An aerial view of a marshy area

A Disappearing Lake in Three Parts

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

Part I: Falling in Love

Part II: A Broken Heart

Part III: Finding Joy in the Smallest of Things

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

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

* * *

Love in the desert is found in water.

Tales of a Great Lake

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

“What changed?” I asked, hesitantly.

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

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

“That sounds so lovely,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aerial view of a marshy area
Photo: Wendy Wischer

Rising and Falling in Reverse

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

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

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

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


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

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

Water’s Edge

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

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

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

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

Flawed Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Island Shores

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

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

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

Wendy Wischer
Salt Lake City

On The Nature of Cities

A Fractal Solution to Regional Complexity and Governance

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Scale tension in common in many large cities, where solutions to problems at one scale are considered the cause of problems at another. At what scale should cities then be governed? The answer is simple without being obvious. A city should be governed at the scale of its most painful problem and highest priority.

Could we construct a new image of what the political boundaries of an urban landscape could take shape as? Instead of the hierarchical approach that is commonplace, with cities governed by layers of neighborhood, urban, regional, and state-provincial levels through different electoral or appointed bodies, I propose to approach the problem geometrically, by using the principles of scaling and iteration to demonstrate how fractal geometries can provide solutions to urban scaling politics that layers of governance fail to provide. We will explore a way to resolve political tensions at the municipal level by applying natural, fractal geometry to city boundaries, and that this geometry provides a natural way to govern cities of millions with historical roots of many centuries.

The most significant event in North American urban planning of the past century is the challenge organized against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The conflict put a halt to a half-century (or more) of automobile-scale modernisation in cities and started a trend of scaling down government to the neighborhood. Two books on the outcome of this event have massive influence on our perspective of city planning to this day: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, documents the complexity and liveliness of urban relationships at the small scale, while The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, documents the byzantine system of management and influence that had been constructed by Robert Moses to plan and transform New York City at its largest scale.

I suspect the reason why these books could become so influential, and the conflict of Greenwich Village so widely known, is that the same tensions and conflicts arise in every large city. While the sample size is admittedly small, there is a visible trend in cities that achieve the multi-million population scale to struggle with issues that are scale problems expressing themselves as political conflicts.

Many of these cities suffer, for instance, severe home affordability issues. As an extreme case, the San Francisco Bay Area is governed as a patchwork of small regional hubs and country towns, not the sprawling world metropolis it has become. For the past decade it has received billions, perhaps trillions of dollars of capital flows to its technology companies. As a result, a class of technology professional has become so wealthy that the housing market of San Francisco is becoming exclusive to cash buyers. The traditional wealth-building instrument of mortgages, such as the one that made the wealth of Steve Jobs’ adoptive middle-class parents, has become irrelevant to people whose wealth comes from selling companies to global investors. Large corporations now erect pharaonic new headquarters where they once occupied Jane Jacobsean repurposed office and industrial buildings. The patchwork of municipalities, and the city of San Francisco itself, are fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve by regulatory powers their suburban single-family housing originally intended for a mortgage-driven market, and in the garage spaces of which many of the now gigantic corporations were founded, against the waves of investment capital flowing to them. As a consequence, regional home prices are increasing at an even greater pace, and a counter-intervention against those preservationist regulations are being proposed at larger levels of government to increase regional supply of homes and hopefully break the cycle.

Toronto’s housing affordability challenge is comparable to San Francisco’s. Toronto is governed by competing provincial and agglomerated municipal jurisdictions. This arrangement is the outcome of a multilateral merger of the suburban Edge City around the gridded industrial city that had preserved itself quite successfully from modernisation, and was not coincidentally the home of Jane Jacobs. The conflict between suburbs and center city in Toronto has taken tragicomic proportions with the election of the Ford brothers (champions of the suburban residents) to first City Hall with Rob, and now with Doug as premier to the Ontario Provincial legislature (a competitor for authority over the city and a building historically located within walking distance from City Hall). Exacerbating the political logjam around its tram and subway network expansion, the seam between core Toronto and its suburban ring is the 401, a severely congested 18-lane highway.

The tension between neighborhood preservation and home affordability is in multiple metropolises creating a cycle where regional powers are reasserting themselves through grassroots influence groups such as the various YIMBY movements. Nearly all of them propose, as a solution to the housing development pipeline running dry, a return to regional-scale planning. This takes the form of coercive constraints on the powers of neighborhoods to regulate home building rights, or direct mandates to add more affordable homes in proportion to a neighborhood’s size within the region, with penalties attached for failure. The prototypes for these are the European capital cities of London, then Paris, which struggled with the conflict between local preservation and home affordability decades before North American cities. They have unfortunately not found a successful resolution so far, despite multiple attempts to scale planning up, up to outright nationalization of planning codes.

Scale tension pervades these problems, where solutions to problems at one scale are considered the cause of problems at another. It’s evident that applying more power at one end of the scale produces a balancing reaction at the other end to neutralize that power, and everyone ends up wasting their energies in a cycle that produces no beneficial resolution. Unfortunately there is no political resolution because both positions are correct at their respective scales, and well worth taking a stand for.

The question that should concern us is thus at what scale cities should be governed. The answer is simple without being obvious. A city should be governed at the scale of its most painful problem and highest priority. What makes this simple question create so much complexity is the enormous variation of what constitutes the most painful problem over the landscape, especially large metropolitan world capital landscapes.

Biological systems have no trouble solving for complex landscapes, for instance by repairing small errors in cellular divisions or fighting infections by viruses before they become generalized, while simultaneously the larger animal flourishes in its ecosystem by complex adaptation and cooperation. Fractal geometries and boundaries are essential to this success. Could we imagine such a geometry for a city?

The problem to be solved is to create a geometry of the metropolis that is simultaneously local and regional, that allows local communities to grow through their own specific urban generators while it remains simple to launch and plan projects at the regional scale. The divisions have to be clear enough internally that people can easily understand how they work, thus excluding the layering of levels of governance and bureaucracies.

An object that describes such a geometry is the Sierpinski Carpet.

The Sierpinski carpet

The Sierpinski carpet is a fractal construct that has structure at infinite levels of scale and can therefore solve problems that occur at the biggest and smallest scales, providing unusual applications with devices such as antennas. Could this be applicable within a large modern metropolis? It could suggest that a regional metropolis has grown around smaller existing communities and towns, each with their own separate and contrasting scale, and harmonizes them into a coherent whole at their boundaries. It would be a fractal, perforated city.

Let’s consider the intuition behind this. We are familiar with hierarchies in cities’ networks, such as arterial roads and access roads, or regional transit lines fed by collector networks. This makes the centrality of cities fractal, since time and distance to reach any given point depends on the shape and hierarchy of the network and not the abstract geometric distance of bird flight. We know the feeling of being in the center of a large nature preserve and feeling the city fading away, despite perhaps having walked from downtown. The shape of networks shapes our experience of urban space, and these networks are fractal.

Has there ever been an experiment with this kind of fractal landscape? I believe all unresolved local-regional standoffs are instances of such an experiment. For my last assignment as a graduate student of urban planning in Paris I was fortunate to serve as an intern on the planning staff of one Paul Delouvrier’s (planner of the regional express system, the Robert Moses of Paris) great projects for the Paris region, the New Town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. The city has since its founding been a microcosm of the local-regional conflict.

Local government in France is notoriously entrenched, the Ile-de-France region being divided into over 1200 communities, roughly one third of them creating the 10,000,000 people Paris metropolis. Planning a world capital with 1200 mayors, all out to protect their local community and thousand-year-old identity, has to this day been achieved by layering multiple superimposed regional authorities, some elected, some administered by boards, that have fought each other in party-line turf wars and become an abstraction to the citizens they are remotely accountable to. Whenever things achieve complete irrationality the national state under the president, or sometimes Emperor, directly intervenes and bypasses local administration to resolve scale issues.

The city of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines was a response to the post-war housing affordability crisis of France’s capital. The original territory, on the outskirts of the urban area just south of Versailles, was a sleepy agricultural country with one small town and a handful of villages surrounded by large farming estates until the state launched its program of new towns in the late 1960’s. Because the farming estates were concentrated in the hands of a few large landlords, the state considered them easy to acquire and develop into a city with a population that could act as a political balance to the Parisian core (it was planned for as many as half a million residents). A state-owned developer, EPASQY, was created to develop and commercialize the new town, and a special regime of planning regulations was imposed by the state around the existing town and villages, while preserving the local building codes within them. This territorial organization had the form depicted below.

“New Agglomeration Zone” of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Source unknown.

The gray area was the territory controlled by the development company. The white pockets were the town of Trappes and the other villages and hamlets of the area, which maintained nominal political autonomy. The tragic aspect of this organization is the superposition of the historical community boundaries through the structure. The commune is the basic element of local governance in France, defined and delimited during the French revolution and static ever since.

Instead of creating a new commune for the new town, the suburban commuters resettling from Paris became citizens of the existing town and villages, outnumbering the existing citizens with which they had no shared historical interests. In one fateful election year every mayor was swept from office and replaced with more politically-savvy migrants from Paris, who quickly acted to block the plans of the state developer and scale them down to what it is today, a suburban city of around 150,000 made up of 7 semi-autonomous and politically antagonistic communities now struggling to solve integration problems that were to be resolved by the development company.

Because the boundaries of the cities did not match the boundaries of the communities that lived in them, some very ancient (though quite small) communities disappeared, the metropolitan community did not achieve its goal of resolving demand for homes and decentralizing the capital, and a new system of antagonistic suburban towns rose in its place.

The nature of fractals suggests that we should see the same pattern across the territory as we decrease the resolution of our observations. In fact, a visitor to the Paris region could be easily persuaded by the necessity of preserving its local communities, some of which have had a distinct existence since before the middle ages (one town, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, has the claim of being the birthplace of the French kings, with castle and cathedral to go along), from regional growth demands.

A view of the roof of La Défense’s rail transit hub, on the edge of two communes. Photo: Mathieu Hélie

Some tourist-favorite neighborhoods are outright alien, such as the skyscraper district of La Défense, an attempt by the state to create a business cluster decked on top of a three-story rail station and which landed like a UFO on the boundary between two existing communities. That neighborhood has grown in a legal gray area under exceptional administrative status granted to it by presidential decree.

Village of Montmartre, an enclave within Paris. Photo: Mathieu Hélie

Other communities have not enjoyed political autonomy since Haussmann’s reforms, but continue to exist in fact and as special planning zones. The village of Montmartre is physically remote by rising above the center city in height, not only by being hard to access by road. These distinct planning processes are sometimes abolished, sometimes brought back, but as with any exception they make governing a more difficult and conflict-prone task.

The solution to tension within Greater Paris and its many communities would be to create a perforated fractal metropolis, with special historical communities and their distinct planning processes existing autonomously within it, but not concerned with regional-scale issues such as infrastructure, economic competition or home affordability, that being solved by the metropolitan-scale community.

Historic Paris, the world’s most attractive tourist destination. Photo: Mathieu Hélie

The most important of these inner communities, and the one most people recognize as Paris, is the historic core of boroughs 1-12, where all the landmarks and iconic architecture are found. This area has developed a tourism-centric economy that requires a planning process focused on strict preservation of the urban fabric, or as Parisians call it, a museum-city. Quality of life and reducing the impact of traffic and tourist activity dominate its politics.

Metropolitan Paris, home to millions of people and a landscape of dubious architectural and historical value. Photos: Mathieu Hélie

Beyond that circle begins metropolitan Paris, a space centered along the two ring expressways, whose community faces entirely different challenges and priorities. Scalability, not historical preservation, is the major concern, with transportation, home affordability and ecological harmony of residential development as the major problems to be resolved.

If Greater Paris were redrawn as a fractal, then alongside major historic towns such as Cultural Paris, Versailles, and St-Denis, the territory could be perforated by a constellation of villages and perhaps some entirely artificial and experimental communities. At the fractal boundaries of the metropolitan city of Paris would exist preserved historic communities as well as special-purpose mission-based cities, such as La Défense or the community of Eurodisney, whose unconventional urbanism and unorthodox governing institutions preserve the economic vitality of the region.

A fractal territorial structure of thousands of communities cannot be made by legislative act (the debates alone would be endless), it must be an emergent outcome of autonomous communities exchanging parts of their territory until they have achieved an equilibrium. For this the legislators must give up defining the boundaries and instead define a process by which communities are formed and grow out of other communities. Dividing a community from a city must be as quick and expedient as extending a city to a new boundary reflecting its greater scale. Preserving a quiet community from a booming residential market must be as accepted as constructing whole new neighborhoods for hundreds of thousands of new households on reclaimed industrial or commercial zones.

With Paris serving as a model of regional complexity fitting the proposed geometry, we can easily project the same geometry onto Toronto and New York and arrive at similar conclusions. Had Greenwich Village remained an autonomous community (it has an urban grid oriented differently from Manhattan’s because of its autonomous past) then Robert Moses would have gone around it, and perhaps a political operative such as him would not need to exist if New York’s city government had scaled large enough to lead regional capital spending projects. Toronto’s suburban Edge City would be empowered to deal with the consequences of its automobile-centric path without clashing with the preservationist and localist culture of the center city.

Institutional health can come from specializing on a shorter list of priorities, but regional complexity itself cannot be simplified or shortened. It requires complex pattern formation to resolve, and we now know that complex patterns can be produced through the iteration of simple geometric rules that produce fractals. The political landscape can itself be fractal if this geometry becomes part of our common knowledge. With each fractal city able to focus on its unique priorities the friction generated by scale conflict would no longer hold back necessary policies, from preservation of historic or cultural identities at one end of the scale, to resolution of demographic, ecological and technological pressure at the other end. If we could perceive the fractal boundaries of the landscape, then energies that we invest today in debates, public activism and moral arguments over issues that are defensible on different sides of these boundaries could be redirected to improving our communities.

Mathieu Hélie

On The Nature of Cities

A Green Dream to Counter “Greenwashing” in Brazilian Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I have always thought – I am really lucky because I live in a city with rich biodiversity that still remains in patches spread in the hills and close to the ocean. In spite of other problems we have, being close to nature is a great asset that attracts countless visitors from all around the world, some of whom many end up deciding to stay in Rio de Janeiro.

I have had a long time dream of a green city beyond the protected areas that are close to affluent districts. In my dream, biodiversity is distributed in all neighborhoods and all residents have ecosystems services where they live, work and play. I envision planning and implementation of multi-functional green infrastructure that protects and connects a wide variety of ecosystem remnants in the massifs and in the lowlands, such as Atlantic rain forest, wetlands, mangroves and restinga (sandbanks ecosystem). The green infrastructure restores abiotic and biotic processes and flows at multiple scales, and is focused on the quality of people’s lives. The architectural projects and traffic systems are truly “green” and integrated with the green infrastructure. And it is possible to heal the landscape to avoid the same mistakes made in the past.

In my dream, floods and landslides are minimized, waters are clean, tree canopy covers most of the urbanized areas, people enjoy staying outdoors riding bicycles and walking because the air is clean and the temperature is pleasant. The city is people friendly, and conserving and restoring biodiversity is a priority for decision-makers.

In my dream the economy creates jobs to research, develop and implement the green infrastructure that has six inter-related and inter-dependent systems: geologic, biologic, hydrologic, social, circulatory and metabolic (mainly energy and food production).

In the last decades, ecological restoration of urban native ecosystems and watersheds has been done in many places, e.g. Korea and Singapore. I envision Rio de Janeiro as a Latin American leader in urban ecology and landscape ecological planning, with our own know-how adapted to the Brazilian and Latin American contexts. Regarding the social system, we invest in human friendly places where local businesses bloom on green streets and close to squares and parks with high performance landscapes. Open spaces inspire people to appreciate art, local culture and history. Wherein clean mobility is planned and implemented in a systemic way, with pedestrian, bicycles and mass transit transportation taking priority over private cars. Clean and renewable energy (biomass, solar, wind, tidal) and food are produced on-site or at short distances – places with smaller ecological footprints that generate local income for all residents.

This broad view of the city is based on priority public and private investments in education, research and development, planning and implementation, capacity building and training, management and monitoring in all levels in a very democratic, open, participatory and accountable manner. Small businesses are a priority for the municipality, building a strong local really green economy.

In my vision, Rio de Janeiro is sustainable and resilient to face the challenges of the present and the future, mainly caused by the uncertainties of climate change, the finite natural resources and the global economic crisis. Our leaders have taken all the opportunities brought by the international sports events investment to plan, build and retrofit degraded areas in consonance with nature and the natural processes, because they understand that we live in a global system, where local decisions matter and give an enormous contribution to change the course of this dark scenario.

This isn’t just my dream

This dream is shared by a group of idealist volunteers that founded the non-profit organization INVERDE in January 2009. We were inspired by Jack Ahern’s lecture about green infrastructure on 9 December 2008, which I had organized with my dream in mind. He challenged the audience to present a green infrastructure plan during the IFLA (International Federation of Landscape Architects) World Congress that would take place in Rio, in September 2009. In early January 2009, this small group gathered with a common goal: contribute to rethinking the local urban development. Instead of car-based city expansion dominated by roads, impervious parking lots, gated communities with manicured “homogenized” gardens mainly with few exotic species, extensive lawns and palm trees; we envisioned green infrastructure focused on people in harmony with nature.

Then the dream became a team vision: the neighborhoods are pleasant, calm and human friendly, where kids can play safely; native biodiversity has regenerated in streets, yards, roofs, walls, squares and pocket parks, with bioclimatic buildings; people move around in safe mass transit modals, or walking and cycling in safe, comfortable and trees shaded sidewalks and bike lanes. Rio de Janeiro has become a “Celestial City”, as Anne W. Spirn described in her seminal book, The Granite Garden.

What a dream!

Rio+Verde (Greener Rio) INVERDE proposition for the re-naturalization of canals in the Macacos’ river watershed. Credit: INVERDE

With this high spirit we started working on an ideal proposition to be presented during the IFLA Congress, the Rio+Verde (Greener Rio). We worked on a highly visible watershed that is a microcosm of what happens in other parts of the city, the Macacos’ River catchment that drains to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – a city post-card. After the IFLA Congress this proposal was presented in various national and international events, so we always believed that some decision-maker or developer would be inspired and would start an urban transformation, even in a very small scale to “learn by doing”.

Rio+Verde greening degraded lagoon’s margins with rain gardens. Credit: INVERDE

We strongly understand that a well planned and designed multifunctional green infrastructure, even at a local scale as a green street or a natural drainage system inside a residential-commercial complex, would give the needed visibility to start the shift toward the green paradigm.

Examples abound in the world: Portland, Seattle, Freiburg or Chang Won and Seoul (in South Korea) among so many others are mimicking nature in smaller scales and then expanding for larger areas. Some cities are becoming “Celestial”!! Learning with nature makes better cities, as McHarg already proposed in the late 1960’s! We know now that people matter, and without the action of interdisciplinary teams and actual participation of committed residents and accountability, there is no chance to achieve sustainability or build urban resilience. In order for people to understand that they need nature to survive, they need to have direct contact with biodiversity, food and water sources. Biophilia must be cultivated, even on hourly basis, as Tim Beatley proposes in his post about the nature pyramid.

What now? Dream vs. reality

When Rio de Janeiro was chosen in 2009 to host the Olympic Games in 2016, we really started believing that our dreams would come true. Huge investments started flowing in. The city finally was at the spotlight! Not because of the “social” war (as it had been for decades), but because we would have a bright and rich ($$$) future. Could we have a better opportunity? This would be THE TIME!

Actually, to our disappointment the decision-makers had other plans in mind, nothing to do with biodiversity, wetlands, ecosystems services, and so on.

We had another flow of fresh air in our dreams when earlier this year the city of Rio de Janeiro was made a World Cultural Landscape Heritage by UNESCO. Then, we thought our dream would finally have a chance. Something innovative, with a 21st Century approach, would have to happen in the mentality of the decision makers and legislators. Instead of the isolated projects focused on the international events the city will host in the next years — FIFA World Cup in 2014, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016 — we would have an integrated, participative and accountable urban landscape planning. What a marvelous chance to protect and enhance the natural capital present in this wonderful geologic formation, covered by luxurious Atlantic rain forest and its surrounding lowlands.

What a dream!

Unfortunately, the first term of this administration is getting to its last year without any of those dreams even in the last places of their agenda.

New hotel, commercial and shopping mall at the “Porto Maravilha” “revitalization” area. Note the lawns and palm trees. Perfect mirrored buildings for 40°C Summer days, fit for people-oriented livable urban areas! Credit: O Globo Rio de Janeiro newspaper, 11.08.2012, p. 12

The second term election will start in January, and it seems that things are turning to an even grayer scenario, or a more greenwashed gray scenario. In the last four years, Rio has been preparing to look as many of the “Global Cities”, with disconnected projects intended to appear “green” with certification that may apply to other latitudes, but which for a hot country should have been revised and adapted. Mirrored glass high rises (only some are LEED certified) are flourishing in the “revitalized” and flood- and sea level rise-prone lowlands regions with more roads being built without awareness about biodiversity, waters, soil or natural flows. The vulnerable areas where the natural wetlands are located are being filled-in for more construction.

Rivers are being channelized, eliminating even the narrow green margins that previous predatory urbanization had left (see my previous post). Hundreds of kilometers of unsuitable bike lanes are being “built” — or rather painted over narrow sidewalks, believe it or not. There is no bike lane integrated system planning. Many lanes simply end in the middle of a dense traffic road! Pedestrians are not a priority either.

Actual new pedestrian sidewalk combined with bike lane, November 2012. Credit: Cecilia Herzog

But there is more, much more. I will go over only at the last big discussion that is going on in the city: the Olympic golf course. It will be built in a legally protected restinga area that borders a coastal lagoon in the Jacarepaguá lowlands (Fig. 5). The protected area is an oasis of restinga native vegetation remnant, where lagoons and canals are neglected and heavily polluted by sewage, garbage and diffuse pollution. Native species will probably suffer even more with the “proper care” of the golf course turf and gardens.

Sea level rise prone areas and areas being filled-in for urbanization in blue/purple: elimination of biodiversity in humid areas and wetlands. What next? (adapted by Embya over TDM – terrain digital model published by Gusmão et al., 2008)

No wonder alligators (Caiman latirostris) “invade” swimming pools of wealthy gated communities that once were their habitats! Capybaras (Hidrochoerus hidrochoeris), another autochthonous mammal species can be seen wondering in streets and concreted channels, where their homes once were. Actually, we can see the native species resilience under such a great pressure.

Alligator close to the lagoon in the Jaracepaguá lowlands. Credit: Celso Junius

Capybaras wondering in the middle of the main Road central drainage swale surrounded by mowed turf. Credit: Celso Junius

But “The Dream” goes on…

Participating in this collective blog is a great source of motivation to go on with my work to disseminate the role of biodiversity in cities, aiming to transform dreams into reality. Thomas Elmqvist, Kathryn Campbell and Oliver Hillel encourage change in their previous posts, in which they go over the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook, among other current publications, events and movements to measure and make ecosystems services really valued and visible in different cities around the world. It is clear that there are so many opportunities for cities to redefine their roles, instead of being sinks of natural resources and sources of pollution, they can become providers of ecosystems services by protecting and enhancing native and non-invasive adapted biodiversity through nature-based solutions.

I agree with Russell Galt that there is a general lack of comprehension of why cities need biodiversity close to where people are. Russell argues that we need to work together, exchange knowledge, and he cites a series of organizations and publications that are helping to change urban disconnection with nature to enter another era. In Brazil, I believe we need to have more incentive to study and research urban ecology to orient our urban plans and projects. We need professionals trained to understand how our urban landscapes function with a systemic and resilient thinking. Brazilians need to enter the 21st Century and envision better cities in harmony with nature, like Curitiba has been doing in the past years. We must consider people, ecosystems and biodiversity as a priority when we talk about “green cities”.

“Biodiversity is critical for urban quality of life”, as Oliver states, and INVERDE is doing a myriad of actions to change minds and values. We are using all the instruments we have to try to introduce new (or maybe old) alternative nature-based solutions for problems created by the industrial urbanization of the 20th Century. We are building networks to disseminate our knowledge among practitioners, technical personnel of public departments in local, states and national levels through participation in different forums, lectures and writings. INVERDE maintains an active blog and uses social media that attracts visitors not only from Brazil, but from many countries around the world. The NGO now has a seat in the Rio de Janeiro Environmental City Council, participates in three technical chambers and coordinates the Environmental Monitoring Chamber with the cooperation of brave volunteers engaged in this cause.

As we strongly believe that education is a key for transformation, we continue to promote lectures, and round tables about green infrastructure and other themes related to urban sustainability and resilience building. In 2011 we started Green Infrastructure and Urban Ecology short courses. This has been an extremely gratifying experience because we have had a diversity of students from different ages, social and educational backgrounds. The last course ended 14 November 2012. It is quite innovative, once the topics are not offered in any other place in Rio de Janeiro. Our classes are made up of students from different districts of the city, the Metropolitan Region, and even from the cities in the hills that travel more than four hours to attend each class! Next year we will offer new courses on urban sustainable development, to complement the green infrastructure. We already have a waiting list for the next courses in 2013. It is really amazing that one applicant is from the Southern state of Santa Catarina! Our seeds are being further spread!

Last day of “Green Infrastructure for Sustainable Cities” course, students with their certificates. Credit: Marinah Raposo for INVERDE

Three days after the Green Infrastructure and Urban Ecology course ended, I received an email from our student Ana Buarque Ferreira that made me believe that we will be able to realize our dreams in a near future. She says: “The course was excellent. […] Besides contributing for my capacity of critical analysis of the reality, the course is a factory of possible dreams. I would like to have a project like Seoul’s (CheongGyeCheon) in Presidente Vargas Avenue (one of the main roads in the downtown area, with seven car and bus lanes in each side with a concreted drainage canal in the center, where there was once a mangrove)…”

(The full email text in Portuguese: “O curso foi ótimo, torço para conseguir fazer a parte dois. Além de contribuir para a contribuição critica, o curso eh uma fabrica de sonhos possíveis. Queria um projeto Seul na Presidente Vargas… “ Ana Buarque Ferreira, November 16th 2012.)

In Brazil, stakeholders must urgently understand that urban biodiversity is a valuable natural capital, and it is vital to contribute to achieve our global goals to offer better quality of life to all people, and contribute to mitigation and adaptation of cities in the face the challenges of our present and common future. In Brazil there are a growing number of organizations focused on changing the current unsustainable urban situation. INVERDE’s main contribution is to propose, raise awareness and educate about nature-based systemic urban interventions. We believe that it is possible to reconcile people and nature if we plan and design cities based on deep comprehension of urban social-ecological processes and inter-relations with active citizen participation. Rio de Janeiro is a national and international reference because of its wonderful natural landscape, and has all the possibilities to lead the paradigm shift.

Being in Rio is also a great opportunity for us, because we work in a city that has the potential to be a truly green city model, at all scales: regional, city, and neighborhood. We are in the spotlight now, and we hope we can also be a source of inspiration for more people in other places.

Cecilia Herzog
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A Hymn for Architecture that is Good for People and Neighborhoods, not Just Buildings

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone by John Cary. 2017. 275 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-61091-793-3 / ISBN 10: 1-61091-793-6. Island Press, Washington. Buy the book.

Throughout, the book identifies people who have made tremendous contributions, enabling success through their perseverance and selflessness. Such qualities can be emulated by everyone.
We live in a consumer’s world. Fed by products every second of our lives, urged to ponder, deliberate, and eventually consume that which is being sold to us. The world of consumerism has indeed taken over all other forms of communication and living, at least in our cities.

Along similar lines, we find today that architecture has become something that needs to be “marketable”—packaged, marketed, and then sold to consumers—thereby distancing itself from the very processes that we have always associated architecture with. These processes require designers to ideate through multiple scenarios that take into account social, ethical, and even political factors surrounding a project, and promote the want to effect change in the local environment and contribute to it positively. It is quite disheartening when the need to sell a project by means of an image gives rise to projects that are beautiful and exhilarating visually but are hollow and many times soulless in terms of their impact on their surrounding environment—both natural as well as built.

CCTV Headquarters, Beijing. Photo: OMA
Butaro Hospital, Rwanda. Photo: Iwan Baan

John Cary’s Design for Good comes at a time when it is so important to re-instill the hope that design brings to people—both designers as well as the people designed for. It sheds a ray of light into the design world by demonstrating how, through incorporating public dialogue and involvement, we can achieve end results that are hugely successful. If two young postgraduate aspirants from MIT have the drive and urge to explore beyond their comfort zones to eventually help communities in Rwanda—as did the MASS Design Group in the case of the Butaro Hospital project—then established professionals in the field can certainly take up the mantle and attempt to do the same.

Whether it be the Angdong Health Center in China’s Hunan province, or the affordable housing Cottages at Hickory Crossing in Dallas, a place of worship such as the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, or the Maternity Waiting Village in Malawi, Cary has carefully assembled an array of projects that are united in one simple ideology, dignity: dignity of the process, and dignity afforded to the people who it is designed for. “Human-centered design”, as Cary puts it, is the only real way for us to engage with projects from this day forward, focusing on the positive effects that can be achieved through the process and by finally building the project along with the community being deeply invested in it personally—physically in most cases and emotionally in almost all.

