A Tale of Two Lakes: Collective Action in Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

There is no single path to sustainability. As Thomas Elmqvist wrote in a recent blog post, each city has its own challenges and opportunities for sustainable growth, and yet we all have much to learn from each other. Reading the past weeks of blogs on the Nature of Cities has been fascinating. Looking at the diversity of writings, it is very interesting to think about cultural and ecological context affects how the writers perceive cities as well as their environments.

So this is where this blog takes off, to explore the context of urban collective action for natural resource conservation in Bangalore, but also to muse aloud on what conditions may be specific to this city, and what may transfer to other contexts.

But first, to describe the context of this city: Bangalore. I have been a long term resident of Bangalore, a “local”, having lived here most of my adult life. Indeed, it is very difficult for me to think of living anywhere else in India, or in the world for that matter. The city is complex, ever changing and challenging – but also cool, green, vibrant, strongly networked (especially socially), and endlessly fascinating. The consequences of city growth are especially noticeable in cities such as Bangalore, where urbanization has made visible impacts over the past couple of decades. Once a much quieter city, famous for its scenic tree lined avenues, bungalows with majestic gardens, large parks, and scenic lakes, Bangalore was called the “Garden City” of India. This once-sleepy city, which used to be called a “pensioners’ paradise” because of its popularity with retired senior citizens, is now home to close to 8.5 million residents, and slowly turning from green to gray.

Lal Bagh, Bangalore’s oldest park, dating from the 18th century. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

The popular narrative of Bangalore’s urbanization usually begins with an account of the city’s software industry boom. Yet, the region around Bangalore has a much longer history of settlements, with human artifacts dating as far back as the 5th century B.C. Bangalore also has a fairly long and unbroken history of functioning as an economic and cultural capital, being established as the capital of a local king, Kempe Gowda, in the 16th century A.D.  This burgeoning city, along with the many villages and surrounding agricultural landscape that sustained its presence, relied like all other settlements do on the availability of a reliable, clean and continuous supply of fresh water. However, unlike many other old settlements, the city of Bengaluru is located in the rain shadow of the Deccan hill ranges, and it lacks the presence of a large river that can be sufficient to provide fresh water.

Fortunately, an innovative response to this challenge of water scarcity was at hand. The terrain around Bangalore is undulating, with a number of small (largely seasonal) streams. These have been dammed to form large, networked series of fresh water tanks (lakes) throughout the region. This is not unique to Bangalore – similar structures are found across large parts of southern India, as in other parts of the world. Some of the lakes in Bangalore city are very old, and can be dated at least as far back as the 5th century, while others are relatively more recent, having been developed during the 19th century. The number of lakes, large and small, was mind bogglingly large – a survey conducted in 1830, for instance, records close to 20,000 water bodies in the surrounding region of Mysore.

Lakes within the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, Bangalore’s administrative boundary) and outside – note the relative lack of lakes in the center of the city, where urban pressures have been greatest). Image credit: Harini Nagendra.

What does all of this have to do with collective action? Lakes were maintained by local communities who formed a closely intertwined social-ecological system, wherein certain communities took up responsibilities for various activities such as channeling and monitoring water distribution, dredging and desilting the lake, or maintenance of the tank embankments. Water from the lakes was used for domestic purposes, agriculture, and to recharge large, open cast community wells placed next to these lakes, as well as for fishing. When water levels began to recede, cattle grazed on common property lands in the exposed wetland areas. Water occupies a significant position in Indian cultural and sacred traditions, and most lakes had lake deities next to the shore, which helped to reinforce restrictions on overuse during specific seasons, through cultural and religious taboos. Lakes were also important foci for biodiversity support, harboring a rich diversity of birds, insects, wildlife and aquatic life.

Sacred trees next to the largest lake in Bangalore, Bellandur lake. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

What happened to the lakes next is a testament to the disruptive power of urbanization. Within a relatively short span of a couple of decades, this lake network that survived for centuries has been disrupted. Many lakes have been converted to land uses such as shopping malls and bus parking areas, while others are encroached, polluted with waste and sewage, overgrown with weeds, or dry. The depletion of water in lakes has gone hand in hand with alarming decline in the city’s ground water, on which a large proportion of Bangalore’s peripheral populations depend. The disruption of inter-lake connectivity also leads to frequent flooding in the monsoon season, which exacerbates the spread of diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and dengue.

Construction of an apartment complex next to a lake (lake fencing can be seen in the background) leads to pollution. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

Yet, there are other entrants into this story of overall gloom, playing the role of game changers. Collective action by a wide and disparate set of actors, including local communities, civic action groups, corporate groups, the government and the judiciary have led to a range of efforts to save the remaining lakes, protect them from further encroachment, and restore them. There is a lot to talk about here – but in this blog, I am going to focus on a set of interesting urban oriented experiments using the synergies of urban collective action to develop ecologically and socially inclusive lake restoration plans. For those interested in the aspects of civic action and legal response, more is available here. In the rest of this blog, I will narrate a tale of two lakes to illustrate some of the challenges and opportunities of lake restoration in Bangalore.

A tale of two lakes

The story of collective action in Bangalore’s lakes has a long history, with active bird watchers and naturalists taking great interest in these regions, and working with a variety of government departments, schools and colleges, and other groups to conduct lake monitoring, and organize lake clean-ups. Diverse local groups, from peri-urban villages to software companies, have organized to protest against lake pollution and agitate for restoration. Thus, for instance, the Bellandur lake – Bangalore’s largest water body, with a size of 307 hectares, is almost completely covered with water hyacinth, which is an invasive exotic in India, and polluted by industrial effluents and sewage from a number of apartments, industries and even hospitals.

Bellandur lake covered by water weeds. Photo by Harini Nagendra.
School children living in a village next to Bellandur lake agitating for a lake cleanup. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

Despite intense efforts by a number of highly committed individuals, it has been close to impossible to get local authorities to begin restoration of the Bellandur lake. This lake represents a particularly challenging case, where there is collective action, but it has not been able as yet to get translated into ecological results. This could be because of the complexity of restoration in this lake. Bellandur receives water from a number of upstream lakes, many of which are polluted, as well as sewage and industrial waste from a large number of apartments and industries. Cleaning up a lake of this size is a large, lengthy and expensive task – and maintaining the lake in a healthy condition requires the cleanup and maintenance of a number of other upstream lakes, as well as monitoring of other locations around the lake to ensure there is no further pollution. Thus, getting traction on restoration at this site is proving to be a hard task.

Another lake located within the same network is the Kaikondanahalli lake, a few kilometers away at the southeastern periphery of Bangalore. Once a naturalists’ paradise, as recently as 2009, this lake was severely polluted with sewage and solid waste.

The Kaikondrahalli lake in 2009, shortly before restoration commenced – overgrown with weeds, and choked with solid waste, yet the bird diversity was still impressive. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

In early 2009, in response to a newspaper report that the Bangalore corporation was planning a restoration of this lake, local residents formed a group with varied expertise in areas such as engineering, ecology, education and outreach, interfacing with the government to refine plans for the restoration keeping in mind ecological principles, and providing a diverse landscaping that included a jogging track, an amphitheater for local events, a cattle wash for original inhabitants of adjacent villages, and recreational and other facilities that could be additionally accessed by a low income school at the periphery of the lake. (See http://www.wipro.org/community/hygienic-sanitation-bangalore.htm.)

The objective was to develop an integrated plan for lake restoration that could be customized for additional lakes, which incorporates attention to conservation, water rejuvenation, urban recreation, and the socio-economic requirements of multiple strata of society. This group includes a diversity of representation from original inhabitants of peri-urban villages around the lake and from recently built high-end apartments and residential layouts, sometimes with very different cultural and political beliefs. This diversity is often a strength while planning, underlining the need to restore for different objectives, but has led to tensions at times!

The response to these efforts has been impressive. Once heavily polluted with sewage from nearby residential areas, this lake has now been restored, draining and dredging the basin to remove silt, diverting sewage, restoring the bund, and planting a rich variety of locally adapted, biodiversity friendly trees and plants around the periphery. The original restoration plans called for conversion of some areas covered by water into landscaped gardens and extension of the jogging path to the biodiversity rich marshy area at one end of the lake. Based on inputs from the community, with additional advice from ornithologists and naturalists familiar with the lake and its non-human inhabitants, these plans were modified. The plans for an expensive, input-intensive landscaped garden with cannas and gladioli was thankfully dropped, and the walkway avoids the marshy, biodiversity rich southern end.

The restored Kaikondanahalli lake. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

Based on this experience, the group has also developed guidelines to facilitate a larger rejuvenation programme aimed at restoring and conserving a network of lakes in south-eastern Bengaluru. These follow some basic guiding principles, acknowledging that lakes have different, often contrasting uses and benefits, with synergies and tradeoffs between these factors. Instead of valuing one benefit, e.g. water recharge, or bird diversity, above all other factors, we proposed an integrated approach that incorporates consideration of these tradeoffs, keeping in mind factors such as lake location, size, and biodiversity.

The challenges of urban conservation remain severe in cities like Bangalore. Our tale of two lakes shows that collective action by a number of sectors, including the government, local citizens, researchers, NGOs, and business is required to make effective progress towards sustainable ecological and environmental planning. Yet, this is hard to achieve in the context of life in an urban environment, where the social, cultural, and linguistic heterogeneity, coupled with economic inequalities, make it particularly challenging to create social capital and facilitate collective action.

One of the most memorable events in this short history of lake restoration at Kaikondanahalli lake was when my dear friend, colleague and collaborator Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her ground breaking work demonstrating the potential of local communities for conservation, visited the lake in February 2012. We had been working to understand the principles behind collective action in urban contexts for a while before her visit, looking at several lakes including Bellandur and Kaikondanahalli. She planted the locally endemic jackfruit tree at the lake and, although she passed away a few months after her visit, the tree survives in her memory. The tree also has an interesting history that fits into our narrative of urbanization: Lin (as she was known by most) was familiar with jackfruits, having had one in her backyard in Los Angeles, where she grew up!

Lin Ostrom planting a jackfruit tree at Kaikondrahalli lake. Photo by Harini Nagendra.

We continue to face challenges at the lake. For instance, an informal settlement that has come up right next to the lake requires access to this water for sanitation and domestic use, as they cannot afford to purchase water, and this part of the city – like other peripheral areas – lacks a piped supply of fresh water. Limiting their access to their lake is clearly socially unjust – yet, permitting large scale use of the lake for activities such as washing of clothes will only result in further pollution. Even more disturbing are recent attempts by vested political, interests to encroach on the lake for developmental activities (see link above).

Informal settlement at the periphery of the Kaikondanahalli lake fence – the clothes hanging on this fence are washed in this lake! Photo by Harini Nagendra.

Collective action is especially challenging in urban contexts, where people are on the move, preoccupied, and living in heterogeneous, dense, assemblages, often in relative anonymity. Using collective action to successfully facilitate the sustainable management of natural resources is even more tricky in cities. There needs to be scope for the people affected by the mismanagement of urban forests and lakes (often the poorest of the urban poor) to be able to have some input into their management and monitoring, and prompt punishment of offenders. Yet, after many decades of neglect, lake management in Bangalore shows some signs of hope because of citizen action. Such activities are not unique to Kaikondanahalli – other lakes in Bangalore, including Puttenahalli lake and Ambalipura lake are other inspiring examples of community-involved lake restoration. Such programs provide a path forward for sustainable, participatory and green (or blue!) urban futures.

