Ecological Disasters and the Hidden Truth

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

“Human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage where mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence.”
Dalai Lama XIV

I am writing this blog as I am deeply disturbed by the colossal tragedy that happened in Kedarnath and Rambada region of Uttarakhand State on 15 June 2013  due to cloud burst as per few reports or disturbance in the glaciers in Kedarnath as per some others, whatever the reason be. This is one of the important pilgrimage centres in India and is considered as one of the Char Dhams (four must-visit pilgrimage centres).


There is still a debate over the number of people killed. Some estimates put the death toll between 5,000 to 10,000, and many people are still missing. In India, this is not the first incidence of flashfloods and cloudbursts. In 1908 one cloud burst was reported. After a span of 62 years, another cloud burst occurred in July 1970 in Uttarakhand. Since 1990s, 17 cloudbursts have happened to cause massive damage to lives and property, of which at least 11 cloudbursts occurred only in the hilly states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, now this phenomenon seems to be highly frequent: 11 out of the 17 cloud bursts occurred only during 2010-2013. Experts say that the increase in frequency of such incidence is because of climate change.

NumberOfTuristsCharDhamWhile we can easily categorize this as a natural disaster, I attribute this as a human-made disaster. Ecological disasters are a result of disturbance in the natural rhythm due to adopting lifestyles and technology practices that change the basic constitution of nature. Uttarakhand, the place where the disaster happened in June, is located at the foothills of the Himalayan mountain region and is abundantly rich in forests, mountains and water and is an ideal place of hydropower generation.

We clearly know the real culprits in this case. It is not the nature but we human beings. I see this tragedy directly arising from destabilizing ecosystem services provided in Uttarakhand. There is massive deforestation in the region. Especially the hill regions due to their topography are extremely fragile, and deforestation along the mountain tracts would mean inviting the peril. Similarly, there has been a lot of sand mining along the river banks which change the natural course of the river, rampant and illegal construction to absorb the growing tourists, lack of proper urban and town planning along the hills, ridges and river beds, and building of hydroelectric dams to satiate the demand for electricity mostly from urban population. The last factor seems to be a key trigger in influencing the disaster and dams involve massive destruction of fragile mountain ecosystem through extracting resources from the riverbeds for construction, drilling tunnels, blasting rocks, laying transmission lines, running of giant turbines, along with altering the hydrology of the region.

StatusOfHydelCapacityStatistics do not lie. We can see that the average annual growth rate in Gross Domestic Product of the state has been 18.6% between 2004 and 2012. The state could achieve such a growth rate due to the wide-range of benefits it offers to industries in the form of interest incentives, financial assistance, subsidies and concessions. The state has also undertaken several initiatives to attract tourists. Tourism has both direct and indirect impacts on the economy. The quality of the forest cover has declined and it varied among the districts. The decadal growth in urban population in the State has been 42% during 2001-2011 while the district Rudraprayag, where the disaster struck, has registered a growth rate of 263%. The number of hydroelectric projects in the hill states of Uttarakhand, Himachal and Jammu has increased and they generate 148,701 MW of energy and several projects worth 98,242 MW are in the pipeline. There are around 680 dams reportedly in various stages of planning or construction in Uttarakhand, in addition to the 70 existing ones.

DecadeGrowthIndiaWe know that most of this demand for hydroelectric power and better infrastructure comes from the urban dwellers, who do not even understand the relevance of ecosystem services to their everyday life. The problem lies in the mindset of most of the urbanized people and policy makers who think that a magic wand called technology is the key to all problems in India. Our technologies have proved to be regressive in terms of increasing the size of our ecological footprints. My last last blog addressed this issue on ecological footprints and addressed why we need to reduce our footprint.

What does this mean?

There is a multiple organ failure in the form of institutional, governance and policy failures. In my last blog, I discussed that our policies are so short sighted that we cannot move beyond our narrow plans that concentrate on growth. This is like curing the disease even if the disease has multiple side effects. The disease here is curing the problem of unemployment and stagnation in production and consumption. However, there are multiple side effects in the form of ecological degradation, which will ultimately kill us one day. Is there a remedy now? We need to provide a quick fix to the technical snag in the system by addressing institutional, governance and policy failure by adopting integrated system approaches, rather than continuing a component approach.

It is not easy.

First of all we need to ease the pressure of human settlements and promote more balanced development models. We should respect the ecologically fragile zones and protect them from exploitation. This requires creating the ecologically sensitive zones in the states. The regions need (1) strict building and infrastructure codes, (2) undertake massive reforestation in the hilly regions, (3) avoid degradation along the slopes and (4) adopt a more cautious development model.

The growth should allow nature to breathe, regenerate and recuperate. We need to come out of the illusion called growth rate of GDP as the real sign of progress and focus more towards new indicators, which recognize the value of nature. If not, growth rate in Uttarakhand in a year from now would be much higher as a result of asset reconstruction, and we will suffer from an illusion that the economy is truly growing.

The Indian government convened an ‘expert group’ under the chairmanship of Sir Prof. Parth Dasgupta and under the directive of the Prime Minister. The report, a “framework for greening India’s national accounts”, was released on 6 April 2013. The report emphasized the necessity of recognizing all forms of capital as wealth—produced, natural, human and social—for measuring sustainability of the country’s growth. If the recommendations and road map prepared by the report are accepted, the country may seriously think differently about the way they make future assessments of their economic performance. And as a result we would think of different and improved planning strategies for eco-sensitive states.

Haripriya Gunimeda

On The Nature of Cities




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

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

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

Changes in five years at the project site. Credit: Keitaro Ito.
Changes in five years at the project site. Credit: Keitaro Ito.
The dam in the river mouth at Onga-river, north part of Kyushu, Japan. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The dam in the river mouth at Onga-river, north part of Kyushu, Japan. Photo: Keitaro ITO

The Planning and design site

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

Before planning and design, 2008. Photo: Keitaro ITO
Before planning and design, 2008. Photo: Keitaro ITO

Planning and Design process

We conducted our basic design process during October 2008 through March. As in our previous projects in school gardens and city park, we used “process planning”. The fundamental principles of our landscape design are as follows: (1) using local materials; (2) avoiding artificial shapes; (3) creating play spaces for children; and (4) enhancing native biodiversity. According to the above principles, we stated “Restoration of a waterfront space linking between people and living nature” as the design concept. The figures below show the informal design sketches by Keitaro ITO. And the 1/100 model was made by the students in Keitaro Ito Lab.

Practical planning was held April 2009 through September 2010 with MLIT staff, university students, local government staff, residents, children and consultants. Collaborative work was conducted in 12 workshops.

First sketch of the project, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO
First sketch of the project, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO
Concept sketch of the project, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO
Concept sketch of the project, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO
Fig. 5 The 1/100 model, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO Lab
Fig. 5 The 1/100 model, 2009. Credit: Keitaro ITO Lab

Construction and use process

The construction process occupied one and half years, October 2010 to March 2012. At first, we got rid of the concrete structure and recycled them for fixing the underground structure at this site. Finally, the site was gradually covered with grasses and trees; areas children could occupy. Also, the site at the end of the lower fishway was designed for a tidal flat which could attract both water creatures and birds. Although tidal flats used to exist everywhere at river mouth areas in Japan, it has currently become rare due to concrete embankment construction. Consequenctly, very significant ecosystems at tidal flat areas are threatened. The can be a special place for an an environmental education opportunity for local children to observe ecosystems .

Getting rid of concrete structure, 2010. Photo: Keitaro ITO
Getting rid of concrete structure, 2010. Photo: Keitaro ITO
Recycled concrete pieces for underground structure. 2011. Photo: Takayuki Fukaura
Recycled concrete pieces for underground structure. 2011. Photo: Takayuki Fukaura
Children came into the fishway and thinking how to use the stones for the ecosystem near the river mouth, 2012. Photo: Keitaro ITO
Children came into the fishway and thinking how to use the stones for the ecosystem near the river mouth, 2012. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The site is gradually covered with grasses and challenging for more biodiversity; Lower part, 2013. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The site is gradually covered with grasses and challenging for more biodiversity; Lower part, 2013. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The site is gradually covered with grasses and challenging for more biodiversity. Upper part, 2013. Photo: Keitaro ITO
The site is gradually covered with grasses and challenging for more biodiversity. Upper part, 2013. Photo: Keitaro ITO

Local people’s participation

Four workshops took place in order to share this design concept and process with local people, So, it was expected that they would become close to this ecology park before completion of the renovation work. The local government and people must manage the park in the future. It should be noted that the local people knew that a core reason for the park was ecological restoration and education, and that these elements must be incorporated into the maintenance. The attendees were the students from our university, the Ashiya-town government, Ashiya-Higashi primary school, and local nature protection members.

Now (July 2014) we are in next stage of the project and challenging ourselves on how to manage the fishway and grassland for urban biodiversity. The detailed design process and ecological monitoring data will be coming soon in a book and papers.

Keitaro Ito

Univ. Students, primary school children and local people have collaborative work for the survey and environmental management. This is also including process planning, 2013. Photo: Keitaro ITO
Univ. Students, primary school children and local people have collaborated for surveys and environmental management. Photo: Keitaro ITO

Credit for the Project

The park was designed & formed as a space for nature restoration at the weir across the mouth of River Onga in Fukuoka which used to be covered by concrete.

Producer: Ongagawa river office, MLIT. Keitaro ITO, Kyushu Inst. of Tech. Suguru TATSUMOTO, Ongagawa river office. Yuichi ONO, Kyushu University.

Director: Keitaro ITO, Kyushu Inst. of Tech. Takayuki FUKAURA, Ongagawa river office. Matsuura Shiraishi JV. Matsumasa Fukuyama JV. Mishima Construction CO.,Ltd.

Designer: Keitaro ITO, Kyushu Inst. of Tech. Lab. of Env. Design (Keitaro Ito Lab.) , Kyushu Inst. of Tech. Yachiyo engineering CO.,Ltd. CTI engineering CO.,Ltd. Civil eng. & eco-tech. consultants CO.,Ltd.


1) Ito, K., Fjortoft, I., Manabe, T., Masuda, K., Kamada, M. and Fujuwara, K. (2010).

Landscape design and children’s participation in a Japanese primary school – Planning

process of school biotope for 5 years. Urban Biodiversity and Design.Consrevation Science and Practice Series. Eds. N. Muller, P.Werner, J.G. Kelcey Blackwell Academic Publishing. Oxford.

2) Fjørtoft, I. and Ito K. (2010) How green Environments afford play habitats and promote healthy child development. A mutual approach from two different cultures: Norway and Japan , Science without Borders., Transactions of the International Academy of Science H&E, 46-61, 2010

3) Keitaro Ito, Ingunn Fjørtoft, Tohru Manabe and Mahito Kamada (2014) Landscape Design for Urban Biodiversity and Ecological Education in Japan: Approach from Process Planning and Multifunctional Landscape Planning, Designing Low Carbon Societies in LandscapesEcological Research Monographs, Eds. Nobukazu Nakagoshi, Jhonamie A. Mabuhay pp 73-86


Ecologically Smart Cities: Keeping Urban Ecosystems Centre Stage in India’s Smart Cities Programme

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

On a path of accelerated urbanization, India is going through substantial changes in its land cover and land use. In 1950, shortly after Indian independence, only 17 percent of the country’s population lived in cities. Today, India’s urban population stands at 33 percent. India contains three of the world’s ten largest cities—Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata—as well as three of the world’s ten fastest growing cities: Ghaziabad, Surat, and Faridabad. In the past two decades, the area covered by Indian cities has expanded by a staggering 250 percent, occupying an additional 5,000 km2 of India’s surface with concrete, asphalt and glass (Nagendra et al., 2013). Projections indicate that more than 50 percent of India’s people will be living in cities by 2050 (United Nations, 2014). This massive urbanization will pose large scale challenges for urban resilience and sustainability, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable: the urban poor, migrant workers, traditional village residents.

“Smart cities,” a program of focus of the Indian government, are considered to hold promise to resolve major challenges of urban sustainability. This approach is driven by a belief in the supremacy of technology for the efficient management of urban growth. Yet other equally, if not more, significant issues of the importance of nature and the restoration of thriving ecosystems for the wellbeing and health of people in cities demand  attention. A systematic focus on urban ecosystems, via the protection of urban commons, is essential to provide a robust, adaptive, and resilient pathway towards greater urban sustainability.

The environmental consequences of the rapid growth of cities are starkly apparent. Urban expansion has degraded and destroyed natural habitats across most Indian cities and small towns, transforming urban forests, lakes, and wetlands into polluted travesties of their former ecological vigor, and converting them into vast expanses of concrete construction. Why should we care about the impacts of urbanization on ecosystems? In part, of course, because of their intrinsic value. In addition, though, urban ecosystems are essential for human health and wellbeing and, ultimately, for urban resilience.

1. Trees provide shade for all, including vulnerable groups such as street vendors in Bangalore
Trees provide shade for all, including vulnerable groups such as street vendors in Bangalore.

Urban ecosystems provide a range of important ecosystem services that are critical for the sustainability of cities. Wetlands clean up water contaminated with industrial pollutants and sewage, while trees strip the air of pollutants. For instance, coastal wetlands provide protection against flooding to parts of Navi Mumbai, an extension of the city of Mumbai (Nagendra et al., 2013), while inland wetlands buffer the city of Chennai from flooding during heavy rains (Nambi et al., 2014).

Trees in Bengaluru clean polluted air and provide shade for street vendors and pedestrians, reducing the levels of harmful pollutants such as suspended particulate matter and sulphur dioxide (Vailshery et al., 2013). Services such as these are termed “regulating” services because they regulate the environment. Important “supporting” ecosystem services, such as the provision of habitat for migratory birds and bats, are provided by urban ecosystems such as the coastal wetlands of Mumbai and parks in Bangalore (Nagendra et al., 2013).

2. A park in Bangalore provides a refuge for large colonies of the fruit bat
A park in Bangalore provides a refuge for large colonies of the fruit bat.

Urban ecosystems also provide important cultural and recreational ecosystem services. Ecosystems hold an important place in the cultural landscape of urban India through their sacrality and worship (Nagendra et al., 2014). Exposure to green spaces provides wellbeing and psychological relief from urban stress. Parks, lakes and coastal beaches act as important social nodes of congregation, strengthening social bonds between disparate, anonymous urban residents.

3. In the heart of the city, children engage in a time honored favorite activity - climbing trees!
In the heart of the city, children engage in a time honored favorite activity—climbing trees!
4. Children from wealthy residential areas and local slums working side by side, painting leaves and stones at an urban lake festival in Bangalore
Children from wealthy residential areas and local slums working side by side, painting leaves and stones at an urban lake festival in Bangalore.

The importance of urban regulatory, supporting and recreational services are widely recognized by the public, as well as by policy makers and planners. Yet there has been a systematic decline in the availability of urban ecosystems for provisioning ecosystem services across Indian cities. In almost all Indian cities, lakes, tree cover, grasslands and wetlands once provided food, fodder, fuelwood and other important resources. These ecosystem products are still consumed by many, from cattle owners and fishers to migrant workers and the poor. For instance, the mangroves of Mumbai are used by thousands of local residents for collecting fodder, fuelwood, and food, while lakes in many parts of Bangalore continue to provide fodder for cattle, and supply milk and fish to city residents. These areas historically functioned as urban commons, providing collective resources for the entire community in times of scarcity and need.

5. Goats grazing at a lake in Bangalore
Goats grazing at a lake in Bangalore.

However, local planners and governments have permitted the large scale conversion of these areas for urban development. It is only in recent years, in particular after large scale flooding in 2005, that the utility of maintaining mangrove habitats for flood protection and lakes for ground water recharge became recognized, prompting the protection of these habitats (Parthasarathy, 2011). The motivation for such protection has been the urgent need to maintain regulatory ecosystem services, while the importance of production services for the resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable has been largely ignored in official planning discourse. For example, many lakes across Bengaluru are now being restored in response to ground water depletion, following citizen protests by affected local communities.

6. Community protests to save a polluted lake in Bangalore
Community protests to save a polluted lake in Bangalore.

Yet the protection of lakes has an often ignored, yet important social consequence: while lake ecological condition improves, restored lakes are typically fenced and gated to keep out grazers, washermen (dhobies), fishers and other traditional users.

7. A sign in Kannada announces that fish are available at a local lake in Bangalore-1
A sign in Kannada announces that fish are available at a local lake in Bangalore.

Urbanization thus not only leads to specific patterns of change in ecosystem use: it also leads to specific types of change in the perceived value of specific types of ecosystem services, shaping wide ranging policies that regulate access to and management of these former urban commons.

Regulatory and recreational ecosystem services have systematically taken precedence over productive uses of ecosystems in the minds of the urban public, the media, and city administration. In turn, urban ecosystems have transformed from commons or common pool resources used by communities for shade, water, grazing, fishing, and fuelwood collection, to protected lakes, parks, and mangrove forests that belong to the state, valued for public ecosystem services such as ground water recharge, recreation, and flood protection.

8. A tree branch provides shade and shelter for a makeshift cradle, holding the sleeping child of a street vendor in a Bangalore park-1
A tree branch provides shade and shelter for a makeshift cradle, holding the sleeping child of a street vendor in a Bangalore park.
9. Water collected from a depression in a dry lake bed is an important resource, used by the inhabitants of a tented skum-1
Water collected from a depression in a dry lake bed is an important resource, used by the inhabitants of a tented slum.

In this process, many of the urban poor—whose livelihood resilience, health, and nutritional levels depended on access to provisioning ecosystem services—have been the worst affected, losing access to the services provided by natural ecosystems due to the dual processes of privatization for urban land use and public protection for conservation (Mundoli et al., 2014).

10. An advertisement for a private butterfly park in a new residential complex in Bangalore
An advertisement for a private butterfly park in a new residential complex in Bangalore.

The massive scale of urbanization in India will undoubtedly pose challenges for the country’s environment, ecology, society, and sustainability. Responding to these challenges will require sustained attention to devising and implementing appropriate policies for ecologically sustainable urban growth. The current focus on smart cities in India is driven by a search for technological fixes. Yet the restoration of thriving ecosystems as urban commons, which can ensure the wellbeing and health of a wide strata of people in Indian cities, requires equal attention. A systematic focus on urban ecosystems is essential and can provide a relatively inexpensive, adaptive, robust, and resilient approach for enhancing urban sustainability. Better protection, management, and use of urban ecosystems will be essential for urban sustainability in the era of the Anthropocene.

An ecologically smart city may be the smartest city one can envisage! Such an approach would increase the resilience of cities by providing low-cost, adaptive, and efficient ways to deal with the challenges of providing safe food, pure water, and clean air for unprecedented and growing numbers of people. To create ecologically smart cities, a systematic focus on urban ecosystems is required, restoring their original function as urban commons that provide important provisioning, regulatory, recreational, and supporting ecosystem services. Such ecologically smart cities would be low-cost, adaptive, and resilient to a whole host of local and global environmental challenges, from pollution and food insecurity to climate change.

Harini Nagendra

On The Nature of Cities

This essay originally appeared on UGEC Viewpoints.


Mundoli, S., Manjunatha, B., Nagendra, H. 2014. Effects of urbanization on the use of lakes as commons in the peri-urban interface of Bengaluru, India. International Journal of Sustainable Urban Development  DOI: 10.1080/19463138.2014.982124.

Nagendra, H., Sudhira, H.S., Katti, M., Schewenius, M. 2013. Sub-regional assessment of India: Effects of urbanization on land use, biodiversity and ecosystem services. In Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities, ed. Thomas Elmqvist et al., Chapter 6, pp. 65-74

Nagendra, H., Unnikrishnan, H.,  Sen, S. 2014. Villages in the city: spatial and temporal heterogeneity in rurality and urbanity in Bangalore, India. LAND 3: 1-18.

Nambi, A.A., Rengalakshmi, R., Madhavan, M.,  Venkatachalam, L. 2014. Building urban resilience: assessing urban and peri-urban agriculture in Chennai, India. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya.

Parthasarathy, D. 2011. Hunters, gatherers and foragers in a metropolis: commonising the private and public in Mumbai. Economic and Political Weekly XLVI: 54-63.

United Nations. 2014. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York.

Vailshery, L.S., Jaganmohan, M., Nagendra, H. 2013. Effect of street trees on microclimate and air pollution in a tropical city. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 12: 408-415.

Ecologies of Elsewhere: Giving Urban Weeds a “Third Glance”

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

New modes of engaging with the urban landscape will not be based on superficial aesthetic concerns or sentimental rear-view thinking, but a celebration of the messy complexities and nuances of novel ecosystems, and the active role they will continue to play in the nature (and future) of our cities.

Volunteers. Exotics. Aliens. Weeds. Whatever happens to be your preferred nomenclature when describing the existence and behavior of spontaneous vegetation, it’s clear that many biases abound. We pluck, poison and mulch our landscapes to keep these decidedly untidy forces at bay. Yet have we also effectively mulched our mindsets?  Have we blunted our ability to see these ubiquitous features of our everyday lives as anything other than botanical garbage? Might we benefit from taking a second, or a third glance at these novel ecosystems, perhaps even include them into our expanding definitions of “urban resilience”? A growing body of discourse and practice says yes.

First glances can be deceiving

When famed Italian artist and cartographer Giovanni Battista Piranesi decided to depict the dereliction of 18th century Rome in his Vedute series, it was not by accident that he reserved amplified poetic license in expressing the ways weeds had taken over. Looking into the margins of these highly detailed etchings, one can’t help but ponder the role of common European weeds such as burdock (Arctium lappa) and common reed (Phragmites australis) emerging as central subjects, actively ravaging the skeleton of a once great city.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Vedute Di Roma #9, ca. 1760. Source:

As they were in 18th century Rome, scenes like this have become commonplace at many scales within our human altered environments today, nibbling at the forgotten fringes of our yards and neighborhoods, teasing our ingrained notions of the natural. This is not Nature with a capital N, but rather “nature” in its more mischievous and subliminal form. The kind of nature that expresses itself in moments of self-willed ecological poetry: emerging from the shadows and cracks of the sidewalk, or in tangled masses along transportation corridors, or peeking defiantly through the tattered remains of post-industrial ruins.

The author at the edge of a Novel Ecosystem in contemporary Rome. Photo: Kim Karlsrud

It’s no wonder then that these messy “novel ecosystems” aren’t just seen as symptomatic of decline, but also symbolic of it, even contributive to it. But it’s precisely their special status as botanical boogie men that makes weeds so fascinating. At every turn, they seem to defy our instruments of control, and remind us of the chaos which lurks just beyond the veil of order.

Whether through the process of romantic imitation, clever marketing strategy, or scientific consensus, weeds have always signified the untamed, unwanted or feral aspects of our world—untidy nuisances to be disregarded, slowed, or even killed. One only needs to observe the campy television commercials for Roundup®, which typically feature an otherwise average domestic father figure temporarily transformed into a vigilante cowboy of the old west, battling a formidable band of vegetable outlaws. In place of a pistol is a spray wand containing Monsanto’s powerful glyphosate herbicide, armed and ready to chemically restore law and order to the untamed backyard frontier. Weeds in this context are often presented as anthropomorphized versions of themselves, an obvious attempt to exaggerate the pathology of their sinister intentions: thuggish thistles, dastardly dandelions and pick-pocket plantains.

Clips from Roundup Commercials. Via Youtube
Clips from Roundup Commercials. Via Youtube

But it’s not just suburban dads who vilify these common constituents of the urban ecosystem. Many professional ecologists and conservation biologists, with a longstanding disciplinary bias towards the study of native ecosystems and pristine wilderness conditions, have tended to study alien species exclusively through the lens of invasiveness. This lens has proven to be effective and arguably appropriate to understand the ways in which some botanical newcomers behave badly when introduced to a new territory—gobbling up resources, altering habitats, displacing native species, and generally wreaking havoc on the ecosystems they invade. The fact that the vast majority non-natives appear to integrate smoothly with their new neighbors is rarely emphasized.

In its third Global Biodiversity Outlook (CBO-3), the internationally funded Convention on Biological Diversity still lists the spread of exotic species as one of the biggest threats to planetary health and sustainability, citing a familiar shortlist of culprits which are laying waste to agriculture, spreading infectious disease, and so on (“Global Biodiversity Outlook 3” 2017). Emerging from this demoralizing narrative of loss and degradation is an elevated sense of threat with regard to all non-native species, and a range of land management practices that are based the continuing assumption that native is always good, and exotic is always bad.

This “green xenophobia” is powerful and pervasive, and impacts the ways we think and talk about urbanized landscapes too. Even the relatively nascent field of urban ecology to date has tended to direct much of it’s focus on more charismatic urban megaflora and “restorative” design solutions rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the feral and the funky. Driven by the desire to reconcile the (false) binary of “City” and “Nature”, these management and design strategies tend to disregard or supplant that which may already be thriving as an impediment to the establishment of “healthier” seeming ecosystems.

This phenomenon was recently reflected upon by Emma Marris in an apt critique she referred to as the “The Highline Problem”—in reference to New York City’s now iconic landscape darling designed by James Corner’s Field Operations. In its former condition as a spontaneous urban meadow on a defunct elevated railway in Chelsea, The Highline likely boasted a range of common weedy species such as tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), fleabane (Erigeron canadensis), and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)—all of which are conspicuously absent from the plant palette in its formalized condition today. While noting the project as a gorgeous piece of green infrastructure, Marris questions the costs of this new arrangement in both biological and financial terms, noting the irony that a space which started as a self-willed cosmopolitan urban meadow with an effective operating cost of zero, now boasts the highest maintenance bill of any park in the city (“The Last Word On Nothing | Urban Wilderness and the ‘High Line Problem’ ” 2017).

New York City’s Highline Park, Before and After. Source:

Second glances as a call to arms

Because they’re less charming than their ornamental counterparts, and seemingly less trustworthy than their native counterparts, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against the acceptance of weeds as a welcome expression of nature in our cities and in our everyday lives. Yet a growing body of contemporary creative practice and emerging research suggests that despite their unseemly appearance and dubious provenance, spontaneous urban vegetation may actually represent an unlikely expression of urban resilience, worthy of at least a second glance.

New nature writers such as the previously mentioned Emma Marris, Richard Mabey, and Fred Pierce, examine the deep and complex lives of these plants through lenses as far flung as history and folklore, to invasion biology and climate change (Pearce 2014; Marris 2010; Mabey 2010). In the space of academic ecology, researchers such as Peter Del Tredici, Ingo Kowarik, and Norbert Kuhn have dedicated their careers to understanding the dynamics of urban vegetation in all its forms. Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide has been a staple reference for landscape and ecology students since it’s original publication in 2010.

A unifying theme in the work of these contemporary thinkers is the suspension of disbelief and judgment about non-native species to consider their potential merits as much as their potential risks. Their diverse modes of inquiry are not informed by typical knee-jerk presumptions of guilt, or mythologies of good vs. evil, but by observation and curiosity. Instead of judging species by their origins or aesthetics, they challenge us to consider their actual behavior and contextualize their role in the ecosystems they’ve become a part of.

Take, for example recent phytoremediation research suggesting that many ruderal species are highly effective “bioaccumulators”, capable of drawing up heavy metals like nickel and cadmium from post-industrial brownfield sites at prodigious rates (Kennen and Kirkwood, n.d.). Common plantains (Plantago major) seem particularly adept at plucking particulate pollution right from the air in the roadside environments they tend to inhabit (Weber, Kowarik, and Säumel 2014). Even dandelions (perhaps the most iconic among the uncharismatic urban microflora) have been studied as a vital early source of spring nectar to thirsty urban pollinators (“Urban Pollinators: Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale agg., 2017). In his groundbreaking book on the subject, Richard Mabey observes that weeds exhibit an uncanny ability to thrive in even the most disturbed, contaminated, and abused landscapes we create, noting that “What we ignore, more perilously, is the fact that many of them may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart” (Mabey 2010).

Many creative practitioners have also taken notice. Landscape architects such as Margie Ruddick, and David Seiter are among the forerunners of innovative new approaches to urban planting design and landscape management. Ruddick’s Wild By Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes, and Seiter’s SUP (Spontaneous Urban Plants) have recently emerged as essential compendia for exploring the cosmopolitan wilderness conditions and potentials in cities like Philadelphia, and New York City. Itinerant Artist and writer Ellie Irons evokes weeds as both artistic muse as well as powerful political metaphor, and even paints with pigments derived from wild urban plants she’s collected. The so called No-Mow Movement in the United States and elsewhere has set its sights on understanding what happens when we intentionally forego the weed-whacker in certain areas of the city and rebrand these sites in a positive light. A growing contingent of amateur urban botanists have even emerged on Instagram (Plants of Babylon, The COMMONStudio, and LocalEcologist as just a few examples) all using 21st century tools to spot, identify and share their casual encounters with common urban weeds.

Sign marking the territory of an experimental long-term “No-Mow” site. Source:

Perhaps one of the most exciting examples of formally “collaborating with chaos” can be found in Berlin’s Natur-Park Südgelände, a public park and urban nature reserve that is decades in the making. Originally used a freight rail yard, Südgelände was subsequently abandoned in 1952 and remained virtually untouched and forgotten for nearly four decades amid the economic, political and territorial disputes between East and West Berlin. When curious citizens and urban ecologists visited this territory just after the city’s re-unification in 1989, they were amazed to encounter the active processes of ecological succession playing out right under their noses in the heart of the city. In the spaces of unused railway tracks and open fields of sterile gravel, a novel and eclectic mode of nature had taken hold: Robinia trees, and extensive meadows containing ragtag mixtures of native and exotic wildflowers, dry grasslands, and shrubs (Kowarik and Langer, n.d.). Rather than erase the novel ecosystems that had emerged there, the design team conceived a plan that embraced them. Since it’s opening in 2000, this 18 hectare (44 acre) park has served as a thriving ecological sanctuary and community amenity, home to over 350 plant species, 47 fungi, 30 species of bird, 57 species of spider, as well as numerous wild bees and insects (“Natur-Park Suedgelaende, Berlin” 2017).

The Natu-Park Suedgelaende Plan. Source:
Pedestrian Pathway within the Natur-Park Südgelände. Source:

These second glances offer a way out of the limited conceptual traps of upholding “nativism at all costs”, and unlocks new narratives of vindication for plants and ecosystems that have been historically marginalized as “guilty by association.” In so doing, these important precedents are helping redefine what it means to live in a “post-wild” world, and challenging us to expand our outdated notions of what counts as nature—especially in our increasingly urbanized habitats.

Closer glances of the third kind

Novel urban ecosystems—and the exotic biota that inhabit them—are an unavoidable part of our ecological inheritance in the Anthropocene. Despite our best efforts to eradicate or control them, they are here to stay. And they will continue to move, colonize, spread and change. Alien species and “weeds” seem to occupy a distinct niche in our collective consciousness, marked by extreme prejudice, and narratives of loss. But might this be a by-product of our limited purview? Our first glances?  A range of contemporary voices (writers, artists, scientists, and designers) are moving the needle on novel urban ecosystems, challenging us to give them at least a second glance. Yet there’s still a long road ahead to foster broader acceptance, and deeper understanding of how these messy systems work, and why they matter.

Casual observations of urban botany via Instagram. Source: From Left to Right: @thecommonstudio @plantsofbabylon, @digitaljalanjalan

The cases and thinkers cited here should surely stand as a compelling challenge to designers, ecologists, and policy-makers to follow suit. Third glances, then, are those that are still yet to come. Imagine the stories that are yet to be told, the scientific insights yet to be made, the landscape conditions and experiences that have yet to be nurtured. Is it possible that there are latent virtues in these messy ecosystems that are still awaiting discovery? How might we better incorporate the feral aspects of urban nature into our worldview, our research, our creative practice? How might we continue to work toward better understanding, measuring and incorporating the benefits of novel ecosystems, while minimizing the risks?

It’s time to allow these seeds of possibility into our collective discourse about urban resilience, and give them time and space to grow, un-mulched. What’s at stake in these new mindsets is not just the fate and perception of “weeds” in our world, but the emergence of new modes of urban environmentalism. These new modes of engaging with the urban landscape will not be based on superficial aesthetic concerns or sentimental rear-view thinking, but a celebration of the messy complexities and nuances of these systems, and the active role they will continue to play in the nature (and future) of our cities.

Daniel Phillips

On The Nature of Cities


“Global Biodiversity Outlook 3.” 2017. September 3.

Kennen, K., and N. Kirkwood. n.d. “Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design.”

Kowarik, I., and A. Langer. n.d. “Natur-Park Südgelände: Linking Conservation and Recreation in an Abandoned Railyard in Berlin.”

Mabey, Richard. 2010. “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.”

Marris, E. 2010. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.

“Natur-Park Suedgelaende, Berlin.” 2017. September 3.

Pearce, Fred. 2014. The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation.

“The Last Word On Nothing | Urban Wilderness and the ‘High Line Problem.’” 2017. September 3.

“Urban Pollinators: Dandelion (Taraxacum Agg.) – a Valuable Food Source Not Only for Pollinators.” 2017. September 3.

Weber, Frauke, Ingo Kowarik, and Ina Säumel. 2014. “Herbaceous Plants as Filters: Immobilization of Particulates along Urban Street Corridors.” Environmental Pollution 186 (March): 234–40.

Ecology Rights and City Development Plans: The Case of Mumbai

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Mumbai’s development plan is revised every twenty years. The revision process of the current plan is underway for preparation of a new plan for 2014-2034, to be launched some time later this year. Amongst many issues that active citizens and environmental groups have flagged is that of ecology and environment. Sadly, ecology and environmental causes are considered by authorities as huge burdens on the “development” agenda, particularly so in “land starved” cities, as is Mumbai. This is true for many city governments around the world. Such a mindset has to be challenged. Sustainable Ecology & Environment has to be the central aspect of city development plans and prepared with peoples’ participation. For this to be successful, ecology rights movements have to be popularized worldwide.

Interestingly, participation in the preparation of the new development plan for Mumbai has been bigger than anytime before. Under pressure from people’s movements and active citizenry, the Municipal Corporation has launched public consultations before finalizing the new plan. Individuals, organisations and institutions engaged in wide ranging subjects are today actively contributing. As for the environmental cause, several groups have come together to jointly submit their views and demands during public hearings to the corporation’s officials. This is probably the first time when such collective and concerted effort has been witnessed.


City building efforts have led to unprecedented abuse and destruction of natural assets and ecosystems. Also their relationship with built environment has been severed in most instances. As a matter of fact, development plans and programs have dealt with natural conditions with hostility. Their exclusion from city maps or their inadequate documentation, as in the case of Mumbai, is an example of such apathy and indifference. Instead, our challenge is their integration, towards building a sustainable urban ecology.

City development anarchy in Mumbai.
City development anarchy in Mumbai.

Today, cities are seen as opportunities to build more, achieving higher and even higher construction turnover for mere financial gains at the cost of social and environmental interests. This build-more syndrome and the development anarchy across cities has led to the decimation of natural environmental conditions and turned these areas into city’s backyards: both physically and metaphorically.