Women’s Opportunity Center, Rwanda. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella

An important aspect that is consistent amongst projects that are successful at a community level is the larger network footprints that are generated around them. Public outreach and consultation is a prerequisite these days, featured as a part of the project brief put forth by almost every client for any type of project. This important and meaningful exercise of reaching out and receiving public opinion has in many ways been reduced to being a mundane task and very often is simply done because it is mandated. But some projects go beyond simply consulting the communities involved in order to achieve a greater level of integration. Take the example of the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda. A vision of the Women for Women International NGO, founded in 1993, this project not only aimed to restore the integrity of women recovering from the country’s horrific civil war, but also looked to provide a continuing source of employment for them to rebuild their lives. We can no longer look at judging projects based on their individual design brilliance without considering the impact that a project has at a larger scale.

Urban design should not simply be left to the experts. Rather, it should become the responsibility of the promoters of every project as well as those who are involved in it, using basic studies such as impact assessment from an economic, social and cultural standpoint, not just at the neighborhood level but at a larger, city level as well. In the case of the Women’s Opportunity Center the eventual users of the institution were involved in many ways from the inception of the project. A brickmaking cooperative that was set up by Women for Women was already offering vocational skills and that system was scaled up. Women were trained in the process of brickmaking and participated actively in the decision-making of choosing earth blocks or fired bricks based on their strength and sustainability in the longer run. An astounding 500,000 bricks used for the building were made by the women who would eventually use the Center. The multifarious nature of the project also looked to go past stereotypes and break through cultural barriers that are seen in Kayonza. Despite there being a lot of construction activity in the town, women were never seen working on any site. As Karen Sherman of Women for Women said: “architecture and buildings such as this center are a means for achieving longer-term goals of women’s economic empowerment and income generation”.

As mentioned by Cary in his foreword, “human centered design” is a term that has gained a lot of traction in recent years, and one that raises an important question: “What is design if not human centered?” Reading through all the examples showcased in the book, this question keeps reappearing in the reader’s mind, and the realization with it, that once we realize the true potential of design, one cannot “unsee it”. This true power of design is ever more asserted when the processes of design are collaborative in all aspects, not simply to express good intentions, but to go beyond and explore the potential that is unlocked through the vast knowledge that locals have of their place and its resources.

I recently completed work on a documentary film titled Reading Architecture Practice: Mumbai, which I scripted and co-directed with two of my colleagues from the city. The film looks at the state of the practice of architecture through the various fields that architects engage in: design, pedagogy, research, conservation, and activism amongst others. Through interviews, different practitioners from the city were asked for their opinions. One common thought was the impending urgent need for collaboration within our cities. Prasad Shetty of CRIT emphasises what Salman Rushdie says—that living in a city is like watching a movie with one’s cheek pressed against the screen—all one can see are pixels. Similarly, there are others around you doing the same thing. To make sense of the movie as a whole, the only thing that can be done is to converse with one another, and figure out what the bigger picture is about. In my opinion, this really is one of the best analogies with regards life in cities, since it strongly propagates the ideas of participation and collaboration. Design for Good shouts out, through every page in the book, that collaboration is the only way a project can see success and be accepted into a community where it exists. Once collaboration is pursued, design decisions are molded by all those involved, invariably making the design process as well as the outcome truly “human centered”.

The book also lists various “fields” or types of design in an effort to qualitatively assess each project’s impact within its context (so does our film). It attempts to categorize the various ways in which design dignifies, in which design can be perceived, and the ways in which the potential of design should be explored. Design should not be a luxury reserved for a handful who can afford it. Rather, it is something that every person should demand and have rightful access to—a powerful resource especially when applied to some of our world’s challenges. Various impacts of design are encapsulated through the book such as design for all, for resilience, for stability, for security, for intention, for learning, for solidarity, for empowerment, for reclamation, for ritual, and for community, to name a few.

Categorizing projects based on the types of impacts they have is very successful in opening the reader’s mind to the true multi-disciplinary nature of design and its far-reaching consequences when applied sensitively to social conditions within our towns and cities. It is very important for us to break the stereotypes associated with the field of design, to go beyond what is understood as the pre-conceived limits of what a designer is responsible for, and to set new standards of engagement with the field. Design clearly does not start or end on the drawing board in the confines of offices—it begins when designers get to the ground realities and engage with people, convey design intentions, convince authorities for change, use local materials to ensure economic benefits to the community, build sensitively and ensure a sustainable model for future growth. Only then can we consider a design process complete in all aspects.

Streetcar System Routes, Atlanta Beltline. Image:

Speaking about the importance of multi-scalar impacts of projects within our urban environments, one of the standout examples documented in this book by John Cary is the Atlanta Belt Line project. What started out as a humble thesis project of a graduate student, became a shining ray of hope for the citizens of the heavily car-dependent Atlanta, supporting accessible walking, cycling, and the public park system. The defunct rail road system, which ran through a once busy industrial corridor, became an opportunity for improving public spaces and, at the same time, integrated the city across the “dividing line between communities”. Here is a case where, through active follow up and perseverance, Ryan Gravel, the brain behind the Belt Line, could persuade district council members to take up the project in their localities as an example for the rest of the districts in the city. Over 20 years of work, Atlanta now has several completed stretches that are used by thousands of people each day for walking, cycling, running, yoga, and other activities. All in all, the transformation of the Belt Line has enabled people to bring a qualitative change to their health and daily lifestyles. Such is the impact of a project that has been borne out of community efforts and implemented through political willingness and cooperation, which paves the way for other cities to analyze their future investments into multi-function public infrastructure.

Along with big investments, cities ought to focus their attention on community level initiatives as well. Easy access to smaller, decentralized public amenities always contributes to a better quality of life at the neighborhood level, thereby improving the condition of our cities in general. The local department store, a community hall, the small park and playground, an affordable school and hospital—these are the fundamental amenities upon which communities are sustained. The Bait Ur Rouf Mosque is Dhaka is a great example of a neighborhood amenity which is not only a place of worship and ritual, but also functions as a space to congregate for the community, and a place for education and learning for those who do not have access to schools. The design by Marina Tabassum plays a big role in creating an image of the community—not simply as a mosque, which is monumental and daunting in scale, but one which is approachable and warm. The humble use of materials and maximizing natural light and ventilation allow this mosque to become a beautiful neighborhood symbol even without typical features such as domes and minarets. The humility that Tabassum brings to the work echoes through this design and supports the core principles of the religion—coming together of people to celebrate a divine power, devoid of any irrelevant symbolism or ritual. Design, in this case, unifies.

Cary’s personal narratives and experiences of each of the projects and sites speaks of his in-depth knowledge. This engagement with projects across the world is, in many ways, another aspect of design thinking and pedagogy. Each example, in Design for Good is narrated more as an experience than as a mode of documentation. The author feels personally invested in each project, and that clearly shows in the way this book has been written. Cary is passionate about the quest for designs and designers that dignify, and his “call to expect more” at the end of the book stands testimony to his commitment to further design that is loaded with social, cultural, and physical impact. Cary manages to invoke within the reader an introspective thought towards projects that one has been associated with. It makes one raise questions that critically look at work through the lens of providing a qualitative benefit to the users. Did the project include a wide variety of user groups, execution teams, and participative owners? Did the project lead to affect any sort of positive change within the community in which it is located? Did the project aim to make the best of all available local resources—material and human? Did the project add dignity to its users and to the lives of those involved with it or affected by it?

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka. Photo: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Through every project, the book identifies individuals who have made tremendous contributions and have enabled the success of projects through their perseverance and selflessness—this is a quality that can be emulated in projects taken up by others. We should not sit back in our workplaces and wait for opportunities to land at our doorstep—we must define our larger commitments, and from there we need to be proactive, initiating dialogue and facilitating change in whatever ways we can. Design is a tool for use by all of us, let’s pick up the pieces, and move forward with this thought. Let’s empower, let’s dignify.

This book is a must read for all.

Samarth Das
On The Nature of Cities

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

A Hymn to Nature in My City

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Warning: What follows is entirely personal and non-scientific. This is a good thing.

On a bad day the nature in this city lifts my spirits and helps me relax from the stresses and bustle of every-day life. On a good day it fills me with outright joy—why would I want to live anywhere else?

I live and work in a global city. Here’s my justification for being here. I work on scaling up greening in cities across Europe. My global city—London—has been a leader in urban greening initiatives for many years. Both my work and my studies have given me the conceptual and methodological tools to examine nature in the city—so I know the theories and evidence that nature in the city is of value.  Yet many research questions remain to be explored; how to measure and evaluate nature in the city, how to introduce or manage quality green space into the city in a way that enhances equity and promotes social cohesion, how to effectively manage storm water and the urban heat island, how can urban greening contribute to improved health and wellbeing? These themes fill my and colleagues’ working day (and many stressed nights) and have done for years. I have published in academic journals, written policy and practice guidance for local authorities, and worked directly with local authorities, residents and schools to deliver nature in the city.

But I have never written anything to celebrate what I personally get from nature in my city, and how it gets me through the day, until now. And so this is a heartfelt hymn to my city and its nature.

Even in the smallest of front gardens, people find ways to introduce nature to brighten their patch. Photo: Paula Vandergert

In my immediate neighbourhood of mainly late 19th century homes, two-storey houses or flats, the occasional purpose built (but low rise) block, I walk in the streets for half an hour at least three times every day. I encounter a mostly global community (from Africa, South Asia, South America, the Caribbean and Europe). We sometimes smile and say hello (the expectation on all sides is that we won’t share a first language), and some I now call my friends—when you walk regularly in your neighbourhood you often see the same faces… out walking to the shops, taking children to school, walking their dogs (like me). I find my city a friendly and generally unthreatening place.

And every day I and my neighbours experience nature. The trees lining streets, softening them and the buildings behind, providing shelter and shade, the wind rustling through the leaves, adding green to the grey. The small parks dotted around, often crammed with something for everyone—children’s play, green gym, table tennis, benches, trees, flowers, even the occasional pond. People’s front gardens—small areas of defensible space filled with bins, weeds, occasional mattresses, often paved over, but still many offering the passers-by living, growing green shrubs and flowers with vibrant splashes of colour. The allotments dotted around where people grow vegetables and flowers. I see birds, bees, butterflies, and this time of year spiders sitting in beautiful webs.

My precious tiny rear garden, as so often in this city sub-divided between neighbours, still provides us with the chance to grow fruit, vegetables and wildflowers, as well as provide home to bikes and bug habitats. Photo: Paula Vandergert

The honeysuckle growing outside the local school has the most amazing scent. I fully intend to take a cutting and try to grow it in my tiny garden, bringing that heavenly perfume to join my wild rose (currently offering up a bounty of rosehips), rotting wood piles (for the insects), olive tree (two olives this year) and a tangle of indeterminate messy green. My neighbours prefer a more manicured look and I think they long to come through our shared gate with forks and shears—but they tolerate our more natural state and we often share a barbecue and drink in one or other of our patches.  All of these tiny dots of nature creating a connected ‘green’ necklace strung like the finest pearls through the neighbourhood.

These precious areas provide us city-dwellers with very necessary space for recuperation from stress and restoration of balance as well as providing habitat for wildlife. Photo: Paula Vandergert

On a bad day the nature in this city lifts my spirits and helps me relax from the stresses and bustle of every-day life. On a good day it fills me with outright joy—why would I want to live anywhere else? When I venture further afield—yet still within my own borough of Waltham Forest—I walk in ancient woodland in Epping Forest, or across urban river grasslands of Walthamstow marshes. We now have another area to explore—the largest urban wetland nature reserve in the city has just opened to the public, in my borough. I can’t believe the extent of the natural wonders on my doorstep here in north east London. I burst with pride in my city and my neighbourhood and the accessibility of nature is a large part of that. And I think it would be wonderful if we become a National Park City.

Our children’s most vivid happy memories of growing up in the city often involve engaging with nature and the city equivalent of village fetes in our parks. Photo: Paula Vandergert

In preparation for writing this, I asked some of my friends and neighbours what their experiences are of nature in our city. We are a diverse group of ages and ethnicity, single and non-single parents, home owners and renters, immigrants and their descendants, not rich or poor, mostly working at least part time, only a couple of us were born in this city, although most of our children were. One neighbour immediately talked about the street trees and how everyone gets together in the park when the weather is good. Another neighbour takes his children biking in the parks and the family goes to all the free events in the nearby open spaces. A friend with two pre-school children says she spends their free days exploring parks and city farms locally. She and her husband considered moving out and getting a bigger house—but they value the city’s nature and culture too much so have decided to stay. She has got involved in a local group aiming to revive a local neglected open space—making it cleaner, safer and a destination for all rather than a spot for anti-social behaviour.

I feel shocked, challenged and inadequate as a social scientist that people’s visceral, heartfelt attachments to nature in the city are largely unvalued and unrecorded. Photo: Paula Vandergert

Talking to other friends—reminiscing about bringing up our children in the city—we remembered epic walks in the city’s natural environments encouraging our children in tree climbing, wild animal spotting (the odd rabbit, fox, woodpecker, kingfisher plus lots of squirrels and insects) and being out in all weathers. Some of us learnt skills like coppicing and hedging here in the city. My daughter (now a young adult) remembers the walks, the tree climbs, the freedom she and friends experienced in these precious green spaces. She has gone on to take gardening courses and hopes to set up her own nature-based business.

This is how our multiple layers of experiences of the city’s nature contribute to our lives, our memories, our shared knowledge of place. How many of these priceless, essential things that we value as city-dwellers are measurable? Seeing, smelling, hearing nature? If they are not measured will we lose them? What of the concept of intrinsic value? We as researchers, practitioners and policy makers engage often abstractly in these issues but how often do we consider immeasurable and invaluable aspects of nature and city dwellers’ situational relations with nature? Regardless of age, gender, race, we—me, my family, friends, neighbours—encounter nature in this city everyday and it is one of the key things that nurtures and helps many of us cope when times are tough. And so my daily experience of nature in my city helps get me through the day working on “nature in cities”! My personal challenge in this—encompassed by my (ironic) declaration at the start of the article that this is personal not scientific—is that the two levels do not always sit in harmony with each other. I would argue that the tensions between experiential and abstract, individual and systemic, natural and social continue to challenge us all.

Whilst I have resolutely withstood the temptation to add citations and references in this piece, I would like to share with you a previous article published in the nature of cities by Lindsay Campbell in 2015. Lindsay captures the spirit of this tension I describe very well in her article about her experiences with urban trees—and she does cite some very nice references to this. Lindsay raises important points about ‘situated science’ and the need for methodological tools to uncover complex, conditional, relational aspects of people and nature in everyday encounters.

Larger open spaces like Epping Forest create magical escapes from the everyday hustle and bustle. Photo: Paula Vandergert

When another friend, a fellow academic, shared with me that the nature in this city is the only reason she and her family have been able to live here for so long, I felt shocked, challenged and inadequate as a social scientist that these visceral, heartfelt attachments to nature in the city are largely unvalued and unrecorded – or get lost in woolly concepts of the ‘liveable city’. It feels to me that there are underutilised methodological tools at our disposal and that exploring more ethnographic, anthropological and political ecology lenses to understand the value of nature in the city may be an important step change to achieving many of the ambitions we have for how our cities could be. Articulating my passion for nature in my city has challenged and revitalised me to don my ‘researcher’ hat and look again at the day job!

Paula Vandergert

On The Nature of Cities

A Just City is Inconceivable without a Just Society

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
See the full list of Essays
Introduction, Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen and David Maddox Tearing down Invisible Walls Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White, Toni L. Griffin In It Together, Lesley Lokko Cape Town Pride. Cape Town Shame, Carla Sutherland Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives, Darnell Moore Ceci n'est pas une pipe: Unpacking Injustice in Paris, François Mancebo Reinvigorating Democracy Right to the City for All: A Manifesto for Social Justice in an Urban Century, Lorena Zárate How to Build a New Civic Infrastructure, Ben Hecht Turning to the Flip Side, Maruxa Cardama A Just City is Inconceivable without a Just Society, Marcelo Lopes de Souza Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman Designing for Agency Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination, Mahim Maher Up from the Basement: The Artist and the Making of the Just City, Theaster Gates Justice that Serves People, Not Institutions, Mirna D. Goransky Resistance, Education and the Collective Will, Jack Travis Inclusive Growth The Case for All-In Cities, Angela Glover Blackwell A Democratic Infrastructure for Johannesburg, Benjamin Bradlow Creating Universal Goals for Universal Growth, Betsy Hodges The Long Ride, Scot T. Spencer Turning Migrant Workers into Citizens in Urbanizing China, Pengfei XIE The Big Detox  A City that is Blue, Green and Just All Over, Cecilia P. Herzog An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay, Mindy Thompson Fullilove Justice from the Ground Up, Julie Bargmann Elevating Planning and Design Why Design Matters, Jason Schupbach Claiming Participation in Urban Planning and Design as a Right, P.K. Das Home Grown Justice in a Legacy City, Karen Freeman-Wilson Epilogue: Cities in Imagination, David Maddox
25.deSousaOnce upon a time the city was called the “marvelous” one: Rio de Janeiro, cidade maravilhosa. Rio was the birthplace of samba, chorinho and bossa nova; internationally famous for supposedly being a city of fun and carnival 365 days a year, it has been the capital city of Brazilian proverbial optimism. Austrian novelist, playwright and biographer Stefan Zweig regarded it as the symbol and epitome of the whole of Brazil in his book Brazil, Land of the Future, published in 1941. Sure, it was as an idealization, some would say an ideological invention. After all, there were dictatorships (between 1937 and 1945 and again between 1964 and 1985) and their cortege of atrocities; there were huge socio-economic disparities; and so on. But the idea of a “marvelous city” seemed at least plausible. No ideology survives if there is not at least a grain of truth in it.

But then, things began to change.

If cities mirror their societies, then we surely need to talk about how radical social change can be ignited—not forgetting that the cities can and must play a decisive role in this process.
The poor became less and less “patient” and “tolerant” with what they began to realize as injustice and not simply as fate. The magic powers of soccer and carnival became less effective; not only because “the people” (o povo) were politically more conscious, more demanding and less submissive now, but also because they could no longer be tamed by an increasingly commercial and elitist carnival and an increasingly corrupt soccer.

It happened a week ago. A sunny Saturday, the Copacabana beach full of people having fun—flirting, playing, drinking coconut juice—or just resting after a week of hard work. Suddenly, a scream of despair was heard. More people screaming, many of them began to run or were simply paralyzed. Dozens of teenagers from neighboring favelas or even from the distant periphery were robbing and stealing. If one resists, one can be beaten at the moment. Everything occurs very quickly, is a matter of a few minutes; the police were unprepared and taken by surprise (the police are almost always unprepared, unless it is organizing its own corruption schemes). Panicked beach-goers ask for help, some people cry in despair, some try to escape (leaving some of their belongings behind).

It happened last Saturday, but the phenomenon known as arrastão (literally “dragnet”) had already occurred many times in Rio since the 1990s.

Who are the victims? Who is to blame? Is there a simple answer for these questions?

Again, the mass media reverberate the deepest fears and angst of the middle classes in a superficial, sensationalistic way. Facing the fact that it is economically and politically unfeasible to remove all favelas (or even a small but significant part of them), many middle-class people and even some journalists have seriously advocated “solutions” such as the following (among others) in the last two or three decades: to enclose the favelas with wired rope and even walls; to cut off some bus lines that connect the periphery with the affluent South Zone and their beaches; to strictly control the access to the beaches and demand entrance fees from the beach-goers. Probably they really believe these “solutions” are compatible with Brazilian “democracy.” Ironically, they are probably right — these “solutions” do not seem out of place in a “democracy” with quotation marks.

“Marvelous city”? Maybe. But do not poverty, residential segregation, class resentment and racial prejudice also make it ugly?

Social scientists have conceptualized “the city” for generations, but there is a very simple fact about this geographical entity: it is always a mirror of the society in which it exists. In light of this, residential segregation and urban poverty cannot be adequately understood without a whole social context characterized by inequality and prejudices; traffic problems cannot be adequately understood without paying attention to the economic interests that support and live from the car industry; consumerism (or rather frustrated consumption on the part of so many worldwide) cannot be understood without the cultural framework—”to have” as the very foundation of “to be”—nurtured by advertising and ultimately by capitalism itself at a very anonymous level; environmental degradation cannot be adequately understood without reference not only to the economic circuits but also to the consumption habits that are so functional from the perspective of capitalism’s maxim “grow or die”; crime and violence cannot be adequately understood without reference to all those institutions and systems (mass media, electoral machineries, the whole penal system, etc.) which have more often than not a clear interest in nurturing collective fear (by the way, an extremely useful tool of government). And so on.

It is against this background that we should see the failure of the academic contributions to a so-called “sustainable urban development” that have appeared in the last two decades. The problem of “sustainability” is usually discussed in a superficial way because the tacit premise is that we cannot challenge the pillars of our socio-economically very unequal and ecologically irrational society (capitalism as a mode of production and statecraft as a mode of government). Therefore, we can read and watch passionate debates around consumerism, depletion and waste of resources, poverty, “cultural emptiness” and the like, but at the end of the day a certain feeling is unavoidable: most people are just beating around the bush. Sure, we can find interesting and useful technical contributions from time to time (sooner or later co-opted by the status quo); however, technology can be in the best of all cases a part of the solution, never the solution itself.

How can we achieve a city that combines social justice (lack of structural asymmetries in terms of power and wealth) and environmental qualities (fresh and clean air, availability of and accessibility to green and recreational spaces, etc.)? Considering the intrinsic limitations of both the state apparatus and private capital in terms of offering and implementing long-term solutions, the main ideas must surely come from elsewhere else. We need emancipatory social movements, but ones that do not simply resemble pressure groups and lobbies. And they must cooperate with each other in order to combine different (but complementary) agendas and efforts. As different kinds of problems are inextricably linked (environmental problems, different types of oppression, and so on), so must be the possible solutions for the problems, too.

Many people around the world have already begun to develop their own solutions, more despite and/or against the state apparatus than together with it. Some intellectuals have called this mixture of “do it yourself” and “give a good example here and now” “prefigurative politics,” which seeks to demonstrate the future societies we want through personal or group actions. Yes, it is not acceptable to endlessly postpone the achievement of less unjust social relations to a post-revolutionary, chimerical “perfect society.” In spite of all difficulties and limitations, it is essential to begin with the building of ethically defensible and inspiring alternatives here and now. The Zapatistas in Chiapas (Mexico) could be mentioned as an example, but we can find several examples in large metropolises, too. When the Argentine economy became “dolarizada” and the peso totally lost its importance at the beginning of last decade, the people on the ground (at the periphery of Buenos Aires, in the villas miseria, in the barrios) organized themselves not only socio-politically but also economically: they created circuits of “solidarity economy,” self-managed some services and facilities, grounded cooperatives, took over and managed bankrupt factories. More important perhaps, they began to develop new ways of sociability, based on more solidarity and self-reliance.

However, the naive maxim “think globally, act locally” must be avoided. We must grasp the fact that our main urban problems arise as a complex of interwoven factors and processes at various levels (local, regional, national, international) at the same time. Progressive “prefigurative politics” is politically-pedagogically inspiring, but it has its limits.

A just city is a city in which spatial resources and natural amenities will be available and accessible to all (that will require imagination and cooperation, not to mention the limitation if not the end of private property of the soil, considering that space cannot be reproduced and multiplied as easily as TV sets or cars).

A just city is a city where the burden of disposal of waste, pollution etc. will be not carried by some groups (inevitably the poor and some minorities) much more than by others. In other words, a just city requires environmental justice.

Furthermore, a just city cannot be built on the basis of a lack of a radicalized form of solidarity: if we want to achieve environmental justice, we have to see that less pollution at home (in our city or country) cannot be achieved at cost of more pollution (and very often terrible forms of pollution and disposal of toxic waste) abroad. Environmental justice (and social justice in general) must be conceived not only “inter-generationally” but also socio-geographically.

A just city cannot be a city where many people do not have access to places, simply because they cannot afford the costs of travel. And it goes without saying: a just city cannot be one where public transportation is a factor of segregation.

A just city cannot be a city where some of its districts and neighborhoods (call them favelas, ghettos, barriadas, villas miseria, callampas, townships, bidonvilles . . . ) are stigmatized just because the people who live there are dark-skinned or belong to an ethnic minority. If the city is the place of encounter and dialogue par excellence, then segregation and intolerance cannot be compatible with a democratic city.

Without all of that, our cities—and I mean above all but by no means exclusively the big cities and metropolises of the Global South—will be increasingly unsustainable in the long run. We do not need only cities which are environmentally sustainable, but cities which are socially sustainable—as places that are truly inspiring, as representatives of humanity at its best in terms of culture and democratic politics.

I would like to mention examples of what mainstream urban planning literature has called “best practices” of urban management. However, I do not know any example of a big city that pass the test of social justice in a truly persuasive way from the point of view summarized above. That is understandable: if cities mirror their societies (and if taking partial examples out of the whole socio-spatial context can be very misguiding), then we surely need to talk about how radical social change can be ignited—not forgetting that the cities can and must play a decisive role in this process. We need to rely more on progressive “prefigurative politics” if we want to achieve just cities and just societies. Worldwide, as inequality and injustice at the local and national level is constantly influenced and shaped by inequality and injustice at the global level.

As we see as soon as we share the premises of the previous account, there is no easy solution. But we cannot dare—for the sake of our children and grandchildren—to think that there is no solution; or, as Margaret Thatcher once said, that “there is no alternative.”

Marcelo Lopes de Souza
Rio de Janeiro

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

A Matter of Scale: Connecting Human Design Decisions with Decisions Made by Wildlife

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Ok, if you can look past my anthropomorphic statement that wildlife make decisions, the topic I would like to address deals with the adoption and use of ecological principles by the design community. Patch size, landscape connectivity, edge effects, corridor ecology, landscape ecology, and metapopulation theory are just a few terms and ideas put forward by researchers to address the biological integrity of wildlife populations. Often, planners, landscape architects, engineers, architects and other built environment professionals adopt these ecological principles into their designs of regions, cities, and individual developments.

But do these designs function as originally intended?

Red-shouldered Hawk in San Francisco. Photo: Walter Kitundu
Red-tailed Hawk in San Francisco. Photo: Walter Kitundu

Habitat patches and design

A common application of ecological principles into urban/rural design is the establishment of natural to semi-natural patches (or remnants) of areas that would serve as habitat for wildlife. This design application begs the question, “For which wildlife species?” In many (of my) dealings with design firms and city/county departments, this rarely is addressed. For the most part, people look at a land use/cover map and try to conserve as many of patches as possible, without much thought about wildlife species in the area or those migrating through.

While conserving any remnant patches is a laudable goal, in many instances the amount of patches, in terms of actual area, that a developer will conserve is limited. Thus, it is critical to select the patches that “give the most bang for the buck.” An ecologist would select those patches that benefit local species or improve species richness, depending on the original goals and what the site can offer. Selecting the “best” patches can benefit a variety of species, but it depends on the scale of the design and those species that respond to the geometry of the landscape at that scale.

New York City Central Park. Photo: Sergey Semenov
New York City’s Central Park – a city habitat patch that is used by wildlife. Photo: Sergey Semenov

Animals locate themselves based (for the most part) on the spatial geometry of landscape structure across a region. However, smaller animals have a very different view of the landscape than larger animals. Imagine a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flying over a neighborhood (the images that follow). Both birds are responding to landscape structure within cities that attracts them to one area versus another. The smaller Carolina Wren and the larger Red-tailed Hawk respond to landscape structure across a range of scales, but the range of scales are different between the two species.

Carolina Wren. Photo: Dan Pancamo (Wikipedia)
Carolina Wren. Photo: Dan Pancamo (Wikipedia)
Red-tailed Hawk. Photo: Dan Sudia
Red-tailed Hawk. Photo: Dan Sudia

Scale” essentially means the size of an area (e.g., 1 hectare, 5 hectare, 20 hectare, etc.). When a bird “responds to” an area, it is attracted to that area based on spatial objects within it. “Spatial objects” are the actual structures (such as trees, bushes, fields) within a given area that an animal uses to fulfill daily food, cover, and water needs. The scales at which wildlife respond to spatial objects are an important part of habitat selection.

Let’s take a theoretical representation of a Carolina Wren and a Red-tailed Hawk responding to spatial objects as they search for habitat (the drawing below)). The wren searches a tract of land to establish a home range. At the next scale, the wren searches its home range for suitable habitat patches for nesting or foraging for food. Then, within these habitat patches, the wren locates food patches where food items (e.g., insects) are abundant. This is the smallest scale in which the wren searches for food. The hawk has a similar set of decisions, but it selects much larger areas and objects at each comparable scale. Notice that the only overlap in scales is at the food patch level for the hawk and at the tract level for the wren.

