditions?

Thirdly, we need a novel thinking about values that guide our “do” and “don’t” imperatives in urban system where wildlife and humans interact and where humans exploit natural resources. Cities always were and will be social-ecological-technological systems (SETs) with a lot of—as we learned during the pandemic—critical infrastructure. Also critical resources like fresh air, green, blue and soil resources for the above mentioned co-habitation of humans and wildlife. To safe both, human life and wild animals life, we will need to shift our values for these resources from a very utilitarian to a more holistic one. From a pure economic and revenue-oriented to a common resource and habitat one. This does not mean that we should totally neglect market and market capitalism. However, we should let a commons thinking accompany the market-orientation and develop a multi-value system adopting the Dépense-system-idea, which involves a rethinking of the organization of society signalled by terms such as limits, care and sustainability.

What does this mean for cities, for urban society, for the interaction of people and nature in cities?

The crisis also sheds light on existing inequalities and injustices of our urban societies—in terms of how people can adapt to and cope with restrictions: It is much easier to stand restrictions in a large flat with balcony, garden or rooftop access and close to green spaces than in a small flat packed with people.
Annegret as an urban sociologist sees, after just very initial thinking and increased reading since about four weeks (which makes clear how much we are still at the beginning of a discourse), the following major points we have to consider:

Cities are hotspots of the crisis—since cities are densely populated and form hubs of mobility and interaction, they are especially likely to become also hubs of pandemic crises—as we experience now e.g. in Paris, Madrid, the urban Lombardy, NYC etc. Subsequently, pandemic crises of today and tomorrow will always be primarily urban crises and—at the time—hubs to deal with them. Therefore, it will be crucial to debate how we can make cities more resilient to pandemic crisis. Here, urban nature plays an important role. Under the circumstances of physical distancing and restrictions to meet as we experience them currently worldwide, the contact to urban green and nature, the stay in nature becomes even more important for human physical and mental health than normally. The stay in nature can counteract stress, depression and fears related to “curfew” condition and personal concerns about future, family, job etc.

Being in urban nature also admits contact to other people, even while keeping a physical distance. Insofar, urban nature represents an environment which may actively counteract social distancing, alienation and isolation. Next to parks and open spaces, also allotment gardens or community gardens play an important role as safe places for people allowing for distance and contact, especially also for current high risk groups as elderly people. To use this potential, easy access to urban nature, parks, gardens and other forms of open space for all urban inhabitants is indispensable, as the maintenance of the existing spaces. Here, we are in front of a multiple challenge.

The crisis also sheds light on existing inequalities and injustices of our urban societies—in terms of how people can adapt to and cope with restrictions: It is much easier to stand restrictions in a large flat with balcony, garden or rooftop access and close to green spaces than in a small flat packed with people. No easy access to high quality green space is a clear disadvantage under the conditions of restrictions. Not to speak of social support structures that are closed now and poor people are depending on. As we experience now, the crisis is aggravating existing injustices and runs the risk to lead to even larger injustices in the future; the longer restrictions endure, the larger injustices may become. First evidence in many affected countries shows this already now. To make our urban societies more resilient to pandemic crises, among others, an easy access to high-quality nature represents one crucial precondition, and urban planning and policy-making should consider this.

Putting justice and social responsibility into the centre of urban resilience thinking is thus not just a romantic dream but also a clear demand in the name of sustainability and liveability of our cities. Maybe, the recognition of such requisites belongs to what others call the “progressive or even productive moment” of the crisis or a chance for learning and making other decisions for the long-term future. Since it is not at all whether we experience just a temporary disturbance or a fundamental change of our ways of living, producing, working, travelling and interaction. Even more: The crisis also challenges our conceptual thinking about people-environment relations in cities: resilience, sustainability, health, justice etc. More than ever, there is a need of truly interdisciplinary thinking, and of a thinking that considers a fair co-existence of society and nature, not only, but particularly in cities where they come so close and intensely together. We have to look for cross-fertilizations of the mentioned concepts with terms like fairness, solidarity, weighting and, if needed, renouncement.

We as researchers on TNOC have many new questions to answer: What do urban green spaces mean in times of restrictions? What do restrictions do with visits to and use of urban green spaces? Will people appreciate urban nature differently under the current conditions? Will the crisis allow for a more responsible, wise and even more humble debate on nature and its values and our dependence on it? Will urban green become a considerable part of our resilience towards times with restrictions? And what about our co-habitation with wildlife: How do we ensure mutual respect; live and let live. We need truly interdisciplinary answers to this hyper-complex challenge.

COVID-19 is not just a natural, virus, or health crisis, it is a societal crisis. The response has to be given by the whole humankind. Urban nature, its maintenance, care and fair use, forms an important part of this global response.

Annegret Haase

About the Writer:
Annegret Haase

Dr. Annegret Haase is a senior researcher at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ in Leipzig, Germany, at the Dept. of Urban and Environmental Sociology. Her research is focused on sustainable urban development, urban transformations and social-environmental processes in cities.

Fadi Hamdan

About the Writer:
Fadi Hamdan

Fadi works on the interaction between risk governance and communication, disaster risk management, resilience, sustainable development, growth, and use of resources in cities.

Fadi Hamdan

What we need is a value change in order to effect a paradigm shift in the way we produce, consume and live as societies.
When it comes to risk, it has become clear that change is all around us. The past is no longer a reliable indicator of the future. Climate change is changing the severity and frequency of hydro-meteorological hazards, where now in many parts of the world we are witnessing successive yearly flash floods and storms of a severity that used to happen once in a decade or even less. Furthermore, the world population is at an unprecedented level, with ever increasing demands for land, food, energy and housing, leading to a continuous encroachment on natural habitat. At the same time, increasing numbers of people are living in cities, and megacities for that matter, for a variety of reasons- leading to a concentration of people, assets and infrastructures. In addition, climate change is leading to rural to urban migration; in particular rural to urban informal settlement migration, leaving people living there more vulnerable to other hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Climate change and rural urban migration is also, in many parts of the world exacerbating poverty, unemployment, youth unemployment and inequality, thereby entrenching socio-economic exclusion where the latter is a main driver of violent extremism.

Concurrently, economically and politically, globalisation is also a game changer. Politically, it has undermined the democratic process in several democratic countries as people voting for certain welfare policies are told that big capital will leave if such policies are funded through additional taxation. It has also removed the bargaining power of organised labour in these countries by shifting production to other hemispheres of the earth. On the other hand, in third world countries it has helped people connect together, to lobby and mobilise for effecting change. Economically, it has led to just-in-time supply chain economics, thereby eliminating redundancy for the case of efficiency—and often at the expense of the environment.

The result is a world which is more connected than ever before, more populated than ever before, and where risks are more difficult to understand and more uncertain to predict. We now see systemic risks across connected social, environmental, and economic systems, interlinked at the global spatial level, with implications for the immediate, decadal and longer timelines. We can now talk about systemic failures which will take place if these systemic risks are not addressed.

What Covid-19 did was to move the above scenario from the realm of risk specialist to make it a reality for every citizen on our planet. While this forces us all to recognise and try to deal with uncertainty, it also provides an opportunity for us to mobilise in order to effect change.  The old adage that humans prefer short term interests to long term risks is no longer applicable, as the risks of our economic, social, urban and environmental practices have finally caught up with us. This reinforces my belief that the political is the professional which is now the personal, more than ever. In all aspects of our lives, we must strive to effect positive change towards more inclusive and democratic societies that respects the environment and all creatures in it.  This should be the post virus “normal”.

Cecilia Herzog

About the Writer:
Cecilia Polacow Herzog

Urban Landscape Planner. Cecilia is a lecturer and professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in the Department of Architecture and Urbanism, where she runs the master’s program on Ecological Landscape Planning and Design. Her main interests are: how to integrate urban ecology and urban planning and design to adapt cities to the contemporary challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Cecilia Herzog

I am investing my time in isolation to improve my capacity to contribute to a wide discussion about urban nature, how it is important to sustain healthy lives and adapt to the ever-growing threat of extreme weather events.
Let nature be the solution to heal us all

I am being transformed by this sudden tragic pandemic that is affecting the whole of humanity. I am lucky to have a beautiful place in the countryside to be during this period of retreat. I have more questions than statements up to now. How will I go back to a new “normal” life? How long will take until I will be able to hug my granddaughters? My kids… Will I be able to be with my mother again? Those questions are on my mind every day, all day long.

I believe this is a life-changing event. When we lose the abstract confidence that life will go on forever in the same way, deep changes occur. Now I praise living more than ever. I miss my loved ones and fear for their lives. I miss my work, my colleagues, my presential classes, and so many other ‘normal’ activities I used to have.

I am eager to meet people, especially my family and friends, peers, students… I want to travel to be with my kids and grandkids. I also want to attend conferences and other events when my friends from other places get together. I value and long for presence: look in the eyes, be able to hug and laugh, sense the pleasure of having made friends from different cultures and meet them.

Life and human relations are the most important things for me.

Transformation. I have written a lot about urban transformation, and now in social distancing I have been wondering how this crisis will change cities and people’s minds.

Will our societies wake up for the immense challenges we face: growing social inequalities, climate change, loss of biodiversity and other threatening life disruptions?

I am interested in knowing how people will come out after a long period of isolation, mainly who live in apartments without contact with nature. Parks and squares will be there, and I believe people will praise common green spaces more than ever before. As I work with urban landscapes, my thoughts are about what will happen to them. Will they become more important and valued by people and decision makers? Once economic losses are affecting most of urban dwellers, what kind of low-cost experiences they will demand? How people will interact in urban spaces? What kind of open spaces will bloom to help societies recover from this traumatic period?

I am investing my time in isolation to improve my capacity to contribute to a wide discussion about urban nature, how it is important to sustain healthy lives and adapt to the ever-growing threat of extreme weather events. I believe nature-based solutions are the response to enhance our adaptive capacity and social justice. I am prepared to stay away for a long period of time before I will be able to restart a new “normal” life and face new challenges in the city. Let nature be the solution to heal us all.

Alex Herzog

About the Writer:
Alex Herzog

In 2000, Alex opened a restaurant at Rio Design Barra shopping mall, where he then established the IN HOUSE Café-Bistrô. He developed his passion for food and cooking with his grandmother, who was a great Belgian cook. When he was a kid, used to he spend hours and hours in the kitchen helping and learning with her.

Alex Herzog

I believe there will be a strong enhancement of circular economy, increasing the value of local, its people and its businesses. Consequently, waste will decrease, and much of what before was seen as such, will begin to be reused. In other words, a syntropy in restauration.
Restaurants in syntropy

As Chef at a bistro in Rio de Janeiro, I try to imagine how the new “normal” will be, when restaurants finally get “discharged” from quarantine. How many will survive Covid, and reopen their doors? I believe that the ones that resist, will need resilience and high adaptation skills, in order to see a new way of making business emerge. I compare this crisis, to a drastic prune done to protect the whole tree. You cut branches, leaves, everything that seems like too much, and then, when the foliage sprouts, it’s an explosion of nature. I presume the same will happen with restaurants. Why? Well, people will have been confined for weeks, if not months, no going out, no visiting family, friends or coworkers.

At some point, everyone had to begin cooking for themselves. People will have, more than ever, the desire to go out, have fun, see friends, see the ones they like. One simple hug, will gain a never before seen proportion. For centuries, restaurants have been one of the best places to connect with one another. Parisian establishments such as Le Procope, founded in 1686, or “Bouillons”, that served soup for workers, so they could be “restored” (originating the name “restaurant”), are proof of all of that. These establishments have in their DNA: time for leisure, social gatherings, happiness, reunions, and of course many hugs.

Many will have to adapt to people’s fear and also to the new paradigm expected to rise following the crisis. Worries about hygiene and agglomerations, will reveal that people are going to prefer eating in open spaces. Cities and neighborhoods will have to adapt. Clients will be more educated and will stop taking for granted all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant. Local products will gain value. Inputs, with high ecological footprints, will become expensive.

Costs in the kitchens will have to be cut, preventing food waste. At the top of the list of many establishments, will be actions, such as donating “doggie bags”, to people in vulnerable situations. Following the same community-oriented actions, people will start to think more in a collective sense, engaging more with their community. People will end up living closer to their workplaces, decreasing the need to commute. We will have “smaller” cities, and in that sense, parks, gardens, public spaces will have to be re-conceived. Nature will be more appreciated. Restaurant outings will tend to stay within the same neighborhood, strengthening local businesses. And as they rise, chefs will have to review and rethink the ingredients used in their menu, begin to buy from local producers, and ultimately turn up their creativity in making dishes. There will be a change in the way people consume. They will stop buying just for sake of buying. Exotic inputs won’t be as interesting as before, as they will be hard to get and prices will high. Comfort meals will be more appreciated, bringing lost wellness during quarantine period.

Many businesses will increase their revenues through delivery. There will be a considerable investment in this area, once people will remain worried about a new pandemic wave. Delivery and frozen foods will have an important role in restaurant sales, as they will be the solution to keep them up well and running, even as new viruses appear.

Recapping, I believe there will be a strong enhancement of circular economy, increasing the value of local, its people and its businesses. Consequently, waste will decrease, and much of what before was seen as such, will begin to be reused. In other words, a syntropy in restauration.

{Syntropy: Is an integrated system within itself and in balance, where all the energy produced is consumed within its own system, without losses.}

Mike Houck

About the Writer:
Mike Houck

Mike Houck is a founding member of The Nature of Cities and is currently a TNOC board member. He is The Urban Naturalist for the Urban Greenspaces Institute (www.urbangreenspaces.org), on the board of The Intertwine Alliance and is a member of the City of Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Mike Houck

I will spend more time, personally and professionally, focusing on the green interstices of our city, the small, often scrappy, bits of nature nearby for my own psychological and physical health, and that of my city. 
Nature Nearby, A Path To Resilience

Coming out of Covid-19 more robust psychologically and physically, individually and societally, I believe, will depend in large measure on access to nearby nature.

I have seen myriad online accounts of people’s interactions with nature from their apartments and nearby parks and natural areas and trails. I have had many of my own intimate experiences with nature nearby since being in lock-down. Recently, I happened to glance out of my living room window and noticed the cherry blossoms had just burst out, a profusion of pink filling the entire scene.Then a rapid, zig-zagging movement caught my eye as a female Anna’s hummingbird lit on a nearby branch.  I managed to snap her image, her pollen-specked bill titled skyward. Was she looking for a predator or her territory obsessed mate? The pink blossoms and emerald-green avian buzz-bomb, calmed me, energized me, and I have no doubt left me healthier and happier for the rest of the day.

Not long ago while standing next to our newly installed rain garden I encountered a song sparrow perched next to our “backyard habitat” sign. That song sparrow has become my daily Covid-19 buddy. Each morning I stand next to him, much too close for proper “social distancing,” as he tilts back his head, puffs out his chest and belts out a beautiful, full-throated melody. I imitate him; he sings back, looking me in the eye I sing again; he flutters both wings, much as young birds do when begging their parents for food. We’ve connected;  we continue our “dialogue” for several minutes after which I walk off, convinced we are both the better for the encounter. I often glance down from my second story flat to see a mother with her kids pointing at the song sparrow who’s perfectly happy to sing for anyone willing to take notice of him at the rain garden’s edge.

Scenes like this are repeated all over the city where small patches of greenspaces have been saved or woven into the urban fabric.Both personally and professionally I will spend more time focusing on the green interstices of our city, the small, often scrappy, bits of nature nearby for my own psychological and physical health, and that of my city.

Matthew Jensen

About the Writer:
Matthew Jensen

Matthew Jensen is an interdisciplinary artist whose rigorous explorations of landscape combine walking, collecting, photography, mapping and extensive research. His projects investigate the relationships between people and local landscapes.

Matthew Jensen

Upended/Routine/Imagine/Changed/Negotiate: Response

But who hasn’t dreamt about snapping their fingers and making air pollution go away? And all of a sudden we realize it is optional. Those scroll bar images are fun. Before. After. Before. After. What else is optional
Our apartment is on one of the highest hills in the Bronx and we can see out to Queens. Every plane out of LaGuardia flies up and over our building, directly over, before banking one way or another. I once took a picture of our rooftop from an airplane window, before banking one way or another.

Morning comes with deep silence; 10:00am is the new 3:00am. The sparrows tussle on the windowsill. This is nothing new. There is a male sparrow that has been advertising a hole in the eve for a few years. But now his morning chirps seem to shake the building.

My students are Zooming from across the globe. Or not at all. I am a tab now. Just another tab. Maybe even minimized. Whatever I just said was not that funny. What are they laughing at?

Spring is here. On time and ahead of schedule.

Everywhere, all at once, an entire species is changed while the rest go about their business. Except for those tigers at the Bronx Zoo.

We are on the sixth floor and the elevator is down for a few more weeks. Our neighbor across the hall, Alma, an 86-year-old wonder woman is stuck. No more senior center. Her granddaughter might die of Covid. But her daughters are worried about how she’ll can handle the news. Perhaps a virtual goodbye?

But who hasn’t dreamt about snapping their fingers and making air pollution go away? And all of a sudden we realize it is optional. Those scroll bar images are fun. Before. After. Before. After. What else is optional?

Callery Pear in bloom in empty New York City. Photo: Matthew Jensen.

Right. I am an artist. It is not like I can turn that off.

My life post-virus? But some recovered patients are testing positive again. Or is that clickbait? It is me who needs to stay positive. Chin-up-can-do-bootstraps-yes-we-can-dawn-horizon. I used to spend so much time in the future but now I’m afraid to go there.

Summer classes? Doubtful. Fall? Well, we have to wait for enrollment numbers. Wait, are we still charging money for school? What am I not getting here?

It is time for the 7:00pm clap session and sing-along out the windows of the building. Finally, something other than bird song! But now that “this is New York” song makes me want to cry. Is it a requiem? Our building has essential workers and our neighborhood is suddenly very essential.

Negotiate? Well, I guess the stimulus payment might be considered a settlement. Is there someone else I can talk to? Someone in charge?

I do remember that article about the 130,000 saiga antelope that dropped dead in Kazakhstan. But that was five years ago. Why am I thinking about it now? Were bats somehow involved?

How many wonderful parts of our civilization were symptoms or extensions of the worst parts? I am afraid of the answer.

I photographed all the flowers blooming around our building so our neighbors that cannot leave can enjoy a digital spring, a very silent spring.

Gilles Lecuir

About the Writer:
Gilles Lecuir

Expert en écologie urbaine, en communication publique et en politiques publiques, Gilles Lecuir travaille pour l’Agence régionale de la Biodiversité en Île-de-France et anime le concours national Capitale française de la Biodiversité. // Expert in urban ecology, public communication and policies, Gilles Lecuir works for the Paris Region Agency for Biodiversity and animate the French Capital of Biodiversity Award.

Giles Lecuir

The confinement makes me feel intimately what I have known and said for many years now: the presence of nature in the city is not a decoration, it is a vital need for the city dweller.
Lisez ceci en français.

Paris, (too) mineral city
Sunday, March 15, 2020, I land at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, back from a week of work in Montreal to discuss with local partners the idea of a French-language The Nature of Cities (but that’s another story, which we’ll tell you more about here soon). The next day, the President of the French Republics announce a strict confinement of the entire population except for those people essential to essential services. But already since Thursday in Quebec, the pre-confinement was already being felt, and I spent the last two days of my trip in my hotel.

Returning to my Parisian apartment, a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge, I kissed my wife and children and we were committed to a confinement of at least a month. As the days go by, I realize that in this nascent spring, I can’t observe a single floricultural insect (my main hobby, via the Suivi Photography of Insect Pollinaors, the SPIPOLL, a French participatory science program). I miss it.

From my window on the 1st floor, I can only see the sky through the reflections in the windows of the upper floors. I miss that too.Thanks to the ornithologist Maxime Zucca, who every day on Twitter describes a Parisian bird that can be observed and listened to from home, I watch the songs, I search. Only the Crow visits me. It nests in the tall trees of the nearby Montmartre cemetery, which is closed to the public, as is the small square of Deux-Nèthes; these are the only “green spaces” in my neighbourhood. Twice a week, I go out to buy vegetables and bread, and get some fresh air: not a single flower on the sidewalk, the feet of the large plane trees on Avenue de Clichy are dry and compact, and in any case, we took great care to put a geotextile sheet on them during the last renovation of the sidewalks, to make sure that no undesirable grass can grow there.