In Mumbai’s case, the vast and diverse extent of the city’s natural assets covering an area of over 180 square kilometers (area for construction & other development works being 260 sq.kms), has been damaged and in many instances totally destroyed by indiscriminate construction. These eco-sensitive areas have been considered as dumping grounds for waste disposal and illegal land filling. Such acts of arrogant violence against natural environment are increasingly witnessed under growing urbanization and city expansion programs.

Mumbai’s seafronts as dumping grounds. Photos: PK Das
Mumbai’s seafronts as dumping grounds. Photos: PK Das

Open Mapping

Due to rapid expansion plans and programs in cities, it has become necessary to define boundaries and areas of various natural aspects. This proposal is not meant for a permanent division or separation of the natural areas from the city building process, but to ensure their protection in the intermediate phases towards the achievement of an informed integrated urban ecology. Also determining and demarcating buffer areas for every natural element has become an absolute necessity during this period. Such buffer areas will help in the establishment of open space between various built developments and core ecological areas.

While undertaking both these exercises we will experience critical differences with our governments and bitter conflicts with private builders and developers who forever want to extend their property boundaries onto these areas for further construction and real estate benefit. In Mumbai, based on ‘Open Mumbai’ plans, we have jointly proposed to the authorities to designate the buffer areas as reserved public open spaces for walking and cycling without any form of construction and for regeneration of natural ecosystems. Further, we have proposed to develop a contiguous network of these buffer areas connected with other open spaces of the city parks, gardens, playground etc., and various public places: market areas, community buildings, transportation hubs, etc. We believe that free public access to spaces in this network will facilitate effective vigilance by community groups against abuse and misuse of the natural assets. Such collective engagement in open spaces will facilitate social networking and the democratization of public spaces and vital ecological resources.

Mapping is not merely a physical exercise but has to be understood as a socio-political action engaging people across neighborhoods and the city. Through the mapping process individuals would not only be able to contribute but will learn to work together with others in building public knowledge about ecology and the importance of conservation of fragile environmental conditions. People’s survey data, generated through collective engagements will challenge government’s skewed and insufficient information manufactured to suit certain vested interests that are contrary to larger sustainable environmental cause.


TOIM_2012 Side by Side

Popularizing ecology & the environmental cause

Collective engagement along with wide public dialogue is a necessary democratic process for the achievement of such an objective. Organizing public meetings and campaigns for awareness towards building public opinion can achieve this process. Significantly, public engagement would be possible only when they realize the necessity of the importance of environmental issues in their daily life experience.

Citizen’s action will inevitably include legal interventions and public interest litigations (PIL) in the courts. Many significant orders in favor of environmental cause have been achieved through this effort. In Mumbai’s case, due to PILs, the Courts have ordered that mangrove areas be reserved as protected forests. Similar orders have prohibited land filling in wetlands. Strangely, the State Government of Maharashtra that includes the city of Mumbai has been pursuing an idea of building low-cost housing on saltpan lands and other wetlands for short-term political gains. These court orders are big victories in the battle towards conservation and protection of natural assets. But, filing PILs are neither simple nor easy for citizen’s movements. They involve massive expenditure, time and sustained effort to cope with slow legal procedures. Moreover the opponents are powerful people with enormous resources at their disposal to fight these legal challenges.

Article - HC order will boost wetlands_ ActivistsFor long-term gain, it is important to achieve necessary legislative changes for the protection, conservation and enrichment of various natural conditions. Governments deciding unilaterally or taking decisions in collaboration with highly influential private developers, land sharks and business houses, as is the practice today, leads to the downsizing of natural areas and depletion of these vital public assets. In spite of protracted struggles for environmental cause, governments have undermined such critical decisions and thereby allowed the continuing destruction of natural areas. In Mumbai for example, we witness large-scale illegal land filling, dumping of garbage and rubble generated from building repairs and construction sites onto areas of mangroves, wetlands, rivers and creeks. Even the city government, has over the years, used wetlands and mangrove areas as solid waste dumping sites. Hence, concerted democratic movements and protracted struggles will have to continue in order to influence decisions in favour of environmental protection and their conservation.

Integrated City Development Plans

Amongst many steps that have to be undertaken and battles waged, the formalization of boundaries and areas of the natural and eco-sensitive areas in the development plans of cities is of utmost importance. Only then we would achieve legal teeth for pursuing our ecology rights battles for the achievement of sustainable ecology and environmental justice.

Preparation of development plans of cities with such ideas and objectives creates new challenges. Integration of the natural areas with other social infrastructure and human development demands are complex, when basic human rights related to housing, amenities, access to healthcare and education are pressing demands. In spite of public suggestions backed by surveys and elaborate data — as also carried out by Mumbai waterfronts Center and this author — the authorities in Mumbai have not committed as yet to define the boundaries and areas in the forthcoming development plan of the rich and varied natural elements that this city uniquely possesses.

With continuing pressure from movements and sustained public action, hopefully the authorities will ultimately concede to the demand for surveying all the natural areas and carry-out their integration in the forthcoming development plan for Mumbai.

Continuing participation and active citizen’s movements have been able to influence government decisions in many other planning issues and related areas of concern. As demanded, the idea of participatory neighbourhood planning forming the basis of city planning, is one such example which the authorities have adopted. In the new draft plan, the city has been divided into 151 planning units.

Local area or neighbourhood plans facilitates maximum participation as people relate best to their neighbourhood. In any case, Mumbai has evolved by itself and every area has typical challenges. Each neighbourhood has its own unique set of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, best understood by the people who live and have an interest in it. Also every neighbourhood has distinct geographic and environmental conditions. Allowing citizens to utilize this awareness of their nighbourhood will result in a vision best suited to them and to the city. ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ keeping larger, city issues in mind is the way ahead. It will empower local residents and make them responsible for their area development. This will truly be our Vision, our desired future for our surroundings, our city and the environment.

In India, as in many other countries, destruction of natural areas continues to exceed efforts towards arresting them. Simultaneously, pretentious and counter-productive plans are mooted on many fronts. For example, to reduce erosion of the coastline including beaches, governments are dumping concrete tetra pods and building sea walls. Similarly, enormous concrete walls are being built on both sides of rivers and other watercourses to contain their spread. These big contract turnover projects permanently severe the water courses from the natural ecosystems.

Integration of the natural assets with other urban development goals is not easy; particularly when the city is being systematically fragmented into disparate and conflicting parts, best reflected in the physical form of cities. Land and resources, including natural areas are divided and barricaded and considered individually and separately for various construction and development works. How then can the integration of natural and built environments happen for the achievement of a sustainable urban ecology under the present nature of city development?

This integration is indeed one of our biggest challenges in our thrust towards urbanization and city building. For this purpose people’s movements for environmental cause would necessarily have to join forces with other democratic rights movements for the achievement of integrated and inclusive cities world over. This has to be a simultaneous effort in all cities of the world.

P.K. Das

On The Nature of Cities

‘Open Mumbai’ Plan suggests networking the various natural assets, enabling over 500 kms. of contiguous public open spaces for walking and cycling.
‘Open Mumbai’ Plan suggests networking the various natural assets, enabling over 500 kms. of contiguous public open spaces for walking and cycling.


Ecosystems as a Framework for Urban Planning: Reconnecting. Rediscovering. Reinvigorating.

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

When is the best time to consider developing an urban ecological network plan for your city? The answer varies based on a city’s long-term planning process and the immediate issues a community may be facing, but it is always the right time to integrate ecology and nature into urban planning and revitalization efforts.
If we peel back the layers of our urban infrastructure and examine the ecological patterns that originally formed the landscapes beneath our feet, we can shape more resilient cities through an interdisciplinary and inclusive urban design process based on the braided narratives of place: ecology, history, and culture. More than a decade ago, designers studying approaches to urban planning noted that “new models of urban ecological networks will improve biodiversity, aesthetics, and cultural identity and be an important framework for creating sustainable cities” (Ignatieva et al, 2008). The impacts of climate change, evidenced by increased drought, record heat, raging megafires in both hemispheres, an Atlantic hurricane season that has run out of names, as well as COVID-19, and the ongoing racial justice movement, have over the last several months (and years) laid bare much about the state of our society and our cities.

There is a growing clamor for a shift in perspectives and practices that will lead to a more resilient future. Much of this is coming from and focused on our cities, where over half of the world’s population already lives, and more are expected to join. A lens of landscape ecology and a foundation in community input provide the keys to designing for tomorrow’s resilient cities.

Mural of native habitat gardens in Baltimore, MD. Photo: Jennifer Dowdell.

As an ecological planner and writer, I have found that when we pause for a moment and listen for the stories of a place, we become more aware of its essence. We notice the patterns and processes that root us in a sense of belonging, a call toward stewardship, and a connection to community. Many of us, without even thinking, can easily name the natural features that define our relationship to our home cities—a creek or harbor we love, a favorite woodland park, a majestic tree we could draw from memory. In some traditions, this connection of community to ecosystem is even more explicit. For example, when formally introducing themselves, the Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) invoke their connection to their cultural and ecological heritage by naming the boat that brought them to the country, their mountain, their river, their marae (cultural hub/ancestral home), and their tribe. This not only grounds these individuals in the heritage of their families but also their kinship to nature and their responsibility as guardians of these landscapes. The Māori, like many indigenous peoples around the globe, value and pass down ancestral knowledge of the relationships, patterns, and rhythms of nature—a knowledge they refer to as mātauranga.

Our urban communities, likewise, have a reciprocal relationship with nature. If we steward our natural resources, restoring ecological function, and preserving the remnants of once-dominant ecosystems, everyone benefits. Access to nature has been proven time and time again to increase life expectancy, decrease recovery times from major surgeries, increase test scores, improve concentration, increase health metrics, and lead to greater happiness (sources). Unfortunately, access to green space is inequitably distributed in many of today’s cities and the integration of open and natural spaces into underserved communities often leads to gentrification and ultimately, displacement of those most vulnerable.

As a practice, we at Biohabitats have been applying ecological principles as an underpinning for more resilient city planning efforts through the development of urban ecological frameworks, or green network plans. We start our planning process by examining the historical ecological narrative of our cities: the geology; the rivers, streams, and creeks (some of which might have been buried or drained in the past); the wetlands and meadows that may have existed prior to our settlement; the remnant forest patches; the mountains or valleys that shape our views and access into and out of the city; and the biodiversity inherent in these systems. Much of this has settled into our consciousness as background noise to the skyscrapers, urban parks, interstate highways, bustling town centers, and neighborhoods that have come to define our identity as city dwellers. But we can bring it back to the fore as a place to begin dialogue with the community in planning for a more resilient future.

Legacy green network analysis results. Photo: Baltimore Green Network Plan

In a recent project with the Department of City Planning in Atlanta, GA, we posed the question to the community members, “What does Nature in the City mean to you?” We wanted to make sure as we kicked off an effort to help the City craft an urban ecological framework to guide future development, that we began with what the residents knew, valued, remembered, and desired of nature in their city. We were regaled with so many personal stories: tales of fishing in neighborhood creeks, tending to grandmothers’ gardens, camping under trees in backyards, hiking along stream valleys, and hearing frogs singing in wetlands and birds calling overhead.  Clearly, we have not completely lost our connection to nature in our cities. On the contrary, we know, love, and seek that connection. Yet ecology has never been at the forefront of urban planning, or zoning for that matter. Now is the time to change that.

In addition to the positive public health impacts of increasing our contact with nature in cities, ecosystems provide a model for landscape resilience in response to climate change. Wetlands and marshes help to alleviate the impacts of flooding as natural sponges in the landscape. Shifting and rising dunes of barrier islands provide resilience in light of rising sea levels. Vegetated or forested floodplains provide space during massive rains to capture and contain water. Continuous tree canopy shades and cools our cities as warming continues. Wooded corridors along our rivers and streams help soak up and distribute water during large storms. In the same way that 3.8 million years of evolution informs biomimetic design approaches, the natural systems that exist in and flow through our cities can inspire an eco-mimetic approach to urban planning.

Community members provide their reflections on Nature in Atlanta at the kickoff of the UEF process. Photo: Atlanta Urban Ecology Framework

This approach is grounded in community input and the culture that animates our cities, at the neighborhood and district scale. Add to that, input from ecologists, landscape architects, environmental engineers, city planners and staff, community leaders, economists, architects, and activists. This is an iterative and consultative interdisciplinary process. We, as ecological planners, serve to facilitate wide-ranging and inclusive discussions with residents, addressing the needs of their neighborhoods as well as those of the broader city and region. Ecosystems are not constrained by political boundaries and we are always aware that our actions have ripple effects.

Ecological framework planning weaves community input at regular intervals into a science-based design and planning approach. This is inspired by Ian McHarg’s work on Designing with Nature, which emphasizes the interactions and interrelationships between ecosystems, historical settlement patterns, and projected development. It requires an intimate understanding of the social and cultural factors at play, the basic ecosystem types and functions in question, the impact of the legacy of disempowerment and systemic racism on the community, the specific issues of climate change impacting the landscape, and the existing or projected biodiversity loss.

The general process we follow for developing an urban ecological framework includes these steps:

  1. Engage the community to set a vision and goals
  2. Analyze existing conditions to establish a narrative of place based on both ecological-social characteristics
  3. Conduct a needs assessment or suitability analysis with community input
  4. Explore alternative scenarios of change and solicit feedback on the needs and priorities in the community
  5. Develop a final urban ecological framework
  6. Create pilot projects and funding plans
  7. Revisit zoning and other regulatory tools for updates that reflect urban ecological guidance

While in Atlanta, our focus was on responding to population growth and its impacts on tree canopy and community access to open space, in a Green Network Plan we developed recently with the Baltimore City Planning Department. Our planning team was tasked with addressing dense areas of vacancy through this approach. In both cases, community members described how they experienced nature; which aspects of nature they wanted to see preserved, protected, and celebrated; how nature was unique or special to their daily lives; and where they thought nature made the most sense in their city- their narrative of place. There were important points raised during this dialogue about the need to support the communities in managing and maintaining restored green space and the need for affordable housing and job creation.

Based on this input, we examine the city through a data-driven analysis of socio-ecological conditions. We gather data on soils, hydrology, landcover, habitat and biodiversity hot spots, floodplain, riparian corridor buffers, and historical streams. Studies of social vulnerability, urban tree canopy change, traffic patterns, safety and access issues are also examined. We perform analysis at multiple scales to ensure consideration of broader impacts to ecoregions, wildlife and habitat corridors, and watersheds. We also endeavor to uncover the historical patterns of nature that settlement may have disrupted.

Biodiversity analysis results for Atlanta. Photo: Atlanta Urban Ecology Framework

Once the general conditions have been mapped and vetted with the community, our team delves deeper and explores ways to harness the natural patterns and processes inherent in the local ecosystems to address the vision and goals established at the outset of the process, whether that is increasing access to open space, utilizing vacant lots for revitalization and restoration, managing climate change impacts, focusing development and preserving tree canopy, or other socio-ecological aims. In Baltimore, through the initial data analysis, we identified four priority areas that had overlapping needs for revitalization and ecological uplift potential, very high densities of vacant land and structures, and very active and engaged neighborhood groups. In the case of Atlanta, we examined the need for habitat and biodiversity protection, harnessing ecosystem services, increasing equitable access to parks and open space, and addressing vulnerable communities’ needs.

Our team connects with residents, local advisors, and advocates at regular intervals to confirm and vet the evolving framework. In Atlanta, as the needs and priorities became clearer, we began testing alternative future scenarios of change with the community.  We explored citywide change scenarios associated with improved equity and access, increased ecological connectivity and function, and conversion of all grey infrastructure to innovative green practices. This allowed everyone to visualize patterns of change that could result from different priorities in land use allocation. This pulling apart of key priorities and weaving them back together through the community feedback process provided a powerful visual tool for honing the elements of the urban ecological framework.

From the personal stories shared by community members during the visioning and goal-setting to the input given in other stages of the process, it becomes evident that place—neighborhood, block, home, and all that surrounds it—is inextricably linked to identity. This connection, in turn, becomes a guide for a city’s plans for future development and growth, rather than an afterthought. What has resulted is an acknowledgement that a city’s infrastructure can take more cues from nature and community. A final urban ecological framework creates a cohesive network of greenspaces, restored ecosystems, and civic spaces that serve both human and nonhuman communities in coexistence. It fosters equitable and safe access to open space and recreation, increased biodiversity and habitat, and a variety of ecosystem services including, urban heat island mitigation, flood attenuation, stormwater management, air quality improvements, pollination, and nutrient cycling.

In the case of Baltimore City, the Planning Department went one step further, and it is a step we highly recommend for all municipalities. In each of their four focus areas, Planning Department staff who work with the neighborhoods identified specific community groups and advocates to guide the design of pilot projects. Residents worked directly with the planning team to develop site-specific concepts that reflected their needs. They identified the required programming, types of features, and concerns that should be addressed. In one example, the residents wanted a central, flexible plaza space for community street festivals, a splash pad, a space for watching films, and signage for community notices. In another, the community’s priority was to have a safe space for toddlers to play and a memorial for a fallen female firefighter who had perished on the site. These designs have continued to evolve, gaining local advocates and partners to help in their funding and implementation, fulfilling a promise to the community.

Pilot project concept for a new civic space in a neighborhood on the west side of Baltimore. Photo: Baltimore Green Network Plan
Pilot project concept featuring a playground and a memorial to the first fallen female firefighter in a neighborhood in Baltimore. Photo: Baltimore Green Network Plan

Cities like Atlanta and Baltimore are exemplary in their use of ecology to guide urban planning, but they are not alone in this approach. Other examples include parallel efforts in Edmonton, Canada and Paris, France; and past efforts in Barcelona, Spain and Hamburg, Germany where city leadership identified opportunities to strengthen green networks to foster greater community resilience. The story of Christchurch, NZ,  where a natural disaster led to a unique opportunity for re-envisioning urban planning as part of a massive rebuild effort, is even more striking.

In February of 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, resulting in widespread structural damage and loss of life. In the wake of this tragedy, the city took the unprecedented step of holding an inclusive and holistic planning process to inform a multiyear and multibillion-dollar rebuild effort. The resulting Christchurch Blueprint sets out a spatial framework for redevelopment, combining actions for economic, social, and environmental revitalization within a central city framed by open space. The Blueprint includes plans for the Te Papa Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct, which celebrates the river that flows through the center of the city. Many gathered along the river after evacuation from the surrounding buildings on the day of the earthquake and it now hosts a memorial to those who perished in the earthquake and the rescue efforts that followed. Design and planning work along the Avon corridor has focused on supporting the return of native wildlife like the bellbird, whitebait, and eel through channel restoration and increased native plantings. Today the river is a gathering place and a natural spine along which the city continues to see economic revitalization and strengthened community, as well as the return of the eel and other native wildlife.

The memorial to earthquake victims integrated into the enhanced Avon River corridor in Christchurch, NZ. Photo: Jennifer Dowdell
The restoration of the Avon River’s corridor supports the return of native wildlife and water quality improvements in the heart of Christchurch, NZ. Photo: Jennifer Dowdell

When is the best time to consider developing an urban ecological network plan for your city? The answer varies based on a city’s long-term planning process and the immediate issues a community may be facing, but it is always the right time to integrate ecology and nature into urban planning and revitalization efforts. Ideally, this type of planning effort can inform zoning updates, public works planning, park master plans, or transportation plans (that may occur on five to 10-year cycles). This approach can also be integrated into a citywide General Plan or as a stand-alone Urban Ecology Network plan to inform other efforts aimed at economic and climate resilience, environmental equity and justice, and ecological uplift.

There will always be competing priorities in the planning process. The most important step we can take is to listen and then respond in a way that reflects not only the community’s needs but also their stories of identity with, and connection to, nature. There is likely to be a certain level of planning fatigue in many cities. One way to address this is to make sure these plans are actionable and implementable—landing at the site scale and making sure the community sees tangible results. One of the most frequent comments we receive during these processes is that the community members want to see results, not another glossy plan on a shelf. The pilot project process is a great way to do just that, by seeding the energy in the community early and engaging them in a design process that includes potential funding partners.

Another issue we must face head-on is the potential negative impacts that greening (even with the best intentions) can have on a community, including gentrification and displacement. During the planning process, this is bound to come up in discussions with residents. In parallel with planning efforts, municipalities can and should be exploring systemic changes that provide economic security to longtime residents in these communities, such as tax abatement options, housing security, land trusts, legacy community designations, and other options to deter displacement and support historic ties between the community and the land.

Ideally, the final urban ecology framework becomes a reference for all future planning efforts, a living reminder of the connection between the native ecology and the human spirit that animates the city, and an amplifier of community voices and identity.

Jennifer Dowdell
Baltimore, MD

On The Nature of Cities

Ecosystems for everyone: Who should have access to the myriad benefits of ecosystem services and urban nature? Everyone. Does everyone? No. How will we achieve this moral imperative?

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.
Isabelle Anguelovski, BarcelonaThere’s been a significant shift in green urban planning—from the community-oriented greening of the 1970s and 1980s aimed at reclaiming neighborhoods, toward a development-oriented greening aimed at attracting high-end amenities that cater to service industries, technology districts, privileged residents, and tourists.
Georgina Avlonitis, Cape Town The unjust economic legacies of South Africa’s apartheid enabled the rich white minority to over-consume space and water, undermining local biodiversity, while poorer citizens were forced to sprawl in areas that caused them to further degrade biodiversity and local ecosystem services.
Julie Bargmann, Charlottesville Don’t get me going on green being used as a verb!
Nathalie Blanc, Paris Less than social movements, we need to think more of the socio-environmental communities, which are formed through joint action on a material environment.
P.K. Das, Mumbai We make strong claims at TNOC about the importance of ecosystems. But how should a poor person in a slum care of these against basic deficits in safe water, housing, and human rights?
Marthe Derkzen, Amsterdam Collaborative programs that foster civic engagement increase equity in nature access by opening up green areas to residents of all ages and backgrounds, including those for whom access to nature is not a standard privilege.
Maggie Scott Greenfield, New York There are no shortcuts in ensuring access to nature. We must invest in people and the systems that build political support, cultural understanding, and inclusive governance.
Fadi Hamdan, Beirut The issues of this roundtable are in fact multi-dimensional and multi-scalar: the social processes that drive the disaster risk, climate change, poverty nexus are permeated with rising inequality.
Nadja Kabisch, BerlinWe have learned that when urban planning does not include the local community properly, green development projects can fail.
Jim Labbe, Portland The urgent question is not should or how we end toxic urbanism and create biophilic cities. The question is whether we as communities will continue accept urban development that permits, abets, and reproduces it?
François Mancebo, Paris Making ecosystem services and nature available does not mean making them accessible to everyone; they must be consistent with the existing social and cultural fabric.
Harini Nagendra, Bangalore Actions taken seemingly for the benefit of the resource (patrolling by guards, fencing, priced entry) often reveal a cultural imagination of nature that is dominated by the aesthetic and recreational, while exacerbating existing inequities in access to ecosystem services.
Flaminia Paddeu, Paris Less than social movements, we need to think more of the socio-environmental communities, which are formed through joint action on a material environment.
Steward Pickett, Poughkeepsie The moral imperative of equitable service provision rests on a still deeper moral imperative to take the heterogeneity of people’s perceptions, values, and fears into account.
Andrew Rudd, New York I am a pessimist, but I think that without some degree of pessimism we are less attuned to what it happening around us—unless it is happening directly to us.
Suraya Scheba, Cape Town The current inability of the mainstream sustainable development agenda to address the destructiveness of capitalist metabolism, as it seeks to offer guidance for the next 20 years of urbanization, renders it largely impotent.
Marcelo Lopes de Souza, Rio de Janero The spectre of “gentrifying conservationism” and “green evictions” will increasingly haunt segregated spaces and poor communities worldwide, using the “common good” argument as a convenient excuse.
Hita Unnikrishnan, Bangalore Actions taken seemingly for the benefit of the resource (patrolling by guards, fencing, priced entry) often reveal a cultural imagination of nature that is dominated by the aesthetic and recreational, while exacerbating existing inequities in access to ecosystem services.
Diana Wiesner, Bogota Ecological services in a given place must be concerned with more than just the issue of nature itself: it must be remembered that these services are also loaded with meanings and memories that represent the soul of the community.
Pengfei XIE, Beijing I am happy to observe a tendency in Chinese cities that local stakeholders are more and more involved in green infrastructure, introducing initiative in urban areas.
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. After a PhD at Cornell he worked at The Nature Conservancy on climate change and stewardship, leaving in 1992 to be a theatre artist. In 2012, David founded The Nature of Cities, a transdisciplinary essay and discussion platform—800+ writers from around the world, scientists to activists, designers to artists. He has published over 60 journal articles and books chapters, edited five books (both fiction and non-fiction), and written 7 works of musical theatre. He lives in New York City.


Do we truly believe in the benefits of ecosystem services? If we do, then two important questions emerge. First, who should enjoy these benefits? The answer should be self-evident: everyone. Second, do city residents around the world currently enjoy these benefits? In short, and emphatically: no. If we believe in nature-based solutions to urban challenges, from sustainability to livability, then we must also believe in the fair and equitable access to such solutions. All green infrastructure designs and their implementations inherently include decisions about justice and equity, which means that access to “green” is an issue of justice. And, solutions are available, one would think.

Traditionally, environmental justice discussions have focused on the geographic distribution of environmental risks—the observation that poor communities disproportionately bear the burden of pollution from the systems that sustain affluent lifestyles elsewhere. This issue isn’t solved. The poor and politically unconnected around the world continue to experience greater levels of pollution and other environmental risks.

There is a flip side to the environmental justice equation: do people have equal access to the benefits of ecosystem services? We are lagging here, also—evidence shows that not everyone has equitable access to the health, happiness, and other social benefits that are the well documented results of parks, street trees, and open space. Poorer neighborhoods throughout the world tend to have less access to parks and other green elements. Nor does everyone have equal access to the nature-based solutions that can provide resilience to storms, floods, and other disturbances.

Even when green infrastructure—e.g., parks large and small, natural areas, water fronts, street trees—is incorporated into the design of neighborhoods underserved by open spaces or other green elements—which are typically the less affluent ones—there can be unintended results. First, planners often impose green design elements onto communities without fully consulting community members about what they want and need. Such a lack of inclusive decision-making can produce green spaces that are ill-suited for the neighborhood. The second driver of unexpected, negative outcomes from green design is what we might broadly call “gentrification” and its outcomes. During gentrification, as green infrastructure appears in neighborhoods, the neighborhoods may become more desirable to people living in other places. Rents and housing values rise, and many residents can no longer afford to live there; instead, they are displaced, priced out of their newly improved neighborhoods.

We have written about these issues before at TNOC, including the 2015 roundtable What are the social justice implications of urban ecology?, and the 2015 book The Just City Essays.

What is the answer to this challenge? If the benefits of nature-based solutions to urban problems are real, then improving all neighborhoods with green infrastructure must be key to the creation of cities that are more resilient, sustainable, livable, and just for everyone. Is it just about building more green infrastructure and building smarter? Being clear about “ecosystems for whom?” Or perhaps something more radical is needed—a fundamental reinvention of how we construct our economies and cities?

So, the challenge is ecosystems for everyone. How close are we to this moral imperative and how will we achieve it? Here are 18 responses exploring these critical questions.

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

Who benefits from green cities?

In many large cities around the world, the public and private investors that promote the environmental, socio-economic and health benefits of urban greening projects often hide the often highly inequitable outcomes of gentrification and displacement linked to these developments. Under the banners of sustainability, resilience, and climate adaptation, a number of municipalities engaged in greening trajectories, instead of solving problems, have created new socio-spatial inequities or even exacerbated old ones.

There’s been a significant shift in green urban planning—from the community-oriented greening of the 1970s and 1980s aimed at reclaiming neighborhoods, toward a development-oriented greening aimed at attracting high-end amenities that cater to service industries, technology districts, privileged residents, and tourists.
In a recent article citing the Highline as the most famous example of this phenomenon, Scott Kratz, project director of Washington D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park, expressed concerns early on over the social impacts of the new highway-bridge-cum-park. “Who is this really for?” he asks himself. The question is a crucial one. Who are the real targets and beneficiaries of new or restored green amenities in cities?

As exemplified by the High Line in New York City, a former elevated railroad transformed into a large urban areal park now visited by 5 million people each year, many new parks have ultimately catered to white and socially-privileged residents and tourists. Between 2003 and 2011, property values near the High Line went up by 103%, and Zaha Hadid’s studio penthouses currently go for $50 million.

Since the 19th century, urban greening projects such as parks, gardens, greenways and ecological corridors have been promoted as motors of beautification, improved health outcomes, neighborhood revitalization, and residential well-being. Yet we can observe a significant shift in green urban planning—from the community-oriented greening of the 1970s and 1980s aimed at reclaiming neighborhoods, toward a development-oriented greening aimed at attracting high-end amenities that cater to service industries, technology districts, privileged residents, and tourists.

Our research at our social science research lab BCNUEJ has found evidence of this in various cities across the globe. In Medellín, the greening of poor areas in the name of growth control, beautification, and resilience is transforming low-income areas into landscapes of pleasure and privilege. In the process of green infrastructure construction such as the Greenbelt—Cinturón Verde, many residents of low-income neighborhoods are being dispossessed of community assets like land, social capital, and traditional farming practices. In New Orleans, we have observed how new green infrastructure linked to climate adaptation and its Living with Water plan mostly aim to attract a new creative, white middle class that can afford to purchase newly built waterfront property, while overlooking long-term inequities in land use development and promoting the creation of ecological enclaves. In Barcelona, one of our recent studies finds clear green gentrification trends in several historically underserved areas, especially old industrial neighborhoods. In the Sant Martí district, for instance, the percentage of residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by nearly 28 percent on average around a new local park, versus only a 7.6 percent increase for the district as a whole over a period of 10 years. The data clearly demonstrates how new green space attracts higher-educated residents.

Such far-reaching dynamics raises questions for environmental justice groups. As activists organize around improving urban environmental quality for socially-vulnerable residents, they are increasingly faced with the inequitable outcomes associated with greening projects promoted by powerful private investors and municipal decision-makers under a utopian language of sustainability and quality of life. So much so, that the growing trend of land revaluation and displacement that often results from greening has earned itself the term “green gentrification” or “ecological gentrification” (Dooling, 2009; Checker, 2011), in which gentrification is characterized by the social erasure of residential practices as well as by real physical displacement.

At BCNUEJ, our long-term research asks: Do urban greening projects have win-win outcomes for urban residents, as municipal leaders and planners widely claim? Or do they benefit some groups more than others? To what extent do different green planning interventions translate into the creation or exacerbation of new environmental inequalities through new dynamics of exclusion and invisibilization? Through our research project GREENLULUS—Green Locally Unwanted Land Uses—we examine the conditions of this green space paradox in different cities and its implications for long-term marginalized urban residents. We use the terms “GREENLULUS and green space paradox” to describe new or restored green amenities in historically marginalized communities as a way of repoliticizing a post-political sustainability discourse and to point to the fact that green projects do not always—and in fact, seldomly—bring positive outcomes for all city dwellers.

Of course we do not think the solution is to avoid greening in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color. Such decisions would further exclude historically marginalized groups from the benefits of greening and concentrate green or sustainability investment in richer neighborhoods. Nor do we argue that planners intentionally target low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in order to profit developers and exclude vulnerable residents from the benefits of green projects. Our research points to the fact that planners are more likely to neglect the impacts of their plans on the exchange values of real estate and that they are often imprisoned in a logic of competitive urbanism and city rebranding even if they are becoming increasingly aware of the inequitable impacts of green planning.

The question and challenge thus becomes: How can cities craft regulations, policies, planning schemes, funding mechanisms, and partnerships that address the negative impacts of green planning? In short, how can everyone benefit from green cities?

Many believe that lasting solutions to address urban green inequities and green gentrification reside in changing the ownership of land in cities so that its speculative and market function and place gets taken out of the picture. This means developing tools such as Community Land Trusts or Mutual Housing Associations, which are increasingly relevant policy tools used to address gentrification. Protecting and further developing social housing and public housing is also an obvious commitment needed to mitigate the risks of displacement increasingly associated with large scale urban greening projects such as greenways.

Zooming in on the greening projects themselves, smaller-scale projects focused on the needs, preferences, and multiple uses of local residents also have the potential to help ensure interactional justice and community ownership and stewardship—rather than appropriation by visitors and tourists, as The High Line exemplifies.

A version of this contribution appeared previously at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ).

Georgina Avlonitis

About the Writer:
Georgina Avlonitis

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

Georgina Avlonitis

Lessons from Greenpop—making nature popular.

The unjust economic legacies of South Africa’s apartheid enabled the rich white minority to over-consume space and water, undermining local biodiversity, while poorer citizens were forced to sprawl in areas that caused them to further degrade biodiversity and local ecosystem services.
“What do you think is on the other side of that fence?”, I asked a group of dusty under tens, eagerly staring up at me. We were standing in the sandy backyard of their after-school crèche, located in one of the Cape Town’s most derelict, violent, and under-resourced areas: the Cape Flats township of Village Heights. In front of us, a formidable three-meter fence separated the narrow, littered, plant-less, streets of their sprawling township from a wide expanse of green stretching out onto the horizon. We were in fact looking through the fence of Rondevlei Nature Reserve—a biodiversity gem in the city’s crown of natural assets and somewhere they had never set foot. “I don’t know what that place is, we’ve never been in there”, said one little one. “Isn’t it where the gangsters do their dogfighting?”
Photo: Greenpop

Cape Town is an extraordinary city of contradictions—historically complex and ecologically profound. Situated in one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots, the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), it is a diverse and sophisticated urban centre of great biodiversity and conservation significance but also of overwhelming inequality. The CFR was declared a National World Heritage Site of “universal significance to humanity” but very few have access to the services that this incredible biodiversity provides. The unjust economic legacies of South Africa’s apartheid enabled the rich white minority to over-consume space and water, undermining local biodiversity, while poorer citizens were forced to sprawl in areas that caused them to further degrade biodiversity and local ecosystem services.

Photo: Greenpop

This nexus of segregation due to an apartheid legacy, high poverty levels and extraordinary biodiversity is indeed a conundrum to address. What to do with people squatting adjacent to conservation areas? How to re-nature areas without further contributing to gentrification? How to connect people to nature and achieve public buy-in of green spaces? How to make nature conservation important to people who don’t even have access to basic municipal services?