One of the original objectives of this blog post was to think about which parts of this experience are unique to Bangalore, and what is common to other cities. In Bangalore, as possibly in many other countries where the urban footprint remains relatively small and recent – at least in contrast to countries in Europe and northern America – the heterogeneity of uses of environmental commons such as lakes is high, with fishers and fodder collectors, bird watchers and joggers, artists and temple visitors, rich apartment dwellers and underprivileged slums, and many others forming a loose, sometimes coupled and sometimes antagonistic social network. Managing a lake under such circumstances is challenging, in part because defining what constitutes a “community” of users is not easy.

Social, economic and cultural inequities can be perpetuated or even exacerbated in such systems of collective action. This exacerbation of environmental inequities is of course not unique to Bangalore, and have been shown elsewhere, but in the Bangalore context such inequities are particularly important to address because the disparities are often strong, and visibly unfair. However, the broader take-away lesson for multi-level governance, that collaboration between collective groups of citizens and local government is required for conservation to succeed in cities, seems to be a more general one, one that will apply to urban areas across the world.

Harini Nagendra
Bangalore, India

A Tech Touch: Connecting Beaches, Parks, and Big Data

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Smart city technology is going beyond data-collecting sensors in streetlights and on garbage containers. It’s expanding to beaches and parks, creating a feedback loop that will allow local Barcelona Metropolitan Area officials to better manage public spaces.

Barcelona coastline. Photo: Jennifer Baljko

This technology adds a layer of big-data information that, ideally, will help cities fill gaps where their smart city development and environment sustainability plans intersect.

As in many urban areas, the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) is gradually updating how they engage with residents and looking for innovative, tech-driven ways to deliver greater efficiency and cost effectiveness from their everyday activities.

Many cities globally are already using these kinds of solutions to monitor traffic patterns, improve trash pickup schedules and adjust street lightning as conditions change. The next logical step is to see how citizens use open, public spaces—such as beaches and parks—to figure out how city departments can respond to changing needs, make necessary repairs to park and beach areas, and communicate information to park users and beach goers.

The technology leap 

AMB is heading in this solutions-driven direction thanks to a deal with IBM.

A few months ago, AMB and IBM announced an agreement to use the company’s Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) software, cloud computing, and analytics tools to access, use, and respond to real-time information from parks and beaches within its 36-city jurisdiction.

Photo: Jennifer Baljko

The scale of the project will potentially impact millions of residents and visitors.  The greater Barcelona metro area accounts for about 43 percent of the approximately 7.5 million person-population of the autonomous region of Catalonia, and generates 51 percent of Catalonia’s GDP, according to the IBM press release and government statistics. Similarly, Barcelona and its surroundings continue to attract an increasing number of international and regional visitors, many of whom will likely find themselves strolling through local parks and nearby green spaces or enjoying the long stretches of the Mediterranean coastline during their stay.

At its core, the software will centralize all the park management information and provide AMB officials with a dashboard view of real-time happenings, scheduled events, and infrastructure needs. At the beach, the technology will be used to assess and organize demand for sports and entertainment usage and will help in monitoring and managing red flag warnings when there are rough ocean conditions or jellyfish, according to the press release.

Photo: Jennifer Baljko

Here are a few other examples of how this centralization will work. As the software is deployed, AMB will be able to inform its 3.2 million residents living in the area about park remodeling projects, special event closures, and other things people would want to know about. From the citizen side, residents can report issues such as broken park benches with their mobile phones and check on the status of repairs. Eventually, AMB and its participating municipalities will be able to tap into additional areas using other IOC capabilities.

Despite several requests for an in-person interview and email responses to questions about how the technology would be used in today’s real-life scenarios and plans to expand it in the future, AMB officials declined to comment or provide additional details about the project pending municipal elections across Spain at the end of May, an AMB spokesperson said via email.

Generally speaking, IBM’s IOC solutions combine hardware, software services (both in the cloud or hosted onsite), preconfigured models analysis and best practices in urban systems management. They are specifically designed for emergencies and transportation and water management, Elisa Martín Garijo, director of innovation and technology at IBM Spain, told me via email.

In the case of water management—an important environmental concern for many urban regions, including Barcelona—the IOC solution helps cities to more efficiently manage water resources and to improve flood protection measures, Martín Garijo said. She added that some cities using the technology have been able to reduce water leakage within the municipal or regional supply system by up to 20 percent. The Netherlands, for example, launched a program a couple of years ago to optimize its flood control system and the country’s entire water system.

Photo: Jennifer Baljko

Madrid, too, is improving its environmental services with the help of technology, said Martín Garijo. The city’s recently announced the MiNT program, the largest project in IBM’s environmental services management portfolio, addresses several areas, including irrigation, tree and fountain management.

As these projects show, it’s just a matter of time before we see more smart solutions and big-data tools being applied to urban environmental sustainability projects. With luck, they will allow residents and city governments to make better open-space use decisions based on user-generated data and citizen needs rather than political agendas or budgetary limitations.

How are you seeing technology being used to integrate nature, big data, and the smart city? Tell us via Twitter @TNatureofCities.

Jennifer Baljko

On The Nature of Cities

A Threatened Old Forest Tells a Story Relevant to Every Urban Forest

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

As I walk through the William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest in Somerset, New Jersey, on this unseasonably warm March morning, I admire the 250 year-old oaks, towering above, reaching to the sky. Although small (26 hectares), this forest is one of the only remaining old growth forests in New Jersey and appears on the US National Park Service’s registry of National Natural Landmarks.

Preservation of remnant woodlands without active monitoring and management plans is not enough to preserve biodiversity.

These oaks saw the founding of the United States of America; they were seedlings when the Stamp Act was approved by the British Parliament in 1765, sowing the political seeds of the American Revolution; saplings when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776; and began to produce acorns around the time the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. They’ve taught thousands of Rutgers University students over the last 70 years.

A 250 year-old black oak in the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson

But as a forest ecologist standing amidst the oaks, I also see an unhealthy forest fragment that’s neither resilient to change nor capable of supporting the biodiversity it did 100 years, or even 50 years, ago. I notice there are no seedlings, no saplings, nothing to take the place of these oaks when they die, and they are dying rapidly; either from old age or windstorms, we are losing these oaks. What will take their place? Thickets of invasive Multiflora Rose and Wineberry already dominate the light gaps created by the loss of many of the old oaks. In May, one used to be able to see hectares of Mayapple covering the forest floor, all of which are almost entirely gone now; in their place is a depauperate shrub and herb layer, missing native species.

Where are the next generation of oaks, and why have we lost them? What happened to the biodiversity of this forest?

In cities within the northeastern United States, small forest fragment remnants offer unique opportunities for human and non-humans alike. For us, forest fragments offer opportunities to interact with nature, to get away from the city, to learn, to exercise, to be at peace. For plants and animals, forest fragments are important for preserving biodiversity and are integral to the resilience of nature in the face of increasing urbanization and climate change. Even small forest fragments support important species, such as the Kano palace bats in the city of Kano, Nigeria, recently discussed by Aliyu Barau. In and around urban areas, forest fragments are important habitats for migratory birds, functioning as stopover sites for both long- and short-distance migrants—as recently discussed by Mark Hostetler—and adding to continuity and connectivity of the landscape to support bird populations.

However, often there are assumptions that the preservation of forest remnants alone is sufficient to sustain their biodiversity. This stems from traditional forest successional theory, which holds that closed-canopy forests represent the stable end-point, with changes in species composition that are relatively minor over time. But in reality, urban forests experience many stressors that decrease the resilience of these forests to both natural and urban disturbances, leading to large changes in plant species composition and, in turn, to degraded forest ecosystems. As land managers of urban forests know all too well, these changes are greater in magnitude and occur faster in human-dominated landscapes. The capacity of these urban forest fragments to support biodiversity is threatened by the constant and interacting stressors of human use, air and soil pollution, exotic species invasions, and overabundance of white-tailed deer. Without constant management of these stressors, we face the loss of our forests and, with it, the loss of a rich American legacy: our biodiversity heritage.

For the past 13 years, I have studied the ecology of the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Old growth forest fragments, such as this one, often offer a glimpse into our “biodiversity past” and should function as refugia for biodiversity in the face of human disturbance. Old growth forests are endangered ecosystems, with less than 1 percent of forests in the eastern United States considered to be old growth. They are often viewed as reserves for genetic material and rare species, and are used as reference sites or “ecological benchmarks” for restoration of forest systems. Many old growth stands have protected status, such as the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, but the majority of these forests are small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban development, posing special challenges to the management and preservation of these forests. If these forests are to serve as benchmarks and refugia for species diversity, long-term monitoring is needed to understand how and if these forests function to maintain this diversity. Located in the New York metropolitan region, the most densely populated region in the United States, the Hutcheson Memorial Forest represents a model system within an iconic location to study the problems associated with conserving a significant resource in a suburban setting.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest, Spring 1968. Mayapples cover the ground and Flowering Dogwoods are flowering in the subcanopy. Photo courtesy of Steward Pickett.
The Hutcheson Memorial Forest, Summer 2005. Few Flowering Dogwoods remain, the Mayapples are gone, and the herb layer is depauperate of other native wildflowers. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson

This old growth forest is an Oak-Hickory dominated forest, with occasional large White Oak (Quercus alba), Black Oak (Quercus velutina), and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) individuals.

I have found that, since 1950, the Hutcheson Memorial Forest has changed drastically in both structure and composition. One of the markers of a healthy forest is the vertical diversity of vegetation structure. As you walk through a healthy forest, you should see many vegetation layers, from top to bottom: the canopy, with tall, mature trees that shade the forest; followed by the sub-canopy, comprising the trees growing to reach the canopy, which will be the next generation of canopy trees; then the shrub layer; and, finally, the herb layer on the forest floor. The animal diversity of the forest depends on these many layers of the forest.

Today, few native wildflowers survive at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest such as this Jack-in-the-Pulpit surrounded by Japanese Stiltgrass. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson

At the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, this healthy vertical structure has been lost. Before the 1980s, the forest was dominated by the old oaks and hickories in the canopy and sub-canopy. Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) were also major components of the sub-canopy. The shrub layer covered 56 percent of the forest floor and was dominated by Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). The forest floor was rich in native wildflowers. Today, there is very little sub-canopy, Flowering Dogwood is almost completely extirpated from the forest, shrub cover has been reduced to 11 percent cover, and the wildflowers are patchy at best. Regeneration of the canopy oak and hickory trees is almost non-existent. Invasive plant species have increased from rare in the forest to dominant components of each layer. Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) are now the dominant plant species in the forest, and all of these are invasive, non-native plants that outcompete native plants for space and resources.

Whitebreasted Nuthatch and American Robin are now common bird species found at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Photo: Jeff Brown
Whitebreasted Nuthatch and American Robin are now common bird species found at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Photo: Jeff Brown

The bird communities have also changed in response to this vegetation change. Jeff Brown, a PhD student at Rutgers with Dr. Julie Lockwood, has been studying the bird community change. He has found, when comparing historical surveys with recent surveys, that the forest has lost approximately 15 bird species since the 1960s. Most of those species lost were species classified as forest birds (those species that are typical of closed-canopy forests) and even include species that have not experienced declines regionally. The bird community at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest has shifted from being dominated by forest birds (Ovenbird, American Redstart) to dominated by birds typical of open woodlands and edges. This change in the bird community follows the change in vegetation closely. The forest canopy is much more open now than in the past, with impenetrable thickets of invasive Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) and Multiflora Rose, more typical of open woodlands than a closed-canopy old growth forest. Now, Wood Thrush, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Towhees, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals are typical of the forest. The forest also doesn’t appear to provide benefits to regionally declining forest bird species.