On my typical Haussmann-style street, which has two parking lanes and a one-way traffic lane, not a tree line. 100 metres away, a few flower boxes decorated with horticultural plants have been installed by the City of Paris, at the request of the inhabitants, to avoid the annoying parking of motorized two-wheelers on the pavement.

The confinement makes me feel intimately what I have known and said for many years now: the presence of nature in the city is not a decoration, it is a vital need for the city dweller.

What to do in the future? Remove at least one of the two rows of car parking, an unnecessary and polluting occupation of public space, and replace it with a grassy area planted with a few bushes and small trees. The City of Paris has started to create these “green streets” in an experimental way, such as Rue Blanche. It’s still very horticultural and not really low-tech, but it’s a start. We now need to massively generalize this principle of de-waterproofing and renaturalize car parking areas. This will limit the urban heat island effect caused both by the paving materials (bitumen and stone) and by the canyon-like shape of our streets which reverberate and store solar energy during the day, making the night stifling and dangerous for the most fragile among us during heat wave episodes. It is also an opportunity to devote part of the roadway to bicycles alone…

 

* * *

Le confinement me donne à ressentir intimement ce que je sais et dis depuis de nombreuses années maintenant : la présence de la nature en ville n’est pas un décor, c’est un besoin vital pour le citadin.
Paris, ville (trop) minérale

Dimanche 15 mars 2020, j’atterris à l’aéroport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle, de retour d’une semaine de travail à Montréal pour notamment évoquer avec les partenaires locaux de l’idée d’un The Nature of Cities francophone (mais c’est une autre histoire, dont on vous reparlera ici bientôt). Le Président de la République française annoncera le lendemain un confinement strict de toute la population sauf les personnes indispensables aux services essentiels. Mais déjà depuis le jeudi au Québec, le pré-confinement se faisait sentir, et je passais les deux derniers jours de mon voyage dans mon hôtel.

Regagnant mon appartement parisien, à deux pas du Moulin rouge, j’embrasse ma femme et mes enfants et nous voilà engagés dans un confinement d’un mois au moins. Au fur et à mesure que les jours passent, je me rends compte qu’en ce printemps naissant, je ne peux pas observer un seul insecte floricole (mon loisir principal, via le Suivi photographique des Insectes polinisateurs, le SPIPOLL, un programme de sciences participatives français). Cela me manque.

Depuis ma fenêtre du 1er étage, je n’aperçois le ciel qu’à travers les reflets dans les vitres des étages supérieurs. Cela me manque aussi.Grâce à l’ornithologue Maxime Zucca, qui décrit chaque jour sur Twitter un oiseau parisien qu’on peut observer et écouter depuis chez soi, je guette les chants, je cherche : seule la Corneille me rend visite. Elle niche dans les grands arbres du cimetière de Montmartre voisin, fermé au public, tout comme le petit square des Deux-Nèthes ; ce sont les seuls « espaces verts » de mon quartier. Deux fois par semaine, je sors acheter des légumes et du pain, m’aérer un peu : pas une fleur de trottoir, les pieds des grands platanes de l’avenue de Clichy sont secs et tassés, et de toute façon on a bien pris soin d’y mettre une bâche géotextile lors de la dernière rénovation des trottoirs, pour être bien certain de ne pas voir s’exprimer une herbe indésirable.

Dans ma rue haussmannienne typique, qui comprend deux voies de stationnement automobile et une voie de circulation à sens unique, pas un arbre d’alignement. A 100 mètres, quelques jardinières ornées de plantes horticoles ont été installé par la ville de Paris, à la demande des habitants, pour éviter le stationnement gênant des deux-roues motorisés sur le trottoir.

Le confinement me donne à ressentir intimement ce que je sais et dis depuis de nombreuses années maintenant : la présence de la nature en ville n’est pas un décor, c’est un besoin vital pour le citadin.

Que faire demain ? Supprimer au moins l’une des deux rangées de stationnement automobile, occupation inutile et polluante de l’espace public, et la remplacer par une zone enherbée et plantée de quelques buissons et petits arbres. La Ville de Paris a commencé à créer ces « rues végétales » de manière expérimentale, comme par exemple rue Blanche. C’est encore très horticole et pas vraiment low-tech, mais c’est un début. Il faut maintenant généraliser massivement ce principe de désimperméabilisation et renaturer les zones de stationnement automobile. Cela limitera l’effet d’îlot de chaleur urbain provoqué à la fois par les matériaux de revêtement (bitume et pierre) et par la forme en canyon de nos rues qui réverbèrent et emmagasinent l’énergie solaire en journée, rendant la nuit étouffante et dangereuse pour les plus fragiles d’entre nous lors d’épisodes de canicule. L’occasion aussi de consacrer une partie de la chaussée aux seuls vélos…

Nina-Marie Lister

About the Writer:
Nina-Marie Lister

Nina-Marie Lister is Graduate Program Director and Associate Professor in the School of Urban + Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Nina-Marie Lister

For now, I take solace in the routine of daily bread. The measured pace of the knead, the proof, and the rise offers structure to my blurry days. Ultimately, it is the realization that this simple, measured act and its alchemy are both literally and figuratively what sustains us in its slow and patient way.
Pandemic Pause

I am frustrated as I turn the loaf in the old cast iron oven. I can’t tell if the heat is even or the crust is charred. Wood-fired sourdough is a learning curve. I’ve always been a baker, and I’m (not so secretly) proud of my sourdough, made with my lively 6-year-old home-grown ferment. But here, on the farm in isolation things are more basic. No thermometer, electronic scale, artisan flour, or exotic sea salt. I have just the raw elements: flour, salt, water—plus the basic biology of fermentation, the alchemy of microbes at work. The irony does not escape me that the coronavirus pandemic seems to have catalysed the (re)discovery of yeast… and baking. The store shelves are devoid of flour. Instagram photos of home baking have surged. I wonder, have the microbes have conspired to distract us?

In these hazy locked-down days that blend from one to the other, along with (but apart from) many others, I am doing a lot of baking. I am also exhausted and yet I can’t remember what time it is. I am always on the computer or the phone, contingency planning or organising food deliveries. I admit there are too many wine bottles in the recycling bin. I swing between euphoria and depression, caught in the pandemic pendulum. Everything has changed in a relative blink: we’ve pivoted from working in close physical and social proximity to virtualizing our offices (albeit clumsily and tenuously), blending our home and work lives into a slurry that slips between chaos and creativity.

Of course, our homelives are just that, homes, often shared with children, elders, pets, and plants that creep and crash into our Zoom screens as an abrupt reminder of these now-blurred boundaries of live, work, and play. Many are struggling with the more immediate social and economic fallout of the pandemic pivot: risk, hunger, poverty, bankruptcy, abuse, despair, fear, loneliness, and of course, sickness and death. No one wants to be here, everyone wants to go back/forward/anywhere but this. Being “at home” is now loaded; it means so much more suddenly. More pressures to combat doing nothing at the office by doing everything in the home: Learn a new language, homeschool the kids, take up dance, play an instrument, write a book, organise those pictures, master knitting, sewing, singing, baking. Anything to keep busy, pass time, distract and deflect our attention from what is really happening. We don’t want to see or feel, let alone be in this moment. I think we want to bake our way into oblivion.

But crisis is where we will learn who we are. Really, we need to just STOP. Breathe. Slowly. Sit, as Donna Haraway reminded us, with the trouble. I don’t know when this will end. I can’t tell my students or my kids with any certainty at all. But I do know it has changed us, and what matters is what we will do with this change. For this we need to stop, breathe and think a while. Steep in the pandemic pause. Look up and around, notice, listen, SEE. The air is cleaner, the waters are clearer. Wildlife are roaming our streets, returning to the places we’ve abandoned. We say the cities are “eerily quiet”, but this really means less traffic, construction noise and airplanes. When I listen, I hear the songs of people, birds, frogs… and the earth breathing.

What are we learning in this in-between, in the months where time seems suspended? What will we take from this turn? The invisible force of a virus catalyzed a change in human behavior that only months ago was unimaginable: we shut down the global economy, and we paused. For a brief moment, humanity acted together, for our own collective good. And the planet breathed. So in the headlong rush to return to “normal”, will we lose the gift of this foresight, a glimpse of the possible in the pandemic pause? I don’t know, but I hope.

And for now, I take solace in the routine of daily bread. The measured pace of the knead, the proof, and the rise offers structure to my blurry days. Ultimately, it is the realization that this simple, measured act and its alchemy are both literally and figuratively what sustains us in its slow and patient way.

Kevin Lunzalu

About the Writer:
Kevin Lunzalu

Kevin Lunzalu is a young conservation leader from Nairobi, Kenya. Through his work, Lunzalu strives to strike a balance between environmental conservation and humanity. He strongly believes in the power of innovative youth-led solutions to drive the global sustainability agenda. Kevin is the country coordinator the Kenyan Youth Biodiversity Network.

Kevin Lunzalu

The COVID-19 curfew has given me the space to reflect on viable alternatives to my common practices: I am rethinking my food, modes of travel, entertainment, and forms of meeting people. Working from home for certain days may prove to be one of the best environmental practices. These ideas will greatly shape my post-crisis personality.
To say the crisis has disrupted professional and personal endeavors is an understatement. The pandemic will evidently leave behind a permanent scar, likely to reshape our professional and personal practices. New practices will come to life while some existing ones may be forgotten. With new developments come new adaptations-skills, techniques, rituals, and modules. This resilient and adoptive nature of humanity has enabled it to survive centuries of occasional unprecedented calamities, each time coming out stronger, unified, and wiser than before. COVID-19 is not an exemption.

As a coordinator of a national youth network, I anticipate that the pandemic will catalyze several important alterations to our work. We have to reassess, restructure, and re-plan how our grass-root projects, youth workshops, training, and related impact will play out both in the short and long run. In the very least, digitization and automation will be at the core of things. Minimizing human interactions while scaling up our work will mean exploring technological tools that are at our disposal.

Youth capacity-building workshops, campaigns, policy meetings, and related document reviews, and training modules will be largely be conducted online. However, while all these options seem feasible, we cannot be blind to the fact that access to technology and internet solutions is still a challenge in many developing countries, including Kenya, especially at the local level where most conservation work happens.

This crisis lays a tangible test on the ability of many organizations in Africa to adapt to the super-changing technological provisions and also embrace circularity. Exploring partnerships beyond our niches to include cloud computing service providers and digital companies is one of the strategies we have to embrace. This is also the time for me to evaluate my professional landscape in terms of what I need to adjust and learn, to grow and attain my personal career goals in the post-crisis era.

As a pan-African, I strongly believe in the power of coming together as a community and largely as a society. African Traditional cultural provision are largely based on human interaction. The current crisis provides a challenge to rethink a new “norm” concerning cultural engagements.

In my personal space, I enjoy diverse cuisines, making new friends, meeting people, being entertained, and traveling. The COVID-19 curfew and stay-at-home directives paralyzed transportation, and the closure of entertainment places (including a halt to football matches) have given me the space to reflect on viable alternatives to these practices. For instance, I am rethinking my food consumption patterns, the modes in which I travel, what entertainment options I have, and different forms of meeting people. With reports of pollution levels going down during the pandemic, I am being convinced that working from home for certain days of the week may prove to be one of the best environmental practices as it reduces traffic pollution, office space needed, and use of facilities that may be directly harming our natural world. I have also started appreciating nature found around my home, doing balcony gardens, and generally converting the home space to be greener. Some of these practices will greatly shape my post-crisis personality.

Patrick M. Lydon

About the Writer:
Patrick M Lydon

Patrick is an ecological artist, filmmaker, and director of the City as Nature creative urban ecology lab. He works to inspire empathic relationships between people and the living world, and is an Arts Editor here at The Nature of Cities.

Patrick Lydon

What will be the new normal? Perhaps now is our chance to slow down, take care of ourselves and our fellow living beings a bit better, look to nature, and figure it out.
Remembering: What We’ve Been Needing

A haphazard series of slight changes, sometimes seemingly disconnected, have occurred here in Osaka. Shops close early, big gatherings are prohibited, people are going to their offices less, nearly everyone wears a mask. The tourists are gone too, which in Osaka means about 10 million would-be consumers will have vanished from streets and balance sheets by year end if this continues.

On the other hand, suddenly more people visit parks and green spaces in the middle of the week, cars are fewer, and many of the trains and public buildings that once relied on climate control, now have their windows open to encourage fresh air instead.

Physical distancing at Nakanoshima Park in central Osaka, Japan / CC BY-SA, Patrick M. Lydon

Privately here in our home, coronavirus has meant more time spent cooking—and growing—new foods, sewing and fixing clothes instead of buying them, and working to enjoy the process of finding where we can slow down and be more attentive, to ourselves, to our neighbors, to our environments.

Much of my work as a writer and artist—and my wife as an herbalist—is becoming more virtual. After six months of preparation, an exhibition in Kyoto was canceled just days before we were set to open due to COVID-19. We went ahead virtually instead, substituting an in-person audience for an “online” audience thanks to The Nature of Cities’ new Urban Ecological Arts Forum.

We’re now trying to expand this opportunity, to help more urban artists who are in similarly difficult positions.

The closed exhibition ‘Typhoon Queens, Exhibition #1’ at Art Spot Korin in Kyoto, Japan / CC BY-SA, Typhoon Queens

It seems this is a theme across other disciplines too. Helping those in need suddenly becomes the obvious thing to do, when we realize so clearly that all humans, and the entire living world around us, are in need.

It seems many other urban needs are finally being realized at this time, too.

In most industrialized nations, we have been in need of a slowdown, of more time listening to nature, of more urban gardens, of clean air, clean water, and of bringing and end to jobs that degrade the environment and human health. We’ve also been in need of ways to feed and house our fellow mortals—as ecologist Larry Korn liked to say—in ways that support the wellness of all beings.

We’ve needed these things in our cities for a long time.

Now, suddenly, miraculously, seemingly accidentally, so many of these needs are being revealed to us in very potent ways. Outdoor air pollution —which kills over 4 million people every year—is giving way to blue skies that have not been seen for lifetimes, and the same is true for the reduction of urban noise pollution. There are Coronavirus Victory Gardens popping up all around Los Angeles. Tiny homes for homeless are being built in San Jose at rapid pace, and Americans are suddenly listening to birds, and going out into nature in such numbers that authorities don’t know how to handle the new influx of nature lovers.

With these revelations, come some inevitable questions. How do we keep the skies blue, the herons cackling, and the gardens growing, after this is all over?

What will be the new normal?

Perhaps now is our chance to slow down, take care of ourselves and our fellow living beings a bit better, look to nature, and figure it out.

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

I remain positive regarding a post-virus era because, notwithstanding the gravity of this situation, crisis always presents opportunity for positive transformation. Professionals in my field have always struggled to convince decision makers of the benefits of urban greening and climate adaptation. Not so much now.
Living and working in Riyadh, I have been predominantly insulated from the tragic chaos that has gripped major cities around the world. Measures here were put in place swiftly, healthcare was made freely available to all and stockpiling did not occur. Work is now conducted remotely and has very much continued at the same pace, so it’s quite possible that proactive resilience planning measures here will result in a quick bounce back to business in the post-virus era.

Riyadh city is in the midst of delivering several megaprojects that will transform the urban fabric with the introduction of a world class metro rail and bus network, more than 3,300 new parks and gardens, one of the world’s largest urban parks, 7.5 million new trees and the development of a water recycling network. These projects are part of implementing the Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia which is an incredibly well articulated strategy to drive economic diversification and greatly improve liveability. This work is unlikely to falter.

In general, I remain positive regarding a post-virus era because, notwithstanding the gravity of this situation, crisis always presents opportunity for positive transformation. Professionals in my field have always struggled to convince decision makers of the benefits of urban greening and climate adaptation. Increasingly now, I am hearing people everywhere extoll the virtues of urban nature and express gratitude for their trees, parks and gardens during their lockdowns. This growing vocalisation and awareness of the benefits of urban nature presents an unprecedented opportunity to create a persuasive and powerful narrative linking social and urban resilience to nature. Strong communities are healthy communities, and healthy communities have easy access to nature.

We will undoubtedly experience a global economic downturn for at least two years, and I think we will see the cities that have resilience plans move forward to execute ambitious projects. Already, proactive leaders are driving change that was previously opposed or planned for gradual implementation. Europe is speeding a transition to a low car future with the Mayors of Paris and Milan leading the way with plans for extensive bike paths.

Unfortunately, the cities that are not prepared will start to slash budgets with greening amongst the top items on the list. Some of our peers will lose their jobs, others will have their budgets dramatically reduced. Those of us who are not affected, must take the time to consider how we can help our peers, so that we can maintain and grow the momentum that has been created in recent years.

As things return to normal, and they will, we need to continually and collectively drive home the message that dramatic changes are possible and to articulate the business case for creating a new and improved normal.

Antonia Machado

About the Writer:
Antonia Machado

Antonia Machado is the Strategic Partnerships Project Manager for the Natural Systems Enhancement and Stewardship Department at Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Antonia Machado

The coronavirus has exposed deep structural weaknesses, reinforcing the notion that working across silos and centering equity is imperative to building resilience and moving towards transformative change.
Most schoolchildren in Puerto Rico experience at least one field trip to El Yunque National Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States’ national forest system. Careening through the humid rainforest in noisy buses while learning about one of the Caribbean’s most precious natural resources is a unifying national experience. A particularly memorable lesson learned on these excursions is that hurricanes are mechanisms for forest renewal, ultimately increasing the resilience of the ecosystem. This lesson shaped my understanding of these occurrences, providing a sense of assurance when hurricanes pummeled the island and left us without power or running water. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, I cling to the same hope that we are in the midst of a transformative event from which we will emerge more resilient.

A pandemic is undoubtedly different from a hurricane, but these disasters share key similarities. When I returned to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, I flew in over a sea of blue tarps that covered all of the structures where the roofs had been torn off, a patchwork of blue squares against the denuded landscape. While the pandemic has left our houses intact, it has managed to pull the roof off the top of our systems, like prying the lid from a fuse box, allowing us to peer inside. Two definitions are useful here: The word “crisis” derives from the Greek word krisis, which means “decisive moment”. The word “emergency” is derived from the Latin emergere, “to bring to light”. Indeed, this crisis provides an opportunity to recognize the interdependence between our social-ecological systems, and to consider how we can act upon that recognition to increase our collective resilience.

My work centers itself around developing strategies for catalyzing transformative partnerships through Tree for All, a collaborative landscape-scale restoration program in the Tualatin River Watershed, just west of Portland, Oregon. Tree for All counts more than 35 organizations as partners, enabling the program to be one of the nation’s most successful large-scale conservation programs. In the midst of this pandemic, I am peering into the metaphorical fuse box and contemplating the role of transformational partnerships and collective impact to rebuild from this crisis.

It is well established that the impacts of large-scale conservation extend far beyond the ecological arena, providing significant benefits to the local community and economy. How do we expand upon this model, leveraging our collective capacities to pursue interdisciplinary and multi-sector approaches to wicked problems such as houselessness and climate change? This work is beyond the capacity or resources of any single organization or institution. The coronavirus has exposed deep structural weaknesses, reinforcing the notion that working across silos and centering equity is imperative to building resilience and moving towards transformative change. Our collective health is only as strong as the most vulnerable among us, and as such, this issue is not beyond the mission of any sector. A characteristic endemic to all crises is their ability to uncover the weaknesses in our structures, but it is ultimately our responsibility to use that information to inform our rebuilding efforts. My unbridled hope is that we may use these lessons to provoke an era of innovation in the form of interdisciplinary partnerships that spur transformational change.

François Mancebo

Well hidden behind any disaster, there always is a cost-benefits analysis that went wrong. Yet, more than often those who decide on the acceptability of a risk are not those who will be most exposed once the disaster happens. For the future, it is crucial to decide now who and what actions should be priority in the aftermath of Covid-19, and by whom these choices should be made.
Staying at home all day long is not something new for me: a good part of my job consists in writing articles, books, project reports, reviewing papers, etc. And usually, I like all of it. But not now,  because now I don’t stay at home. I am contained at home, which rhymes nicely with detained. I didn’t decide it. It was imposed upon me to counteract a plausible risk: a virus. But wait a moment, is this virus looks the only bad guy in the story. I don’t think so.

Covid-19 is not the reason why all activity stopped in the world. The ultimate reason is fear: anticipation of a disaster amplified by social networks. The situation reminds me of two quotes from Montaigne, a French Renaissance philosopher too little-known in English speaking countries and a very good reading during containment: “There is no passion so contagious as that of fear” and “A man is not hurt so much by what happens, as by his opinion of what happens”. Well, putting aside collective fear what is actually happening with this virus.