Through my work at Greenpop and our Urban Greening and Eco-education Programme (which has planted over 80,000 trees and indigenous vegetation at over 300 under-greened schools in Cape Town,) here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Civic engagement in urban greening interventions can not only engender community cohesion and improved social relations, but can improve the ecological functioning and the ecosystem services provided by an area. In Cape Town, for instance, the planting of indigenous trees and fynbos attracts pollinators and birds, which in turn allows for seeds to spread and grow, in effect creating new and self-sustained ecosystem processes and services. This type of social engagement can uphold biodiversity and ecosystem services for the greater urban area while increasing the ecological linkages between other areas of biodiversity.
  • Increased support for urban greening in local neighborhoods can be built and sustained over time by involving local schools in eco-education to green their own grounds and take care of green spaces through finding collaborative relations with already existing organizations. (Notwithstanding that this in turn quells the nature deficit disorder so prevalent in children in underprivileged areas, who only have dusty playgrounds to spend their formative years in—inspiring a generation of active citizens who value and are connected to nature.)
  • Best-practice and lessons from smaller-scale greening interventions can be built upon and reproduced at other localities and at greater scales.
  • Physically and emotionally connecting (well-chosen and appropriate) private sector funders to communities can assist in maintaining a funding stream for greening interventions in under-greened areas. International brand BOS Ice Tea, which creates their tea from South African fynbos species, Rooibos, has sponsored over 17,000 trees to Greenpop’s Urban Greening Programme. Their continued involvement is partly the result of their inspiring company ethos, but also the result of ensuring their physical involvement on plant days, where they are able to physically contribute and viscerally witness the affect their contributions are having on the community and environment.
  • Civil servants need to collaborate with non-profit organizations and active citizens to access state resources to engender and sustain change on the ground, especially in neglected and marginalized public green spaces. This can be accomplished by creating effective institutional arrangements and agreements between civic associations and local authorities, allowing fruitful partnerships, increased synergy, pooling of funds and access to the workers made available from state-driven environmental initiatives.
  • Effective means of monitoring and maintaining restored green spaces need to be put into place to ensure their longevity through appropriate budget allocations and community involvement. This can be bolstered by citizen science initiatives from the local community/school. (Greenpop has created a monitoring app, which allows our schools and communities to monitor our greened spaces remotely, send pictures of their development as well as ask for assistance with plant/tree health and maintenance.)

The challenges are complex and require a multifaceted approach. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of community-lead urban greening interventions in providing some light at the end of the tunnel—bringing us closer to an urban future where nature is both accessible and co-managed by active and inspired citizenry.

Photo: Greenpop
Julie Bargmann

About the Writer:
Julie Bargmann

Julie Bargmann is the founder and principal of D.I.R.T. studio in Charlottesville, VA. She is internationally recognized as an innovator in the design and construction of regenerative landscapes. Her distinctive point of view on urban and industrial sites challenges conventional remediation practices, often with groundbreaking results.

Julie Bargmann

Orange is the new green

Don’t get me going on green being used as a verb!
“Green” is a poor substitute for words referring to nature and the landscape. Using the name of a color to represent something other than that color, namely to indicate the environment, is misleading. As if the only definition of the landscape has something to do with being the verdant version of sustainability’s favorite hue? And don’t get me going on green being used as a verb!

I fear that the stand-in “green” inhibits the appreciation for the plentiful forms the landscape (and nature) can take. If terminology around ecosystems articulated a broader spectrum of places within them, might the question of equal access to the ‘natural world’ change? If recognizable leafy flora doesn’t predominate a place, does that pose a threat to accessing nature? For me, someone obsessed with industrialized terrain, orange is the new green. Novel ecosystems are veraciously colonizing rusty manufacturing sites and engulfing toxic industrial flows. These are the landscapes that a good many people live and work in. Pumpkin-colored streams flow through coal country and when working there, local kids asked me why the water looked that way. I explained the effects of acid mine drainage to them and now they know why there are no fish. Still, they shrugged and road off on their bikes to play in the creek, in water not poisonous to their bodies but to other beings of the food chain. That’s their nature and it isn’t green.

Hughes Borehole inundated with acid mine drainage near Vintondale, Pennsylvania.Photo montage: Julie Bargmann
Nathalie Blanc

About the Writer:
Nathalie Blanc

Nathalie Blanc works as a Research Director at the French National Center for Scientific Research. She is a pioneer of ecocriticism in France. Her recent book is Form, Art, and Environment: engaging in sustainability, by Routledge in 2016.

Nathalie Blanc and Flaminia Paddeu

Less than social movements, we need to think more of the socio-environmental communities, which are formed through joint action on a material environment.
There are many naturalization projects in cities. Green infrastructure in the cities of New York, Paris, Brussels and many other cities are expected to address the erosion of biodiversity and the fight against climate change. Shared gardens, roofs and vegetalized facades are meant to be the components of a policy of urban ecological transformation. In addition to the attractiveness of these natural spaces for city dwellers (gardens, facades, roofs, residual spaces, but also vegetable towers sometimes referred to as edible buildings or urban farms …), the naturalization of cities is also an attempt to put nature to work. Ecosystem services highlight the regulatory, procurement, and cultural role of urban biodiversity (e.g., protection of buildings against the sun, absorption of fine particles, retention of rainwater, increase in biodiversity, etc.). Urban ecology is now a meaningful expression to local authorities.

However, cities still lag behind in evaluating the environmental value of these urban transformations, in terms of their ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the context of ecological transition, significant territorial inequalities, and the rise of ecological alternatives, what kind of urban fabric, and what governance must be implemented to face the challenges associated with ecological transformation?

Our hypothesis is that ecological transformation involves citizen mobilization, the cultural transformation of relationships with the environment. Since the 1970s, civil society has played an important role in the struggle for a more just distribution of collective resources such as nature spaces (Castells, 1983). Social movements have played a major role in negotiating diverse interests to defend the claim of space for urban nature (Barthel, Parker and Ernstson, 2015). These movements participate in a struggle for the urban commons such as the quality of water or air, in the face of its structural appropriation and destruction by the mode of contemporary urbanization. However, they remain ambivalent, conflict-ridden, structurally socio-economically, culturally and racially, and subject to the risk of ecogentrification (Dooling, 2009). A. Newman (2011) has highlighted, from the case of the Jardins d’Éole in the 19th arrondissement, a low-income, mainly immigrant neighborhood in Paris, the dynamics of the protest mobilized around the construction and design the park and its impact on class, gender and ethno-racial inequalities. It shows the contradictory results of these mobilizations, offering the inhabitants a new way of dealing with injustices, but reproducing at other times the socio-spatial inequalities.

Less than social movements, we need to think more of the socio-environmental communities, which are formed through joint action on a material environment—landscapes, life environments, environments— thought in the context of solidarities but also conflicts of territoriality, in which human collectives associate with the living and the environment to fight against other uses of space. These arrangements draw alternatives by shaping combinations between humans and nonhumans that open up new perspectives of action. Thus the transformation of the environment in which these inhabitants live develop a sense of alliances and bond that draws on socio-ecological processes that go well beyond the boundaries of their own local habitat.

In this sense, the notion of interspecific alliances between humans and non-humans developed by K. Beilin (2017) about the use of the amaranth Kiwicha made by the peasants and environmental activists of Paraguay and Argentina allows us to move away from a purely utilitarian approach of collectives using environmental initiatives to appropriate and shape in their own way collective spaces shared between different social groups, and a depoliticized approach assuming that ordinary environmentalism is a beneficial ecological action devoid of stakes of power.

What we call ordinary environmentalism is to take into account environmental practices that have hitherto been considered negligible and to emphasize their valorization in the case of a democratization of the co-production of everyday and ordinary environments. The question is to think of the emergence of ordinary environmentalism in relation to the distributions and inequalities in the territories from an environmental and physical point of view as well as from a social point of view or from political commitment. It is necessary to affirm the need for work at different scales and according to various spatialities to analyze the development of these associative movements including in particular, the response to environmental inequalities. Beyond the analysis of the relationships between ordinary environmentalism and unequal distributions of impacts, it is necessary to include the processes of devaluation of territories and people within these analyses and to stigmatize the lack of inclusion in citizen participation.


Barthel, Stephan, Parker John et Ernstson Henrik. 2015. « Food and Green Space in Cities: A Resilience Lens on Gardens and Urban Environmental Movements », Urban Studies, n°52, p. 1321-1338.

Beilin, Katarzyna, 2017, The War Between Amaranth and Soy: An Interspecies History of anti-Roundup Activism in Argentina and Paraguay

Castells, Manuel. 1983, The City and the Grassroots. London: E. Arnold.

Dooling, Sarah. 2009. Ecological Gentrification: A Research Agenda Exploring Justice in the City » International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, n°33, p.621-639.

Newman, Andrew. 2011, « Contested Ecologies: Environmental Activism and Urban Space in Immigrant Paris, City & Society, n°23, p. 192–209.

Flaminia Paddeu

About the Writer:
Flaminia Paddeu

Flaminia Paddeu is associate professor in geography at the University of Paris 13, researcher at PLEIADE laboratory, and associate researcher at LADYSS laboratory. She is currently working on civic environmentalism in the Greater Paris area. She is co-founder of the urban studies online review Urbanités.

PK Das

About the Writer:
PK Das

P.K. Das is popularly known as an Architect-Activist. With an extremely strong emphasis on participatory planning, he hopes to integrate architecture and democracy to bring about desired social changes in the country.

P.K. Das

Know ecosystem services?

We make strong claims at TNOC about the importance of ecosystems. But how should a poor person in a slum care of these against basic deficits in safe water, housing, and human rights?

How many people know what ecosystem services mean? Maybe none, with a miniscule exception, among those with whom I work and engage on every day basis in Mumbai. These people include, politicians, middle- and upper-class citizens, slum dwellers, workers, activists, journalists, educators, historians, sociologists, economists, engineers, architects, planners and municipal and government officials. We engage in a substantially wide range of matters that affect our daily lives, consuming our time and energy; open spaces, gardens, beaches, waterfronts, creeks, wetlands, mangroves, forests, trees, quality of life and environment and housing, and a host of other urban development issues- transportation, city planning and so on, human rights and law included.

Therefore, the challenge is, as I understand, first introducing the very idea of ecological services into our dialogue, relating them with other rights and thereafter building popular movements for claiming and reclaiming access by all to ecosystem services. Let me confess, here in Indian cities, we are far from it.
I live and work in Mumbai, a city of twelve million people, the financial and trading capital of India. Real estate prices here are amongst the highest in the world; while over 50% of its population—six million people—live in slums. Services and infrastructure in the slums and the city, are probably the worst among big cities anywhere.

Interestingly, Mumbai has a long history of a number of significant social and political movements: struggles of the discriminated Dalit people led by Dr. Ambedkar, unionization of the working class led by Dange, the Quit India movement against British occupation led by Mahatma Gandhi. Also, there have been significant struggles for housing rights, civil and civic rights, human rights and important environmental battles, thereby influencing the city and the country.

Mumbai is also unique in terms of the extent of its rich and varied natural areas and assets. Forests including a 100 km2 national park within the city, hills, creeks, wetlands, mangroves, beaches, rivers, lakes, together covering an area of 240 km2 that constitute 50% of the total area of the city.

Tragically, development of the city, historically, has been directed with just one single dominating motive, that is to boost real estate business, with volumes of mindless construction as a measure of success, thereby turning the city into a speculative investment heaven by the rich and influential people. As a result, natural areas have been abused and misused, turning them into dumping grounds, both physically and metaphorically. Destruction of these areas has been rampant with irreversible environmental consequences. Even an account of these rich natural assets of the city have not been mapped or documented sufficiently. The preparation of successive Development Plans by the city Municipal Corporation every 15-20 years have ignored them as being integral to the planning process. Over the years, large parts of these areas have been landfilled in order to promote real estate projects. Currently, the government is pushing for development of the saltpan areas (parts of the wetlands that have been used since the 1940s to produce salt) for promoting affordable housing schemes. Similarly, large parts of the national park are being de-reserved for construction of roads, transportation depots and similarly other projects.

It is in such a complex context of socio-political history and un-sustainable urbanization that is being pursued by the governments in Mumbai, indeed across India, that we have to dwell upon the subject of ecological services.

As The Nature of Cities, of which I am a part, makes strong claims about the critical value of nature and ecosystems, my concern is how can various people’s movements in the city successfully include this issue into their agenda and popularize them as being integral to questions of resilience and sustainability. Such an effort would mean going beyond their preoccupation with demands from people for day to day needs—basic services like safe drinking water and sanitation and housing and protection of human rights. In such a situation, how can we champion the benefits of green to be true and real? How can we consciously evaluate those services that already exist, but of which we are not particularly aware, while simultaneously furthering new ones?

Can The Nature of Cities prepare, to begin with, a short campaign leaflet, brochure and posters for public understanding? Various movements here can then use them or appropriately modify them to spread the message and conduct public discussions. Governments will be forced to look into these concerns once there is growing public understanding of the significance of ecosystems services and their rights of access.

Marthe Derkzen

About the Writer:
Marthe Derkzen

Marthe is a PhD researcher at VU University, Amsterdam where she works on urban social ecology.

Marthe Derkzen

Share your garden & green your school ground!

Collaborative programs that foster civic engagement increase equity in nature access by opening up green areas to residents of all ages and backgrounds, including those for whom access to nature is not a standard privilege.
Solutions to improve equity in access to urban nature are increasingly found in local, bottom-up initiatives. Not public entities, but individuals and groups are the ones driving socio-ecological innovation. They become key actors in ecosystem management, driven by lifestyle choices (e.g. health) combined with socioeconomic and ecological decline. The public role expands from planning and providing green space to stimulating and facilitating user participation, environmental stewardship and collaborative management. When the public and the city combine forces, we can work toward nature for all.
I spent the past four years studying the benefits of urban nature with a particular emphasis on ecosystem services and social justice. My PhD research included case studies in Rotterdam and Bangalore, and in spite of being very different cities, they show a similar problem: current green space planning fails to take everyone’s needs into account, and the groups least able to raise their voice face the risk of becoming further marginalized. The closer I came to the end of my PhD, the more I realized that civic engagement can help solve this problem. I will present two promising avenues for a greener city by and for local groups and residents, based on my experience living and working in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a compact city that wants to expand without expanding. The city is growing and needs to build more housing, while maintaining its high livability standards. This means that pressure on public green spaces is constant and every square meter should be highly functional without sacrificing quality. So what to do? Here are two simple solutions for increased nature access in compact cities:

1. Green school grounds
Ideally, every child should interact with nature on a daily basis. In compact cities it is more rare than common for houses to have a garden, so this daily portion of nature should be sought elsewhere. The school ground is the perfect location to include green playgrounds, water channeling games, green walls with herbs and a garden filled with strawberries. A green school ground is the perfect source of learning by doing, stimulates the exploratory mind and has proven to increase indoor concentration as well (see the work of Sjerp de Vries on green school ground redevelopment). Besides the educational benefits, green school grounds are perfect for cross-cultural meetings, parents’ active involvement, neighborhood networks and rain water infiltration. Most importantly, they provide an opportunity for every child to access nature, regardless of their home situation.

A successful green school ground in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Photo: Bloei in Arnhem (

2. Garden sharing
Another simple solution based on engagement and neighborhood ties, is the concept of garden sharing. The Amsterdam based organization De Gezonde Stad (The Healthy City) is currently testing a platform for garden sharing in two neighborhoods. The idea is simple: connect garden owners who currently don’t manage their garden spaces to their neighbors with an interest in gardening but no garden space. In Amsterdam, garden owners often lack the time or energy to maintain their garden which is why many gardens are either sealed, grey spaces or have turned into a complete wilderness. Other garden owners have lost the physical ability to maintain their garden because of age or poor health, and some just lack a green thumb. This is a sad situation as many garden owners would really like to have a lush green garden, either to grow vegetables or simply to have a nice outdoor space in which to relax. It becomes even sadder knowing that there is a huge army of Amsterdam residents who would love to have a garden but who live in small apartments with tiny balconies, if any outdoor space at all. The garden sharing platform, called My Plot, connects garden owners to garden cravers and makes them both happier. Creating not only increased equity in nature access, but also increasing the share of unsealed and vegetated surface area!

Share your garden with your neighbor who turns it green! Photo: Jouw Stek (

These examples of civic engagement and collaboration increase equity in nature access by opening up green areas to residents of all ages and backgrounds, including those for whom access to nature is not a standard privilege. But it is not a task for residents and local organizations alone. Municipalities have a task to support and facilitate bottom-up initiatives, for example through subsidies and planning legislation that allows new collaborations and adaptive uses. At the same time, municipalities are responsible for maintaining safe and healthy cities and need to keep exploring novel top-down solutions such as a garden taxing system that favors permeable garden owners over sealed garden owners in order to increase rain water seepage into the soil. Cities should make use of the current momentum in which urban nature gains attention for reasons of health, local engagement and resilience to climate change.

Maggie Scott Greenfield

About the Writer:
Maggie Scott Greenfield

Maggie Scott Greenfield, AICP, serves as the Executive Director of the Bronx River Alliance and the Bronx River Administrator for NYC Parks. Maggie guides investments of more than $220 million in greenway and restoration projects, and works with multiple partners to reclaim the river as a resource for the communities along it.

Maggie Scott Greenfield

The human element: political support, cultural relevance and inclusive governance

Since its founding in 2001, the Bronx River Alliance has sought to provide access to a vital slice of nature that flows through the heart of the Bronx. It’s challenging work and progress is hard-won. The successes we’ve achieved have resulted from political will, attention to cultural relevance, and inclusive governance. All three of these human elements are particularly important when working in environmental justice communities where such projects face fierce challenges, yet where access to nature—and its related services—is most pressing.

There are no shortcuts in ensuring access to nature. We must invest in people and the systems that build political support, cultural understanding, and inclusive governance.
Developing urban parks, much less restoring an urban river, can be expensive, fraught with design challenges, layers of regulatory permits, and overlapping jurisdictions. These obstacles can lead to halting progress, which is why long-term community and political support is so important.

As a result of the Great Recession’s contracting budgets, we learned in 2008 that Starlight Park, a critical and long-awaited link in the Bronx River Greenway, would not be completed as initially envisioned. Several years later when we celebrated the opening of this 11-acre park with its docks, trails, playgrounds and sports fields, we were already strategizing on how to complete the portions that were cut. The park lacked critical connecting links to residential communities in the South Bronx, thus limiting public access. Thanks to meaningful community leadership for the river, all levels of government—Borough, City, State, Federal—heard, repeatedly and insistently, why the missing connections to local neighborhoods must be completed. Up-and-coming political stars adopted the Bronx River as a cause to champion. Long-term supporters of the river, like Congressman José E. Serrano, found new ways to sustain our efforts as the political winds shifted at the national level. This political support, rooted in broad-based community ownership of the river, has resulted in a continued commitment to “Phase 2” of the project, led now by NYC Parks, and a willingness to find new sources of funding and tackle inevitable design challenges. Now over $50 million has been allocated for Phase 2 and construction is about to commence.

Yet just as important as the physical presence of parks and trails in urban communities is cultural relevance. How do we ensure that our parks are welcoming to the multiple communities in which they are situated? Park-based programs such as Zumba, drum circles, and plant identification and cooking classes in Spanish can help connect new audiences to urban nature. But we must also recognize our own blind spots. Who will reach out to the Bangladeshi or Albanian communities? Do we even know who all our communities are in vibrantly multicultural areas like the South Bronx?

Neighborhood-based groups know their communities best and can play a significant role in facilitating access to urban nature. Recently, a Spanish-speaking instructor led a class on the medicinal properties of estafiate (a.k.a. mugwort) to a group of women at park along the river. Thanks to a partnership with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a local community-based organization that secured this programming, these women were engaging with nature in a way linked to their cultural heritage. This too is access.

Finally, the institutional structure of the groups working to increase access to urban nature is of critical importance. What voice do local communities have in the decisions that shape their parks and their connection to nature? Does the staff and board of these institutions look like the communities in which they operate? If not, what can be done to move toward a direction of inclusion and representation? At the Bronx River Alliance, we support Teams for our Ecology and Greenway programs that provide a pathway for leadership and onto our Board of Directors. Several of our Board Chairs have come out of Team and community leadership. We prioritize local hiring and are proud that our Conservation Manager and Crew leaders came to us from local job training programs and have grown in roles of increasing leadership and responsibility ever since. Today, they are full-time, unionized employees with NYC Parks, demonstrating by their own success, a career path for their friends and neighbors.

There are no shortcuts in ensuring access to nature. We must invest in people and the systems that build political support, cultural understanding, and inclusive governance if we hope to approach the goal of nature for all. Recognizing the human element in the very process of connecting ourselves and one another to the great wide world around us is key to our success.

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

Ecosystem benefitsa service for the few or a right for the many?

In this intervention, I attempt to address the issue of inequality of access to ecosystem benefits, not as a stand-alone issue, but rather within the broader context of ongoing trends of urbanism, multi-dimensional inequality, poverty, disaster losses, financialisation of the global economy and climate change.

The issues of this roundtable are in fact multi-dimensional and multi-scalar: the social processes that drive the disaster risk, climate change, poverty nexus are permeated with rising inequality.
In 2016, an estimated 54.5 percent of the world’s population lived in urban settlements. Urban areas are expected to house 60 percent of the world population by 2030[i]. Speculative urban capital is invested in modern enclaves, while the low-income majority has access to informal or sub-standard urbanization. In spite of the decrease from 39 to 30 percent of urban population living in slums in developing countries between 2000 and 2014, in 2016, one in eight people continue to live in slums and around a billion people live in slum conditions[ii], as a minimum[iii].  Within and around these urban areas ecosystem benefits are threatened.

Ecosystem benefits such as crop pollination, carbon sequestration, climate regulation, water purification, air purification, nutrient dispersal, nutrient recycling, waste processing, flood control, pest control and disease control, are estimated to be around $36 trillion a year. Currently, we remain unable to provide these services for ourselves[iv]. The ecological footprint from the unsustainable overconsumption of energy and natural capital now exceeds the planet’s biocapacity by nearly 50 percent. Coastal wetlands declined by 52 percent between the 1980s and early 2000s. Other critical regulatory ecosystems such as mangrove forests and coral reefs are also degrading at a rapid pace[v].

The mortality and economic losses associated with extensive risks (minor but recurrent disaster risks) in low and middle-income countries are trending up. In the last decade, losses due to extensive risk in 85 countries exceeded US$94 billion. Extensive risks (which represent an ongoing erosion of development assets, such as houses, schools, health facilities, roads and local infrastructure) are usually absorbed by low-income households and communities and small businesses. While the concentration of investment in urban centres drives intensive risk (severe but relatively infrequent risk), high levels of urban income inequality shape patterns of extensive risk[vi].

The social processes that drive the disaster risk, climate change, poverty nexus are permeated with rising inequality. Indeed, in 2017 eight people own as much as 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity[vii]. Rising inequality is manifesting itself in both the global south and the global north, where for example research by Piketty shows that over the last 30 years in the U.S., the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%[viii].

Building asset inequality (housing and security of tenure), unequal access to public services and welfare systems, inequality of social status linked to space (e.g. informal settlements in urban settings), and inequalities in the application of the rule of law has significant impact on disaster risk levels. Inequality itself, including inequality to access to basic ecosystem benefits, is permeated with weak governance and weak risk governance. For example, from the global, through to the sub-national levels, decisions relating to the use of resources lead to a particular distribution of benefits, exposure, vulnerability, risks and losses. Often the poorest, the most marginalized, and those with the least (unequal) access the decision making process are those that suffer disproportionately from a concentration of vulnerability and losses due to the particular use of the natural resources.

Communication technologies allow people to connect and lobby for their rights at the local, national and global levels[ix], including the right for access to eco-system benefits, thereby circumventing gatekeepers at all levels. However, increased financialisation of the economies in first world countries[x], [xi] and prevailing rentier economies and cultures in many third world countries[xii] is leading to the breakdown of traditional social contracts, and to the rise of racism and other forms of extremism that prevent people from uniting around rights-based themes.

Notwithstanding the above, climate change, rising inequality, increased disaster losses, and improvements in education and telecommunications technologies provide an opportunity to:

  • Raise awareness on the relationship between weak risk governance and the disproportionate concentration of disaster risk vulnerability and losses.
  • Use telecommunication technologies to lobby and mobilise support for preserving and promoting ecosystem benefits for all.
  • Pillar the above two steps on the fundamental idea that ecosystem benefits are a human right to be enjoyed by all and not a service to be enjoyed by the decreasing few who can afford it.


[i] The World Cities in 2016 – Data Booklet, United Nations, Economic and Social Affairs Division.

[ii] Slum Almanac 2015/2016, Tracking Development in the lives of slum dwellers, UNHABITAT, 2016.

[iii]  According to the above study, this number may be considered as a minimum as this figure has been calculated considering just four out of the five slum household’s deprivations considered in UN-Habitat’s definition, as security of tenure can’t be accurately calculated yet. In some countries with limited information, only one of the five components has been measured.

[iv] Abundance – the future is better than you think, Diamandis P. and Kotler S., 2011.

[v] Global Assessment Report, UNISDR, 2015.

[vi] Global Assessment Report, UNISDR, 2015.

[vii] An Economy for the 99%, Oxfam Briefing Paper, January 2017.

[viii] Capital in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Piketty, 2014.

[ix] Abundance – the future is better than you think, Diamandis P. and Kotler S., 2011.

[x] The Financialization of the American Economy, Krippner G., Socio- Economic Review, Issue 3, pp. 173-208, 2005.

[xi] Financialization and the World Economy, Epstein G., 2005.

[xii] Intensive and extensive disaster risk drivers and interactions with recent trends in the global political economy, with special emphasis on rentier states, Hamdan F., Special Issue of the International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction, Vol. 14, Part 3, pp 273-289, 2015.

Nadja Kabisch

About the Writer:
Nadja Kabisch

Nadja Kabisch holds a PhD in Geography. Her special interest is on human-environment interactions in cities taking co-benefits from nature-based solutions implementation for human health and social justice into account.

Nadja Kabisch

We have learned that when urban planning does not include the local community properly, green development projects can fail.
Cities have been growing over centuries and urban structures are differently distributed within the city area. In compact cities, central parts are often highly dense areas with high degrees of impervious surfaces and less urban green. Urban green spaces available in any kind of city may consist of historically grown parks or cemeteries, allotment gardens or other green spaces that are usually not equally distributed over a whole city area. Research suggests that some groups have less access to urban green spaces than others and that it is particularly the higher income groups that live in greener areas with lower densities, less sealed areas and lower traffic volume. The unequal distribution of environmental goods and burdens associated with green in cities makes the debate on urban green space availability and accessibility an issue of socio-environmental justice.

As cities grow and further develop, urban planning seeks to improve environmental conditions in cities through the redevelopment of former industrial areas—so called brown fields—into new parks or green spaces. Some cities—e.g. Berlin—plan for brownfield redevelopment in deprived areas to improve the situation of less advantaged groups. What has happened earlier is that brownfield redevelopment and the creation of high quality green spaces have led to an upgrade of the particular city area or neighbourhood. Since some years, there is the fear of green gentrification in which the greening strategies would lead to higher rents for those the green development was intended to help, to the extent that they cannot afford to stay anymore. This fear is reasonable as case studies from German cities such as Berlin or Leipzig already showed. The debate on green gentrification is not new. In fact, responding to different case studies around the globe, authors—also in TNOC (2014) three years ago—discussed the potential of residential displacement kicked off by urban greening developments. Some solutions have been outlined which mainly responded to cases of the developed world. These potential solutions to counteract green gentrification mainly recalled urban planning to think together the greening development of an area with potential effects in market oriented processes and vice versa the impact on the residential population in a holistic way.

I am partly with Marcelo Lopes de Souza (2017), who pointed out in TNOC recently that these discussions were too optimistic regarding the opportunities and available instruments state-led urban planning really has. Given the way the market works in western, neo-liberal state-led urban planning may certainly reach its limits. Particularly in cities with poor financial budgets, decisions are taken that promote economic development rather than consider the socio-economic situation of residents. Still, I do have hope that the careful consideration of where to plan for urban nature taking into consideration the overall structure of the city—including land cover but simultaneously the socio-economic situation in all neighbourhoods—may lead to new forms of policy instruments that ensure that the existing population can stay, enjoy, and benefit from the green development. These instruments may go hand in hand with the involvement of local residents in all stages of a green development project.

Picture 1: Public park—Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin, the former city airport opened for public use in 2010. Runways and lawns are used for sports and relaxation.

What we have learned from a popular case in Berlin is that when urban planning does not include the local community properly, green development projects can fail. The former city airport of Berlin—the Tempelhofer Feld—was supposed to be redeveloped based on a masterplan (2013) that included residential development that was obviously supposed to be high class development. Fearing the gentrification of the neighbourhoods, local communities initiated a Berlin-wide referendum in 2014 to vote in favour of keeping the area as it is and against the masterplan. The referendum succeeded. More than 46% of eligible voters participated and from those nearly 65% (nearly 740,000! people) voted in favour of the current area. The power of the local community was not anticipated by city officials but the city’s initial plans were finally stopped.

Picture 2: Playgrounds at the Gleisdreieck in the inner city area in Berlin, former railway brownfield area.

From cases like the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin, we learn how powerful the voice of citizens can be and that more collective planning of green spaces through active involvement of citizens in urban planning and decision making is important when contributing to a more resilient and just urban environment. Setha Low, a U.S. anthropologist, highlighted the participation of all affected groups in planning and design as a way of procedural justice—an important dimension in the socio-environmental justice debate. This includes, a screening of the local neighbourhoods to identify the potential user groups that can belong to different cultures and age groups and their needs and expectations. Integrating them may promote the right decisions for design features to development and to ensure that it is used and most beneficial for those living in the area.

Picture 3: Intercultural garden at the Gleisdreieck in the inner city area in Berlin, former railway brownfield area.

The Gleisdreieck in Berlin is a particular example where a former railway brownfield side was redeveloped into a multifunctional park. Public workshops and roundtable discussions took place to identify resident’s desires on how the area should be developed to make best use finally for all population groups. Today, the park integrates designated areas for wildlife conservation, lawns for relaxation or playing sports, large playground areas and nature experience areas for children at any age, bmx-areas and an intercultural community garden (Picture 2 to 4). As the integration of local residential groups in planning processes is already part of many development processes—at least in the developed world, we can state, that for procedural environmental justice, yes, we are a step further.

Picture 4: Nature experience areas for children at the Gleisdreieck in the inner city area in Berlin, former railway brownfield area.

Further reading:
Kabisch, N., Haase, D. (2014) Green Justice or just Green? Urban Green Space Provision in the City of Berlin. Landscape and Urban Planning 122, 129-139.

Kabisch, N., Strohbach, M., Haase, D., Kronenberg, J. (2016) Urban Green Space Availability in European cities. Ecological Indicators.

Haase, D., Kabisch, S., Haase, A., Kabisch, N. (2017): Greening cities to be socially inclusive? About the alleged paradox of society and ecology in cities, In: Habitat International 64, 41-48. doi: 10.1016/j.habitatint.2017.04.005.

Low, S. (2013): Public space and diversity: Distributive, procedural and interactional justice for parks. In G. Young, & D. Stevenson (Eds.), The Ashgate research companion to planning and culture (pp. 295–310). Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.

Lopes de Souza, M. (2017) For the Sake of the Common Good? “Gentrifying Conservationism” and “Green Evictions”, Rio de Janeiro. 13 August 2017.

TNOC [The Nature of Cities]. 2014. What are the social justice implications of urban ecology, and how can we make sure that “green cities” are not synonymous with “gentrified” or “exclusive” cities?

Jim Labbe

About the Writer:
Jim Labbe

Jim served Audubon Society of Portland’s Urban Conservationist from 2003-2016 where he led several habitat protection, access to nature, and constituency building projects. Jim is currently serving as the executive director of In his free time, Jim enjoys biking, dancing, studying Russian, playing music, and lollygagging in his garden.

Jim Labbe

Creating equitable biophilic cities by ending toxic urbanism

The case has been made. The evidence is in. The urbanization that destroys or degrades ecosystems and disconnects people from nature—what may now be aptly called “toxic urbanism”—is also a threat to human health and well being.

The urgent question is not should or how we end toxic urbanism and create biophilic cities. The question is whether we as communities will continue accept urban development that permits, abets, and reproduces it?
The long-intuited link between access to nature and human health in cities is now well documented in an enormous and continuing growing body of research. There is no reason to doubt a causal link between access to nature and multiple indicators of individual and community health in cities. Time and again research has shown a robust association between urban green infrastructure and improved mental and physical health of people and associated community well-being in urban neighborhoods. Research has also repeatedly shown the correspondingly toxic effects of under-natured urban places.[i] Take a basic indicator of human health such as birth outcomes. A series of independent, controlled studies replicated in cities in Europe and North America between 2011 and 2016 clearly and consistently document that a lack of urban trees and vegetation is associated with worse birth outcomes.[ii]

The preponderance of evidence is also clear with respect to who is most impacted by the legacy of toxic urbanism. Repeated analyses demonstrate low income people and people of color—a global majority—live in communities with less urban canopy and other green infrastructure and/or with less proximity or lower quality access to greenspace. These same demographic groups also face other social or cultural barriers at different spatial scales to the enormous health benefits of nature in cities.[iii]

We need not be bogged down in policy or technical questions as to how to more fully integrate nature and the built environment to create healthier, climate resilient cities. Issues of design and feasibility have been or are being overcome in tens of thousands of projects and experiments in hundreds of cities across the globe. Communities are learning from each other to put nature back in the city for biodiversity and human health. They are showing how to daylight urban streams; depave and regreen urban streets; incorporate green roofs, green walls, or other green infrastructure into the densest urban neighborhoods; expand and enhance the urban forest; create interlinked and nested regional systems of parks, greenways, and natural areas; and safeguard regionally critical food, forest and biodiversity lands.

So the salient, urgent question is not should or how we end toxic urbanism and create biophilic cities. The urgent question is whether urban planners, business and community leaders, and public officials continue accept urban development outcomes that permit, allow, abet and reproduce “toxic urbanism?” How can we not take bold action in implementing proven policies, finding needed resources, and focusing public attention on creating the equitable and ecological cities when what is at stake for the health of all our neighbors.

In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, a city much touted for its green urban and regional planning, we struggle to get beyond reputations and appearances to grapple with basic versions of these questions. We still ask ourselves whether we will widen freeways to achieve very dubious congestion relief. We ask ourselves whether we should exempt commercial and industrial lands from tree preservation and planting as an extremely dubious economic development strategy. We squabble over retaining outdated parking requirements or exclusive single-family zoning (sometimes, ironically, in the name of nature conservation) that locks low-income people out of affordable housing and good park access while increasing air and water pollution and exacerbating job-housing imbalances, not to mention increasing pressure for low-density greenfield development on the region’s edge.

Now more than ever, the imperative is to face political barriers to making just transitions to ecologically sustainable, biophilic cities and regions. To muster the will to act we must focus on tools and strategies that persuade the persuadable and allow the voices of disenfranchised majorities to be heard. This might start by recognizing and naming toxic urbanism and holding our leaders to account for its consequences. For many they have always been self-evident. Creating ecological, biophilic cities can no longer be the latest cache. It can’t be just about brandishing reputations of particular places or politicians to bolster tourism or attract outside investment, it must be about protecting everyone’s basic human health and ability to thrive in an equal opportunity society.