Scale-dependent decisions of a Red-tailed hawk and a Carolina Wren. Illustration by Rebekah McClean.
Scale-dependent decisions of a Red-tailed hawk and a Carolina Wren. Illustration by Rebekah McClean.

Different wildlife species respond to different objects within a landscape. The type of object a species prefers is dependent on its natural history: what it eats, what it needs for nesting, etc. For example, one wildlife species could prefer tree patches. Another species prefers flowering plants. Others prefer woods along streams (riparian habitat). Some prefer natural, open fields. Some even prefer the actual homes (buildings) and others prefer lawns. In addition, the size of these spatial objects is important too. Different species may respond to different sizes of a particular object in the landscape. Let’s say two species like open areas (e.g., lawn). One species, such as a robin, may be attracted to a front yard. Another species, say a hawk, may prefer large expanses of lawn (e.g., golf courses). They both respond to lawn. However, the area of lawn is much bigger on a golf course than a front yard.

In addition, during different periods of an animal’s life, it may have different requirements for food, water, cover, and space. For example, birds may have vastly different requirements when breeding than when they are migrating or wintering in an area. Some bird species only nest in large expanses of wooded areas to keep their nests hidden from predators while primarily catching insects to feed their young. However, outside the breeding season, these same birds can be found in small patches of forest feeding on a variety of food items including fruits and seeds (e.g., Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapillus).

Ovenbird. Photo: AJ Hand, Connecticut Ornithological Association
Ovenbird. Photo: AJ Hand, Connecticut Ornithological Association

After the breeding season, many young animals disperse from their natal site looking for new areas that provide food and shelter. For animals that are dispersing, many urban sites that may not be appropriate for breeding could serve as ‘dispersal sites’ where animals can feed and rest when searching for new habitat. These dispersal sites can serve as corridors that help animals move from one habitat to the next. In addition, urban sites can serve as “stopover sites” for birds that are looking for food and shelter along their migration route. Radars around cities have detected massive amounts of birds flying at night in and around cities. Urban areas can also serve as wintering sites for animals that normally breed outside of urban areas.

In summary, a particular patch can serve as habitat for animals during different times of the year. A patch of woods, for example, may be a breeding area for some animals while at other times of the year it may serve as a stopover site or wintering site. In many cases, the property may serve primarily as a ‘connector’ between natural areas — an important role to permit the movement of animals.

Habitat edges and design

In design studios and planning conversations that I have had, I frequently make the argument that larger, circular patches are better than irregular-shaped patches. This is because “specialist” species are more vulnerable to edge effects than “generalist” species. Generalists are species that will eat a variety of items and live in a variety of habitats. Generalists can adapt to new food sources and changing landscapes.

Think about house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). These exotic birds are found throughout many countries and are outside their natural range in Europe, but they are doing quite well in urban and agricultural areas. Specialists, on the other hand, are much more specialized or particular in their food and shelter requirements. They will sometimes only eat a few types of food and live in only one type of habitat. They do not adapt well to changes in their preferred habitat and will go extinct locally (i.e. extirpated) when their habitat changes. Most species that are listed on the U.S. endangered and threatened species list are examples of specialists.

Riparian edge next to agriculture. Photo: Geoffrey Fricker, Univ. of California Agriculture
Riparian edge next to agriculture. Photo: Geoffrey Fricker, Univ. of California Agriculture

Specialists are most vulnerable to edges. Specialists living in habitat edges tend to encounter higher levels of predation, damage stemming from human disturbances, and increased competition from other species; thus they tend to avoid edges. Specialists typically do not do well in fragmented areas consisting of relatively small, remnant patches. In fragmented areas, small natural remnants are not buffered enough against human disturbances and are more exposed to traffic, noise, and artificial lights. How far the edge effects extend into a patch is variable and depends on the species in question, the type of disturbance, and the types of vegetation found along an edge. It can extend hundreds of meters into a patch even for small birds; for example, Varied Thrushes (Ixoreusn aeviu) had lower relative densities up to 140 meters into a patch than in areas further than 140 meters from the edge.

I have heard from many landscape architects that they think edges are good because they increase biodiversity. Well, yes and no. It depends on the situation. Yes, in most instances having lots of edges tend to increase the diversity of species, but the increase is due to the increase in generalists and exotic species that are more adapted to edges and urban conditions. Thus, in reality, having lots of edges favors generalists that are doing well anyway in a region and conservationists are more concerned about impact of urban areas on specialists.

Wildlife corridors and design

Another common application of ecological principles in urban/rural design is the establishment of corridors for wildlife. Corridors are placed to connect patches within a development or outside of the development. The idea is to promote movement of wildlife species across the landscape. Again, this application begs the question, “For which wildlife species?” However, rarely is this addressed during discussions.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Initiative
Florida Wildlife Corridor Initiative

As discussed above, scale matters, even for connectivity. How wide is wide enough? A corridor needed for a bear is much wider than what is needed for a mouse. For wildlife, corridors can serve two purposes. First, connections allow animals to reach diverse habitats within their home ranges; and second, at a broader scale, connections permit occasional movements between somewhat isolated populations of wildlife (i.e., metapopulation theory).

But are we talking about movement of panthers or insects? For those that are edge-avoiders (e.g., many specialists species), a corridor may not act as a conduit if it is narrow and mostly edge. In some countries, linear corridors are not really needed, but “stepping stones” of vegetative patches could act as corridors. For example, New Zealand is devoid  of native, terrestrial mammals (save a few endangered bats); ecologists talk more in terms of “stepping stones” of restored and remnant native vegetation to help improve the spread of native, animals across a landscape.

Any natural connection, no matter how small can benefit certain species (think insects, toads, and salamanders). But before a design is made (and space for development given up), a thorough understanding of local, regional, and migrating species (and their habitat/dispersal needs) should be acknowledged and addressed by the designers.

What does all this mean when making planning/design decisions?

From the discussion above, one might conclude that only large, connected patches of vegetation are worth saving in a design. However, if you reduce the scale of your thinking, any natural patch can benefit biodiversity and animal species, no matter how small and isolated. While such patches may have limited appeal for some of the larger animals and the specialists, they may still serve as habitat for smaller species such as lizards, frogs, and insects. They could also serve as temporary refuge for migrating animals (e.g., stopover sites for migrating birds). Not to mention plant diversity as well and the multitude of soil biota that occur in small, conserved remnants!

But if one is considering large patches, and large corridors, for relatively larger animals, a discussion must ensue about which species these patches would likely benefit. Policies that impact land use maps (generally at broader scales) and policies that address land development regulations (i.e., policies that operate on landscape structure at smaller scales) should be considered in the context how they affect large to small species.

Master site plan for The Woodlands at Davidson, North Carolina, which contains a wildlife corridor down the middle. Courtesy of the Lawrence Group.
Master site plan for The Woodlands at Davidson, North Carolina, which contains a wildlife corridor down the middle. Courtesy of the Lawrence Group.

Overall, such discussions will help make transparent the wildlife benefits of a development design at both small and large scales. For example, that Red-tailed hawk appearing in a backyard is contingent on individual lot designs (e.g., leaving those large snags or trees for nesting), available habitat in a neighborhood (e.g., land development regulations that addressed conserving remnants and using native plants in landscaping), and city land use maps (i.e., plans that address the juxtaposition of open space and built areas).

There is a direct connection between the design decisions made at different scales and the distribution of wildlife species within a region!

Currently, there is a Roundtable discussion this month – “Should programs in architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture require a certain minimum level of learning about the fundamentals of ecology? Why?”  My two cents should be apparent, a resounding YES!; programs in architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture should require a minimum of learning about the fundamentals of ecology. Why? Because I think (not to step on anybody’s toes, there are many good exceptions) these fields tend to focus on the design towards aesthetics and the use of ecological principles in a project design tend to be tepid. In general, long-term functionality of conserved patches and corridors are not addressed in most individual development and city designs.

As I have mentioned in my other blogs, design is important BUT IT IS ONLY THE FIRST STEP. What goes on around conserved patches and corridors, such as nearby land uses, can have heavy impacts and prevent wildlife from utilizing these habitats. Think of invasive exotic plants spreading into remnants and corridors, fertilizers running off properties and entering wetlands, and nearby residents illegally using these natural areas for all-terrain-vehicles. The management of these patches and corridors are just as critical, even more so when situated near urban dwellings. Funds are needed to do prescribed burns, trash pick-up, invasive exotic control, and other management practices. Urban patches can attract a variety of wildlife, if they are managed appropriately.

Good design is not enough, it must be combined with good management.

Hooded Oriole. Photo: Walter Kitundu
Hooded Oriole. Photo: Walter Kitundu

Further, residents must be engaged as they are (by default) the long-term stewards of the conserved areas. Part of a design project could include education and engagement programs that include the installation of educational kiosks that help inform residents about the importance of managing their own homes, yards, and neighborhoods in an ecologically sensitive manner.

Thus projects that could contain natural patches and corridors for wildlife, design professionals should be trained about long-term management options for their designs. Nearby built infrastructure should be designed with the idea of limiting impacts on natural areas — for example, limiting the amount of lawn and incorporating more native plants into a landscape would minimize impacts. The context and site conditions for each development will dictate the optimal design.

Perhaps, for instance, it may behoove one to fill in wetlands in order to conserve larger patches. WHAT? I can hear the protests now. However, filling in wetlands may work to avoid this scenario: if all, small wetlands were conserved, then a more fragmented landscape containing wetlands and conserved upland areas would be surrounded by built landscapes and prone to daily impact by nearby homes and streets. Designating larger conserved areas, separated as much as possible from built areas, would make management of the conserved areas easier, and such a design helps buffer against impacts stemming from built areas, in part by reducing the edge effects discussed above.

Each site is different and opportunities exist at different scales to benefit local, regional, and even global species. Collaborations between ecologists and built environment professionals can help to create “doable” wildlife conservation goals for a site, whether it is focused on specific species or general biodiversity conservation. Such collaborations will result in optimal designs for wildlife conservation However, we must put management on the same pedestal as design. Successful projects will only come about when “optimal” ecological design is combined with “best” ecological management practices.

Mark Hostetler 

On The Nature of Cities


A Natural Offset for the Rio 2016 Olympic Park

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Brazilian landscapes suffer rapid and repetitive transformations through intense and successive periods of exploitation—for example, the Brazilwood that gave the country its name, sugar cane, coffee, cattle, soy or urbanization and its infrastructural needs. Such degradation processes provoke losses of nature and biodiversity, which are hardly reversible, but restoration initiatives had already been introduced and occur in rural and urban landscapes at the intersection of landscape architecture, landscape planning, landscape ecology and ecological restoration.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Park, on the city’s waterfront, is converting its degraded landfill into an ecological restoration project. This is not an isolated initiative but is part of a larger ecological and landscape strategy for lagoon borders and ecological corridors for the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Priority  areas  for  green  corridors  implantation.  Secretaria  do  Meio  Ambiente  da  Cidade.  Prefeitura Municipal do Rio de Janeiro
Priority areas for green corridors implantation. Secretaria do Meio Ambiente da Cidade. Prefeitura Municipal do Rio de Janeiro

EMBYÁ Paisagens & Ecossistemas landscape studio was commissioned to detail and pursue AECOM’s preliminary landscape architectural study for the Olympic path and the park at the lagoon’s edge. The project for the border of the lagoon had evolved from the preliminary study, due to the environmental requirements of creating an ecological restoration.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Park is inserted in the Macro Watershed of the Jacarepaguá  district (commonly called Barra da Tijuca) and planned in 1969 by Lucio Costa, who was also an urban planner who worked on the city of Brasilia. The district’s composition is influenced by rational urbanism, its traffic structures are bold and its uses observe monofunctional zoning categories.

Lucio Costa’s plan has suffered social transformations since its design and, as a result of market pressure, has been transformed into a district of gated communities punctuated by commercial structures that mostly have a “Miami” residential identity. In forty years it has been transformed from a human desert that only had only beaches, swamps, sand dunes, shrubs and thickets, into a district with more than 300,000 inhabitants, a second urban center for Rio.

The macro watershed of Jacarepaguá is framed on its northeast and northwest sides by two ranges of forested hills, two of the biggest urban conservation units in the world (Parque da Pedra Branca and Parque da Tijuca) and on its south shore by 27 kilometers of ocean beaches, making a triangle of sandy lowlands. The name of this landscape type is restingas, which are wide sand deposits running parallel to the shoreline. These deposits were produced by sedimentation processes in two separate historic sea level rise incidents 120,000 and 5,000 years ago. These geologic formations give their name to the area’s specific marine-influenced vegetation that colonizes its soils through different phytophysionomies from reptant beach vegetation, shrubs, thickets, floodplain forest, and  fresh  and  saltwater  swamps. These formations are very fragile and quickly react to any transformation or pressure. These ecosystems are currently suffering from anthropic pressure in a direct conflict with the removal of the land cover due to land-filled urbanization and its consequent dramatic changes in landscape dynamics.

Territorial structure of the General Olympic Green Corridor, a unique opportunity for urban ecology
Territorial structure of the General Olympic Green Corridor, a unique opportunity for urban ecology

This geology created by a rise in sea level is very sensitive to the actual return of this phenomenon, the most sensitive areas are the humid zones and water bodies like lagoons and swamps, which will follow the sea level rise elevation and will extend their surface, and lowlands that will turn back into swamps. Lagoons and humid zones are connected to the sea level by channels or by marine pressure on the water table. But as the frequency of extreme climatic events increases in Rio de Janeiro, its inhabitants are already able to testify to the collapse of its hydrologic system due to massive flooding. In addition to another natural factor, it can dramatically influence the magnitude of flooding caused by rain in combination with sea tides, during a full or new moon or during high tide (or both at the same time). It often results in the entire city coming to a standstill, affecting road infrastructures and other lowland typologies like residential and commercial areas.

Existing conditions
Existing conditions

Ecological restoration and the reconstitution of a continuous planted bank of mangrove is not only important for the wildlife habitat but is also a tactical tool for stabilizing the edges of the lagoon. The mangrove’s dense terrestrial and aerial root system prevents erosion and acts as a resilient agent in the changes of the lagoon limits.

The main problem for these lagoons is their environmental suffering, which is mainly due to biological and chemical pollution on top of abundant sedimentation, which is creating great oxygenation problems for its water bodies.

Water bodies of Jacaperaguá watershed
Water bodies of Jacaperaguá watershed

Regulatory instruments for territorial occupation are numerous and Brazil has a wide range of environmental laws applying to its territory. Brazil is a federation, so these laws are issued on three levels: municipal, state and federal, creating a dense legal context for any territorial intervention. The Código Florestal is the main legal environmental instrument, issued from the federal level, it applies to all Brazilian territory. Its terms define the Permanent Preservation Areas (APP), which are unoccupiable areas defined by geomorphologic, hydrologic and vegetational  criteria, which  are  environmental  conditions  for  land  use. The  Jacaperaguá Lagoon, in front of the Rio 2016 Olympic Park, has a 25-meter-wide, georeferenced marginal protection strip that is defined as an APP bordering its entire lagoon front.

Although still in the planning phase, Rio de Janeiro has an ambitious mosaic of green corridors crossing the city. The mosaic needs to be implemented, considering the speed with which urbanization is occurring. One of its many sectors is the lowland area of Barra da Tijuca, which is different from most of the other regions, as mainly the hills receive this kind of intervention. The sector of Barra da Tijuca, however, which is also called the Olympic Corridor, was already planned by EMBYÁ in a multidisciplinary working group in 2013. The goal was to identify the lowest-lying land as a potential area for ecological connections and for urban ecology initiatives, as they can also assume social functions.

Barra da Tijuca has already had restoration interventions, which were all done by the landscape architect Fernando Chacel during the 1990s, when he built them and created the Ecogenêse methodology. This involved working with botanists, biologists and naturalists to recreate natural landscapes that imitate natural local vegetal formations through the use of restinga native plants like bromeliads, shrubs, trees and mangroves, which are another coastal ecosystem at the intersection of salt and fresh water.

Ecological restoration and native vegetation planting is a legal exigency for these water body borders, but the legal texts remain quite undefined with regard to methodologies, phytophysionomies and biodiversity, etc. These areas are commonly planted with an arboreous stratus in conventional reforestation methods and alternating monospecific bush masses.

The ecological restoration for Rio 2016 defines the use of two main ecosystems based on scientific floral studies made prior to occupation: manguezal and restinga. In the case of the restinga, the study did not only focus on the arboreous layer but also on reconstructing the mixed-stratus vegetation communities.

Phytosociological structure of a well conserved restinga. Massambaba, Arraial do Cabo
Phytosociological structure of a well conserved restinga. Massambaba, Arraial do Cabo

Before work on the Olympic Games site began, it was a speedway with an aerodrome on its border and irregular occupations from different social classes. Its topographic morphology is characterized by flat land that has been filled with earthworks according to the occupation methodology of the region, which has resulted in few areas for the natural accommodation of rain water and increased flood management problems. The vegetation used was mainly exotic herbaceous, including a  few exotic trees. In addition to its flat landfill typology, it is configured as an artificial landscape, with no natural attributes to preserve.

Ecosystems zones, render of the project, EMBYÁ
Ecosystems zones, render of the project, EMBYÁ

Restinga and mangrove phytophysionomies respond to topographic conditions, and can change their structure within a few decimeters of level variations. The mangrove, which remains permanently in brackish water, requires the removal of the emerged part of a landfill and proportionally pushes itself into the lagoon to create a submersed plateau. During the planting phase this vegetation is sensitive to water level variation, but after growing higher than one meter it becomes resistant to big changes in water level, and when it is mature can cope with drastic changes. Another factor for mangrove planting that is necessary in the Jacarepagua Lagoon is protection from floating garbage, and a system to alleviate this problem must be installed in the water on the border of the submersed plateau.

 From sandy lowlands to humid zone, render of the project, EMBYÁ

From sandy lowlands to humid zone, render of the project, EMBYÁ

Mangrove trees or seeds are not sold in nurseries and for every mangrove restoration it is necessary to make an on-site nursery with seeds or cuttings, depending on the species collected in the same watershed. As mangrove is a pioneer ecosystem, this operation is easy, with high rates of success. This process will only take three months if carried out at an appropriate moment regarding the seeding periods. Two species of mangrove were planted in parallel strips, Laguncularia racemosa and at a greater width Rhizophora mangle, as its root system permits more visibility of the lagoon for visitors.

The listing of restinga species was based on phytosociological studies made of the vegetal communities, and based on their observations 8 mixes of plants were created according to different vegetal strati, such as reptant, herbaceous, cactaceous, shrubby, arboreous and sparse native vegetation to create a biologically diverse restoration that better reflects the ecological structures of the restinga than in a conventional reforestation project that only uses an arboreous vegetation stratus.

amples of vegetation compositions using mixed stratus, reptant, shrub, arboreous, epyphitesvii
amples of vegetation compositions using mixed stratus, reptant, shrub, arboreous, epyphitesvii

Similarly to mangrove vegetation, a part of this restinga vegetation needs to be produced, as specialized nurseries are very rare and are relatively small. Collecting seeds will need to be done in other restingas in the state of Rio de Janeiro, as in the Barra conserved areas are very rare and their floral components have already been greatly disturbed.

Irrigation is being done manually during a three-month period, which is enough time to get the plants’ root systems developed in their new soils. Maintenance will be carried out for two years, and mainly consists of removing invasive species.

This contemporary chapter of ecological restoration in Barra da Tijuca is planned and projected to connect with other similar restoration projects, as each land owner bordering the lagoons and water bodies needs to restore it. Some rare interventions make the completion of corridors more rapid: environmental compensatory measures financed by polluting firms like steel  mills and oil  extraction companies, etc. These companies were  involved in detailing planning of the ecological corridors, for instance the western part of the Olympic corridor that connects lagoons, canals, hills and beaches.

This also included a citizen participation process. Planning and constructing regenerated natural spaces  requires  extended  knowledge of environmental legislation, urban legislation, biology, sociology and engineering. Landscape architecture provides the tools and the methodology for this kind of work.

Brazil is actually the most biologically diverse country on earth and the formation and recognition of the landscape architecture diploma is in the process of regulation. This biodiversity can serve as a special highlight for the future of the profession and for the overall formation of Brazilian landscape architecture.

Pierre-André Martin
Rio de Janeiro

On The Nature of Cities


A New Reconnection Agenda for People and Nature

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I have recently started working on a new project that will explore how reconnecting people with nature can help transform society towards sustainability (see ‘Connectedness with nature’ has recently become a buzz phrase, with scientists, journalists and practitioners talking about the problems of disconnection, the benefits of reconnection, and the ways that we can become more connected with nature in our day-to-day lives. (See Tim Beatley’s TNOC blog on the nature pyramid).

(1) Disconnection from nature and the broader sustainability problem

Much of the discussion has been about the implications of connectedness with nature for human health and wellbeing outcomes. And for good reason! There is a growing evidence base that highlights the substantial physical and mental health benefits of interaction with green and natural environments (Keniger et al., 2013). In fact, some experts are now arguing that health outcomes of nature exposure should be considered in terms of dose-response relationships as in traditional medical research (Shanahan et al., 2015). Yet other commentators have flagged society’s disconnection from nature as underpinning broader global environmental and sustainability problems (Folke et al., 2011). If reconnecting people with nature is key to tackling major sustainability problems, what is the role of the city? Are cities part of the problem, or central to the solution?

(2) Are cities the problem or the solution?

Urban living has been cited as a key driver of people’s disconnection from natural environments (Miller, 2005). The ‘extinction of experience’ has been said to be most acute in cities, and is increasing. Children in particular are spending less and less time outdoors engaging in nature-based activities. This disconnection has been highlighted by Richard Louv in his book “Last child in the woods” (2005). His message has struck a chord with the general public, with the book receiving much attention and popular media coverage. There has also been research showing that the time children spend indoors using electronic devices has increased over time. These indoor activities have been related to a downward trend in national park visitation (Pergams & Zaradic, 2006). Cities have even been blamed for luring tourists away from wild and natural areas. The relationship between urban lifestyles and experiential disconnection from nature has been an impetus for the burgeoning growth in urban greening movements in urban planning (e.g. the Biophilic Cities movement). According to this thinking, promoting nature experiences in urban environments is key to tackling broader environmental challenges because cities are home to most people on the planet.

City children are engaging in these kinds of nature experiences less frequently. Image: Crystal E Zobel

While urban landscapes are generally seen as presenting significant challenges to human-nature connections, some commentators consider this disconnection from nature as being positive for environmental outcomes because it concentrates impacts in a small spatial area (e.g. ecomodernist manifesto). Indeed, while local green environments are key for urban dwellers’ experiences of the natural world, low-density cities with many green open spaces may be bad for regional biodiversity (Soga et al 2015).

Therefore, a trade-off potentially exists between cities designed for human-nature experiences and those that minimise broader environmental impacts. In order to explore whether cities are the problem or solution, it’s necessary to unpack the types of human-nature connections that may be important and how these relate to sustainability outcomes.

(3) Types of disconnection

Connection with nature can be considered as encompassing multiple dimensions. Here, I consider four dimensions of nature connection—material connections, experiential connections, cognitive/psychological connections and philosophical connections—and assess the role of cities in fostering or undermining these.

A city is defined as an area of high human population density. For this reason, cities naturally consume lots of resources, ‘metabolise’ them through various socioeconomic activities, and produce waste. This way of looking at cities is often referred to as ‘urban metabolism’. Cities are therefore hugely reliant upon (and materially connected to) natural ecosystems that provide the goods and services that sustain them. However, over the past century, cities have increased in size and number, and the nature of these connections has changed. As seen in Fig. 1, globalisation has led to cities being increasingly “tele-connected” to distant ecosystems in various parts of the globe, rather than intimately reliant upon local ecosystems that provide direct feedbacks.

Figure 1. The change over time in the material connections between cities and the ecosystems that sustain them. Image: Ch 2 of CBO Outlook book (

As I touched on already, people’s experiential connections with urban nature characterise their day-to-day life. Experiential connections can be hampered through urban planning decisions that squeeze out green environments from the urban matrix (particularly in response to densification pressures), poor accessibility as a result of transport infrastructure (this is particularly problematic in large cities where it can be difficult to access hinterland environments), or individual behavioural decisions (often as a result of people being disinterested in nature or leading increasingly busy lives).

Cognitive connections with nature relate in part to the information people receive about their choices and behaviours. As Andersson et al. (2014) said in their recent article “[t]he physical and mental distance between urban consumers and the ecosystems supporting them mask the ecological implications of choices made”. These cognitive connections extend from knowing where food products come from through to understanding the ecology of local nature reserves. However, there’s evidence that experiential connections are related closely to environmental knowledge and psychological orientations towards the natural world. For example, a study of an urban park in Germany showed that park visitors who visited more frequently had better knowledge of animal species found in the reserve (Randler et al., 2007). In addition, research from Brisbane has shown that green space visitation rates are more greatly influenced by people’s ‘nature relatedness’ (a psychological measure of a person’s affinity with the natural world) than their proximity to a green space (Lin et al., 2014). This suggests therefore that a positive feedback may exist between people’s psychological orientation towards nature and their experience of nature: the more people experience natural environments (particularly as children), the more they will feel a connection to the natural world, and the more they will continue to visit. Conversely, the less people experience natural environments, the less they may care about them.

The final type of connection with nature might be termed ‘philosophical’ connection, or environmental worldview. Scholars are increasingly noting that different people and societies hold different perspectives on how humans relate to the natural world. The dominant philosophy underpinning modern western society is that of humans controlling nature and valuing the natural world primarily for the instrumental goods and services it can provide. This contrasts with alternative metaphors such as people as ‘stewards’ of the natural world, or as part of a broader ‘web of life’ (Raymond et al 2013). These philosophical perspectives imbue individuals, communities, and corporations and therefore have far reaching implications for sustainability. Because philosophical perspectives are passed between people within specific social contexts, cities are places where these are naturally shaped, developed and communicated.

(4) A new reconnection agenda

Cities are key to global sustainability outcomes. Urbanisation has undoubtedly contributed to the environmental crisis through the consumption of resources and disconnection of people from local environments. Yet cities are also the solution. There is a vital need to reconnect urban populations with nature, but we must also move beyond superficial connections to those connections that will contribute to systemic change. Climate change, species extinction, global poverty, natural resource depletion; these are the big issues that are facing our world today that require huge shifts in how humanity relates to the natural world. Promoting more frequent visits to the local park will not achieve this change. What we need is a wholesale shift in personal and societal orientation towards nature that results in individual and collective behaviour change.

Could focusing on connections with nature in a broader sense provide a key to the type of transformation needed? We need a reconnection agenda that focuses on reconnecting people with the natural world experientially (increased interaction with natural environments), materially (strengthening ties with local ecosystems), cognitively (increasing knowledge of our reliance on nature), and philosophically (engendering respect for the planet). As areas of high population density, cities are ideally placed to drive this reconnection agenda, particularly in regards to cognitive and philosophical reconnection. As cultural hubs, cities promote community interaction and development and ideas are spread quickly in them. Cities are also centres of economic activity and home to corporation headquarters. Institutions that may be instrumental in effecting change for sustainability are based in cities. Cities are even critical to promoting moral and religious messages related to sustainability, as highlighted by the Pope’s recent tour of the US, where he reiterated humanity’s responsibility to steward the environment. If it is value shift that’s needed, then this is most possible in cities.

ZEALANDIA from Air Photo Creit - Rob Suisted
Zealandia nature sanctuary from air. Image: Rob Suisted

So what would this reconnection agenda look like in practical terms? There is not enough space in this blog post to explore it in detail, but I present a few initial ideas here. To increase the value of experiential connections, urban planners and designers should look to enhance biodiversity in green spaces as a way of increasing the ‘intensity’ of the nature experience in what are often quite ecologically sterile landscapes (see Ikin et al., 2015, for ideas). Wellington’s ‘Zealandia’ wildlife sanctuary is a good example of a well managed and popular nature reserve close to the urban centre. In addition to this, there’s a need for cities to promote sustainability initiatives that emerge through grassroots or non-government organisations. Relevant examples include the recent ‘car free day’ in Paris, or WWF’s ‘Earth Hour City Challenge’. These initiatives can be powerful tools for generating attitudinal and behavioural change in individuals and institutions that go far beyond the single event.

A car free day in Paris. Image: Maxime Lathuilière

Cities are key places for reconnecting people with nature. Yet it is time for cities to take nature connections to the next level: to go beyond making urban landscapes pleasant for their inhabitants to become places that drive transformation.

Chris Ives

On The Nature of Cities

A picture of a large tree cut down with limbs and sawdust everywhere

A New Tree Ethic: What If Trees Really Mattered?

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
The benefits of trees are irrefutable, but they are not widely understood and don’t seem to change behavior much. This suggests we need other approaches to convince people trees really matter. There are several promising directions.