Covid-19 did not go viral by itself. Hyper-mobile human beings did the job. Covid-19 is not a serial killer. Human failures in most countries concerning warning and early response procedures turned it into a serial killer. There is nothing natural about pandemics. They depend on how humans deal with their living environment and what risks they are willing to take by adopting such-or-such urbanization pattern or ways of living. For example, choosing to promote hyperconnected global cities —Wuhan, New York, Paris, etc.— that generate massive flows of people and goods is a pretty risky option as far as pandemics and other disasters are concerned. Well hidden behind any disaster, there always is a cost-benefits analysis that went wrong.

Yet, more than often those who decide on the acceptability of a risk are not those who will be most exposed once the disaster happens. To prevent a similar situation in the aftermath of the pandemic, it is crucial to decide now who and what actions should be priority in the aftermath of Covid-19, and by whom these choices should be made. And it won’t be easy to decide upon these priorities, since we are dealing here with what can typically be considered wicked problems, namely problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole, neither rational, nor completely chaotic. A wicked problem never entails a single answer. There always are many, which differ according to how the person or the group who proposes an answer perceive his environment and his best interests. All are equally valid, but usually result in conflicting solutions. There is no magic bullet here. Always keep in mind that after the crisis, everything could very well start over it was before, but even worse!

When the containment period began and millions of French urbanites discretely fled with their friends to the countryside, what does this tell us about the domination exerted by urban centers on rural areas? When—at the same moment—millions of others flew to  distant sunny countries to escape the pandemic and get some extra vacation, and when the virus finally arrived in the “paradise” where they were staying—an easily predictable situation—rushed to the airports and embassies asking to be repatriated for free,  what does this tell us about the human nature and the colonial type consumer relation people in developed countries have with the rest of the world and with their own country? Right now, it is the evening in Paris. I am looking out the window: very few lights in the apartments, most people walked off.

Rob McDonald

About the Writer:
Rob McDonald

Dr. Robert McDonald is Lead Scientist for the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy. He researches the impact and dependences of cities on the natural world, and help direct the science behind much of the Conservancy’s urban conservation work.

Rob McDonald

I have often been someone who threw himself at work, who saw work as not just a job but as a calling, who perhaps spent too much time working and not enough time at home. So, it is humbling to realize that, at this moment in time, perhaps the most important thing I can do in the universe is be with my family.
Both personally and professionally in this time of Covid19, what I thought was important is changing.

A pandemic like this has a way of clarifying what is important, and what is not truly important, in one’s personal life. I am on day 39 of self-quarantining with my family in our little apartment in Washington, DC. It has been an intense event, for all the usual cliched reasons but also for more spiritual ones. I could make jokes about the challenges of home schooling two kids while two spouses do Zoom calls to people in all time zones around the world, etc. But those jokes seem already fully played out in popular culture, and don’t capture what I find novel about the experience.

Rather unexpectedly, I have found all this time at home with my family to be a spiritually clarifying moment. It has given me an increased appreciation of the power of family in a time such as this. I have often been someone who threw himself at work, who saw work as not just a job but as a calling, who perhaps spent too much time working and not enough time at home. So, it is humbling to realize that, at this moment in time, perhaps the most important thing I can do in the universe is be with my family. We are lucky to all be healthy, and for both my spouse and I to have jobs that allow us to work at home, so I don’t mean to imply that it was a particularly hard lot for me. Rather, just that I have realized the work of teaching my kids and psychologically connecting with my family, of helping us survive and thrive mentally as a family, was more important than any of my official work as an urban ecologist.

Professionally, this pandemic has brought some big changes for me. The Nature Conservancy, like many non-profits around the world, will have its budget significantly impacted by the economic crisis we are in. This will lead to significant changes in how our urban work is structured, which we are still working through as an organization. Moreover, it seems clear to me that the “traditional” agenda of urban conservationists, of pushing for nature-based solutions in cities for the ecosystem services they provide, for resilience and human well-being, may not be enough. There are hard questions being asked within the conservation movement right now. What is the value of nature during a pandemic? Does nature matter in cities post-coronavirus? Is there even a future for cities post-coronavirus, and if so, what is it? How can we talk about the links between nature and health, which are real and significant, without seeming trite compared with the enormity of the health impact of this pandemic? While we are beginning to find some answers to these questions, they will take months or years for the conservation movement to fully ponder. I truly don’t know yet how much our movement will change, or how.

Brian McGrath

About the Writer:
Brian McGrath

Brian McGrath is Professor of Urban Design and former Dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons School of Design. His has a long career linking architectural and urban design practice with research in new media, urban ecology and social engagement.

Brian McGrath

I with others have recently postulated a metacity framework—a more flexible and adaptable form of architectural space—for the future adaptation of cities as we face a global climate crisis—such as the current pandemic. My hope for a positive outcome of this tragic virus is the development of new infrastructures in solidarity towards a just transition based on the feminist/ecologist metacity matrix.
New York, the current epicenter of the coronavirus, has transformed into H.G. Wells’ fictional Time Machine with a tragic twist: instead of armies of laborers working underground while the elite frolic in the open air, public life is now occupied by essential workers in service of the millions trapped indoors. Life goes on for those lucky enough to stay in our homes and still able to work. Days pass into night, Spring erratically arrives. We sleep, fitfully dream, wake up, eat, zoom, exercise, rest and sleep again. My Parsons architectural design studio class, after dispersing across the globe, has reassembled online to complete the semester. A few international students and locals remain unable to escape from New York. For many here, a contemplative life has replaced a New Yorker’s frantic pace. As someone who recently moved out of the city, the end of commuting is a relief, with a few hours gained a day. Horribly, thousands of our fellow citizens have been exposed to a cataclysmic respiratory assault, but Earth is finding an easier time breathing.  Humans have substantially reduced their carbon footprints overnight; a behavior shift that five decades of scientific warnings about climate change barely budged. The Himalayas are in view again from India’s northern cities, and dolphins are swimming in Venice’s calm canals. Reading the architecture of cities provides a way to understand the past and the future of human responses to disease and climate. Societies have long designed cities as protective spaces for biological and cultural reproduction. Architectural inerventions such as walls, moats, spaces for worship, and blocks of houses with open spaces between, were not built not just for protection from armies, but also as strategies to avoid the spread of disease. Interestingly, Michel Foucault begins his “Panopticism” chapter in Discipilne and Punish not with the history of the architecture of criminal incarceration, but with the strategies developed in Europe for the spatial separation of lepers, and later the architecture of segmentation to contain infection during the plague. Of course, social inequity was the object of his study just as it was for Wells. With the advancement of medical science, cities have been designed to make us individually more separated, society more segmented and wilderness more remote. Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow was born in the antiseptic afterglow following the 1918 Spanish Flu. Urban “reformers” cleared away the crowded segmented space of Foucault’s Victorian City, creating the towers in the park and open free plans of modernity. Ecologists Steward Pickett, urban design theorist David Grahame Shane, and I have recently postulated a metacity framework for the future adaptation of cities as we face a global climate crisis. This current pandemic is just one of the multiple climate disturbances we face in the coming years. Through the metacity we search for more resilient city forms in the face of such an unstable future. In the 1981 essay for Heresies Magazine, Susana Torre developed a feminist concept of “space as matrix”, which advocated for a more flexible and adaptable form of architectural space that was neither the room, closet, corridor arrangement of Foucault’s Victorian age, nor the complete erasure of privacy and security promoted by the modernist free plan. This matrix spatial logic is nature’s own, and in the matrix strategy of the metacity, neighborhood units are understood as social patches within larger natural systems of nitrogen and carbon fluxes. This social-natural strategy aided by medical science may provide a way to have an open urban society where we can maintain Earth and public health without reverting to further personal isolation and social segmentation. My hope for a positive outcome of this tragic virus is the development of new infrastructures in solidarity towards a just transition based on the feminist/ecologist metacity matrix.
Siobhán McQuaid

About the Writer:
Siobhán McQuaid

Siobhan is the Associate Director of Innovation at the Centre for Social Innovation in Trinity College Dublin where she heads up research and innovation activities under the themes of sustainability and resilience.

Siobhán McQuaid

We are facing now into a pivotal moment in time where it is possible to contemplate an alternative recovery plan. Governments and decision-makers need to take time out to reflect on the importance of small business, local business and nature-based business for community resilience.
Post-COVID – an opportunity for a new type of business?

Over the last five years I’ve had the privilege of working with some innovative companies who are passionate about bringing more nature into cities —sometimes they’re community enterprises designing and developing “growing” projects to meet the needs of vulnerable groups. Other times they’re commercial entities who have leveraged their horticultural knowledge to create new innovations like green living rooms. Such interventions can instantly transform concrete squares into urban oases, enticing children with little exposure to nature to engage, happily picking strawberries from green walls. More recently, I’ve met start-ups harnessing satellite technology to come up with so-called “green-prints” to help cities plan, monitor and benchmark greener, healthier and happier urban environments.

In February this year, Connecting Nature, an EU-funded initiative, launched a survey to explore more widely the concept of nature and business. What type of business can nature support? How can business support nature and society? Just as Europe began to shut down country by country, we reached our first goal of 100 survey responses. A preliminary analysis shows that nature-based enterprises offer considerable potential in a post-COVID environment—not just to create much-needed jobs but equally importantly at a social and environmental level. Nature-based enterprises offer sustainable solutions to transform grey spaces into green lungs for cities, lifelines for apartment-dwellers, for homeless gym-bunnies, for communities as a whole, for nature.

This month we launch a mini-follow up survey to find out how these businesses have been affected by COVID-19.  Anecdotally we have seen a wide divergence in impact. Any kind of food-growing business has seen interest skyrocket; the more local and natural the produce, the more insanely busy they have become. On the other hand, nature-based businesses depending on the construction or public sector have virtually closed down overnight, with tons of plants wilting on pallets waiting for on-site construction which has effectively been put on hold.

With plans afoot for the gradual re-opening of society, what will a post-COVID world look like for these nature-based businesses? Faced with mounting pressure, will the public sector, business and construction sector put nature on the long finger again? Will governments roll out short term economic stimulus packages focusing on a return to “business as usual” as quickly as possible? Will workers return in their hoards to city-centre offices on packed commutes? Or will government and businesses seize this opportunity to reflect and consider the situation we were in before this crisis—where “business as usual” led to unsustainable economic cycles contributing to climate change and biodiversity devastation in another type of emergency.

We are facing now into a pivotal moment in time where it is possible to contemplate an alternative recovery plan. Governments and decision-makers need to take time out to reflect on the importance of small business, local business and nature-based business for community resilience. Business leaders need to consider the proven benefits of bringing nature into work environments or even better the possibility of creating new working environments in commune with nature. We have the opportunity to incubate a new business sector, to stimulate the start-up of new nature-based enterprises and support the re-emergence and growth of existing nature-based businesses. Can each of us make the case in our own community for investment in a different type of business, nature-based businesses that contribute to resilience, community connectivity and that most crucial element we have all come to appreciate—quality of life?

(Note: The Connecting Nature survey of nature-based enterprises is open to enterprises globally. We welcome your insights on the impacts of COVID 19 and future opportunities for this sector. Click here for more information.)

Source: Borzykowski, B. “The outdoor office spaces where workers commune with nature” BBC (2017) https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170517-the-outdoor-office-spaces-where-workers-commune-with-nature (accessed 22/4/2020)
The ouidoor office. BBC (2017) https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170517-the-outdoor-office-spaces-where-workers-commune-with-nature(accessed 22/4/2020). Photo: Siobhán McQuaid.
Exploring nature on a mobile green living room. Photo credit: Jonathon Muller, Helix Pflantzen
Getting in touch with nature on the mobile green living room. Photo credit: Jonathon Muller, Helix Pflantzen
Ragene Palma

About the Writer:
Ragene Palma

Ragene Palma is a Filipino urbanist currently studying International Planning at the University of Westminster, London, as a Chevening scholar. Follow her work at littlemissurbanite.com.

Ragene Palma

Basahin ito sa Filipino.

I call for urban practitioners and legislators to immerse in the daily lives of those who have been sidetracked for the longest time, and work from there to begin championing spatial equality—visit slums, converse with the homeless, and know what it’s like to live on the verge of the city. Our previous “normal”should not be recreated.
I write this piece about COVID-19 with a consciousness on my privilege of being able to do so—I am comfortable in the confines of my tiny flat in central London, and continuing my postgraduate education and scholarship online. I have the option to turn off the ghastly coronavirus death toll whenever I need a mental health “break”; I ensure daily, transborder communication with my family in the Philippines; and I get to have my supplies delivered to my doorstep.

I cannot help but contrast this privilege with the plight of so many others, who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Years before this pandemic, urbanists have emphasised the reality of the world’s historical urban crisis, from sporadic economic challenges in the last century to today’s spatial inequality—a powerful few dominate the “rest” and the “others”, and we live segregated lives, because we simply cannot afford to live in the city anymore. Urban literature points to gentrification, “accumulation by dispossession”, and the urban-suburb dynamic, caused by intertwined factors: globalisation, neoliberalism, and urbanisation all grew hand in hand. Migrants, slum-dwellers, and the working class experience spatial discrimination in their daily life, an unfortunate reality that has become the norm.

Now, this health crisis literally exposes the reality of an urban crisis. Around the world, those without homes, or those who have been deprived of work opportunities, show us where our plans, and our cities have failed. World leaders are faced with massive challenges—in the US, a staggering 17 million people have filed for unemployment; in the UK, authorities address the rough sleepers, and look into eviction protection; in Japan, the government moves to house “internet cafe refugees” (the homeless are associated with internet cafes to access sleeping areas and showers). In the Global South, South Africa’s struggles are haunted by the apartheid; in the Philippines, regional lockdowns threaten at least 11 million informal workers, including farmers; and in India, migrant workers have been forced to walk thousands of miles due to lack of transport provisions.

In the planning profession, we deal with the elements and components of cities that have the potential to improve how we deal with pandemics: housing, mobility, urban design, ecological integrity. These are also crucial in “redoing” a new “normal”. In revisiting how we model our plans and shape our cities, we can begin with addressing inclusion and equality.

As a start, I call for urban practitioners and legislators to immerse in the daily lives of those who have been sidetracked for the longest time, and work from there to begin championing spatial equality—visit slums, converse with the homeless, and know what it’s like to live on the verge of the city. Spatially, our previous “normal” saw our urban areas create a new breed of “colonisers”, enclaves and borders, and a push-out of the “rest” of society. This was never supposed to be a “normal” in the first place; we should not revert to what went wrong, but move towards spatial solutions that provide for all, and not just the powerful few.


* * *

Hinihikayat ko ang mga nasa larangan ng pagpaplano at mambabatas na pananaliksik ng pamumuhay ng nakararami—bisitahin natin ang mga iskwater, kausapin natin ang mga walang tirahan, at alamin natin kung ano ang kalagayan ng mga namumuhay sa loob at labas ng mga lungsod.
Sinusulat ko itong sanaysay tungkol sa COVID-19 nang may kamalayan ukol sa aking pribelehiyo—kumportable akong nasa loob ng isang maliit na kuwarto sa London, at pinagpapatuloy ang aking pag-aaral ng master’s sa online na pamamaraan. Maaari kong hindi pakinggan ang balita kapag ninais kong huminga nang panandalian sa nakaririmarim na bilang ng mga namatay na; araw-araw, sinisiguro kong makausap ang aking pamilya sa Pilipinas; at habang nandirito, madali naman sa aking magpa-deliver na lang ng mga pangangailangan.

Napakasuwerte ko sa ganitong kalagayan; marami sa atin ang halos walang laban sa sakit na dulot ng coronavirus.

Bago ang sakuna na dulot ng pandemic, nagsulat ang mga urbanista tungkol sa krisis na pinagdaraanan ng napakaraming lungsod, mula sa problema ng mga ekonomiya sa mundo, hanggang sa kakulangan ng patas na espasyo para sa nakararami. Ang ilan lamang na nakaaangat ang nagpapatakbo ng karamihan ng negosyo, habang ang iba naman ay nabubukod sa oportunidad, at nawawalan ng kakayahang mamuhay sa loob ng siyudad. Sa pag-aaral ng urbanismo, malalaman natin ang tungkol sa hentripikasyon (o ang pagpapaganda ng isang lugar para sa mga may kakayahan), ang pagkakamal ng lupa at pag-aari habang ang iba ay nawawalan ng titirhan, at ang kagunayan ng lungsod at ng mga nakapaligid sa lungsod. Ito ay bunga ng globalisasyon (ang koneksyon ng mga ekonomiya sa iba’t ibang bansa), neoliberalismo (ang kalagayan kung saan may kawalan ng regulasyon sa ekonomiya), at urbanisasyon (ang paglago ng tao at kanilang pangangailangan). Tinatamaan ng mga ito ang mga migrante, mahihirap, mga nasa iskwater, at ang mga nagtatrabaho; nagiging karaniwan ang hindi pantay-pantay na pamumuhay.

Inuugnay natin ang krisis ng coronavirus sa kalusugan at medikal na larangan, ngunit pinapakita rin into ang isang krisis tungkol sa ating espasyo at mga lungsod. Maraming siyudad sa mundo ang naglalantad ng mga pagkukulang sa pabahay at trabaho. Sa Estados Unidos, 17 milyon ang humihingi ng benepisyo dahil sa kawalan ng hanapbuhay; sa Inglatera, binibigyang pansin ngayon ang pagpapaalis ng mga umuupa; sa Japan, binibigyan ng pabahay ang mga walang tirahan. Ang mga umuunlad na bansa ay may mga dagdag na suliranin sa pagtugon sa krisis, tulad ng kasaysayan ng apartheid ng South Africa, ang pagtigil ng kabuhayan ng 11 milyon sa impormal na sektor ng Pilipinas, at ang puwersadong paglalakad pauwi ng mga naghahanapbuhay sa India, dulot ng kawalang ng pampublikong serbisyo at transportasyon.

 Sa pagpaplano, binibigyang halaga at probiso ang mga bagay na kailangan upang kalabanin ang pandemic: pabahay, paggalaw at transportasyon, disenyo ng pampublikong espasyo, at pangangalaga sa kalikasan. Kailangang kilatisin ang mga ito upang maisaayos ang laganap na kahirapan at problema sa ating mga espasyo.

Hinihikayat ko ang mga nasa larangan ng pagpaplano at mambabatas na pananaliksik ng pamumuhay ng nakararami—bisitahin natin ang mga iskwater, kausapin natin ang mga walang tirahan, at alamin natin kung ano ang kalagayan ng mga namumuhay sa loob at labas ng mga lungsod. Ang nakasanayan natin ay dakilain ang may kaya at may kapangyarihan, habang naiiwan ang ‘iba’ at nakararami. Kung tutuusin, hindi ito ‘normal’, at kailangan nating talakayin kung paano tayo magkakaroon ng patas na pamumuhay pagkatapos nitong krisis.

Si Ragene Palma ay isang urbanista o tagapagplano, at kasalukuyang nag-aaral ng International Planning sa University of Westminster, sa London, bilang isang iskolar ng programang Chevening.

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

What about poverty, inequality, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, climate change, and pollution? Now that I know we can act in response to COVID-19, there’s no turning back. Our society can change – completely and rapidly. The next time we have a daring solution, let’s not take “no” for an answer.
I now have a completely different perspective about the speed at which our society can change. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that rapid transformations to society, to cities, and to our relationship with the environment are impossible. Many of us spend countless hours brainstorming, discussing, and envisioning daring and far-reaching solutions to urban problems, only to be told “no”—that such solutions can never be implemented. How many times have we heard that there are too many barriers to change, especially in the face of uncertainties about future risks such as climate change?

I no longer find this argument valid. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen massive changes to almost every element of our society, implemented at unprecedented speed. We shut down businesses, sent workers and school children online, closed streets to cars, and changed social norms about what to wear. For my entire career as an academic, I was told that universities were slow to change and would take years to fully embrace online education. Yet, virtually every campus in the United States transitioned to online teaching in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. Professionally, most of us kept up air travel to meetings that could have easily been held online, even though we knew we shouldn’t. We didn’t want to change—until suddenly we did.