White-tailed Deer, along with invasive species invasions, have done the most damage to this suburban forest. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson

Why is the forest no longer functioning as a reserve for plants and animals? Deer herbivory in the old-growth forest has sharply increased since 1979, and many of the changes in the vegetation structure and composition can be attributed to this intense herbivore pressure. Heavy deer browsing has also left open space in the understory and contributes to the successful invasions of non-native species. Garlic mustard and Japanese Stiltgrass, the most common invasive plants in the herb layer, outcompete native wildflowers and tree seedlings, causing regeneration failure. Gaps in the canopy, created by windstorms or the death of old trees—which, in a healthy forest, would allow sub-canopy tree species to fill in the gaps—creating a new generation of canopy trees, are instead filled with invasive species such as the Japanese Angelica Tree (Aralia elata; a newcomer to the forest in the last 10 years), Multiflora Rose, and Wineberry.

The change in the plants and birds at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest is an example of what happens to an urban forest when it is not actively monitored or managed over the long-term. This forest, while unique in its old growth character, fell victim to the same stressors all urban and suburban forests fragments share. The enormous change in biodiversity character here shows us the importance of monitoring and active management to preserve biodiversity in our urban forest fragments. At the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, no comprehensive vegetation surveys were performed between 1979 and 2003. If monitoring had occurred, it might have been possible to quickly identify and manage ecological and human threats. “Early detection, rapid response” is being adopted as a regional management for our threatened habitats and, if adopted at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest 25 years ago, would have countered these new stressors as they were introduced.

The “no-management” strategy, intended to be benign and to ensure biotic continuity, was based on deed restrictions originally written in 1955 to protect the forest from “builders, lumbermen, firesetters, hunters, and other destructive human influences”. However, the urbanization of the surrounding area, the introduction of non-native species, and the overabundant white-tailed deer populations have changed the ecological playing field over the last 66 years. The no-management strategy has produced a heavily changed forest dominated by non-native, invasive species with little regeneration of the native tree, shrub, or wildflower species. Without management of these non-native invasive plants and deer reduction efforts, the flora of the old-growth forest has progressively become composed of invasive, non-native plants and the few native species unpalatable to deer. While the “no-management” strategy allows researchers to see the profound changes that a forest community undergoes in a suburban landscape, the role of this unique forest remnant, as well as other urban forest remnants, should be as references for regional diversity and refugia of native species diversity in this rapidly urbanizing world. These goals require proactive management of the multiple ecological stressors experienced by urban forest fragments.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest was originally set aside, according to the property deed adopted when the land was donated to Rutgers University in 1955, for ecological study and for the “purpose of preserving the unspoiled virgin forest, flora, and fauna now existing therein in a state virtually untouched and unaffected by man and his civilization, making these premises a unique surviving example of such a natural environment”. The forest no longer represents this ideal. However, over the last 10 years new monitoring and management goals have been established. Comprehensive bird and plant surveys have occurred over the last five years and will continue. A deer fence was erected in November 2015, and monitoring will occur frequently to assess how the forest plants and birds will respond to the reduction in deer herbivory. Some invasive plants with small populations, such as Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), have been removed from the forest and have not been allowed to become invasive. Will the forest return to a biodiverse state, a refugia in a rapidly urbanizing landscape? Only time, monitoring, and active management will tell.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest serves as a dramatic example of the need for monitoring and management in urban and suburban forests. Preservation of remnant woodlands without active monitoring and management plans is not enough to preserve biodiversity and is woefully inadequate for conservation goals. Remnant forests in our cities are the primary greenspaces for preservation of native biodiversity. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, these remnants will serve an even greater purpose: to conserve global biodiversity. City budgets are tight, but monitoring and management of urban forests should be a priority. Preservation and clear targets for monitoring, research, and adaptive management activities in natural habitats should be a cornerstone of city master plans. Stressors on the ecological integrity of our diverse forests will continue to increase, but with monitoring and progressive management, we can save our unique biotic heritage.

Myla Aronson
New Brunswick

On The Nature of Cities

For More Information

William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~hmforest/

Aronson, M.F.J. and S. N. Handel. 2011. Deer and invasive plant species suppress forest herbaceous communities and canopy tree regeneration. Natural Areas Journal 31: 400-407.

A Transformative New Era for Landscape Conservation in Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
A new report from the Network for Landscape Conservation helps solidify the pathways forward for collaborative initiatives that protect natural and cultural resources in cities.
When I started my career in land and water conservation almost 25 years ago, cities and nature were usually seen as two separate things. Many strategic conservation planning efforts focused on finding the best places to protect nature from people. But as we have learned from The Nature of Cities and its contributors, cities should be thought of as ecosystems of people, nature, and infrastructure that have the potential to provide human inhabitants with a built environment that is resilient, sustainable, livable, and just.

As I have worked my entire career in the arena of metropolitan greenspace planning, I can safely say that now more than ever, people are working together across communities and regions to protect, enhance, and restore our natural and cultural landscapes within cities. For evidence of this groundswell of support, look no further than the National Forum on Landscape Conservation that took place at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, USA on 7-8 November 2017. The event, sponsored by the Network for Landscape Conservation (the Network), brought together 200 leading landscape conservation practitioners from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Forumprovided an opportunity to share lessons learned, discuss ongoing challenges, and explore pathways forward to advance the practice of landscape conservation.

The Network has just released a report entitled Pathways Forward: Progress and Priorities in Landscape Conservation, which captures the insights of the Forum attendees, including the key finding that community-grounded, highly collaborative approaches to landscape conservation are on the rise. Perhaps when you see the term “landscape conservation”, you do not automatically think of the nature of cities. But now more than ever, I believe that landscape conservation is an essential framework for creating resilient, sustainable, livable, and just cities.

The Network report makes this compelling case:

“We know that healthy, connected natural landscapes are essential—for clean water, healthy ecosystems, cultural heritage, vibrant communities and economies, climate resilience, climate mitigation, flood and fire control, outdoor recreation, and local sense of place. And yet our approaches to these critical issues are too often piecemeal, scattered, isolated, and incomplete…Landscape conservation is about bridging divisions. It brings people together across geographies, jurisdictions, sectors, and cultures to re-weave fragmented landscapes and safeguard the ecological, cultural, and economic benefits they provide. This collaborative practice embraces the complexity of working across scales to connect and protect our irreplaceable landscapes—across public and private lands, and from cities to the wildest places.” (Network report page 6)

How do we know that this collaborative approach is on the rise? The report quotes a 2017 Network survey of 132 landscape conservation initiatives across the country that confirmed the dramatic increase in such efforts over the last two decades: “Nearly 90% of the initiatives surveyed have been founded since 1990, with 45 percent founded in the years since 2010…The [survey results] also suggest that we are seeing a fundamental shift in how we approach conservation…75 percent of the initiatives surveyed identified [themselves] as informal collaboratives.”

So what does landscape conservation mean in the context of collaborative approaches to protecting, enhancing, and restoring nature in cities? The report succinctly identifies three key evolutionary steps forward that are taking place:

A shift in geographic scale. Decades of scientific research have built a systems-level understanding of the natural world and have underscored the importance of habitat connectivity across scales. To sustain biodiversity, ecological function, climate resilience, climate mitigation, and other ecosystem services, conservation must transcend boundaries and move beyond a site-specific, parcel-by-parcel approach to the scale at which nature functions.

A shift in perspective. Wildlands, farmlands, rangelands, timberlands, tribal lands, places of cultural and historical significance, rural communities, urban areas, and other private and public lands are part of a whole system—a landscape. The landscape conservation perspective is that the entire landscape, private to public, developed to wild, should be considered together in a thoughtful and integrated manner when planning conservation action.

A shift in process. Landscape conservation crosses jurisdictional and topical boundaries, transcending traditional decision-making processes and organizational structures. The landscape conservation approach is generally characterized by a horizontal process and collaborative governance structure with long-term participation by a diversity of stakeholders.” (Network report page 6)

As Julie Regan, Co-Chair of the Network and Deputy Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in California/Nevada USA, accurately states: “We have entered an exciting era of epic collaboration.”

As a city and regional planner by training who always wants more nature in cities, my attention naturally turns to how to operationalize these ambitious and complex shifts to better protect natural and cultural resources. Although these shifts are challenging to implement, the Network report does an excellent job distilling down to the essence the key tasks for collaborative landscape conservation initiatives:

  1. Define Landscape Boundary and Need or Opportunity
  2. Identify Shared Vision and Goals
  3. Undertake Spatial Design and Strategic Plan
  4. Fund and Implement Strategies
  5. Evaluate Progress, Update Plan, and Adapt Over Time

For the purposes of this discussion, I am focusing my attention on defining the landscape boundary and undertaking a spatial design. For cities, this boundary issue is a fascinating one, as large, interconnected networks of metropolitan centers increasingly serve as the focus of economic activity. Sometimes referred to as Megaregions, these areas have interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and regional transportation systems linking population centers together (see American 2050 graphic below). Megaregions currently account for about 25% of the USA’s land area, but include 80% of the population.

Source: http://www.america2050.org/images/2050_Map_Megaregions_Influence_150.png

I think of Megaregions as areas that not only encompass a human footprint but also much of the ecological footprint required to maintain the existence of these dense human settlements. While the global marketplace provides many desired goods not readily available in most cities, many resources needed, and treasured, by communities come from nearby farmland, forestland, and natural areas. And increasingly, a small part of these needs are being met right next door to where you live (e.g. community gardens, urban forests, pocket parks).

People need resources—like clean water to drink, food from working farms, and fiber from working forests—from surrounding landscapes that remain free from intense urbanization and lie outside incorporated municipal boundaries. People also need (and want) nature (and agriculture) inside cities, and many new creative “local footprint” solutions are being implemented. Cities across the country are envisioning a world where humans, wildlife, and natural systems coexist in healthy, vibrant, resilient, urban communities.

In terms of undertaking a spatial design and strategic plan, Megaregions require mapping of a “green infrastructure vision” that integrates data across scales and landscape types. A detailed example of a strategic plan for the Chicago metropolitan region can be found here, while the spatial design associated with this green infrastructure network design methodology for Chicago can be found here. More and more metropolitan regions have developed green infrastructure visions, including Los Angeles, Nashville, and Portland, Oregon, and these visions tie well into the concept of the emerging trend of identifying a optimal amount of nature within cities and countries around the world.

With this combination of collaboration and available spatial analysis tools, we are entering what Emily Bateson, the Network’s Coordinator calls “a new transformative era” where “we increasingly embrace community-grounded and science-informed conservation at the landscape scale. This phenomenon is sweeping across the USA, continent, and globe, and represents our best chance to sustain the natural and cultural landscapes that in turn sustain us.”

Will Allen
Chapel Hill

On The Nature of Cities



A Tree Hitched to the Universe

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A wee garden in a windy city

From a leafy suburb in the shadow of Table Mountain, I need not venture far to encounter a myriad of remarkable creatures employing clever survival strategies. Fighting, stalking, feigning, loving, dancing, stealing, and darting, biodiversity spills into and out of my garden. It burrows beneath the lawn, slithers through the leaf litter, creeps up the drain pipes, hunts by the porch lights, and hides in my shoes.