Several weeks ago, I was startled when taking a typical morning walk to find that a large and majestic white oak tree had been cut down and lay in the front of a neighbor’s yard. It was a shocking and sad sight, a tree I had admired almost daily, reduced to a pile of sawed-up and lifeless segments on the ground. Several days later I happened upon the neighbor who was standing in front of his home. While I did not know him personally, I mustered up the courage to ask why he had cut down the tree. He hemmed and vacillated a bit in his answer and mumbled something about how the tree was leaning and felt it better to deal with the tree now than at some later point. He did not seem troubled at all about the decision, though slightly irritated at the question I posed. (Why is this any of your concern?) The tree looked to me to be quite healthy, and it was at least 15 feet away from the house. I remain perplexed by this decision, and the street and the neighborhood are poorer for it.

The last few months especially have been one similar sad discovery after another. It feels at times like I am living in a battleground (see the image below), with arboreal casualties piling up all around me. Many large trees are being cut down all around my city and the cumulative result is showing: a recent study found that the City of Charlottesville has witnessed a sharp reduction in tree canopy in a short period of time: from around 50 percent a decade ago to around 35 percent today.[1] We are still a leafy city, but the deforestation happening around us is clearly accelerating.

What is striking to me is the casualness of these acts. The loss of a several-hundred-year-old tree ought to be a gut-wrenching decision, made only as an absolute last resort. I am surprised that others don’t seem to care as much as I do or feel as emotionally and viscerally harmed by these decisions. Trees just don’t seem to matter much; I am perplexed about why that is so and what steps we might take individually and collectively to change this.

A picture of a large tree cut down with limbs and sawdust everywhere
Figure 1: One of the many older trees lost recently in Charlottesville, VA
Image: Tim Beatley

I find myself often holding the thought that, unfortunately, while I find these older trees absolutely wondrous, many others in this otherwise environmentally aware and progressive community, do not feel the same way. And our city has an anemic tree code that does little to protect trees like this (though there are now proposals that would strengthen this code). The experience of discovering or in some cases watching a large older tree being cut down is not, unfortunately, uncommon.

My conclusion, unfortunately, is that trees don’t seem to matter much. They are viewed for the most part as largely inanimate objects. Even quite modest reasons seem sufficient to justify cutting down trees, despite the reality that the loss, especially of large-diameter older trees, represents a wound and harm that extends well beyond the crown or boughs or the root zone of the individual tree. The decision to cut down such a tree should matter dearly, and I am increasingly distressed by why this is not the case. And I desperately want to figure out how this could change and how we might grow or cultivate a society that appreciates the value of these trees, that believes deeply that they matter and that they should be, wherever possible, preserved, and cherished.

There are many explanations of course for why trees don’t seem to matter. Part of it could be attributed to what has been called “plant blindness”. That is, a tendency to care about animals and critters of all kinds that move and speak and grab our attention. There is especially a bias in favor of larger (and charismatic) mammals, of course, but even an ant or a mayfly receives more of our attention than the host plants that help sustain them. Paying full attention to plants and trees has always been a challenge.

No doubt that mattering challenges are made much more difficult by the prevailing ways we tend to see and treat the natural world. A big part of the problem is that trees are first and foremost understood as private property, to be used as a property owner sees fit, with little consideration of public impacts or implications. Many trees in cities are found in parks and public spaces, but often the majority of trees are found on private land. Boston’s recently released urban forest plan, for instance, notes that over 60 percent of its trees are found on privately owned land.[2]

What are we to do to create a world (and cities) where trees really do matter? One approach is to continue to talk about the many benefits trees provide, individually and collectively. To speak (as I often do) of the important shading benefits, of their value in capturing and retaining stormwater, and in sequestering carbon. I am often emphasizing the incredible beauty and delight that trees bring to me, daily and hourly. Trees and urban forests are having a day when it comes to appreciating their benefits in helping cities adapt to extreme heat. But perhaps we have forgotten all the other daily delights that trees provide and/or we tend to forget or minimize their value as an essential foundation in most of our daily nature diets. I think of the magnolia flowers that are starting to bloom here in Virginia, and the tulip trees flowering all around me. And, of course, each large tree is a remarkable and complex ecosystem itself providing spaces for birds, squirrels, and all manner of other life that animate our backyards and the spaces around cities. Without trees, there would be few birds, we know, yet we often fail to make the connection between tree conservation and the sights and sounds of the other nonhuman souls that we delight in seeing and experiencing. We would be lonely without trees and the remarkable habitats they provide. Perhaps there are more convincing arguments to make or perhaps they could be delivered in more effective or convincing ways?

And scholarly evidence mounts weekly, so perhaps an emphasis on these new insights would move the needle. This includes a recent study from Belgium that shows a sharp relationship between sales of mood disorder drugs and heart disease medication with the presence and size of trees―the larger the crown the lower the need for such medications.[3] Or the recent study showing the inverse relationship between trees and mortality.[4] The health benefits of trees, mental health benefits especially, are remarkable and to my way of thinking irrefutable.

These are all important arguments, and we should continue to make them. But they are not widely understood and unfortunately don’t seem to change behavior much. That is too bad, but it suggests we need other techniques and strategies and approaches if we are ever to reach a point where trees really do matter. What might be the antidote, or partial antidote to this problem? What might we do to shift our mindset and attitude so that trees do indeed matter? There are several promising directions.

Part of what we must do is better understand the psychology of trees and tree protection and factors that might influence a decision or more broadly the importance we give to urban trees and forests. Trees are cut down for various reasons, of course: a dislike for the leaves they deposit every fall, concerns about trees falling on roofs, a desire to let in more light, and often it seems a desire to change up the look or feel of a house. I do not wish to minimize these reasons, but they mostly seem insufficient to justify the loss of a grand and magnificent living being that does so much for us collectively. And I think we fail for the most part in our reasoning to think carefully and adequately account for the public costs on the other side of the ledger sheet. In working on behalf of trees (making trees matter) should our approach be to counter each of these arguments? For example, it is ok, indeed ecologically preferable, to let the leaves fall where they will.

Trees for most of us largely recede into the background of our lives. We may not be alarmed by their loss, when it happens, in part because we tend not even to notice or pay much attention to them. As the late poet Mary Oliver has pointedly observed, “attention is the beginning of devotion”. How do we work to make the trees around us more visible and important? What can we do to help to make them matter?

Making trees personal

Dating trees might help persuade some of us about their right to exist. When I speak of the estimated age of the grand white oak that sits adjacent to the UVA School of Architecture―likely close to 300 years old—it never fails to generate an audible “wow”. If we had to attempt to raise an oak tree from an acorn (something I have been trying to do) we would further appreciate just how unlikely and difficult it is that trees of this age and size exist around us.

We must truly see and experience the trees and forests around us, in personal and visceral ways, for them to matter. These can happen in many creative ways. In many places, there are organized tree walks and community tree celebrations. In some cities, there are annual “Tree of the Year” competitions. There are online maps that help us collect and disseminate the personal stories and histories of the trees around us. QR codes, Virtual Reality, and many other digital technologies are increasingly used to foster greater awareness and connection. I am reminded of the primary school in Western Australia I had the chance to visit years ago where all students learned to identify native species of trees and where a native “bushland” behind the school became an important space for learning about and connecting with nature. Or more recently the schools in Berkeley, California, that are engaging students in the planting of schoolyard mini-forests, using the Miyawaki planting method.

There are also so many ways that we can practice modern life (and lives) in ways that pay attention to the trees around us; that actively acknowledge them as co-occupants and co-citizens. Standing up and actively giving voice to trees is one way, and we have many good examples of where that has been and is happening. Mourning and grieving the loss of special trees (several years ago a colleague of mine wrote and distributed an obituary of one special tree). Recognizing the many ways that the histories and lives of trees and humans are bound together (and collecting those stories, for instance through an online initiative started at Portland State called Canopy Story[5]). Various tree rituals are helpful as well, some even daily. For example, I hold “tree hours” for students in my classes, convening under an old white oak.

Starting tree rituals of various kinds is another possibility.

Here at UVA, I now require students in my Cities + Nature class to keep a nature journal and one of the directed entry assignments is to find and write about their favorite tree on campus. Part of that involves learning as much as they can about that tree and drawing it. Many students are not very confident about their drawing skills but often produce remarkably detailed pictures of their favorite trees, evidencing considerable time noticing the details and observing firsthand the life of this tree. Spending time noticing the trees around, learning their common species names, the colors, and shapes of leaves, and sitting under or near them to listen to the sounds that emanate—what writer David George Haskell has called the “song of trees”[6]. Calculating the age of a tree is another way to particularize it―and also to gain a sense of perspective about what it took to live and grow and survive over a long period of time. The more we learn and absorb about a particular tree the more we are likely to care about it and come to its defense.

The more we know about specific trees, the less likely we are to see the decision to cut down a tree as a trivial thing. The more it is understood to impact a family member, the more that tree will matter, and the more protective we are likely to be.

A tree as a who, not an it

Naming trees will also help. While subject to the perennial criticism of over-anthropomorphizing, where we can we need to name trees. Specific names that send the signal that a specific individual tree, standing before us. It is a fungible entity―that can be traded off in some way, but a living individual deserving of attention and care. There are recent examples of how effective such an approach can (sometimes) be. In Seattle, for instance, a large western red cedar known as “May” was in jeopardy of being cut down when neighbors joined together to lobby for its protection.[7] Almost everyone in the Seward Park neighborhood seemed to know May, and eventually, the residents were able to convince the owners, who were building a replacement home to one that had burned down, to save the tree. As in so many cases, it is not clear why the owners would have needed to cut the tree down in the first place.

Native American author Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her powerful book Braiding Sweetgrass, rightly concurs about the importance of names and naming in the Seattle example.[8] Naming means they become people. Native Americans speak of trees and forests, she tells us, as the “standing people”, and view nonhuman lives through a lens of kinship. How we speak about the trees around us conveys much of what we believe about them.

A “grammar of animacy”, she advises, strengthens this sense of trees as people. Conversely “when we tell them the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation”.[9] I make a point, where I can catch myself, of never calling a tree an “it”, or a bird or an ant, choosing a gendered pronoun. It is not perfect, but such practices will help to see the trees around us in a different way.

Kimmerer eloquently describes the central role of gratitude and reciprocity in indigenous cultures. Gratitude begets reciprocity; expressing gratitude for the gifts given to us by trees around us (in cities especially) is a good start: the gifts of shade, water, food, birds, and beautiful colors, among others. “One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world”, Kimmerer says.[10] What would reciprocity look like for urban trees? Taking meaningful steps to care for and water trees in times of drought, to steward over and protect them from the incessant chainsaw.

A new tree ethic

As much as anything, then, we need to develop and disseminate a new ethic of trees; one that sets out a new narrative about them, and new assumptions about their relationship to humans. It would necessarily build on these Native American notions of trees as kin and the importance of reciprocity. Another element of this ethic involves the inherently public nature of the decisions made about them, especially older, ancient trees. As trees get larger and older the magnitude of their impacts all grow: the extent of the shade they provide, the caterpillars they offer up to nesting birds, and the carbon they sequester. In this way, their “publicness” grows substantially over time. The loss of such trees will have a large public impact. Protecting and caring for these trees can be framed as a civic act and as a modern element of what it means to be a good citizen.

Margaret Renkl, writing in the New York Times, calls for a “profound paradigm shift”. She says so eloquently “We need to stop thinking of trees as objects that belong to us and come to understand them as long-lived ecosystems temporarily under our protection. We have borrowed them from the past, and we owe them to the future”.[11] She rightly points out the temporary tenure we hold over these old trees and our duty to ensure that they exist in the future.

What Renkl is describing really is the need for a new kind of tree ethic; a collective sense of what we owe trees and forests, and what our ethical obligations are to them and relative to them. We are duty-bound, I believe, to recognize the immense public benefits they provide and to treat them with care and respect. Older, larger trees especially ought to be understood as living elements of our communities worthy of celebration, veneration, and protection.

This brings us closer to the idea of the rights of nature, a perspective growing in importance globally. The view that that tree or that urban grove has intrinsic moral value and an inherent right to exist, irrespective of whatever utility or value the tree has for humans. It was a profound, and still quite a new idea, when I first read Christopher Stone’s groundbreaking essay “Should Trees Have Standing”.[12] He proposed then, in 1972, the “unthinkable”: “that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment―indeed to the natural environment as a whole”.[13] It is a natural extension of naming those trees if they are understood to be living individuals. And the work of tree luminaries and pioneers like Suzanne Simard, and Diana Beresford-Kroeger, have helped us to see how complex and wondrous trees and forests are; and to begin to see them as living creatures with agency and sentience.

Most of the official signals we send about the older trees around reinforce the sense that these trees are of nominal value and akin to landscaping choices made by a homeowner. That could change. The adoption of a strong tree protection ordinance or code would help greatly, though lax enforcement often reinforces the sense that decisions about trees are best left to the property owner.

Acknowledging the great trees among us

Paying homage to the grand trees around us would also be a good step in the right direction. On a recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia I sought out (to visit and see) the oldest tree in that city. I found it, thanks to an online list of Champion Trees kept by the nonprofit Trees Atlanta. It was a Cherrybark oak, a remarkable 274 inches in circumference. Her crown was immense, shading much of the opposite side of the street. I doubt many residents of Atlanta know her, nevertheless, make time to find and visit her. But they should. And we should, in the cities and neighborhoods where we cohabit space.

A picture of a street with trees and electric poles running alongside it
Figure 2: Atlanta’s Cherrybark Oak
Image: Tim Beatley

I also feel that many decisions about the status of larger trees would benefit from conversation and discussion among neighbors. This again flies in the face of the “a tree is private property” belief, but I think it is undeniable that outcomes would be different if the owner of an older tree fully appreciated the extent to which that tree or drive was valued and enjoyed by others in the community.

And here the power of peer pressure might help to strengthen a collective tree ethic. Aldo Leopold in his famous book A Sand County Almanac contemplated what it would take to implement a land ethic. He rightly notes that the most effective ethic is one that is enforced through public sentiment and community attitudes: “The mechanism of operation [of the land ethic] is the same for any ethic: social approbation for right actions; social disapproval for wrong actions”.[14]

Here I am reminded of the late poet Mary Oliver’s remarkable poem “The Black Walnut Tree”.[15] In it, she and mother (I am assuming she is relating a personal story) grapple with the economic decision of cutting down a beloved Black Walnut tree, concluding in the end not to cut it down. In the poem, Oliver and her mother talk it through, “two women trying in a difficult time to be wise”. Careful and thoughtful deliberation is needed but so often lacking when it comes to decisions about trees. In the end, “Something brighter than money moves in our blood,” says Oliver, and the decision is made to save the tree.

Is this “something brighter” a love for the tree, or perhaps a sense of stewardship, a recognition of personal responsibility to care for the tree and the many animals and other living things that rely upon it as their home? Is it a sense of civic duty to refrain from destroying something that is such an important collective good? It is not clear in the poem, but there are hints of these considerations.

Selling the tree might pay off the mortgage, writes Oliver, but if they did this, “what my mother and I both know is that we’d crawl with shame in the emptiness we’d made in our own and our fathers’ backyard”. The poem reflects the sense of collective or familial disapproval and hints at the importance of this in understanding the psychology of these kinds of decisions. In contrast to this poetic story, there is rarely the feeling of shame. It is more akin to changing a sweater or choosing a different color paint for the exterior of one’s house. And at a time when we are even less likely to know our neighborhood perhaps it is unrealistic to expect much of such a strategy or to assume that a homeowner will care at all what others might think of her actions.

Those of us lucky enough to have older trees ought to think about the legacy value of taking steps to protect them and passing them along. Many of us who are moving into our elder years ought to be experiencing what social psychologist Erick Erickson described as “generativity,” the desire to think about one’s legacy, what one will leave behind, a natural desire that tends to emerge in the last stage of human development. As the number of people 65 and over rises sharply perhaps there will be a rapid rise in legacy thinking and actions that tree protection can rightly tap into? One of the largest and oldest trees here in central Virginia is a white oak, now adjacent to our airport, that was preserved in the will of the landowner. Giving new meaning to the idea of a living will, I’d like to challenge older folks to think about how they will protect and pass along the giant trees around them—putting in place legal protections that will ensure the acts of passing along that Renkl speaks of above.

Economic signals

There are other things we can do, of course, including working to change the economic and moral signals we send about the trees around us. I have advocated for many years the need to reform our local property tax systems to better take into account trees and the ecosystem services provided especially older, larger trees. Most local property assessments do not explicitly consider trees, but they could. A homeowner willing to protect a large older tree, or several, is entitled to a rebate or reduction in their tax bill that reflects the ecosystem benefits provided by the tree or trees. If the tree is cut down, the annual financial benefit goes away and so there is a tangible cost borne by the property owner.

There are many precedents for such an approach to point to. In other parts of the world, the idea of offering annual payments for actions that support the protection of the environment. In the Netherlands, farmers have received payments for protecting endangered species. In the US, we have precedents as well. Many cities now have stormwater management districts that assess a stormwater fee calculated according to the extent of impervious surface and the presence of trees and vegetation. Cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas have generous financial rebates for homeowners willing to take out water-thirsty lawns and replace them with xeriscaping and drought-tolerant plants. And I recently wrote about a community in Florida that has been providing a subsidy (small to be sure) for homeowners willing to host nests of burrowing owls.[16] There are lots of examples of the kind of economic incentives that would make a meaningful difference. And in addition to the economic calculus offered, they also have the benefit of sending a clear message to property owners (and the larger public) that trees do indeed matter.

The public trust doctrine

We also need to address some of the false arguments that defend or support the casual and callous cutting of older trees. One I hear often is that a tree is coming to the end of its life anyway so why not cut it down? New research suggests that trees (unlike humans) don’t die of old age but rather from some specific threat or ailment―they are hit by lightning or succumb to a disease or a pest. Most of the large trees I see could easily live for many more years, and don’t exhibit signs of disease or distress.

Still, there is the retort that trees are private property, and their disposition is rightly the domain of private decisions by those who own them. But private property rights are always subject to the constraints of the larger public good. There are many legitimate limitations placed on the exercise of private decisions and private freedoms to support a larger public interest.

Could the public trust doctrine apply in such cases?

The public trust doctrine is a common law principle drawn from our British legal heritage and earlier still from Roman law. It is the doctrine that establishes our right (the public’s right) to access and move along navigable rivers. And in every coastal state, it ensures that the public has access to and is able to walk along the wet beach (and in several states, this right applies to the dry beach as well, at least up to the first line of vegetation). It has been used as the basis for protecting coastal wetlands and even more recently, it has been argued, for the protection of our collective atmosphere on which all human and nonhuman life depend.

Given that larger older trees in a city provide such undeniable public benefits, individually and cumulatively, the public trust doctrine would seem a highly relevant tool to defend and underpin limits on the right of a property owner to cut down such trees. As with beaches, wetlands, and rivers, trees and forests would seem similarly imbued with intrinsic qualities of publicness. I do not know whether state or federal courts would sustain an application of the public trust doctrine to the protection of local trees, but this seems a logical and defensible application, at least to me.

There are always constraints on the exercise of individual rights, and it does not seem unreasonable to place restrictions on the ability to cut down such a tree given the public implications. But there may be times, of course, when, in our effort to protect trees, may leave a property owner with few other economic options. Some cities are now using TDR (transfer of development rights), to allow a landowner or developer to transfer unused density in cases where, to protect a tree or tree grove, he/she is not able to achieve the maximum permissible development. And it is not unreasonable to ask that building and development plans and designs be adjusted (e.g., so that homes are more vertical, building footprints are shifted to avoid existing trees). Some city tree codes require that developers go through a process of avoidance where protected trees exist on site.

And sometimes a city may need to be ready, albeit in rare cases, to purchase a site with a tree or grove of trees when the regulatory impacts on a landowner are too great. There is a recent example in Toronto of a 250-year-old red oak under threat, perhaps the oldest tree remaining in the city. The city ended up buying the tree (and the house and lot it occupied) for $780,000 (Canadian dollars, or around $570,000 USD, about half the funds were raised from private donations, it should be noted). This may seem a large sum to expand for a single tree, but it does suggest the need to explore options for publicly purchasing trees in some situations (where preserving the tree leaves a property owner no or highly curtailed development options). Perhaps we should explore the possibility of adapting more traditional (conventional?) land conservation tools to urban settings: purchasing tree conservation easements, for example, or seeking donations of tree conservation easements, that would essentially create a protective provision (running with the property deed) for a specific tree or grove.[17]

Tree conservation tools

Part of the answer is to apply new tree conservation tools that help solve this program or adapt existing tools. Portland, Oregon (and maybe other cities) has adopted a tree TDR provision that allows a landowner to transfer (or sell) unused development potential―that is, if because of the need to protect an existing tree or grove, it is not possible to reach the full permitted density. This would work in concert with the kinds of financial annual subsidies mentioned earlier. Undoubtedly there are other planning tools that communities could use that I have not heard of or thought of. Lack of tools should be an excuse for the loss of trees and canopy.

A picture of a campaign sign for Bob Fenwick City Council
Figure 3: Tree protection and the state of our urban forest made their way into our recent city council primaries as this campaign sign shows.
Image: Tim Beatley

Standing up for trees

Can this new tree ethic, or paradigm shift to use Renkl’s terms, really transcend politics, and should it? Rather than transcend it, it must underpin and guide local politics. While I have pointed out the importance of individual behavior when it comes to the trees around us, at the end of the day the political system must deliver the strong tree codes we want and need. We should still have heated and earnest conversations about the trees in our neighborhood, and we should engage our neighbors in discussions about the trees they share on their street, certainly, but we should also demand that trees throughout the community be protected, even those lacking the visibility or the support of a nearby engaged neighbor or group of neighbors.

Standing up for the trees around us has the potential to significantly change local politics. I have been encouraged that, in my home city, the loss of trees has found its way into a recent local political campaign (see/note the recent campaign sign above). This is a good start [though the local press needs to do a better job reporting accurately on tree loss: one recent local newspaper headline reported the canopy decline as 15 percent when really the loss is closer to 30 percent]. And the city has begun work on a new tree code, though it remains to be seen how stringent it will be, and how assiduously it will be enforced. Cultivating a deeper community tree ethic will remain an important and necessary step and is the best assurance that politicians and neighbors alike will begin to see how and why these majestic trees “matter” and work hard to protect them.

Trees do matter and those of us (most of us) who believe strongly that they do must stand up and say so. We must name our trees, celebrate them, and speak their praises, and work for stronger codes and ordinances that acknowledge both the immense beauty and health they bring us, but also their inherent value and right to exist.

Tim Beatley

On The Nature of Cities


1 Charlotte Rene Woods, “Charlottesville’s tree cover has dropped about 15% since 2004–but there are ways to bring it back,” Charlottesville Tomorrow, April 5, 2022.

2 City of Boston, Urban Forest Plan, September 21, 2022, p.47, found here:

3Dengkai Chi et al, “Residential Exposure to Urban Trees and Medication Sales for Mood Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease in Brussels, Belgium: An Ecological Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol 130 No 5, May 11, 2022

4Geoffrey H. Donovan, et al, “The association between tree planting and mortality: A natural experiment and cost-benefit analysis,” Environment International, Volume 170, December 2022

5See “Canopy Story” found here:

6David George Haskell, The Song of Trees: Stories From Nature’s Great Connectors, Viking, 2017.

7Agueda Pacheco Flores, “Seward Park Neighbors Come Together to Save an ‘Exceptional’ Tree,” South Seattle Emerald, March 10, 2022, found here:

8Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, Penguin Books, 2013.

9Ibid, p. 57.

10Ibid, p.190.

11Margaret Renkl, “How Do You Mourn a 250-Year-Old Giant?” New York Times, January 24, 2022.

12Christopher Stone, 1974. Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, Los Altos, CA: William Kaufman.

13Ibid, p.9.

14Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Ballantine Books, 1949, p.263.

15Mary Oliver, “The Black Walnut Tree,” in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

16See Beatley, “The Burrowing Owls of Marco Island,” Biophilic Cities Journal, May 2022, found here:

17This is sometimes referred to as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), and has been used extensively to protect farmland and ecological lands such as wetlands.

A New Urban Paradigm: Our Way of Looking at Cities Needs to Be Turned Inside-Out

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

According to the old urban paradigm, cities are crime-ridden, car-infested, unhealthy and over-crowded centers of humanity.

Could we conceivably cherish nature, respect others, grow our own food, earn a reasonable living, and enjoy a healthy and equitable urban environment?

Reversal of the old urban paradigm is not yet a given, especially when we take into account that people’s opinions are not usually based on facts, but on their perceptions of reality. I am sure that both contributors to this blog and its readers will agree that in an urbanized world, we should be heavily invested in marketing the new global brand: sustainable urbanism. However, I am not at all sure if this brand is perceived by the majority of city dwellers as worthy, desirable, or even identifiable. Thus, not only do the “country mice”, or rural dwellers, continue to feel superior to their brethren, the “town mice”, but the city dwellers themselves feel their quality of life is inferior in terms of its lack of nature.

I believe that most of us, by nature (not a pun), tend to pursue research or develop specific projects, and it is certainly good to know that many people around the world care about the quality of life in cities and see urban nature not only as a barometer of sustainability, but also as a factor contributing to biodiversity. I understand that urbanism is currently “in”, but for sustainable urbanism to thrive, we are going to have to work much harder.

The change in attitude to cities needs to take place at several levels. I will attempt to address the levels that are easy to identify, but there are probably additional layers to examine.

Individual and “social/cultural” mindsets: it is not easy to see past concepts that many of us grew up with. For example, if we want to breathe clean air, we should go “to the country”; we will find nature “in the country”; and we will grow our food, of course, on farms “in the country”. Even if we live in an enlightened city that has reduced emissions and pollution levels, improved its care for natural resources, and encouraged residents and communities to grow food locally, it does not mean that the residents themselves perceive their city environment as healthy.

Local government: there is a strange disconnect in the understanding of local government leaders: more and more people will be moving into cities, resulting in an ever-increasing need for housing, yet there is a lack of awareness of the need for cities to be really attractive and healthy places to live. It is therefore fascinating to see grass-roots, community-based initiatives building the fabric of solidarity and social frameworks that make neighborhoods livable and happy environments. This is an integral part of the new urban paradigm, in which bottom-up processes are setting the tone for community life. Local governments have grasped the need for urban densification, but will have to work together with their neighborhood communities to understand what is needed to make the renewed neighborhoods livable.

National government: in many countries, yet another disconnect results in the inability of local governments to revitalize their cities because national or regional legislation has impeded, or even contravened, local processes. This means that even when local governments manage to tune in to the needs of their neighborhood communities, their decisions are stymied by outdated national laws. An example from the local arena in Israel is the issue of garbage. The country set national targets to reduce the dumping of solid waste and to gradually increase the percentage of recycled solid waste, separated at source. This is admirable, but local governments were unable to provide incentives for their residents to separate waste at source, since the kind of tax reduction they wanted to offer needed to be approved at the national level. In the resulting impasse, national government continually complained that local governments were not meeting their recycling quotas, while the latter were complaining that they lacked the legislative power to offer their residents a financial incentive to recycle.

Global: It is not surprising that the mindsets that influence individual perceptions are the very ones that establish global trends. After all, experts in the U.N grew up like us: “knowing” that to breathe clean air, to enjoy the wonders of nature, or to grow food, we must head to a rural area.

I am writing this contribution to The Nature of Cities in dismay—not in anger, yet with a touch of the innate optimism that has buoyed me through two decades of environmental campaigns, many of which have not only proved successful, but which have also been recognized as “right’’ and which have been vindicated by the establishment that initially rejected them out of hand. I have included pictures of two such examples from my own beloved city of Jerusalem. The “Gazelle Valley Park” and the “Railway Park” in Jerusalem resulted from a massive fights between civil society organizations and the planning authorities. Remarkably, today, those very same planning authorities cite these two parks as the key to sound urban development, each in its own setting.

Gazelles meet kids and adults daily at the Gazelle Valley Park, 60 acres of urban nature in the heart of diverse neighborhoods that can now undergo densification because of the green balance provided by this wonderful park.

These two examples illustrate another, equally important aspect of the reversal of paradigms in urban thinking. Local communities are turning out to be key players in the process of branding sustainable urbanism in a way that they never were before. Communities are rising to defend their urban nature, which is often integral to the cultural identity of their neighborhood.

In addressing the intricacies of the global transition from a rural to an urban world, I believe we should include the urgent need for a change in our perception of the role of nature in cities. Not only do residents fight to protect nature in their neighborhoods, realizing the important role of local flora and fauna, as well as the cultural values of our urban landscapes, but academics of global repute recognize that cities have an important role to play in protecting biodiversity. This role can be fulfilled much more effectively if we adopt the model of the inverted biosphere, whereby the large city at the center of a metropolitan hub recognizes its responsibility for the sensitive bioregion around it, along with the smaller towns and villages in the region. This model is being developed with considerable success by the Jerusalem Bioregion Center for Ecosystem Management by addressing cross-boundary issues together with the other stakeholders in the bioregion and by understanding the irrelevance, to this shared thinking, of statutory municipal or geopolitical boundaries.