All of this happened under massive uncertainty: we still don’t know how many COVID cases there really are, whether the virus will persist through the summer, whether anyone really has immunity even after they’ve recovered, and how long it will take to develop a vaccine—if ever. And yet still, we acted. We acted because lives were at risk, or because it was the right thing to do, or because we were afraid, or because we were compelled, or because the risk of not acting seemed greater than the risk of change.

This is not to say that the societal changes we’ve seen so far have been positive. Many have been devastating. In New York City, where I grew up and where my family still lives, the changes are heartbreaking. In the New York borough of Queens, a global epicenter of COVID-19, my elderly family members no longer step outside. Every two weeks my brother dons protective gear and visits several grocery stores to find enough food for all of them, quietly delivering their groceries without saying a word or going inside. Family friends became infected, and one died when the hospitals refused admission for three days in a row because the ICUs were full.

The human toll has been horrific, and many governments were, in fact, too slow to respond given the circumstances. Yet still, I’ve seen more wide-reaching government and societal action in the last two months than in my entire life. When lives are threatened, we can change the way we do things to a phenomenal extent.

So what about the other ways that lives and wellbeing are threatened in cities? What about poverty, inequality, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, climate change, and pollution? Now that I know we can act in response to COVID-19, there’s no turning back. Our society can change – completely and rapidly. We transformed when it was necessary and we can do it again. Radical changes are possible, and urgent. The next time we have a daring solution, let’s not take “no” for an answer.

Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman

About the Writer:
Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman

Dr. Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland. He is an ecologist studying the interactions of decision making, design, and environmental change on ecosystem processes in urban landscapes.

Mitch Pavao-Zuckerman

Not all of our students have the desire to learn online, and not all have the resources to do so. There is talk about how the new normal will impact university budgets and student enrollments. This experience is teaching many about the real lives and experiences of our students, and we need to be sure that any transformations in the new normal reflect on inequities in access to time, technology, and privacy.
I held my last non-virtual class of the semester over 6 weeks ago in a course on urban ecosystem services. We were focused mainly on my nascent plans for moving to online instruction. To my surprise the students pivoted this discussion to talking about the potential for cities to be transformed by the impacts of COVID. These are the inspired and creative moments in the classroom that we live for! Having taught online before (and not during a crisis), I knew having discussions like that would be more difficult. Still, as my students were quick to realize, COVID will provide an opportunity for transformation. How will COVID will change teaching—and how will it change teaching for the better?

Six weeks later, we’ve all experienced the challenges of teaching online—how much more time it takes, the drain of using Zoom, and the disconnection we have if we aren’t able to use technology to connect directly with students. The relative stability of campus life has dissolved for many students as they cope with the need to find jobs to help parents who are newly unemployed, care for sick family members, and the lack of internet and computers to connect with online courses. It is clear though; our students are hungry for the opportunity to engage and to help make a difference within our local communities. How can this transformative moment support this hunger?

At my university we talk a lot about the “land grant mission”—that research and education should be linked to improve communities and the environment—but that mission is not integrated well into the classroom. As we plan for the new normal, we are anticipating remaining online to some degree for the near future. We are looking for ways to modify internships and capstone experiences to fit a distance education format. We seek to transform these experiences so that students can problem solve and gain service-learning experiences in addition to professional development and research skills. If we succeed in bringing this land-grant model into online courses, this is a transformation that we need to maintain once we are back in the classroom.

Not all of our students have the desire to learn online, and not all have the resources to do so. There is talk about how the new normal will impact university budgets and student enrollments. This experience is teaching many about the real lives and experiences of our students, and we need to be sure that any transformations in the new normal reflect on inequities in access to time, technology, and privacy.

Personally, I’m still figuring out the new normal, but one thing COVID is teaching me is about the illusion of time. In some ways, we seem to have more of it: spending time with old friends across the country playing virtual games and listening to music, baking, taking long daily walks, and watching our kids explore along the streams in our neighborhood. This time to connect has been a welcome source of joy and normalcy. Post-virus, I hope these transformations stick for the better too.

Steward Pickett

About the Writer:
Steward Pickett

Steward Pickett is a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. His research focuses on the ecological structure of urban areas and the temporal dynamics of vegetation.

Steward Pickett

This changes everything … again; Will those of us who survive learn this time? All of us are on some verge.
This Changes Everything

In this Time of Pandemic: You can’t see your friends; You hunger for a simple hug, even a fist bump; You must stay home for months; You must manage time better and keep from an emotional abyss; You must remember this is real and serious.  You understand this is part of a system of ignorance, forgetfulness, and greed;  Face has been saved with lives lost; This has happened before.

In Uncertain Times: Euphemisms emerge; They will sell you a car along with a dose of sincerity.

In the Time of Climate Change: Spring comes in all wrong; Floods happen too soon, or find welcome places far from floodplains; The ocean steals into coastal water supplies; People move as if from tectonic disaster.

In an Era of Unprecedented Fire: Entire towns are consumed, just as in the days of wooden cities and timber camps; We have to learn new ways to fight fire, or how to give up, or how to prepare.

In the Era of Globalization: Jobs are snatched away, Philanthropy grows huge, but distant and blind; You have interesting new neighbors, and your cousin moves to a place where your language won’t work.

In a Time of Civil Unrest: People let go their anger; People stomp their frustration in the street; The pawn shops and big box stores are empty of guns.  Fear is the order of the day.  Power is still in the same hands as usual.

In the Time of the Slave Trade: The mythology of race matures and finds a home in “the natural order of things;” Some people are capital; Those who are capital are forbidden to acquire the other tools of capitalism, and so unto the generations.

Under Jim Crow: White supremacy emerges again in the public sphere, and is legally and habitually reinforced for the next ninety years; The monster cannot be subdued by individual action, and it kills, corrals, humiliates, and excludes at will.

In an Age of Mass Incarceration: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within…” (Amendment XIII); Private prisons are profitable business; The burden falls inequitably; Jim Crow is dead/long live Jim Crow.

In the Time of the Scapegoat: Fear becomes personified; Political and commercial accountability is subverted; Chinese Americans have been insulted and assaulted in the name of COVID19; in some places mask wearers are honored, while in others vilified.

In the Time of Cholera: A time that has never ended; A time that rises from time to time in different places, from squalor and untreated water; A proper name for pandemics past.

In a Time of Increasing Automation: A threat to workers in city and country; The missing tellers, clerks, help desks; The lost wages and gained profits; The idle, hungry hands that cannot leave.

In this Crazy Time: The label that comes up when my friends and I text or video chat.

In this time… You can’t see your friends; You hunger for a simple hug, even a fist bump; You must stay home for months; You must manage time better and keep from an emotional abyss.  Some friends have moved away looking for jobs; They’ve lost their pride and hope as work they might have aspired to dries up; Others have died long ago from drugs and the endless litany of the pandemics in whose times we continue to live; This changes everything – again; Will those of us who survive learn this time? All of us are on some verge.

Mary Rowe

About the Writer:
Mary Rowe

Mary W. Rowe is an urbanist and civic entrepreneur. She currently lives in Toronto, Canada, the traditional territories of the Anishinabewaki, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosauneega Confederacy, and works with government, business and civil society organizations to strengthen the economic, social, cultural and environmental resilience of the city and its neighborhoods.

Mary Rowe

I think the most profound challenge for any of us working in urbanism through and after COVID, is now that we have seen how our cities truly function at their most vulnerable, what possible excuse do we now have to not emerge solely committed to fixing it?
Better Normal

A few months before COVID I accepted a position to lead a national charity focused on the quality of life in Canadian cities. Canada’s Urban Institute was founded 30 years ago, before cities were as widely acknowledged as the dominant unit of human settlement of the 21stcentury. But in 2020 they are. Canada is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with close to 90% of the population living in communities of 5000 people or more. Two-thirds of this nation’s GDP comes out of six urban centres. But the dominant narrative in Canada does not reflect this reality. We still perpetuate a settler story: rural communities, smaller towns, two or three “global” but more likely niche cities, and an agrarian and resource extraction-based economy.

The dilemma that aged story presents Canada is an absence of coordinated urban policies and inconsistent public investment commitments to address real challenges.

To create a more realistic and compelling narrative to lead to systemic change, my focus taking this gig was to focus on creating new forms of connective tissue: to foster an ecosystem of urbanism—horizontal, peer-to-peer learning in a vast country whose governance has historically run vertical: from municipalities to provinces to the federal government. What if we were able to catalyze connections between city builders—in every sector, people engaged in making their urban places more livable and resilient?

We were headed on to doing that, planning urban “residencies” in a dozen cities where we would set up a week of deep listening and connecting. The first were to be in April in two cities hardest hit by the global collapse of the oil industry: Edmonton and Calgary.

The COVID hit and travel plans were dashed.

COVID seems to have acted like a particle accelerator—a term I borrow from NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who first used the analogy to describe the how the 1995 heatwave in Chicago exposed all the neighborhood dysfunction that existed before that July, leaving poorly designed and resourced neighborhoods much more vulnerable than others. We see the same in our urban neighborhoods in Canada here in 2020. Where density was imposed without adequate public amenities, creating isolated, often over-crowded buildings, the impacts of COVID—and stay at home orders—have been devastating. Similarly, our city shelter systems, safe consumption sites, food banks—none of these have proven adequate to provide these essential services in safe, socially-distanced ways. Victoria has moved their support operations to town parks; Toronto shelters to sports arenas; public library parking lots are now foodbank depots (with librarians now stocking pantry shelves).

Our efforts during COVID have been to create three live platforms to grow our connective tissue and create a dynamic narrative: www.citywatchcanada.ca, www.citysharecanada.ca, and www.citytalkcanada.ca. These are being populated daily by hundreds of partners and volunteers. That’s the connective tissue value proposition: it tells the good (how responsive local governments and resourceful communities have been), the bad (areas where resources are badly lacking and planning and design has utterly failed) and the ugly (the starkness of underlying inadequacies in so many areas). I think the most profound challenge for any of us working in urbanism through and after COVID, is now that we have seen how our cities truly function at their most vulnerable, what possible excuse do we now have to not emerge solely committed to fixing it?

Andrew Rudd

About the Writer:
Andrew Rudd

Andrew Rudd is the Urban Environment Officer for UN-Habitat’s Urban Planning & Design Branch in New York, where he leads substantive advocacy for the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (including the SDGs).

Rudd

I am frequently in mourning that after this crisis the world will never be the same. I am also hopeful that after this crisis the world will never be the same.
I wake up without an alarm—bad dreams are just as effective—and take 100 ujjayi breaths, then brew coffee while we air out our 60m2 apartment. This is our morning ritual. Much bird song pours in during these 20 bracing minutes and I realize that my only previous memory of hearing springtime birds through an open window is from the 1980s at my great-grandmother’s house in the Appalachian foothills. Either I never took the time to notice the springs of intervening years or the reduced noise of background traffic during the last 42 days (apart from ambulance sirens) has brought them to the fore. All the same, the indifference of nature is comforting. Sparrows gather in the honey locust in front of our building while, inside, neighbours text-quarrel over common space protocols. Some have started leading yoga from the courtyard balconies. Two weeks ago, when I first went outside, clustering teenagers brandished their normalcy and callery pear trees blossomed in oblivion to their invasive stigma. New York is as quirkily convenient as ever, and food and supplies can be delivered right to our doors. However, this ability to conduct life (almost) as normal exposes the ugly class divide between those who can afford to self-quarantine and those who cannot. Here COVID-19 prevalence is highest not in the dense core, but in peripheral neighbourhoods where those with the highest occupational hazard can afford to live. The national health director of the US claims that the role of federal government is merely to ‘facilitate’ the pandemic response in cities, but this left New York with distressingly fewer ventilators from our own national government (400) than others around the world (1,000 from China). Now is also a sobering time for urbanists. A number of columnists are arguing unfoundedly against compact living and attempting to resurrect segregated, car-centric living patterns. Samuel Kling writes that the scapegoating of urban space for disease is nothing new. But we again have the task of revealing the socioeconomic causes of our social ills so that cities’ positive potential can be maximized. People are social animals, and they require co-existence in shared physical places. So does climate action. One of my tasks at the UN will be to help frame a more convincing argument that, rather than sharing space, the more likely transmission factors are destruction of natural habitat, excessive air travel and disintegrating (or nonexistent) public health systems. Another will be to research urban form and human behaviour, including surface touch and close-contact networks. Cities are going to need this evidence if they are going to build for survival. And my colleagues and I will have to design solutions that accommodate the impact of our actions at multiple scales—the immediate, near and far. Mariana Mazzucato writes that we now have the opportunity to rethink capitalism and rebuild the public sector into more than a fixer of crises. I am frequently in mourning that after this crisis the world will never be the same. I am also hopeful that after this crisis the world will never be the same.

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.

Eric Sanderson

What is life, if not hope? What are our cities, if not an investment in our future? Great things will come again. Take care, my friends; hold on; and invest what you can into the long now.
A few great things

I was in the middle of a really great thing when the COVID-19 pandemic came to town.

Last spring, I was offered one of fifteen coveted fellowships at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.  For nine months, I was going to commit entirely (well, almost entirely) to one project: to complete research on a book I longed to write, summarizing everything I had learned from two decades of study about the historical ecology of all of New York City, as a kind of sequel and complement to my earlier book, on Manhattan (sensu Mannahatta). The forests of Bushwick, the wetlands of Jamaica Bay, the schisty basements of the Bronx, and the towering hills of Staten Island, and their ancient forefathers and Earth mothers, were my topic. Generations on generations of relationships, human and mostly not, developed through the planet’s long and dramatic history, had been expressed in extraordinary, beautiful, biological splendor right here, in the place where the five boroughs came to be. If the streams, meadows, and indigenous inhabitants had been forgotten under the relentless onslaught of concrete and asphalt of the 21st century city, then some old maps, dusty books, and our remaining natural areas, plus a bit of historical and ecological puzzle-solving, could help me remember them for all of us.

Outside the library, on “Library Way,” also known as East 41st street, this quote from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies is embedded in the sidewalk. I used to walk by it every day on my way to the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

The very best part, though, was that I had lucked into spending nine months of my working life with people unlike my usual science-oriented cohort at the WCS. My fellow fellows were novelists, journalists, poets, translators, philosophers, and historians, all scholars and writers committed to plumbing the human heart and exploring the reaches of the human mind, not a scientist amongst them save me. They could carry on in ancient tongues or witty English.  They ruminated on the pros and cons of back story. They knew engrossing details about people I had never heard of. Lunch time conversations ran from Nabokov to the National Book Award to techniques for baking the best sourdough bread. Yes, we were baking and breaking bread long before the library was shuttered, and we were all forced to skedaddle.

I totally understand that the breakup of our fellowship is among the lightest of burdens to carry during the pandemic. Although a few of us have been sick, none have died; and we all have some version of a home to which we can return. The library is closed, but not insolvent.  Our work is largely imaginative and portable. Like so many, we now zoom and text and email; we connect as best we can; we share rumors and speculations; and we try to claw out of the vacuum vortex of talking only about COVID-19. We live and work cognizant of better days to come, if only because every other disaster we have ever seen or read about has had better days that followed worse ones, as dawn follows night.

What does any of this have to do with the Nature of Cities? Everything really. Cities are successful because of the kind of interactions the Cullman Center exemplifies: new people, new ideas, new expressions, new feelings, new friends. Scientists in conversation with artists, artists laughing with librarians, librarians effusing to philosophers. Cities, such as New York, which have been in the urban business a long time, have invested in institutional structures to foment such connections.In much the same vein, The Nature of Cities connects our global community of urban-obsessed, nature-loving, polyglots.

Of course, this same trick of determined confrontation with difference is the genius of nature too, though in manifestly more diverse ways and means. Nature is all about felicitous combination, shaped by the conditions and circumstances of place and time, informed by the past, but not bound to it, channeling an effervescent hope for the future.

What is life, if not hope? What are our cities, if not an investment in our future? Great things will come again. Take care, my friends; hold on; and invest what you can into the long now.

Some books by this year’s fellows at the Cullman Center. How are books like these made? Through the magic of the nature of cities.
Olivier Scheffer

About the Writer:
Olivier Scheffer

Olivier Scheffer is a consultant in responsible strategy and innovation, the former Managing Director at NOBATEK/INEF4 (the French national Institute for Energetic Transition of the AEC sector), former R&D Director of XTU Architects, a board member of the French Committee of Biomimicry Europa, and a strategic adviser to the CEEBIOS.

Olivier Scheffer

We are standing at the edge of the cliff, and the coronavirus is right behind us…So how do we urgently change the urban metabolism to something highly resilient?
The post-Covid Cities

The Coronavirus pandemic has had the effect of a giant X-ray on our liberal globalized economies, of which megacities are the utmost expression.

We’ve discovered (or directly experienced) that our food autonomy is only of a few days. The city of Paris, France, for example, would only have a 3-days food stock if food supply stopped (be it because of trucking strikes, energy supply shortfalls or … a pandemic).

Moreover, food travels hundreds of miles (“food miles”) before reaching citizens (an average of 660 km in Paris[i], and up to 3500 km for a yogurt[ii]). The Paris Region (“Ile-de-France”) produces only 10% of the food its inhabitants eat, so most of the food is imported from “outside” the Paris area. On a national scale, 30,000 semi-trailers cross France every day to supply factories, warehouses and retail chains just-in-time[iii]… which in the context of freight traffic disruption, might simply cut the supply of a large array of food products.

Last but not least, the whole food production value chain, from agriculture to food processing and distribution, relies heavily on energy. Researchers have calculated that for the U.S. food system, it takes 7.3 calories (one unit of energy) as fossil fuel to recover 1 calorie as food[iv], and the same is true for most industrialized countries with intensive agricultures, like France. Energy has always been used to produce food, but the major shift that happened from the 1960s on, with the “Green Revolution”, is that it started depending heavily on fossil energy, with peak oil behind us and shale oil EROEI plunging[v].

Harchaoui S, Chatzimpiros P. 2018. [vi]
On top of that, biodiversity and climate emergencies are still looming behind the Sars-Cov-2, putting our agriculture and food system at very high risks, as was stated as early as 2015 by the Lloyd’s[vii] and later by the IPCC[viii].
Regionalized projections of the soil relative humidity index (spring average), compared to 1970. (IPCC RCP 6.0 scenario: 3 ° C in 2100). Source: Drias-climat (www.drias-climat.fr)

We are standing at the edge of the cliff, and the coronavirus is right behind us…

So how do we urgently change the urban metabolism to something higly resilient?

A study of the food autonomy of Paris[ix] by Sabine Barles, Professor of town planning and development at the University of Paris 1, concluded that it would take the whole Seine watershed area to produce organic food for parisians, who would have adopted a demitarian regime (50% cut in animal proteins). Commenting the study, she stated “Of course, it requires a strong political will. And above all, that public authorities and the State control land in cities as well as in peri-urban areas. We can therefore hope for development policies where the security of agricultural land is effective and where we develop a housing policy that consumes less space.”[x]

As for the low-tech technical solutions to agriculture, they already exist with permaculture, agro-forestry or ecological agriculture.

The Paris area after collapse? That is exactly what the Momentum Institute and the Forum Vies Mobiles explored in a 2019 prospective workshop (before the coronavirus) that gave birth to this report: Bioregions 2050, Paris Area after collapse”. 240 pages of ideas and solutions for post-covid cities: https://www.institutmomentum.org/bioregion-2050-lile-de-france-apres-leffondrement-le-rapport-integral/

Notes:

[i] Etat des lieux de l’alimentation à Paris, juillet 2019
https://cdn.paris.fr/paris/2019/07/25/18df53d96022d9f6a8454347b5590b19.pdf

[ii] https://villeresiliente.org/comment/1-nourrir-paris/

[iii] Barbier C. et al. (2019) L’empreinte énergétique et carbone de l’alimentation en France.