Marvelling at Cape Town’s biodiversity through the lens of an ecologist is akin to gazing into the heavens through the telescope of an astronomer: equally humbling, spellbinding, and seductive. In my modest abode, there are not only remarkable species; there is a vibrant ecological community. It exists not in isolation, but as one tiny island in an archipelago of interconnected public and private greenspace, extending adjacent to the metaphorical mainland of Table Mountain National Park.

Cape Dwarf Chameleon
Figure 1. One of the many remarkabe creatures residing in my garden: a Cape Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion pumilum) unleashes its long sticky tongue to strike at a beetle. Image: Russell Galt

With a pair of binoculars, some old field guides, an iSpot account, an eco-literate girlfriend and a little patience, I have identified literally hundreds of species in my own backyard. Simply observing how they interact through the cycle of seasons, I have exacted immense pleasure.

Figure 2. A pensive John Muir. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Scottish naturalist, John Muir, famously wrote:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Does this assertion hold true in cities? Can Nature’s long chains of ecological interaction persist in urban landscapes?

Picking out a single tree

Let’s return to my garden, or rather to my neighbour’s garden, where an old Wild Peach tree (Kiggelaria africana) towers over the partitioning wall. The Wild Peach is an indigenous evergreen species unrelated to the well-known fruit-producing Peach tree (Prunus persica). The early European settlers had a habit of naming indigenous South African trees after similar looking species known in Europe e.g. Cape Holly (Ilex mitis), Cape Beech (Rapanea melanophloeos), and African Red Alder (Cunonia capensis). Insofar as the garden is concerned, the Wild Peach tree is a pillar of the ecological community. Its summertime bounty of bell-shaped flowers may have enticed a queen Honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) to establish her colony in a nearby abandoned car tyre, imparting wafts of sweet caramel into the air. The tree also brings music to the garden: its autumnal orange fruits are relished by the melodic Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus), slurring Cape Robin (Cossypha caffra) and chattering Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens).

Honeybees in an old car tyre
Figure 3. Cape Honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis) building a hive in an old car tyre in the garden. Image: Georgina Avlonitis

The leaves of the Wild Peach are toxic, but gleefully tolerated by one herbivorous species: the Garden Acraea (Acraea horta), a bright orange butterfly whose clutches of 40-150 tiny beige eggs and armies of black spiny caterpillars abound on the leaves all year round (see figure 4). The caterpillars feast voraciously, sometimes stripping the tree almost bare of foliage. By ingesting the Wild Peach’s poison, the caterpillars are themselves rendered toxic and thus unpalatable to would-be predators. However, certain cuckoos, like the Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas), will visit the garden to gorge greedily on the Garden Acraea with seemingly negligible side-effects.

Box 1
Box 1.
Figure 4. Clockwise from top left: female Garden Acraea ovipositing on a Wild Peach leaf; clusters of eggs on the underside of a Wild Peach leaf; pupating larvae on silk mats (seen through a glass window); pupae attached to a wall; a pupa; a newly emerged imago. Images: Russell Galt
Figure 5. A Lesser Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus subsp. chalybeus) feeds a juvenile Klaas’s cuckoo. Image: Pikavaai on iSpot

The caterpillars pass through several instars before abseiling off the Wild Peach tree on strands of silk. They disperse in droves, crawling across the flowerbed, lawn and patio, until they reach a suitable pupation site, whereat each caterpillar spins a silk mat before hardening into a chrysalis. The walls of my house are popular—at any given time, hundreds, if not thousands, of these pupae can be found fastened to the paintwork.

Besides the ravenous cuckoos, the Garden Acraea must contend with a range of deadly parasites, including braconid wasps (e.g. Apantales Acraea), ichneumon wasps (e.g. Charops spp.), chalcid wasps (e.g. Brachymeria kassallensis), bristle flies and fungus (see the Box below).


Figure 6. Left to right: The parasitic wasp, Brachymeria kassallensis, eyes a pupating Garden Acraea larva (image: Les Powrie iSpot); an empty pupa with a small round hole through which a B. kassallensis will have emerged. Image: Russell Galt

The metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly must be one of the most exquisite processes in the natural world. The small percentage of Garden Acraea to pass unscathed through the gauntlet of predation and parasitism emerge after a fortnight’s pupation as fully-formed adults. They warm themselves in sunshine before setting off, flying clumsily from flower to flower. If they can escape the cuckoos, they will mate and the females will lay eggs on the leaves of the Wild Peach tree, thus recommencing the life-cycle.

A fulcrum in a fragment

It seems that if I were to “pick out” the Wild Peach tree “by itself”, I would lose an awful lot of biodiversity that is currently “hitched” to it; from birds and butterflies to bees and bristle flies. I now look at the old tree with a renewed sense of appreciation. It is a fulcrum in a fragment of greenspace.

There could be many other species playing important roles in the garden’s ecological community. They could be linchpins in long chains of ecological interaction that I barely understand: the family of Cape Dwarf Chameleons (Bradypodion pumilum) which hunt small flying insects in the Blue Felicia Bush (Felicia amelloides); the scores of Egyptian Fruit Bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) which come to feast on the berries of the Outeniqua Yellowwood (Afrocarpus falcatus); or the pollinating sunbirds which extract nectar from the tubular flowers of the Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonorus).

The example of the Wild Peach tree and the species hitched to it, suggests that:

  1. Indigenous trees can facilitate the establishment of vibrant ecological communities,
  2. Small private gardens can make substantial contributions to native biodiversity, and
  3. Long chains of ecological interaction can persist in urban landscapes.

Through the lens into the mirror

Looking into the mirror through the lens of an ecologist can be as uncomfortable as it is necessary. We might ask, what role do we play in the ecosystem and what is our net impact on Nature? Do we practice what we preach and persuade others to follow suit? Which aspects of our lifestyles need to change?

Contributors to The Nature of Cities have documented various ways to ameliorate our relationship with Nature. Their examples speak of the extraordinary power with which humans can enhance or degrade biodiversity. Clearly, like the Wild Peach tree, we too are part of ecological communities and may constitute links in long chains of ecological interaction. Knowingly or unknowingly, we interact with species both near and far, for better and for worse: the garden irrigation system confounds precipitation patterns and disfavours drought-adapted plants; the electric lights lure countless nocturnal insects to be preyed upon by Marbled Leaf-toed Geckos (Afrogecko porphyreus); the washing machine spews toxic grey water into precious wetlands situated 20 km away; the smooth morning coffee accelerates soil erosion half a continent away.

There is much that we can learn from the example of the old Wild Peach tree. It reminds us that no individual is an island unto itself and that even individuals can render positive and far-reaching ecological benefits. Like the tree, we too are “hitched” to the universe, and any pretension otherwise is delusional and dangerous.

Russell Galt
Cape Town

On The Nature of Cities


  1. 1. Biodiversity Explorer www.biodiversityexplorer.org
  2. 2. iSpot www.ispotnature.org

A Tribute to U.S. Congressman John Dingell – A Conservation Hero

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
John Dingell was frequently called the “Lion of the U.S. Congress” because his passion for conservation of natural resources and outdoor recreation coupled with keen legislative skills, and unwavering support for public service led him to great success as the architect behind most environmental legislation in the U.S.
U.S. Congressman John D. Dingell, Jr. passed away on February 7th at the age of 92. He may be best known as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives in history—serving 59 years and being reelected 29 times, an unparalleled leader of health care—presiding over the passage of Medicare, introducing a national health care bill at the start of every Congress since 1957, and being a force behind the Affordable Care Act (which was key legislation of President Obama), an early supporter of the civil rights movement, and a feared master of congressional oversight—rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse.

But he was most endeared as a conservation hero.

John Dingell, Jr. learned to be an outdoorsman and public servant from his father—Congressman John D. Dingell, Sr. Upon the death of John Dingell, Sr. on September 19, 1955, John Dingell, Jr. was elected by special election to fill his father’s seat on December 13, 1955 at the age of 29.

Throughout his life Dingell was a congressional page, a park ranger, a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, an assistant county prosecutor, and always a lover of the great outdoors. He grew up fishing and hunting in and along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie and saw first-hand what we, as society, were doing to pollute our rivers and lakes. Dingell’s love of the outdoors and his passion for public service led him to champion clean water and conservation in Washington, D.C.

Dingell at Humbug Marsh, Michigan’s only Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Dingell was a master of legislative deal-making. For 14 years he served as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees industries from banking and energy to health care and the environment. He frequently was called the “Lion of the U.S. Congress” because of both his influence and effectiveness.

His environmental and conservation accomplishments as a legislator include the Ocean Dumping Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and more. He served on the Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee that gave him freedom to work on big issues that he really cared about. He also served from 1969-2014 on the Migratory Bird Conservation Committee where he worked in a bipartisan fashion to purchase lands for the National Wildlife Refuge System—a 150 million-acre array representing the world’s largest network of lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation and to increase funding for Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Dingell at Point Mouillee Waterfowl Festival. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with Greening of Detroit work crew at Refuge Gateway in Trenton. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with children at Humbug Marsh. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Dingell’s passion for conservation of natural resources and outdoor recreation, keen legislative skills, and unwavering support for public service were key factors that made him so successful. The significance of some of his major legislative accomplishments is worth highlighting.

Dingell wrote the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, which requires federal agencies to consider the environmental consequences of developmental projects before they are constructed. This act is sometimes referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law, and more than 100 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it.

He played a vital role in passing the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act that provides an integrated approach to protection of marine mammals and was significant because it was the first legislation to adopt an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. Today, the ecosystem approach is widely accepted throughout the world.

Dingell was the architect of the 1972 Clean Water Act which has helped cleanup and protect waterways from pollution. Today, the Clean Water Act is credited with significantly reducing pollutant inputs that has led to ecological revival of many waterways, although more efforts are needed. This act has also served as model legislation for numerous countries to regulate the discharge of pollutants to surface waters to restore and maintain their chemical, physical, and biological integrity.

Dingell at Humbug Marsh. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with Canadian partners celebrating expansion of the refuge in Canada. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

He authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act which made the U.S. the first country in the world to make human-caused extinction of other species illegal and today is credited with saving hundreds of plants and animals from extinction, including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Green Sea Turtle, Humpback Whale, Southern Sea Otter, El Segundo Blue Butterfly, Robbins’ Cinquefoil, American Alligator, Brown Pelican, and more.

Dingell authored the 2001 Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act to not only protect over 100 species of fish and over 350 species of birds in the heart of the North American Great Lakes, but to demonstrate how to use public-private partnerships to build an urban refuge that prioritizes bringing conservation to cities and makes nature part of everyday urban life. He wanted to protect his favorite fishing and hunting grounds from his youth and do it in a fashion that inspires the next generation of conservationists in urban areas because that is where 80% of all U.S. and Canadian citizens live. Clearly, this concept of an urban refuge that inspires the next generation of conservationists is consistent with the goals and transformative ideas of The Nature of Cities.

Today, the waters of the United States are cleaner, the birds, fish, and other species are safer, and all of us have national wildlife refuges and national parks where we can recreate, reflect, spark a sense of wonder, learn about sustainability, and pass on a conservation ethic to the next generation—largely because of John Dingell.

John Hartig

On The Nature of Cities

A Values-Based Approach to Urban Nature Research and Practice

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The concept of values is frequently brought up in relation to environmental issues, and discussions about urban nature are no exception. In particular, values are frequently at the heart of dialogue about urban ecosystem services, especially in relation to economics and monetary valuation. This was demonstrated by the recent ‘roundtable’ discussion on this blog site.