The urban challenge facing the world is both simple and complex. Some will say this is the final and most tragic phase of a process that began with the industrial revolution. The continuing influx of individuals and families to cities in search of a livelihood, or, in some cases, the influx of desperate refugees fleeing persecution or a climate event disaster zone, is indeed producing a new generation of slum-dwellers alarming in its proportions.

This might imply that in cities that are neither in a disaster zone nor severely impacted by disaster, all is well. And yet, while it is true that there are many wonderful examples of sound urban practice, these are somehow the exception, while our job is to make them the rule. From the perspective of years of leadership in the environmental movement in Israel, and from a full term of office as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, I find myself taking a somewhat simplistic approach, and often wonder if that is perhaps the very thing we all need in our urban thinking, planning, and managing—simplicity. Just as when we set up an aquarium and want the fish in it to thrive, we put in appropriate plants to generate oxygen, and the kind of shells and stones that we believe will make them feel comfortable (although nobody really knows what a comfortable fish feels….). Why can’t we do the same in our cities? Why can’t we plan cities to be as beautiful and as healthy as possible for all the diverse communities living in them?

Eight kilometers of abandoned railway line have become Jerusalem’s famous “Railway Park”, a meeting place for all the neighborhoods nearby it, and for all of Jerusalem’s diverse communities.

It is true that the approach to cities began to change when, in 2007, we were told that more than 50 percent of the world’s people were already city-dwellers. The current estimation is that by the end of the 21st century, 90 percent of us will be city-dwellers. This is an extraordinarily dramatic shift, compared with 15 percent of the world’s population living in cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. 2,500 years ago, when Aristotle penned his famous sentence, maintaining that “Man is a political animal”, meaning that human beings like to live in organized communities such as cities, he surely didn’t expect us to go so far….

One useful development came in the 1980s, when global city networks began to be established, and cities around the world began to talk to each other about their common challenges. Within their own countries, cities felt that their national governments were not always the partners they should be, and were strangely pleased to find that this was the case in other countries too. By the 1980s, the U.N was already talking about sustainable development but— being a community of nations, not cities—found it hard to relate to cities at all. The only U.N agency that actively concerned itself with cities was UN HABITAT, which is responsible for human shelter. The reason for its engagement with cities was simple—most human shelter occurs in an urban context.

In 2016, UN HABITAT will be hosting HABITAT III, focusing on the conditions of urban communities around the world. UN HABITAT has requested its member states to mitigate the disconnect between national and local governments by establishing national urban policy, to be debated and worked out by a national urban forum. In my simplistic world, this is a minor revolution in global thinking, since it recognizes a disturbing reality whereby national legislation often serves as an impediment to achieving urban sustainability, instead of assisting cities as they strive for a sustainable future.

This minor revolution is the latest in a short history of progressive actions. At the WUF (World Urban Forum) held in Naples, Italy, in 2012, Dr. Joan Clos, Director of UN HABITAT, requested member states to formulate urban policy at the national level. By the next WUF, held in Medellin, in April 2014, the process was already well under way and a special UN HABITAT team had been set up to visit countries and regions where nascent national urban forums were taking the first steps in “thinking urban” at a national level. In 2012 and 2014, delegations from my country, Israel, attended the WUFs. We appreciated the significance of Dr. Clos’ request and the possible benefit this could have for our country.

Israel is a tiny country which is already more than 90 percent urbanized, but has only just begun to think of the national implications of its intensive urban development. Profoundly influenced by the UN HABITAT vision, we have taken the first exciting steps towards the establishment of the Israel Urban Forum, which is to be launched in Akko in November 2015. There is a steering committee for this process, which has brought together representatives from government ministries, local government, academia, businesses, and NGOs. We are discovering just how many stakeholders there are in the urban arena and are inviting them all to contribute to an urban celebration in Akko, which will mark the creation of a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary platform for the better understanding of sustainable and equitable urbanism. We hope that the main product of our Akko conference will be the launch of the Israel Urban Forum in its capacity as a body of urban thinkers, that will continue to ponder the most intelligent solutions for the multiple challenges facing not only each city individually, but also the country as a whole, in the sense that it represents the collective of all the cities in Israel.

As Chair of the Steering Committee of the First Israel Urban Forum, I feel a burden of responsibility, as all of us who love our cities must surely feel at this time. In a 90 percent urban world, it seems that global sustainability will depend on urban sustainability, while the latter will depend on our joint ability to ensure that the cases of best practice in planning and management of our cities become mainstream—no longer the exception, but the rule. I would posit that on this front, failure is simply not an option.

Naomi Tsur

On The Nature of Cities

A picture of a hand scooping dirt from the ground

A Nonprofit Organization Creates Mini-forests in Public Schools in São Paulo Using the Miyawaki Method

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Formigas-de-embaúba carries out environmental education programs to plant native mini-forests in public schools together with school communities. Students become active citizens, inspired to act and take small steps towards collective and transformative futures.

Formigas-de-embaúba carries out environmental education programs to plant native mini-forests in public schools together with school communities. 

If you asked someone if they could imagine growing a forest from scratch, they would most likely say no. If you then asked them if they could grow a mini-forest of 500 m² in their old school yard using only native trees, they would almost definitely say no. Yet, this is exactly what the non-profit organization formigas-de-embaúba is doing. And under a new agreement with the City of São Paulo, many students in public schools in São Paulo will be able to say yes to both answers. That’s almost 3,000 schools and about 1 million students.

A photo for two children in white t-shirts holding up plants with roots
Students hold native tree saplings. Photo: Primavera Digital

Through a pedagogical course that lasts one semester, formigas-de-embaúba’s mini-forests program works with the school community and students aged 2 to 14 to plant a mini-forest of native trees directly on the school’s property. Together they study and prepare the soil and learn about the Miyawaki Method to finally plant and care for the plants. In 2021 over 1,500 students helped to plant more than 2,000 seedlings of approximately 125 species of trees native to the Atlantic Forest. And each forest grows to become open-air classrooms for the students. On top of this, the mini-forests create biodiversity corridors, absorb carbon and lower the temperature in the regions where they are located, increasing the well-being of people and other living beings from all around.

The Miyawaki Method is a method of reforestation with native species to facilitate rapid growth and biodiversity named after its founder, the late Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. Urban forests grown using this methodology have become fascinating complex ecosystems, learning from, and mimicking the native vegetation near the planting site. In the Atlantic Forest’s case, the tropical rainforest that used to cover Brazil’s coast and now has only about 10% of its original area preserved, means to prepare the soil with organic compost, to plant native seedlings densely with a wide variety of species, to cover the soil with organic matter, and to maintain the area for the initial two years.

A picture of four kids sitting on outside bleachers all holding potted plants
Students prepare to plant the mini-forest in their school. Photo: Primavera Digital

These mini-forests are appearing around the world, and bring many benefits to communities beyond their impact on biodiversity. These green areas can help to improve people’s health, counter heat islands, and to reduce air and sound pollution. And formigas-de-embaúba is successfully using the method to grow its mini-forests with school communities in the Great São Paulo area, one of the main urban conglomerates in the world with more than 30 million inhabitants.

The organization not only works with students but also provides an online training program for teachers to develop critical environmental education projects in their schools. In 2021 this trained over 300 participants from municipal public networks from several cities in the Great São Paulo region and is now expanding to other areas in Brazil.

A picture of a group of kids rolling balls of mud between their hands outside
Students prepare seed bombs with native trees and cover crops. Photo: Primavera Digital
A picture of hands holding a sprouting seed inside a mud ball
Students get ready to throw the seed balls in the mini-forest in their school. Photo: Primavera Digital

“Through project-based pedagogy, we take ecological restoration into schools, so that school communities become aware of and act in the face of climate change, conservation and regeneration of biodiversity”, explains Rafael Ribeiro, co-founder of formigas-de-embaúba. “It is necessary to cultivate in children from an early age the principles of sensitivity to the earth, ecological responsibility and to encourage them to understand themselves as part of nature and not apart from it”, continues environmental educator Gabriela Arakaki, who co-created the organization together with Rafael. Currently, the two coordinate the entity in partnership with Sheila Ceccon, who is also a very experienced environmental educator.

As a result of its efforts to raise awareness about the urgency of rewilding our planet, in 2020 the organization was selected by the Democracy and Sustainability Institute (IDS), a local think tank, as one of the 10 civil society organizations to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Brazil, as has now been confirmed as an actor for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

A picture of a hand scooping dirt from the ground
Students learn about the importance of living soil. Photo: Primavera Digital

“Educational systems around the world have been provoked to assume their responsibility in the face of the need to form citizens with a new attitude towards nature, with values ​​and attitudes different from those that led the planet to the current situation of intense environmental imbalance”, Sheila Ceccon explains. “Through our programs, students become active citizens and are able to connect this local community intervention with global socio-environmental issues, inspiring people to act and take small steps towards collective and transformative actions”.

About formigas-de-embaúba

Formigas-de-embaúba is a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental education through the planting of native mini forests by students in public schools in Brazil, bringing the urgency of ecosystem regeneration and climate change mitigation to the new generations.

A picture of two people in teal shirts standing on a path in the forest
Co-founders Rafael Ribeiro and Gabriela Arakaki. Photo: Maggiory Simões Ferrara

See more on Instagram @formigasdeembauba and on the short documentary film recently made about their work:

You can engage with them through their Instagram account and e-mail ([email protected]), there is a lot you can do as an online volunteer and also donate to support their activities.

Rafael Ribeiro
São Paulo

On The Nature of Cities

A Pattern Language for Urban Nature

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

1 We are part of nature

We are part of nature and we are interdependent with nature.


2 We think we can be separate from nature

We cannot escape this interdependency. Even when we try, we are tied to living systems by umbilical cords of technology, constrained by natural limits.


3 Human culture is a force of nature

Our culture is manifest in our actions. Everything we do affects the natural world in some way. We are a force of nature.

In his slim but vital tome published in 2004, Stephen Boyden wrote from a “biohistorical” standpoint about human culture as a force of nature in The Biology of Civilisation and his main conclusion was that “biounderstanding is key to sustaining civilisation and ecological health and the dominant culture must ‘embrace, at its heart, a basic understanding of, and reverence for, nature and the processes of life.”

There are few reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for biounderstanding becoming central to culture, but the need for it is inarguable.


4 Patterns of action

Everything we do is part of the patterns that make up our lives. Patterns of action reflect culture. The graphic is based on the seminal studies by Appleyard which captured the patterns of community and communication in a street and how it was affected by vehicle traffic.


5 Culture and power

The dominant culture is determined by power relationships. Patterns of living are part of the patterns of occupying and using space. They are part of how we form our human habitats within the bubble of the biosphere.

How we build affects the natural world.


6 Patterns that remain

Like vortices in the stream of biohistory, our constructed habitats are human patterns that remain. In “Steps to an ecology of mind” (1979), Gregory Bateson identified patterns as key to understanding the relationship between humans, culture, and nature and wrote of the “pattern that connects”.

One result of those patterns is human habitation in its relationship to the biosphere as mapped by villages, towns, and cities.


7 Nature needs social distancing too!

To enable nature to recover from the severe impacts of human exploitation on the patterns of nature, from habitat loss to plastic pollution, climate change, and everything in between, we have no choice but to change how we build. Which means changing our patterns of behaviour.

We are implementing behavioural change to tackle the spread of COVID-19 because our lives depend on it. We must do it to rescue the biosphere from collapse because our lives depend on it.

Nature needs “social distancing” too.


8 The big picture is ugly

The big picture isn’t looking good. But the patterns for real change come from below, from daily life changes at a local level. 


9 Despair

We can’t afford to despair. Lives depend on it. All lives.


10 Everything is fractal

Everything we do is fractal. It is all part of a larger pattern. It is the larger pattern writ small.


11 Design guidelines for non-human species

In my first TNOC blog, building on my doctoral thesis from 20 years ago, I argued that the creation of ecological cities requires the development of Design Guidelines for Non-Human Species. I suggested that an urban fractal or neighbourhood should be able to provide sufficient viable habitat that could support at least one key indicator species of fauna and a majority of the species of birds indigenous to the place. Later, I tried to take that idea further; it was supposed to be about changing the culture, deeply, it was supposed to be about something that is exciting, challenging, and worthwhile.

 But it still turned into a somewhat uninspiring list.


12 Points of view

The design guidelines spoke to responsible planners and change-makers but, whatever its merits, I am compelled to observe that they really aren’t the sort of thing that stirs the blood and, more importantly, they don’t paint the bigger picture – to see how the patterns connect you have to actively make the connections. You have to see and experience the patterns.

Fractals are about pattern, not lists, but to see that bigger picture more clearly we have to speak with science, poetry, and art.

It’s about culture, after all.

The above graphic shows three points of view. The top one is the nominally objective “normal” as described by human mapping, the left one is “mainstream” culture with a consciousness of the car and house dominating all other reality. The right part of the image suggests how it might be seen from nature’s point of view.

There is some movement towards looking at the city from a non-human point of view see, for instance, Urban Animals: Crowding in Zoocities, reviewed by Chris Hensley in TNOC in 2015  in which Hensley notes that “using a nonhuman-centered framework, it sheds light on issues from a very different angle than that from which we are used to approaching such subjects” and that “the animal-focused framework presented here will be crucial in understanding urban life of the present and future.”

But patterns must be key.


13 A Pattern Language for Urban Nature

Taking my cue from Alexander et al and Mehafy, Salingaros et al, I am becoming convinced that there may be a way to bring these ideas to life in a way that has the potential to connect with the daily life of humans and other species. The proposition is simple: What happens if we take a pattern language approach that puts nature first?

I don’t have the resources to take this line of thinking a lot further, much as I would like to, so this graphic essay is little more than an indicator of what may be possible as something that might be developed in a similar fashion to and complementary to “A new pattern language” as an evolving toolbox open to iteration and further development.

All frameworks and insights, e.g., those described in “Urban Animals”, have the potential to be included and sustained within a Pattern Language for Urban Nature – which needs to have an understanding of the need for cultural change based on biounderstanding at its very core.

An example of a page from “A new pattern language”


Paul Downton

All drawings are by Paul Downton

On The Nature of Cities


A Picture We Wished was Worth 1000 Words, But in Fact Only a Few

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Three lenses—ecocentrism, sustainability, and urban political ecology—offer different ways to look at the same problem. Viewed together they offer nuance. Separately they can mute aspects in the other two that “don’t fit”. This is especially true in southern cities.
Sustainable cities can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Each perspective can highlight or mute certain aspects, leading us to take different positions on complex issues. Take for example the recent floods in Kerala, the southernmost state of India. Unprecedented rainfall led to intense floods across the state. Over 400 people lost their lives, and several millions were displaced from their homes. Across India, people watched powerful visuals of the tragedy in newspapers, on television, and shared via social media.

One visual that circulated widely through social media was that of the Malayatoor Kodanad bridge. Receding floodwaters had left behind large amounts of plastic waste on the bridge. An earthmover was used by local residents to throw the waste back into the river. An image and associated video went viral on social media and was shared repeatedly. A well-known radio jockey tweeted, “see what these idiots are doing to clear the Malayattoor bridge. They are putting it back into the river!! Will we ever learn??” Another woman shared the picture and said “the Malayattur Kodanad bridge (Kerala) after flood waters receded. All the ‘gifts’ from mankind to the river have been returned with thanks”. Yet another concerned individual shared a video of the incident with the opinion that “after all that has happened in #Kerala, this is how we treat our rivers—dumping all the debris, including plastic bottles, that the Periyar left on the Malayattoor bridge back in the river”. Someone else said “Kerala’s river tossed plastic waste onto its streets and bridges only to have clearing teams toss it back in after the devastating floods cleared.” The media editor of the Indian Express, a prominent newspaper in the country shared the image with the caption: “Nature has its own way of giving it back. This is the Malayatur-Kodanad bridge after waters recede”. The picture also made its way into international media, with headlines such as “Plastic waste and debris is dumped BACK into the river in ‘clean up’ operation after devastating floods in Kerala that killed 410 people and have left more than a million in relief camps”.

The viral image of plastic on Malayatoor Kodanad bridge during the recent floods in Kerala

A different perspective came through when Dhanya Rajendran, the editor in chief of an Indian e-magazine the, conducted a local investigation. The story that then emerged was not one of callous disregard for nature, but rather one in which residents had to make a quick decision and act, in very difficult circumstances. The article quoted residents saying, “For two days, we could not go anywhere near the bridge. The currents were so strong and it was neck-deep water on either side of the bridge… On Friday, August 17, as the water receded a bit, someone from the Malayattoor brought an earthmover.” The flood had affected all the surrounding areas, further disrupting connectivity. The article further quoted local police officers. “There was water on either side of the bridge and there was no time to take the garbage elsewhere…Where could we have taken the earthmover to dump the garbage? There was no place. There was water everywhere…The situation was critical, relief and rescue was getting obstructed, so they put it back into the river”.

The piled up wastes created a potential health hazard which had to be treated. According to the secretary of the village panchayat (village council), “It was the need of the hour. The garbage had blocked the bridge, we were also scared that with the garbage blocking the flow of the water, it may get diverted into the village, in case the water levels rose again”. The circulating visuals also caused a certain amount of distress among the people. A District Committee member who spoke for the people had this to say, “People are upset. We have been portrayed as people who dump into the river unscrupulously. They don’t even want to clear garbage and carcasses accumulated everywhere. They are worried if cases will be filed against them too… How is our village alone responsible for all the garbage? Right from Idukki (another city upstream of the location), locals and tourists have been chucking garbage recklessly into this river for decades. This had to happen”.

This incident brought to light the consequences of framing details used to judge a distant event without adequate context. The image circulated in this case was used by people to create a narrative that both romanticized nature and lamented the destructive influence of human beings on it—the lens of ecocentrism. Seen this way, the incident became a snapshot of a community that supposedly generated the waste, and who were punished by having it thrown back into their midst by the flood. The community was further perceived as one that did not care about what happened to nature because their response of throwing that plastic back into the waters made them appear callous and uncaring. Strengthening this perception were its links to an already burning issue in mainstream media—marine plastics that have similarly washed up on urban beaches across the world, and which have generated equally powerful visuals such as those of animals choking on them.

One could also frame this issue through the lens of sustainability. In an online course we conduct at Azim Premji University, we discuss sustainability and its challenges as being framed by the complex interplay of the 3F’s: finitude (limits), fragility, and fairness. Put this way, the floods reflected the fragile state of the social ecological system, both in its physical manifestation, as well as in the plastic it deposited on the beach. It was this fragility that was represented in the various social media mentions of the event. Also represented were narratives of the pollution of a finite, yet important resource: water. What was missing however, was the related idea of fairness. Was it fair to blame the villagers for taking one of the few options available to them in a disconnected landscape? Was it fair to blame only the people at the physical location where the plastic washed up? Water flows down a slope and was it not likely that the plastics washed up on the bridge was partly generated by communities living upstream of the bridge? It was also not fair that people in other parts of the country and who were disconnected from the experience of the flood blamed the flood affected communities within the dry comfort of their homes and offices.

Another perspective that can be used to understand this story is that of urban political ecology. It seems unlikely that the plastic washed up on the bridge could have been generated only by the locals, particularly given that the state of Kerala (and particularly the landscape upstream of the bridge) is a well-known tourist destination. It is also unlikely the plastic was generated only at one source (by the community affected), instead probably being carried by the water at several locations (occupied by people of different social, economic, and political statuses) along the course of the river before coming up against the bridge. It is also unrealistic to assume that all communities had equal access and ability to discard the trash that eventually washed up on that bridge. Overall, the problem of plastic wastes is one which was already present in the landscape but which was made more visible by the flood.

By examining the event through this lens, and contrasting it with the narratives built around the issue through social media, one can also see how social media narratives contributed to marginalizing an already vulnerable group of people. First, it created a dichotomous segregation of people—those who did not care about the environment (flood affected near the bridge) and those who did. The people who fell in the latter category were those who by virtue of not being disconnected by the floods, were also considerably more privileged in that they had better access to resources and the ability to share the visual multiple times. Secondly, by creating that dichotomy, it also assigned complete blame on people who may have had only a partial role in the creation of the disaster. In doing so, the narrative muted several aspects of the complex nature of this issue: such as upstream-downstream dynamics and external sources of pollution. Instead, it drew attention to only one partial aspect of the entire story—that of people throwing the waste back into the waters, which of course, goes against all notions of sustainable lifestyles.

These three lenses—ecocentrism, sustainability, and urban political ecology—offer different ways to look at the same problem. While ecocentrism adopts a primarily ecological viewpoint that posits all human influence as being equally disruptive to the delicate balance of nature, sustainability recognizes that there is an inherent issue of fairness in these debates: who is affected, why are they affected, and how differently they are affected. Both these perspectives however offer only a static, temporally independent snapshot of events and challenges, that are often more complex and dynamic in nature. Missing in these perspectives issues however, are a few key things: the historical trajectories of how these cities got to where they are currently, the colonial and postcolonial regimes that shaped urban socio-natures in these global south cities. Third, the differential experiences of urban populations (separated as they are by economic, social, and gendered divides) with respect to events leading up to the disaster, the disaster itself, and the responses that followed. Also the differences in political bargaining power of these various sections of the society that feed back into their experiences of such social-ecological disasters.

Urban political ecology with its explicitly historical-geographical approach that also internalizes nature in cities offers the right set of tools to bring out these nuances and complexities clearly. The discipline also recognizes the subjectivities induced by inherently power laden dynamics of urban social-ecological interactions, thus allowing one to critically examine processes of inclusion, exploitation, domination, repression, and subjugation in the creation of the urban terrain. Yet, as complex as this picture is, urban political ecology may provide only a partial picture of the social-ecological complexities that are characteristic of cities within the global south such as those within India.

A senior academic at a recent workshop HU was part of said “It is very annoying, sometimes I feel like scientists who study the subjectivities of social-ecological systems have two boxes – one a highly detailed, heterogeneous ‘people’ box and a much less complex ‘ecology’ box. While a lot of effort goes into the detailing of the ‘people’ box, much less effort is made to understand the ecological processes and feedbacks that interact with the subjectivities of society.” This quip made in jest, sums up one of the most evident critiques of urban political ecology—where is the ecology? The urban is a process of social-ecological change, and all too often, the ecological nuances of urbanization get subsumed or trivialized because of the political critique of societal interactions with nature.

Second, while urban political ecology does look at continuities and interactions between rural and urban spaces, there still remains a certain dichotomy in characterizing these continuums. In southern cities, which have grown by engulfing peri-urban villages, such dichotomies remain insufficient in explaining dynamics of interactions within a place where sprawling paddy fields and grazing livestock may be found a mere stone’s throw away from corporate giants and gated communities, thus creating a unique set of challenges towards understanding the landscape. Urban political ecology further takes a critical approach towards understanding the uneven expressions of power that shape nature-society relationships and the production of urban nature across multiple scales—local, regional, and global. Yet, in many cities of the global south, one may encounter heterogeneous interactions with multiple expressions of power at the same scale. These interact both with each other as well as across multiple scales to shape inclusions and exclusions of societal groups within emerging nature-society interactions and eventually the urban terrain itself. Such interactions remain sparsely captured in scholarly literature and deserve greater attention.

For example, these heterogeneous expressions of power were very noticeable in the case of plastics washing up on that bridge in Kerala. While the state boasts of high levels of communal harmony (particularly noticeable during adverse situations like floods), day to day interactions however remain differentiated heavily along communal, caste, and religious divides, each of which create different experiences of domination and repression within the communities. Yet, all of them, irrespective of their individual social identity became uniformly marginalized through the imagery circulated by equally heterogeneous communities about their perceived lack of respect to the water body. Such nuances, identity fluxes and heterogeneities are often not captured in an urban political ecological knowledge that is situated within knowledges derived from studying relatively less heterogeneous contexts of the global north.

In relation to the event presented here, each of the three perspectives we have discussed offer different ways to understand complex social ecological interactions. Taken separately, each of them offer particular and situated ways of looking at the issue, while muting and subsuming aspects of the issue that do not fall within that particular frame. Taken together, however, they begin to partially capture the social and ecological interactions that frame a particular issue—yet with particular shortcomings when applied in contexts of the global south. It is these subtle nuances that need to be captured effectively when studying cities and their complex nature-society interactions. What is also needed is better dissemination of these critical nuances into the public realm, not driven by popular, mainstream ideas of what environmentalism means, but in ways that capture the hows and whys of a given situation.

For if there was anything that photograph of flooded Kerala showed us, it was that we need more nuanced, integrated, and open hearted analysis, even within the realms of science.

Hita Unnikrishnan and Harini Nagendra

On The Nature of Cities

Harini Nagendra

About the Writer:
Harini Nagendra

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India. She uses social and ecological approaches to examine the factors shaping the sustainability of forests and cities in the south Asian context. Her books include “Cities and Canopies: Trees of Indian Cities” and "Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India's Cities" (Penguin India, 2023) (with Seema Mundoli), and “The Bangalore Detectives Club” historical mystery series set in 1920s colonial India.



A River Cresting in New Orleans: A Complex Choreography of Water, Technology and Bureaucracy that Only Sometimes Serves People and Nature

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The sustainability and, indeed, future existence of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta depends upon a complex choreography of water, bureaucracy and infrastructure. The quandary for New Orleans can be summed up like this: how can we manage North America’s largest river in a way that mitigates seasonal flooding, while simultaneously making use of the river’s fresh water and sediments to build new land in the river’s vast but eroding deltaic plain?

A good place to start would be transparency and honesty about the difficult decisions and tradeoffs coastal cities and towns must reckon with.
Currently, the delta loses a football field of land every 30 minutes, with flood control levees, oil and gas extraction, and subsidence being the main drivers of this catastrophic land loss (See figure 1). While many cities wrestle with balancing the needs of nature and people, New Orleans and the deltaic landscape surrounding it are perhaps more fundamentally intertwined than others, for better and for worse. This complicated and often fraught relationship is one bound together through large scale water infrastructure.

Figure 1. Louisiana Land Loss, 1932 projected through 2050 without major diversion of the Mississippi River.
Figure 1. Louisiana Land Loss, 1932 projected through 2050 without major diversion of the Mississippi River.

But for New Orleans, the most critical components of this infrastructural system, both in the past and in the future, are located outside the city limits, in the surrounding coastal swamps and marshes. This essay will bring you to two critical locations in this watery saga, where similar techniques (the diversion of Mississippi river water into coastal basins) are applied to confront the two chief flooding threats facing New Orleans: 1) spillways to mitigate seasonal flooding on the Mississippi River and 2) river diversions to mitigate storm surge flooding from a rising and overheated Gulf of Mexico.

Spillways: infrastructure with multiple effects

On January 10, 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a major spillway just upstream from New Orleans in an effort to siphon off an unseasonably early (and likely El Nino-related) flood crest moving toward the city. Floodwater leaves the river and passes through a spillway several kilometers long before emptying into Lake Pontchartrain, a vast, brackish lagoon connected to the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The open Bonnet Carré spillway.

Since its construction in the early 1930s, the Bonnet Carré spillway has been opened only 11 times to prevent the Mississippi from flooding New Orleans. The 37 square km spillway is part of a comprehensive river management system implemented by the Army Corps following the great flood of 1927, which devastated many cities and towns along the river’s lower reaches. The opening of the spillway itself has become something of a civic spectacle, as was the case this time, when hundreds of people congregated on a cold morning to watch (see video of the spillway opening above). The spillway is comprised of a 2km-long concrete weir, with water controlled by an amazingly simple method: hundreds of wooden timbers, or “pins,” which can be pulled out by the engineers, allowing river water to enter the spillway. As more pins are removed, the flood crest near New Orleans begins dropping, relieving pressure on the hundreds of miles of earthen levees that line the riverbanks. The rise and fall of the floodwaters in the lower Mississippi occurs without many urbanites even noticing. The spillway, part of a wider network of similar floodwater outlets managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has effectively kept New Orleans dry from riverine floodwaters for its entire 80 year history.

But spillways like Bonnet Carré have multiple effects beyond lowering river levels, and these effects can generate political controversies that seem to have little to do with urban flood protection. Indeed, the construction of the spillway itself involved the expropriation of private lands, and even today, disputes continue over the existence and memorialization of two slavery-era African-American cemeteries in the spillway footprint.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Three sediment plumes exiting the Mississippi River System: the Atchafalaya River to the west, the main Mississippi Delta in the east, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, and the Bonnet Carré spillway, emptying into Lake Pontchartrain just upstream from New Orleans. Base imagery NASA Modis Terra. January 20th, 2016.