[iv] Heller MC, Keoleian GA. 2003. Assessing the sustainability of the US food system: a life cycle perspective. Agricultural Systems 76: 1007-1041. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X02000276?via%3Dihub

[v] We know that peak oil is now behind us and that it has become a critical raw material as “Today approximately 90% of the supply chain of all industrially manufactured products depend on the availability of oil derived products, or oil derived services. […] Approximately 70% of our daily oil supply comes from oil fields discovered prior to 1970. […] Since 2008, the Shale revolution (North-american tight oil or fracked oil) has increased global oil supply which stabilized increased demand.“[v] But as we move from conventional oil to shale oil, the EROEI is falling from 10-15 to 4-5 at best, and down to 1,4 for tight oil –  and with the current fall in demand and prices, exploration investments will be postponed.
Michaux Simon, « Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective », Geological Survey of Finland (GTK), December 2019 (http://tupa.gtk.fi/raportti/arkisto/70_2019.pdf)

[vi] Harchaoui S, Chatzimpiros P. 2018. Energy, Nitrogen, and Farm Surplus Transitions in Agriculture from Historical Data Modeling. France, 1882–2013. Journal of Industrial Ecology. doi:10.1111/jiec.12760

[vii] Food system shock: The insurance impacts of acute disruption to global food supply. Lloyd’s (2015) – https://www.lloyds.com/~/media/files/news-and-insight/risk-insight/2015/food-system-shock/food-system-shock_june-2015.pdf

[viii] IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019) https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/

[ix] Barles Sabine et al, « Volume 1 Le système agro-alimentaire du bassin de la Seine : passé, présent et futurs possibles » (2019)
https://www.leesu.fr/IMG/pdf/piren_rapport_synthese_phase7_volume_1.pdf

[x] Usbek & Rica « « L’idée de nourrir Paris grâce aux ceintures vertes est une illusion »

Vincent Tardieu – 8 juin 2017 (https://usbeketrica.com/article/l-idee-de-nourrir-paris-grace-aux-ceintures-vertes-est-une-illusion)

Huda Shaka

About the Writer:
Huda Shaka

Huda's experience and training combine urban planning, sustainable development and public health. She is a chartered town planner (MRTPI) and a chartered environmentalist (CEnv) with over 15 years' experience focused on visionary master plans and city plans across the Arabian Gulf. She is passionate about influencing Arab cities towards sustainable development.

Huda Shaka

I have been reminded of the privileges I have which others do not: having the option to work remotely, having access to quality public space and amenities at my door step, having a choice about how I travel and where I spend my leisure time—and having leisure time. I will work harder personally and professionally to bring those privileges to others, I hope.
As an urban planner, I am hopeful that COVID-19 will bring a renewed understanding and appreciation for urban resilience and what it means for communities, infrastructure, facilities, and governance. I am not simply referring to measures to facilitate life with physical distancing. In fact, I hope that we do not get stuck on the concept of physical distancing. It is a necessary extreme measure which is needed while we live through the pandemic. However, the next shock to face our cities will likely not be a pandemic and it will likely require a different set of responses. We need to be more strategic and plan for more holistic inclusivity, flexibility and robustness in our urban systems.

I am hopeful that my work will look at the planning and design of housing and public spaces differently. I am hopeful that developers and local authorities will be more interested in minimum standards that provide acceptable and accessible outdoor and indoor spaces for all. I am hoping that there will be more interest in promoting “complete communities” where basic amenities are provided within walking distance. I am hoping that there will be renewed interest in facilitating active travel, and in ensuring that our streets and policies are flexible enough to accommodate people’s needs and lifestyles.

As for how I do my work, COVID-19 has highlighted to me the importance of face-to-face office interactions. No amount of video calls can replace unplanned, informal chats with colleagues and clients or over-hearing project discussions happening in the background. At the same time, I realized how many of our planned, formal meetings can occur virtually, and maybe even more successfully. For one thing, its easier for me to keep quiet and focus on listening when there is a mute button!

On a personal level, the pandemic has helped me realise my fragility and dependency on others, particularly for my mental wellbeing. I hope that my post-COVID “normal” will include being more accepting of my limitations and weaknesses, and more open to reaching out to others. I expect that I will be more aware of my level of anxiety and better able to manage it. I will no longer expect certainty.

I have been reminded what it means to have three meals a day with family, and I hope to have more of those days even after I go back to working from the office. I have also been reminded of the privileges I have which others do not: having the option to work remotely, having access to quality public space and amenities at my door step, having a choice about how I travel and where I spend my leisure time, and having leisure time. I will work harder personally and professionally to bring those privileges to others, I hope.

Laura Shillington

About the Writer:
Laura Shillington

Laura Shillington is faculty in the Department of Geoscience and the Social Science Methods Programme at John Abbott College (Montréal). She is also a Research Associate at the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University (Montréal).

Laura Shillington

“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” — REM, 1987, Document

While we may be sharing a global experience of living in a pandemic, how we experience it is very specific to place, age, class, race, and gender. Can we use this experience to create a new normal with each of us as more ethical subjects to imagine new worlds?
Like many who read and write on The Nature of Cities, my hope is that the world at all scales (from personal to global) is radically changed as we slowly emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, I hope that we have not forgotten that we were in a crisis before this—the climate crisis—and that perhaps living through this pandemic and seeing how the world has changed (for example, the clear waters and skies in cities normally clouded in smog) will persuade more individuals to take the climate crisis as seriously as the coronavirus pandemic. Reflecting on how I have been professionally and personally changed by the pandemic is an interesting task. As a geography professor, I have continued to teach my classes online, so my schedule and life has altered little. Just as my college closed, I was about to start economic (development) and population geography in my “Introduction to Human Geography” class. As I prepared to pivot online, I altered the course content to incorporate the pandemic. In doing so, I revisited my books and articles on feminist political economy and political ecology. I wanted to give students new ways of thinking about economies, populations, health and, most importantly, the role of individuals within a collective. Two books, specifically, have become essential to me during this troubled time: The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) (1996) and A Post-Capitalist Politics (2006), both by JK Gibson-Graham.

As I re-read, I was reminded how insightful, instructive and inspiring the books were and still are. There are two broad ideas that can help us transition into thinking in radically new ways as we negotiate a new post-virus normal. The first is that we already live in a world of diverse economies. Despite the taken-for-granted assumption that we are a globalized, capitalist economy, and that this economy was the pinnacle of so-called development. Yet there have always existed other economies, but such economies tend to be viewed as not important, stuck in the past, and a threat to profits. Without diverse economies, what we know as capitalism would not have emerged and functioned. In the current pandemic, we are seeing the importance of these other economies, especially the care economy. Other economics, especially economies of care, have greater potential to bring about not just social justice, but also ecological. Recognising the important of other economies will (hopefully) lead us to “ethical practices of thinking economy and becoming different kinds of economic beings” (2006, p. xxviii).

Gibson-Graham’s second main idea is the importance of collective action and the politics of the subject (2006, p. 127). They ask and attempt to answer: “How we might become post-capitalist subjects?” We can add to this how we are different post-pandemic subjects. The politics of the subject for Gibson-Graham is a complex, not-so-neat process of “resubjectivation” – “the mobilization and transformation of desires, the cultivation of capacities, and the making of new identifications with something as vague and unspecified as a ‘community economy’ ” (2006, p. xxxvi). The process is reciprocal: as we change ourselves as subjects, we also change our worlds.

Indeed, there is a reciprocity in the current global pandemic. It is changing us as subjects (individual and collective) as well as changing our worlds. While we may be sharing a global experience of living in a pandemic, how we experience it is very specific to place, age, class, race, and gender. Can we use this experience to create a new normal with each of us as more ethical subjects to imagine new worlds?

“It takes a world to create a locality, and an imagined world to transform ourselves in place” (2006, p. 196)

Elisa Silva

About the Writer:
Elisa Silva

Elisa Silva is director and founder of Enlace Arquitectura 2007 and Enlace Foundation 2017, established in Caracas, Venezuela. Projects focus on raising awareness of spatial inequality and the urban environment through public space, the integration of informal settlements and community engagement in rural landscapes.

Elisa Silva

It is clear that the way we have been living and the patterns of governance we have chosen could be very different, they could change the second we decide to make them a priority and work collectively toward their fulfilment.
An Optimistic Legacy for Covid-19

The misnamed Spanish flu of 1918 infected over 500 million people and was responsible for 100 million deaths. Since it coincided with WWI and economic depression it is difficult to separate the effects the epidemic might have had on the way people live from the equally devastating effects of war and famine. As we collectively devour articles, scouring over the past in order to find clues of what may lie ahead in our near future, I find myself most curious about the long-term effects Covid-19 will have on our lives. Re-dimensioning circulation corridors for social distancing, inserting sneeze guards at checkout counters and increasing the number of divisions within homes seems to me akin to other spatial investments in the past such as underground bunkers in German homes, or bullet proof glass separations in convenient stores in Brooklyn. In other words, they may have been absolutely critical for a finite period of time, but not structural in the way we live or the choices we make.

As a direct consequence of the Spanish flu, so far, I have been able to identify two clear long-term outcomes. The first one involves changes in interior design and furniture motivated by sanitary reasons. It was believed that increased light, air and openness would help kill germs, (the flu’s exact cause was still unknown) and the elimination of bacteria-lodging-crevices in ornament, and dust-collecting draperies typical of 19h century homes came to be seen as a deterrent for maintaining homes free of disease.[i] In other words, the white, spacious interiors flooded with light associated with modern architecture and the continuous surfaces of bent wood and tubular steel, used by Alvar Aalto, Marcel Brewer, Le Corbusier, and  Mies van der Rohe in their furniture design, was as much a consequence of increased concern for hygiene as it was about practicality and the industrial aesthetic.

The other even more amazing change to which I have become aware, is the story behind Sweden’s modern welfare state. The flu affected the town of Östersund particularly hard, due to the fact that it hosted several army regiments, which in response to the war had increased in number to the point of swelling the town’s population by 50%. They were stationed in close quarters which facilitated the spread of the diseases. Another factor that aggravated the situation was the severe inequality that had resulted from the industrialization process of previous decades. Many families lived in cramped quarters, wooden shacks and tents. Apparently, this all changed when the city’s bank director Carl Lignell, decided to take matters into his own hands by using federal funds to turn a school into a hospital, since the city did not have one.[ii] He had people quarantined in their homes, he convened a medical team to scour the city for victims and moved the sick into the transformed school. These efforts were strengthened with city-wide cooperation to organize relief, raise funds, feed and clothe the most vulnerable. After the epidemic, what had been a week state, adopted the cooperative approach to social reform and one hundred years later, Sweden boasts one of the world’s most exemplary welfare systems.

So, what might be the long-term effects of COVID-19 in 2020? I would like to believe they will also be closely tied to both eliminating what is superfluous and the empowerment of institutions focused on mitigating inequality. We have all been shocked to see how quickly pollution levels have diminished in the atmosphere and nearly extinct animals have reclaimed their habitats. What is superfluous and unnecessary in this case is the way we contaminate and destroy the environment, the way we overgraze our share of a planet that is shared with other beings. Considering the second point, not surprisingly, we have witnessed the complete impotence of people living in informal settlements and the homeless to defend themselves from the virus’ eminent spread. Might we, like the Swedes, collectively grow indignant of what has thus far remained a tacitly tolerated humanitarian injustice, or will we continue to embrace our indifference as a society to these manifestations of inequality. In either case, it is clear that the way we have been living and the patterns of governance we have chosen could be very different, they could change the second we decide to make them a priority and work collectively toward their fulfilment.

Maps by NASA’s Earth Observatory. Levels of nitrous dioxide NO2

Notes:

[i] Paul Overy, Light Air and Openness: Modern Architecture Between the Wars, London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

[ii] Brian Melican, “How Spanish flu helped create Sweden’s modern welfare state”. The Guardian August 29, 2018.

David Simon

About the Writer:
David Simon

David Simon is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and until December 2019 was also Director of Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre on sustainable cities based at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

David Simon

The adaptational effort will be immense. While certain other activities are amenable to onlin-isation, others are not—some activities will simply be impossible. All bets are off.
Inevitably, the personal and professional aspects of my life are closely intertwined. At one level, coping with the disruption and uncertainties at all levels has been greatly facilitated by no longer having dependent children at home who need home schooling and boundless time and energy in so many ways. We also no longer have elderly parents or in-laws and their siblings to worry about and care for.

On the other hand, our elder son and his fiancée are both intensive care doctors who have been under relentless pressure on the frontline in two London hospitals. Given the risk to unprotected healthcare workers, exacerbated by the ongoing shortages of personal protective equipment and ongoing inadequacy of the testing regime for staff, this has been a nagging worry on them and us.

I am also immensely privileged in living in a detached house with good-sized garden on the very edge of the green belt, and with the forested expanses and beauty of Virginia Water lake in Windsor Great Park just around the corner. Unlike so many, I have therefore been able to swap my regular squash and tennis for training cycles “in nature” as the daily exercise for which, along with essential shopping and medical appointments, we are allowed to leave the house under the UK version of lockdown. Moreover, the 90% reduction of daily flights into and out of nearby Heathrow Airport has greatly reduced ambient background noise, making the birdlife far more audible.

Professionally, the progressive shutdown of travel and the universities caused anxiety and indefinite postponements of long-distance travel for research work, related workshops in Kenya, a PhD defence in Germany, and a guest university lecture in Luxemburg. Where practicable, rather like the teaching and assessment work of my university, we have rapidly reorganized to do the work online, so the guest lecture will go ahead on schedule.

While I have already done one UK PhD defence via Skype, the German system involves a whole ritual including a public lecture by the candidate and then a debate with the examiners. Hence the host university refused to countenance a slimmed down online version and we have set a provisional alternative date in mid-July. All bets are off.

Conversely, while certain other activities are amenable to onlin-isation, others are not. The bulk of planned fieldwork, multi-stakeholder discussions and academic writing training workshop for PhD students and early career researchers in Kenya require travel and face to face engagement. To date it has been impossible to reschedule this because the team comprises colleagues from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, India, Argentina, the UK and Sweden and each country has different restrictions and lockdowns, timelines and so forth. Who knows when all will be clear, flights will resume, visas be obtainable, the respective universities have rejigged their activities to cope with lost time, and thus leave of absence be granted?

Kenya’s universities will struggle since they have been unable to go online because many students lack wifi at home, let alone stable electricity, personal computers, and enough domestic space to be able to study quietly. As I started writing this, my own university has announced radical plans to reconfigure next academic year’s curriculum and modes of delivery, on the assumption that something resembling normality for our global student catchment will be unachievable before next January. The adaptational effort will be immense, and thus, apart from contractually agreed circumstances, sabbatical leave (which I have due for Sept to December this year) has summarily been postponed a year. What this means for the grant-funded research projects I hope to win and start in September/October, not to mention other activities incompatible with intensive curriculum redevelopment and teaching…

Mary Hall Surface

About the Writer:
Mary Hall Surface

Mary Hall Surface is a playwright, director, and teaching artist. She is devoted to intergenerational audiences, multidisciplinary collaborations, and to transforming communities, museums and schools through the arts.

Mary Hall Surface

At its best, theatre is a unique forum where communities can imagine together. We gather and literally align our beating hearts as a story unfolds told by actors who breathe our same air. My nightmare new normal is a Romeo and Juliet who never touch, watched by a masked audience too afraid to believe the story.
February 1, 2020. Almost 10am. Actors gather for rehearsal. Effusive, affectionate comrades greet, hug, laugh in each other’s faces. They do a quick warm up, their bodies interacting, giving and taking weight, close, dance-like. They circle in and breathe together as their voices send sound across the shared space. Three actors then stand tightly together and move in sync to hoist another high above their heads. She’s flying! Theatre magic. 

February 1, 2021. Almost 10am. Actors arrive for rehearsal. Cautious, efficient troopers leave their shoes at the door, wash their hands, wave across the large room. They stretch, run in place, alone in six-foot intervals of space. They circle wide, backs to one another as they warm up their voices, muffled behind facemasks. Three actors then stand in separate spots and raise their arms on cue as a fourth, lifted only by her own toes, grounded, spreads her arms like wings. She’s flying. Maybe.

When trying to imagine theatre in the new post-virus “normal,” my colleagues tend to focus on audiences. How far apart can we seat people? Do we hand out masks at the door? Take temperatures before taking tickets? These are shattering images. But what keeps me awake at night is picturing a socially distanced rehearsal process that leads to a performance by face-masked actors who never physically connect. My nightmare new normal is a Romeo and Juliet who never touch, watched by an audience too afraid to believe the story.

At its best, theatre is a unique forum where communities can imagine together. We gather and literally align our beating hearts as a story unfolds told by actors who breathe our same air. Theatre can challenge, lead, comfort, and heal. My grief for my shuttered profession is tempered by my knowledge that theatre has always risen from the ashes of past plagues and disasters. But a return to live performances, the kind we treasured only two months ago, is now far in the future.

So what happens between now and then? And what will “then” look like once we live through the journey forward? Will we create vibrant virtual spaces that can fill the role that theatre has played in our cities and communities? What essential aspects of the art form can exist now when what defines it—its in person shared live-ness—is impossible? Theatre companies worldwide are rushing to create on-line content. But can we truly convene on line as we do on stage? Can we collectively think and feel about our humanity, our interconnectedness, our systems and shortfalls on Zoom? If we can, then live theatre will change. When we reach “then,” what kind of rehearsal room will I return to?

April 22, 2020. Almost 10pm.  A director/playwright wrestles with her core beliefs about what theatre requires and what it provides. COVID-19 simultaneously erodes and strengthens what she knows to be true. Her next play is in process, under development, with no set opening date. But she has the beginnings of a story line.

Erika Svendsen

About the Writer:
Erika Svendsen

Dr. Erika Svendsen is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station and is based in New York City. Erika studies environmental stewardship and issues related to hybrid governance, collective resilience and human well-being.

Erika Svendsen

I am grateful for all those who are working outside during this crisis and the sacrifices they have made all these days. Nature’s stage crew, so to speak. In the future, I’d like to explore ways to help strengthen our green workforce and support those within it that are most vulnerable during times of crisis.
Nature’s Stage Crew

It’s true that my normal weekly routine has changed, but I have returned to an activity that I have always enjoyed: walking and watching.

At the beginning of this crisis, I was walking with friends. Then, with just one friend. Then, only with my husband. And then, alone. And in doing so, I remembered how much of my early research had been inspired by everyday urban nature-human observations. These days, before my household is awake, I rush outside to walk and look for signs. Signs that remind me of the reciprocity between humans and the non-human world. Signs that spark my curiosity. And signs that give me hope. I see sign on fences thanking hospital staff, teachers, and restaurant workers. I see purple ribbons tied around trees. I notice new vegetable plots carved out of front lawns and side yards. I see people setting out window boxes and planters.

I started to think about how my friends and family have been telling me how grateful they are for nature. Grateful for the trees and the trails, the forested parks and gardens, the playgrounds and lawns, the bikeways and waterfront parks. All providing bit of solace during these tragic times. I have to admit that I started to get a little defensive in my mind as I thought, “That’s cool. But do people realize that there is a stage crew that helps to put on this amazing public nature show?” I took my own walk in nearby Prospect Park in order to regain some calm repose and an inner voice reminded me, “Hey, remember that all this natural beauty doesn’t come easy.”

Each day, I look out the window to see the park across the street from my apartment. It has been locked for weeks.  When the emergency orders began, people flocked to the parks for some fresh air. People gathered in a way that was too close for comfort, so many of the parks have closed. I watch as an elderly woman pushes a cart and stops at the gate. She looks defeated as she ponders the lock and chain. I think to myself, “Does she have another place to go? Where can she rest around here? She can’t possibly get on the subway or a bus to find another park!”

I recognize a park regular as he sits down on the edge of a street tree guard. He sets out a small cup for change. I see a worker walk toward the park with a morning coffee and bagel. He quickly pivots to sit on a stoop across the street. I hope no one comes out to usher him along before he finishes breakfast. I see a woman simply standing at the corner of the park. I see she is closing her eyes and tilting her face up, toward the sun.

As time goes on during the stay-at-home order, I see fewer people around the park. I still look out that window, waiting for my favorite redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) to bloom. I notice there are two people who return to the park each day.  They arrive at different times. The morning person is a park worker, wearing a bright NYC Parks t-shirt. She is sweeping the park, picking up the occasional food scrap (sorry, squirrels) and straightening up. I now realize she has always been there, since the beginning of this crisis and long before.

In the afternoon, a man appears in the park and gets to work quickly, tending to the flowers and my redbud trees. Weeding and a bit of pruning today. I know him to be a park volunteer.  I think about that. Where does he find the time? Like the park worker, he is wearing a mask and working alone, not speaking to anyone.

My thoughts go back to all the park workers out there, the volunteers and the greening NGOs in my city. In our parks, they are bravely showing up despite their own challenges. I know that many of these park workers are seasonal or temporary. I know that the greening NGOs are trying to find ways to adapt their field work, funding and programs as a result of this crisis so they can continue to support the nature just outside my window and well beyond.