[i] James P, et al. 2015a. A review of the health benefits of greenness. Current Epidemiology Reports Vol. 2, pp. 131–142.

[ii] Ebisu K, et al. 2016. “Association between greenness, urbanicity, and birth weight,” Science of the Total Environment, Volume 542, Part A, 15 January 2016, pp. 750-756; Hystad P, et al. 2014. “Residential Greenness and Birth Outcomes: Evaluating the Influence of Spatially Correlated Built-Environment Factors,” Environmental Health Perspectives, pp. 1095; Markevych I, 2014. “Surrounding greenness and birth weight: Results from the GINIplus and LISAplus birth cohorts in Munich,” Health & Place Vol. 26 pp 39-46; Laurent O, et al. 2013. “Green spaces and pregnancy outcomes in Southern California,” Health & Place Vol. 24, pp. 190-195;  Dadvand P, et al. 2012. “Green space, health inequity and pregnancy,” Environmental International Vol. 40 pp. 110-115; Donovan GH, et al. 2011. “Urban trees and the risk of poor birth outcomes,” Health & Place Vol. 17 pp. 390-393.

[iii] Rigolon A, 2016. “A complex landscape of inequality in access to urban parks: A literature review,” Landscape and Urban Planning, Vol. 153, pp. 160-169; Zhou X, 2012. “Social disparities in tree canopy and park access: A case study of six cities in Illinois using GIS and remote sensing,” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening Vol. 12:1 pp. 88-97; Labbe J and Radin K, 2007 Regional Equity Atlas, Chapter 12 Parks & Nature, Coalition for a Livable Future, pp. 81-92; Tan PK and Samsudin R, 2017. “Effects of spatial scale on assessment of spatial equity of urban park provision,” Landscape & Urban Planning Vol 158, pp. 139-154.

François Mancebo

Making ecosystem services and nature available does not mean making them accessible to everyone; they must be consistent with the existing social and cultural fabric.
Ecosystem services and urban nature for everyone! Great idea, but who is “everyone”? And who decides what is supposed to be good for “everyone”? As long as no response has been given to these two questions, all the claptrap about access and nature is just a big joke.

Let’s consider a place I know well: Paris. The spatial divide in the Ile-de-France—Paris’ metropolitan region—increased significantly in the last decade, between wealthy and poor people as well as between ethnic groups (though their existence is not officially recognized in France). Surprisingly, it coincided with environmental policies focused on the development of ecosystem services. What happened? One example—the disadvantaged quartier de la Goutte d’Or east of Montmartre, bordered by railways, technical facilities, and railroad tracks—should be enough to give you some insight. What is a quartier? Officially Paris is divided in 20 arrondissements and each arrondissement is divided in 4 quartiers. But in fact that’s really not what this policy is about: the municipality calls quartier a complex entity—usually smaller than the official quartiers—which partially overlaps that of neighborhood in other countries like the USA and has no administrative status.

In the seventies the Paris City Council initiated a program of urban renewal in this deprived area: libraries, parks and gardens (square Léon and square Amiraux-Boinod) were created, as well as swimming pools (piscine des Amiraux, piscine Bertrand Dauvin). But nothing changed for the population. Nobody frequented these new libraries, parks and pools. The population stuck to its usual way of living. These amenities were perceived as threats, put there only by the will of planners and local moguls, rather than opportunities for a richer life. It was not so much a matter of access and capability really. The people decided not to use them, because they considered that they didn’t belong to their world. They built an invisible wall between themselves and these amenities. I developed these aspects in a chapter of The Just City Essays. It says that people suffering from bad living conditions, are not only victims. They also are actors whose choices, convictions and presuppositions contribute to maintain, to worsen, and even in some cases to create the condition in which they live. That is to say that making ecosystem services and urban nature available does not mean making them accessible to everyone.

As I mentioned in a former post—Unintended Consequences: When Environmental Goods turn Bad—creating ecosystem services is not inherently “just” or “good”. Parks and gardens do not necessarily bring people together. They can also isolate people because they separate their homes. This aspect is in line with the Parisian history: the introduction of greenery by Haussmann was an attempt to control the use of public space by a technical approach based on hygienism. Its main function was to bring more sunlight to the city and better the air circulation. The city life was marked by socio-spatial differentiation, virtually segregated, embodied in a type of revegetation reduced to espaces verts. The very term espace vert (green area) reveals its real nature: “…by losing its name, the old urban garden or urban park is deprived of its positive attributes excepted the hygienic one… the espace vert is no longer a place but rather an indistinct area whose boundaries are decided in the abstract world of the master-plans…”

Thus, ecosystems services must be consistent with the existing social and cultural fabric, communities, local assets and resources, to effectively provide access to everyone, especially to the people living nearby. It means that maximizing wide-scale involvement, from the scratch, of local communities and neighborhoods in the design and management of these ecosystem services is crucial to improve justice and access.

Hita Unnikrishnan

About the Writer:
Hita Unnikrishnan

A Newton International Fellow at the Urban Institute, The University of Sheffield, Hita studies histories of lost urban commons among the networked lakes of Bengaluru, India.

Hita Unnikrishnan and Harini Nagendra

Urban commons—for whom and for what?

In today’s rapidly urbanizing world, the critical roles of equity, justice, and sustainability have long since been recognized. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations makes explicit mention of Sustainable Cities and Communities within the contexts of equity and justice. But despite the fact that these elements of resilient cities have been recognized and measures taken to bring in some semblance of equitability and sustainability, cities of the global south such as Bengaluru, India, have operated historically and continue to do so through regimes fostering inequity, albeit through unintentional mechanisms.

Actions taken seemingly for the benefit of the resource (patrolling by guards, fencing, priced entry) often reveal a cultural imagination of nature that is dominated by the aesthetic and recreational, while exacerbating existing inequities in access to ecosystem services.
 Since the 6th century AD, Bengaluru’s growth has been supported by diverse urban commons—lakes, village forests, and open wells. These commons sustained human use, while also providing ecological and environmental functions such as biodiversity support, and cooling and ground water recharge in a hot and dry environment. Traditionally managed by communities through common property regimes, there were strong historical inequities in access based on wealth, caste, gender and social privileges. For instance, disadvantaged castes provided forced labour in the construction and reparation of lakes, and were often prohibited from utilizing water from open wells used by privileged caste groups. Yet despite the deep and undeniable inequities of the past, community relationships in villages were maintained and strengthened by collaborative management of the commons. For instance, community managed gunda thopes, or village forests, were used to provide for the community in festive gatherings such as annual village festivals, and times of distress such as during drought and famine. Oral interviews with older residents reveal the sense of pride and strong sense of attachment that residents had with elements of their natural landscape: lakes, village groves and grazing lands.

The advent of centralized piped water supply systems in the late 19th century disrupted the dependence on the commons, and fragmented community groups. Groups such as fishers and grazers, who derived material benefits from urban commons, began to be excluded as aesthetic and recreational values of natural spaces began to dominate. These resource users began to be excluded from important decision-making processes relating to these spaces as well, as a result of which many of Bengaluru’s lakes and wooded groves were converted to built spaces. A case in point is Bengaluru’s centrally located Sri Kanteerava Stadium, built on one of the city’s largest lakes, Sampangi lake.

Such exclusions are not restricted just to the past either. Recent experiments with private-public partnerships for lake management in Bengaluru have commoditised the urban commons, severely restricting the range of services available to traditional users based on their ability to pay. Many state and community-led lake restoration efforts also prioritize the values and needs of wealthier residents, but exclude marginalized resource users such as farmers and grazers, from access as well as from decision making. Consequently, actions taken seemingly for the benefit of the resource (such as patrolling by guards, fencing, and pricing entry) often reveal a cultural imagination of nature that is dominated by the aesthetic and recreational, while exacerbating existing inequities in access to ecosystem services.

Regardless of the form of exclusion—historic or present day; caste and community based, or on the basis of income—inequities in access to nature’s benefits are mostly borne by those who are already marginalized. Ironically, these are the people most dependent upon the resource to sustain their lives and livelihoods. Which begs the question: who really are urban commons for? And what is the best way to move forward?

Attempts at bridging the gap exist, though few in number and small in scope. Some community efforts to restore lakes in Bengaluru have attempted to address inequities by collaborating with diverse groups ranging from livestock owners to school children. An initiative by BIOME Environmental Solutions aims at restoring open wells in collaboration with a community of traditional well diggers, helping to improve water sustainability while empowering this marginalized but highly knowledgeable group. In a series of activities aimed at driving experiential learning on sustainability issues, a collective led by the city based organization—Daily Dump, has encouraged school students to engage with urban commons in the form of what might seem like an uninspiring space under a flyover, speaking to diverse people that use the space, such as drivers of buses, and street vendors, and tweeting their experiences using the hashtag #undertheflyover.

It is very well to state that inequity may be resolved by ensuring inclusive access to ecosystem services, but the road towards ensuring that equity is still fraught with challenge, situated on a foundation of often well-meaning exclusionary regimes. We need to highlight, study, and better understand such examples of collaborative community led efforts to ensure that diverse groups get access to ecosystems in the highly unequal urban contexts of today’s cities—to facilitate conditions for expanding these efforts at a larger scale.

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.

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

The availability of ecosystem services for everyone is an unarguable moral stance. Achieving that goal of equitable access is difficult because ecosystem services take space to produce the structures and processes that constitute or generate ecosystem services. And space always seems to be limited or contested in urban areas—whether cities, suburbs, or their embedded or fringing production and wild lands.

Yet, there is a deeper, perhaps more fundamental stumbling block in assuring equal access: not everybody values the same services. An amenity in one neighborhood, or for one household, may be perceived as a burden by another.

The moral imperative of equitable service provision rests on a still deeper moral imperative to take the heterogeneity of people’s perceptions, values, and fears into account.
Let me give a couple of examples. Trees and urban tree canopy are almost always held up as a crucial provider of ecosystem services in cities and suburbs. Such benefits have been documented to include moderation of the microclimate in yards, along streets, and for whole neighborhoods. Yet, there are residents of cities and suburbs who fear or despise trees. How could this be?

Some people fear the crime or criminal activity they believe to be associated with trees. Trees are thought to provide hiding places for criminals or for their contraband. Residents don’t want trees to be planted in their neighborhoods, especially if the agencies or institutions planting the trees are perceived as outsiders, or as acting paternalistically. In Baltimore, however, there are data that explicitly demonstrate a clear correlation of lower violent and property crime in neighborhoods with more trees. Incidentally, the statistical relationship about tree canopy and crime holds regardless of social and economic differences. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study researchers do not argue that trees themselves reduce crime, but the association shows at least that trees can’t “cause” crime there. However, just because the data speak to the value of trees doesn’t mean that the fears of neighborhood residents can be dismissed.

Another issue with trees is that some city residents are worried about real nuisances or risks that trees generate. People dislike the sap deposited on their cars, or are troubled by the expense they might have to bear to manage street and yard trees, or do not want the hassle of removing of fallen leaves and branches. Ethnographic research in neighborhoods and interviews with arborists reveal that some working-class neighborhoods in Baltimore have a long-standing dislike of trees based on these nuisances. More subtly, some people dislike trees because they symbolize the messy countryside rather than organized city.

How does one, in such situations, provide the services of trees without disrespecting or annoying these residents?

Part of solving the problem of inequitable service provision is to deal with people’s actual perceptions and fears. Ignoring or disrespecting those perceptions and rolling out a plan to provide services or amenities that people fear or dislike is certainly not honoring the goal of equity. Discovering how people value or eschew the features or processes that provide services is therefore a crucial step in knowing how to meet the needs and match the values of different neighborhoods for ecosystem services. Respectful listening, patient explaining, sympathetic understanding of the perceptions of diverse peoples, and participation in ongoing dialogs may all be required. The moral imperative of equitable service provision rests on a still deeper moral imperative to take the heterogeneity of people’s perceptions, values, and fears into account. Equity does not necessarily mean doing the same thing everywhere.

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).

Andrew Rudd

I am a pessimist, but I think that without some degree of pessimism we are less attuned to what it happening around us—unless it is happening directly to us.
Call me Cassandra. I believe we are very far away from embracing this moral imperative, much less achieving it. Environmental crises around the world show that the poor are uniquely disadvantaged both in terms of environmental goods (i.e. restricted access to environmental benefits) and environmental ‘bads’ (i.e. disproportionate exposure to pollution and other environmental negatives). Nearly everywhere this appears to be getting worse. Focusing only on exposure to the bads: in the last month alone there have been record hurricanes in the Caribbean and US, a treacherous monsoon in South Asia, wildfires in Canada and the US, and an earthquake in Mexico. Human activity has exacerbated the severity of natural processes, but the culprits are rarely the victims. And even if the culprits are increasingly affected, it may not be enough to change business as usual. What is the future then? As Will Menaker recently said, either “something is invented that saves everyone or it’s not and everyone dies; either way we don’t learn” (

In social media many protested the disproportionate focus of reporting on flooding from Hurricane Harvey in the US, where 71 died, as opposed to flooding from the monsoon in South Asia, where 1,300 did. This is worth our attention. But not as an “act of god”—rather as something within our collective power that we have so far declined to address. The countries emitting the most per capita are often not the ones at the most risk, and even those at highest risk are not necessarily always the ones experiencing the greatest destruction. In 2013 the US had a per capita greenhouse gas emission rate of at least 16 times that of Bangladesh (, despite facing less than one-sixth the risk of climate change induced-disaster ( Geographic location plays a part, but so does wealth: Bangladesh is already one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP that is four percent of that of the US (

The impoverishment and vulnerability of much of Bangladesh’s population has come in large part as a result of Structural Adjustment Programs that—as elsewhere—have privatized public goods, reduced the quality and security of jobs and prompted land-grabbing and deforestation since the 1970s. Microfinance has not affected the overall trend. With very few means to evacuate—much less rebuild—the most vulnerable have little choice but to try to survive in place. In extremely population-dense countries like Bangladesh where privatization has destroyed river systems and exacerbated flooding, even internal relocation is not a realistic option. ‘[T]he dominant development paradigm…produces and reproduces poverty for many and affluence for the few, destroying nature and people’s lives’ (

Even in wealthier countries such as the US there is great inequality of exposure between and within cities. A number of newer cities in the “sun belt” of the US—such as Houston—have knowingly built and expanded in areas with disproportionate exposure to environmental bads (e.g. flooding, hurricanes, mosquitos) under the promethean belief that technology and optimism would trump nature. As a global petrochemical hub Houston is directly responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the oil and gas production process itself ( And as a direct consumer of oil and gas Houston is also one of the highest per capita GHG-emitting cities in the US. Houston’s leaders have long touted its infinite room to expand and its pro-greenfield development policies have yielded low-density, energy-hungry sprawl that all but requires long commutes in private cars. With virtually no limits on impervious land cover, flood risk has increased.

Houston is increasingly coming to absorb some of the costs of these bads, though in a very uneven way. In general, around 40,000 houses were significantly damaged or destroyed, and despite the relative wealth of the region fewer than 20% of these properties were insured for flooding. Rarely did the city require it nor could the poor afford it. Still, many locals have responded with icarian stubbornness that the city will rebuild in many of the same locations. Past and current heads of the local flood control district, who are not directly accountable to Houston voters, deny the role of climate change in flooding and continue to champion engineering as a solution to the destruction and pavement of the flood-resilient prairie ( The city has virtually no land use zoning to ensure that toxic industries locate away from people and environmentally sensitive areas. There is only NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”) to distance them from the wealthy. And that means the refineries and chemical plants have ended up along the low-lying waterways in eastern Houston, in a corridor predominantly populated by poor Latinos (including Latino immigrants). Not only did the flooding from Hurricane Harvey stir up a noxious cocktail of carcinogens, it also prompted several hazardous explosions in the area.

The US pulling out of the Paris Agreement is going to make things even worse for the poor, particularly in less capacitated countries. There is simply too little action from those who are empowered to take action. But this isn’t necessarily due to lack of agency. Neoliberalism, which has weakened the state’s regulation of environmental bads, has also encouraged competition over cooperation, obscured responsibility and corroded the social interdependencies that once made it possible to commonly manage resources for the public good. Now transnational corporations are relocating their dirty work with increasing frequency to places with the most lax environmental and labor regulations. Unable to move, many people are simply stuck with the worst jobs that give them too few resources to live in all but the most vulnerable, polluted, and underresourced parts of the country.

I don’t see any of this changing soon.

I am a pessimist, but I think that without some degree of pessimism we are less attuned to what is happening around us—unless it is happening directly to us. We are less likely to hold elected officials accountable for the socioeconomic policies that are exacerbating inequality. And—according to some studies—we are less likely to resist pressure to harm the powerless. Without empathy for those who are far away and in the future, for the voiceless and for non-agents, as Dale Jamieson puts it (, there is little hope for a human future on this planet, much less an environmentally just one.

Suraya Scheba

About the Writer:
Suraya Scheba

Suraya is a lecturer in the environmental and geographical sciences department, and postdoctoral researcher within the African Centre for Cities, at the University of Cape Town. She is interested in examining the politics and power geometries engaged in producing unjust urban forms, and relatedly the possibilities that exist in opening-up more just alternatives.

Suraya Scheba

How will we achieve universal access to ecosystem services and urban nature?

The current inability of the mainstream sustainable development agenda to address the destructiveness of capitalist metabolism, as it seeks to offer guidance for the next 20 years of urbanization, renders it largely impotent.
As support for sustainable development has gained momentum, this growing consensus on the urgency to promote sustainable, just, and inclusive cities (to deploy the rhetoric of the New Urban Agenda) has been accompanied by significant differences on the questions of what urban sustainability means, why, how to promote it, and for whose benefit. At the same time, the current mode of urbanization has led to increased environmental degradation, inequality, and exclusion. Therefore, in answering the question, “How will we achieve universal access to ecosystem services and urban nature?” I would like to suggest that what is needed is a fundamental rethinking of urban nature, the dynamics driving the production of unjust urban forms, and consequently more just alternatives. That is, we need to perform a radical reinvention of the production of the city from a socio-natural perspective, recognizing this as a deeply political, power-laden process, currently defined by a capitalist metabolism, with unsustainable consequences.

According to Joan Clos, the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the 2016 World Cities Report unequivocally demonstrates that the the current urbanization model is unsustainable in many respects and needs to change to address issues such as inequality, climate change, informality, insecurity, and the unsustainable forms of urban expansion (United Nations, 2016). That is, cities are responsible for 70-80 percent of the world’s use of resources and most of the world’s waste, making them the key sites for confronting environmental degradation. They are also sites of widening inequality and exclusion, with 75 percent of the world’s cities having higher levels of income inequalities than two decades ago. Within this context, many cities today fail to make sustainable space for all (United Nations, 2016).

The dominant response to this pattern of unsustainable urbanisation, at a global scale, has come in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and linked New Urban Agenda. Spurred on by more than two decades of mainstream sustainable development thinking, these agendas advocate a win-win market logic. In other words, they argue for the mobilization of eco-technical rationality, good governance, and behavioral change — all within the market — in order to deliver sustainable, just and inclusive urbanism. It is argued that the New Urban Agenda suggests a “paradigm shift” for pursuing the SDGs. However, despite this proclamation of “newness”, it remains path dependent on old methodological tools (e.g. indicators), techno-managerial solutions (e.g. smart cities), and institutional frameworks of ecological modernization (Kaika, 2017).

Following Urban Political Ecology, I believe that this is a deeply insufficient and problematic response, as it naturalises capitalism and consequently narrows the possible conversation that can be had on the emergence of more equitable and democratic patterns of urbanisation. In contrast, a more productive and radical response would be to bring into question the current mode of production, which, under capitalist social relations, prioritises the realisation of exchange value over use value . The dominance of exchange value promotes unsustainable consumption, extraction, and exploitative labour practice, in pursuit of accumulation. It is this logic of capitalist metabolism, that is responsible for our unsustainable mode of urbanization and therefore cannot constitute a central part of the solution! If we are to achieve universal, and more importantly equitable, access to the city (as socio-nature) what is needed is a fundamental challenge to this naturalisation of capitalist metabolism, as a central driver in the production of unsustainable urban forms at a global scale. The current inability of the mainstream sustainable development agenda to address the destructiveness of capitalist metabolism, as it seeks to offer guidance for the next 20 years of urbanization, renders it largely impotent.

Hence, in answering the question of “how just universal access can be achieved?”, I believe we need to question the very notion that “sustainability” can be achieved through engineering away the problem. Instead we need go deeper, into the heart of the problem, by unravelling the centrality of the techno-managerial focus of contemporary environmental governance, and moving instead toward a political conversation on how more equitable and democratic modes of governance and urbanisation can emerge (Swyngedouw, Kaika; 2014: 473). ria Kaika (2017), argues that the mainstream vision can only vaccinate “citizens and environments so that they can take larger doses of inequality and degradation in the future” (Kaika, 2017: 89), but does little towards meaningfully addressing the effects of global socio-environmental inequality. Within this context, an increasing number of communities are declining these packaged solutions and choosing instead to rupture this path dependency, aiming to establish effective alternative methods for accessing housing, healthcare, sanitation, etc. These dissensus-practices — chosen over the consensus-building offered through formal channels – are evidenced in Cape Town, Mumbai, New York, Barcelona, and many other cities across the world. We would do well to pay attention to these practices as they bring to our attention the grounded urgent needs to be addressed. This is how we might move toward a more radically transformative new urban agenda. One that ruptures, as opposed to perpetuates, the status quo.


Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E., 2011. The urbanization of nature: Great promises, impasse, and new beginnings. The new Blackwell companion to the city, pp.96-107.

Kaika, M., 2017. ‘Don’t call me resilient again!’: the New Urban Agenda as immunology… or… what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization, 29(1), pp.89-102.

UN-Habitat, 2016. Urbanisation and Development: Emerging Futures. World Cities Report 2016. UN-Habitat, Nairobi, Kenya.

Marcelo Lopes de Souza

About the Writer:
Marcelo Lopes de Souza

Marcelo Lopes de Souza is a professor of socio-spatial development and urban studies at the Department of Geography of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.He has published ten books and more than 100 papers and book chapters in 6 languages

Marcelo Lopes de Souza

The “common good”—what an ambitious expression! As far as environmental protection is concerned, governments want us to believe that it is always performed precisely for the sake of the “common good”, or “public interest”. However, things are not that simple.

The spectre of “gentrifying conservationism” and “green evictions” will increasingly haunt segregated spaces and poor communities worldwide, using the “common good” argument as a convenient excuse.
From a socially critical viewpoint, environmental protection remains a dangerously vague expression, as long as the questions regarding which environment should be protected, how and for the benefit of whom are not adequately clarified. One of the dangers is what I have termed “gentrifying conservationism” (Souza, 2016a and 2016b). It corresponds to a truly exclusionary kind of environmental protection.

The reality that inspired me to suggest the expression “gentrifying conservationism” some time ago was in Rio de Janeiro, more specifically the tensions that have taken place in the buffer zone of the Tijuca National Park. There, a pro-environment and at the same time clearly anti-popular alliance has been especially developed in last decade. Located right in the heart of the city, the slopes of the Tijuca massif influence the landscape of many neighborhoods of the city—ranging from the privileged areas of the South Zone to many favelas. Of enormous relevance is the fact that the Tijuca massif comprises the 39.5 square kilometers Tijuca National Park. The strip of land that is the most densely populated portion of the buffer zone of the park is a perfect laboratory for watching the (geo)political instrumentalisation of the ecological discourse by agents directly or indirectly involved in the attempt to implement what could be termed a sort of non-murderous social cleansing.

A veritable crusade has been carried out by the public prosecutor’s office for environmental and cultural heritage issues of the state of Rio de Janeiro. According to that office, the favelas located in the buffer zone of the park are expanding rapidly and in aggregate form “a single spot comparable to Rocinha” (one of the largest favelas in Brazil and the largest one in Rio de Janeiro, whose population has been estimated at 200,000 inhabitants). Statements like this, as well as other comments made by public prosecutors, environmentalists, and others about the danger represented by the presence of informal settlements close to the park have been frequently published above all by Rio’s biggest newspaper, O Globo.

The corporate media has played a decisive role with regard to promoting an asymmetrical treatment of social classes by the state apparatus in Rio de Janeiro, and although the public prosecutor’s office has been the main institutional agent of the current attempt to promote the total or partial removal of the favelas located in the Tijuca massif, it can be said that its role has not only been made public and highlighted but probably also stimulated by mainstream media.

But the available data do not support the idea that the favelas of the Tijuca National Park’s buffer zone are expanding rapidly; according to reliable census data and even the municipal government’s own data, offered by the Pereira Passos Institute, this is far from being the case. Monitoring data based on satellite images from 1999-2013, carried out by the Pereira Passos Institute, make clear that the spatial growth of favelas in the buffer zone ranged from nothing to very little. Ten years after it was proclaimed, in 2006, that the favelas around Tijuca were expanding rapidly, this statement can finally be declared false. Likewise, the contention that these mostly small favelas are a threat to biodiversity can be declared contrary to fact. Moreover, while the public prosecutor’s office and the corporate media continue their anti-favela crusade, residential encroachment of the buffer zone by the middle class is left undisturbed, even where it occurs close to a favela targeted for removal. Clearly, the occupation of the same location by the middle class is not regarded by the state apparatus as an environmental threat.

In a book chapter on New Delhi, Asher Ghertner used the expression “green evictions”—a happy choice of words to express a very unhappy situation. He points out the “metonymic association between slums and pollution”, what seems to justify for Indian courts “slum removal as a process of environmental improvement”. If we expand the first remark a little bit—by means of including things such as environmental degradation and related ideas as part of the second term of that metonymic association—we can easily arrive at a description of Rio de Janeiro and many other, similar cases. In fact, “gentrifying conservationism” and “green evictions” (or “green displacement”, in more general terms) seem to be inextricably linked with each other, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in the Global South.

Factors such as the immediate cause or motivation, the role of specific organs of the state apparatus and of other agents (e.g. the corporate media and middle-class residents) and the way how affected poor people will react to threats of removal will obviously vary from case to case. However, one thing is certain: the spectre of “gentrifying conservationism” and “green evictions” will increasingly haunt segregated spaces and poor communities worldwide, using the “common good” argument as a convenient excuse.

A longer version of this essay appears here.


Ghertner, D. A. 2011. “Green evictions: Environmental discourses of a slum-free Delhi” in Peet, R. et al. (eds.): Global Political Ecology. London and New York: Routledge.

Souza, M. L. de 2016a. “Urban eco-geopolitics: Rio de Janeiro’s paradigmatic case and its global context”. City, 20(6), 765-785.

Souza, M. L. de 2016b. “Gentrification in Latin America: some notes on unity in diversity”. Urban Geography, 37(8), 1235-1244.

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

Ecological services in a given place must be concerned with more than just the issue of nature itself: it must be remembered that these services are also loaded with meanings and memories that represent the soul of the community.
Where can I dream? Four dreams of life in Bogotá

In pondering the question: “Who should have access to the countless benefits and services that urban ecosystems provide?” We have put together a collection of six first- person accounts that portray city dwellers´ dreams.

Photo: Johanna Gonzalez

“My name is Jorge Enrique. I grew up in the country, but I had to leave during a period of political violence. I came to Bogota with my family. I dream about Bogota´s northern border being turned into a giant forest that would unite the eastern mountain range with the plateau below so that all the falling water could flow through it. Right now, the mountain formations can´t be together, but they are winking at each other and playing hide-and-seek, because they know that someday the giant forest will make their rendezvous possible.”

“My name is Enilfa. I live in a neighborhood in the southern part of the city. Most of the houses are only half-built, and the streets are filled with dust that comes from the nearby open-air quarries. Progress means that some of the streets have been paved. The truth is that most of the people who live here don´t want to see any trees planted because they would only give the criminals with knives in their hands a place to hide behind. If the city wants to build us a park, we just want playground equipment and benches in it.”

Moses. Photo: Lina Prieto

“My name is Moses, but some people can´t pronounce it right and they call me ´Moset´. I was born on April 4, 1928, and because of the political violence in the country I was forced to move to the northern part of Bogota with my family. I dream about us building a harmonious, mutually-dependent and reciprocal relationship with the communities in the mountains and with those who live along the banks of the Cedar Brook which pours into the Torca Brook and then into the Bogota River.”

Grandmother Blancanieves. Photo: Daniela Robayo

“I am the grandmother, Ichakaka Blanca. I belong to the indigenous nation of the Muiscas whose territory is called Bacata (Bogota). We lived here with my grandmother, Amalia, who was the doctor. She used traditional medicine from our territory to treat people. She applied the remedies herself. She also wove baskets and gathered all kinds of vegetables and medicinal plants to take to the October 12th Market Place where she bartered with them. It was a cultural exchange: she gave what she had brought for salt and cane sugar in return. Those are the things she would bring back home.

We need to have sacred places where we can plant our crops; what I see every day in the city are just more and more playing fields for sports being built. We need to have a beautiful place so we can live in dignity as human beings—that´s what we need the most: a place where we can go and speak to our ´Older Brother´; to our brothers and sisters, the trees; to nature; a place where we can rest.”

*  *  *  *  *

Sketches of Life Team: Daniela Robayo, Lina Prieto, Sandra Valencia, Laura García, Benoit de Santignon, Paula Faure, Johanna Gonzalez.

The Sketches of Life Initiative includes real life-stories as told by inhabitants from different corners of Bogota. This Initiative, carried out by Bogota Mountain Foundation volunteers, including Sandra Valencia, Johanna Gonzalez, Lina Prieto, Paula Faure, Daniela Robayo, Catalina Garcia, Benoit de Santignon, and Maria Alejandra Peña who recorded the observations, which reveal that ecological services in a given place must be concerned with more than just the issue of nature itself: it must be remembered that these services are also loaded with meanings and memories that represent the soul of the community. Therefore, plans based solely on quantitative distribution and indicators are insufficient: the soulfulness of the area´s inhabitants must also be taken into account.

In Bogota, we have a long way to go in fulfilling this moral obligation: an obligation, which demands that nature and the landscape, make up part of a more equitable city.1

For more of these stories, in English and Spanish, click here.

1Translated by Steven Bayless

Pengfei XIE

About the Writer:
Pengfei XIE

Pengfei is the Deputy Regional Director for East Asia of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. He works with colleagues to build and maintain relationships with cities in the region. He is a Certified Urban Planner.

Pengfei XIE

Let us build more Green Infrastructure in urban areas

In an ideal situation, everyone would have equal access to nature and enjoy the benefits of ecosystem service. I strongly agree and support this view. However, in real life, the opportunity to access nature is usually unequal, which may affect the well-being of the general public.

I am happy to observe a tendency in Chinese cities that local stakeholders are more and more involved in the GI, introducing initiative in urban areas.
One approach to address this problem is to build more Green Infrastructure (GI) in urban areas, and we should mobilize communities and individuals to actively participate in building GI according to local conditions. We all know that natural resources distribute unevenly in space. The unevenness is reflected not only in different urban areas, but also shown between urban areas and rural areas. This geographical imbalance is one of the most important reasons why nature cannot be shared fairly among people. If we can bring more GI to urban areas, then everyone gets more chance to access nature.

According to the European Commission, GI is a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services. It incorporates green spaces and other physical features in terrestrial (including coastal) and marine areas. It is significantly helpful in solving urban and climatic challenges that plaguing our cities today.

I don’t want to specify the details of GI in theory and practice; the point I want to highlight here is that we should mobilize communities and individuals to actively participate in building GI according to local conditions. The two stakeholders at the basic level (community and individual) need to create benefits of ecosystem service for themselves, rather than only wait passively and complain about the situation until local governments come to help. GI projects sometimes could be small projects that communities and individuals are able to fulfill, as they know the local conditions and needs better.

I am happy to observe a tendency in Chinese cities that local stakeholders are more and more involved in the GI, introducing initiative in urban areas. (1) A famous university committed to build a green campus in Shanghai, and is mobilizing the college students to produce designs and plans to renovate the campus. One idea is to transform the previous ditch into wetland. The project was successfully adopted by the university. (2) An urban community in a southern Chinese city implemented a green roof plan that is financially viable with the support of community residents. (3) A household contracted a small piece of unused land in the community, and planted vegetation cleverly. The barren land is now covered by green.

These self-motivated actions not only bring nature closer to individuals, but also provide ecological benefits to the residents.


Education, Communication and Mobilization: Is Urban Ecology the Way Forward for Urban Planning and Design in Brazilian cities?

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Talking about biodiversity and nature in cities? If you do this in Brazil it will probably sound weird to a lot of educated people, including professionals and researchers on urban and ecological areas. And that’s exactly what I do most of the time. Actually, it is interesting how I got to what I do now, how I learned and became engaged in urban ecological planning and design after five decades living as if natural resources and landscapes were guaranteed forever!

Just a brief look at my history: I was born after the Second World War, and it was the time of the economic growth at any cost. This means that natural resources exploitation was the driving force to get to the American style developed society that everybody desired. Almost nobody was concerned about nature and fair distribution of income among people. Actually, there was fear of the red communist expansion in Latin America. This fear grew at a point when in 1964 there was a military coup and Brazil became a dictatorship right before I turned 11 years old. My father owned a fertilizer and pesticide company that was favored by the expanding agriculture frontiers. I remember the smell of the toxic elements that were imported in huge ships and docked in the port of Santos near his warehouse. And when I went to college the “natural” thing was to study Business Administration. Also, getting married and have kids early were part of the happiness package. I did everything right. But when I was about to turn 50 years old, I decided to look for something different to do, to be outdoors. I always enjoyed being in green areas, so I went for a garden design short course with a very special person: Cecilia Beatriz Veiga Soares at the Botanic Garden of Rio de Janeiro. Then, I found out that there was a new undergrad course on landscape design with one of the best Brazilian landscape architects, the late Fernando Chacel. In his first class, he opened a map of watersheds to show how to start analyzing the landscape, to teach how to plan and design with nature. I instantly knew that a new horizon had opened for me. From then on, I have studied and researched about how we humans, living in cities, need nature in our lives.

In the last years I was lucky to meet great people all over the world, and learn with them. I write for The Nature of Cities collective blog for two years now, and have written about the expectations the World Soccer Cup, the Olympic Games and other international events created with the investments flowing to change Rio de Janeiro. Also, I had a chance to tell about the frustration with the lack of systemic planning and the focus on urban expansion that happened in the last years over flood prone and sea level rise areas, forest remnants, Conservation Units, and so on.

Well, nature is still not part of the agenda in most of the Brazilian cities. But, there is hope to change the paradigm. There are some optimistic events that might help educate professionals in landscape planning and design and urban ecology.