The coastal lagoons and estuaries surrounding New Orleans also see changes when the spillway opens. Lake Pontchartrain, which receives the spillway’s freshwater and sediment load, is normally full of shrimp, speckled trout, and other saltwater species. When the spillway opens, however, the entire volume of the sprawling lake is replaced by fresh river water in only about two weeks, displacing marine species with freshwater ones like catfish, alligator and invasive Asian Carp. These changes can impose limitations for fishing communities, which normally catch shrimp and fin fish in the lake. Due to the range of effects of the spillway, the politics of urban flood protection become the politics of what is “natural” in a delta ecosystem, and where certain species should and should not be in the fluid landscape.

River diversions: wicked problems of urban resilience

River diversions are intended to slow coastal erosion and build new land in the coastal periphery of New Orleans. There are a few existing river diversions, though they are tiny compared to the designs currently being developed as part of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan. For instance, the Davis Pond Diversion near New Orleans (see video below) is capable of conveying around 10,000 cubic feet per second of river water into coastal wetlands. The diversions currently being planned are much larger, rivaling the Bonnet Carré’s capacity of 250,000 cubic feet per second.

Gradually, through several projects, engineers and state officials are attempting to replicate the Mississippi’s dynamic cycles of flooding—cycles critical for preventing coastal erosion and securing the region’s future as sea levels continue rising. This will have profound effects on the ecology of the region. By 2050, it is possible that water managers, through river diversions and other strategies like dredging, will develop the capacity to strategically guide the development of the deltaic plain, creating landforms that better protect New Orleans from hurricane storm surges.

The stakes for New Orleans couldn’t be higher. As Katrina laid bare a decade a go, the city’s largely low-lying topography is vulnerable to long term inundation from storm surges. Major retrofits and upgrades in the city’s flooding defenses since 2005 are certainly positive steps in this process, but massive flood walls and pumps need to be complemented by large-scale river diversions for the city to truly develop meaningful resilience to storm surges.

Figure 4 top

Figure 4 bottom
Figure 4. The top image shows the Lake Borgne Storm Surge Barrier, looking east across the “funnel” formed by the interaction of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway and the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. The bottom image shows the perspective towards New Orleans skyline in the distance. Photos: USACE

However critical river diversions might be for the resilience of New Orleans and the region, they are controversial with certain segments of the fishing industry, as well as with some coastal communities. Louisiana is home to the second largest commercial fishery in the United States, producing a third of the country’s overall harvest (Lowe et al. 2011). The implementation of an entire system of river diversions would no doubt have major implications for the region’s ecosystems, and those effects would, in some instances, impinge upon fishing practices and community life in the urban periphery. Lucrative saltwater fisheries, oyster beds and shrimping grounds will likely be displaced farther towards the open ocean as freshwater ecosystems, flush with river water and sediment, again take hold. Fishing communities, already facing strong headwinds from recent hurricanes and the 2011 BP oil disaster, can now add the wholesale transformation of the state’s southeastern coastline to the long list of challenges facing their way of life.

As such, the infrastructures necessary to secure New Orleans from riverine flooding (flood outlets) and coastal land loss /storm surges (river and sediment diversions) involve the re-working of the city’s hinterlands into a landscape better capable of absorbing both fresh and marine flooding, while placing a minimal burden on coastal communities. This is a delicate balance to be sure, and the State of Louisiana is investing a great deal of funding and expertise into the evolution and implementation of its master plan to make sure this is the outcome. That process, its successes, tensions, and failures will no doubt be instructive for scientists, planners and civil society in other coastal urban areas, where water management touches all aspects of economy, ecology and culture.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Billboard at a marina in coastal Louisiana opposing the construction of new river diversions. Come fishing communities have mobilized against the diversion of the Mississippi into its eroding coastal marshes.

The Mississippi River Delta will be subject to major re-engineering over the next several decades, or its core population centers will be living on borrowed time. The central question here is: at what scale should the region’s resilience be assessed and enacted? As large-scale environmental planning projects become increasingly framed as ventures in “urban reslience,” the spillways and river diversions of coastal Louisiana remind us that planning for resilience at the urban scale can transform peripheral spaces into de-facto sacrifice zones (Colten, 2012), where the hazards of such projects are offloaded and communities and livelihoods can be unraveled. When dabbling in the dynamics of such massive and complex systems as river deltas, planners and scientists need to be aware that despite all good intentions, ecological transformations often generate goods and bads, which accrue differently across space and social difference. Being honest about the possibility of ecological change and community displacement up front is key—the re-ordering of landscapes is just that: it may enhance the resilience of some locales while undermining that of others. Climate change assures that this sort of dilemma is likely to become a lot more common over the next few decades, and no new buzzword or policy trend can truly cut the Gordian knot that is the politics of large-scale environmental planning. Transparency and honesty about the difficult decisions coastal cities and towns are being forced to reckon with, and the inherent and sometimes unavoidable tradeoffs involved, is a good place to start.

Beyond the Delta: coastal cities and water management

Similar opportunities and risks are carried by coastal and deltaic cities globally, where urbanization has, in so many cases, been rendered through the infrastructural control of water, and where the economic, ecological and humanitarian stakes of those infrastructures functioning as intended in the face of rising seas is high indeed.

As Karen Seto explains, by 2050 global population will grow by 2.7 billion people, mostly in small and medium sized cities in Africa and Asia, with coastal and deltaic cities being a “preferred migration destination over other locations” (Seto, 2011). Worldwide, 60 percent of human population is clustered around coasts and estuaries, mostly in urban areas (Bridges et al., 2013; Lindeboom, 2002). Nearly half a billion people already live on or near river deltas (Syvitski et al., 2009). Estuaries and coastal zones are sites of intensive capital investment and economic production. It is estimated that 50 percent of U.S. population occurs, and 50 percent of U.S. GDP originates, in coastal environments (Kildow et al., 2009). In short, we have to get these water management choices right.

Projections suggest that unprotected coastal terrain less than a meter above sea level will be inundated by 2100 (Nicholls et al., 2014; Pachauri et al., 2014). While many human settlements along coastlines will be forced to retrofit, modernize or adapt flood protection systems, this is especially true in river deltas, where subsidence, rapid land loss and reduced river sediment loads place already low-lying terrain close to, or even below, sea level.

Human habitation of deltas has always entailed the displacement of human and ecological communities as riverine and oceanic forces interact and land masses shift, but trends suggest that a population explosion in delta cities is occurring even while many deltas are losing ground. Large-scale water technology, such as the Bonnet Carré spillway, is increasingly common along major river systems in places such as Vietnam and China, simultaneously shaping both landscapes of risk and hydro-ecology in and around riverine cities. In many instances, flood control successes today might create resilience dilemmas tomorrow. As such, anticipating and adapting to new understandings of water management is a critical task.

Josh Lewis
New Orleans

On The Nature of Cities


Bridges, T., Henn, R., Komlos, S., Scerno, D., Wamsley, T., White, K.,

2013, Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, US Army Corps of Engineers: Directorate of Civil Works.

Kildow, J. T., Colgan, C. S., Scorse, J. D., 2009, State of the US ocean and coastal economies 2009, National Ocean Economics Program.

Lindeboom, H., 2002, The coastal zone: an ecosystem under pressure, in:Oceans, pp. 49-84.

Nicholls, R. J., Hanson, S. E., Lowe, J. A., Warrick, R. A., Lu, X., Long, A.J., 2014, Sea‐level scenarios for evaluating coastal impacts, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5(1):129-150.

Pachauri, R. K., Allen, M., Barros, V., Broome, J., Cramer, W., Christ, R., Church, J., Clarke, L., Dahe, Q., Dasgupta, P., 2014, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Seto, K. C., 2011, Exploring the dynamics of migration to mega-delta cities in Asia and Africa: Contemporary drivers and future scenarios, Global Environmental Change 21:S94-S107.

Syvitski, J. P., Kettner, A. J., Overeem, I., Hutton, E. W., Hannon, M. T., Brakenridge, G. R., Day, J., Vörösmarty, C., Saito, Y., Giosan, L., 2009, Sinking deltas due to human activities, Nature Geoscience 2(10):681-686.

A Sense of Wonder: The Missing Ingredient to a Long-Term Value for Nature?

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

“For the child….it is not half as important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.”
—Rachel Carson, 1965, p.58.

What are the types of childhood experiences that instil a lifelong value for nature and promote stewardship behaviour later in life? It turns out that the sense of wonder that children experience in nature is a crucial factor.
The natural world is essential to human survival providing food, filtering water, and cleansing the air. However, human activities this past century have compromised the capacity for natural ecosystems to carry out these essential functions on which we rely. The combined impact of urbanisation, land clearing, mining, species extinction, pollution, and human-induced climate change has transformed the Earth’s geology and ecosystems to such a degree that scientists have proposed a new geological age to mark this era of human influence—The Anthropocene.

In response, individuals, organisations, and governments globally are devising interventions to reduce or reverse the negative impact of human activities. Several of these interventions are focused on children—the next generation of environmental stewards who will eventually be responsible for curbing human impacts to preserve the natural world. Instilling a genuine value for the natural world during childhood has been shown to motivate environmental stewardship behaviour during adulthood.

But, what types of childhood experiences instil a lifelong value for nature and promote stewardship behaviour later in life? This question has been explored extensively by environmental psychologists and educators. Their research has found that children who experience a sense of wonder through direct contact with nature are more likely to develop a life-long respect and value for the existence of natural areas, the habitats they contain and the species they support.

A sense of wonder

The sense of wonder children experience in nature was initially articulated by Edith Cobb in her book The Ecology of the Imagination of Childhood, where she surmises,

“The child’s sense of wonder, displayed as surprise and joy, is aroused as a response to the mystery of [the] stimulus [of nature] that promises ‘more to come’ of, better still, ‘more to do’ —the power of perceptual participation in the known and unknown”
—Cobb, 1977, p.28.

A sense of wonder is not only inspired by a lush, damp, tropical rainforest bursting with birds’ songs and monkeys’ cries, or a vast savannah occupied by zebras, lions, and birds of prey. While such visions will certainly awaken a sense of wonder in most of us, many experiences closer-to-home can evoke a similar response. Think of a time when you observed a spider building its web, the individual threads glistening in the sunlight, revealing a shape of perfect symmetry. Or, the feeling evoked when witnessing an army of ants marching synchronistically across the ground, carrying more than their body’s weight in food. Or the sensation of an electric storm, the wind and rain on your skin, and the sound of lightening as it cracks across the sky. The quality of the emotions these experiences evoke in us are often inexplicable, yet they leave an impression so deep that they inspire lifelong respect for the world around us, and the existence of life beyond the human domain.

This sense of wonder can be evoked in children when granted the opportunity to experience the vastness of life beyond and despite human activity. This awareness inspires in young children respect and empathy for other species and habitats, and a desire to protect them.

What qualities of nature-based experiences inspire a sense of wonder in children?

Providing opportunities for children to experience nature “in its element” is something that is crucial to establishing a long-lasting value for it. So, how can we support children in experiencing that sense of wonder so they develop empathy, care, and respect for the natural world?

Broadly, the research has shown two qualities of experiences that inspire a sense of wonder in children.

  1. Quality of the experience

Three qualities of experiences are valuable in instilling a life-long value for nature.

Direct experiences: Where children can touch, see, smell, and hear the unique sensations offered by the natural world.

Autonomous experiences: Play experiences in nature, where children design and direct their activities according to their interests and curiosities is a crucial factor in instilling a lasting awareness and value for the natural world. Encounters with nature that are free of pre-conceived learning objectives and provide time and space for children to engage with nature according to their own curiosities, appear to be central to developing a personal and long-lasting connection with the natural world.

Social or solitary experiences: Interactions in nature with friends, a mentor or a parent who is knowledgeable and passionate about nature can transfer these sentiments to children. However, solitary experiences in nature, where children have unique, personal encounters are also valuable.

  1. Quality of the natural place

The quality of the natural place is another key determinant of a child’s experience. Children are generally drawn to natural places that contain a diversity of loose-parts and functional affordances as they support a range of play activities, including climbing, exploring, making and building. The diversity of plant and animal species is also important, and this provides children with an opportunity to see, hear, and touch other species in their natural habitat. Opportunities to find and create “special places” that are hidden from the prying eyes of adults are also important components of favourite places for children in middle childhood (8-12 years). These places are generally characterised by natural landmarks or structures that offer seclusion and privacy such as creek beds, rock formations or trees. Essentially, the less curated the natural area, the better for many children.

Interestingly, places that offer rich experiences in diverse natural environments are more likely to stimulate in children a sense of wonder or empathy for nature. Such places allow the child to express a freedom or wildness to explore and grow. Sadly, however, these factors are often missing in children’s play places in modern cities, significantly compromising their experience and appreciation of the natural world.

Child play in today’s cities

The autonomy and independent mobility of children living in cities today have declined substantially over the past few decades due to safety concerns associated with traffic and strangers, and a shift in cultural expectations. For example, in some States in Australia, it is illegal for a child under 12 years of age to roam their neighbourhood unchaperoned. Although aimed at assuaging safety concerns, this policy places considerable pressure on the ability of parents and caregivers to provide their children with opportunities for outdoor, nature-based experiences. Furthermore, where access to natural areas is possible, children are often unable to play independently due to restrictions placed on them by security-conscious adult caregivers.

Moreover, the design of natural areas available to children in cities often fails to provide engaging places for children to explore. Typically, large tracts of open grass, limitations on access to denser vegetation and limited opportunities for climbing or “risky play” make up the urban “playground” in landscaped parks and gardens.

Kytta’s four different categories of child-friendliness experienced by children living in urban contexts. Image: Broberg et al. 2013

Finnish researcher Marketta Kytta’s categorisation of child-friendly places provides a useful guide to interpret the types of nature-based experiences available to children living in cities (see Figure, right). Kytta’s first category, the Cell, is a situation where children are unable to access outdoor places. In the Glasshouse, children can access an engaging natural area but are unable to engage with it independently because of restrictions placed on them by their adult caregivers. The Wasteland is when children can access an outdoor place, but the quality of the place is compromised and does not offer many opportunities for engaging interactions. The final category is the Bullerby, a Swedish term meaning “noisy village”, and depicts the ideal type of experience when children can interact with engaging outdoor places with high levels of independence.

Over 60 percent of children around the globe live in cities where they face substantial barriers to regular and direct experience of nature. In addition to the numerous implications the absence of nature-based experiences has for the health and development of children, an increasing proportion of children are exhibiting a limited understanding of common plants and animals, as well as a biophobia (“fear” or ambivalence) towards the natural world. It would appear that the future “protectors” of the natural world may be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges. By reflecting more critically on the types of experiences in nature that promote a sense of wonder, perhaps we can enhance formative nature-based experiences for children in cities, and potentially reverse this trend.

 Two promising examples

Here we present two promising examples from Australia that are seeking to promote valuable child-nature experiences. The examples are drawn from two different contexts, community-based, and a school setting, to illustrate the range of opportunities available to enrich children’s experiences of nature.

Case Study 1: Parents creating informal nature-play communities

This first example is from Bronwyn Cumbo’s research with children in Sydney, Australia. Bronwyn encountered a group of parents who are taking steps to provide their children with autonomous nature-play experiences in their local neighbourhood. These parents all share a common value for nature instilled through their encounters with nature as children, and a desire to provide their children with similar nature-play experiences. However, the culture of the urban community and safety concerns prevented many of these parents from allowing their children to walk independently or with their friends to the local park to play. To address this, the parents created a regular Friday afternoon “meetup” in a local park after school. These parent meetups were centred around sharing of food and conversation with others in the group. Meanwhile, the children were allowed to roam large distances in the park, unseen by parents, and to engage in a diversity of play activities, many of them that might be considered high-risk by typical urban parents.

Children playing in the local reserve at their Friday afternoon meet-up. Photo: Bronwyn Cumbo

Bronwyn’s research revealed two key elements that enabled these rich nature-play experiences to occur. Firstly, all parents shared a common value of nature and risky play, which allowed parents to express their values and provide their children with greater independent mobility than they may in other contexts. Secondly, parents and children had established a set of rules and limitations for their behaviour within this meet-up context.

  1. Boundaries of independent mobility: Children and parents agreed to boundaries which defined where children could play, and parents could access. The boundaries of children’s play areas were out-of-sight, so parents were required to trust that children would play safely and respect their agreement. Similarly, parents were not allowed to approach or enter a child’s play place unless invited by a child, as a show of respect for the child’s private play activities. Children and parents were able to mingle together at the primary “base” where parents congregated with refreshments.
  2. Boundaries of play activities: Children were encouraged to engage in a range of risky play activities, as long as children felt comfortable that the activity was within their capacity. Children could work together to support or encourage risky activities, such as helping friends climb trees, or explore new areas, but if children were not comfortable, they were encouraged to express this and for others to respect it.

These children had each established a strong connection with certain areas in the park through their play over time and had a unique ability to collaborate together to solve problems or develop imaginary narratives through their play.

Case study 2: The My Patch Project

Children exploring their school’s natural surroundings in the My Patch Project, Australia. Photo: Nel Smit

The second example is the My Patch Project started by Nel Smit in Tasmania, Australia. In the project, each child chooses a patch of land in a designated area within the school’s vicinity. During the course of a year, the children come to identify with their 1 m2 patch: What are its special features? What are the colors, shapes, textures, and smells? What signs of life are there? How is their patch the same or different to other patches? And how do all these elements and activities in the patch change: day to day, after a dry spell, with the seasons, over the year? The outcomes of the My Patch project are very encouraging. Children develop a strong sense of attachment and stewardship that goes beyond taking care of the land. They develop an engagement with and connectedness to “their patch”—a connectedness to nature. And, whilst adults’ and children’s agendas are packed with extracurricular activities, the patches create a feeling of rest and safety. Children mention how they perceive their patch to be a safe haven, a place to visit when they are feeling sad or need some time to think. The My Patch project demonstrates how a low-cost and easy-to-implement idea can render incredibly important benefits, in the short- and long-term, for both individual child development and as a valuable introduction to school-based nature education. Most importantly, My Patch focusses on the direct engagement of children with nature on an emotional level rather than through objective observations.

“I think I know more about my patch than anyone in the world. There is so much to discover. Every time I visit I find something new.”
—Nel Smit, My Patch (1997)

More Bullerby, please

We started with the question: what are the types of childhood experiences that instil a lifelong value for nature and promote stewardship behaviour later in life? It turns out that the sense of wonder that children experience in nature is a crucial factor. The importance of allowing children greater opportunities to independently explore and play within the wild, “in-between” places of their urban environment cannot be easily dismissed. Our case study examples show that these opportunities can be realized by parents as well as at school.

There is a clear need to make room in our cities for more of Kytta’s Bullerby places to ensure children experience interactions with nature that are outdoors, engaging and afford high levels of independent mobility. If the quality of both place and experience are high, urban children can continue to experience that sense of wonder that “wild” natural places provide.

Bronwyn Cumbo & Marthe Derkzen
Sydney & Amsterdam

On The Nature of Cities

Marthe Derkzen

About the Writer:
Marthe Derkzen

Dr. Marthe Derkzen is a researcher and lecturer with the Health and Society chair group. She studies urban nature from a social justice perspective with an interest in climate adaptation, local food, healthy neighborhoods and stewardship of the commons.


Broberg, A.K., Kytta, M., Fagerholm N., (2013) Child-friendly urban structures: Bullerby revisited. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 35 (110 – 120)

Carson, R. (1965) The Sense of Wonder, London. United Kingdom. HarperCollins.

Cobb, E. (1977) The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. New York: Columbia University Press.

A Spatial Overview of the Nature of Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

I like to simplify what constitutes urban nature in a given area. I therefore thought it might be interesting to provide an overview and to ask whether anything is missing, or erroneously included. This article expresses my view of the variety of forms that could be included under the “nature of cities” banner. On planning maps, nature is represented by polygons, lines, and points. Polygons are shapes, denoting area. Lines are linear features—though not necessarily straight ones. Points are individual features small enough not to require a shape to represent them.


Cities fragment the landscape that they occupy. If that landscape was not already transformed by agriculture, the fragments may contain remnants of natural ecosystems. The sustainability of these relatively pristine ecosystems is dependent on their size, shape, and connectivity to one another, as well as the kind of pressures they experience from outside. In biodiversity hotspots such as the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa, every remnant is considered by conservationists to be a precious contribution to national and local targets to conserve representative samples as a percentage of original extent. Although these are the “purest” form of nature in cities, various studies, going back decades, suggest that they differ from their previous, un-fragmented state (see, for example, Andren 1994). Fragments may include wetlands, which are subject to the same pressures as other remnants as well as additional pollution and water extraction.

1) Natural vegetation. Credit Brian Ralphs
Natural vegetation. Photo: Brian Ralphs

Coastal cities can count the strip of the coastal zone—both beaches and the sea—as part of the urban nature assets. Though often heavily utilized and over-fished, these zones are connected to distant ecosystems and, around the world, have features and even species in common. Often city governments are also responsible for managing them, while residents and tourists rely on them heavily for recreation—from swims at the beach to whale-watching.

2) Camps Bay, Cape Town, Credit
Camps Bay, Cape Town. Photo:

Parks in cities can take a variety of forms but are typically mowed and manicured to some extent and, historically, little effort was made to naturalize them. Nowadays, many are breaking that mold. The Tiergarten in Berlin, for example, has sections that are allowed to grow wild, while others are manicured in the traditional way. Parks are for people and their nature will ultimately be determined by what the local populace prefers. With evolving ideas of the nature of cities we might see a future, therefore, in which the Tiergarten approach becomes more commonplace.

3) Urban Park. Credit Florent Lannoy
An urban park. Photo: Florent Lannoy.

In the average city, gardens probably far exceed parks in total area. They are, however, intensely compartmentalized, limiting the flow of genes between them except for flying animals and the plants dispersed by them and the wind. It is also likely that gardens contain a far greater variety of species than parks in a given city, though many or most may be exotic species that do not perform the same functions as original and larger ecosystems. They can be remarkably diverse, as demonstrated in the famous example of 2,673 species of plants and animals recorded in Leicester garden over the course of 30 years (Owen 2010).

4) Cottage garden. Credit Garry Knight
Cottage garden. Photo: Garry Knight

Botanical gardens merit separate mention because of the educational experience they offer over parks and the more expansive (and more expensive) experience of nature they offer over private gardens. Often paired with greenhouses, educational exhibits, and restaurants, they concentrate the experience of nature into a thoroughly-managed space while often maximizing biodiversity. Some, like Cape Town’s breathtaking Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, transition into natural vegetation. As one moves further into Kirstenbosch and away from the restaurants, the garden gets wilder while the crowds become more sparse.

5) Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa. Credit
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa. Photo:

Brownfield sites are the neglected cousins of the preceding categories. They have the added ignominy of an uncertain or terminal future, with many being earmarked for future development. Studies have shown, however, that they play a role in supporting biodiversity and even in providing a natural experience (Bonthoux et al. 2014). Importantly in the context of urban nature, a perceived value (often based on the presence of a single, iconic-enough species such as a breeding pair of birds) may be motivation enough for enhancing such sites or retaining a portion when they are developed, for the sake of nature.

6) Brownfield site. Credit Russell James Smith
Brownfield site. Photo: Russell James Smith


A variety of green infrastructure can fulfill the purpose of a natural green corridor. In systematic biodiversity planning, however, corridors are considered to be strips of natural vegetation and the ecosystems they support, which connect more substantial fragments of natural vegetation. Their effectiveness depends on their length and breadth, and the species that need to use them to traverse the urban matrix, and entire books have been written on the questions of how they should look in terms of width, length and quality (see for example Hilty J and Lidicker WZ. 2006).

7) Green corridors through a city. Credit La Citta Vita
Green corridors through a city. Photo: La Citta Vita

Avenues of trees or shrubs along roads are, in some ways, the linear equivalents of parks. They are, however, typically less diverse and imaginative, despite offering an undeniable improvement on a treeless road. Singapore is a world leader in re-thinking the concept of an avenue. In this crowded city, where space is paramount, biodiversity authorities have responded accordingly by planting multi-species, multi-layer “avenues” that contribute to the biodiversity of the city as much as to its aesthetics.

8) Multi-species avenue in Singapore
A multi-species avenue in Singapore. Photo: Jeremy Woon

Water lines” in cities range from relatively sterile concrete canals that carry only water, to rivers with a variety of plant and animal life and vegetated banks. The former is often a wasted opportunity to bring nature to the city, although it may be necessary where space is severely limited. The ecosystem services provided by naturalized water lines, such as flood attenuation, water purification and recreation may, however, surpass the benefits of a canal even in economic terms. Perhaps the most popular option is a compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. In Seoul, the Cheonggyecheon Stream—re-engineered after the demolition of a highway —attracts thousands of visitors but is expensive to maintain because water needs to be piped in from elsewhere. Retrofitting often tends to be expensive—a reminder of the importance of design in early-stage city planning.

9) Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul. Credit d'n'c
Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul. Photo: d’n’c


Many members of the public don’t think of any of the shapes and lines discussed above when considering nature in cities—they think of wild animals. Many “cosmopolitan”, or widespread, species play a role in various parts of the world. Some are appreciated by the public (squirrels, ducks), others abhorred (rats, cockroaches), and still others produce mixed feelings (pigeons, seagulls). Many such species have little value in terms of biodiversity due to their ubiquity and uniformity; nevertheless, they are nature, and must be counted as residents of cities. One common phenomenon regarding urban wildlife is that the rarer the species is, the more it is valued. This is demonstrated, for example, by the excited reaction of tourists having their first experience of a species that may be common and problematic in a city they are visiting for the first time, such as foxes, raccoons or mallard ducks. Animals in the city are usually mapped (i.e. treated as points) only if they are relatively rare.

10) Falcon chick. Credit Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York
Falcon chick. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

Plants constitute many of the features discussed under shapes and lines, but in the urban context, or the context of the planner, they can also be points. This is especially true for large and iconic trees (see also Trees as Starting Points for Journeys of Learning About Local History and Heritage Trees of Cape Town (Continued) by Russell Galt), which may be located in a concrete matrix, as well as individuals of rare species in parks or gardens. Individual trees may have great natural and cultural relevance. In the seaside town of Mossel Bay, in South Africa, for example, the “post office tree” is an ancient milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme) and a national monument that acted as a mail system for sailors in the 1500s, who hung their shoes with notes in them for safe delivery.

11) Credit London Trees
Photo: London Trees


It’s not always so clear whether a feature should be regarded as point, line or polygon. For example, a cluster of points can constitute a shape. A population of sedentary organisms (i.e. mostly plants), especially a rare species, may therefore be represented by a polygon of the area in which they are distributed, rather than by individual points.

12) Cluster of points constituting a polygon
Cluster of points constituting a polygon.

Green roofs and, to a greater extent, green walls, are difficult to categorize in the spatial sense but are also important contributions to urban nature.

13) Flower growing in a sandwich space. Credit Anderson Mancini
Flower growing in a sandwich space. Photo: Anderson Mancini

As we get further into more-difficult-to-define features, we should not forget the “sandwich spaces” discussed by Timon McPhearson and Victoria Marshall—the spaces between buildings, rooftops, walls, curbs, sidewalk cracks, and other small-scale urban spaces that exist in the fissures between linear infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines) and our three dimensional gridded cities. These spaces can be reservoirs for species, assist with water infiltration and offer other benefits discussed in McPherson and Marshall’s piece.

14) Green wall. Credit Swiss.piton
Green wall. Photo: Swiss.piton

Lastly, in cities, representations of nature are to be found in the intensively managed and artificial confines of zoos, aquariums, and museums. If urban nature is to be defined as that which provides us with an approximation of a natural experience, and if it contributes to the conservation of biodiversity, these cannot be excluded. Especially if education and awareness are our goals, these features need to be considered a part of the nature of cities.

15) Penguins at Edinburgh Zoo. Credit Glen Bowman
Penguins at Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Glen Bowman

Concluding remarks

This was a brief blow-by-blow summary of urban nature in categories, as seen through the eyes of a conservation biologist. The tools that are used to map and appoint attributes to these features, to indicate their location and importance, is often a geographic information systems (GIS)—a digital mapping device. We all use the resulting maps to get around cities with which we are not familiar, while city administrations increasingly focus on a network of green spaces as a key component of conserving biodiversity in the urban environment. For these reasons a holistic, spatial view of the nature of cities will always be an important contribution to our understanding and conservation of the nature of cities.

Andre Mader

On The Nature of Cities


Andren H. 1994. Effects of habitat fragmentation on birds and mammals in landscapes with different proportions of suitable habitat: a review. Oikos. 71:355-366.

Bonthoux S, Brun M, Di Pietro F, Greulich S, Bouché-Pillon S. 2014. How can wastelands promote biodiversity in cities? A review. Landscape and Urban Planning. 132: 79-88.

Hilty J and Lidicker WZ. 2006. Corridor Ecology: The Science and Practice of Linking Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation.

Owen J. 2010. Wildlife of a Garden—a thirty year study. Royal Horticultural Society.