I am grateful for all those who are working outside during this crisis and the sacrifices they have made all these days. Nature’s stage crew, so to speak. I am also proud of the network of people that I work with in my field of forestry and natural resource stewardship. In the future, I’d like to explore ways to help strengthen our green workforce and support those within it that are most vulnerable during times of crisis.

Abdallah Tawfic

About the Writer:
Abdallah Tawfic

Abdallah is an architect, environmentalist and urban farmer. He works at the German International Cooperation (GIZ) and he is also the cofounder of Urban Greens Egypt, a startup aiming to promote the concept of Urban Agriculture in Cairo.

Abdallah Tawfic

Planting is a representation of peace and hope and we should continue to encourage, support and spread it in such critical time, for the sake of our health and wellbeing. Let’s be hopeful and revive victory gardens again all over the world, let’s get back to our roots, and grow food and hope inside our cities.
Growing Hope in the time of a Pandemic

Do you think its the first-time humanity faced a dark cloud? Skimming through history books, mankind has been through serious and tough plights. But I always wondered what keeps us going in the face of any adversity. We as Human Beings are remarkably resilient as a species. We don’t fully understand the science, but we know that the “support of one another” is crucial and is what keeping us strong during such difficult times. The experiences that we are going through nowadays will probably stay in our hearts before our minds for the rest of our lives. Covid-19 should be a lesson to all of us on how to go beyond the norms and routines of our daily “for granted” lives and be more dynamic and resilient inside our cities and within our communities. It should also allow us to have a glimpse through our past, learn and reflect from previous times of distress, and highlight and get inspired by solutions, innovations and successes that we always refer to in our history books with pride and admiration.

Urban Agriculture’s loyalty through stormy seas of our history. Through history Urban Agriculture has been an effective tool and a supportive friend for lots of cities worldwide, especially during critical times of humanity. Urban Agriculture is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for as long as humans have lived in cities! Through time, the significance of urban Agriculture has taken on different levels of meaning; from serving as tools for social reform, to promoting environmental justice, and as subsistence in times of food insecurity during wars or pandemics, and even as a simple pastime and leisure in times of prosperity.

During World War I and World War II, most supplies and food were prioritized for the war effort, leaving many at home to deal with scarcity. In order to boost food supplies, many countries promoted “Victory Gardens” or “War gardens”, or gardens cultivated by citizens on private and public land. Besides alleviating the strain on the public food supply, it also was a way to boost morale and patriotism. In the US, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to plant Victory Gardens to prevent food shortages. Victory gardens were responsible for about 41% of all consumed vegetable produce in the US in the year 1943 according to some resources 1.

Nowadays Urban agriculture can be crucial to feeding more than half of the world’s population, whom are residing in cities, potentially producing as much as 180 million tons of food a year—or about 10% of the global output of pulses and vegetables, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Earth’s Future 2.

World War II poster created by the United States Office of Emergency Management, circa 1941-1945. Image courtesy of Pinterest

Do we have a potential to grow food during this critical times ? Balconies, gardens, empty lots and roofs are potential spaces that we can make good use of and start growing different types of productive crops, and decrease stresses happening nowadays on our global food supplies. Panic buying in some countries during this crisis has led to empty supermarket shelves and an uptick in the purchase of seeds, according to media reports. Many urban farms across the world are switching to this kind of community-supported-agriculture model (CSA), which guarantees a weekly supply of produce and may save their recipients trips to crowded supermarkets. The idea can also have a direct impact on our usual visits to busy local markets and thus decrease possible health compromises from social interactions we unfortunately aren’t encouraged to do nowadays.

Planting is a representation of peace and hope and we should continue to encourage, support and spread it in such critical time, for the sake of our health and wellbeing. Let’s be hopeful and revive victory gardens again all over the world, let’s get back to our roots, and grow food and hope inside our cities.

Resources:

1—Anisa Holmes, The Green Conspiracy: https://thegreenconspiracy.com/a-brief-history-of-urban-gardening/

2— “A Global Geospatial Ecosystem Services Estimate of Urban Agriculture” : https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2017EF000536%0D

Christine Thuring

About the Writer:
Christine Thuring

Christine Thuring is a plant ecologist who integrates her love of life into creative collaborations and educational dialogues. While her expertise is expressed particularly in the built environment (green roofs, living walls, habitat gardens), she is passionately practical and enjoys restoring peatlands, mentoring students, leading interpretive walks, and advocating sustainable and healthy lifestyles.

Christine Thuring

I’m contemplating alternative and new ways by which to engage my energy, expertise,, and love for the world. It is a bit of an existential place, which enlists the whole range of my creative and scientific faculties. If this is the new normal, where “business as usual” no longer applies, then how do I wish to contribute?
How surreal, to be alive during this global pandemic. Surreal in the sense of living through a prophesy I recall from the beginning of my career. My memory may be hazy, but I’m certain that my cohort (Environmental Science and Biology, Trent University, 1995) discussed, even debated, which organism, if any, would put a dent into the irrepressible population of Homo sapiens? Would Kingdom Fungi, or Bacteria, reign supreme? The Viruses? Or would we bring it upon ourselves by permitting our leaders to ignore the precautionary principle?

Personally and professionally, COVID-19 has changed my life in various ways. I’m growing food and traveling less. I’m teaching online, which has actually been a big deal. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but now I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe the “virtual classroom” will grow on me, I don’t know. The 2-dimensional quality gives a limited sense of connection with my students, and I’ve been quite stressed by the massive prep time required and the steep learning curve.

Meantime, I’m contemplating alternative and new ways by which to engage my energy, expertise, and love for the world. It is a bit of an existential place, which enlists the whole range of my creative and scientific faculties. If this is the new normal, where “business as usual” no longer applies, then how do I wish to contribute?

Do I stay with what I’ve been doing, teaching and advocating for ecological green infrastructure? Do I start up a new enterprise, to help re-build up the economy and the ecology? The latter idea is inspired by that aspect of the Great Depression in which governments created employment schemes to get some of the population working on public projects, like building infrastructure. In this moment in time, much work needs to be done on creating climate jobs, building resilience, transitioning to post carbon society, getting off pesticides, restoring degraded habitats, etc. Another contemplation is whether I should get into politics, and serve as a vocal force for good. I want to see an end to perverse subsidies (e.g., industries of war, fossil fuels) and for those funds to be transferred towards life affirming industries (e.g., renewable energy, organic agriculture, small business). I imagine that the latter are like small trees in a forest, waiting for the big trees to fall. Perhaps this pandemic is the equivalent of some big trees falling, creating a gap in the canopy,  and now those alternative industries can get their share of the sunlight and move into the mainstream.

The tragedies of the pandemic are inconsolable, and much gratitude is owed to the small and large acts of kindness everyday. Whether this virus’ effect becomes that of a Plague remains to be seen. At the very least, it has created a space for us to slow down. Recalling the debate, Kingdoms Fungi and Bacteria will always reign supreme. The big question is whether Homo sapiens can organise itself in line with the precautionary principle.

Naomi Tsur

About the Writer:
Naomi Tsur

Naomi Tsur is Founder and Chair of the Israel Urban Forum, Chair of the Jerusalem Green Fund, Founder and Head of Green Pilgrim Jerusalem, and served a term as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, responsible for planning and the environment.

Naomi Tsur

Since we are supposed to go no more than 500 meters from our homes, this is clearly a good time to see if we have all we need within that perimeter. A grocer’s? A small park? A school? A community garden?… Perhaps it is time to think just what is needed for a happy neighborhood and ask whether we have it.
Time to Rethink and Reset Our Urban Systems?

Many of us are spending time in contemplation and reflection during these difficult days. We have a gut feeling that beyond the immediate and severe impact of the global Corona pandemic, there will need to be game-changing restructuring of our systems in the period following it. However, post-Corona is as yet an indistinct concept, too hazy to consider, especially as we are barely managing to cope with the storm of the pandemic as it rages.

There is an inherent contradiction in our current circumstances—we need and want to pull together, but must do so while observing strict social distancing. Virtual work meetings and social interaction are all well and good, but not as productive nor as enjoyable as real-time human interactions. Moreover, the current shut-down throws the whole world into severely challenging economic territory.

I am among those who believe that in the post-Corona age the main shift will have to be in our economic thinking and planning. When Adam Smith wrote his famous treatise, “The Wealth of Nations”, published in 1776 (the same year that the U.S.A. gained independence….) he laid the foundations of modern economic thinking. He could not have been expected to, nor did he take into account that 250 years later the world’s population would have reached its current size, and that there would be a serious danger that global resources would no longer be sufficient to provide food, water, energy and other needs for the ever spiraling numbers. In 1776 the global population was 800,000,000, compared to 7,795,000,000 today. He could certainly not have anticipated a world in which 90 percent of the total population live in cities, nor one in which more than half of us are over the age of sixty. Add to that the current on-going climate crisis, with the steady rise of sea-levels, the increasing incidence of natural disasters and the life-threatening rise in temperatures, and you might agree that there is a sufficient basis to re-think our way of looking at things, even before the recent outbreak of Covid-19.

In spite of the rise of democracy in the western world, and the attempt made in some countries to establish a welfare state (my own country, Israel, among them), the free market economy is globally predominant. Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” still moves and shakes global economic trends.

Economics students are taught that the economy is healthy when there is growth. However, as early as the mid twentieth century, some economic thinkers were already pointing out that growth cannot go on forever, especially if we take into account the dwindling resources of a finite planet. So we currently live in a world where we have to over-consume in order to maintain a healthy economy, yet we must live modestly and consume mindfully, if we are to enable our planet to continue to support human life. I am sure that many will join me in finding an inherent contradiction here.

Adam Smith claimed that the job of government is to protect national borders, to enforce civil law and to engage in public works (education, infrastructure etc.). In our over-populated world of dwindling and finite resources, it makes sense for governments to invest in the kind of infrastructure that will conserve and protect natural resources—renewable energy, sewage treatment, desalination, innovative methods of food-growing, sustainable transportation, public health, social welfare and so on. I would humbly point out that most world governments are failing in this. Moreover, in the face of the current global Corona pandemic, world leaders are talking about a “temporary” breakdown of their economies, with the goal of picking up on production and consumption levels when this nasty patch is over.

How does Covid-19 fit into these dilemmas? The pandemic is first and foremost an equalizer, since it does not make any distinction between rich and poor, or people of different faiths, and has proved that it is truly borderless. Countries round the world are maintaining only essential services, and a tremendous drop in pollution levels has been marked worldwide as a result. On the other hand, we are paying a heavy economic price. There is a genuine spirit of community support, but a real danger that elderly people, living in physical isolation, may develop depression and anxiety.

In my own urban world, in a locked-down neighborhood of Jerusalem, I find it a fascinating game to try and reconcile the restrictions imposed on us with the concept of “local is good”, that reflects the spirit of modern sustainable urbanism. Since we are supposed to go no more than 500 meters from our homes, this is clearly a good time to see if we have all we need within that perimeter. A grocer’s? A small park? A shaded path to walk on without noise and air pollution? Kindergartens? A school? A family clinic? A community garden? A day center for the elderly? A post office? A glimpse of nature? Perhaps it is time to think just what is needed for a happy neighborhood. We might be surprised to learn the positive health impact of one that offers clean air, a taste of nature, plenty shade and locally grown fruit and vegetables…..

Looking ahead to the post-Corona era, dare we hope and strive for a better world, in which economic security does not go hand in hand with over-taxing of our natural and finite resources? Can we “repair our world”, by basing our economic planning on an equitable and sustainable system? If we do, we may look back on Corona as the chance we were given to rethink and reset our urban world, something we would have been much less likely to do if we had continued with business as usual.

Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro

About the Writer:
Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro

Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro is an artist, environmental engineer and curator. He is based in Paris. At the crossroads between artistic research, social practice and activism, his work develops territory-based strategies that explore ecologies of care. Since 2018 he develops, in collaboration with Senegalese filmmaker Hamedine Kane, The School of Mutants, an investigation into land struggles and political utopia in Dakar.

Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro

Can we, as artists, organize ourselves to inspire our institutions and societies to keep the engine on slow and never start again the machinery of neoliberal destruction? We talked long enough about politics in art. Time for action and art-as-politics.
On Valentine’s day this year, I was in Karlsruhe, Germany, to take care of the winter pruning of a fruit orchard with the ZKM museum staff. A few months before, I had made a proposal to the museum to reclaim and restore the abandoned meadow, legacy of a traditional fruit farming system that is among the most species-rich landscapes in Europe. The point was not only to regenerate a biodiversity hotspot and urban food forest, but also to sketch a terrestrial future in which museum would expand their maintenance practices, from human artifacts to non-human compositions.

This embodied experience came with a collective understanding of the institution’s necessary transformation towards radical sustainability, from carbon footprinting its upcoming exhibitions to an ongoing environmental policy working group. Landing on a world of pluriversal becomings implies to rethink all means of production, including cultural networks: travel slower, exhibit differently, etc.

Two months later, the world tipped. Bees thrive and trees blossom in the orchard field, giving a glimpse of those speculative projections. But darker futures may also be observed. Frontline struggles, unequal vulnerability, racist, sexist, and classist body politics. Artists are not spared: while symbolic work on trauma recovery will be essential, restrictions on travels and public gatherings will deeply inhibit this therapeutic function.

National culture agencies are setting up emergency funding. Museums and festivals are moving their programs online. I would also like to see in the current crisis, where and when it is possible, an encouragement to pause the race for audience figures, mega-exhibitions, hypermobility.

Like requests for conditional bailouts and calls to “not go back to normal” by other productive sectors, can we, as artists, organize ourselves to inspire our institutions and societies to keep the engine on slow and never start again the machinery of neoliberal destruction?

  • Ask museums, festivals and institutions to take binding environmental measures immediately (zero carbon venues, no flying policies, etc.)
  • Decolonize cultural networks and improve mobility for Global South artists
  • Shift focus to local/regional audiences and communities
  • Work towards stronger ethics, economic resilience and equality for staff and artists
  • End oil and other harmful corporate sponsorship

We talked long enough about politics in art. Time for action and art-as-politics.

Andreas Weber

About the Writer:
Andreas Weber

Dr. Andreas Weber is a German academic, scholar and writer who holds degrees in Marine Biology and Cultural Studies. Andreas explores new understandings of life-as-meaning or ‘biopoetics’ and ‘biosemiotics’ in science and in the arts, and has authored 8 books.

Andreas Weber

I wonder what we will make of the insight that we are suddenly so vulnerable. I watch the glittering insects in the sun, much less numerous than some years ago behind this same window, and listen to the nightingale that plucks those insects from the twigs to feed their young. I sit in silence, until the first bat is out and shatters the pale sky with its ragged path.
The window of the room stands open and allows the late sunlight in. Outside, there is a big maple unfolding its green blossoms. On the small plot between my condo and the railway tracks stands an apple tree. The sun makes the blossoms shine with a creamy white. Insects oscillate in the air like dancing crystals.

Every couple of minutes a commuter train passes. I see a few people inside, widely dispersed, wearing face masks. After the train is gone, bird voices fill the silence. In the past, which ended a month and a half ago, this would have been a noisy work day afternoon in Berlin. Now there is stillness, and the quiet signs of all those which are not human.

Last summer I taught a seminar about “Collapse”. The summer had started like this, with a series of flamboyant and beautifully sunny days, for weeks in a row, without one drop of rain. I showed a movie from the early 2000s, “Children of Men”, by Alfonso Cuarón. The plot was set in a future about two decades on from the release date. Everything was pretty much the same, apart from the fact that no children were being born.

I retained the picture of a society trying to function in its usual incomplete way, while there was something deeply, profoundly off. It seemed invisible at first, but then you understood that the balance between birth and dying had invisibly shifted towards death. It felt like a grief over something immensely bad that could not be undone, like having killed somebody, or having lost a child. The birds sang, the sun poured its light into the evening, and somehow there was grief, and horror, and would not go away.We will live with the virus for some time to come. It is a strange plague that hits hard in some places, and is near to nonexistant in others, that seems to be terribly present and apathically absent at the same time. I sit at home and write and avoid the S-Bahn and the city, and the sun is warm, and something feels just slightly off, and unconsolably so.

I have been asking myself how much I will miss the clean air stirrend by the shining insects’ wings and the sweet waves of birdsong, when corona will be behind us. But in truth I doubt that we can plan for a time after. I watch the apple blossoms shiver in the sun, and I wonder that what awaits us, what has actually begun, is the time with corona.

It is a time where something is slightly off, and everything is changed, although we will be trying hard to pretend that we are going on with our business. It is a time where life has become radically cheaper. It’s a time where I won’t know if my next speaking gig, or the dinner with my son and his friends, will turn out to be life-threatening, for me, or for others.

I wonder what we will make of the insight that we are suddenly so vulnerable. I watch the glittering insects in the sun, much less numerous than some years ago behind this same window, and listen to the nightingale that plucks those insects from the twigs to feed their young. I sit in silence, until the first bat is out and shatters the pale sky with its ragged path.

Diana Wiesner

About the Writer:
Diana Wiesner

Diana Wiesner is a landscape architect, proprietor of the firm Architecture and Landscape, and director of the non-profit foundation Cerros de Bogotá.

Diana Wiesner

We are the birds that make up their nest with everything they find: branches, bark, feathers, leaves, hair, and even strands of wool, any material to protect the essential: creatively reinventing what will emerge from this process of caring for the global nest.
Lea esto en español.

TIME OF NESTING: Praise to the care of the other

We can imagine various scales of nests, of ways of housing, of inhabiting. From the constructions of the insects, to the planet nesting in the inhabited universe. This strange period, during which we live within a micro shelter, makes us understand the termite nest, the bird’s nest, and the social system of many forms of life.  Some keep their social group, as it happens with bees or ants. Insects make their homes as protection for their offspring because they are delicate and in their immature stages need it. Thus, we are seeing ourselves in a global fabric of shared feelings and uncertainty. The nest contains the process of what is brewing inside it. Inside the social group, or the being itself. We are not even clear about what form that which is evolving is going to take.

Nest. Jewelry by Ligia Ceballos de Wiesner. Photo: María José Velasco
Image of Okaina’s basketry. Photograph by Cecilia Duque. Creative language of the ethnic groups. Indigenous people of Colombia. Suramericana Publishers. 2012.

Bogota, a tropical megacity now led by an exceptional, gay woman, full of energy and enthusiasm, has managed to orient the supportive citizenry towards the self-care and care of the elders and the most vulnerable. In this period of another speed of perception and reality, where both in Bogota and in the other cities of Colombia development plans are being reconciled, the pandemic gives us an opportunity to rethink the ways of planning cities and territories. These plans will surely adjust to the new priorities that are being developed in the minds, of each individual, family niche and social group: to take care of the other is to take care of any manifestation of life. Participation and action take a priority role.

The world reacts to the ways of being connected and understanding that we function as a system and we must remain and decide together. Nesting has given us new time to relate, to slow down, to be more observant and to have a thought tied to the speed of the ancestral steps and paths. This vital interconnection is evident in networks: the world sings simultaneously. The neighbors integrate in gestures of solidarity and talk between balconies. This period, where the desire for the green becomes the great opportunity for those of us who have dreamed for years that the order would dance to the rhythm of the water and the soil. The public and mental health, which has finally taken relevance as never before, show the importance for each human being to feel their own breath walking in a place that privileges nature.

In the case of Bogota we hope that this will happen.

Ecology and economy are coming closer than ever, the era of valuing what is really productive has begun.

Nesting from our homes of introspection, we feel this great universal connection that will derive in new forms of education in a great global conversation.

In this period we have created and are perfecting the channels to have this great conversation. This pandemic has opened a crack for consensus among all global inhabitants. In this crack, citizen actions are already flourishing: consumption from local producers, strengthened solidarity and support networks, questioning of traditional pedagogical methods, forms of citizen participation, and valuing the essence of the inner nest.

We are the birds that make up their nest with everything they find: branches, bark, feathers, leaves, hair, and even strands of wool, any material to protect the essential: creatively reinventing what will emerge from this process of caring for the global nest.

Nested necklace, jewelry by Ligia Ceballos de Wiesner. Photo María José Velasco.