I believe that understanding what people value in urban environments, and why, is fundamental to achieving sustainable and biodiverse cities. However, much of the work on urban ecosystem services has failed to explore the breadth and depth of the concept of values. In this post, I outline how taking a ‘values based’ approach to urban ecosystem services studies can complement current research efforts and provide new insights into how to plan and manage urban ecosystems. Focusing on what urban residents ultimately care about can help identify the synergies and tradeoffs between environmental objectives and other land use priorities. This information can in turn be used by managers to direct biodiversity actions and messages in ways that will enhance social receptivity.

Start with people

In February, I was part of a book launch here in Melbourne of the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook global assessment of urbanisation, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Australian journalist Virginia Trioli who facilitated the public event took a profound disliking to the term ‘ecosystem services’. Although it is often considered a useful term that can help bridge the divide between science and society, she considered it to be a piece of unnecessary jargon and difficult to understand. She preferred to rephrase ecosystem services simply as “the good stuff we get from nature”. It seems the concept of “goods and services” may not resonate as strongly with many of the public as we ecologists first thought. So what exactly is the “stuff” that we get from urban nature, and why do we think it’s good?

Urban ecosystem service research has proliferated over the past 5 to 10 years. Ecologists have generally sought to understand ecosystem services as properties of a system, just as they seek to understand how soil fertility influences Net Primary Productivity. However, there has been little consideration of ecosystem services as a complex set of interactions between people and their environment and landscape. Since ecosystem services are all about how people benefit from their environment, it makes sense that research should start with understanding people rather than properties of a system (which may exist whether or not people are present!). What if we started from the place of what people value, and then look at how the environment contributes to this?

Using the language of “goods and services” itself can undermine the importance of threatened species or other culturally relevant places, which often don’t contribute tangibly to human wellbeing. Rather than lumping all the intangible concepts such as these into the category of “cultural ecosystem services”, what would it look like to start from the place of understanding values? Recognising the functions and features of ecosystems that people think are important will help us to know when it’s appropriate to apply monetary values and why different values are assigned by different people.

There are multiple kinds of values that people assign to urban ecosystems

A recent project conducted by our research group has looked at the study of social values and activities for green open spaces (parks and reserves) in the Lower Hunter region of NSW, Australia. It is an area of rapid urban growth, alongside increasing coalmining activities and traditional agricultural land uses. We used Public Participation GIS methods (Brown, 2012) to ascertain the kinds of values and activities people considered to be important in different green spaces within their suburb. This entailed distributing paper maps to local residents along with a set of stickers that corresponded to different values and activities. Survey participants placed these sticker dots on the map to show which places within their local area they valued for different reasons (see the map below for an example of a completed map). The abundance of different kinds of dots can be seen in the following histogram.

An example of a returned map from the Lower Hunter open space survey. The numbered red dots are stickers placed by a survey participant, showing the green spaces that are valued for different reasons.
An example of a returned map from the Lower Hunter open space survey. The numbered red dots are stickers placed by a survey participant, showing the green spaces that are valued for different reasons.
The abundance of sticker dots placed by survey respondents representing values and negative qualities associated with green spaces in the Lower Hunter Region of NSW, Australia.
The abundance of sticker dots placed by survey respondents representing values and negative qualities associated with green spaces in the Lower Hunter Region of NSW, Australia.

It is clear that people assign many different kinds of values to urban parks, both positive and negative. Each of these values might theoretically contribute to the economic value of a park, but many may be considered incompatible with economic valuation. It is important to recognise that different places will have different values assigned to them (scenic values are typically higher in parks near to water), but also that individual people will assign multiple values to the same place.

Values that people assign to places are influenced by underlying values

Research has found that the values people assign to different places are influenced by both the characteristics of the place and characteristics of the person (Seymour, Curtis, & Pannell, 2010). One of the factors that has received relatively little research is underlying human values. Underlying values are desired end states or modes of conduct (e.g., social justice, integrity) and have been the subject of psychological studies for many years. Some studies have found that underlying values related to the environment can be grouped into three categories: biocentric (nature-centred), social-altruistic (other people-centred), and egoistic (self-centred)(Dietz, Fitzgerald, & Shwom, 2005). In a 2013 study conducted here in Melbourne, Dave Kendal (from the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology) and myself found that these kinds of underlying values were related to the specific values people assigned to peri-urban landscapes (e.g. food production, biodiversity conservation, cultural heritage)(Ives & Kendal, 2013).

The relationship between underlying human values and assigned values (those specific to a place or landscape) is very important when considering how to promote nature in the city. Although sustainability and biodiversity conservation are important issues for many people, the matters that are of greatest value to people are generally not environmental. This was highlighted by a recent study into the issues considered most salient to Australians. In this study of over 1500 respondents, the three issues that most concerned the Australian public were food & health, local crime and public safety, rights to basic services.

Salience of general categories of social and economic issues for Australians. The level of concern indicated by Australians for a range of general issues. Reproduced from Devinney et al. (2012) with permission from the authors.
Salience of general categories of social and economic issues for Australians. The level of concern indicated by Australians for a range of general issues. Reproduced from Devinney et al. (2012) with permission from the authors.

Knowing the priorities of the general population is a useful way of connecting the composition and function of natural areas in cities to the matters that concern people the most. Economic valuation of green spaces and biodiversity may not always be the most effective way of promoting ecosystem services. Based on the above results, communicating the health benefits of urban nature may be the most persuasive argument for promoting ecosystem services. Conversely, if nature parks are seen to compromise the safety of urban areas, this may thoroughly undermine any other conservation or environmental quality benefits.

Public values need to be at the heart of urban ecosystem management

When seeking to enhance urban nature, the sheer number of people in cities means that social values need to be a central part of research and management. There are many benefits from such a values-based approach. First, understanding the different values people have for different areas can help in identifying potential conflict over the uses of spaces. For instance, knowing that some people value an urban park for mountain-biking and others for reflective walking means that conflict over a space might ensue. Alternatively, understanding the kinds of activities that people value in nature reserves can help manage human impacts when outright exclusion of people is unfeasible. Information on actual biodiversity within cities can also help to identify whether people’s values match ecological reality. A good example of this is provided by Amy Whitehead and collaborators in their 2014 study conducted in the Lower Hunter valley in Australia (Whitehead et al., 2014). In this study, they identified some areas in the landscape that were of ecological significance yet were considered by the community to be of low conservation value, while others were considered to be of significant conservation value yet possessed fewer important species.

Understanding values can also help managers communicate the importance of ecological systems and target the benefits of urban ecological systems directly to different people. This may include highlighting the monetary savings from tree shade for those who value economic efficiency, cultural benefits of social interaction for those who value social wellbeing or environmental protection for those who value biodiversity itself. Further, knowing how people value different natural areas in cities can help planners to provide a diversity of places that meet the needs of local residents. Some scholars have argued that people require a “portfolio of places” for their fulfillment (Swanwick, 2009), and such a portfolio is likely to be affected by socio-demographics (e.g., age, life stage), as well as individuals factors like a person’s underlying values.

Adopting a values-based approach to understanding urban ecological systems will challenge how land use and environmental management decisions are typically made. Rather than fitting the importance of urban nature into current paradigms of decision-making (often based on economic values and balancing fiscal budgets), public values can be used as a way of engaging people in the decision-making process of our cities. Beginning with an understanding of what people value and why, urban nature can be embedded more closely into the life of a city, rather than being presented as an alternative issue that only resonates with the environmentally conscious few.

Chris Ives

On The Nature of Cities


Dietz, T., Fitzgerald, A., & Shwom, R. (2005). Environmental Values. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 30(1), 335–372.

Ives, C. D., & Kendal, D. (2013). Values and attitudes of the urban public towards peri-urban agricultural land. Land Use Policy, 34, 80–90.

Seymour, E., Curtis, A., & Pannell, D. (2010). Understanding the role of assigned values in natural resource management. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management 17, 142–153.

Swanwick, C. (2009). Society’s attitudes to and preferences for land and landscape. Land Use Policy, 26, S62–S75.

Whitehead, A. L., Kujala, H., Ives, C. D., Gordon, A., Lentini, P. E., Wintle, B. A., Nicholson, E. and Raymond, C. M. (2014). Integrating biological and social values when prioritizing places for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology.


A Visit to the Guarani-Mbya in São Paulo

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Some months ago I was invited to go to Kalipety, a village of Guarani Mbya Indians at the outskirts of São Paulo. As we drove South towards the ocean and beyond the affluent city, it wasn’t hard to see the gradual transformation of the urban grain, as it diminished from high-rises to tiny shacks along badly kept streets.

São Paulo can seem endless, and as we drove through areas of a city I could not recognize, time also seemed to stretch. I couldn’t stop thinking I would repent once we arrived, as images of poverty and conflicts involving Brazilian Indians kept passing through my mind.

As they root themselves deeper and deeper into their land and their traditions, the Guarani-Mbya raise their voice in the global web.
But when we did arrive, I was too curious to be bothered by my concerns. After an hour and a half of urban traffic, red lights and a couple of extra miles on dirt roads, having past the lively and colorful commercial streets of Parelheiros, the most Southern district of São Paulo, we reached the village’s entrance. Children played soccer on a grass field, as others played in a bright yellow school bus parked nearby. As they stopped to greet us, I immediately noticed their accent in Portuguese, making obvious their first language was not Portuguese, but Guarani.

The air was thinner, the temperature was cooler and São Paulo’s beautiful rain forest surrounded us. We walked past a tractor in a warehouse and were greeted by small groups of busy people, all working under a large roof, in a wall-less open space next to a lake. On the mud floor a fire burned at one end, protected by clay bricks.

Photo: Paula Lyn
Photo: Anna Dietzsch
Photo: Anna Dietzsch

An older man was making coffee and soon we were asked to grab a cup on the common sink to serve ourselves along with others. His “white name” was Chico and he served us with a big bright smile. Women and men peeled vegetables around us, or washed lettuce and the white uncooked skin of chicken thighs. Others sat and squatted around, as a couple of elderly Guarani women stirred food in large pots over the fire.

People were talking as they worked, but there was this surrounding silence, maybe emanating from the forest and the water nearby. I had the impression I had entered a place where people moved slower than I was used to.

This was the communal space of the village, open to anyone. The only enclosed spaces were two small food pantries and there were two refrigerators next to them. Two communal sinks provided the water for washing and drinking, and their water was collected in a dirt pit and drained through banana trees, that naturally filtered the used water on its way to the lake. Big wooden counters served as both working surfaces and storage, where clean dishes were pilled for anyone to grab.

Although every house in the village has its own kitchen, the fire in the common space is lit everyday at six in the morning, as children gather for breakfast before school, and the daily life of the village revolves around it. It was in this space that I had my first contact with the Guaranis Mbya and where, in future visits, they would always receive me to sit, chat and eat. This was the space in which they rapidly translated to their visitors the importance of Guarani’s community, and it was here that I could tell, since day one, that I was dealing with a different way of socialization. One where community and individual boundaries were much more porous than I was used to.

After an hour we met Jera, one of the founders of the village, wearing a long woolen sweater over skirt and pants. Jera is a small Guarani woman, not even 40 years old, with a slim and delicate figure. Her shiny black hair is cut short, and like many others around, greeted us with a broad smile and a hug. Jera stands straight and although her gestures are precise, she moves in a beautiful, slow way, as if cautious with the air surrounding her. Her hands are strong and her small black eyes are shiny.

After coffee we went for a walk to visit the village’s plantations. Along the dirt path, amid the rain forest, there were small patches of planting and we could see corn, pineapple, manioc, sweet-potatoes, taioba, banana and papaya, as well as many Eucalyptus trees. Kalipety, in Guarani, means “the land of the Eucalyptus trees”, reminding us that the area was owned and exploited by white men before Jera and her people took back possession – a story of its own, which deserves to be told in a second article.