Eliana Azevedo (ANP –Vice-President, center), Isis Gurken (landscape designer, left) and Flavia Morais (Congress Representative, right). Photo: João Jadão
Eliana Azevedo (ANP –Vice-President, center), Isis Gurken (landscape designer, left) and Flavia Morais (Congress Representative, right). Photo: João Jadão

Firstly, the regulation of the landscape architecture profession is under way in the Brazilian Congress. The ANP (National Association of Landscape Designers/Architects) is working hard to push the needed legislative bureaucracy to implement regular undergrad and graduation specific courses in Brazilian universities, and legalize the landscape architecture professional independently from architecture and agronomy. The Law Project 2043/2011 has already passed the Education and Culture Commission and had a positive opinion from Representative Rapporteur of the Urban Development Commission. There are still another two commissions to go, each one takes about one year! There are barriers to overcome, but we are working hard to put landscape in the realm of urban planning and design. It is a long process, and it might take more than four years before we start to fully educate professionals in specific undergrad and graduate courses.

SURE-BR Launching workshop – Juergen Breuste welcome to Brazilian Executive Committee. Photo: Cecilia Herzog
SURE-BR Launching workshop – Juergen Breuste welcome to Brazilian Executive Committee. Photo: Cecilia Herzog

During the SURE Urban Ecology Congress last July (2013) in Berlin, I proposed to create a Brazilian Chapter of the Society for Urban Ecology — SURE-BR. This is another important step to put forward the role of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities. We have already implemented a few actions, and some results are quite surprising. In the beginning of 2013 we launched the Ecologia Urbana Facebook group that today counts with almost 600 members. After the congress we launched a survey to find out who was interested in Urban Ecology, 460 people responded to it until now. The SURE-BR already has a multidisciplinary Executive Committee with researchers from several universities that participated in the founding workshop in February. It is a hard task with little time and no funds yet. SURE-BR already has a tentative Statute that is under legal revision.

Closing session of the SURE Congress when the Brazilian Chapter was born. Photo: Cecilia Herzog
Closing session of the SURE Congress when the Brazilian Chapter was born. Photo: Cecilia Herzog

In Brazil everything is really complicated, costs a lot of money and takes a long time, so we can only go further if we have volunteer’s contributions. We are planning a Latin American Urban Ecology Congress in late 2015. The event shall take place at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro — PUC-RIO. Since 2011 Pierre-André Martin and I have offered short courses on Green Infrastructure and Urban Ecology. Now SURE-BR is also supporting this course, and we have been invited to give it in other cities.

Architecture and Urbanism



Landscape Design



Biological Sciences



Earth Sciences



Social Sciences












Chart of the survey – in the Box the translation and percentages of different professional fields interested in Urban Ecology (note that Landscape Architecture is really inexpressive due to the lack of formal education in the area)
Chart of the survey – in the Box the translation and percentages of different professional fields interested in Urban Ecology. Note that Landscape Architecture is really low due to the lack of formal education in the area.

The constitution of the IBP — Instituto Brasileiro de Paisagem (Brazilian Institute of Landscape) is another possible driver to help shift to a paradigm where landscape and biodiversity in cities enter the mainstream in planning and designing urban environments. The IBP was conceived last March during the international seminar “Paisagismo(s) no Brasil”, when Martha Fajardo was an international speaker, and in her presentation she proposed the creation of the Brazilian Institute of Landscape inspired by the British Landscape Institute. Immediately all other participants and the audience were stimulated by this idea, and we came out with an oficial document to materialize the IBP. We are now working on two fronts, one is the Statute and the other is to develop the curriculum guidelines.

Seminar Paisagismo(s) no Brasil ( Landscape Architecture in Brazil). Photo: Jauvane Cavalcante de Oliveira
Seminar Paisagismo(s) no Brasil ( Landscape Architecture in Brazil). Photo: Jauvane Cavalcante de Oliveira

There is an evergrowing movement to green Brazilian cities with several actors interested in building livable and healthier urban environments. In May, the ATVerde Brasil (Brazilian Association of Green Techonologies) is organizing the 1st Forum on Green Infrastructure during a Roofing Show in São Paulo — TECOBI. INVERDE is officially supporting the event that will gather Latin American researchers and companies that are investing in greening our buildings and our cities. Experts on green infrastructure, roofs and walls, and related legislation are attracting a lot of people to the event.

I teach urban planning and design in interdisciplinary teams in undergrad and graduation courses. I also lecture in many universities and events. What really keeps my energy flowing is the student’s response and their interest in landscape and biodiversity related themes. I can feel how people are biophilic and want to learn more about, and do something to change their cities. I also have been trying to articulate several groups and associations. Mike Houck in his TNOC blog last April wrote about his experience in the Portland-Vancouver region, and it was very inspiring for me.

Residents’ mobilization to save trees in a square in Rio de Janeiro (2012), one of the several demonstrations of Biophilia that happen in our cities. Photo: Alfredo Piragibe
Residents’ mobilization to save trees in a square in Rio de Janeiro (2012), one of the several demonstrations of Biophilia that happen in our cities. Photo: Alfredo Piragibe

Another impetus coming from the Federal sphere is the translation to Portuguese of the 2012 “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” led by Thomas Elmqvist. It will be released in the Biodiversity Day on May 22nd.

As part of the Tim Beatley’s Biophilic Cities Project, I am organizing together with Maria Fernanda Lemos — director of the architecture and urbanism course of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RIO), and INVERDE Institute the Conference “Biophilic Cities 2” in Rio de Janeiro. The event will probably happen in March 2015, and the objective is to put together cities’ representatives of the Biophilic Cities Project in a seminar, followed by a field trip and a workshop to plan a Biophilic Rio. We intend for the event to be open for students, practitioners, researchers, public officials and the general public. Tim Beatley has been very supportive and enthusiastic about this idea that was born in the first workshop last September at the Biophilic Cities Launch in Charlottesville by Nick Grayson from Birmingham — which, by the way, is the first official Biophilic City.

Tim Beatley opening the Biophilic Cities workshop in Charlottesville, October 23rd, 2013. Photo: Cecilia Herzog
Tim Beatley opening the Biophilic Cities workshop in Charlottesville, October 23rd, 2013. Photo: Cecilia Herzog

There is a great opportunity to change the course of our urban development. But, we urgently need prepared practitioners and scientists with a broad understanding of the social, ecological and technological aspects involved in urban landscapes to plan and design resilient and sustainable cities. We also need real participatory governance now, and leaders that have the power to bring together so many people, institutions and associations that are in one way or another trying to protect or increase green areas that offer irreplaceable ecosystem services to people living in cities.

It is a huge challenge to overcome cultural, educational, economic and political barriers. I am one of the many individuals seeking for new ways to build livable and healthier cities. On one hand I feel quite frustrated with the outcome of the huge investments that are flowing to my city, Rio de Janeiro, that are going in the opposite direction: graying a once greener city. On the other, I am happy that after only a few years after shifting my own paradigm I am collaborating to try to change the destructive urbanization pattern with the support of the institutions SURE-BR, ANP, IBP, ATVerde-Brasil. It is also very rewarding to be engaged in educational programs at PUC-Rio and UFRJ (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), and the short courses on green infrastructure and urban ecology with Pierre-André Martin that has been promoted by Inverde Institute in the last years, and in 2014 has been embraced by one of the best private universities in the country.

I strongly believe that cities can be regenerated if we educate, engage people and transform low social and ecological value landscapes (in any scale) in high performance multifunctional urban green infrastructure with and ecosystem services approach.

Cecilia Herzog
Rio de Janeiro

On The Nature of Cities



Efficient Roofs for Efficient Buildings: Building Blocks for Energy Efficient Cities in India

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I recently relocated to New Delhi after more than a decade — a set of years which entailed rapid economic growth for India. Infrastructure development in cities around the country is booming and it is difficult to travel for too long without meeting the rising towers of concrete and shining glass. Urban population, too, is growing at an unprecedented rate and in these next few decades one of the most massive shifts to urbanization in world history will unfold in India. This urban sprawl creates unique challenges related to land-use planning, ecological structure, pollution, biodiversity, energy demand and cost, heat health stress, and flows of water, nutrient and energy within cities and their surrounding areas. As Indian cities continue to grow in population and area, the magnitude and potential consequences of negative effects on temperature, humidity, cloudiness, precipitation and atmospheric flow patterns are expected to increase.

Ensuring both development and sustainability for India’s cities thus results in a series of interrelated issues concerning clean air, water, waste, food, biodiversity, and energy use — all in the context of rapid urbanization and with the challenges of governance and weak institutional capacity. Cities across the country need to develop policies that strive to balance the competing priorities of substantially expanding while minimizing detrimental environmental and climate change effects.

Amongst the different tradeoffs that Indian cities have to make to be livable and resilient, one significant opportunity stands out: energy efficiency in buildings. Buildings already play a key role in the country’s energy use, currently accounting for more than 30 percent of electricity consumption. Yet, two-thirds of commercial and high-rise buildings that will exist by 2030 are yet to be built. India’s building-occupied area is projected to skyrocket from 8 billion square meters in 2005 to 41 billion in 2030 — a staggering statistic. Analyses of this sector show that India could save $42 billion each year simply by improving energy efficiency in buildings. Further, the need for almost 3,000 MW of generation capacity could be avoided in an already severely electricity-constrained climate. All these factors makes energy efficiency — which is often referred to as an “invisible resource” — the cheapest, fastest and cleanest way to improve the sustainability of cities. The unique crossroads that Indian cities currently find themselves in, where the bulk of building and infrastructure development is yet to occur, means that energy efficiency is a singular opportunity to protect the environment and lock down energy and cost savings.

Recognizing these tremendous benefits of energy efficiency, students at the National Institute of Design in Bangalore created this creative animation, which makes energy efficiency, our collective invisible resource, visible!

Within energy efficiency options, roofs can play an important role in benefiting a building. Roofs can represent up to 32 percent of the horizontal surface of built-up areas and are important determinants of the urban environment. As protected and secure spaces, rooftops have many advantages as a site for urban vegetation — though at present they are largely blighted spaces. Roofs also play an important role in providing passive cooling to the buildings they cover. When constructed correctly, roofs can reduce the urban heat island effect that cities face, which is the result of the densely built urban centers experiencing hotter temperatures than the rural surroundings. Urban heat islands lead to higher energy consumption within cities to keep building inhabitants cool in the summer. Heat islands are also associated with negative health impacts such as increasing mortality rates and hospital asthma admissions.

Within the Indian building sector, commercial and residential buildings in urban areas account for most of the total consumption of electricity. This occurs through a building’s mechanical systems and equipment, including heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning, hot water heating, interior and exterior lighting, electrical power and appliances. Commercial buildings such as new office spaces, IT offices and parks, data centers, hospitals, hotels, retail malls and high rise residential buildings are all becoming more energy-intensive. The rate of increase in commercial electricity consumption is also much more rapid than the annual rate of increase in the floor area of commercial buildings. Unfortunately though, at present most of the modern Indian buildings use more than twice the amount of energy compared with their international counterparts. While many of these new structures can match international standards of appearance with their shining glass surfaces, few of them are designed in a way that pays attention to how these modern buildings actually use and manage their energy.

There are a few champions within the building sector who recognize the many benefits of designing and operating a world-class energy efficient structure — with the positives ranging from:

  • Cost and energy savings from lower energy bills.
  • Increased demand by tenants that recognize the cost savings, energy reduction, and higher employee productivity enabled by energy efficiency.
  • Health benefits from well-designed efficient buildings such as better indoor air quality and a healthier environment leading to higher employee productivity and retention.

Energy savings also lower greenhouse gas emissions, thus effectively addressing climate change and its accompanying hazards. There is a growing awareness in Indian cities about these many benefits, and while slow, the number of green buildings — or sustainable buildings, which are designed to be environmentally responsible and resource efficient throughout a building’s life cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction — is increasing every year. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED as it is often referred to, is a rating system for such green buildings. India now has 2,362 LEED registered buildings and 447 LEED rated buildings, with a total of 1.813 billion square feet of green building footprint. The country is said to rank amongst the top five countries in the world for area under green building cover, pointing to the increasing trend towards green and energy efficient spaces over the last ten years.

Some examples of green champions in the building sector from around the National Capital Region of Delhi are:

  • ITC Green Center — With an area of 170,000 sq feet, the Center is the world’s largest zero percent water discharge, noncommercial green building, and compared to similar sized buildings it has a 30 percent smaller carbon footprint. The Center incorporates innovative design, water efficiency, indoor environmental air quality, materials and resource efficiency, a sustainable site, and an ecological commitment to its surroundings. It received a LEED Platinum award in 2004, the highest category of LEED ratings.
  • AECOM (previously Spectral Services) Noida Headquarters — The building has green solutions like an efficient water cooled heating and ventilation system, reuse of treated sewage water for landscaping and the cooling tower, automated lighting systems, a simulated roof skylight designed for optimal day lighting, thermal insulations, solar heaters, and highly reflective roof surfaces. It received a LEED Platinum award in 2007, and was amongst the first buildings not just in India but in the world to receive this rating.
  • Bayer’s Eco-Commercial Building — The eco-commercial building in Greater Noida is Bayer’s first emissions-neutral office building in Asia. It entails various energy conservation measures such as thermal insulation for roofs, lighting controls, efficient central chillers and efficient windows. The roof is fitted with photo-voltaic solar cells. Bayer eco-commercial building received a LEED Platinum award in 2012 and at the time achieved the world’s highest LEED score to date.

Other rating systems that India uses are the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment or GRIHA and the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s Buildings Star Rating Program. While rating systems are important in motivating the higher-end of real estate developers, baseline energy efficiency can be established in buildings with the use of energy codes and policies. India has a voluntary Energy Conservation Building Code, which prescribes a minimum standard for energy use in new buildings and major retrofits. The code applies to buildings with a connected load of 100 kW or 120 kVA, which is approximately equivalent to a five stories or higher commercial or high-rise residential building. While each of these initiatives is a step in the right direction, the progress to date remains a small fraction of the overall growth and potential in the building market.

I’d like to focus now on a particular aspect of building energy efficiency that can have significant relevance for urban energy savings and biodiversity: the collective benefits of rooftops. A roof’s reflectivity is a key determinant of the surface temperature that the roof reaches and of how much heat gets passed through to the living space in the building interior. For the same amount of sunlight hitting a roof surface, a black roof can reach a high temperature of 80 degrees C (170 degrees F), and reflects only 5 percent of the incoming sunlight. A white roof, on the other hand, can reflect 80 percent of the incoming sunlight and reaches a much lower temperature of 44 degrees C (111 degrees F). The temperature of the roof can have dramatic influence over the interior living conditions of a building, particularly of the topmost floor. Modifying roof properties to make “cool roofs” — such as increasing reflectivity — can lower roof surface temperatures and thus represents a hugely beneficial opportunity for the mitigation of heat islands in cities and consequential negative health and energy impacts. Delhi’s governing bodies are in the process of promoting cool roofs, starting with installing such cool roofs on Delhi government buildings.

Another option for increasing the passive cooling techniques of roofs is the implementation of green roofs. Having plants, shrubs or grass correctly planted on roof surfaces provides thermal insulation to the building interior, increases the roof’s reflectivity, and increases cooling of the roof surface because of the evaporation of water from the vegetation’s soil (known as “evaporative cooling”). Green roofs are characterized into two general types, intensive and extensive, differentiated mainly by cost, depth of growing medium and choice of plants. Benefits of green roofs cover a large spectrum, including: preventing storm water runoff, creating an urban wildlife habitat, improved health from visual contact with vegetation, increased employee satisfaction, reduced stress, increased community space and overall improved livability of cities. These are in addition to energy and cost savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of these many benefits though, green roofs are yet to find widespread implementation in Indian cities, and a few successful pilot projects may help jumpstart this trend.

An alternative traditional solution for passive cooling which is used at times, and which utilizes the same principal of evaporative cooling, is to place clay pots filled with water on the building roof so that the day’s heat is used to evaporate this water instead of heating roofs and building interiors.

Photo: Radhika Khosla
Photo: Radhika Khosla

As Indian cities move into an unprecedented phase of growth and increasing accompanying stresses, cities will require livability and resilience to be built into their development plans. This will require alternative sources and spare capacity, contingency plans and the ability to recognize and react to new challenges and opportunities with innovative solutions. Identifying easy, quick and cheap solutions is a key part of this process, and given the staggering growth of India’s building occupied area — which is projected to skyrocket from 8 billion square meters in 2005 to 41 billion in 2030 — implies that incorporating building energy efficiency can help create new paradigms of urban development for cities across the country.

Radhika Khosla 
New Delhi


On The Nature of Cities

Eight Machinic Scenes in Hamasen, Taiwan

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In this post, we report on a recent design workshop at National Cheng Kung University, or NCKU, in Tainan, Taiwan, a continuation a series of of intensive practicums held at undergraduate schools of architecture in successive locations internationally since 2008. The work presented here extends from our last essay, posted four years ago in May, 2013, titled Measuring the Sensori-Motor City.  

The machinic scene-image as a design tool strengthens and magnifies certain essences of dynamic urban change.

These workshops have offered new tools for an integrated architectural, ecological and social analysis of the contemporary city to TNOC readers. The NCKU workshop most recently was co-sponsored by the Kaohsiung, Taiwan Municipal Government Urban Development Bureau to explore ways to introduce new thinking around the urban transition of the historical Hamasen port area. The workshop used a conceptual framework titled “eight machinic scenes” in order to frame the workshop conceptually and to structure the thinking around the design of temporary installations and exhibitions to generate discussion between Hamasen citizens and visitors with the urban development bureau in reimagining the future of the old port neighborhood.

The workshop was structured by three two-day, intensive sessions. First, the machinic nature of the city was diagramed through three abstractions of ecological, industrial, and social flows. The machine metaphor was employed in order to trigger an immediate discussion about urban systems and processes rather than architectural objects and urban form. The second phase situated these three thematic diagrams within aesthetic scenes cinematically framed by three camera points of view: still, mechanically moving, or freely moving. The machinic analysis and cinematic scenes were synthesized in the final phase, which resulted in a 1:1 scale installation device back in the NCKU campus.

The experimental workshop was not just a tool for architectural design or urban development, but was also a performative machine and a dramatic scene in itself. With 40 students, 10 faculty, and the municipal urban development bureau, there were multiple moving parts, inputs of information and energy, and a considerable amount of creative output. We created quite a scene ourselves during our invasion of the historical city on a beautiful spring weekend in March. The machinic power of collaborative academic pursuits digested and processed an enormous amount of information in a short, intensive period. The situated installations incubated during the workshop are seen as rehearsals for opportunities to install variations of the eight scenic devices developed here in various public venues back in Hamasen.

Three urban machines

Nature is scientifically measured as an ecological processing machine where, for instance, sun energy can be measured as heat and photosynthesis can be measured as vegetative growth. Plant volume in turn produces a respiratory machinery, organic decomposed litter, and food for herbivores, which in turn feed carnivores—all which can be quantified. Hamasen sits on the mainland shore near the mouth of a natural lagoon within an alluvial delta of Kaohsiung’s Love River. A rugged limestone mountain forms the lagoon’s mouth, the result of coral activity taking place over centuries near the end of Taiwan’s largest river by drainage area, the Gaoping, to the east. The Gaoping’s considerable sediment deposits have been carried west by ocean currents over time, creating a barrier island between the coral mountain and river delta. A lagoon is an ecological machine in itself, being a shallow body of salt and fresh water mix with less tidal fluctuation than open harbors or estuaries.

The Japanese colonization of Taiwan began the industrial machine at Hamasen. Military planners laid out the port town of Hamasen on a triangular piece of land between the coral mountain lagoon mouth and Love river delta. Hamasen means beach rail line in Japanese, and the town was bracketed by the mountain to the north and west, and rail lines to the south and east. The colonizers constructed waterside quays on the west side of the gridded settlement, as well as along the rail lines. The colonial industrial machine was built for resource extraction and sugarcane was planted inland and brought by rail to be processed into sugar at the port. The rich fishing habitat of the lagoon and open sea provided resources for a second industry, fishing. After World War II, the port of Kaohsiung became the largest in Taiwan, first with steel and petrochemical industries, and now as a logistical export zone in the age of containerization logistics.

Historical maps of Hamasen. Images: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

Philosophy and psychology have referred to human history as abstract social machines and humans as desiring-machines. Taiwan is an advanced economy and a vibrant democracy with a noticeable nostalgia for the 150 years of Japanese cultural influence. Hamasen, due to its natural scenery and cultural history, has become a popular tourist site for locals, who come for the day for food, scenery, and history. The apparatus for the sightseeing industry is still developing and it includes the conversion of the rail lines into a cultural park, traditional food shops, galleries and craft, mountain trekking, and a bikeway to the west coast, as well as a popular ferry to the barrier island.

Popular tourist ferry to the barrier island Qi-Jin. Photo: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

This analysis comprised the first intensive phase of the workshop, which culminated with a review and discussion of the research of the three machines which constitute Hamasen from the natural ecology, industrial history, and post-industrial future. Many of the presentations made use of timelines, charts, and diagrams to document historical changes to the lagoon, to the port area, to the city grid, and to buildings at different scales. Analysis of the relationship between the ecological, industrial, and social machines revealed an urban ecosystem in flux from the villages of Formosa to the formation of a huge metropolitan zone. The presentation looked to focus on how to locate these different aspects of urban flows and processes where they are situated within the public space of the city.

Preparing to make films. Photos (top and bottom): National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

Eight urban scenes

The second intensive session used “cinemetrics” video framing, shooting, and editing to measure ecological, architectural, and anthropological space, movement, and time. Cinema, the art form of the industrial age, is an ideal machinic scene-making device that has proliferated over the last decade with the increased accessibility of video cameras within handheld smart phones and the wide dissemination of these images via social media. The video camera is a tool used to frame and measure human perception, affection, action, and reflection in relation to dynamic movements in space over time. Three specific film framing styles were employed as a method to interpret the city’s still and dynamic aspects through three distinct points of view: from a still tripod; mechanically panning, tilting, or tracking; and handheld and freely moving. This exercise reflects recent research on rendering the social and the ecological in architectural scenes.

Cinemetrics drawings of ‘Mirroring Labor Flows’ with Ozu’s technique. Images: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

One of our framing styles was the single point, right angle, early Renaissance perspective captured in still tripod style allows students to shoot simultaneously from different 90-degree angles at different distances in order to capture scenes and events in the city. The second involved mechanically moving shots that slowly rotate left or right or tilt up and down in the grand Baroque tradition of panoramic open spaces, where actors appear and disappear in diagonal corners, but which are subject to blind spots when the shot is interrupted by physical elements. The handheld camera creates opportunities to carve through space freely. The camera interacts between the body movement of the film maker and the film subject. This open topology can extend our perception of the city and help us to explore other possibilities of space. All techniques explore and generate spaces full of multiple sensate experiences as part of a nature-culture continuum.

Our main objective was to document real flows and processes which situate the abstract machinic analysis within a cinema sequence. The filming situated the ecological, industrial, and social aspects of Hamasen and the relationship between the sightseer, residents, and workers within the context of the high levels of consumerism present there. The films excavated the nature of the routines of daily life as well as the heightened experience of weekend sightseeing. These scenes comprise various subtle relationships, so the impact of urban design at the scale of the body can be perceived through various movement systems which shape and generate the surrounding living environment. We were looking for the real experience of the urban landscape so that, as architects and urban designers, we can respond to human perception, affection, and action in more sensitive ways and create new sustainable possibilities.

Cinemetrics drawings of ‘The Spectacle of Traffic Flows’ with Godard’s technique. Images: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.
Cinemetrics drawings with Cassavetes’s technique using handheld camera. Images: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

Multiplying the three machine diagrams times the three styles of framing space, movement, and time results in nine possible urban scenes of Hamasen. We selected eight, as eight or ten scenes is a standard number in Chinese landscape artistic and poetic tradition. Cinema, comprised of images mechinically produced at the rate of 24 views per second, can be perceived both as multiple moving architectural views, as well as within the paradigm of traditional panoramic landscape paintings. To carry out the operation of moving-image measurement, an enormous amount of information must be quickly digested, reviewed, discussed, reshot, and edited into short, informatic sequences. Hamasen’s microclimate, ecological landscape, humanity, industry, events, and spatial changes can be explored, enhanced, or enlarged. This is a clear example and model of urban design as a combination of various senses and perceptions for urban ecosystem understanding. The city is not a fixed object, but a fluid-like interaction field that can be both machinically measured and scenically performed.

This second phase documented the static and dynamic dimensions of eight scenes in Hamasen during a brief moment in time. They were openly arranged through cinema’s montage effect, but preserved a variety of imaginary readings of memorable moments from the field. The eight scenes uncover previously unrecognized relationships in the daily life of Hamasen, which can provide a more meticulous understanding of the subtle nature of the city. The machinic scenes enable an urban design recognition of individual bodies perceiving and acting within the various movement systems that they shape and generate. The scenes imply specific moments in time, distance, height, angle, scale, speed, and point of view of and within the surrounding environment. The machinic scene-image as a design tool strengthens and magnifies certain essences and feeling of even subtle examples of dynamic urban change.

Installation devices

In the third intensive session of the workshop the students were asked to create physical devices to screen their videos within an interactive installation wherein the visitor would experience specific perception-movement scenic landscapes. The installation explores questions around the impact of the sightseeing industry in old Hamasen port on both its ecological and industrial pasts. Student groups developed prototypes of installation devices through which to imagine new possible futures based on a realignment of existing ecological, industrial, and social flows. The innovative proposals were designed to induce interaction between a civic audience’s bodily perception; public and private spaces; and between social disparities. When installed in the future, they are intended to create new kinds of conversational contact between residents, workers, and sightseers and Kaohsiung’s urban development and planning bureau.

The performative installation devices were located throughout the NCKU campus in eight different locations, selected to build on associations between the Hamasen site and a new “non-site”. Just three of the eight scenes, Labor Flows, Traffic Flows, and Water Flows are described below, but a larger archive of the workshop is available on a Chinese language blog.

Mirroring labor flows

The group that resulted from the combined logics of the industrial machine diagram and the intimacy of a still camera documented activities along a street of shop-houses near the old port. Their video and installation, Mirroring Labor Flows, focuses on the contrast of several shop-houses occupied by the remaining old factory laborers across from a series of new art galleries and high-end residences. In their final video below, welding, painting, and tool trading activities are juxtaposed with sightseers shooting selfies; moving trucks and fork lifts are juxtaposed with luxury cars parking; a hand exchange of money is intercut with an exchange of a camera. The montage of disparate images produces a new, conjoined imagination where social media is seen as a new kind of labor, and the decline of industry is celebrated in a modern version of the Japanese temple shrine ritual, during which obsolete machinery is ritualistically removed from its sacred interior and paraded down the street. The art tour is seen as another kind of urban ritual.

The group’s installation consisted of a device with two sets of laptop screens and mirrors. Viewers sit on one side of a table facing a screen, a mirror, and another viewer. One side of the street is projected on the screen, while the other side can be seen in the mirror, contrasting, in real time, two images that were spliced together in a montage sequence in the original video. Through this face-to-face and reflective viewing, the two separate worlds of physical and virtual labor are superimposed and face-to-face dialogue is encouraged.

‘Mirroring Labor Flows’ installation encouraged dialogue between physical and virtual labor. Photo: National Cheng Kung University design workshop.

The spectacle of traffic flows

The group that resulted from the combination of the social machine diagram and panoramic camera documented the busiest public space in the neighborhood—the traffic intersection in front of the ferry terminal. The flow of pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, and cars mix and weave gracefully in the chi of traffic. There is a graceful order and fluid geometry to the seeming chaos of disorderly vehicles and pedestrians, some knowing their way, others disoriented. This mixed movement highlights people as a self-organized flock operating by some inner logic of fluid dynamics. The camera moves to various corners of the busy plaza, with each position revealing new information or producing new blind spots. The performative installation used a rotating chair with a box-like helmet, which emphasized the movement of the human head up and down through the hollow black scene to reframe the flow as it emerges and disappears.

Gridded water flows

The group that resulted from the combination of the ecological machine diagram with the freely moving, handheld camera videoed the point of view of water flowing through the streets of Hamasen. The scene employs a method of liquid perception as the camera freely moves from the mountains to the lagoon, passing from hillside settlements through street alleys to the port. Even in the most urban of contexts, water flows according to the force of gravity acting within a topography. A set of microecosystems associated with water is made visible for high and low terrain, and the city of the machine. The performative installation featured a guided tour down from an upper level of a building through a series of iPhones installed in a descent scaling the topography of Hamasen. The hillside to the seaside section of body movement, concentrated between the staircase and the high ground, segmented the film to project a variety of different elevations capable of being perceived.

The value of machinic scenes

While the concept of seeing the city as the interaction of a number of machine-like systems comes from the industrialization’s domination of our society, a deeper, pre-industrial history of the urban landscape as a “scene” can be traced in Chinese landscape painting and poetry tradition. For example, a series of scenes described as the “Ten Scenes of West Lake” in Hangzhou was developed during the Southern Song Dynasty by Ye, Xiao Yan (circa 1000 AD). The ten scenes consist of ten drawings and poems: Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring; Orioles Singing in the Willows; Fish Viewing at the Flower Pond; Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer; Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds; Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset; Three Ponds Tower Mirroring the Moon; Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn; Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill; Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter. These scenes, which contain detailed ecological information within daily and seasonal cycles, continue to be depicted and visited in Hangzhou today. The classical memory of West Lake interacts with the sensation of the contemporary, sightseeing human body within a compressed timeframe. Only repeated visits offer an attentive circuit of seasonal change and ecosystem processes captured within specific heightened experiences in various seasons and at different scales, distances, and from various viewpoints.

The workshop’s ultimate association with an ancient depictions of memorable experiences served as an inspiration to reexplore the historical authenticity of Hamasan through eight machinic scenes. These scenes capture the profound urban landscape that resulted from the Japanese construction of a coastal railway line ending at the mouth of a beautiful lagoon on the southern coast of Taiwan. There grew a bustling port, market, and the origin of modern Kaohsiung. The port, once closed due to the port activities, has now reopened and has begun to transform into a complex open and public space. The eight scenes of Hamsen provide a clear example and model through which we can recognize the urban ecosystem as a combination of various senses, perceptions, memories, reflections, and possible futures.

Brian McGrath and Cheng-Luen Hsueh
New York City and Tainan

On The Nature of Cities

Cheng-Luen Hsueh

About the Writer:
Cheng-Luen Hsueh

Cheng-Luen Hsueh teaches in the Department of Architecture at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan.

Elephants in the City

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I recently spent a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and have been reflecting on my experience ever since. Chiang Mai is a beautiful and vibrant city, rich in culture and history. The Buddhist religion permeates every aspect of the city and surrounding countryside, with temples and symbols of Buddhism everywhere.

Does Chiang Mai’s portrayal of elephants as domesticated beasts of burden influence how tourists and Thai citizens perceive elephants today?
Elephants are closely associated with Thai Buddhism, and nowhere is the symbol of the elephant on more prominent display than in Chiang Mai—the country’s cultural heart of Buddhism. Images of elephants surround you, and it is easy to understand the prominent place that the elephant plays in the lives of Thai people. The Asian elephant is also the national animal of Thailand and its popular portrayal in stone, ceramic, murals, fashion, jewelry, and art is inescapable.

Photo 1
Elephants guarding a Buddhist shrine at Buak Haad Park in the Old City of Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson
Photo 2
Elephant mural on laneway in Old City of Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson

What is the essence of the Thai elephant, and what is its meaning in a modern global society? This is an especially germane subject for the largely urban tourists who flock to Chiang Mai from around the world—most of whom, it might be fair to say, have had few, if any, experiences with real elephants. Arguably, opinions and feelings about this mysterious “other” may largely be based on pop culture imagery, where portrayals of elephants run the gamut from wise beast to circus clown.

In Chiang Mai, the center of Thai elephant tourism, the chance exists to see real, live elephants in the nearby countryside (they are no longer allowed in the city). The range of tourist offerings is wide—from highly structured captive elephant shows to revelatory one-on-one experiences with rescued elephants in natural forest settings.

How or whether a tourist to Chiang Mai selects a live elephant experience—and what type of experience they choose—could depend in part on the images of elephants encountered in Chiang Mai city. The city has had a close association with elephants since its inception more than 720 years ago, so it is not hard to find eye-catching depictions of elephants around almost every corner. What is striking about these portrayals, though, is that the elephants are almost never shown as wild animals, unencumbered by the trappings of human culture. Instead, they are portrayed as ornate, decorated, subservient beasts obligated to serve human needs.

Photo 3
Elephant at Doi Suthep Temple near Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson

Does this constant portrayal of elephants as domesticated beasts of burden subtly influence how modern tourists, and indeed Thai citizens, think of elephants today, and what they might consider as “normal” treatment of elephants, particularly as vehicles for human entertainment? In this capacity, captive elephants are made to paint pictures, make music, kick balls, stand on their heads, roll over, reenact ancient battles, and carry tourists on their backs. Of course, no wild elephant would perform like this, so captive elephants must be taught, normally through harsh methods, to obey commands. This is the dark side of elephant entertainment, and it is fueling a growing demand to experience elephants on their own terms, free from human domination.

The typical portrayal of elephants as beasts of burden in popular culture, and as frequently experienced in the art of Chiang Mai city, likely does have meaning and resonance. With populations of wild elephants rapidly declining in Thailand, and an unending demand for captive elephants to fuel the growing tourism industry, the knowledgeable Chiang Mai traveler can certainly appreciate the historic representation of elephants in Thai culture while choosing not to buy into its current exploitative forms.

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A chained elephant replica with a broken tusk. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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An elephant float made of flowers at the annual Chiang Mai flower festival in February 2016 celebrating the city’s 720th birthday. Photo: Lynn Wilson

A very brief history of Thai elephants

The Thai people have a long history with the elephant, which can be traced back at least to the Sukhothai period about 700 years ago.  The first recorded use of elephants in Thailand, formerly known as Siam, was during the war between King Jhunsri Inthradhit of Sukhothai and King Samchon of Chod, when elephants were used in battle. The Thai people were allowed to capture wild elephants during that time, but the number of domesticated or wild elephants was not recorded. It was known that people had the knowledge and experience to keep and use elephants in the Sukhothai period.

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Elephants guard Wat Chedi Luang, a Buddhist temple founded in 1401 and partially destroyed by an earthquake in the 16th century. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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Stone elephant at an orchid show at Buak Haad Park in the Old City of Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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A white elephant standing guard at Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson

During King Narai’s reign between 1633 and 1688, King Louis XIV’s envoy to Siam wrote that there were approximately 20,000 domesticated elephants in the Kingdom, and that these animals were used in warfare and were honored with noble titles after a victory of the King’s forces. It was noted that the outcome of ancient wars was in part determined by the number of elephants in its service, with the winning side usually having the most and the largest elephants. Elephants were also used for transportation of people and goods along well-worn routes. It was estimated that during King Narai’s reign, there were approximately 200,000 elephants living in the jungles of Siam (Pimmanrojnagool et al, 2002).