* * *

 

TIEMPOS DE ANIDAMIENTO: Elogio al cuidado del otro

Somos las aves que componen su nido con todo lo que encuentran: ramas, cortezas, plumas, hojas,  pelos, y hasta hebras de lana, cualquier material para proteger lo esencial: reinventando creativamente lo que va a emerger de este proceso de cuidar el nido global.
Podemos imaginar diversas escalas de nidos, de formas de alojarse, de habitar. Desde las construcciones de los insectos, hasta el planeta anidando en el universo habitado. Este extraño periodo que vivimos dentro de un micro resguardo nos hace comprender el nido del termitero, el de las aves, y el sistema social de muchas formas de vida.  Algunos, guardan su grupo social, como sucede con las abejas o las hormigas. Los insectos, hacen su casa como protección de su prole, porque son delicados y en sus etapas inmaduras lo necesitan. Así nos estamos viendo en un tejido global de sentimientos e incertidumbre compartida. El nido contiene el proceso de lo que se está gestando en su interior. En el interior del grupo social, o del propio ser. Ni siquiera tenemos claridad de qué forma va a tomar aquello que está evolucionando.
Nido. Joya de Ligia Ceballos de Wiesner. Foto: María José Velasco
Imagen de la cestería de Okaina. Fotografía de Cecilia Duque. Lenguaje creativo de las Etnias. Indígenas de Colombia. Suramericana Editores. 2012.

Bogotá, una mega ciudad tropical recientemente liderada por una excepcional mujer gay, llena de energía y entusiasmo,  ha  logrado orientar a la ciudadanía solidaria  hacia el autocuidado y el cuidado del abuelo y del más vulnerable.  En este período de otra velocidad de percepción y de realidad, en donde tanto en Bogotá y como en las demás las ciudades de Colombia se están conciliando los planes de desarrollo, la pandemia nos da una oportunidad de replantear las formas de planear las ciudades y los territorios. Estos planes seguramente se ajustaran a las nuevas prioridades que se gestan en las cabezas de cada individuo, nicho familiar y grupo social: cuidar del otro, es cuidar cualquier manifestación de vida. La participación y la acción toman un papel prioritario. El mundo reacciona respecto a las formas de estar conectados y entender que funcionamos como sistema y debemos permanecer y decidir juntos. La anidación nos ha dado nuevos tiempos de relacionarnos, en ir más despacio, ser más observadores y tener un pensamiento atado a la velocidad de los pasos y caminos ancestrales. Esa interconexión vital se evidencia en las redes: el mundo canta en simultáneo. Los vecinos se integran en gestos solidarios y conversan entre balcones.  Este periodo, donde el deseo por lo verde se convierte en la gran oportunidad para quienes soñamos desde años  que el ordenamiento baile con el ritmo del agua y del suelo. La salud pública y mental, que por fin ha tomado relevancia como nunca,  evidencian la importancia para cada ser humano a sentir su propia respiración caminando en un lugar que privilegie  a la naturaleza. En el caso bogotano esperamos que suceda.

La ecología y la economía se acercan como nunca, se inicia la era de valorar lo realmente productivo.

Anidando desde nuestros hogares de introspección, sentimos esta gran conexión universal que derivará en nuevas formas de educación en una gran conversación global.

En este periodo hemos creado y perfeccionado los canales para tener esta gran conversación. Esta pandemia ha abierto la grieta para consensuar entre todos los habitantes globales. En esta grieta ya están floreciendo acciones ciudadanas: consumo a productores locales, redes de solidaridad y apoyo fortalecidas, cuestionamiento a métodos tradicionales pedagógicos, formas de participación ciudadanas y valoración a lo esencial del nido interior.

Somos las aves que componen su nido con todo lo que encuentran: ramas, cortezas, plumas, hojas,  pelos, y hasta hebras de lana, cualquier material para proteger lo esencial: reinventando creativamente lo que va a emerger de este proceso de cuidar el nido global.

Collar anidado de Ligia Ceballos de Wiesner. Foto María José Velasco.

 

Darlene Wolnik

About the Writer:
Darlene Wolnik

Working since the 1980s on social change issues while encouraging civic activity across North America, Dar provides support and consulting for localized food systems, especially farmers markets.

Darlene Wolnik

My work supporting farmers’ markets across the U.S. remains very much the same. The markets are innovating contactless procedures at a furious pace: new “drive-thru” markets, ticketed entry walk-thru markets, curbside pickup, “click and collect” pre-ordering procedures. My days start early and go late, and at the end of each I wonder if I could have done more. Yet it is such hopeful work.
/Today, on my walk around my neighborhood, I saw a total of around 40 people in the French Quarter where I would have seen thousands of workers, hustlers, visitors, and residents a month ago. And with the festivals cancelling until 2021, we expect a very slow return to our single economy (tourism) for the foreseeable future.

Even with that sobering reality looming over us in the next year or two, most residents still support our fierce public health-focused mayor who is determined to slow and then stop the massive rate of infection that New Orleans has suffered with since mid-March. That rate has as much to do with the health inequities that African-Americans live with at a higher rate as it is about the huge carnival celebration we hosted in January and February. Black New Orleans, who make up  60% of the city and only 34% of the state’s population, have a 70% of the infections. Even so, blaming it on our hedonistic Mardi Gras is the narrative assigned to us, and feels like the same misguided reproof we felt after Hurricane Katrina. That doesn’t help our mood.

On the other hand, my work supporting the field of farmers’ markets across the U.S. remains very much the same. Our national organization has always been a remote workplace, providing technical assistance and advocacy for around 10,000 market sites, managed by about 4,000 different sizes and type organizations. Depending on their sophistication and their support, these organizations have (a) been able to open without too much trouble, (b) been delayed by government authorities in reopening when other food retail has not, or (c) unable to open at all because authorities too often confuse farmers markets with festivals. The markets are innovating contactless procedures at a furious pace: new “drive-thru” markets, ticketed entry walk-thru markets, curbside pickup, “click and collect” pre-ordering procedures. My days start early and go late with calls, video conferencing, texts, and emails asking for a resource, to share a triumph, or for me to connect them with a peer having the same issue. Right now, I work 7 days a week and wonder at the end of each if I could have done more, answered one more email, hosted another webinar or group call.

Yet it is such hopeful work.

I pick up food from local farmers and fishers a few times per month, having contacted them by phone or email. (Ironically, my nearby farmers markets have not yet reopened.) Tomorrow a group of friends will meet a fishing family outside of a friend’s house to get our seasonal drum, sheepshead, catfish, softshell crab, and shrimp orders. My family and friends check in with me regularly and my 80-year old mother keeps in touch by text. Yesterday I dropped off beignets outside of her door, which were made by a relatively new upstart bakery downriver that has pivoted its bustling sit-down café to a 3-hours per day window service offering its culturally appropriate items like Chantilly cake, yak-a-mein, and golden beignets covered in powdered sugar. She texted me later that they were the best she had eaten in years.

Xin Yu

About the Writer:
Xin Yu

Xin Yu (aka Fish) is Shenzhen Conservation Director and Youth Engagement Director of The Nature Conservancy China Program. Since 2017, he has overseen TNC’s first City project in Shenzhen, China, focusing on Sponge City

Xin Yu

Will the pandemic flame urban residents’ passion to get in touch with Nature? I really hope so. Will people further respect and take care of Nature after the post-pandemic world becomes the new normal? We need to find out and do more.
I have often chatted with my colleagues at The Nature Conservancy about why we should pay more attention to urban conservation. Many don’t quite understand my overwhelming confidence in urbanism and its relationship with conversation or biodiversity. Some of them are used to working in the field and not in favor of being engaged in human society, and some of them might not be able to imagine what can happen to people’s urban world when one (re)integrates biodiversity.

Talking about COVID-19 pandemic, I’m certain that its enormous impact over the economy, governance, and people’s lifestyles is bringing us a different urban world, leaving us no choice but to change our ways of working. For those who are not familiar with urban conservation, I believe this has opened a door to them, allowing them to rethink based on the recent evidence from around the world showing a visual increase in urban biodiversity in just a few months, when most urban residents are staying home. These images press us to look at our cities as habitats shared by so many other types of creatures. This is a new lesson to teach most of us that urban land, rivers and coasts have never been truly taken away by humans from mother Nature.

Urban conservation is all about introducing changes to people’s minds and behaviors. However, due to COVID-19, urban residents are now changing themselves in many ways. It has become more difficult to organize them physically to participate in conservational actions.

In Shenzhen, the third largest city in China, after the pandemic curve has been flattened for a couple of weeks, we recently launched a responsive action called the “Grow together” Community Pro-nature Project. As a comforting nature education activity, social media and Zoom-like online conferencing tools were used to organize online workshops to provide trainings to community members about gardening. At same time, we distributed seed packets to the community while adhering to social distancing measures. Residents are now growing plants at home and will later transfer them to local community gardens or public green spaces.

Community members using QR codes to sign up, adhering to zero contact guidelines.©️Shekou Community Foundation

It seems that rebuilding the relationship between people and Nature, as well as between people themselves are the keys to our future work. We need to gain more skills on communicating with people via remote platforms to encourage them to stay closer to Nature in a more united way. Will the pandemic flame urban residents’ passion to get in touch with Nature? I really hope so. Will people further respect and take care of Nature after the post-pandemic world becomes the new normal? We need to find out and do more.

Carly Ziter

About the Writer:
Carly Ziter

Dr. Carly Ziter is a new Assistant Professor in the Biology department at Concordia University in Montreal, associated with Concordia's hub for Smart, Sustainable, and Resilient Cities and Communities.

Carly Ziter

I desperately miss interacting with family, friends, and colleagues in person—but I do plan to be more intentional about the choices I make, and to appreciate every family visit, conference, and chat in the hallway a little bit more as we make our way to a new normal.
As a new professor, I’ve spent the past year working with my very first cohort of graduate students, preparing for our first big field season, and generally setting the stage for a long-term research program. Covid has brought disappointments (the inevitable cancellation of professional opportunities), and tough decisions (which projects to put on hold, or let go entirely). It’s hard not to feel some sadness—or maybe self-pity—watching career opportunities fade away just when I felt I was gaining momentum. However, the increased media focus on urbanism and the importance of local nature has also re-invigorated my commitment to build a research program centred on co-production of greener, more sustainable cities.

I also feel incredibly fortunate to have a relatively secure position. Having made this transition so recently, I can’t help but empathize with students and early career researchers entering an (even more) uncertain job market. It’s clear Covid is no equalizer; disproportionately affecting those already disadvantaged by our current systems. Moving forward, I hope we can collectively find equitable ways to account for the inevitable disruptions to productivity, and protect those at vulnerable career stages. I know I will continue to reflect on how I can better use my position to support those facing difficult circumstances—Covid-related or otherwise.

Despite the many challenges, if there is a professional silver lining to our work-from-home reality it’s a strengthening of communities. Colleagues and collaborators have been incredibly generous with their time and advice throughout this transition, and I sincerely hope this collegiality and kindness continues long after we’re back in our physical workspaces and the hectic pace of academia resumes. I’m also encouraged by my students’ resilience—adjusting to online courses, developing new research directions after cancelled field seasons, and supporting peers. I’ve worked hard to build a positive lab environment this past year, and recent events have affirmed that a culture where we make time for and support each other must be a priority as we enter post-Covid life.

Finally, days full of Zoom, Slack, Moodle, and more have of course highlighted technological promises and pitfalls. Our department has embraced virtual communication, and my lab has finally developed a decent online workflow—changes that will improve communication long term. I will soon attend my first online conference, and am optimistic that virtual meetings will catalyze more climate-friendly, accessible options post-Covid. On a personal note, I video chat with family weekly, my college roommates have revived our years-old group chat, and my 85-year-old grandmother has learned to text. While I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic, I am grateful for the reminder to slow down and prioritize connecting with the important people in my life. I won’t say I’m ready to go fully online or flight free in my work or personal life—I desperately miss interacting with family, friends, and colleagues in person—but I do plan to be more intentional about the choices I make, and to appreciate every family visit, conference, and chat in the hallway a little bit more as we make our way to a new normal.

 

COVID-19 as an Accelerator to Rethink the City

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The COVID-19 outbreak that began early in 2020 has been an accelerator of how outer public and private spaces are perceived and valued as places for shelter, amusement, and social gathering.

Urban public space has been a subject of rethinking for decades regarding its role as a catalyst for revitalization and as a promoter of social interaction. Thus, most cities have experienced substantial improvements which positioned them in a better ranking of liveable cities, since the type and quality of urban public space have also been associated with the quality of life.

Life quality constitutes a subjective state of comfort that a citizen has in relation to their experience of living and developing in the city. Safety, health, cultural activities, infrastructure, diversity of places, mobility, and citizen participation are some of the important issues that control it. It is clear that part of this satisfaction is linked to public space, which does not only depend on urban services and goods, but also involves factors related to social interaction and organization.

Urban greenspace has long been excellent as a fundamental component in the structuring of outdoor space for its contribution to well-being and mental health. This positioning gained strength in the era of Hygienism, long before the urban revitalization movements of recent decades were installed, focusing mainly on the functionality of public space.

The COVID-19 outbreak that began early in 2020 has been an accelerator of how outer public and private spaces are perceived and valued as places for shelter, amusement, and social gathering. Some previous TNOC essays and roundtables are worth reading again, as they bring an account of ideas to navigate the pandemic and rethink cities in the desired post-COVID era.

(https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2021/04/29/documenting-the-pandemic-year-reflecting-backward-looking-forward/

https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2021/08/25/innovations-from-the-post-covid-19-city-colab-challenge/)

To explore the importance that people gave urban green during the pandemic, Baillie (2020) analysed over 40 million posts published through the social network Twitter, finding two trending topics: “enjoying nature from home” and “outdoor exercise”.

Globally, over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, visits to parks and squares have increased, and new personal rituals and habits with their local environment developed in an effort to escape confinement. Parks, squares, and waterfronts became dance floors, gyms, and open-air halls to celebrate events. In other words, the pandemic strongly modified the relationship between neighbours and nearby green spaces (images below).

A group of people sitting and watching a performance in an outdoor area
Square in Floresta Neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. Clowns with masks cheering the public while adults get vaccinated (A. Faggi August 2021)
A group of people on a beach in front of a wedding arch
A beach in Puerto Madryn as a place to celebrate a wedding (A. Faggi January 2022)

In Argentina, between March and July 2020, only health, security, and food supply workers, or those involved in human care tasks were allowed to leave their houses. The rest of the inhabitants could only move around a radius of up to 500m from their homes for their essential supplies. During the strict confinement period (image below), visits to green spaces decreased by about 87%. Then these restrictions were gradually relaxed, and, by October 2020, the practices of outdoor physical activities and social meetings were finally permitted first to be performed in open spaces. As this happened, people visiting green spaces increased, reaching a level 45% below the baseline pre-COVID. Highly populated districts with low green areas densities showed the highest mobility rates (Apple 2020).

A picture of the street from inside an empty bus with seats
Empty streets and buses during the Corona virus lockdown (A. Faggi Buenos Aires, September 2020)

Green spaces became the meeting places in the first place. A recent publication comparing the perception of residents about the UG in Buenos Aires city pre, during, and post-pandemic, based on 1740 surveys and interviews (Marconi et al. 2022) gives interesting results. Respondents of diverse social and demographic profiles assigned similar meaning to UG when asked before and during the COVID-19 confinement. They recognize green areas asplaces to be with nature”. This opinion changed post-lockdown as UG spaces were considered important places in the city”.

This is striking, since in Buenos Aires the density of green areas per inhabitant is low (6.09 m2/person) and the spaces for the parks and squares were not planned in advance, parks being located in vacant lots. https://elgatoylacaja.com/pisar-el-cesped.

What other examples of change triggered by COVID-19 can be found in some cities in the south of Latin America?

As in other parts of the world, cities have reallocated road space from cars to provide more space for people to stay in bars and restaurants (image below), for bicycles and people to move safely, respecting physical distancing rules. One of the proposals that came with the pandemic is the slow streets, which remain closed to cars and are only accessible to pedestrians, bicycles, and roller skates.

A sidewalk with outdoor restaurant seating and people
Tables and chairs from a bar in Buenos Aires advancing on the street where cars used to park (A. Faggi January 2022)

Consumption habits have changed significantly due to fear of contagion, which added to strict confinement measures, and increased the number of workers making home deliveries. A study carried out by the IDB Lab and Digital Future Society shows a home delivery increase of 81% between March and June 2020 in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the city of Montevideo, Uruguay, a multi-stakeholder project created a bicycle parking space as a secure rest-waiting area for those workers, in what was previously a car parking lot, with sanitizing devices and solar energy charging for cell phones.

The pandemic also changed the way we work. With the installation of remote working, the desire to live in a garden city where infrastructure, nature, and landscape merge was realized by many families. Thus, many families moved to localities that were previously only summer tourist destinations. An example is Pinamar, a seaside resort in the South Atlantic that combines sea with forest. With 55,000 inhabitants it had a demographic growth of 17.5% in the last 18 months. Despite the economic retraction that Argentina is experiencing, building construction in Pinamar has grown 225%, eight times higher than the country average with 25 % more shops open than in 2019.

The 2,500 families who moved in the last few months appreciate a city that strives for nature conservation and an adaptive management of the waterfront.

Groups of people walking along the sidewalks with parked cars and trees
Pinamar, a small town at the Atlantic coast, an attractive place to move and escape the hectic life of the Buenos Aires metropolis (December 2021)

Paradoxically, in the last two years, not only the virus has been mutating, cities did too.

The pandemic made visible shortcomings in the planning of public space, including accessibility, flexibility, design, management, connectivity, and equitable urban distribution. The cities that are best positioned are those who reacted quickly by adopting a political agenda that brings together urban planning, community development, environmental rehabilitation, and public health.

In these two years, the Coronavirus has been a catalyst for the magnificent ideas that the Danish architect Jan Gehl (2010) has preached since his graduation in 1960: Cities for people, with the urgent need to increase more square meters for common interests. His ideas indicate the need to plan cities on a human scale, where to find people: friendly and safe streets to walk along and stop to see details and for social interaction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KL_RYm8zs28.

Let us hope that this street’s recognition as structuring channels in which social meaning, mobility, civic engagement, human health, and environmental integrity converge last forever, offering an encouraging future to our cities. If that were the case, the tragedy of the virus would not have been in vain.

References

Apple (2020) Informes de tendencias de movilidad. Retrieved January 8, 2021from https://COVID-1919.apple.com/mobility

Baillie R (2020) How social distancing has renewed our love for nature, and what it means for a sustainable future. Granite J 4(1):27–36

Gehl, Jan (2010) Cities for people. Washington, United States Island Press

Marconi P, Perelman P,  Salgado  V (2022) Green in times of COVID‑19: urban green space relevance during the COVID‑19 pandemic in Buenos Aires City Urban Ecosystems https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-022-01204-z

Ana Faggi
Buenos Aires

On The Nature of Cities

COVID-19: Flattening the Curve Means Getting Comfortable with Muddled Urban Systems

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Dense and poor neighborhoods in Africa have special challenges for Covid-19 response, from the need to communicate health recommendations in local languages to the fact that migrant laborers, who fear deportation and retaliation by employers, have little incentive to embrace community-wide testing and report symptoms.
We live in, to say the least, a risky urban world. It is a historical fact that pandemics always impact cities differently. From the Athens plague in 430BC, which led to fundamental changes in city regulations and identities, to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, which disrupted class power structures in European societies, to the 2014-2015 specter of Ebola across sub-Saharan Africa that brought to bear the interconnected nature of cities in the global north and south, pandemics often reinvigorate urban systems. In the COVID-19 era, the most hard-hit areas in the world have been the cities of Wuhan (China), Milan (Italy), Madrid (Spain), and the New York City metro area (USA).

Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme, believes that in the future there will be a renewed focus on finding urban design solutions for individual buildings and wider neighbourhoods that enable people to socialize without being packed “sardine-like” into compressed restaurants, bars and clubs—although, given the incredibly high cost of land in big cities like New York and Hong Kong, success here may depend on significant economic reforms as well[i]. By drawing on this expert opinion and the facts on ground, it is fair to argue that the stealth transmission of COVID-19 means getting comfortable with muddled urban systems.

Muddling urban systems

Ever since the introduction of COVID-19 transmission control measures, such as frequent hand washing and social distancing, there have been tensions between what urban dwellers (including health workers) are used to and the dramatic change in daily routines that are associated with the guidelines passed on by mayors and governors. Besides the constitutional scrutiny of COVID-19 measures at national and municipal levels, which has put technocrats in city halls on their tentacles, the public is increasingly asking when and how will mobility restrictions be unwound. Should lock downs be phased, extended or lifted sector by sector? These urban governance questions require clarity and consistent messaging, as scientists and their colleagues in policy circles take on the risky endeavour of presenting evidence that speaks truth to power. The stealth nature of COVID-19 transmissions and the possibilities of its rebound if restrictions are lifted, are making mathematical and epidemiological models muddled, thus yielding tensions between public health imperatives, economic decisions and civil liberties[ii].