In this village, the Guarani Mbya are making a point about the importance of planting and the importance of having space, land, and the direct contact with nature and the forest. Jera is making a strong and conscious effort to bring back the traditional Guarani crops and food into their daily lives and has, as well as the abundant crops, also established a planting nursery and a seed bank, with samples that were collected from several other Guarani villages in the southern part of Brazil. So far, they have already been able to plant and harvest seven different kinds of Guarani sweet corn and more than twenty types of Guarani sweet-potatoes, such as the jety-andai (yellow inside and red ouside), jety-ava (white inside and red outside) and the jety-karaū (purple).

With the help of some institutions and groups around Brazil, Jera has transformed Kalipety in a kind of planting laboratory for forest gardening and the Guaranis are teaching us how to go back to an agriculture that is organic, productive, and not aggressive. Instead of eliminating the forest, the crops feed it and are fed by it, in a virtuous cycle of self-fertilization. One of the people helping the Kalipety planting comes from Brasilia, where he works with forest gardening, having the eucalyptus tree as one of the main feeders for soil revitalization and regeneration. Permaculture groups have also visited the area to help the Guarani Mbya learn how to adapt to a planting culture that is not nomad and needs to continuously treat the planted soil.

Photo: Paula Lyn
Photo: Paula Lyn
Guarani Sweet Potato. Photo: Paula Lyn
Guarani Sweet Potato. Photo Paula Lyn

After our walk through Kalipety, we hiked to a nearby waterfall and were greeted with lunch on our return. “Lunch” began at 2pm and kept on going until six, as more and more people arrived. Close to 100 people came by that day and every single one of them was greeted with a plate and served from the dishes that kept coming from the now three or four fires set in the common area.

As I ate, I could map my surroundings by the gathering of the Guarani women around the fires, or around the food they were preparing. The date marked the beginning of a four-day event organized by Kalipety Indians to gather Guarani Mbya women around their cause. Each village, each group, had brought their contribution and arranged themselves to cook it. Some sat at the center on low benches and logs, or squatted, as others layered around them. Kids played everywhere. As some women and men cooked biju, a kind of thick corn tortilla, others cooked meat, chicken, rice, beans, or mixed salads. All spoke Guarani.

I was amazed as how it all worked in what seemed to be a very organic, non-hierarchical dynamics. I could not detect who was deciding what and how much should be cooked, as I could not tell how many people had already eaten, or were preparing to eat, as some washed their own plate after a meal, others served themselves and others ate desert. The quantity of food also surprised me.

Kalipety is a wonderful community, but it is poor, with no fixed governmental financing, or main sources of income, apart from the salaries some members bring in. Yet, there was no shortage of food and there was no shortage of guests. And as I came back for other visits, it became clear that the money spent on food and the innumerous guests that day was not an isolated event, but the unfolding of a daily routine, where food, and gatherings around it, are a priority that marks the importance of the group, and its collective functioning, over expenses with other goods.

This impression was reinforced as I followed a group of kids playing in the lake. Shorts and T-shirts were scattered on top of surrounding bushes, as they undressed to get in, but in coming out some left their clothes behind, as others seemed to collect theirs at random. As the day passed, I kept noticing scattered pieces of clothes thrown around the property, as if they had a use, but not the same importance we give them. I realized the Guarani possessed things differently than us and the branded T-shirts and clothes they wore acquired another significance, making me feel more at ease with all the English words and logos I kept seeing everywhere.

Photo: Paula Lyn
Photo: Paula Lyn
Photo: Paula Lyn
Manioca and Pumpkin. Photo: Paula Lyn

Later that day we sat on the logs that laid in the Prayer House, the most important and respected space in the Guarani village, where dances, religious rites and prominent events take place, as Jera introduced the event that had us gathered there, and told us a little about herself. “We organized an event for Indian women that will enable us to exchange experiences and discuss our role in our communities”, said Jera. “I think this is specially important now, because we have forgotten how to live as Indian women and men and have adopted some of the guru vices.”

“When I was a child, I remember being taught about the house chores and responsibilities along with my other siblings, including my brothers. They had to learn how to cook, take care of the house and the younger children, because, as husbands, they would have to assume all their wives duties once a month, when the women would retreat during their period. I still have the image of my father sweeping the house with one of my baby brothers hung around his neck by a tipoia, the woven fabric used as a baby-carrier”.

“Then,” she went on, “it was OK for women to talk about their bodies and act according to their anatomy, without being seen as fragile or weak, as it was OK for men to act and perform ‘like women’, doing their job without loosing their masculinity. We need to talk about this and decide how we want to teach our children”.

Others followed Jera’s speech, as guests and Indians introduced themselves, and then we all danced. The Guarani music is repetitive, based on few simple phrases of tones marked by the cords of an acoustic guitar, and the complex melody of a flute or a violin. It is often chanted by an individual, to which the chorus responds. The dance was simple, merely a couple of steps back and forth, in the manner of line dancing, with everyone holding hands; men on one side, women on the other.

I was in a special and peculiar position, linking the Guarani women, all to my right, to the women guests, the jurua, to my left, and could not fail to notice how differently both sides felt. The steps were the same, the rhythm was supposedly the same, but the cadence felt totally different.

On the right, I could feel the dance in one wave-like movement, as all the Guarani women seemed totally in-sink with each other. To the left I could feel different pulses from the jurua, me included, even though we were all basically making the same movements, supposedly at the same time. Again I had the sensation of facing that strong symbiotic relationship between group and individual. Maybe one our modern Western ways could no longer assimilate?

Kalipety is a new village, having been founded three years ago by a group of young Guarani, who fought for four years for the right to their land. It is located within the perimeter of a newly recognized Indian Territory of 15.696 hectares, within the second generation rainforest that still spreads along the coast of São Paulo. It is home for 18 families and over 50 people, who live in wooden houses built from the forest trees, and as we drove back home that day, my heart was full of hope, as I could still feel the burnt wood smell from the cooking fires on my hair.

Although small, this group of Guarani is steadily gaining their space through a more proactive dialogue with the world than their predecessors could engage. As they root themselves deeper and deeper into their land and their traditions, they raise their voice in the global web. My suspicion is that they are being able to have a clearer voice in our globalized world, exactly because they are being able to anchor themselves firmly in their locality and what that means to them.

Every time I visit, Kalipety feels good to me. I guess it feels like a point of resistance and reminds me of what Manuel Castells, in 1989, had already predicted when he wrote The Informational City: if the internet will make globalization of big-capital possible, and by doing it, will end up destroying well-fare and social-democracy, it will also enable the connection of dissident voices [1]. And as these voices are able to connect into a global world we now praise, they will remind us about the importance of traditional and local knowledge and how we can learn and feed from them. Or, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro explains: “It is not a small number of Indian Nations in the world which affirm that the land does not belong to them. It is them that belong to the land” [2].

Anna Dietzsch
São Paulo

On The Nature of Cities

[1] Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989

[2] Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, A Queda do Céu: Palavras de um xamã yanomami, Sao Paulo, Brasil, Companhia das Letras, 2015

A Walk Along the Bièvre River

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
On our way, we came across a very interesting monument, the artesian well of the Butte Aux Cailles. Only three such wells exist in Paris, and they connect us to very profound waters, those of the aquifer that lies beneath the urban landscape. One can drink spring water in the middle of the city.
Since 1912 in Paris, the river Bièvre, once the city’s second-largest river, has disappeared from our landscape. It used to cross the whole left bank from south to north, flowing through the 13th and 5th arrondissements before reaching the Seine between “Le Jardin des Plantes”, our historical botanical garden, and the Austerlitz train station. Today, this 36 km long river that originates near Versailles, has only 20 km of its length in the open air, 11 km channeled underground, and for its last stretch (when it reaches Paris), the Bièvre river joins the city’s general sewage system. For many years, projects to restore its ancient path, even partially inside Paris, have been proposed.

On the occasion of The Nature of Cities Summit, which happened in Paris in early June 2019, I had the opportunity to organize a creative walk along the ancient path of this mythical and often forgotten river. We were to uncover the history of this river, the lost sister of the Seine, and softly dive into Parisians relationships to water in its various ways: river, spring, aquifer, fountain, rain… With a group of about fifteen Summit participants, we met up on a Friday afternoon at Jussieu University where the Summit was happening. From this meeting point, we headed south with the subway, to the “doors” of Paris, where the Bièvre used to enter the capital city and to where we were to begin our walk.

What we first saw while looking at the southeastern part of the Paris subway map is that many stop names referred to the times where the Bièvre river flowed through those neighborhoods. One stop named “Les Gobelins”, directly cites the ancient name of the river: “rivière des Gobelins”. A name that doesn’t refer to the fantastic creatures we call goblins but to the name of a famous manufacturer—Jehan Gobelin—who had established his dye shop along the river Bièvre in the 15th century. This factory was famous for its red colors soon created the reputation that the Bièvre was a bloody river. But that’s another story.

Still looking at the subway map, I pointed out the stop called “Glacière”, or icehouse. There the waters from the river Bièvre created wetlands that froze in winter and became an ice reservoir for the city (and an ice skating attraction). Examining the map we could also see a stop called “Poterne des Peupliers” (poplar postern, or « side entrance » through poplars) just at the very limit of the peripheral highway that encircles the old Paris. That’s where we were heading and the poplar trees, longtime companions of waterways, were showing us the way! Interestingly enough, Lindsay Campbell noticed on the new interactive subway map we were navigating on for this introduction, that the whole path of Bièvre was marked, even when flowing under Paris! Perhaps a preview of its future revitalization in the Parisian landscape.

The walk started at the Parc Kellerman, literally located inside the ancient Bièvre river bed, where it once entered the city. The park had been designed as a celebration of water. With its narrow channels, iconic waterfall, and small wetland. For the first time of my life as a native Parisian, I saw a heron inside the city. He flew in front of our group to catch a fish in the water. It was a good sign for the beginning of our day. Guided by the wonderful choreographer Nadia Vadori-Gauthier, we embodied the fluid energy of the lost river and of the park’s ecosystem that is softly calling it back. A video of our dance as part of the One minute of dance everyday project by Nadia Vadori-Gauthier.

A heron on our walk at Parc Kellerman, Paris 13th arrondissement. Photo: Paul Currie (see his website).

The rain started and suddenly water was everywhere. We crossed the small streams running through the park. Local water hens and ducks started to show up among the cord grasses. The heron was still there, proudly standing in the middle of the pond. Soon we could read, engraved on the ground “Parcours symbolique de la Bièvre” (« the symbolic course of the Bièvre »). We were on the right path. Leaving the garden, heading north into the city, we took a large street framed by tall poplar trees singing in the wind. We were to enter a neighborhood where the names of those riverside giants were to be found everywhere, in the name of the hospital “des peupliers”, of the coffee shop, the pharmacy, and of the street we were walking on. We started to cross streets with names referring to water mills: Moulin des Prés”, “Moulin de la Pointe”. Designed to grind grain, they once flourished along the active branch of the river Bièvre. Heavily industrialized with mills, but also tanneries, butcher shops, and dye-makers, the river got more and more channelized over time. Home to those many local industries, each using its waters and flow for their own purpose, it became dramatically polluted and gradually was forced underground.