A Storm in a Bioswale: Breaking Down Barriers to Nature-Based Solutions

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
By engaging with residents during the rain simulation process, we were able to explain exactly why their Sustainable Drainage System had been installed and let them see how the system performed with a massive volume of water typical of an extreme rainfall event.
Nature-based solutions are emerging as a key mechanism for renaturing cities, yet barriers around evidence and effectiveness still stand in the way of widespread rollout across our urban landscapes. More by luck than design, we learned that a straightforward technical test of a Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) retrofit scheme in a social housing estate could provide an innovative mechanism for overcoming local authority and local community reticence towards nature-based solution SuDS. By literally creating a storm in a bioswale, we saw perceptions change through experiencing SuDs in action; securing community confidence and transforming a London borough’s approach towards managing stormwater with nature.

Nature-based solutions provide the potential to reconnect urban communities with nature and the broad array of ecosystem service benefits that nature can provide. Nature-based solutions are solutions that use nature and/or natural processes to simultaneously provide ecological, environmental, social, and economic benefits. Whilst consensus on an exact definition for nature-based solutions has yet to emerge, the evidence base in relation to the cost-effectiveness of such approaches has expanded and it would appear that our urban landscapes will be transforming in the coming years as nature-based solutions become a more widely adopted strategy globally (TNOC essays: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Emerging research links nature-based solutions with everything from improved health outcomes (Kabisch et al. 2017), to better social cohesion (Rutt and Gulsrud 2016), from stormwater management benefits (Haase 2015) to locking away carbon (Davies et al. 2011), and from economic uplift of property (Eftec 2013) to increased workforce productivity (Saraev 2012). Despite this ever-expanding list of potential benefits, key barriers continue to constrain widespread implementation across our cities.

Derbyshire St Pocket Park, a nature-based solution pocket park in the heart of East London, UK.

As urban ecologists and nature-based solution advocates, we wear several interdisciplinary hats. This includes both working as consultants, monitoring the ecosystem service benefits of nature-based solutions, and as academics, trying to push learning and understanding of the planning, delivery and legacy-management phases of nature-based solution implementation. It is the colliding of these two worlds that has provided us with some insight into barriers that can stand in the way of nature-based solution acceptance and rollout, and simple ways that some of these barriers can be addressed.

We are currently working on the EU Horizon 2020 project Connecting Nature. The project brings together researchers, industry, local authorities, local communities, and NGOs to create a community of cities that fosters peer-to-peer learning and capacity building. The aim of the project is to support cities in upscaling and out-scaling nature-based solutions, to move them from a situation where they are delivering innovative small-scale nature-based solution pilots, to one where nature-based solutions are delivered across the city and represent “business as usual”.

One of the Connecting Nature Cities, Glasgow (UK) working to implement nature-based solutions as a mechanism for enhancing the multifunctionality of their open spaces.

One of the key activities of Connecting Nature involves collaborative work with local authorities across a number of partner cities, exploring the barriers they encounter to nature-based solutions roll-out. This process revealed that different cities can face different challenges, generating a wide range of barriers that cover all aspects of nature-based solution implementation from finance and entrepreneurship, to governance and technical design. Encouragingly however, because this process established a peer-to-peer exchange between cities and practitioners, it transpired that barriers faced by one city were often a challenge that had already been addressed by another. Demonstrating the value of a co-creation approach, these exchanges identified that a range of innovative solutions were possible and that these merely need to be recognised and shared amongst practitioners to help them to unlock nature-based solutions barriers. It is an example of such an innovative solution to barriers that we share here.

Connecting Nature peer-to-peer exchange. City officials from across the EU working together to explore barriers to upscaling and outscaling nature-based solutions.

From the Connecting Nature scoping process, it was apparent that some of the key barriers to the rollout of nature-based solution related to public perception of nature-based solutions, buy-in from different local authority departments, and confidence of local authorities in the guaranteed performance of such solutions. Whilst exploring these barriers in one of our academic workshops, it became clear that during our double-lives as a consultants, we had been directly involved in a project that established an innovative but relatively simple solution that could address these barriers with a single action. The solution came out of a project spearheading the retrofit of low-cost nature-based solutions for the management of stormwater: Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS). Nature-based solutions are increasingly being adopted for stormwater management, but many local authorities are still cautious about adopting such an approach. In many local authorities, SuDS are still either in the infancy or are not being adopted at all. This is particularly the case when considering retrofitting SuDS into existing developments, and adopting a nature-based solution approach to SuDS design.

The EU Life+ project Climate Proofing Social Housing Estates was a pioneering programme aiming to showcase a novel SuDS retrofit approach and demonstrate the multifunctional benefits it could provide. Led by Groundwork London, the project investigated whether nature-based solution SuDS could be cost-effectively retrofitted across three social housing estates in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham in the UK. Our role in the project was to lead on delivering the monitoring of the project to assess the ecosystem service benefits of such an approach. A key part of this was monitoring a range of the SuDS features to assess their performance in terms of stormwater management. Various monitoring methods were adopted that included the use of weather stations, pressure sensors, and fixed-point cameras to quantify and qualify the rainfall capture and attenuation performance of the SuDS. These monitoring methods provided data to support the local authority in gaining confidence in the implementation of SuDS within the borough. However, of the monitoring methods implemented, by far the most effective for breaking down a range of barriers to nature-based solution implementation was also one of the simplest. This effectiveness was also a happy coincidence rather than an intended impact of the monitoring design:

Rain gardens installed in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham to take rainfall runoff from the road. Part of the Climate-Proofing Social Housing Estates EU Life+ project.

One of the key problems of monitoring in-situ SuDS features is that, in order to understand how they perform under extreme weather events, you have to wait for an extreme weather event to occur. Most SuDS features are designed to manage a specific sized weather event, for example a 1 in 10, 1 in 30, or 1 in 100-year rainfall event. By definition therefore, in order to monitor their as-designed performance, you might have to wait 100 years for an event of that magnitude. As if this is not enough of a challenge, field monitoring being the fickle thing that it is, you can almost guarantee that when that mega-event does finally occur, the battery will have gone on your pressure gauge and the data will be missed!

So, to try to avoid the vagaries of waiting for natural storm events, we decided to create a storm(!) and simulate our own extreme downpour. Checking through the literature, we found evidence that storm simulation had been trialled under laboratory conditions (Alfredo et al. 2010), but in-the-field testing had only been carried out on a small scale previously (Alves et al. 2014). So, it seemed like a fairly novel approach on the scale we were operating. The aim of the simulation was to mimic the rainfall magnitude to which the SuDS feature had been designed (1 in 100-year storm event) by inputting the volume of rain that would be expected to fall during a one hour storm event of the same magnitude. The volume was calculated by multiplying the depth of rainfall expected to fall during such an event by the as-built catchment area for each individual SuDS feature that was to be tested. The calculated volume of water was then to be gradually pumped into each SuDS element being tested over a one hour period.

Depositing a 1 in 100-year storm event onto a real-life housing estate comes with a certain amount of anxiety… The night before the simulation was spent checking and rechecking calculations, nervous that 10,000 litres seemed like an awful lot of water and that some erroneous zeros in the wrong place could lead to way too much water flowing into the SuDS feature than we wanted! Fortunately, this fear proved to be completely unfounded and the storm simulation went very smoothly.

Breaking down civic barriers

For the simulation, we used a bowser containing water collected from the outflow of a wastewater treatment centre so that there was no waste of mains water. As the 10,000 litres were pumped out, we used a selection of monitoring methodologies to assess the capacity of the SuDS feature and the control flow chamber (the chamber that releases water to the storm drain system if the feature is overloaded) to deal with this quantity of stormwater.

The simulation was a great success, with no exceedance of capacity and all standing water infiltrated into the ground within a mere 15 minutes of the end of the event. As the event was organised, in part, to help break down the nature-based solution barriers related to buy-in from different local authority departments, and confidence of local authorities in the guaranteedperformance, local authority representatives were on site to observe the test, and it was videoed so that results could be shared. As this was the first attempt at simulating an in-situ storm event, the local authority representatives were the extent of the invited participants, as there was some nervousness about running such a simulation for the first time. However, this proved to be a missed opportunity in relation to breaking down further nature-based solution barriers. We wouldn’t learn the extent of this missed opportunity until our next storm simulation.

Breaking down community barriers

Buoyed by the success of the first rainfall simulation, for our next storm simulation at a series of rain gardens on another of the housing estates, we publicised the event more widely and some local residents joined us to watch the test in action. Unbeknownst to us at the time of planning, this proved to be an incredibly successful venture, specifically for solving one of the remaining barriers to nature-based solution rollout: public perception of nature-based solutions.

Stormwater simulation at Sun Road Rain Gardens

The development of the nature-based solution SuDS across the three estates had very much been carried out using a co-creation approach that incorporated the residents’ input. Nevertheless, as we discovered during conversations with residents at the start of the simulation, there were still lingering concerns and a lack of understanding about how and why their local open spaces had been changed. Of most value from these interactions, we learned an unexpected misconception held by residents: a sense of anxiety that their properties had been put at greater risk of flooding locally in order to reduce the risk of flooding and combined sewage overflow across London as a whole.

By engaging with residents during the rain simulation process, we were able to explain exactly why their SuDs had been installed and let them see how the system performed with a massive volume of water typical of an extreme rainfall event. At the end of the simulation, there was very positive feedback and residents informed us that their perceptions had changed completely. Most importantly, seeing the SuDs in action had assuaged their concerns regarding changes in water management across their open spaces.

Such was the success of this endeavour in building confidence in local authority planning teams and local community members, that we would recommend this type of hands-on demonstration in all nature-based solution SuDS retrofit projects (or at least until SuDS is more widely accepted). Overall, the project was such a success that the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham is leading the way in rolling out SuDS retrofit in London, including a much more substantial retrofit on the largest London housing estate in White City. A critical part of this success though was the potential effect of this kind of citizen-focused storm simulation on the local community. It was eye-opening to experience first-hand both the stress that a change in stormwater management had brought to local residents, and the subsequent change in perceptions by experiencing the SuDS in action.


Nature-based solutions are delivered through co-creative processes involving local community participation. The success of their legacy and wider uptake is dependent on both this co-creation approach to design and on community acceptance, understanding, and ownership. Citizen engagement delivered through this basic storm simulation testing proved to be an effective way to support this understanding. In so doing, it represents an excellent mechanism for changing both civic and community perceptions, promoting social acceptance, and removing barriers that currently prevent nature-based solution mainstreaming.

The performance of the Beatrice House nature-based solution SuDS feature under storm simulation conditions. The bars represent the input of “stormwater”, the blue line represents the water level in relation to the pressure sensor depth.

In order to develop this process further, the next step would be to capture the resident’s perceptions before and after the storm simulation in a more formal way, to quantify the effect in terms of reducing stress and increasing resident understanding. For now though, we look forward to the continued rollout of this type of nature-based solution and the continued opportunity to create storms in a bioswale. We encourage others to follow suit with this kind of hands-on demonstration, to actively engage communities in performance assessment, and to begin to break down the barriers to successful broader nature-based solutions rollout.

Stuart Connop and Caroline Nash

On The Nature of Cities

Caroline Nash

About the Writer:
Caroline Nash

Caroline is a Research Assistant in the Sustainability Research Institute at University of East London, working primarily on biodiversity and urban green infrastructure design

A Study of Biodiversity in the World’s Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

What are the global patterns of biodiversity the world’s cities?  Are urban spaces biologically homogeneous and depauperate, or do they harbor significant native biodiversity?  These are the questions of a collaborative study of biodiversity in the world’s cities.

For several years researchers and practitioners have thought that cities may be important in conserving biodiversity.  In 2011 a group of researchers started a project at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) to document patterns of biodiversity in the world’s cities.  Our project, “What Makes an Urban Biota ‘Urban’?” compiled data from previous studies of birds and plants and cities.  We focused on citywide studies of birds and of spontaneous (i.e., unmanaged or ‘wild’) vegetation because we wanted to identity patterns in cities that went beyond the relatively well documented flora and fauna of urban greenspaces and yards.  Our study only included data from published studies that were completed since 1990.  These resulted in a database of 147 cities with bird species lists for 54 cities and plant lists for 110.

We wanted to know:

  1. Are cities becoming more homogenous in terms of biodiversity?  Several researchers have raised the issue of biotic homogenization resulting from design and planning practices that shape urban environments with standard species compositions and we wanted to know if cities are indeed becoming more similar to each other in plant and bird species composition.
  2. What are patterns of the proportions of native and non-native species of plants and birds in cities?  The biodiversity of native species is of global importance and we wanted to understand the relative importance of cities in this aspect of conservation.  That is…
  3. Are cities of conservation importance by harboring native spieces?  Are biogeographical (biogeographical realm, amount of remnant vegetation, latitude, elevation, mean temperature, rainfall) and cultural (urban extent, city establishment date) variables are predictors of species richness and of the proportions of native and non-native species?
Cities with city-wide plant and bird data.
Cities with city-wide plant and bird data.

The results from the NCEAS study are published here: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

We found that cities are not homogenous in bird and plant species composition and reflect local biogeographical patterns of species composition.  In other words, the bird and plant species composition of North American cities resemble the local flora and fauna and are distinct from those of other regions.  The proportions of native and non-native species show different patterns for plants and birds in the world’s cities.  Around 3% of bird species in cities are non-native, whereas non-native plant species are close to 25% of the floras in the cities we studied.  The percentage of greenspace in a city was the best predictor of the number of plant and bird species and also of the proportion of native species in cities.  We found that two families of birds, waterfowl and raptors, were well represented in the world’s cities with most species in the region found in the associated city, suggesting that cities may be important in providing habitats for and potentially conserving some groups of species.

Native species are an important part of urban biodiversity.
Native species are an important part of urban biodiversity.

The NCEAS project revealed that there is a relatively large amount of data available on birds and plants in cities in Europe and North America, but we had very few studies from cities in the global south.  We know that many of these cities occur in biodiversity hotspots, but also suspect that the factors shaping biodiversity in African, South American and South Asian cities may be different.  For example, a study of the vegetation of Bujumbura, Burundi, one of the cities in our database, found that the city had a much lower proportion of native plant species than other cities.  The study suggested that informal settlements may reduce the amount of undeveloped greenspace in the city and have a negative impact on the number of native species.

Are factors shaping the dominance of non-native plant species in Bujumbura unique or part of a larger pattern in cities in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Are factors shaping the dominance of non-native plant species in Bujumbura unique or part of a larger pattern in cities in Sub-Saharan Africa? Credit:

Introducing UrBioNet: A global network for urban biodiversity research and practice

In April 2013 the U.S. National Science Foundation funded a research coordination network grant to bring together a network of people interested in biodiversity in cities:  researchers, managers, designers, planners, and residents are welcome to participate.

An important goal of UrBioNet is to expand the NCEAS database by adding data from cities in Africa, South and Central America, and South Asia.  We seek to expand the taxonomic groups where we have information on diversity adding data on bats, stream fishes and insect pollinators.  And we want to expand the list of cities where we have data on species abundance and spatially explicit data and not just species lists.

UrBioNet is organized around three projects that will bring together a network of people interested in biodiversity cities.  One project will compile a list of life history traits for each of the bird, bat, fish, insect pollinator, and plant species in the database.  The trait data will be used to determine if these species characteristics might explain how cities filter species from a larger regional pool.  Another project will compile socioeconomic, demographic and cultural data on cities and subsections of cities that might explain patterns of diversity within and among urban areas.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a third project will document approaches to monitoring, planning, management, and design of urban biodiversity.

Framework for UrBioNet
Framework for UrBioNet

How to join UrBioNet

The UrBioNet wiki contains information on the network and a link for joining and participating in the network.  There are many ways to be involved with UrBioNet.  Working groups perform the work needed to complete the three products, and require the greatest amount of time and commitment.  In 2015 UrBioNet will start a collaborative project for undergraduate students and an online course for graduate students.

But the best way to be involved is to contribute your expertise on the cities that you work in and study.  There are opportunities to share data, to collaborate with others, and to share information.  Participation is open to all.

Charlie Nilon
Columbia, Missouri

On The Nature of Cities


A Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on Cities and Human Settlements is competing for a place among the final United Nations SDGs that will be approved in 2014. If there were an explicitly Urban SDG, what would it look like? What should it say?

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.
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Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Yunus Arikan, Bonn
Reality of an UrbanSDG refers to the fact that we are living in a new 21st Century Urban World. For the first time more than 1 of 2 people globally are living in urban agglomerations.
Genie Birch, New York
Why is the United States government dragging its feet about whether to support a stand alone goal for cities and human settlements?  
Benjamin Bradlow, Cape Town
The development of the SDGs, and the prospect of an urban goal, are significant for all of us who work to make cities more inclusive.
Maruxa Cardama, Brussels
Five suggested targets for the urban SDG.  
Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm
If poorly defined and managed, urban SDG targets and indicators will almost certainly have unintended consequences and negative outcomes that will be difficult to reverse.
Julian Goh, Singapore
A standalone Urban SDG will allow us to focus. With the right leadership, cities can mobilize and act much more quickly, compared to the national governments.
Shuaib Lwasa, Kampala
An SDG on cities and human settlements would be useful if upfront the design would create opportunities for all categories of urban dwellers.
Anjali Mahendra, Bangalore
An urban SDG is an opportunity to mobilize all urban stakeholders—public, private, and civil society—towards solving global sustainability issues.
Mary Rowe, New York
We need an urban sustainable development goal because national governments, without one, will continue their outdated, tired bias of setting national policies that ignore the particularity of cities and attempt to apply homogenous policies that incorporate rural, less dense and dense areas all together.
Andrew Rudd, New York
We need an urban SDG because cities are still the world’s preeminent sites for sharing. An urban SDG must therefore aim for the (re)configuration of all human settlements.
Karen Seto, New Haven
Urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges to the sustainability of Earth’s life support systems. Rather than arguing for any particular urban SDG, I propose that the United Nations consider at least three criteria in the discussions of an urban SDG.
Lorena Zárate, Mexico City
Ten proposed targets for an urban SDG.  
Yunus Arikan

About the Writer:
Yunus Arikan

Yunus Arikan is the Head of Global Policy and Advocacy at ICLEI, actively involved in leading ICLEI´s work at the United Nations, with intergovernmental agencies and at Multilevel Environmental Agreements.

Yunus Arikan

I was one of those who left Rio+20 disappointed with the rather vague language around Sustainable Development Goals. After following the debates over two years, it has become very clear that addressing “the elephant in the room” — to reach a global political consensus on the scope of universality of SDGs to be applicable to all levels (global, regional, national subnational, local), to all dimensions (social, economic, environmental, as well as peace and security) and to all generations (of today and tomorrow, which urges for planetary boundaries to be taken into account) — still needs a lot of trust and confidence building.

The good news is that there is a growing consensus that a stand-alone goal on sustainable cities and human settlements, or sustainable urbanization or an UrbanSDG, is needed for the challenge of universality of SDGs through its three key assets: reality, harmony, diversity.

Reality of an UrbanSDG refers to the fact that we are living in a new 21st Century Urban World. For the first time in the history of human civilization more than 1 out of the 2 people globally will be living in cities or urban agglomerations globally. It is inevitable that the success of any approach to global sustainability will rely how it is perceived by the urban population. Any service, product or management model needs to be transformed and evolved based on the economic relations, social and cultural dynamics and environmental impacts of the way they are produced and consumed in these urban settlements.

Harmony of an UrbanSDG refers to the fact that cities or urban agglomerations are complex living organisms. In the 1990s and 2000s, Local Agenda 21 enabled localization of the concept of sustainability worldwide. But in order to achieve a global transformation of sustainable communities, we need inclusive, well planned-managed, innovative and holistic “urban solutions”, rather than isolated, piecemeal, ad-hoc and temporary “sector-specific projects”. Harmonious solutions need to be cross-cutting. It does not make any sense to have smart buildings without public spaces, electric cars without renewable energies, economic growth without incorporating cultural values, waste management without locally grown food, public health without urban biodiversity, or implementation of impressive plans without an effective engagement and ownership of local communities that will be the main beneficiaries.

Diversity of an UrbanSDG refers to the fact that all nations, at the end, consist of a broad variety of cities and human settlements. Be it a small rural town in Africa, or a specific district in Europe, or a complex metropolitan area in America, or a diverse city-region in Asia, situated at coastal zones or mountain regions, in the heritages of the past or to-be-built settlements for the generations tomorrow, sustainable development has to address the sustainability of their populations within the local context. Global solutions can be tailored to accommodate the needs of each and every community.

Finally, it has to be noted that the success of the UrbanSDG depends on the way it is planned or governed within multiple spheres of government and their citizens. The world has moved forward tremendously since the context of “local authorities” was first introduced in Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 in 1992. Building upon the experience of over two decades of participatory processes of the Local Agenda 21 in thousands of communities worldwide, supported with their recognition and engagement in the agenda setting, policy development and implementation of the national, regional and global processes as “governmental stakeholders” and the urgency of direct, ambitious and collective action, enable local and subnational governments to be recalled as among the primary partners of the national governments, intergovernmental agencies and civil society.

Genie Birch

About the Writer:
Genie Birch

Professor Genie Birch is the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Chair of Urban Research and Education, former Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Municipal Art Society of New York, and co-chair, UN-HABITAT's World Urban Campaign.

Genie Birch

Why is the United States government dragging its feet about whether to support a stand alone goal for cities and human settlements within the United Nations’ upcoming Framework for a Post 2015 Agenda when time is running out?

A bit of background will help you understand why I am asking this blunt question. A member-state driven effort, the final Framework will have 8-12 goals and associated targets that build on and replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015. The United Nations has appointed an Open Working Group (OWG), a 70 member/30 seat (vote), to develop the Framework. (The United States shares a seat with Canada and Israel.) This July, the OWG will present the Framework to the Secretary General for forwarding to the General Assembly in September. But the General Assembly will not vote on it until September 2015.

Despite this time lag, the hard decisions will be made in the next few weeks. This week, the OWG co-chairs promised to issue the Framework’s zero-draft around May 27. They also said that the current list of proposed goals still standing is too long. Over the past year, the OWG winnowed original list of 39 to the 16 still under consideration. Among the 16 is a proposal for a stand alone goal to “build inclusive, safe, sustainable cities and human settlements” with targets that cover urban planning, resilience preparedness, and the integration of housing, transportation and open space.

Remember, the predecessor framework, the MDGs, were the first-ever global consensus on development priorities. Experimental when first formulated at the turn of the 21st century, the MDGs were pioneering but not perfect. They largely ignored cities except for a nod to urban issues in a target for “achieving significant improvement in the lives of 100,000 million slum dwellers” as measured by the number of people living in slums. But this target, hastily constructed and added as an afterthought to Goal 7 — “To ensure environmental Sustainability” — was not only quickly met (and in fact, exceeded) but also proved essentially meaningless. By 2008, the world had more slum dwellers (1 billion) than in 2000 (760 billion).

Nonetheless, by its very existence among the list of targets, the slum metric stimulated a number of important efforts and offered key lessons for the upcoming Framework. First, it resulted in the creation of a definition of a slum dwelling as none existed before the MDGs. In 2003, UN-Habitat transformed this commonly used term into a measurable concept. (A slum dwelling lacks five qualities: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation facilities, sufficient-living area, not overcrowded, durable, structurally sound construction, and security of tenure. UN-Habitat further developed minimum standards for each quality.) Second, it stimulated a raft of innovative slum-upgrading techniques now practiced worldwide. Third, it showed today’s SDG framers that when it comes to sustainability in cities and human settlements paying attention to housing alone (even if the number is right) is insufficient. Needed is an integrated approach (participatory urban and regional planning) for providing a range of public goods (e.g. transportation, public space and housing) ensuring the efficient use of land to protect food supplies and ecosystem services and preparing for natural disasters. And these are the key elements of the proposed stand alone goal on cities and human settlements.

So this is why I posed the question at the beginning of this essay:

Why is the U.S. dragging its Feet on the Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements SDG?

Does our government lack recognition that the U.S. is 82% urban, the world is 51% urban and rapidly moving to 75% urban in the strongest megatrend of the 21st century? Does it still think we are living the Jeffersonian dream of an agriculture-driven economy? Does it really believe that a stand alone goal on cities and human settlements will really divide urban and rural interests irreparably as our US representative to the United Nations claimed last week? Does it really think that mainstreaming urban issues into other goals will substitute for the unique, spatial considerations and integrating functions that a city/human settlements goal will offer as our US representative asserted last week? The current U S position evokes three big questions among reasonable and thoughtful folks.

First, can’t our representatives read? The goal encompasses all human settlements. Rural people live in settlements that experience similar concerns as cities around housing, public goods/infrastructure and unmanaged growth but at a different scale than cities.

Second, does the U.S. government actually lack understanding of the inextricably linked fates of cities, peri-urban areas, suburbs, country villages, and farms in the 21st century? Cities are entirely dependent on the food-supplying and ecosystem services provided by non-urban areas. Rural places need access to city markets and services. Well-planned cities and regions will provide the foundation for achieving the expected sectoral goals on water, health, gender and food security.

Third, does the U.S. government really think that the world can move the needle on sustainable development without paying attention to cities, currently the source of 80% of the world’s GDP (and, in the U.S., 70% of patents, the indicator of innovation) AND 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions? Does it really lack an appreciation of the fact that worldwide population growth rates are much lower than land conversion rates — this is a fancy way of saying aren’t our leaders aware of sprawl or unmanaged urban growth and how it damages the rural areas by gobbling up fertile farmland, fragmenting forests, wetlands and other important ecological assets along the way? Do they really think that the world can continue to allow people to settle in places vulnerable to natural disasters? (This last query stems from an observation that surely our representatives suffered with the rest of New Yorkers when Super Storm Sandy crippled the city in Fall 2012 — maybe they weren’t in residence then, but certainly they must read newspapers, watch newscasts or follow social media on these matters? And maybe they even welcomed HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to New York as he oversaw the Rebuilding by Design project and dispensed billions in recovery funds.)

You may think that the U.S. stance is bordering on the unbelievable. And let me assure you, that while our representatives are publicly saying that they are open to either a stand alone goal or mainstreaming targets, they are positioning the mainstream option. I witnessed this performance last Wednesday when I attended the 11th meeting of the OWG in New York City. In her testimony on the cities/human settlements goal, our representative detailed the mainstreaming option while ignoring the stand alone. Earlier on, when testifying on the proposed infrastructure goal, she maneuvered to remove references to “rural” calling for its replacement by “vulnerable.” While no one can possibly object to helping the vulnerable, this U S sleight-of-hand-word-substitution tactic may be setting up a justification for the elimination of the cities and human settlements goal by saying its elements are covered in other rewritten goals. Watch out…

I think its time for us to encourage the U.S. government to pull up their collective socks and run fast to supporting a stand alone goal on sustainable cities and human settlements.

Ben Bradlow

About the Writer:
Ben Bradlow

Benjamin Bradlow is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Brown University. His research investigates the role of urban politics and institutions in processes of democratization and redistribution in Brazil and South Africa.

Benjamin Bradlow

The development of the SDGs, and the prospect of an urban goal, are significant for all of us who work to make cities more inclusive. But much work is to be done, especially to ensure that an urban goal recognizes the deep divides of power, finance, and knowledge that characterize the decisions that drive urban development. SDI is one of a number of organizations that is demanding that the urban poor — the current losers but highest potential winners of such a debate — be located as central actors in the goals that governments and formal agencies adopt as the next development agenda. If we lose this opportunity, we will perpetuate a cycle of “development” that excludes so many and hides these failures behind empty rhetoric and cynical statistical tricks.

For the urban poor federations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that comprise our network, development goals are about improving the lives of real people. As such, a goal on cities must be fundamentally oriented around the people who stand to gain — or lose — the most from the success or failure of such a goal. This means focusing on the poor and especially the large informal housing and livelihood sectors that characterize our rapidly growing cities.

A target for universal provision of well-located land, shelter, and basic services should be a minimum of an urban goal. Unfortunately, the Millenium Development Goals included a goal on slums that was very unclear and very unambitious. An urban goal should encompass a specific focus on inclusion and the rights of the poor in cities through universal access to these amenities (land, services, shelter).

One of the biggest advantages of having an urban goal is that it focuses policy-makers on a specific space and a scale of administration in which to make change. In particular, this means a much greater focus on both formal local government and the constellation of actors that drive local governance. These are inextricably linked, and it is folly to think otherwise. Strong local government requires a strong and organized civil society to drive both innovation and accountability in our cities.

A fundamental competency of strong local government is to have universal data on all slums in their cities. Without this data, local governments pursue urban development projects and policies that are unrealistic and skewed towards wealthier, formal areas of the city. An urban goal should include provision for data collection on slums, underpinned by a commitment to data on 100% of all occupied land of the city (informal or formal). Such a goal should therefore stipulate the necessity for official inclusion, legitimation, and support for community-collected data on the nature and scale of poverty and informality in cities, especially by municipal authorities.

SDI’s experience is that data on informal settlements is most accurate and most comprehensive when it is collected by people who live in informal settlements utilizing people-centred, standardized survey and mapping tools. We have collected such data on almost 7,000 slums across the world, and currently SDI federations are collecting data in seven primary cities in Africa with 100% coverage of slums in those cities. These data are housed in a database that will go live later this year to manage such data on slums collected by SDI federations and many other groups and agencies.