The global stress of addressing critical supply shortages, including respirators, gloves, face shields, gowns, and hand sanitizer, has already indicated how the recycling and re-use of urban waste can be the solution to an unfolding global health and economic crisis. Medical health workers are fashioning personal protective equipment (PPE) out of clinical waste bags, plastic aprons and borrowed skiing goggles[iii]. Muddling life, however, is not only restricted to urban health systems—like a cardiac arrest in a body that already carries the scars of chronic, untreated disease[iv]—but also water, transport, sanitation, waste management, food, and energy systems. Auto parts like existing drugs and vaccines are being repurposed into the much-needed ventilators and clinical trials respectively, as part of the efforts around flattening the curve in American cities[v].

In Africa, COVID-19 has been confirmed in all nations, except Lesotho, between 12 March and 15 April 2020[vi]. Urban households in informal settlements, which are often logistically challenging areas in terms of executing the WHO guideline of identify, test, trace, isolate and treat cases due to poor-resourced local health units, may only practice prudence and patience around social distancing, hand-washing and self-isolation, if food, waste management services, and water are channelled to them either free-of-charge or at a much reduced cost. In addition, local communities in African cities need to understand the behavioural changes required using local dialects. Mobile phone penetration has been repurposed as a COVID-19 tech that educates the public through the use of USSD Codes (an Unstructured Supplementary Service Data code that is programmed into your SIM card or your cell phone to make it easier to perform certain actions, e.g. #165*2#). The USSD Codes have enabled mobile phone owners check and exchange information about exposure and testing for COVID-19, in a way that speaks to local dialects in Africa[vii].

South Korean soldiers in Seoul trying to control the spread of COVID-19, 6 March 2020. Credit: World Economic Forum

Looking ahead, cities across the world will inevitably have to make important public health, economic, governance, and ecological decisions with less information than usual and reverse recently adopted policies. This argument is based on latest research published by medical professionals, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and other highly-regarded sources. Doctors and clinicians will need to assess disease severity and work out treatment options without being able to examine patient or measure pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, or oxygen saturation[viii].  Effective measures that match the constraints of the local context in African cities may call for a shift from reliance on centralised government-run water and sewerage systems, to innovative use of urban natural assets for water access (such as springs and swamps), and partnerships that create a safe and affordable system for sourcing clean water using locally-made water pumps[ix].

Quicker case identification and strengthening surveillance to trace contact and transmissions in communities, means exploring the interdependencies between analogue and technological options. Case data gathered as the outbreak proceeds (such as infections recorded at a health unit) will have to be coupled to the use of spatial media technologies for digitally mapping transmission rates in urban settlements, smart phones for visual content and artificial intelligence[x]. This data will also have to be compared with information on increased frequency and reach of travel, changing patterns of land use, changing diets, wars and social upheaval and climate change[xi], for the reason that such factors influence interactions between humans and the reservoir hosts of emerging pathogens, facilitating exposure to zoonotic viruses and spill over infections in people, and allow emerging viruses to spread more easily through human populations.

Amongst digitally literate urban populations, social distancing may be replaced by distant socialising, where people stay connected using smart technologies, due to the stress, loneliness and depression that arises from families and workmates being apart for a long time[xii]. Debunking myths and misinformation about the origins, spread, and effects of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, is not only restricted to the mandates of Infectious Disease Institutes, CDC and WHO, but also Tech Companies like Google and Facebook, as well as governors and mayors of city states and parents using credible sources of information to talk to their children[xiii]. Street and urban artists in Vietnam have now stepped out from the traditional roles organising mass gatherings for launching their albums, to using digital technologies (such as YouTube) to educate their funs about  hand washing solutions using songs.

Re-thinking urban sustainability along COVID-19

As the globe navigates the tensions and contradictions associated with COVID-19, cities will have to match their sustainability plans and policies with the need to not only pull back the speed of transmissions and infections, but also moderate the risk of exacerbating poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. The suspension of intra-city public transport, closing entertainment venues and banning public gatherings[xiv] can bring about short-term gains, but there is need to know that such mobility restrictions may worsen existing sustainability challenges. Cities are habitats of mobile residents pursuing different livelihood options, which are part and parcel of the functioning of interconnected urban systems, including, employment, transport, food, water, security, energy, health, sanitation, waste management, and housing systems.

The lessons from the Ebola Outbreak of 2014-15 indicate that quarantines, which were used as response measure in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, resulted in large waste disposal needs and other water, sanitation and hygiene vulnerabilities that put a strain on the governance and delivery of services[xv]. At one point in Freetown-Liberia, nearly 50% of the population was under quarantine. This meant a huge number of households in often logistically challenging areas required food and water transported to them, coupled to flash floods that make neigbourhood paths impassable[xvi]. Migrants in urban neigbourhoods, who fear deportation and retaliation by employers, have little incentive to embrace community-wide testing and report symptoms of COVID-19 at designated health units and labs.

In the United States, 45 percent of adults between the ages 19 to 64 are inadequately insured and 44 million are underinsured as of 2018, leading to high co-pays and out-of-pocket costs[xvii]. These individuals may be less likely to seek care for early symptoms of covid-19, at high-risk of contracting the disease, and to then facilitate spread through whole populations. While they may help contain the spread of COVID-19, quarantines and isolation techniques that depend on demarcated borders between residential and commercial properties can be difficult to implement sustainably, because life and survival in cities is about inclusion, trust and power relations in urban spaces.

The resolve and determination of different urban dwellers can challenge the ability of municipal agents to sustain social distancing techniques. This has already been indicated by spring breakers in Miami who have continued to go for beach life despite dire health warnings over the coronavirus[xviii]. City lockdowns along apartment complexes and commercial routes did not stop Reilly Jennings and Amanda Wheeler to tie the knot on 20 March 2020 at a ceremony held on a small street in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights[xix]. Schools and universities across cities in the world are closing for weeks or longer and this measure may be challenged by families that lack home-schooling habits and technology for virtual education, leading to delays in realizing the gains of containment strategies[xx]. Therefore risk-sensitive COVID-19 urban plans are required to reduce accumulated risk and to better consider the limitations of strategies that have worked in China.

Conclusions

Actions and inactions towards COVID-19 hold a transformative turn in the promise of inclusive and sustainable cities, as per Agenda 2030 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The argument that leapfrogging sustainability in cities means scaling up local solutions to incrementally upgrade urban systems, seems incongruent with the stealth transmission of COVID-19, the possibility of its rebound and the unprecedented breadth of restrictions that feed uncertainty into not only public health but also economic, social and ecological systems. Intrusive actions that lead to muddled urban systems is the reality we are being confronted with. Stay-at-home measures mirror the interconnected nature of urban housing, food, transport, energy, water, waste management and urban governance challenges, difficult to disentangle like the imperceptible or non-distinct nature of the illnesses associated with COVID-19. Therefore re-contextualizing the global goal of sustainable and inclusive cities will be necessary at international, national and municipal levels.

Kareem Buyana
Kampala

On The Nature of Cities

Notes:

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world

[ii] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2007637?query=featured_coronavirus

[iii] https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52145140

[iv] https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m1062

[v] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/video-tesla-building-ventilators-for-covid-19-patients-from-car-parts.html

[vi] https://council.science/current/blog/understanding-the-different-characteristics-of-african-cities-will-be-crucial-in-responding-effectively-to-covid-19-on-the-continent/

[vii] https://www.mtn.com/covid-19/

[viii] https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m1087

[ix] https://www.ids.ac.uk/opinions/the-impact-of-covid-19-in-informal-settlements-are-we-paying-enough-attention/

[x] https://doi.org/10.1017/ice.2020.61

[xi] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41564-018-0296-2

[xii] https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/19/try-distant-socializing-instead/

[xiii] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0802-y

[xiv] https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.30.20019844

[xv] ACAPS (2015) WASH in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone: The impact of Ebola. Geneva: ACAPS. Available at http://www.urban-response.org/resource/20612

[xvi] Associated Press (2014) ‘Liberian soldiers seal slum to halt Ebola’. NBC News, 20 August. Available at http://www.urban-response.org/resource/23751

[xvii] https://doi.org/10.26099/penv-q932

[xviii] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/flock-florida-spring-break-covid-19-warnings-200319105430567.html

[xix] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/21/us/new-york-couple-married-street-officiant-trnd/index.html

[xx]https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/03/18/covid-19-the-painful-price-of-ignoring-health-inequities/

Creating the Pioneer St Corridor: How the Tree Made Me See my Neighbors Differently

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The tree made me see my neighbors differently.

I began to wonder how we can foster attachment and investment without exclusionary territoriality…Through stewardship, suddenly I realized I’m using the word “we”.

Since spring 2014, I have been making humble attempts to care for the street tree in front of my apartment building—described here. In becoming a steward, I began to perceive neighbors and passers-by as potential threats to the tree. Trash, dog poop, car doors, children’s feet, bicycles, and road salt: these were my challenges to conquer. About the new cultural institution on my block, Pioneer Works, I wrote:

“Also, we had a new hipster art space just two doors down, and all the parties and openings to go with it; this led to a rise in the foot traffic and cigarette butts we encountered on the street. Most mornings I would stoop to clean the accumulated garbage out of the pit.”

Suddenly, I was feeling like the grumpy old man in cartoons shouting, “get off my lawn!” despite the arts space being just the kind of engaged institution that one hopes to see in a neighborhood. I didn’t want to feel this way, and began to wonder how we can foster attachment and investment without exclusionary territoriality.

As anyone knows who has tried to create or grow something in the public realm, there will always be setbacks: intentional vandalism, accidental breakage, and slow decay. Doing this sort of stewardship necessitates constant, ongoing, and determined investment of time, energy, material inputs, and money. It requires some mix of stubbornness and optimism. And I’m not sure whether it requires crazy wisdom or beginner-mind naiveté, or a mix of both.

Stewardship day 4
A tree we stewarded on Pioneer St. Photo: Lindsay Campbell.

I certainly now see tree pits differently—I marvel at those who can create verdant 5 x 9 foot garden patches. I admire a well-crafted tree guard that can last through NYC winters. I want to learn the secrets from the winners of the Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition. I take pictures of everything from tomato plants and corn in mini-agricultural tree pits; to Midtown beds filled to the gills with manicured tulips, planted by building supers and Business Improvement Districts; to handmade tiny tree guards that look like the Brooklyn Bridge. I dream about tires, bathtubs, pickle barrels, boots, cinder blocks and many other forms of DIY container gardens that I see lovingly cared for on sidewalks and front yards. And I know that I *definitely* do not have a green thumb (yet).

Tulip tree bed
Tulip flowers in tree bed, Midtown, Manhattan. Photo: Lindsay Campbell
Car tire planter
Tire planter in Washington, D.C. Photo: Natalie Campbell

But how could I come to see my neighbors differently? Not as threats, but as allies, compatriots, and fellow travelers in the urban forest?

In 2015, I met Carmen Bouyer, an artist in residence at Pioneer Works, whose practice focuses on sustainability, dialogue, and urban landscape. It took a community garden on public housing in the Rockaways, where we both have worked on a project called Landscapes of Resilience, to bring me together with my neighbor, Carmen, who had been working just a few doors down. Carmen had led workshops at the site where I was doing research on community stewardship post-Hurricane Sandy out in the Rockaways, focused on creating signage and lighting, engaging residents in proclaiming their love, attachment, and pride in place for Beach 41st Street.

I learned that Carmen, a Parisian-Brooklynite, was organizing a series of local NYC “Cultures of Resilience” roundtables, timed to align with the COP21 Meeting in Paris, and talking about what we can do to practice sustainability and resilience every day at home. She also shared updates from the climate talks, conveyed through news reports and activist and artist friends back in Paris.

Carmen invited me over to Pioneer Works to tour her studio space and the rest of the artists’ studios and community spaces. While I had walked through gallery shows on the ground floor and relaxed in their lovely backyard, I had never walked up the stairs, despite the many open studios they held: until now. Now I began to see possibility: meeting rooms, gathering spaces, even a community radio station. My prior conceptions about a “hipster” art space began to shift.

Then, Carmen told me about plantings of native plants she had done along the Brooklyn waterfront and lightbulbs began to go off. I encouraged Carmen to see the trees just outside her door as an area for ecological engagement. Maybe if Carmen and I worked together, we could get Pioneer Works not only to care for its incredible, shire-like landscape inside its fence, but to turn its gaze outward onto its immediate street, where the young street trees on the still-industrial, heavily truck-trafficked route were struggling. Maybe they would even let us run a hose from their tap, so we wouldn’t have to carry 10 gallon buckets down from the fourth floor to water our trees in the summer.

Carmen Flyer
Carmen’s “Clean, Prune, Mulch!” flyer. Image courtesy of Carmen Bouyer.

So, we decided to team up. I attended one of Carmen’s roundtables, and we worked together to organize a winter stewardship day on the block. We got mulch and bulbs from Gowanus Canal Conservancy, or GCC, and NYC Parks. Having a more established stewardship group from one neighborhood over lend us a hand with materials, knowledge, and human-power made our little stewardship day move from potential to possible. GCC brought a van filled with trowels, shovels, pole pruners, mulch, buckets, and hundreds of bulbs. They also brought stewardship expertise in the form of Bob Lesko and Leila Mougoui, GCC volunteer leaders, who showed us the ropes. Carmen and Bob were already certified as Citizen Pruners, so they gave some of the older trees a little spruce up. Several of our neighbors and roundtable attendees came out, but one of my favorite surprises was that cyclists along the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway stopped to admire our work and even join in. This was unplanned, spontaneous, and perfect.

Stewardship Day 1
Planting bulbs on our stewardship day. Photo: Lindsay Campbell
Stewardship day 2
Stewards at work in front of the GCC truck. Photo: Lindsay Campbell
Stewardship day 3
Carmen and Bob pruning trees. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

Our little two-block stretch is already a vital corridor, despite its hardscrabble looks. It is situated at a bend in the Greenway, with Pioneer Works on one end, and Bait and Tackle bar on the other. We are a small, two block connector between the commercial heart of our neighborhood (Van Brunt Street) and our waterfront spine (Imlay and Conover Streets). While many feet and wheels already traverse this social corridor, we are now envisioning it as an enhanced social-ecological corridor. I would love for our sweat equity (instead of a dollar donation) to earn us recognition as the official “adoptees” of the two block spur. Maybe someday we could even be mapped as a perpendicular offshoot/feeder to the greenway itself.

We are having our second Pioneer Street tree stewardship event this June, and hoping our momentum will gather. NYC Parks is coming to give us training as Super Stewards, which will enable us to apply for mini-grants and access free materials. GCC is coming back again with their grow van. We want to continue to mulch, prune, and water. And we want to get beyond just flowers to also include perennial shrubs and native grasses. We would love to have interstitial planter boxes among the trees, inspired by the work of GCC.

Suddenly I realize I’m using the word “we.”

Our informal group of friends and neighbors is becoming, slowly, a stewardship group. I say “hi” to new friends I met at the mulching day on the B61 bus. Marisa Prefer, one of our volunteers, now got a job as the head gardener for Pioneer Works, thanks to her talents as a farmer/gardener and introductions facilitated through Carmen. Carmen and I are plotting designs for signs and flags for all of our trees. I’m sending them both research articles about urban agriculture and urban forestry. We are conspiring, dreaming, and laughing. Suddenly, on a rainy day in April, I’m helping Marisa mulch trees in the Pioneer Works yard—and I realize that my desire to pull them out onto the street has simultaneously pulled me in to embrace this space. Next thing I know, I’m fantasizing about their yard as a potential wedding locale for me and my fiancé.

For the last decade or so, I’ve been researching and working to help visualize and understand stewardship as a part of environmental governance in cities through the Forest Service’s STEW-MAP project. Stewards help conserve, manage, monitor, educate about, or advocate for the environment (Svendsen and Campbell 2008). We’ve found that there are hundreds of civic stewardship groups citywide and in other cities across the country where we have replicated the study (Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Juan, PR). In New York City, about a third of the groups are like our Pioneer Street group—volunteer, emergent, unfunded—and half have no 501c3 status (STEW-MAP 2007; Fisher et al. 2012). At the same time, there are approximately a dozen professionalized, nonprofit umbrella groups that are playing a crucial brokering role, sharing information and resources between citywide public agencies and the local neighborhood grassroots (Connolly et al. 2013). These networked relationships present novel pathways for communication and shared action, and create a more flexible, adaptive approach to governance of the urban environment (Connolly et al. 2014).

Being a part of this progression from idea, to conversation between two people, to catalyzing a wider group of loose social ties, to networking with other organizations and institutions gives me a chance to study stewardship from within, to embody it.

As for the Pioneer Street stewards, we now have a vision of what is possible and we continue to transform our little corner of the world—ever so slightly. In so doing, I’ve realized that we also transform ourselves.

Lindsay Campbell
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

Works Cited

Connolly, James J., Svendsen, Erika S., Fisher, Dana R., and Lindsay K. Campbell 2013. “Organizing urban ecosystem services through environmental stewardship governance in New York City.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 1-9.

Connolly, James J.T.; Svendsen, Erika S.; Fisher, Dana R.; Campbell, Lindsay K. 2014. Networked governance and the management of ecosystem services: The case of urban environmental stewardship in New York City. Ecosystem Services. 10: 187-194.

Fisher, Dana R., Campbell, Lindsay K., and Erika S. Svendsen. 2012. “The Organizational Structure of Urban Environmental Stewardship.” Environmental Politics 21:1, 26-48.

Svendsen, Erika and Lindsay Campbell. 2008. “Understanding Urban Environmental Stewardship” Cities and the Environment 1(1): 1-32.

Creating Universal Goals for Universal Growth

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
1.-HodgesThere is a difference between equality and equity. Equality says that everybody can participate in our success and equity says we need to make sure that everybody actually does participate in our success and in our growth. A just city is a city free from both inequity and inequality.

Growth for the sake of growth alone cannot solve inequality and inequity. But solving such inequalities and inequities can spur growth.
We pay a significant price for inequities—in the billions in our cities, in the trillions nationwide. Growth is commonly pointed to as a solution, but growth for the sake of growth alone cannot solve these inequalities and inequities. However, solving these inequalities and inequities gets us growth.

Inequities make our cities risky business ventures. We don’t have the workforce that we need because we are not getting everyone into the workforce; we don’t have the consumer base that we need because not everyone can afford to consume. It creates an atmosphere where people are hesitant to invest because they don’t know if they’re going to have the consumer base or the workforce base that they need.

My city of Minneapolis suffers from some of the largest racial disparities in America on almost any measure: Employment, housing, health, education, incarceration—the list goes on. For example, while 67 percent of white kids graduate on time from Minneapolis Public Schools, only 37 percent of African American and Latino kids do, and just 22 percent of American Indian kids. When you consider that in just a few years, a majority of Minneapolis’ population will be people of color, this disparity is economically unsustainable, in addition to being morally wrong.

Minneapolis is in the midst of a building boom; cranes dot the sky as far as the eye can see. But growth alone can’t solve our equity problem. It’s not turning Minneapolis into a just city, because our current growth doesn’t include everybody.  Even though our overall unemployment rate has declined, the gap between white people and people of color remains the same.

The moral of this story is that if your boat is leaky or you don’t have one to begin with, the rising tide can’t and won’t lift you.

In our just city we must accept that inclusive growth is a better strategy than growth alone. Inclusive growth means that your life outcome is not determined by your race, age, gender, or zip code. Inclusive growth means we aren’t leaving any genius on the table. To achieve this, we need two things: universal shared goals about what we want for ourselves as a people and as a community, and the policies that will ensure that people get there.

What is a universally shared goal? There are a lot of them in America: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for starters, or dignity for our senior citizens through a safe retirement (Social Security) and accessible, affordable health care (Medicare). Often, we don’t even have to voice shared goals such as these to know that we all want them.

As mayor, one of my jobs is to help make sure that everybody in our community shares our goals as a city and has a say in the goal. Residents must understand that there’s something in it for them. When there’s something in it for everyone, everyone wants that something—and inclusive growth offers something for everyone.

For instance, in my region of Minneapolis–Saint Paul, if we eliminated all disparities by 2040, our regional planning agency estimates that 274,000 fewer people would live in poverty, 1