As we kept walking the rain stopped. We started noticing the many medallions placed on the sidewalk by the urban architect Benoît Jullien, each marking where the Bièvre used to flow. Those marked paths would separate into two routes, the active branch (“bras vif”) of the Bièvre that was artificialized stay active at all times, and the inactive branch (“bras mort”) of the Bièvre, its natural path, that would dry up for parts of the year.

A medallion on the sidewalk indicating where the Bièvre used to flow, Paris, 13th arrondissement. Photograph by Paul Currie. (see his website)

On our way, we came across a very interesting monument, the artesian well of the Butte Aux Cailles. Only three such wells exist in Paris, and they connect us to very profound waters, those of the aquifer that lies beneath the urban landscape. These are precious places for people wishing to drink spring water in the middle of the city. Indeed, as we tasted this water collected at a depth of about 600 meters, we could see neighborhood inhabitants coming on bikes with jerry cans to stock up water for their homes. After drinking this water, we stopped at a nearby park. We took a break to read out loud some of the poems and texts that were written about the Bièvre river. Many of those texts were extracts from the collection of poems Teint: for the Bièvre / Pour la Bièvre, written by the British poet Zoë Skoulding in 2014, to mourn and pay homage to the lost river.

Not a river but its
                                     shadow harmonics hidden
level in the glass note
                                     glissando between a
movement and a sound
                                    half in the performance
where I ran to you I
                                    an as tainted water

while tarmac shines in rain
                                    the channels you don’t touch
well up on tomorrow’s
                                    tongue to flower there don’t
leave or was it this way
                                    that now I’ll run from you

— Excerpt from Zoë Skoulding’s Teint

As she researched its history, she made it into a symbol of the domination over nature and destruction caused by industrial culture, and even by patriarchy. “The Bièvre is today the most perfect symbol of female misery exploited by a great city,” wrote Huysmans a century earlier in 1914. A feminist symbol claimed by some, the Bièvre comes to represent the rawness of Paris’ nature that has been tamed by violent exploitation but hopes to reclaim its rights to live in its full power. As we walked the streets, graffiti and collages caught our eyes, some representing a Super Woman, others a crying teenage girl. More thought-provoking graffitis appear on our path, many made signed by the famous local street artists collective called Lézarts de la Bièvre (the arts of the Bièvre). Through poetic urban art, they help passers-by remember the vanished river and tying its memory to the social justice issues of today.

The group stopped for lunch in a strange park, the square René-Le Gall, which used to be a very small island on the Bièvre. At the time when the river was flowing, this place was called l’île aux singes (the monkeys’ island). Some say this name comes from boatmen who came accompanied by their monkeys that they left free on the islet, and others say it was a slang name given by its workers to the owners of the nearing tannery. Indeed the island was the former kitchen garden of the upholsterers of the famous Manufacture des Gobelins. As we walked up the curvy street leaving the garden we could soon see its luxurious buildings, the only lasting factory from the time of the river’s industrial bloom. Still famous today for its tapestries, this institution has survived and flourished through the centuries. In this place, famous artists like Louise Bourgeois, Jean Arp, Fernand Léger, Alexandre Calder, Sonia Delaunay, and many more have collaborated with artisans perpetuating four hundred years of knowledge. On the facade of the building bas-reliefs representing the different steps necessary to make and prepare the wool for the textile artisans, illustrating for us the practices one could have seen happening by the river for centuries.

But the tragic reality of the Bièvre surfaces again as we walk through an area near Censier, described in Victor Hugo’s famous novel and call for social justice Les Miserables (literally « the wretched people »). Indeed, in the 19th century, the waters and banks of the Bièvre had been so extremely polluted by various industries that putrid smells would escape from the river and make entire neighborhoods unliveable and home to misery. This reality slowly led in 1912 to the covering of the river for sanitary and social reasons. Today, the advocates for the revitalization of the river argue that we have now mastered those sources of pollution and it is time to bring the river back to life.

Now walking downhill, we could slowly sense the Seine river approaching and imagine the past reunion of the two rivers. The medaillons on the ground kept guiding us and assured us that we were following the right path. At times, we saw again names of streets referring to mills or even sculptures of millers and bread bakers at work.

Our last stop was by a typical Parisian fountain, called “Fontaine Wallace”. Now iconic of the city, those green fountains were introduced at the end of the 19th century by a British philanthropist who believed Parisians (who had just suffered the siege de Paris by Prussian forces and civil war) should all have access to free water. Those “fountains for the people” were designed in the style of the time, with four caryatids adorning them, each representing qualities associated with the four seasons: Simplicity for Spring, Charity for Summer, Sobriety for Autumn, and Kindness for Winter. An interesting detail that can be found on each of those fountains is a small metal plate indicating from where this specific fountain water comes from. And it can change from one street to the next. In our case, the plate said that the water was coming from the filtered waters of the Seine and the springs of the Vanne river. With the water, we cleaned delicious cherries that we shared and replenished our bottles. It was time for a group photo.

The group standing by a typical Parisian fountain, 5th arrondissement. Photograph by Paul Currie. (see his website)

Softly, with water in our backpacks, we finally arrived by the Seine at the spot were the Bièvre would have reached this larger stream. At the Pont d’Austerlitz, looking at the strong flow of the Seine, we smiled and decided that we would each write a few sentences for the Bièvre river in a Dadaist style, meaning however we want.

As we invite you to recall that river, here is a collective collage of our words:

Not forgotten but recalled / a lost body found

The river laps

            across generations

across geographies

cutting new ground,

the river laps.

River of the depths, I honor you wherever you go. Vine path, path of hearts. Sister of the Seine.

Dappled drops as light reflects where water was. Step step splash puddle muddled river mort. Follow the live arm.

We start dreaming about the past, about what these banks were, we look for the signs of the presence of water, we find them.

We connect to this underground flow that passes south of Paris, at Gentilly, and runs to the Seine.

We look at photographs of a Paris of the past that we had no idea about, we dream of a future where water would reappear from the walls where it is enclosed. We tell ourselves that this world is crazy.

Searching for traces, memories in the landscape – a word, a puddle, a slope, a sign – les peupliers.

Many thanks to all those who participated in the walk and to The Nature of Cities who connected us across disciplines and ways of life in our love for urban nature. I am looking forward to many more.

Carmen Bouyer

On The Nature of Cities



A Walk Between Two Seas

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Though the Between Two Seas trail was set up to be a tangible example of how places evolve during different phases of urban development, there is something to be said about how walking opens the door to social changes and broadens perspectives.
I sit at a picnic table in a sliver of a park running alongside Istanbul Caddesi (street), not far from the Küçükçekmece Gölü, a natural lagoon on the Marmara Sea. It’s about noon on a Wednesday and, except for two ladies chatting on a bench a few meters away, I have the rest of the park to myself.

Across the street are rows of luxury, high-rise condos and villas of the elite, gated community known as Bosphorus City. A couple of decades ago, this was the site of one of Istanbul’s largest trash dumps, a factoid I read on the trail map I’m following. Like many parts of the city, and Turkey, in general, the land was reclaimed and sold for housing development initiatives most ordinary people can’t afford.

I spent two days walking parts of the Between Two Seas and Hiking Istanbul’s trails. The 30 or so kilometers I passed through will be greatly impacted if the proposed Canal Istanbul project comes to fruition.

Behind me is a working-class neighborhood with modest single-family homes and squat, square two and three-story apartment buildings. A textile factory has a ground-level shop selling samples of shirts and pants made on the upper floors. Kids, sporting jerseys of their favorite local football clubs, kick a ball around in the street. An old man with a cane makes his way uphill carrying a bag of tomatoes. A cat curls up on the corner, in no rush to be anywhere.

Map courtesy of Between Two Seas.

Suddenly, a rooster and a few hens jump through a hole in the park fence. One of the neighbors behind the park cut the metal spokes so his chickens can peck and find crumbs of left-behind picnic fare. This public space is their private farm.

In many ways, this scene, and others I have seen while walking parts of the Between Two Seas and Hiking Istanbul trails, sum up the push and pull Istanbul faces.

On one side, government officials search for ways to modernize infrastructure, stimulate economic growth through widespread construction projects and accommodate the estimated 15 million people that live in Istanbul. On the other side, beyond the day-to-day routine of getting by, there is an undercurrent of growing concern around the issues of preserving natural green spaces, providing just and equal access to social and economic opportunities, and controlling overdevelopment.

Footsteps through time and development

I’m back in Istanbul, a complete diversion from our Bangkok-to-Barcelona foot journey, because I want to see what soon may be lost.

Canal Istanbul project. Photo: Jenn Baljko

In autumn of 2017, while walking along the Black Sea, I had heard tidbits about the proposed shipping canal project that would create a massive, parallel, alternative route to the heavily-trafficked Bosphorus Canal. This spring, news of the construction of a third Istanbul airport reached my ears. Then, Instagram posts from the Culture Routes Society’s Between Two Seas hiking trail further piqued my curiosity about what is happening on the fringe of Istanbul.

From everything I could gather, Istanbul’s urban sprawl and the government’s plans to hit lofty economic targets before 2023’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish republic was on a crash course to swallow up the last of city’s natural green spaces. As a person walking parts of the planet, I felt an urgency to walk through these precious and endangered spaces.

The Between Two Seas route offers an invitation to do that.

It was set up as a four-day, 60-kilometer hike starting at the Black Sea in the north and ending in the Marmara Sea in the south. It unpeels layers of development, leading walkers from the outermost periphery of the city through rural areas, forests, water basins, vegetable farms, a Neolithic-era cave that marks the city’s oldest settlement, housing complexes, new construction sites, parks, marginalized neighborhoods, historical ruins and other places of cultural importance that define Istanbul’s past, present, and possible future.

“What can you do between two seas? This was the question. In post-modern life, people don’t walk from one sea to the other,” says Serkan Taycan, founder of the Between Two Seas trail who blends his background in civil engineering, urban planning, and photography to focus on urban and rural transformation. “There is a narrative behind the trail. The Between Two Seas trail goes from the rural villages to the water basins to the urban fringe to the gated communities to the new apartment blocks to the lagoon to sub-city centers. Layer by layer, step by step, you can observe the chronology of urbanization in Istanbul.”

Some of the four-day route—originally opened in 2013 before it was clear where the proposed canal could be located—has already been impacted. The northern-most section, once home to forests and fresh-water lakes used by hundreds of migratory birds, is mostly under the concrete of Istanbul’s third airport; the new airport is scheduled to open in late 2018 and will eventually replace Ataturk Airport about 50 kilometers south.

A new road leading to the third Bosphorus bridge, which will help Turkey establish another way to move goods east and west between continents, has also cut away at the city’s natural environment. If that wasn’t enough, there is an ever-present threat that the once-protected lands in the northern part of Istanbul will continue to disappear as recent legislative changes expand the possibility for further development, as reported by National Geographic in March 2018.

I take the advice of Taycan and Nick Hobbs, one of the founding members of Hiking Istanbul, which has created a 700-kilometer network of trails around Istanbul that are accessible via public transportation. I head out to do a two-day walk on the Between Two Sea’s southern 30 kilometers from Sazlıbosna and the Sazlıdere Reservoir to Menekşe Beach. The open spaces and towns along these sections of the trail would be most affected by the proposed Canal Istanbul project, which seems to be inching closer to reality.

“The construction of the airport and motorway are done, and those green spaces are already lost. We hope the canal won’t be built. It will be a tragedy if it is built,” says Hobbs, who is also an artist, concert organizer, and climber. “It will destroy what is left of Istanbul’s north-to-south green corridor and quicken the destruction of the city’s east and west green spaces.”