We cannot ignore this debate because it will define our work for years to come. Now is the time to do what previous development agendas have conspicuously avoided doing: putting the voices and tools of the informal majority of our cities at the center how we work. This is the real promise of an urban goal in the SDGs.

Maruxa Cardama

About the Writer:
Maruxa Cardama

Communitas Co-founder & Coordinator. Sustainable Development practitioner promoting socio-environmental justice & intergenerational solidarity for equitable communities

Maruxa Cardama

Communitas is the coalition for sustainable cities & regions in the SDGs, working as a task force of subnational and local practitioners to provide input to the SDGs process. Its core partners — Tellus Institute, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, nrg4SD Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development and UN-Habitat — work in close collaboration with a multi-stakeholder advisory committee, with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation. Communitas’ vision is to capitalize on the interlinkages between sustainable human development, the eradication of poverty and inequality, and democratization that must and can be leveraged with sustainable urbanization processes.

The prevailing social, environmental and economic challenges that impact the quality of life in cities are multiple and interconnected. For Communitas, poverty, equality, human rights respect, governance and democratisation, and planetary boundaries conform the overarching framework within which to address critical concerns related to current urbanisation models around: sprawl and conversion of land; land tenure; balanced territorial development for the rural urban nexus; participatory planning; access to housing and public services; safety and social cohesion; community infrastructure; resilience and climate change adaptation; natural resources management and connectivity. All these critical concerns are calling loudly for a truly integrated approach to cities and human settlements by means, on the one hand, of a stand alone SDG; plus an adequate toolkit for implementation, on the other hand. Critical tools within the kit will be, for instance: policy strategies elaborated with an integrated and systemic approach; mechanisms for participatory decision-making; synergetic governance arrangements between different levels of government; adequate national budgets, as well as financing schemes directly accessible by subnational and local authorities; transparent multi-stakeholder partnerships; capacity building initiatives for local practitioners; disaggregated data, and grass roots data collection systems.

Communitas advocates for an SDG on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements that aims for all new and existing cities and human settlements of all sizes to be inclusive, safe, prosperous and sustainable places where all members and their communities can thrive. Therefore, the Goal is neither to increase rates of urbanisation nor the quantity of new cities built.

In the context of the ongoing and increasingly political process for the negotiation of the SDGs, the Communitas Secretariat has recently released its second draft proposals for such an SDG. The proposal below must be read in conjunction with ongoing discussions at the UN intergovernmental Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs OWG); as well as with the Focus Areas Working Document released by the co-chairs of the Open Working Group on 17 April 2014. Communitas’ proposals will be refined as the political process changes gears in the coming weeks. However, by no means do nor will the proposed urban targets seek to exhaustively cover all aspects of a new paradigm for urban policy in the 21st century.

By 2030:

Target 1. Eliminate slum conditions everywhere and ensure universal access to affordable, equitable, and sustainable land, housing and basic services for all rural and urban dwellers.

Target 2. Increase capacity for participatory integrated urban planning and management to reduce urban sprawl, improve the efficiency in the management of naturalresources, and promote balanced territorial development for both rural and urban development.

Target 3. Ensure universal access to inclusive, safe and green public space for enhanced social cohesion, security of citizens and cultural & natural heritage protection and promotion.

Target 4. Strengthen resilience to climate change, man-made and natural disasters to reduce the loss of lives, assets, housing and infrastructure.

Target 5. Provide universal access to affordable, equitable, safe and sustainable urban and peri-urban transport for connected and healthy communities.

There are notable interlinkages with other so-called ‘Focus Areas’ of the UN Working Document released last 17 April. Strong considerations on poverty, prosperity and inequalities; health; economic growth and infrastructure; gender; climate; natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity; respect of human rights; and governance and participatory democracy; are all incorporated in the proposals for a stand alone SDG outlined above. Water, health and energy improvements are both targets and outputs of sustainable cities and human settlements, which are fully addressed under separate ‘Focus Areas’ of the official UN Working Document.

More detail on the latest proposals by Communitas is available from | [email protected] | @SDGcommunitas

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.

Thomas Elmqvist

Since urbanization has the ability to transform the social and economic fabric of nations, and cities are responsible for the bulk of production and consumption worldwide, urban issues have to be at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goal Process. What would then an urban SDG look like? This has been intensively discussed at the UN Open Working Group meetings this spring and is a delicate and complex issue.

Many argue that an urban goal should centre around the sustainability of urbanization rather than sustainability of cities per se, and focus on the process rather than specific geographical locations. If we only address the city as a geographical bounded entity, we may end up with a set of targets and indicators addressing many important issues such as energy, waste, mobility, urban poverty, but we run the risk of completely missing how cities are influencing the biosphere and the potential local governments may have in developing effective resource management strategies. A focus on urbanization instead of cities, would have the advantage that crucial urban-rural interactions need to be considered and the long-distance effects of urbanization on resource extraction, energy, waste, etc. also would be included.

Such a goal may be formulated in rather general terms, e.g. by 2030 all local governments should have implemented policies for sustainable urbanization. However, to be effective such as goal must then be associated with a number of specific targets and indicators representing the operational mechanisms. For example, it would be possible to formulate targets and indicators that address to what extent local governments are putting policies and incentives in place (such as procurement measures) to ensure better stewardship of the all the distant ecosystems on which they depend. Furthermore, associated targets and indicators could be developed that capture the ratio between consumption and production of ecosystem services in the larger metropolitan landscape. Such targets and indicators would capture to what extent a city just may continue to be a large sink of consumption of ecosystem services or to what extent investments are made that reduce per capita consumption and investments done to increase production of ecosystem services.

To make this possible, scientists with urban and data expertise must actively support the technical discussions on selecting the SDG targets and indicators. If poorly defined and managed, targets and indicators will almost certainly have unintended consequences and negative outcomes that will be difficult to reverse.

In this context, silence from the urban scientific community may be the most dangerous path of all.

Julian Goh

About the Writer:
Julian Goh

Mr Julian Goh has extensive experience in both the public and private sector in the area of urban planning and development. He is currently a Director at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), which is part of Ministry of National Development Singapore.

Julian Goh

Cities today are home to over 50% of the world’s population, account for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, and yet generate 70% of the world’s wealth. And this growth will accelerate. We cannot hope to have a sustainable world without sustainable cities. The current set of SDG will kick in from 2015 to 2030. We need to focus on cities right now. Or we would have missed the boat.

A standalone Urban SDG will allow us to focus. With the right leadership, cities can mobilize and act much more quickly, compared to the national governments. We have seen how cities like New York, Copenhagen, Suzhou an Surabaya have moved much faster, adopted more ambitious sustainability goals, compared to their national governments. At the city level, we can focus, channel resources, execute, scale up and achieve results.

So what would an Urban SDG look like? We believe that it should try to encourage cities to achieve three inter-related outcomes:

1. A high quality of life which means a safe, healthy living environment with proper housing for everyone;
2. A competitive economy that can attract investments and provide jobs; and
3. A sustainable environment with clean air, water and land.

An Urban SDG can set development targets and performance indicators towards these three outcomes. In drawing up these targets, the Urban SDG would have to be mindful of the diverse contexts and circumstances of cities worldwide and therefore should be sensitive to their different abilities to respond to these targets.

Setting goals are useful. But it is even more critical for the Urban SDG to articulate how cities can achieve these goals. And to do this, we can take reference from some of the cities that have successfully transformed themselves. Let’s take 4 cities from 4 continents: New York, Bilbao, Medellín and Singapore. Each of these cities is different from the other in terms of history, political structure, geography, people, character and urban challenges. Despite these obvious differences and uniquely complex challenges can we find commonalities in their urban transformation experiences? The short answer is yes.

In a working paper titled “The CLC Liveability Framework in Global Practice” by the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), Singapore we have captured some of these commonalities. Three of the notable ones are:

1. These cities have a vision of what they would like to achieve
2. There is a comprehensive plan on how to achieve them and
3. There is institutional support to carry out these plans

Take Singapore for instance. Singapore started out as a fledging city of the 1960s plagued by much of the common developing city challenges such as high unemployment, urban slums, congested roads, lack of sanitation, pollution, etc. However, in a matter of 40-50 years Singapore transformed into a thriving global city. How did Singapore do it? The visionary leadership of the time drew up long-term cross sectoral development plans and supportive pragmatic policies which they effectively and efficiently executed with support of sound institutions. Bilbao is another example of a city that has taken the lead to address an adverse alteration of structural conditions. The 1980s saw major changes to the city’s economy resulting in wide spread unemployment, disenchantment and unrest. The city as a whole reacted and its acclaimed recovery transformed risk into opportunity and has put it on the international map. Such commonalities can also be found in the turnaround experience of New York and Medellín.

The world needs an Urban SDG. The Urban SDG needs to have goals, but even more importantly, it should shed light on the path to get to these goals. Cities play the central role for the world to achieve sustainable development. And the time to act is now.

Shuaib Lwasa

About the Writer:
Shuaib Lwasa

Shuaib Lwasa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Makerere University. Shuaib has over 15 years of experience in university teaching and research working on interdisciplinary projects related to urban sustainability.

Shuaib Lwasa

Cities and human settlements are dominating the world in terms of consumption, resource use, innovation and creativity despite occupying only about 4% of the land surface globally. With over half the global population living in cities, this trend is likely to increase with current structure and path dependencies in Africa, which is urbanizing faster. Although many cities are demonstrating improved efficiency in resource use and began to work on efficient infrastructure systems, new cities will most likely follow the historical paths. This will have negative impacts of degrading environments, limiting economic opportunities, accentuating inefficiencies and affecting wellbeing. In view of current and possible future trends of urban development, a SDG focused on cites should be comprehensive enough to address the challenge of resource efficiency in cities and human settlements overall. Such a SDG goal would have to incorporate as focus areas minimization of resource use intensity, transformation of lifestyles, spatial reconfiguration and creation of economic opportunities.

A cities and human settlements SDG should have the following elements.

Urban lifestyles define the identities of individuals in cities and human settlements and have been associated with unsustainable resource consumption. Some of these lifestyles revolve around land use and transport systems. Sustainable urban systems will have to integrate land use activities with transportation with an aim of reducing trips and energy use. Likewise city-regional systems that would enhance utilization of local resources and minimize the ecological footprint where applicable would be necessary for sustainable cities and human settlements with a target of closing the loop.

Focus Areas under this element include: mixed densities in urban development, integrated planning or retrofitting urban activities with transportation, local economic development opportunities.

Resource minimization in cities and human settlements relate strongly with lifestyles and the spatial configuration of cities. Three linkages of resource flows to and from cities are described as: (a) Resources flow between cities and their hinterlands. Such flows can be in immediate hinterlands or rural environments; (b) Resources flow between cities and cities that are largely characterized by finished products or inputs into other production processes; and (c) the flow of resources between cities and other rural environments that are distant from the consuming cities. Often such flows can pass through other cities as conduits to the final destination. Minimization of intensive resource use in cities would have to directly develop strategies that reduce flows through substitution with locally available resources. Without putting a complete stop on current flows, creating incentives for use of city-regional resources in a sustainable manner is important.

Focus Areas for this may include: mining resources from shrinking cities, old cities or derelict areas, efficiency of in-city resource flows, waste-energy nexus, innovation in utilizing local resources including ecosystem services.

A SDG on cities and human settlements would be useful if upfront the design would create opportunities for all categories of urban dwellers. Current infrastructure systems, service systems in cities and human settlements are based on economics of profit maximization, which in turn limits opportunities for the urban poor. In many cities of developing regions, the urban poor are the majority and face the brunt of inequalities due to social, economic, environmental and political factors. Yet there are numerous micro-scale interventions (for example waster-to-energy, resource-based jobs, innovation in ICT) which have demonstrated possibilities for creating opportunities that can contribute towards improved wellbeing. A SDG on cities and human settlements requires harnessing the opportunities.

Focus Areas include: harnessing opportunities related to scalable resource efficiency, decentralized services and infrastructure, local employment and expanded markets, strategies that deal with urban poverty through livelihood opportunities.

Anjali Mahendra

About the Writer:
Anjali Mahendra

Dr. Anjali Mahendra is an urban planner & transport policy expert working at interface of research & practice on issues dealing with cities, transport, climate change & economic development

Anjali Mahendra

Here’s a statistic I like to use — combined, cities around the world occupy only 2% of land yet account for about 70% each of global GDP, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. This clearly shows how economic growth and resource consumption are inextricably linked and both are geographically concentrated in cities. With over half of the world’s population now being urban, cities are grappling with the heavy demand for urban services such as transport, energy, water and sanitation, housing, and solid waste management. In addition, the negative impacts of heavy resource consumption are manifested in poor air quality, dwindling water resources, deteriorating land and ecosystem resources, and public health impacts in cities, as well as climate and economic risks.

90% of the growth in urbanization comes from developing countries. These countries also face the maximum brunt of the above negative impacts because of a web of issues related to limited financing, limited government capacity, lack of data, lack of integrated urban planning, and governance issues, including high levels of corruption. These challenges are reflected in inadequate and unequal access to basic urban services in cities, particularly for the urban poor.

An urban SDG is an opportunity to mobilize all urban stakeholders — public, private, and civil society included — towards solving these issues. It would explicitly include targets for safeguarding basic rights to clean air, water, and housing for all urban dwellers, while preserving scarce resources like land and energy. It would include targets for the availability of safe drinking water and basic sanitation for all urban households, access to affordable housing, reduction of fossil fuel based energy consumption, reduction of urban air pollution, limits on the conversion of agricultural and ecologically sensitive land resources for urban development, and increased resilience of cities to the impacts of climate change.

Transport systems have become a major cause of traffic deaths, urban air pollution, lost economic productivity due to congestion, women’s safety issues, and decline in quality of life in many cities around the world. Therefore, targets for urban transport systems that reduce these externalities, improve conditions for vulnerable groups like pedestrians and cyclists, and increase safe, reliable mobility and access for everyone, must be part of an urban SDG.

Since transport improvements cannot be achieved without simultaneous consideration of land development, the urban SDG must also include targets to manage the rate of urban sprawl, conserve ecosystems in the face of increasing urban development, limit highly energy intensive forms of development, and use green technologies for improving and facilitating energy efficiency.

To achieve the above “physical” or infrastructure targets, several supporting targets related to governance must become part of the urban SDG. These include transparency of city level data, greater coordination across all levels of government with authority over urban jurisdictions, greater coordination across all urban sector agencies, accountability against performance measures (regarding how well cities are achieving the sustainability goals of environmental protection, economic development, and social equity), participation of all relevant stakeholder groups, and improvement in local governments’ technical and fiscal capacity.

These are some ideas on what an urban SDG should include. For more information, readers can look up an Issue Brief I wrote for the Communitas Coalition with some suggestions for targets to achieve universal access to urban services as part of an urban SDG.

Mary Rowe

About the Writer:
Mary Rowe

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

Mary Rowe

I am sure my fellow contributors will expertly advance all the reasonable, learned arguments for why we need one of the sustainable development goals the UN will embrace next year to be focused on cities and human settlements. Because the world is rapidly urbanizing so it’s where most people will ultimately live; because economies are driven by cities as is economic and social innovation; because the war on climate change will be won or lost in cities. These are all worthy points and I trust my colleagues have made them persuasively.

My reason is blunter. And it’s problematic. We need a sustainable development goal focused explicitly on cities, because national governments, without one, will continue their outdated, tired bias of setting national policies that ignore the particularity of cities and attempt to apply homogenous policies that incorporate rural, less dense and dense areas all together. National governments don’t think about cities. They think about national security, natural resources, economic imbalances, wealth redistribution. And they think about large systems like transportation, housing, and agriculture. We need a goal that specifies the challenges that cities around the world are facing, so that federal governments will be forced to look to the local conditions of the cities in their nations. Otherwise, urban needs just get piled into national objectives, buried there beneath provisions to equalize and treat fairly every community. But cities actually need to be treated differently, and urbanists (such as my colleagues here) will argue how.

In addition to needing a specific goal that ensures urban challenges are prioritized, we also need one to make clear that cities contain the solutions to their own challenges, and the role of federal and state/provincial governments is to enable that ingenuity, not proscribe uniform approaches. Again this poses challenges for federal governments that are attracted to one-size-fits-all grand gestures that ostensibly provide national consistency and dole out largesse ‘fairly’, but are so often unable to be customized to suit the specific particulars of each city. Further, cities are full of innovators, working at every level: neighborhoods, businesses, community leadership, local agencies and government. They are closest to their own community’s needs. Locals are the ones who know best what needs to happen to their housing stock, their parks, their schools, their shorelines. But federal governments, who generally control the lion’s share of fiscal resources, are loath to cede control, and tend to release resources often with provisos that constrain local innovation. An urban SDG has the potential to be sufficiently challenging that national governments will be compelled to delegate both responsibility and resources to cities to accomplish the targets and goals.

Constitutional and legal impediments in countries around the world have made empowering cities difficult, but cities that do enjoy higher degrees of autonomy (e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong) have demonstrated positive results. And in places where the hierarchy remains, there are repeated examples where city governments have found their own ‘work arounds’ — through pilots, unique partnerships with communities or the private sector — in areas of where their federal governments have jurisdiction. The truth is no matter where you live, the challenges to make cities more livable as they grow and more resilient as they evolve can’t wait for elaborate jurisdictional haggling. We just need to get on with it. Federal governments can continue to provide leadership, guarantee citizenship and set national living standards to which its members (states and cities) must comply. But we need leadership approaches that support granular innovation — housing or mobility solutions won’t be the same here in New York as they will be in Medellin or Mumbai. But we need the imprimatur of global leadership to press national governments to then empower local ones to harness the ingenuity of their on-the-ground partners and build sustainable cities. And an explicitly urban SDG will also make clearer the interdependence of cities and the hinterlands that surround them: they are inextricably linked, but needing differentiated policies and programs. Strong cities mean strong rural communities.

The problem may be that we’re expecting too much from nation states. We’re asking them to call out and explicitly support a political unit that they may perceive poses a threat to their own authority. (If and when the electoral boundaries are better aligned to reflect population distribution this may become moot: federal chambers will actually reflect where the majority of people are choosing to live …). But let’s strike an accurate balance: the world urbanizing is a good thing. It brings with it higher standards of living, better health outcomes, lower carbon emissions, and the creation of humanities great technological and cultural achievements. And healthy cities spell a better future for rural, pastoral landscapes to be preserved and not diminished, but valued and protected. Hopefully, an SDG focused on cities and human settlements will help the world recognize the reality of how the world’s people are choosing to live, and we can globally embrace a new narrative of sustainability, that is urban.

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 writing from one of Fiji’s 332 islands where an urban SDG might seem like the furthest thing from my mind. Here my husband and I have found the perfect trifecta of being comfortable (including Wifi to email this piece) in a beautiful place with virtually no one else around. Our thatched overwater bure slips almost unnoticed between a coral-fringed beach and dense tropical forest and barely touches the earth on its pinpoint pilotis. At the same time, all of our fresh water comes from a hidden desalination plant, our uninterrupted electricity from a generator and our relatively mosquito-free evenings from regular fumigation. And we have brought with us the footprint of our (and countless other guests’) long-haul international flights. We hardly see one another. Yet, per person, our resource consumption and impact on the landscape are actually quite high.

I am trying not to feel too guilty about it, having just endured a brutal, vacationless New York winter in our one-bedroom apartment and on public transit. Sometimes we need a little luxury. Still, there is something fundamentally selfish about being simultaneously a part of everything and apart from it all. The more this becomes a way of life — e.g., as embodied in the classic American suburb, now being replicated the world over — the more we run up against planetary boundaries. If there is any hope for a sustainable future it lies in sharing the world’s resources better. But sharing is neither easy nor automatic. It is more than an abstract principle — it is about the very material reality of sharing space and resources.

We need an urban SDG because cities are still the world’s preeminent sites for sharing. An urban SDG must therefore aim for the (re)configuration of all human settlements — megacities, metropolitan regions, intermediate cities, market town and rural villages, whether existing or still to be built — to enable and encourage more efficient and equitable sharing. As cities are poised to double in size over the duration of the SDGs — 2015-2030 — setting the stage now for how they grow is critical. An urban SDG must address that which other, more sectoral SDGs cannot. And it must focus on more than just infrastructure, which is fundamentally amoral about sharing.

Specifically, an urban SDG should promote sharing in three ways:

First, cities are consuming too much land at their peripheries. In so doing they are also forfeiting their traditional agglomeration advantages. Instead, they need to share space better with the communities and rural areas around them. An urban SDG should provide the aspiration for more compact cities that reduce sprawl and achieve balanced territorial development, and back this up by incentivizing national urban policies.

Second, within cities too much public and green space is disappearing and spontaneous development still proliferates. In short, too much land has been given over to private use. Those without means are forced to the margins, which are frequently unserviced and segregated by default. The public realm suffers. An urban SDG should set a minimum standard for urban planning and design that includes securing public space and protecting rights of way. As cities achieve this they will be more integrated, with safe public space and common infrastructure.

Third, many cities are dealing with massive infrastructural backlogs at the same time as they face increasing vulnerability to natural hazards. Cities are innovative and action-oriented, but they cannot face these enormous challenges alone. Costs and risks have to be better shared. An urban SDG needs to lever national and international support for big projects such as public transit systems and climate change adaptation measures that will improve connectivity and strengthen resilience.

It’s all about (re)configuring our cities for sharing. Otherwise we face a wasteful and boring world, if indeed we face a world at all.

Karen Seto

About the Writer:
Karen Seto

Karen Seto is Professor of Geography and Urbanization at Yale. She is an expert on urbanization in China and India, forecasting urban growth, and climate change mitigation.

Karen Seto

The new era of urbanization involves a wide array of trends that can be described as either the biggest, fastest, or the first in history: the size and number of cities; the rate at which populations and ecosystems are urbanizing; the geographic shift from high-income to low and middle-income countries of large urban areas; the increased specialization of urban function; and the growing dominance of urban areas in national and global economic systems. The confluence of these characteristics presents both opportunities and challenges to the sustainability of Earth’s life support systems. Rather than arguing for any particular urban SDG, I propose that the United Nations consider at least three criteria in the discussions of an urban SDG.

First, urban SDGs should address the challenges and opportunities of urbanization that are beyond the scope of a single city or country. Such an SDG would need to address issues that would be achievable only if there were a global partnership.

Second, urban SDGs need to explicitly consider the aggregate impacts of urbanization on the supply and integrity of Earth’s life support systems. The focus here is on the aggregate impacts of urbanization on the global environment, and not just thinking about local environmental impacts.

Third, urban SDGs must be strongly linked with socio-economic development. Sustainable urbanization requires integrating economic development and human well-being explicitly, and includes elements such as human health and local livelihoods.

Lorena Zárate

About the Writer:
Lorena Zárate

Lorena Zárate is co-coordinator of the Global Platform for the Right to the City and former president of the Habitat International Coaltion.

Lorena Zárate

Sustainable cities and human settlements — Building inclusive, equitable, democratic, safe and sustainable cities and human settlements

a) By 2020 guarantee universal access to adequate, well located, affordable and sustainable housing, security of tenure and essential services (potable water and sanitation, energy, telecommunications, waste recollection and management) for all, eliminating slum-like conditions everywhere and protecting and guaranteeing housing and land rights for all (including self-produced housing and neighborhoods, occupiers, renters, individual and collective owners, traditional and cooperative forms, etc.).

b) By 2015 end — without excuses — all forced evictions and displacements and guarantee proper consultation, compensation measures and remedies for affected people and communities, as established in the international human rights standard-setting instruments.

c) By 2020 guarantee the definition and application of negative social impact assessments at the community level and with inhabitants´ participation, especially in the case of megaprojects and “development”-related public and private investments.

d) By 2020 guarantee that at least 50% of the available public and private resources for housing and neighborhood improvement policies are dedicated to supporting community-driven processes of the social production of housing and habitat.

e) By 2020 guarantee universal access to safe, accessible and sustainable essential community public facilities and social services (schools; hospitals; markets; cultural, recreational and sport facilities; public spaces, and public transportation).

f) By 2020 considerably improve participatory, democratic and meaningful decision-making processes at the city and national level, guaranteeing proper representation of marginalized groups and those communities living under vulnerable conditions.

g) By 2020 guarantee the full implementation of the social function of land and property, designing public policies that inhibit land speculation and land grabbing (including parking lots!) and promote equitable and sustainable use of available land and the reuse of vacant buildings, in favor of social housing and community projects for homeless people and populations living in inadequate and poor-housing conditions.

h) By 2020 guarantee a productive habitat for all, with job and income-generation opportunities at the community level by promoting, protecting and supporting the social economy, with links to housing and neighborhood improvement policies.

i) By 2020 guarantee the democratic, responsible and sustainable use and management of the commons, including natural and energy resources, and avoiding exploitative relationships between urban and rural areas.

j) By 2020 guarantee the full protection and democratic, responsible and sustainable use and management of cultural (material and non-material) and natural heritage, as public and collective goods for present and future generations.

According to available studies, around 60% of the housing in Mexico has been built by the people. Similar percentages can be found in several countries of the Global South. The dualistic conceptualization of formal-informal does not captures the richness and diversity of these processes, and usually translates into limited governmental interventions and very often in its criminalization. We prefer to understand them as “social production of habitat”, a self-managed effort from communities and families to realize their right to housing and their right to the city. References: Among others, please refer to some of the following publications: Enrique Ortiz F. y Ma. Lorena Zárate (eds.), Vivitos y coleando. 40 años trabajando por el hábitat popular en América Latina, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana y HIC-AL, México, 2002; Enrique Ortiz Flores y Ma. Lorena Zárate (eds.), De la marginación a la ciudadanía: 38 casos de producción y gestión social del hábitat, Fundación Forum Universal de las Culturas, HIC y HIC-AL, Barcelona, 2005; y Rino Torres, La producción social de vivienda en México. Su importancia nacional y su impacto en la economía de los hogares pobres, HIC-AL, México, 2006.
According to available studies, around 60% of the housing in Mexico has been built by the people. Similar percentages can be found in several countries of the Global South. The dualistic conceptualization of formal-informal does not capture the richness and diversity of these processes, and usually translates into limited governmental interventions and very often in its criminalization. We prefer to understand them as “social production of habitat”, a self-managed effort from communities and families to realize their right to housing and their right to the city.
References: Among others, please refer to some of the following publications: Enrique Ortiz F. y Ma. Lorena Zárate (eds.), Vivitos y coleando. 40 años trabajando por el hábitat popular en América Latina, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana y HIC-AL, México, 2002; Enrique Ortiz Flores y Ma. Lorena Zárate (eds.), De la marginación a la ciudadanía: 38 casos de producción y gestión social del hábitat, Fundación Forum Universal de las Culturas, HIC y HIC-AL, Barcelona, 2005; y Rino Torres, La producción social de vivienda en México. Su importancia nacional y su impacto en la economía de los hogares pobres, HIC-AL, México, 2006.
Especially during the past decade, social housing policies have been in place in different regions of the world, thanks to a combination of financial resources from worker’s savings, public and private sector. The emergence of thousands of units overnight, usually located at more-than-one hour commute from the city centre, is conceived more like “plantations of houses” than as new towns or cities, with almost no planning for educational, health or commercial uses and with a very limited approach to public space. References: José Castillo, “After the Explosion”, in The Endless City, Phaidon Press Ltd., Londres, 2007, pp. 183-184.
Especially during the past decade, social housing policies have been in place in different regions of the world, thanks to a combination of financial resources from worker’s savings, public and private sector. The emergence of thousands of units overnight, usually located at more-than-one hour commute from the city centre, is conceived more like “plantations of houses” than as new towns or cities, with almost no planning for educational, health or commercial uses and with a very limited approach to public space.
References: José Castillo, “After the Explosion”, in The Endless City, Phaidon Press Ltd., Londres, 2007, pp. 183-184.
Policies affecting land and space are a key tool to reproduce or change the huge inequities affecting our societies. What real opportunities are we giving to the young people, vast majority of the population in many of our countries, if 85% of the new jobs are created in the so called “informal” economy? At the same time, not having a place to live, an address is also a denial of other economic, social, cultural and political rights (education, health, work, right to vote and participate, among many others). What kind of citizens and democracy are we producing in these apartheid cities? References: UN-Habitat. State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011, Bridging the Urban Divide, Earthscan, London, 2008. Electronic version available at
Policies affecting land and space are a key tool to reproduce or change the huge inequities affecting our societies. What real opportunities are we giving to the young people, vast majority of the population in many of our countries, if 85% of the new jobs are created in the so called “informal” economy? At the same time, not having a place to live, an address is also a denial of other economic, social, cultural and political rights (education, health, work, right to vote and participate, among many others). What kind of citizens and democracy are we producing in these apartheid cities?
References: UN-Habitat. State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011, Bridging the Urban Divide, Earthscan, London, 2008. Electronic version available at