Pimmanrojnagool et al. also note that in the ancient past, people used elephants for everyday life, and the lives of people and elephants were inseparable. However, with colonization by Western powers and the introduction of long-range weapons, the use of elephants in war decreased until they were no longer used in the front lines of battle. The role of captive elephants shifted from war to logging, where they were noted for their ability to pull half of their weight, or about 1,000–2,000 kg. According to Pimmanrojnagool, in Chiang Mai alone, 20,000 elephants were recorded working in the logging industry during the reign of King Rama V the Great (1868-1910), while the demand for additional wild elephants was endless.

Some of the elephants that were captured were “white elephants,” notable for the pale color of their skin. These white elephants legally belonged to the King and were housed in the palace. During the reign of King Rama V, there were 19 white elephants in his palace. Thai Buddhists believe that white elephants generally symbolize the power of the King. Because white elephants symbolized the King’s power, people were encouraged to capture elephants in the hope that white ones would be discovered. A person who hurt or wounded a white elephant would receive the death penalty, as would his family (Pimmanrojnagool et al, 2002). The current King of Thailand, HM King Bhumibol, keeps ten white elephants at the Royal Elephant Stables near Chiang Mai.

Elephants in general have been historically revered by the Thai people, and ancient cultural and artistic representations of them abound in and around Chiang Mai. For instance, the famous Wat Phra Doi Suthep Temple on the outskirts of Chiang Mai was founded in the 14th century at the spot where a legendary white elephant, said to be carrying a holy relic of the Lord Buddha, climbed Doi Oy Chang, or Sugar Elephant Mountain as it was then known, when he stopped near the peak, trumpeted three times, then laid down and passed away. The king ordered the temple to be built at that exact spot, and today a shrine to the sacred white elephant greets visitors to Doi Suthep temple, and every Thai student knows its founding legend. Inside the temple is a series of beautiful mural paintings depicting the life of Buddha, many of which feature domesticated elephants in various scenes along the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were over 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand, but by the turn of the 21st century, those numbers had precipitously plummeted to less than 5,000. And, of those, only about 1,000 are thought to be left in the wild, almost exclusively in the Khao Yai National Park and the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries in central Thailand. The remaining are domesticated elephants, used predominantly in the tourism industry.

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered on its Red List of Threatened Animals. Since the 1970s, no license has been issued for capturing wild elephants in Thailand, although habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, and poaching continue to cause elephant numbers to decline in every part of the country. Only 1 percent of the elephant population that existed in King Narai’s reign remains today.

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Thai elephant celebrated in a mural at Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest spot in Thailand. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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Elephants in regal repose in a Chiang Mai courtyard. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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Elephants stand guard at the entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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A Buddhist shrine at Doi Inthanon National Park with elephants. Photo: Lynn Wilson

In 1989, the Thai Government suspended all logging operations in the country due to severe flooding caused by extensive deforestation. This effectively put domesticated elephants and their mahouts out of work. Unlike wild elephants, which are managed by the Ministry of Forestry, captive or domesticated elephants are considered by law to be the equivalent of draught animals and are treated as private property. As such, they have little protection against being worked by their owners.

With the loss of their traditional role in war and logging, elephants seem to have also lost the noble and revered status they once enjoyed. The cost of maintaining an elephant is high, and Thai society generally considers that a domesticated elephant must earn its keep. With over 2,000 captive elephants in need of food and maintenance, it is not surprising that the Thai government has increasingly turned to the growing tourism industry as a way to manage and maintain the large captive elephant population. Thus, by the vagaries of time and circumstance, the fortunes of captive elephants are now firmly tied to tourism.

Leading up to modern times, images of the elephant have largely continued to reflect back their traditional role as either highly decorated (somewhat mythical) beasts or as domesticated working animals. These images may well suit the artistic sensibilities of their creators, but an inevitable consequence may be a subliminal understanding of the elephant as a service animal. Certainly, artistic representations of decorated, domesticated elephants seem popular with tourists, who face an unending variety of elephant-themed jewelry, clothing, handbags, prints, carvings, cards, statues, and various other portrayals to pick from.

Although many tourists may not question the insertion of captive elephants and their artistic representations into the tourism schema, the relationship has not generally been a happy one for the elephants, with many abuses occurring as elephants are forced to work long hours performing unnatural activities, often under considerably less than optimal conditions. But, with government support for tourism firmly entrenched, and the need to find a new role for elephants to support themselves, one might think elephants’ fates are sealed.

However, new ways of thinking about elephants are beginning to emerge as urban populations the world over start to question the moral and ethical dimensions of this unique human-animal relationship. This change in thinking is increasingly being reflected in the way elephants are portrayed in popular art and culture.

The changing face of elephant tourism in Chiang Mai

Thailand is a prime international tourist destination; it attracted almost 30 million visitors in 2015, many of whom come to northern Thailand to experience authentic Thai and Buddhist culture, the heart of which is in Chiang Mai city and province. As noted, Chiang Mai is also the heart of elephant tourism, offering a range of experiences for tourists.

International tourism has been Thailand’s single biggest foreign exchange earner since the early 2000s, and the need to develop tourism products to suit foreign visitors has included many animal-related offerings. In the Chiang Mai vicinity, there are numerous tiger, monkey, and elephant venues, each offering pre-packaged shows and activities to expectant tourists. Most often these shows involve trained animals performing tricks and stunts in highly controlled settings.

To promote the transition of elephants from logging into tourism, the Thai Government established the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) which began as a “Young Elephant Training Centre” for elephants and mahouts, but soon began offering tourist rides and short shows for elephants to display the skills they had learned at the Centre, including skidding and pulling logs, playing musical instruments, and painting pictures. This type of offering has caught on with the private sector and a number of elephant camps have opened up in the Chiang Mai area aimed at the international tourism market.

Because of the fickle nature of international tourism, the TECC has started to explore other avenues to demonstrate the importance of conserving wild and domesticated elephants in Thailand, arguing that tourist rides and tricks “might not be the basis for funding elephant conservation in the longer term” (Duffy, et al, 2010).

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A large male elephant at the Chiang Mai Zoo waiting to be fed. Photo: Lynn Wilson
Photo 14
An elephant camp near Chiang Mai offering elephant riding. Photo: Lynn Wilson
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Seeing eye to eye with an elephant at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Lynn Wilson
Photo 16
Employing local villagers to care for the elephants at Elephant Nature Park. Photo: Lynn Wilson

Indeed, the TECC has begun to see that the long-term survival of elephants in Thailand might depend more on demonstrating their wider importance to the people of Thailand and to the world, rather than just considering their market value.

Still, as Rosaleen Duffy and Lorraine Moore state (2010, p. 753), very few people in Thailand believe that “culture alone can save the elephant”. Instead, they believe that, due to the high number of captive elephants and the amount of money required to keep a captive elephant, the survival of domesticated elephants will depend on their ability to pay their way, either in the tourism industry or by providing services to people.

As Kontogeorgopoulos argues (2009, p. 443), “Thailand has failed to conserve elephants based on their intrinsic worth as living creatures, and so their future depends on demonstrating their economic importance and utility to human beings.”

That being said, people are trying new and innovative ways to help elephants sustain themselves through tourism. These approaches don’t rely on forced performances and restrictive living conditions. For instance, the approach taken by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert at the world-famous Elephant Nature Park, a 2,000-acre sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai, introduces a concept of promoting elephant conservation through responsible ecotourism which utilizes a nature-based learning experience to help save and sustain more than 40 formerly abused elephants that worked in the logging, entertainment, and tourism industries. This approach provides “learning journeys” for visitors, while also improving the well-being of local villagers (Lin, T., 2012).

This successful model is attracting growing numbers of tourists worldwide, with annual visitor increases of 10-15 percent (Lin, T., 2012). Visits can be booked online or from Chiang Mai. The basic experience at the park is to spend a day or longer with elephants in a natural setting, interacting with the animals on their own terms, without them being forced to perform or to provide rides.

The experience of standing or walking next to a free elephant is overwhelming in its simple power. It teaches respect, empathy, and compassion for these gentle giants who have endured so much in their lifetimes. This non-traditional use of elephants was resisted at first by local Thai people, who were accustomed to more mainstream tourist offerings. However, the idea is slowly catching on as it proves to be an economically viable model (Lin, T., 2012). It offers an alternative path forward for humans and elephants, whose lives and fates are inextricably woven together in this region.

Art and life

Does art imitate life or life imitate art? In the case of elephant portrayals in the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, both are true. The depictions of elephants to be found in every corner of the city certainly reflect the historic role of elephants as beasts of burden.

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One of the ancient murals depicting Buddha and an elephant at Wat Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson
Photo 18
Modern elephant art at the night market in Chiang Mai city. Photo: Lynn Wilson

As we have seen, in the ancient past, wild elephants were captured for the King and achieved noble status for their bravery in war. They were revered by Buddhists as symbols of the King’s power, and elephants were portrayed carrying Buddha himself in exquisite murals found at the revered Wat Phra Doi Suthep temple outside of Chiang Mai. Elephants were important in building the Thai economy through their role in logging and transportation, and, more recently, in international tourism. The art of elephants in Chiang Mai certainly reflects this utilitarian view of elephants, while also managing to imbue them with majestic power and inward grace.

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A happy and free elephant at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Photo: Lynn Wilson

More recently, different conceptualizations of elephants have started to come to the fore, with more considered and nuanced ideas of elephants and their relationship to humans. The newest art in Chiang Mai portrays elephants in more natural—albeit colorful—unadorned poses, with no trace of material culture attached to their bodies. Is life starting to imitate this type of art? And, how might these new artistic renderings of elephants in the city influence the way people choose to experience the real thing?

From Chiang Mai’s vibrant street markets, where large, colorful paintings of unencumbered elephants dominate, to the epiphanies to be found by interacting with freed elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, the tide may be turning for the captive elephants of Chiang Mai. Let’s hope so—there is not a moment to waste in transforming our relationship to these magnificent creatures into one of dignity.

Through its evolving artistic and cultural depictions, images of elephants continue to imbue Chiang Mai with a magical realism that is hard to resist. Let’s now transfer this into meaningful action on behalf of the real elephants of Chiang Mai.

Lynn Wilson

On The Nature of Cities


Duffy, R., and Lorraine Moore (2010). Elephant-back tourism in Thailand and Botswana. Antipod, 42 (3), pp. 738-762.

Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, X (2), pp. 1-19.

Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings. Current Issues in Tourism, 12 (5/6), pp. 429-449.

Lin, T. (2012). Cross-platform framing and cross-cultural adaptation. Examining elephant conservation in Thailand. Environmental Communication, 6 (2), pp. 193-211.

Pimmanrojnagool, V. (2002). A study of street wandering elephants in Bangkok and the socio-economic life of their mahouts. In Giants on our hands. Proceedings of the international workshop on the domesticated Asian elephant. Bangkok, Thailand, February 2001, pp. 35-42.

Embedding Urban Ecology into Policy: West Berlin as a Case Study

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Greening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics and Urban Nature. By Jens Lachmund. 2013. MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262018593. 320 pages. Buy the book.

The overgrown train tracks of Gleisdreieck Park. The community gardens and art installations of Tempelhofer Feld. The flora and fauna of Südgelände Nature Park. Today’s Berlin is home to diverse landscapes, ecologies, and juxtapositions of natural and manmade history which, together, tell the story of this destroyed, divided, and rebuilt city.

Greening Berlin made me miss the city that I once called home, where layers of history, adaptation, and re-use are evident in nearly every aspect of the built environment.

A reader curious about how these spaces came to be has much to learn from Jens Lachmund’s Greening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics, and Urban Nature. The book explores how the discipline of urban ecology developed in West Berlin, and how it transitioned from an academic pursuit to a cause championed by planners, community organizers, and the general public. The result is a story that is both very particular to Berlin and the politics of a once-divided city, and more widely applicable to landscape and planning practitioners working in ecologically rich urban environments.


By detailing how urban ecology developed and became integrated into planning policy, Lachmund illustrates how urban ecological values can shape a city’s future land use patterns. However, with the success stories come the inevitable stories of politics, tension, and negotiation, including failures of community advocacy. These stories are valuable to today’s practitioner, as they illustrate how the values of urban ecology can stack up alongside competing recreation, land use, and development interests.

By weaving together environmental history, policy, and the stories of politically charged parks and conservation projects, Lachmund has offered insight into a topic that will be of interest to planners as well as historians. Greening Berlin is a thorough and clear introduction to a subject that can come across as very technical. Although the city, its complicated history, and its particular urban settings are, of course, unique, the narratives addressing policy development, the integration of nature into urban policy, and the conflicts inherent to land use decision-making are universally applicable.

However, Greening Berlin is missing a crucial element: visuals. While the book includes a small number of carefully chosen photographs and diagrams, the narrative calls for many more. It is disappointing that a book about a city with some of Europe’s most interesting green spaces includes few photographs and nothing in color. Spatial analyses—such as maps of the destruction WWII caused to Berlin’s urban fabric and the subsequent ecological studies of damaged spaces—also could have been valuable. Without photos, the book is less stimulating and accessible to readers not already familiar with Berlin, making it better suited to the academic reader.

Lachmund begins by detailing the traditions of urban greening in Berlin and Germany generally; he also explores the development of the discipline of green space planning. The narrative moves from the traditions of the 19th century Kaiserreich through the Garden City movement to postwar reconstruction before exploring the origins of urban ecology. The overall thesis tracks planners, policymakers, and community members gradually seeing greater inherent value in urban nature, as opposed to considering nature and the city as two opposite ends of a spectrum, with the city acting as a corrupting force.

One of the many examples of adaptative reuse in former West Berlin, today’s Görlitzer Park occupies the site of the former train tracks from the historic Görlitzer Bahnhof. Photo: Katharine Burgess

Berlin’s story is critical to an understanding of the history of urban ecology, and Greening Berlin provides many details about the origins of the movement. Lachmund largely focuses on West Berlin, with occasional background information or anecdotes about the very different context and concurrent approaches in East Berlin. As Greening Berlin explains, the botanists of post-war West Berlin are widely credited with initiating the discipline of urban ecology. In studying rubble areas, they discovered new combinations of species that did not align with pre-existing categorizations. Lachmund states that “wastelands were the prototype of an urban ecosystem: their marginality within the urban environment allowed nature to thrive almost unimpeded, and yet it was a nature that was largely determined by the human-made environmental conditions of the city” (67). Lachmund focuses on botanist Herbert Sukopp, who created new models of floral survey to apply to sites in an urban context. Sukopp’s work led to the development of urban ecology as a discipline and, eventually, to an increased appreciation of nature in an urban context.

Beyond scientists’ work and examination of the city’s damaged urban fabric, the culture and unique geography of West Berlin also contributed to the rise in popularity and visibility of urban ecology. Living in an “island” of West Germany surrounded by East Germany—with the closest West German landscapes a substantial distance away—residents greatly valued the natural spaces within city limits, and scientists and ecologists used the city as a “home turf” to study. Citizen activism, including projects led by squatters, was significant. And even after the postwar damage was addressed, design and planning remained important, given the city’s visibility and role as a model and antithesis to East Berlin. For example, the 1984 Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA, or International Building Exhibition) was an impetus for large-scale redevelopment within the city center, igniting international discussion and the creation of new buildings and new public spaces.

Tiergarten, Berlin’s most well-known inner city park and one of historic West Berlin’s most symbolic green spaces, features prominently in Greening Berlin. Photo: Katharine Burgess

The professionalization of landscape planning is another theme that Lachmund explores. In the mid-‘70s, Berlin’s Senate Department for Construction and Housing employed only one full time and two part-time staff devoted to nature conservation. By 1979, the city’s new Nature Conservation Act had led to the creation of 39 new positions. Meanwhile, new resources and institutions dedicated to urban ecology began working. For example, the book details the founding of the influential Stiftung Naturschutz (Nature Conservation Foundation) as well as the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (Alliance for Environmental and Nature Protection).

Lachmund further traces how urban ecology influenced West Berlin planning policies and the approach to land use in the city today. For example, the concept of biotopes—defined as the natural living spaces of urban wildlife—is applied within planning policy through the Biotope Protection Regime. Lachmund explores how biotope protection has been used in planning and land use policy and also examines the concept more philosophically, musing, “biotope protection has participated in the never-ending process of creating order in the city” (9). Today, biotopes are not only regulated on the city level, but on the federal level, with a rule that requires Länder (states) to set up networks of linked biotopes covering 10 percent of their area.

Lachmund presents Gleisdreieck and Südgelände, which are both natural parks on abandoned rail sites, as two case studies in the latter half of the book. Lachmund seems to relish the political back stories of these parks, describing even the concept of a nature park within Berlin as “a matter of conflict and constant negotiation between the participants of the planning process” (191). The book explores the role of Bürgerinitiativen, or community initiatives, in developing these parks, as well as the role of mitigation requirements. Indeed, many of the largest new park projects in Berlin were spurred by mitigation needs, meaning that the land conservation compensated for development elsewhere. Lachmund also explores the tensions between the desire for conservation and the need to provide opportunities for recreation, and the differing interpretations of legislation on recreation and conservation.

As an urban planner who recently returned from living and working in Berlin, Greening Berlin made me miss the city that I once called home. During my time there, the layers of history, adaptation, and re-use evident in nearly every aspect of the built environment fascinated me endlessly. Beyond that, the ambitious goals of the German landscape planning system—and the large-scale public projects, such as Gleisdreieck and Südgelände—are enough to inspire any planner. Reading Lachmund’s history of this place was a fantastic way to embed myself in the built and natural environment of Berlin again, considering not only the setting and local policies, but also how shifting perceptions, values, and means of scientific observation have facilitated the city’s physical transformation.

Katharine Burgess
Washington, D.C.

On The Nature of Cities

Embracing Environmental Justice to Green Our Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The future of the environmental movement lies in the world’s cities. In 2008, for the first time in human history, more of us lived in urban environments than in any other setting.  This trend is only going to accelerate as human population approaches the 10 billion (!) mark by the end of the 21st Century. Indeed, almost two decades ago, UNFPA predicted that “[t]he growth of cities will be the single largest influence on development in the 21st century.” Subsequent developments have borne out this prediction. In 2008, UNFPA projected that, on a global level, all future population growth would be in urban areas. For good or for ill, we humans are heading down an urbanized path.

In the developing world, the burgeoning growth of urban areas has relegated more than 1 billion people to overcrowded and polluted slums, often lacking basic services such as clean water and sanitation. Even in wealthier, developed countries like the United States, urban settings present a host of environmental challenges for their current and future inhabitants. Our cities tend to have concentrated pockets of poor and minority populations. The political marginalization of these groups, coupled with an environmental ethos that valorized “the wild” over the built environment has too often left these communities behind. Indeed, one of the major insights of environmental justice is that racial minorities bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental bads, while having access to only a small sliver of the environmental goods. Our national environmental laws too often fail to combat this mal-distribution of environmental amenities and harms, and rarely manage to account for the disproportionate burdens on environmental justice communities associated with cumulative pollution loads from multiple polluting sources in urban environments.

At the same time that environmental law has developed without cities in mind, cultural changes have produced a generation with a much more tenuous relationship to the natural environment than any in human history. Indeed, teaching in an urban university, it can be hard to convince students that they live in an environment. To them, “the environment” exists elsewhere—in a place with forests, fauna and few people. Their world—a world of pollution, grime, multiculturalism and subways—is emphatically not “natural” and therefore, on some fundamental level, not “an environment.”

Of course cities are affected by broader environmental considerations like climate change.  But, cities are far more than passive recipients of changes wrought elsewhere—they are the locus of nearly all major economic, social, demographic and environmental transformations. Cities are complex and multilayered environments that exist on the border between the built and the natural, with the “urban footprint” stretching far beyond a city’s political boundaries.

As such, this perceived dichotomy between the “city” and “the environment” in the law is increasingly problematic: it is often focused in a fashion that does nothing to combat (and sometimes makes worse) the poverty that can exist right alongside the resource being protected. And an overly-myopic focus on protecting “the real environment” can play into the hands of those interested in reducing environmental protections—allowing them to portray environmental advocates as environmentally unjust, or at least agnostic with respect to justice. There is at least a kernel of truth to this allegation—around the world, the preservation priorities of many large, Western environmental organizations have clashed with the development priorities of local (and often impoverished) communities who perceive hunting and resource extraction on those same lands as their most viable development option. Within the United States, too many urban communities have felt excluded from environmental priorities that focused more on preserving wild lands than on greening the cities. This justice blind spot has limited the reach and appeal of the environmental movement. Worse, it has allowed those opposed to environmental protection to portray environmental law, and environmentalism more generally, as an elitist endeavor. To the extent that urban populations perceive improving the material conditions of their lives to be in conflict with protecting the environment, environmental protection becomes yet another racial and class-based structural bias.

There is nothing inevitable about these clashes—environmental protection need not disadvantage the urban (or rural) poor. The environmental justice movement offers a way out of this dilemma. By surfacing when and how environmental laws fail to generate improvements that reach everyone, even despite national statistics showing overall environmental progress, environmental justice highlights the unequal distribution of both environmental bads and environmental goods in a society. Thus, an examination of environmental laws through an environmental justice lens focuses attention on which communities become overburdened with polluting industry and why, while also demonstrating that those same communities are often underserved by green infrastructure, including adequate sewers, clean accessible rivers, parks and greenspaces.

Both prongs of environmental justice are vitally important. Urban pollution loads have dramatic health impacts, with children in New York and Washington DC and other urban settings having disproportionately high childhood asthma rates, and blood lead levels. Among the many negative consequences flowing from these adverse health effects is one that too often gets overlooked—health effects of urban pollution loads make playing outside less possible for urban children. Theorists have recently begun to acknowledge the problems flowing from the growing dissociation between children and their environment.  The idea of a “nature deficit disorder” has taken root, with Richard Louv’s groundbreaking book “The Last Child in the Woods” sparking an international conversation about the alienation children increasingly experience from nature. Urban ills of crime and pollution only make this nature deficit problem worse.

Far too many urban children have never walked barefoot on the grass (too much broken glass and dog feces), and have only limited access to outdoor play spaces (typically playing outside means close supervision on a concrete playground). For young people whose exposure to fauna is limited to pigeons, robins, squirrels and rats, the very idea of habitat or biodiversity protection can seem hopelessly abstract. Yet this vision of New York

Pale, Male, one of the famous red-tailed hawks of Central Park, New York City. Photo from

City as an impoverished ecosystem-less wasteland is a fiction—as regular readers of this site know, urban environments are host to a rich array of biodiversity. Indeed, even within NYC’s self-lore, counterexamples abound—witness Andrew Rudd’s recent post about the new species of leopard frog discovered in Staten Island, or the media furor over Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that has nested for years on a fancy 5th Avenue coop just off Central Park.

Yet these kinds of stories are not uncommon. Hawks nest in Astoria Park, Prospect Park, at New York University in lower Manhattan, and Queens College. Indeed, hawks, egrets, cormorants, various species of gulls, possums, raccoons and snails are just the most visible edge of a rich biota that even includes large predators like coyotes.

Coyotes in an undisclosed location in New York City. Photo by Mark Merkel.

Rather than embrace the richness of New York City as a thriving, albeit modified ecosystem, well-meaning attempts to combat the problem too often focus on teaching children more about the “real” environment that exists away from cities. The message children get is that “the environment is not yours. It is elsewhere, belonging to others.”

Organizations working with young people to green their current urban environment have demonstrated that teaching children about their own environment reaps tremendous dividends, empowering children to work to change their environments while simultaneously sparking their interest in science and the environment. Global Kids, an NGO that works with at risk youth has reported that participants in their Environmental Justice Summer Workshop program have improved school performance and self-esteem, even as they work to make real changes in their environment.

Councilmember Peter Vallone with PS122Q students. Photo by Donnelly Marks.

Advocacy and research by school children at PS122Q prompted NYC City Council to pass a “no idling” ordinance which limits bus and truck idling in school zones. GrowNYC’s Grow to Learn school gardens transform asphalt schoolyards into gardens that teach students about environmental sustainability and healthy eating.

Even these modest initiatives pay huge health and environmental dividends, and these programs help build the next generation of environmental leadership. This is why a vital component of greening our cities must be youth education—and education that does not just take place in a classroom. New York City has a number of interesting initiatives tying environmental justice initiatives to environmental education and environmental protection.

Target planting neighborhoods for MillionTreesNYC.

One of the highest profile is the MillionTrees initiative that NYC is undertaking as part of PlaNYC—New York City’s ambitious plan to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% by 2020.

As part of this initiative, New York City is preferentially planting trees in six environmental justice neighborhoods that the Parks Department identified as neighborhoods of greatest need for trees. These six neighborhoods were selected because they have fewer than average street trees and higher than average rates of asthma among young people. The hope is that additional trees will help reduce the pollutants that trigger asthma, and will also make the area more inviting to residents. Community outreach and education around tree planting also provide an opportunity to teach urban youth about trees, while expanding the urban forest provides habitat for birds and other creatures, reduces the heat island effect, and marks a step toward addressing the nature deficit.

Rebecca Bratspies
New York City


Enabling Access to Greenspace During the Covid-19 Pandemic—Perspectives from Five Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Using Google mobility data, Urban resilience researchers in New York, Barcelona, Berlin/Halle, Oslo, and Stockholm provide local perspectives on the importance of access to greenspace. While we hope the pandemic and its suffering soon will pass, understanding the importance of greenspace for urban resilience must continue with renewed force.
There is now plenty of evidence on the benefits of local access to greenspace and greenviews on physical health and mental well-being. Lockdowns and social distancing advisories have placed restrictions on citizen normal access to public spaces. Google community mobility statistics from February-March revealed varied patterns of reaction to Covid-19 in cities where we work. While residential mobility increased everywhere, change in mobility in parks varied from city to city.

Beyond the direct effects of the pandemic on mobility, and the effects of indoor time on health, Covid-19 sheds a strong light on challenges to urban resilience. Our research was—pre-pandemic—focused on the role of urban greenspaces for ecosystem services and environmental justice. The variation in restrictions and reactions to the pandemic across our cities shows a gradient from Barcelona and New York to Stockholm. This reinforces the importance of comparative research on resilient urban development, while triggering new questions.

Google community mobility data for five cities in the ENABLE project Source: . The baseline is the median value, for the corresponding day of the week, during the 5- week period Jan 3–Feb 6, 2020.,48,88
Mobility changes during the pandemic in 5 cities emphasizes research findings on the importance of green space and raises new research questions

The severity of the lockdowns on workplace mobility has been stronger in Barcelona and New York than Berlin/Halle and Oslo, which in turn have had stronger restrictions than Stockholm. The severity of the pandemic and restrictions seems roughly to coincide in the case of our cities with urban density and greenspace availability per inhabitant (see below).

Urban greenspace availability for selected European cities in ENABLE
The reactions to Covid-19 and impacts on access to greenspace raise a number of questions which cast previous research results “in a pandemic light”. Is the loss of access to greenspace larger in areas hit the hardest by the pandemic? Are other environmental problems correlated with the incidence of Covid-19 and its restrictions? Is the distribution of greenspace and the loss of access equitable across neighbourhoods? Are new open spaces such as brownfields being used, and does the lockdown increase the importance of green roofs in dense cities? What is the effect on children and public health of indoor confinement? What of a pandemic lockdown in a future climate change scenario with heat waves?

The Google mobility data for residential area and parks triggers questions about the importance of greenspace during the pandemic. Can the resolution of the mobility data be improved and compiled specifically for the urban areas hardest hit by the pandemic? In the following we look at some of these gaps and questions city by city.

Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Germany by Dagmar Haase and Andre Mascarenhas

The Google mobility data describe only partly what you can observe on the streets of large German cities like Berlin, Leipzig, or Halle. People limit shopping (retail, grocery, pharmacy), but our general impression is that more people seek being outdoors, meaning walking in their residential area as shown in the Google mobility data, but also in green spaces. You see many more people jogging compared to pre-corona times. People are innovative in lawn-based activities, since playgrounds and sports fields are closed, which highlights the importance of lawns as recreational places. Interestingly, there is evidence for the importance of open spaces other than parks, such as brownfields. Previously, they were basically for walking the dog, but are now also used for family activities and jogging more than before. One reason might be that brownfields are less observed and visited by the police and thus people feel more free. Another relevant type of non-park green space is urban forests, where similarly it can be more difficult for the police to control people’s behaviours.

There is evidence that important urban forests like Grunewald in Berlin are intensively used. Reasons to use such spaces have to do with people finding them relaxing and calming, wanting to enjoy their beauty or experience wilderness, or believing that they have a positive influence on their well-being. For the coming weeks, namely until 3 May when restrictions will be re-discussed in German government, if numbers of infected further decrease and the r-value remains below 1, more and larger shops will reopen, walks for shopping will most probably increase, while those in residential neighbourhoods and parks might decline (being replaced by shopping walks/ways). In terms of existing inequalities in the uptake of ecosystem services from green spaces in German large cities, it is still hard to judge without monitoring data, but existing evidence indicates that there is unequal socio-spatial distribution of urban green space, translated in differences in the quantity and size of green spaces, the structure of vegetation, and their quality. These inequalities and their negative effects on the worse off can become very important in situations like the corona lockdown.

We think those inequalities remain more or less the same when it is about parks, they only become much more visible due to the mobility restrictions in place. Of course people with residential / private green definitely can draw more benefits (like enjoying fresh air or gardening)than those without. Those with a view into urban green also draw some benefits, particularly if they have a balcony, allowing them to “go outside” or do some gardening. These factors are related to existing inequalities in the housing market but, of course, now they become simply more evident. The Corona situation has highlighted the need to put more emphasis in developing high quality green spaces in all districts and areas of the cities, as in times of such mobility restrictions both short distances (as public transport is not advised) and good quality of urban greenspace would be urgently needed.

Finally, in terms of this pandemic, the virus occurrence and the reaction to it brought two things onto the desk of Leipzig and Halle’s urban greenspace development: First, as mentioned above, a more equal (fair) distribution of high quality green spaces for recreation across the entire town. Second, to develop more “wild” areas where people have NO access and wildlife can develop and form independent biocenosis and thus prevent zoonoses as best as possible. This point is particularly important for the joint planning of cities and their wider peripheries.

Barcelona by Johannes Langemeyer and Francesc Baró

As Covid-19 infection rates started to increase, Spain declared a countrywide state of emergency and put in place and restricted people’s mobility and especially activities in public space drastically (see decree here). As a consequence, in Barcelona as in other Spanish cities—but in sharp contrast to all other cities considered here—the accessibility of public green spaces has been limited to dog walking (though restricted as well, this benefits a substantial share of the population, as the ratio between dogs and people in Spain is about 1:4). Other highly appreciated recreational activities like outdoor running or cycling are penalized by high fines, while most urban parks have been closed since mid-March. As a consequence, park use drastically dropped by about 90%, as shown by the Google mobility data.

Despite broad scientific evidence for the health and wellbeing benefits from green space exposure, the lockdown measures in Spain are strongly tailored to restrict leisure activities in public spaces. Entering already the sixth week of confinement, this poses multiple important questions that extend on our previous research on urban resilience.

First of all and most generally, it is relevant to question whether there is a general underappreciation of particular nature values among decision-makers and the broader Spanish society compared to other European countries. This could constitute an important general barrier for the implementation of nature-based solutions and other greening strategies in cities (lacking trust people’s responsible behaviour could be another explanation). Interestingly in this context, in Catalonia, the strict initial regulations have been rapidly softened for accessing vegetable gardens (positively affecting about 10,000 gardeners in the metropolitan area of Barcelona) once more showing the importance of gardens in moments of crises, while softening access to urban parks, e.g. for individual exercising as in other European countries, has hardly been in the discussion.

Secondly, and maybe most discussed right now, at least in Barcelona, are potential negative physical and psychological health effects primarily on children due to lacking outdoor recreation, also long term. Despite relatively low scientific evidence for the effectiveness of children’s isolation, the Covid-19 restrictions in Spain are even more severe for children than for adults—apart from a few exceptions children were not supposed to leave the house at all during six weeks (after strong public pressure relaxations in the regulation have been implemented from 26 April onward). Yet, potential negative health effects such as obesity and anxiety, which could be mitigated by access to urban nature, are not limited to children but affect adults similarly.

Thirdly, and related to the previous points, the lockdown can be assumed to affect already vulnerable social groups unequally higher, and reproduce existing environmental injustices. Given that low income residents generally live in smaller apartments and are assumed to have less access to private green spaces, the privation of access to benefits from public green spaces is likely affecting low-income groups disproportionately stronger than more affluent citizens. At the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ) we are currently investigating this unequal accessibility to greenery under lockdown conditions in relation to unequal health impacts through a Spain-wide online survey.

Fourthly, the lockdown puts Barcelona’s about 2700 ha rooftops in the spotlight of future urban resilience strategies, which have become an important gathering and recreational space for neighbours during the lockdown. In an extremely dense city like Barcelona (at least for European standards) unused rooftops bear an important transformative potential. This has more classically been discussed in the context of solar energy production, while more recently mitigating peoples’ needs for ecosystem services through green roofs is gaining relevance in the debate. This debate must be reshaped considering multiple and potentially interacting drivers of change.

Finally, the severe lockdown might indicate potential solutions for one of Barcelona’s most pressing environmental issues before Covid-19: Air pollution. Which might even have increased the lethal effects of Covid-19. Regarding the Barcelona Public Health Agency, air pollution is causing over 350 premature deaths each year in Barcelona (in comparison, the number of deaths by Covid-19 between 1 March and 10 April has been estimated at 2,236). For Barcelona, we observed that air pollution has dropped by more than half, compared to the same period in 2019, showing a much wider effect than the recently implemented low emission zone. In this context we are starting to question, to which extent we are capable of avoiding a return to the pre-Corona “normality”, at least with regard to emission intensive transport.

New York by Chris Kennedy, Zbigniew Grabowski and Timon McPhearson

New York City is unique among ENABLE cities in that under the weak federal system of the United States, significant responsibility for Covid-19 response falls to states and municipal governments. NYC current caseload (180k confirmed cases as of this writing), has labeled it as both the current “epicenter” and the “vanguard” of the pandemic in the US.

Source: 29_US_New_York_Mobility_Report_en.pdf
In order to rapidly learn how NYC’s experience may inform response efforts elsewhere, the Urban Systems Lab at The New School has been examining patterns of Covid-19 spread and relationships to multi-dimensional vulnerability. For instance, we have noted that the mobility restrictions put in place by NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order “NY on PAUSE” (Policies, Assure, Uniform, Safety, Everyone), reflected in the Google mobility data, appear confirmed by  transit, electricity use, and geo-coded tweets across the city. The USL has also begun to aggregate additional mobility data from Twitter to examine covid responses.Given the magnitude of the difference in increased residential mobility and decreases across all other sectors, these data suggest that most public realm activity in the city is driven by non-residents now restricted to their home jurisdictions, which may be true across ENABLE cities. However, data on testing totals and confirmed cases also indicate that social vulnerability to Covid infection and mortality may be driven by socio-economic and racial disparities, existing issues of environmental justice (e.g. air pollution), and workforce hierarchies. For example, the historically low transit ridership declines (87% down according to the MTA), are not uniform across the 5 New York City boroughs, highlighting equity, access, and socio-economic issues. In low-income neighborhoods ridership is more consistent with data from this time last year, with reports of overcrowding as service is disrupted.

There is also strong reason to suspect that the mobility data also do not accurately reflect the uses of parks by local residents, who have observed local parks becoming much more crowded than usual. NYC being a dense megacity (population density averaging ~2800 residents per sq km), with a relatively low greenview index, private and community green spaces providing numerous ecosystem services, were already highly sought after, and the city’s extensive green roof programs may become increasingly important. Additionally, ongoing efforts to make more of the streetscape useful for pedestrian, bicycle transit, while managing stormwater and heat hazards at a finer scale, may also gain in importance, although existing USL research (in preparation) shows that planning remains fragmented in these domains. For example, the city’s nascent attempt at a city wide bicycle network  could be expanded to integrate nature-based solutions and green infrastructure. Aside from NYC being an international and regional destination, much work remains to be done on how extending NY on PAUSE will affect the vulnerability of residents to the oncoming extreme heat and flooding season.

Oslo by David N. BartonNorun Hjertager Krog , Zander Venter , Vegard Gundersen

Oslo’s Covid-19 mobility to non-essential workplaces decreased by 45% in March and  increased residential mobility by 14%. Outdoor recreation was advised within one’s municipality in Norway, following social distancing advisories. We wonder whether physical exercise has been more spatially distributed during the period of mobility restrictions. Oslo is surrounded by continuous boreal forest cover with public right of access. Data from automatic counters indicate that people use new entrance areas and are dispersed over large forest areas on marked and unmarked paths. Oslo has plenty of room for recreation in the city’s peri-urban forests. However, with the advisory against public transport, those who live in the city center without a car must use urban parks and open spaces for recreation. While there is a small reduction in use of parks (-7%) since February as a whole, there was a large increase in park use following the shock of the March 12th announcement. Oslo’s citizens may have compensated for mobility restrictions by increasing outdoor recreation in parks, streets and forests close to home. The density of vegetation in streets may also be an incentive to exercise close to home.

Unfortunately, the Google community mobility data does not identify mobility in streets and undesignated greenspaces such as Oslo’s peri-urban continuous forest cover, the Marka forest.  Neighbourhood green spaces accessibility, size and quality, as well as tree density  in general have shown to have positive impacts on mental and physical health.  Street level greenviews in Oslo are high compared to other capital cities, and green spaces are relatively equally distributed across the city, although some differences in exposure to green and other environmental quality still exist.

The importance of residential tree canopy may literally grow if a pandemic lockdown occurs during a heatwave.  In Oslo each tree canopy reduced average excess heat exposure to the elderly by one day during the heatwaves of 2018.  We speculate that urban tree canopy’s importance for public health and urban resilience can only increase, with Oslo’s summer temperatures in 2050 expected to be over 5 degrees warmer. Ease of access to cool, large, low recreation density areas in the Marka peri-urban forest and Oslofjord should increase the value of urban ecosystem services in futures with climate change and pandemics. These peri-urban areas may also serve a spectrum of different opportunities for activities and nature experiences for the urban populations, as they include an environmental gradient from intensively managed service areas towards untouched wilderness areas within short distances. This means that people do not need to travel far near Oslo to achieve experiences such as silence and solitude.

Despite authorities assurances of food security, the announcement of Covid-19 restrictions 12 March saw an approximate 50% spike in grocery & pharmacy visits in Oslo. Although this brief hoarding was probably focused on non-perishables, we wonder whether this behaviour will be lower in cities with better access to urban gardening and local agriculture.

The next Google mobility report will cover the period including Easter. Easter is traditionally a time for outdoor activities in Norway, mainly skiing activities in the mountains. Many people go to their cabins, but since this was prohibited, we expect the use of urban greenspace will show an increase  in mobility—at least to the extent that people have adhered to the advice from the Government to walk from home, and avoid crowded car parking spaces and public transport. Local newspaper reports also indicated that the peri-urban Marka forest was extensively used during Easter, perhaps covering similar recreational needs of outdoor life as going to the cabin, while also offering more space for social distancing than the city streets and parks. Oslo’s peri-urban forests provide for resilient outdoor life during the pandemic, complemented by local access to parks and high quality urban spaces with street trees.

Stockholm by Erik Andersson

Stockholm residents have compensated for mobility restrictions, and restricted access to urban services like gyms, museums, concerts, sports events etc. by increased outdoor recreation in parks, streets and perhaps especially forests close to home. Similarly to Oslo,  density of vegetation in streets may also be an incentive to exercise close to home. Stockholm has over the last few years rolled out a system of outdoor gyms to increase the multifunctionality of the city’s green spaces, and these have seen increasingly heavy use. Unfortunately, the Google community mobility data does not identify mobility in streets and undesignated greenspaces such as Tyresta national park, nature reserves and remnant green spaces embedded in Stockholm’s green wedges—only a smaller portion of these are designated as “parks”. Stockholm has ample access to water, and as we move into spring/summer this will open up additional opportunities for being out while keeping a distance from other people. Neighbourhood green spaces and tree density  are shown to have positive impacts on mental and physical health.  Street level greenviews in Stockholm are high compared to other capital cities, and green spaces are relatively equally distributed across the city, although some differences in ‘direct’ exposure to green and other environmental quality exist.

Ease of access to cool, large, low recreation density areas in the green wedges, nature reserves and national parks, together with the archipelago and lake Mälaren should increase the value of urban ecosystem services in futures with climate change and pandemics. The importance of residential tree canopy will also grow in Stockholm if a pandemic lockdown occurs during a heatwave. Soft restrictions and social responsibility, together with a generally high availability of larger open spaces have made it easier for Stockholmers’ to shift activities and time to open space rather than the more built up parts of the city. However, restrictions for the use of public transportation means that the larger scale regional system of open spaces is primarily available for people with their own cars, skewing the distribution of opportunity across the population.

This is not the end

We hope the Google mobility data will soon show access to urban greenspaces increasing everywhere as restrictions are lifted, coinciding with the green views of spring. While we hope the pandemic and its suffering soon will pass, preserving, restoring and understanding the importance of greenspace for future urban resilience must continue with renewed force.

David Barton1, Dagmar Haase2, Andre Mascarenhas2, Johannes Langemeyer3, Francesc Baró3, Christopher Kennedy4, Zbigniew Grabowski4, Timon McPhearson4, Norum Hjertager Krog1, Zander Venter1, VegardGundersen1, Erik Andersson5
1—Oslo, 2—Berlin, 3—Barcelona, 4—New York, 5—Stockholm

On The Nature of Cities

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.

André Mascarenhas

About the Writer:
André Mascarenhas

André Mascarenhas is a Post-Doc researcher at the Lab of Landscape Ecology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany. He is interested in human-nature interactions, especially regarding the links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and spatial planning in urban environments, under a sustainability science lens.

Johannes Langemeyer

About the Writer:
Johannes Langemeyer

Johannes Langemeyer is a senior researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain. He is trained as a geographer and environmental scientist. His interdisciplinary research focuses on urban social-ecological systems, at the interface of ecosystem services, resilience, and 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.

Christopher Kennedy

About the Writer:
Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy is the assistant director at the Urban Systems Lab (The New School) and lecturer in the Parsons School of Design. Kennedy’s research focuses on understanding the socio-ecological benefits of spontaneous urban plant communities in NYC, and the role of civic engagement in developing new approaches to environmental stewardship and nature-based resilience.

Zbigniew Grabowski

About the Writer:
Zbigniew Grabowski

Zbigniew J. Grabowski is a post-doc at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and the Urban Systems Lab at the New School. Working with Drs. Steward T.A. Pickett and Timon McPhearson, his current work examines the equity of green infrastructure planning in US Cities.

Timon McPhearson

About the Writer:
Timon McPhearson

Dr. Timon McPhearson works with designers, planners, and local government to foster sustainable, resilient and just cities. He is Associate Professor of Urban Ecology and Director of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School and Research Fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Norun Hjertager Krog

About the Writer:
Norun Hjertager Krog

Norun Hjertager Krog, PhD, is a Senior Scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, Norway. She is a sociologist and environmental epidemiologist, with research on associations between urban environment and health, including green space and built environment, but also noise, air pollution, climate and socioeconomic factors.

Zander Venter

About the Writer:
Zander Venter

Zander is a spatial ecologist based at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Oslo, Norway. His interests lie in finding creative ways to monitor and visualize urban ecosystem services. His recent research has focussed on the relation between urban green infrastructure, climate mitigation and public health benefits.

Vegard Gundersen

About the Writer:
Vegard Gundersen

Vegard Gundersen, NINA, has long research experience both within social and ecological fields, currently focusing mostly on visitor monitoring methods, nature conservation and management implications of human use of mountain areas. He is trained as forester, did a PhD in urban forestry in 2005, and much of his research is about people’s perception of forest environment, and adaptations of silviculture and management methods for urban woodlands.

Erik Andersson

About the Writer:
Erik Andersson

Erik Andersson works as associate professor in sustainability science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Enabling Efficient Urban Biodiversity Monitoring Through Modern Natural History and Citizen Science

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The juxtaposition of built urban areas and natural life has an artistic wonder about it.
The escalator that stretches from Victoria Harbour in central Hong Kong to the high-priced mid-levels neighborhood accommodates approximately 70,000 commuters daily. Surrounded by tall buildings, you would not at first glance expect to find much in the way of life other than never-ending humanity. However, even on this congested pathway on any given day you are likely to see red-whiskered bulbuls flying through under the rain shelter and over your head, geometrid moths resting upon the walls, sparkling green and black Graphium butterflies zooming between commuters, and of course everyone’s favorite rock pigeons who walk along blissfully on the ground at your feet (be careful not to trip over them).

A Graphium sarpedon stops to drink on a city street in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong. Photo: Timothy Bonebrake

This wealth of biodiversity presents an exciting opportunity when you have so many people in one place and so many species in that same place. Unlike a remote tropical forest where there are plenty of species but not many people to observe those species, the mobilization of the populace through citizen science in urban areas allows for the possibility of accurate and relatively comprehensive species and biodiversity monitoring.

There are now a diversity of platforms for recording such observations, one of the most common being iNaturalist, the app that I most frequently use. Unlike the days of old when you would record in a book what you might see on a given day, where somebody maybe someday might use that record, now you can record your observation, upload your photo, instantly have that observation verified by an expert, and make that record readily available for scientists or amateur naturalists alike. These citizen science approaches can scale up our biodiversity monitoring efforts spectacularly, and few ecosystems are better suited for it than urban landscapes by virtue of the numbers of potential recorders. For example, even if only 1 percent of the people who travel up the Hong Kong central escalator every day made a single observation, we would still have 700 daily biodiversity observations of species in that spot.

The community aspect of citizen science and the connecting of different stakeholders is of significant value. My colleague and moth expert, Dr. Roger Kendrick, set up the Hong Kong Moths iNaturalist project which has to date involved over 400 people in the recording of 1400 species and over 20,000 records. But importantly, anyone can upload their Hong Kong moth photo to the project page and Dr. Kendrick, the moth expert, can assist in the identification of the photo. And then I can (and have) use that data to understand possible changes in moth distributions in Hong Kong over time. And all the while there is an open dialogue and communication between scientists, naturalists, and even casual observers.

These social media efforts can be supplemented and powered by BioBlitzes and other biodiversity games or competitions. Racing to find as many species as you can in a day for a BioBlitz creates a teamwork like effort to achieve a goal. The recently held City Nature Challenge is a good example of a global scale competition where multiple cities compete for the trophy of most biodiverse city. Not only do people get into it and contribute lots of great species records, but there is a city pride that develops in such competitions. And this may encourage a sense of responsibility for monitoring, understanding, and conserving urban nature. Over 400,000 observations were made in the four days of the 2018 City Nature Challenge. More than 17000 people contributed and counted more than 18,000 species.

There are of course biases in such datasets. The more people there are in a city the more you will observe. My personal favorite example of this comes from Italy. It turns out, the number of ground beetle species observed by province correlates strongly with human population density—but this is largely driven record number, i.e., when the number of records is accounted for there is no such relationship (Barbosa et al. 2010). Thus for all urban biodiversity data, we must recognize the number of species seen in a city will be cumulative of both the sampling effort (number of citizen scientists) and the number of species. If you have many citizen scientists in a city of a few species, you will still only record those few species.

Red-shouldered hawk observed by the author on July 29, 2012, at the corner of Hyperion and Rowena (while the author was at the laundromat there), navigating through power lines, as recorded in iNaturalist ( Photo: Timothy Bonebrake

Citizen science will naturally tend towards taxa to which people are attracted. Birds, butterflies, and plants are all great in this respect. Microbes may not work so well (but maybe in the future?). And secretive or nocturnal species will be underreported as well.

Such biases in biodiversity data reflecting patterns associated with numbers of people may be a good thing concerning ecosystem services. To understand how urban species provide value to people you want data that is necessarily tied to the people observing it. So, for example, one could use citizen science-collected data to evaluate how much people enjoy butterflies in urban parks or even the extent to which people even notice the diversity of butterflies in parks. Well, such data would be biased in that urban parks not visited much by people would have few records… but one could still address the question of the value of urban butterflies to park visitors.

There is now a growing literature and framework for utilizing citizen data in urban biodiversity assessments (e.g., Wei et al. 2016, Aronson et al. 2017). BioBlitzes and iNaturalist, in particular, have been particularly useful; for example, in documenting the persistence of rare plant populations in Southern California (Parker et al. 2018). Understanding climate change impacts on biodiversity will certainly require better integration of citizen science records to understand both changes in species distributions or patterns and how people view those changes (Bonebrake et al. 2018).

Naturalists have for some time collected specimens and sent them off to a museum for prosperity. When Dan Cooper and I studied the butterflies of Griffith Park in Los Angeles (home to the Hollywood sign!), we used extensive collections from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles to document the historical butterfly community and compare it to the present (Bonebrake and Cooper 2014). These collections are invaluable, and we were able to document the extirpation of ten butterfly species from the park over the past century. When I surveyed the contemporary butterfly community, I didn’t collect any specimens because I prefer not to kill butterflies. But many of my observations are on iNaturalist so future ecologists can review these records if they wish. Of course, such online records can never replace specimens or museum records. You can’t do genetic tests on photos after all. And for how long records online will last is hard to say… just ask my friends on Friendster!

I often wonder what the future of these efforts will look like. How will technology continue to advance and support biodiversity monitoring and cities? I see drones all over Hong Kong these days. Could these potentially provide information about phenology or seasonal changes in vegetation, or even the diversity of species based on images taken from high above? As DNA sequencing becomes cheaper and available to the public, will this be the next step in advanced citizen science? In this case, maybe microbes could be monitored by citizen scientists. Or will it take a completely different shape? It’s hard to predict what these efforts will look like. When I joined iNaturalist six years ago, it was hard to imagine seeing over 8 million observations of over 150 thousand species by over 200 thousand citizen scientists. And yet here we are today!

There is a sublime beauty of a black kite casually soaring and careening through high rises and tall urban mazes. The juxtaposition of built urban areas and natural life has an artistic wonder about it. But more and more we are finding a practical use for such sights by meeting the challenge of biodiversity monitoring through technology and the use of citizen science.

Timothy C. Bonebrake
Hong Kong

On The Nature of Cities


Aronson, M. F., et al. (2017) Biodiversity in the city: key challenges for urban green space management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Barbosa, A. M., Fontaneto, D., Marini, L., & Pautasso, M. (2010) Is the human population a large‐scale indicator of the species richness of ground beetles? Animal Conservation, 13, 432-441.

Bonebrake, T. C., & Cooper, D. S. (2014) A Hollywood drama of butterfly extirpation and persistence over a century of urbanization. Journal of Insect Conservation, 18, 683-692.

Bonebrake, T. C., et al. (2018) Managing consequences of climate‐driven species redistribution requires integration of ecology, conservation and social science. Biological Reviews, 93, 284-305.

Parker, S. S., et al. (2018) Adapting the bioblitz to meet conservation needs. Conservation Biology

Wei, J. W., Lee, B. P. Y., & Wen, L. B. (2016) Citizen science and the urban ecology of birds and butterflies—a systematic review. PloS one, 11, e0156425.



Encountering “The Nature of Cities” through Tree Planting

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I have planted lots of trees around schools in Cape Town. Each experience has been profoundly different from the next, but there have been common threads running through each experience — muddy feet and hands; the strong stem of a young tree as I carry it from the bakkie to the planting site; the unwieldy mixing of compost and soil by a learner with less-than-practical spade techniques; the sound of the spade bashing the stake into the ground. And always the magical moment of pulling the tree out of the bag and placing it in the hole; the excitement which follows as the soil is firmed around the base of the tree and watering cans are filled, followed by the foamy mixture the water and soil form before sinking into the ground.

Photo: Kate Pallett ( )
Photo: Kate Pallett (
Photo: Kate Pallett ( )
Photo: Kate Pallett (

I work for a social enterprise called Greenpop, who plant trees in “under-greened” communities to create excitement and inclusivity in the environmental movement. We’re mostly based in the Western Cape, although we’ve run projects throughout South Africa and have a large satellite project in Zambia (a country with, surprisingly, one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. As someone who has encountered both the benefits and criticisms of urban tree planting, I’d like to argue that it’s an essential starting point for acknowledging cities as natural spaces: a simple yet largely missing philosophy amongst many city-dwellers. The time which I’ve spent planting trees over the last 9 months has inevitably resulted in encountering “the nature of cities”.

In a sense, the Nature of Cities blog is about this philosophy: all the writers know and acknowledge the importance of urban ecology and provide suggestions and examples of better integration of natural spaces with city spaces. But, as Pippin Anderson mentioned in her blog post on 13 February this year, “living with so much nature right in the heart of your city can be a challenging business”. Many of us — myself included — still largely think of Nature with a capital “N”, a separate and pristine wilderness aside from ourselves and our existence (this is especially notable in Cape Town, a city in the shadow of a looming national park of Table Mountain). In activating people towards a better, sustainable, more ecologically in-tune life, the first step is the breakdown of the misconception that nature is separate to us. I remember the first time I realised that buildings are made out of the earth. I remember it feeling like an epiphany, a real discovery; and then I remember being puzzled as to why I didn’t think of it before: it’s so obvious!

The “obvious”, inseparable connection between humans and nature is surprisingly not realised by lots of people. We have centuries of civilisation telling us that we’re above it — not to mention the enlightenment legacy of the separation of Nature vs Culture, which we still find hard to dispute, even in academia. As a result, “nature” itself has been marginalised, separated and placed in another realm — one which is “removed” from everyday citizens. In trying to break down these beliefs, it’s important to remember that there are multiple political, historical factors tied to them. How on earth can we separate them?

Photo: Kate Pallett ( )
Photo: Kate Pallett (

Tree planting itself has long been a symbolic act of caring for the environment — from over 140 years ago, in 1872, when the first “arbour day” was held in Nebraska, to generic images of politicians with a golden spade, sprinkling some soil around a newly planted tree. In some senses, tree planting could reify the divide between ourselves and nature, if it’s done in a purely symbolic way (for example, with a golden spade). However, given the benefits of trees in an objective sense, and the fact that many corporate “greening” initiatives consider tree planting of paramount importance, I think that tree planting provides an extremely important opportunity: a space to value “nature”, and, more importantly, connect with it.

The key point here is making sure that it is done correctly.

There is also no doubt that when planted correctly, trees improve soil quality, provide oxygen, increase biodiversity and provide fruit and other valuable resources. Similarly in a less scientific light, trees have an enormous aesthetic and social impact, providing shade, offer hiding places and climbing obstacles for children. As Russel Galt mentioned in his September 1 blog post, trees can provide a unique historical perspective in a city, which point to the space’s cultural landscape and tell stories about times past. Anyone who has been to Cape Town and driven through Bishop’s Court — covered in large, majestic trees — followed by the barren landscape of Mitchell’s Plain, will agree that trees point to specific incidents in South Africa’s historical map.

Greenpop logo -longAt Greenpop, we focus on planting trees in areas where they’re needed most — in historically marginalised and deforested areas. We utilise a lot of support and funding from corporate ventures who are likely to view tree planting in the “old” sense: symbolic, so to say. However, and as I mentioned above, when a tree planting session is facilitated correctly, participants can avoid the problematic symbolic elements which further separate ourselves from nature. Instead, there is a magic that happens: a starting point in a future of possibilities for both our funders and beneficiaries alike.

Photo: Kate Pallett ( )
Photo: Kate Pallett (

We recently planted trees at a crèche in Khayelitsha — a marginalised area from the Cape Town city bowl both spatially and economically. We were planting with a medium sized group: a young actor who lived on the crèche property, community members from Khayelitsha, school children, our team, and a group of people from the office of a wine merchant in Cape Town (who were sponsoring the trees). A motley crew indeed, some gathered in a space familiar to them, for others it was particularly foreign. As always happens at the start of a planting day, the groups were split at first; everyone huddled into their own familiarity. To most of us, the space was defined already: we were in a township, a densely populated area far away from the city centre.

But planting a tree facilitates that moment when we put away our preconceptions of a space and become humble enough to interact with the earth. As a group we mingled, learnt how to plant trees and, most majestically, spent a lot of time planting trees. We were connecting with nature more than we were connecting with a township. As we used our hands to mix soil, placed a tree in the ground and covered it, as we smelled the water and soil mixing and as we encountered the textures of the soil underneath the grass, we became part of the earth.

Photo: Kate Pallett ( )
Photo: Kate Pallett (

I believe strongly that tree planting is an essential starting point for acknowledging the city as a primarily natural space; an important step in losing the disconnect between nature and ourselves. Trees are a valuable contribution to urban spaces, especially lower income ones, if they’re planted responsibly and appropriately. If facilitated correctly, tree planting can be a starting point in acknowledging ourselves as part of the earth and engaging with our will to protect it.

Kate Pallett
Cape Town

On The Nature of Cities

Encountering the Urban Forest

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

For all the critical scholarship that is written about the harnessing of volunteer labor in caring for urban trees (see, e.g., Perkins 2009), it never squared with my experience of engaging in stewardship. Following attendance at a human geography panel on ‘powerful objects’, I came to realize that my leisure practices were missing from my research accounts. I was writing myself out of the story, focusing only on the managerial logics of the state and civil society and the biophysical capacities and needs of the trees (Campbell 2014). The missing piece was the interactions of humans with trees, and what better way to explore those than through my own, first-hand accounts?

Inspired by Jones (2014) and Pearce et al. (2015) (see the reference below), I’ll share three stories of my engagements with street trees and reforestation sites to explore affective experiences between me and the trees. I believe that these vignettes offer windows into why and how we create and maintain relations of care with the urban forest.

Encounter 1: Street trees

Though I have worked for the US Forest Service in New York City since 2002, I had never taken part in street tree care. In the past, my colleagues and I used to joke that—despite working in the world of urban natural resource management—street trees made us sleepy. We felt they were too confined, like little toy soldiers, so neatly in their tree pits, standing in linear rows. We were interested in more open spaces—both physically and from a governance perspective—so we studied the conversion of lots to community gardens, the re-appropriation of public space for community memorials, and the restoration of contaminated urban waterways through civic action (Campbell 2006; Campbell and Wiesen 2009; Svendsen and Campbell 2010). But street trees remain the primary focus for many of our researcher and manager colleagues: they are the “stars” of the urban forestry show. These are the sites of quantification and valuation and of carefully constructed managerial practices. My only substantive prior involvement with them was in a research project on young street tree mortality (Lu et al. 2010), but I had never interacted with a street tree as a steward.

Red Hook street tree. Photo: Lindsay Campbell
Red Hook street tree. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

This changed in the spring of 2014, when a new tree appeared in the sidewalk outside the door to my apartment, courtesy of the NYC Parks Department and the MillionTreesNYC campaign. I did not request this tree via 311 (the New York City government’s service request number), nor did I know who did, but I suddenly felt excitement, ownership, and a sense of possibility. Here was my chance! To DO some of things I sat around yammering about in MillionTreesNYC Advisory Committee meetings or painstakingly studying for my dissertation. I didn’t have a yard, or a roof garden, and my prior community garden plot (in a privately owned, unlicensed site) had been overrun three times—first by mosquitoes, then by the cantankerous landowner, then by Hurricane Sandy. So I had no growing space. My partner, Ricardo, and I eagerly jumped at the chance to “adopt” this tree, writing out names on the tag attached to the trunk of this “wireless Zelkova”—so named because it was bred to perform well in the context of overhead utility wires, which few neighborhoods in New York City have, but which are prominent in my waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Our first step was to build a tree “guard”—essentially a frame around the 9 x 5 foot tree pit—that would both protect the tree and aesthetically demarcate our garden bed. I queried my artist friends for ideas about how to build a funky guard out of found maritime objects, signaling the waterfront connection of my neighborhood and reusing waste. But I am neither an artist nor a very good scavenger, so ultimately this involved a dreaded trip to Lowes hardware store. About $100 later, we had our lumber (FSC certified and sustainable), stakes, fasteners, and a few plants. (Some perennials, a few annuals just to get us started. From where? Who knows?). It is not lost on me that if you add up the ‘board feet’ of lumber surrounding the tree in the guard and the supportive stakes helping the young tree to get started, our little street tree’s volume of wood is dwarfed by the wood we use to protect it.

When we were outside building the guard, our downstairs neighbor came upon us with a perplexed look. She wanted to know if we had gotten permission to care for the tree. I proudly proclaimed that the tree was in the public right of way (PROW) and that the city wants us to care for trees. Ricardo silently pointed to our names on the Adopt-a-Tree tag, noting the tacit legitimacy that it gave us. I suddenly personally understood the sense of the PROW as a ‘grey area’, particularly for renters in a multi-unit building (see Rae et al. 2010). To whom did the tree “belong”? What really gave us the right to claim it? Our labor? Our capital expense? Calling ‘dibs’ on a tree tag? Once we put our meager plants in, I was shocked at how much space remained in the bed. I would have happily joined with other neighbors in planting out the garden bed a little more fully, but the rectangle did feel like a single serving size garden. The neighbor never inquired again, and the tree seemed to be “ours”.

Tree with guard and plantings. Photo: Lindsay Campbell
Tree with guard and plantings. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

As our attachment deepened, we began to anthropomorphize tree a bit. We named it (uncreatively) “Tree” and talked about it like our adoptive child. As recently cohabiting, childless partners, we were joking—but only sort of. We don’t have pets. We try to keep the houseplants alive. Tree came next. Most of the work involved lugging 10 gallon buckets of water down three flights of stairs. I kept urging Ricardo to befriend our downstairs bodega guys, to ask if we could use their sink or hose hook up, but I was too nervous to ask myself. Even though I shopped there nearly daily and said my polite hellos, the whole street corner life/Jane Jacobs/social cohesion thing is a lot harder to enact in real life than it is to just read about and coo over—especially when it involves asking a favor of someone. So, instead, we lugged the buckets up and down the stairs, trying our best to meet the recommended 20 gallons of water per week in the summer, but usually not making it, and using the degree of desiccation of our marigolds as a marker for when we really needed to water.

Eventually we experienced setbacks. As someone exited their car and knocked their car door against the tree guard, they ripped out one whole side of our guard. We dutifully repaired it. This happened again a few weeks later and then Ricardo and I were really crestfallen. But when we returned from work, someone else had repaired the guard. While we are pretty sure it was our building super who was constructing a new trash shed, we preferred to think of it as some anonymous Good Samaritan. More generally, I was worried about the structural soundness of the guard overall. Looking at the completed work, it looked strikingly like a playground balance beam and was just crying out to be walked, stood, or balanced upon. Though I never witnessed it happening at our tree, I’d see this throughout the neighborhood on other tree guard sites. 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. Further, my former roommate was dog-sitting and he informed me that “Ginger just loves the new bathroom outside!” Horrified, I explained that the dog urine was bad for the tree and our little plants, and he really should curb her. Yet, when I helped out by walking Ginger one day, I couldn’t bring myself to stop her from crouching on the bit of available dirt that she scurried to—it just felt like she had to scratch her feet in the dirt, and making her crouch on the concrete didn’t respect her dog-hood. But, I still didn’t let her use our tree. So we made a sign: “Please keep tree healthy—no butts or mutts.”

The big setback came on a fall morning in 2014 when I was awoken to the sound of jack hammers. As I left for work, I opened the door to see three of my building owner’s contractors operating a bobcat, tearing out the sidewalk. The tree guard was ripped out, Tree’s dirt was splayed about, and chunks of concrete mounded on the corner. Ricardo asked the workers to replace the guard when their work on the sidewalk was done, and they assured us they would.

A few days and one angry email to my landlord later, the guard was indeed restored. We breathed a sigh of relief: Tree was safe and protected—for now.

Encounter 2: Reforestation sites

Planting Trees 

I headed out to Alley Pond Park in northeastern Queens, NY on a spring day in 2013 for my first urban afforestation planting experience. I knew Alley Pond from my work as being one of the sites that the NYC Parks Department natural resource folks were most proud of—closed canopy, tall trees, wide mulch and dirt paths—you really get the feeling of the forest in Alley Pond. But like so many of New York City’s ‘natural areas’, it is highly patchy and variable across space, criss-crossed and subdivided by a spaghetti of deep-Queens major roadways—the Cross Island Parkway, the Grand Central Parkway, and the Long Island Expressway.

Alley Pond Park Trails. Photo: Sadia Butt

The corner of Alley Pond that we approached that day in which to ‘plant a forest’ was unfamiliar to me, and didn’t look much like the soaring, large canopy trees I’d seen in other sections. It was just a wide open, slightly sloping field, pockmarked with hundreds of holes and young trees at the ready. As I set to work, it felt so satisfying to fill the holes, nestling each tree comfortably in its spot, and moving on to the next, like crossing off an item in a to-do list, or fitting in a puzzle piece.

But what I noticed more than the site that day, or even interacting with the trees, were the social dynamics at work. The first thing I felt was the energy and enthusiasm of the staff. They knew how to treat us right—a quick entry sign-in, free breakfast, coffee, garden gloves, ample tools, quick demo, and off you go! Ricardo and I got into quite a rhythm. We didn’t really talk to others while we were working—there was work to do.

photo (9)
Alley Pond Afforestation site. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

We hadn’t come with a big corporate group—we lacked the matching hats or tee shirts that immediately identified those folks. But as our backs tired and we slowed down, I lifted my head up from the dirt and saw friends, co-workers, and their children. It was a great equalizer between my colleague’s seven year old son, me, and the Deputy Commissioner of the Parks Department. The suits were off, it felt familial and easy. Eating my box lunch in the sun, sitting on the ground, talking to other tree planters was probably my favorite part of the day.

The author planting trees.

Stewarding Trees

As the MillionTreesNYC campaign began to wrap up in fall 2014, the Parks Department organized large-scale stewardship days along with planting days. So, I returned to (yet another section of) Alley Pond Park in Queens to see what it was like to steward a young forest. We were greeted with some granola bars, work gloves, and told to wait. A bit less scripted than the mass plantings, this was a smaller site with a few dozen people and one BIG pile of mulch. We were sent out in groups of around ten, and those of us stragglers that came without a team or group (like Ricardo and me) had to wait for a sufficient posse to be sent out. I have to say this made me feel a little orphaned. We watched patiently as four tiny girl scouts pushed a wheelbarrow that one of us could have handled. At points, there were not enough buckets for everyone to have one. Like so many volunteer experiences, the point here was not efficiency of labor; it was about inclusion, intention, fun, and engagement. Still, I wanted to feel useful.

NYC Parks employee showing how to mulch a tree. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

When it was our turn to go, we got a pep talk about how “planting trees is just the beginning;” Parks workers demonstrated how to properly mulch a young tree by making a donut around it. The point of this mulch was less to enhance the soil and more to help keep out weeds and give the young native tree a fighting chance against the vines, Ailanthus, and other invasives surrounding it. They didn’t expressly instruct us to pull weeds, but pull we did. Even with the gloves, I gave myself callouses from pulling so many weeds. Ricardo wrenched his back doing battle against an Ailanthus root. While I could sit in a conference room and debate novel ecosystems and the language of native versus invasive, when I was here—in the field—I was pulling out those invasives, for sure. My colleague, who has much stronger ecology chops than I do, couldn’t help but comment on the possible futility of the effort—all while she, too, was pulling weeds. Those Ailanthus trees would return. Maybe it was futile, but it was fun. It felt like we were doing good. But looking around the site, she noted the proximity to a wetland, and wondered whether these young oaks even ‘belonged’ in this site. Perhaps other species of grasses and bushes would have been more appropriate?

Ricardo stewarding trees. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

Once we cleaned out vines and weeds, we noted how far away the site was from the desired goal of ‘closing the canopy’. Talking with one of the Park workers, he mentioned that he thought it was one of the forest research sites, which meant that managers weren’t going in and planting additional trees, but were letting the forest competition play out—while still holding stewardship events like ours. I realized that—if he was right—I was the embodiment of a variable in the experimental forest plot treatments (mulch / no mulch) that some of my ecology colleagues were involved in running. We would have to wait decades for this experiment to unfold before we knew the outcomes of different treatments. Did it make sense to plant a forest in this site? Would it even work? The managers and stewards working on the site have to take these future outcomes as uncertain—as leaps of faith.

Young forest at Alley Pond Park. Photo: Lindsay Campbell

As before, the day concluded with box lunches, which we consumed while sitting on our overturned mulch buckets. Surrounded by a few dozen other New Yorkers, we chatted about the challenges of growing a forest in the city. And we went home that afternoon to plant fall bulbs around our own beloved Tree.

Concluding thoughts

By placing myself more centrally in these accounts, I present a ‘situated science’ approach to the subject of the urban forest (see Haraway 1991). Paying attention to social context, emotional ties, and affective registers tells a different tale than a remotely sensed, infrared image of urban tree canopy or the quantified accounting of ecosystem services provided by trees. These human-tree connections that we build require different methodological tools to uncover and certainly require a different understanding of what constitutes a research account. But I believe that sharing these stories helps move us towards a fuller understanding of why we create and maintain urban forests.

My relations with urban trees are complex. They are mediated by my needs, assumptions, and values. As these relations move beyond the conceptual and intellectual realms and into the physical and embodied, some of my assumptions have begun to shift:

Taking care of street trees isn’t as easy as I thought. Barriers like access to power tools and water sources are not trivial. Still, I’m willing to overcome these obstacles slowly, imperfectly, and over time. I don’t have a green thumb, I’ll learn through trial and error over the seasons as the tree and I grow together. Over the past year or so, the 45 square foot patch of land where my street tree is planted has come to occupy a much larger space in my mind and heart. I care for Tree, I fawn over Tree. I feel pride when I plant some new native grasses, I feel defensive when I swat off the squirrels. I feel angry when people litter or break the guard. I feel worried about whether Tree will make it through this brutal winter, as big drifts of snow mound up over the guard. I never could have predicted how much time and effort I would expend caring for Tree. But, I am also surprised by all that I have gotten in return from developing a real attachment to a piece of ground and caring for an organism situated within it.

On reforestation sites, I was surprised to learn that I like working hard, for free, on behalf of an effort greater than myself. I’ve come to understand why so many of the volunteer tree planters became repeat attendees, as my colleagues have shown in their work on the links between tree planting and civic engagement (Fisher et al. 2011, 2015). Even though the MillionTreesNYC campaign wasn’t originally conceived with a community forestry ethos, these volunteer events had evolved that way. The tree became the widget to bring people together. What mattered was what surrounded those trees: all of us.

The question remains, then, how can we build bridges between these emotional experiences and our management practices? How can we scale up from individual experiences that are deep but uneven across the population (dedicated street tree stewards) or far-reaching but isolated in time and space (one-time reforestation volunteer events)? How can we cultivate attachment and stewardship but also allow attachment to inform management, decision-making, and priority-setting? What would it look like to grow a forest that is rooted in these community relations all along the way? How can we truly honor relations of care between humans and trees and set ourselves up to create more of these experiences throughout the cycle of creating and maintaining an urban forest—from site selection, to material sourcing, to installation, to maintenance, to removal and reuse?

Lindsay K. Campbell
New York

On The Nature of Cities

Works Cited

Campbell, Lindsay K. 2014. “Constructing New York City’s urban forest: The politics and governance of the MillionTreesNYC campaign.” in Urban Forests, Trees, and Green Space: A Political Ecology. L. Anders Sandberg, Adrina Bardekjian, and Sadia Butt, Eds. Routledge Press, pp. 242-260.

—. 2006. Civil Society Strategies on Urban Waterways: Stewardship, Contention and Coalition Building. Master of City Planning Thesis. Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 169 p.

Campbell, Lindsay and Anne Wiesen, Eds. 2009. Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being through Urban Landscapes. General Technical Report. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

Fisher, Dana L.; Connolly, James J.; Svendsen, Erika S.; and Lindsay K. Campbell. 2011. Digging Together: Why people volunteer to help plant one million trees in New York City. Environmental Stewardship Project at the Center for Society and Environment of the University of Maryland White Paper #2. 36 p. Available online here.

Fisher, Dana R., Svendsen, Erika S., and Connolly, James. 2015. Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How planting trees strengthens the roots of democracy. New York: Routledge Explorations in Environmental Studies.

Haraway, D. 1991. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Owain. 2014. “(Urban) Places of Trees: Affective Embodiment, Politics, Identity, and Materiality” in Urban Forests, Trees, and Green Space: A Political Ecology. L. Anders Sandberg, Adrina Bardekjian, and Sadia Butt, Eds. Routledge Press, pp. 111-131.

Lu, Jacqueline W.T. , Svendsen, Erika S., Campbell, Lindsay K., Greenfeld, Jennifer, Braden, Jessie, King, Kristy. 2010. “Biological, social, and neighborhood design factors in young street tree mortality in New York City.” Cities and the Environment.

Pearce, L. M., Davison, a., & Kirkpatrick, J. B. (2015). Personal encounters with trees: The lived significance of the private urban forest. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14(1), 1–7.

Perkins, H. A. (2009). Out from the (Green) shadow? Neoliberal hegemony through the market logic of shared urban environmental governance. Political Geography, 28(7), 395–405.

Rae, Ruth A., Simon, G. and J. Braden. 2010. “Public reactions to new street tree planting.” Cities and The Environment 3(1):article 10. 21 pp 

Svendsen, Erika S. and Lindsay K. Campbell. 2010. “Living Memorials: Understanding the social meanings of community-based memorials to September 11, 2001.” Environment and Behavior, 42: 318-334.

Enforcing Good Corporate Governance in Disaster Risk Management is a Must

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

In a recent essay on TNOC regarding urban inequality, I spoke about the need to address inequality in exposure and vulnerability of urban populations to risk as a necessary condition to reducing urban inequality in general, including inequality in the access to basic services.

It is not sufficient to blame lack of progress on weak governance practices…the scrutiny, and guidelines, must extend to corporate and aid-agency practices.

I would like to expand on this idea by underlining the need for good governance in order to reduce urban inequality. When talking about good governance, attention is often directed, legitimately, at addressing governance deficits at the urban, local, and national levels. Notwithstanding the importance of the above, we also need to examine governance deficits at the corporate and international levels.

Relieving urban inequality in exposure and vulnerability to disasters requires good corporate governance

For example, in many cities in the “developing” world that suffer from weak national and urban governance, the United Nations and other international aid agencies often employ the help of international consulting companies to develop urban master plans for Disaster Risk Management (or DRM) and resilience. However, these master plans often end up not being implemented because the best practices and good governance principles reflected within them challenge vested interests at the local and national levels. This often puts pressure on consultancies and aid agencies to align the recommendations with local authorities’ interests, while keeping contradictions with best practices to a minimum. Although this compromise meets the immediate “shareholder interests” of consultancies and aid agencies, it does not necessarily reflect the “stakeholders’ interests”, where the latter actually means the urban populations living in the city under consideration.

In order to rationalize this compromise, and perhaps even trade-offs between shareholders’ and stakeholders’ interests, we need to develop good risk governance principles and guidelines for corporate risk governance. Indeed, it is not sufficient to blame lack of progress on weak governance practices at the local and national level. The scrutiny, and guidelines, must extend to corporate and aid-agency practices. The remainder of this essay provide examples of what these guidelines may contain.

Methodology for examining governance deficits

Before we develop guidelines and assessments for corporate good governance, we need to examine the existing tools that are available for analysing governance—and risk governance in particular—and apply these to the analysis of risk governance deficits at the urban level. Two available tools are the risk governance framework and associated risk governance deficits developed by the International Risk Governance Council.

In an earlier essay on urban risk, I identified risk governance gaps under relevant risk management guidelines, including: institutional, science-policy interface, risk pre-assessment, technical and societal risk appraisal, risk evaluation, risk reduction, data loss collation and analysis practices, recovery, etc. In this essay, the aim is to elaborate the above analysis and identify potential governance deficits and pitfalls at the corporate consultancy level, and then identify the required type of guidance and guidelines in order to avoid these pitfalls.

Case 1: Decision making process to upgrade poor urban neighborhoods against disaster risk

  • Description of Intervention: Often during urban DRM projects, a decision needs to be taken on whether to update poor neighborhoods with weak infrastructure and old housing. In some instances, this is dismissed as not being feasible or cost effective, without giving due consideration to international best practices and lessons learnt from various interventions.
  • Risk governance deficits:
    • (i) extensive risk (low intensity and high frequency), such as annual flash-floods and storms, are ignored and effort is directed at intensive risk (high intensity and low frequency), thereby automatically disadvantaging poorer neighborhoods, which disproportionately suffer from extensive risk;
    • (ii) the benefits of saving lives is not accounted for in cost-benefit analysis, thereby automatically favoring richer neighborhoods, which have a concentration of newer infrastructure, assets, and investments;
    • (iii) investments in the reduction of damages against extensive risk, usually in poorer neighborhoods with older infrastructure and housing stocks, is not considered, even though worldwide evidence shows this is cost-effective;
    • (iv) disaster losses due to extensive risk are not estimated, albeit qualitatively, to make a case for investments;
    • (v) financial needs and potential sources of funding from both the public and private sector are not assessed prior to dismissing the option of reducing existing risk in poorer neighborhoods; and
    • (vi) multi-year implementation programs are not developed based on financial needs and available sources of funding.
Proportion of infrastructure damage in extensive and intensive disasters in 56 countries and 2 Indian States, between 1970 and 2011. From Figure 5, Page 10. Source:
Proportion of fatalities from extensive and intensive risks in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), Asia and USA, Figures 3 and 4, Background Paper to GAR 2011, Extensive and Intensive risk in the USA: a comparative with developing economies, J Serge, 2010. Source:

Case 2: Upgrading of coastal urban neighborhoods against tsunami risk

  • Description of Intervention: Coastal neighborhoods facing tsunami threats have various options for improving their preparedness against tsunamis. These options, ranging from physical defenses to early warning systems and evacuation plans, can be adopted individually, or in combination. The eventual decision does not always ensure that the most vulnerable communities and households will benefit from the interventions.
  • Risk governance deficits:
    • (i) evacuation plans do not account for the needs and capacities of the population, and how they vary with age, sex, ability, health situation, and general socio-economic conditions;
    • (ii) early warning systems do not reach the most vulnerable communities;
    • (iii) evacuation and response plans are neither based on, nor informed by, multi-hazard risk assessments;
    • (iv) Investments in tsunami physical defenses are not compared against, or coupled with, early warning systems and response and evacuation plans; and
    • (v) investments in tsunami physical defenses are not compared against, or coupled with, a cost-benefit perspective against investments in reducing extensive risk.

Case 3: Urban master plans against disaster risk

  • Description of Intervention: Usually, large international consultancies develop master plans for local authorities for general resilience building and /or for mono-hazard management (e.g. earthquake master plans).
  • Risk governance deficits:
    • (i) consultants are not sufficiently informed by existing socio-economic constraints, challenges, and opportunities, as identified by various studies;
    • (ii) analysis is not sufficiently informed by disaster loss data;
    • (iii) method of analysis was originally developed for advanced countries and assumes the availability of accurate spatially and socio-economically dis-aggregated data. Effort is not sufficiently directed at tailoring the prospective plan to the current level of data;
    • (iv). the large degree of uncertainty in hazard frequency and intensity, and in its impact due to the lack of data, does not trigger a recommendation for a more participatory approach, specifically to address the large degree of uncertainty;
    • (v) the recommendations are not sufficiently informed by the current science policy interface, and as such will not lead to an improvement in this interface; and
    • (vi) financial, governance, and sustainability challenges in implementation are not sufficiently accounted for.

A way forward

DRM and resilience practitioners need to develop guidance for improving risk governance at each of the stages of the risk governance framework. The guidance will only be meaningful if its implementation by consultancies is adopted by independent bodies to safeguard the interests of the stakeholders. The guidelines can take the form of a checklist, which facilitates auditing by external civil society bodies and networks. An example is provided below on a typical checklist to be used during the Risk Pre-Assessment Stage; a concerted effort is required to produce checklists during all stages of the decision making process.

Checklist for auditing risk governance Stage 1: Risk Pre-Assessment

During the risk pre-assessment stage, the following decisions are usually made:

  1. The scope of the risks that will be studied is determined.
  2. The methodology to be used in the analysis will be determined.
  3. The scope of interventions (ranging from risk prevention to risk mitigation to response and recovery).
  4. The degree of participation in the risk management methodology and its relationship to the degree of uncertainty in hazard and risk data is determined.
  5. The interaction between poverty and poverty reduction, and disaster risk and extensive disaster risk losses, in particular, is accounted for.
  6. International best practices and guidelines that may be useful and should be considered are laid out.

The following checklist is useful to audit the decisions regarding the above points.

  • Has extensive risk been identified as part of the risks to be considered in the scope of risks? If not, has a justification been provided?
  • Has the science-policy interface been assessed and has the result of this assessment informed the methodology to be used?
  • Has risk reduction been considered as a possibility to be considered, subject to its feasibility?
  • Has participation been identified as a tool to be increasingly used as the degree of uncertainty increases?
  • Does the methodology aim to account for the interaction between disaster risk losses and poverty?

Fadi Hamdan

On The Nature of Cities

Environmental Education and Advancing Urbanization

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Cities—their design and how we live in them—will be key in our struggle for sustainability and, indeed, our future. As cities grow, as they are newly created, and as more and more people choose or require them as places to live, our decisions about urban design and city-building will determine the outcomes of long-term challenges related to resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice. Rather than being the essential cause of the global environmental dangers we face, cities will be central to success in overcoming these dangers. Such success will be based on science and policy, but also on widespread public engagement with and understanding of both the challenges and the potential solutions found in building cities. Environmental education can play a critical role in fostering public engagement, through clarifying and transmitting the challenges, values, actions, and methods of sustainable, resilient, livable, and just cities.

There is a key and essential role—advancing progressive urban environmental ideas in a global context—for an emerging urban environmental education.

What is urban?

At their core, urban spaces are human settlements of various sizes, densities, and physical arrangements. Megacities, cities, towns, and even organized collections of populated zones that comprise metropolitan regions are “urban”—that is, urban comprises a diversity and continuum of types of spaces, not one form. The dense and compact European city is one form, surrounded by rural land. Classic American cities and their sprawl is another model. Garden cities, clustered townships, and other urban forms all have characteristics in common.

To see more chapters from the book, click here.
What are the unifying features of these diverse urban forms? People—and their communities—represent one unifying feature. Buildings, streets, and other grey infrastructure comprise another. And nature is a third. By including nature as a key characteristic of cities, we do not mean nature as an idealized or hoped-for feature. Nature is an attribute of every city, both within its borders and as a connection to a wider landscape, because while cities are social and infrastructural spaces, they are also ecological spaces. They are social-ecological spaces of functioning ecosystems of living things and physical spaces. In this sense, cities are essential human habitat.

Acknowledging that cities are ecosystems in and of themselves, that exist along gradients with surrounding peri-urban and rural areas, has deep implications for the nature of both global sustainability and the essential humanity and livability of the world’s urban zones. Urbanization is advancing throughout the world. Urbanization as a positive concept for the good of the Earth is also advancing around the world among thoughtful scholars, within progressive city leadership, and in the hands of people on the streets who are building better cities, block by block, through community gardens, street tree plantings, parks and embedded natural areas, and participatory decision-making. Telling the story of this advancement is an essential role for an emerging urban environmental education.

The growth of cities

The world is increasingly urban, interconnected, and changing. With current trends, by 2030 the global urban population is estimated to be 4.9 billion, nearly double that of 2000. During this period, the total urban area is expected to triple. That is, urban land area is expanding faster than urban populations (Elmqvist et al., 2013). This massive change in where humans live on the planet will have inevitable local and global ecological consequences.

Indeed, more than 60 percent of 2030’s projected urban area has yet to be built (Elmqvist et al., 2013). In three areas—sub-Saharan Africa, China, and India—the combined urban population is expected to grow by more than 1 billion people. By 2030, nearly one-third of the world’s urban inhabitants will live in China or India (Seto, Güneralp, and Hutyra, 2012). Africa will urbanize faster than any other continent: its urban population is expected to more than double, from 300 million in 2000 to 750 million in 2030. Around 75 percent of Africa’s total population growth is expected to occur in cities of less than 1 million. African cities are often settlements with weak governance structures, high levels of poverty, and low capacity in environmental science. Currently, more than 43 percent of Africa’s urban population lives below the poverty line, more than in any other continent, making socioeconomic development a priority. Generally weak state control, the presence of a feeble formal economic sector, and the scarcity of local professional skills will constrain responses to the complex environmental challenges posed by rapid urbanization. Even under current conditions, urban areas all over the planet are facing severe challenges, including shortages of natural resources; environmental degradation; climate change; demographic and social changes, such as increasing income inequality and poverty; and inconsistent management of sustainability transitions that would reduce ecological impacts.

Climate change, increased migration of people, and ecological degradation will severely test societies and urban regions. However, there are also opportunities in the urbanization process. That 60 percent of 2030s cities are yet to be built is a chance to avoid repeating the city-building mistakes of the past. The infrastructure we build in cities—where we put the roads and the buildings, and how we organize resource use—tends to be with us a long time. The immensity of new building now underway is a chance to get it right, for both people and nature.

Rocinha ("little farm", due to its agricultural vocation until the mid 20th century), located in the rich southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, is considered one of the most populous favelas in Brazil. Most of its 70,000 inhabitants live in houses made from concrete and brick and have access to basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. The neighborhood has a vibrant local economy. Source:
Rocinha, located in the rich southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, is one of the most populous favelas in Brazil. The neighborhood has a vibrant local economy. Source:


What are the cities we want to create in the future, the cities in which we want to live, that work for both people and the Earth? What is their nature? A vision is needed for city-building, one that is fundamentally built upon goals and informed by values. Visions, goals, and values, along with facts that justify them, are the essence of education, including environmental education.

Certainly, the cities we need are sustainable, since we need our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. Certainly, they are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next “100-year storm”, now due every few years. As we build this vision, we know that cities must also be livable, because cities are now the places where most of us live. And justice must also be key to our urban environments. We have struggled with just cities for a long time; largely, we have come up short.

These are the key characteristics of the cities of our dreams: resilient, sustainable, livable, and just. What are the values that are foundations for these goals? They are, at a minimum, inclusiveness, equity, respect for people and knowledge, innovation, and conservation.

The United Nation’s Urban Sustainable Development Goals offer some guidance—a global consensus on what is important (United Nations, 2015). Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, approved in 2015, there is one explicitly about cities, #11: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” The goal offers a roadmap to the operational values we should investigate, appropriate, and teach in the emerging urban world, including targets for abundant open space, sustainable environmental management, and access to nature and its myriad benefits and services. At the center of Sustainable Development Goal #11 and our general approach to cities, explicitly and implicitly, is nature, both as a literal feature of the cities we require for resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice, and as a metaphor for the kinds of cities we desire.

The richness of the urban environment

Why should we care about the impacts of urbanization on ecosystems? In addition to the intrinsic value of nature, urban ecosystems are essential for human well-being, and, ultimately, for urban resilience and sustainability. Because urban nature has explicit benefits, its availability to all people is a matter of justice.

The environmental consequences of the rapid growth of cities—especially poorly designed and operated ones—is starkly apparent. Urban expansion has degraded and destroyed natural habitats in and around cities worldwide, transforming forests, coastal mangroves, lakes, and wetlands into polluted travesties of their former ecological vigor, converting them into vast expanses of concrete.

Yet, cities are far from barren. Many contain rich, thriving pockets of biodiversity with high native and non-native (novel) species assemblages (Faeth, Bang and Saari, 2014). Such assemblages of urban species and habitats provide a range of important ecosystem services that are critical for the sustainability and for the life of cities. Wetlands clean water contaminated with industrial pollutants and sewage; trees may clean the air of pollutants. Urban ecosystems provide important habitats for insects, birds, bats, other pollinators and other urban wildlife, and constitute important centers for cultural and recreational activities. It is a rare city resident who prefers to exercise on a crowded city pavement than in an urban park or along an urban stream. Exposure to green spaces provides well-being and psychological relief from urban stress. Parks, lakes, and coastal beaches act as important nodes of congregation, strengthening social bonds between disparate urban residents.

Cities are often rich with biodiversity (Aronson et al., 2014). Because cities are commonly located near rivers and oceans, many are biodiversity hotspots in their own right. Cities can be key stopovers along migratory routes. Ecosystems often hold an important place in the cultural landscape of residents, and are sometimes considered sacred and worshipped in parts of the world such as Asia and Africa. Researchers in New York City find ample evidence of care, stewardship, and spiritual practice in the natural areas and parks of New York City, among immigrants and other residents (Svendsen, Campbell and McMillen, 2016). Urban ecosystems also provide resources for foraging in many cities, offering food and livelihood security for vulnerable communities through the provision of fish, food, fodder, fuelwood, and other resources. Many urban ecosystems historically functioned as urban commons, providing collective resources for entire communities in times of scarcity and need.

That cities have dire environmental and biodiversity challenges is certainly true. That they are ecologically dead, or are the causes of all the world’s environmental problems is false. Urban ecosystems encompass a diversity of types of spaces. In addition to big natural areas that we commonly discuss—city and national parks—urban green spaces encompass a wide continuum of micro to macro spaces, from wetlands and bioswales, to street trees, pocket parks, and community gardens, and even to biophilic workspaces. There is an equivalent diversity of people and communities working in and interacting with nature, from the informal (e.g., communities, civic groups, and activists) to the formal (e.g., state and corporate players) (Kazemi, Beecham and Gibbs, 2011; Beninde, Veith and Hochkirch, 2015).

Urban ecosystems play key social and ecological roles in shaping the quality of human lives, providing a buffer against local and global environmental factors such as pollution and climate change, increasing the economic and food security of the urban poor, and improving health and physical and psychological wellbeing. Green urban spaces are key to global sustainability, and need to be recognized as positive forces in shaping a better stewardship of the entire biosphere (Elmqvist et al., 2013).

Yet many cities are experiencing a crisis of green and open space, especially in the Global South. The lack of accessible green and open space contributes to desperately poor conditions for both people and nature (Wolch, Byrne and Newell, 2014). Thus, having sufficient access to good quality urban green space is an issue of ecological and social concern, impacting quality of life and social justice.

The author leading a field trip in an urban wetland. Photo by Hara Woltz.
Matt Palmer leading a field trip in an urban wetland in New York City. Photo by Hara Woltz.

Awareness fosters care

In a world of advancing urbanization, urban environmental education can play a key role. The story of cities as ecological spaces needs to be told, both in cities and outside them: to adults and to the many young people who increasingly populate the world’s growing cities; to our leaders in government, business,and civil society making decisions about the built and natural environment; and to each other in our daily lives. Such stories will have a critical impact on the willingness of the inhabitants of the cities of the future to protect and care for—and create—their urban environments.

Thought leaders and educators can communicate a clearer connection between the urban environment and human and global environmental health: that merely recording the presence of species in urban environments does not necessarily indicate their health; that actions such as the increased use of pesticides and the planting of new hybrids and exotic species may deprive native fauna of feeding and nesting habitats; that the persistence of many species in urban environments, such as macaques, langurs, and birds of prey in Indian cities, can be attributed to cultural traditions of good-will towards life; that local food production with diverse methods is central to local health; that all people, not just the rich, deserve access to ecosystem services; that consumption and transportation choices are key to global sustainability; and that there is a connection between green urban design and resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice.

Urban environmental education can play a pivotal role in telling these stories by teaching about urban biodiversity, ecosystem services, and nature, of which most urban residents are too little aware. Urban environmental education that is sensitive to its local cultural context and incorporates advanced scientific insights from urban social-ecology can make a significant difference, encouraging residents to care about their environment and giving them the knowledge on which to act.

The dire challenges of urban environmental pollution and degradation—and their relevance to resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice—can quickly lead to the trap of purely dismal narratives. This does not have to be the case. In addition to a narrative of ecological loss and the consequences for human well-being, we can develop and communicate positive messages of real change that simultaneously convey facts, challenges, and potential solutions. We must emphasize the importance of ecological and technical solutions, while also addressing the social challenges of equity, conflict, and exclusion (which are often much harder to deal with).

Thus, while focusing on the “what” questions relating to outcomes—such as ecological and environmental improvement—a philosophy of urban environmental education can equally focus on the “how” questions of process, helping people to understand the ways in which social change can be initiated and inclusively scaled up in their own cities and social-ecological contexts. In this regard, urban environmental education can elevate itself to play the key influential role that only it can fill: helping to creatively re-conceptualize, re-design, and re-develop existing and emerging cities by educating people about green infrastructure, influencing urban planning, and changing human environmental behavior.


Urban environmental education in an emerging urban world faces multiple challenges. Is there a uniquely urban version of environmental education? To a large extent, that is a subject for this book. We know that some established environmental assumptions must be adjusted in a modern urban context: that nature can only be found the wilderness; that cities are the enemy of sustainability; that cities are ecologically barren; that city people don’t engage with nature. All are largely false, or misleading.

How can we create a vision for advancing urbanism that serves people and our planet, a vision that is fundamentally imbued with values? Tell the story, far and wide, that cities are essential hotspots of nature that serve people and the Earth. There is nature in cities, and it needs to be seeded, grown, and nurtured as a commons. These are stories that must be told in our communities: to students, to teachers, to leaders, and to each other. This is the key and essential role—advancing progressive urban environmental ideas in a global context—for an emerging urban environmental education. Telling this critical story is the challenge to which environmental education is called in the urban 21st century.

David Maddox, New York
Harini Nagendra, Bangalore
Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm
Alex Russ, Ithaca

* * * * *

This essay will appear as a chapter in Urban Environmental Education Review, edited by Alex Russ and Marianne Krasny, to be published by Cornell University Press in 2017. To see more pre-release chapters from the book, click here.

This essay also appears at the North American Association of Environmental Educators site


  1. Aronson, M.F.J., La Sorte, F. A., Nilon, C.H. et al. (2014). A global analysis of the impacts of urbanization on bird and plant diversity reveals key anthropogenic drivers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281.
  2. Beninde, J., Veith, M. and Hochkirch, A. (2015). Biodiversity in cities needs space: A meta‐analysis of factors determining intra‐urban biodiversity variation. Ecology Letters, 18(6), 581-592.
  3. Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Güneralp, B., et al. (2013). Stewardship of the biosphere in the urban era. In Elmqvist, Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Güneralp, B., et al. (Eds). Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: Challenges and opportunities: A global assessment (pp. 719-746). Dordrecht: Springer.
  4. Faeth, S.H., Bang, C., and Saari, S. (2014). Urban biodiversity: Patterns and mechanisms. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1223: 69-81.
  5. Kazemi, F., Beecham, S., and Gibbs, J. (2011). Streetscape biodiversity and the role of bioretention swales in an Australian urban environment. Landscape and Urban Planning, 101(2), 139-148.
  6. Seto, K., Güneralp, B., and L.R. Hutyra (2012). Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 109(40), 16093-16088.
  7. Svendsen, E.S., Campbell, L.K., and McMillen, H. (2016, in press). Stories, shrines, and symbols: Recognizing psycho-social-spiritual benefits of urban parks and natural areas. Journal of Ethnobiology.
  8. United Nations. (2015). Sustainable development goals.
  9. Wolch, J.R., Byrne, J., and Newell, J.P. (2014). Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough.’ Landscape and Urban Planning, 125: 234-244.
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.

Thomas Elmqvist

About the Writer:
Thomas Elmqvist

Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University and Theme Leader at the Stockholm Resilience Center. His research is on ecosystem services, land use change, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.

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.

Environmental Education Generates Urban Sustainability

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Can environmental education in cities foster urban sustainability? Yes—according to 90 scholars from six continents who contributed to a forthcoming book called Urban Environmental Education Review (Russ and Krasny, eds, 2017). Three themes—participation of urban residents in planning and environmental stewardship, exploring and reconstructing urban places, and forming partnerships among disciplines and organizations who care about the urban environment—emerged from the book chapters as critical to environmental education’s ability to promote sustainability, justice, livability, and resilience in cities.

Urban environmental education is driving progress in the wider field of environmental education by emphasizing participation, place, and partnership.

Although urban environmental education seems like a relatively new field, environmental education and related conservation education turned attention to cities a long time ago. For example, in 1942, Renner noted, “It is often assumed that the city is a much poorer place in which to teach conservation than in the country community. It is doubtful, however, whether the city actually is a less fertile field than the country” (p. 194). He argued that cities offer opportunities to connect with nature through learning about conservation in city parks and restoring urban riverbanks. In an earlier book about conservation education, Renner and Hartley (1940) suggested that children spend too much time in movies while only occasionally in parks and that children can participate in urban planning. Later, Swan (1969) provided one of the first definitions of urban environmental education, emphasizing its importance in students developing awareness of urban settings and improving their schoolyards. This early writing about environmental education in cities predated the formalization of the broader field of environmental education in the 1970s.

Fast forward to today: environmental education is not the only field that helps urban residents learn about sustainability. Urban planners, artists, celebrities, science educators, and community leaders, alongside government agencies and businesses, all help urban residents address urban sustainability issues. Further, urban environmental educational activities are no longer confined to classrooms, parks, or far-away residential camps—in fact, they take place in most urban settings, including community gardens, water-treatment plants, schoolyards, green buildings, and urban restoration sites. And instead of a narrow focus on individual pro-environmental behaviors, urban environmental educators seek to change social norms, foster environmental citizenship, and help people re-think how we should organize cities for sustainability outcomes. These recent developments justify and bring new meaning to the term “urban environmental education,” which emphasizes a diversity of pedagogical methods, settings, providers, audiences, and goals.

To bring these assorted goals, practices, and professionals together, and to provide a theoretical lens and empirical research to support their work, we decided to produce a textbook on urban environmental education. How has Urban Environmental Education Review moved the field of environmental education forward? In addition to the myriad practices described by the authors, we discuss three principles of urban environmental education that emerged from the chapters in the book: participation, place, and partnership.

Cover of the upcoming book Urban Environmental Education Review edited by Russ and Krasny (Cornell University Press, 2017).


Danish scholars Jeppe Laessoe and O.K. Pedersen identified four types of participatory practices in environmental education: participation as encounters with nature, as action, as social learning, and as deliberative dialogue (Læssøe and Krasny, 2013). These practices are often combined in real life. Children in Boulder, Colorado, spend time observing insects in city parks (encounters with nature), and help redesign Boulder’s public spaces (action). Action approaches range from the political to urban planning, such as when impoverished youth in the highlands above La Paz advocated for an aerial tramway that would give them access to the city. In Australia, South Africa, and parts of Europe, where environmental educators assume a more deliberative and critical stance, social learning is intended to radically disrupt unsustainable routines and vested powers and interests.

However, participation is not without its challenges. For example, when rising sea levels immediately threaten a city, government regulations, social marketing, and other more government-directed approaches may be necessary. Participatory approaches can also be critiqued for their tokenism, and for claims that youth are the principal decision makers when in fact adult guidance is needed and prominent behind the scenes.

Children in La Paz, Bolivia participate in community planning workshop. Photo credit: Karen Malone


Students who steward community gardens, plan for public transportation, or otherwise help address urban sustainability issues are reconstructing urban places. In so doing, they may be forming new place meanings, as we found among youth engaged in civic ecology practice in the Bronx, New York City (Kudryavtsev, Krasny and Stedman, 2013). For these youth, spending time creating a bioswale garden along the Bronx River or removing invasive species from an urban garden led to redefining their local place meanings. They no longer saw the Bronx as devoid of nature, but instead as a place where one could experience nature and wildlife. Whether changing place meanings through reconstructing places in turn helps address other sustainability remains to be seen.

In the Bronx, New York, students and other community members remove invasive plants and come to view the city as an ecological place that has parks and rivers and supports biodiversity. Photo credit: Alex Russ.


Partnerships in urban environmental education cross disciplines, ethnic and cultural divides, and organizations or governance actors. All three types of partnerships are needed to address wicked problems.

At the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin, a green building, a solar power station, public art, an urban wasteland being transformed into a park, riparian habitats, classrooms, and a climbing wall string together disciplines such as civil engineering, landscape architecture, and building design, alongside education. Restoration-based education in cities means heeding local values, traditions, and socioeconomic conditions alongside ecological considerations, as well being sensitive to diverse cultures and issues of power. If one fails to incorporate such diversity, misinterpretations, failure, and even environmental injustices can result. Organizational partnerships may start as more narrow efforts to bridge formal and non-formal educational institutions, but then expand to actors not directly engaged in education. One example comes from Singapore’s cross-sectoral 3-P (People, Public and Private) partnership, which focuses on recycling, energy, and water conservation in schools, and engages a network of advisors from government, NGOs, and the private sector. An author from South America sums up how critical partnerships are, saying: “Over the last two decades, Brazil has come to the realization that the current state of the environment is too dire for environmental education to be carried out as individual initiatives.”

Environmental education has often been seen as promoting environmental literacy, which encompasses knowledge, affect, and action that benefit the individual and the environment. In cities, this means partnering with organizations addressing public health, justice and equity, community and youth development, and urban planning, among others. In short, environmental education can be one actor among many in addressing sustainability issues.

In Favela Maré, Rio de Janeiro, university students, professors, local nongovernmental organizations, and residents collaborate to promote education about urban agriculture and hydroponics for children and families. Photo credit: Alex Russ.

Cities as leaders in environmental education

Just as cities serve as centers for sustainability and resilience innovations, environmental education in cities has the potential to push the field of environmental education toward innovative practices, including practices related to diversity. Whereas environmental educators often talk about ethnic and other types of diversity, our reasons—“why diversity?”—may not always be clear (e.g., diversity initiatives that seek to help marginalized peoples, to address past injustices, or to engage multiple perspectives in order to generate sustainability innovations).

Drawing on ideas from social networking and social innovation, authors included in our Urban Environmental Education Review demonstrate how professionals trained in the environmental and education disciplines have as much to learn from those trained in community and youth development as practitioners in those fields have to learn about the environment. These two types of expertise come together in an after-school program at a Catholic charity in the Bronx, or a family empowerment initiative in public housing in Anacostia. Such urban programs engage youth and families in outdoor activities, but their primary goal is to foster youth communication and academic skills and strengthen family ties, rather than foster environmentally responsible behaviors. Although the urban, low-income audiences for these efforts suggest a diversity goal of helping marginalized people, the programs also reveal a change in perspective about diversity, from expanding existing outreach programs to simply being more inclusive of non-traditional audiences, to recognizing and honoring each professional actor’s assets—what each brings to the table—and how, by bringing different actors together, social innovations linking the environment, learning, and youth and community development can emerge.

Perhaps most importantly, by exploring the diverse practices and diverse forms of participation, place-making, and partnerships in cities, the authors help to move the broader field of environmental education forward. For years, our discipline has been defined—and sometimes constrained—by a definition generated at a UN convention in Tbilisi, USSR in 1977: “Environmental education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and its associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action.” Perhaps inadvertently, this definition implied that if we could teach people knowledge and increase their awareness, they would change their behaviors—an assumption that the years since Tbilisi have critically called into question.

Further, environmental education’s historical focus on individual behaviors has been challenged as the necessity for collective action becomes increasingly evident. Today, the North American Association of Environmental Education definition of environmental education incorporates civic engagement—perhaps reflecting research on social capital and collective efficacy that implies the importance of civic ties and local initiative in generating collective action. Urban environmental education—through forming partnerships with youth development and health and planning professionals, through incorporating notions of governance and social innovation, and through demonstrating how learning can be embedded in collective stewardship, restoration, and planning practice rather than as a precursor to environmental behaviors—is playing an important role in transforming the way we think about the relationships between environmental education, learning, and action.

To explore these ideas in-depth, we invite you to read the forthcoming 30-chapter edited book Urban Environmental Education Review. Also, watch 30 free videos recorded by chapter authors (see link below). Finally, the Cornell University Civic Ecology Lab plans to offer an Urban Environmental Education online courses in summer 2017.

Alex Russ and Marianne Krasny

On The Nature of Cities



Kudryavtsev, A., Krasny, M. E., & Stedman, R. C. (2012). The impact of environmental education on sense of place among urban youth. Ecosphere, 3(4), 29. doi:10.1890/ES11-00318.1

Læssøe, J., and Krasny, M. E. (2013). Participation in environmental education: Crossing boundaries within the big tent. In M. E. Krasny and J. Dillon (Eds.), Trading zones in environmental education: Creating transdisciplinary dialogue (pp. 11–44). New York: Peter Lang.

Renner, G.T. (1942). Conservation of natural resources: An educational approach to the problem. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Russ, A., and Krasny, M.E. (Eds.) (2017). Urban environmental education review. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Swan, J. (1969). The challenge of environmental education. Phi Delta Kappan, 51(1), 26-28.

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”).