I start out early from my hotel near Ataturk Airport, thinking I would reach Sazlıbosna about 9 a.m. But getting out of Istanbul’s daily chaos poses its challenges. A bus that was supposed to start near a central metro line never shows up, and after an hour of waiting and the help of a local who speaks some English, I find out that I have to take another tram to the end of the line and get the bus there. The delay means I won’t start walking until noon, but I’m eager to leave the city’s noise and crowds for the silence of rural spaces.

It’s sad to see so much left-behind picnic trash in these open green spaces that call people to relax and soak in the area’s natural beauty. Photo: Jenn Baljko

It’s hot and humid in mid-May, but the breeze coming off the reservoir makes the flat walk comfortable. I watch storks and gulls skim the water’s glassy surface and block out the sound of squawking crows fighting over remnants of food. Green farmland and high-voltage towers string remote towns together with the necessities of food and electricity.

I walk the waterfront’s edge, disheartened to see trash piled up under almost every tree offering a shady spot for picnickers. In Turkey, like many other countries I have walked, I have seen the locals’ affinity to eat and relax in nature, but have made myself crazy trying to understand how they can spoil these beautiful places with plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam trays and soda cans. A herd of grazing cows restores my faith in nature’s survival, and I wave to the cow that has waded into the water to cool off.

The Between Two Seas trail unfolds a narrative about Istanbul’s urbanization, from rural villages to water basins to multi-story apartment buildings. Photo: Jenn Baljko

There are some red and white and blue and orange trail markings pointing the direction southward, but I end up losing the path or reinventing one so I can I have a better vantage point. I climb a small hill and walk a dirt trail pounded down by a tractor. A local warns me to be careful of snakes sunning themselves.

Sometimes I found trail markers, other times I deviated from the path to get a better view. Photo: Jenn Baljko
Between Two Seas quarry. Photo: Jenn Baljko

I come to an old quarry, and the image of big white blocks submerged under floating algae conjures up an eerie, mystical stillness of time forgotten. A few curves later, a shepherd leads his sheep through scrub and the hazy views of big apartment buildings rise up on the horizon. The sweet scent of yellow flowers, which I recognize as ginesta from back home in Catalonia, reaches me. I close my eyes remembering this smell.

I cross into the small village of Şamlar. I see four things as I enter the town: the mosque’s minaret, a sign advertising Canal Istanbul land sales, a tea house, and a restaurant. It’s the sign I get stuck on. I wonder how many people are selling land that may have been in their families for generations, and I wonder who’s buying the land and at what price. I have seen plenty of real estate signs and development projects along the Black and Mediterranean seas, and it appears that the Canal Istanbul project is now ushering in speculative land buying and selling, something that certainly will give a short-term boost to Turkey’s real estate and construction industries, important GDP sectors.

I make a mental note to backtrack to see the old Ottoman dam just outside of town and make a beeline to the restaurant for a late lunch and a few minutes of reprieve from the heat.

A young man approaches me. He is eager to speak English. He insists on walking with me after lunch. “There are dogs. Maybe there are not nice people ahead”, he tells me. I don’t know whether or not to believe him. Lluís and I have encountered dogs in many places, and yes, it’s possible to meet shady characters anywhere, but, I find people’s fears to be slightly exaggerated. I see kindness in his eyes, and I agree to the escort, slightly regretting my decision not to see the Ottoman dam before my rest break.

Although I know from the Hiking Istanbul’s field notes Hobbs emailed me that I am supposed to follow the waterfront towards the new dam at the end of the reservoir basin, my companion believes the path is closed. It is closed to vehicles, but neither of us is sure if it now also closed to pedestrians. Chatting about Turkey, Europe, and life’s troubles and wishes, we divert ourselves to a hilly path through a thigh-high grassy field and end up on a dirt road wide enough for cars. At the top of the hill, without any dogs or seedy characters showing up, my companion says he must return to work and waves goodbye. “I’ll friend you on Facebook”, he says.

I follow the road downhill and rejoin the waterside trail on the other side of the dam. Signs of urban life become more evident. Apartments, some old and some new, line both sides of the narrow, canalized river. Calls to prayer echo from different directions. It’s about an hour before sunset, so I take the fork in the road and climb up to the two-lane road where cars and trucks whiz by, a little too close to the non-existent shoulder I insist should be there. I’ll end the day here, waiting for a minibus with a woman and her son.

The next morning, I set out for my starting point, Yarımburgaz Cave, the site of one of Turkey’s oldest human settlements.

Finding the bus to the Güvercintepe neighborhood is easier than yesterday’s public transportation adventure, and locals tell me where to get off. Unfortunately, I end up about 75 meters higher than the cave, and the small streets that connect to the two-lane road that connects to the cave are about one kilometer away in either direction. I have to go one kilometer out, and one kilometer back to arrive at the point almost directly below me. I don’t see a clear way to the cave from where I’m standing without slip-sliding downhill, so I let go of the idea of visiting the cave. Still, from this high point, I can imagine how important this area must have been millennia ago with its access to water, fertile land, and hilly protective surroundings.

Walking through this neighborhood, I’m struck once again by the various states of construction happening on every block. Empty plots, half-built apartments, fenced-in areas with active construction underway are recurring images.

Construction is a recurring image in many parts of Turkey, and is especially true in Istanbul which is experience rapid urban development. Photo: Jenn Baljko

Further on, I see parked trucks on one side of the narrow, canalized river, and on the other side, I watch a shepherd move his sheep to a nearby pasture. I don’t know which one looks more out of place, but in today’s Turkey, they both seem to belong there.

Canal, trucks and sheep. Photo: Jenn Baljko

I wind my way down to the main east-west motorway touching the north edge of Küçükçekmece Lake. From here, I can take Hiking Istanbul’s nature-centric route along the western waterfront and find Bathonea, a ruined Roman port probably used for lignite transportation. Or, I can follow the original Between Two Seas trail and enter denser urban areas. I want to see the urban sprawl, so I choose the eastern side.

I take an overpass over the well-used highway, and the sound of traffic haunts me. I have to avoid the rail lines, which are now in use. Looking at my digital map, I find my way to the park with the chickens.

With a few words of English, a few words of Turkish, my map zoomed into where I’m standing, and my Google translate app, I ask a man at a bus stop if he knows whether there are sidewalks ahead. I’m at a place where streets merge and become bigger streets. My walking experience tells me these intersections frequently lose their pedestrian passes.

He tells me there are sidewalks and asks me why I need them. “You can take a bus”, he says.

“No, thanks. I’m walking to the Marmara Sea”, I reply.

When he realizes that I am going to walk onwards, he invites himself along. I don’t want the company during this hot part of the day when I would rather not talk, but I do want to encourage people to walk their cities. I know he’s flirting with me, too, as silly as I look in my sun hat and walking outfit, but I know pretty soon his ambition will wane. I revert to a game I play when people say they want to walk with me, especially men who think they can outwalk me. I ask myself one question: How long will he last? Looking at his fresh-pressed shirt and pointy business shoes, I bet silently one kilometer. Certainly not the 10 kilometers I have left.

We chat a bit in the few common words of two languages we share and then fall into a silent rhythm drowned out by cars and buses. He asks me a couple more times if I want to take a bus, and I continue to say, “No. Really, I’m walking to the sea.”

Near the Halkali rail terminal, occupied with cranes and heavy equipment, I know the heat has gotten the best of my companion. He bows his head slightly and waves, saying he has to be somewhere soon and will take the bus. I’m surprised when I look later in the day at my map and calculate that he walked about 2.5 kilometers.

I had thought to dip my toes into the Küçükçekmece lagoon and the Marmara Sea, but the smell of them made me think otherwise. Photo: Jenn Baljko

I get off the main road, follow the smaller road to the customs area and then route myself to Küçükçekmece Lake and its waterfront park.

The lake is immediately disappointing. It looks like sludge and smells worse than sludge. At least I have a well-manicured park and easy walking ahead.

It’s a proper city park with a nice walking path lined with trees and benches. There are blooming flowers, playgrounds, cozy gazebos, cafes, restaurants, and trash bins. People, young and old, sit on the grass or stroll in the shade.

Again, apartment buildings, in various states of construction serving various classes of the population, line the city-side border of the park. Construction sites are as common as pigeons.

I cross a stone bridge, walk under a highway and reach Menekşe Beach. I ignore the black shipping yard building that first comes into view. It’s an eyesore in all ways.

I stroll towards the twisted trees growing out of the sand and watch men and boys play in the surf. I had thought to put my feet in the Marmara Sea, but the cargo container ships in the distance and the slimy stuff floating on the surface, change my idea.

Instead, I lay across a tire swing in the empty playground. A seagull lands on a light pole. We stare at each other for a while. I can’t help thinking about what will happen to him and this place he considers his home. I can’t help think about what will happen to this place where millions and millions and millions call home.

Walking awareness

People ask Lluís and me all the time why we walk. One of our usual answers is “Walking is the most intimate way to see our planet.”

To read more from the Bangkok to Barcelona series,click here.

Walking brings with it a sense of awareness and connects us to the space we walk in.

This idea is embedded in the Between Two Seas and Hiking Istanbul trails. They are invitations to explore and discover what’s happening in Istanbul and to appreciate the rich flora, fauna, and green hinterland that still exists here.

“I have walked about 2,300 to 2,400 kilometers around Istanbul. I know the land around this city probably better than anyone”, said Hobbs. “People who are not in contact with nature, I think are missing something from their lives. There is a strong benefit for the soul of the city to have a good relationship with its hinterland. And, here it is at your doorstep. You can take a bus to it.”

Though the Between Two Seas trail was set up to be a tangible example of how places evolve during different phases of urban development, there is something to be said about how walking opens the door to social changes and broadens perspectives.

“Walking is the most pacifist way to resist something and walking together has been an important type of resistance throughout history”, said Taycan, pointing to the large-scale walks that helped people in many nations win more civil and women’s rights. “As an artist and citizen of Istanbul, this is what I can do. I can continue to invite people to walk. We have to remind people about the importance of walking. If these kinds of projects remind people of walking’s importance, that is an achievement in itself.”

Other photos

The chickens and rooster don’t seem to mind their view of the luxury, gated community known as Bosphorus City. Photo: Jenn Baljko
Canal Istanbul sign. Photo: Jenn Baljko
Rail construction. Photo: Jenn Baljko

Jenn Baljko
Bangkok to Barcelona on Foot

On The Nature of Cities

Hiking Istanbul and Between Two Seas offer free group hikes around Istanbul. You can find out details on their Facebook pages:


A Walk in the Park? Re-imagining Urban Environmental Conservation during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of a pandemic, the importance of greenspace for human health is becoming more apparent. As we imagine a post-pandemic world, we can learn collectively to reevaluate what matters in our urban centers: diversity, equity, resilience, and of course, a walk in the park.
The COVID-19 pandemic has established a moment of immense global loss. In the midst of this public health crisis, our concerns for our families and communities necessarily take priority. Yet, addressing these concerns demands a look towards the future: to the reevaluation of global systems that may produce or obstruct the conditions for the next pandemic.

Emerging dialogue linking biodiversity conservation and public health management is a prime example of such reevaluation. The United Nations’ recent report, “Preventing the Next Pandemic,” offers a valuable argument for the use of ecosystem management as a public health tool. Concurrently, The Nature of Cities site has hosted a global roundtable of urban biodiversity experts assessing the impact of the current public health crisis on urban ecosystems—a resource that has grounded many of the arguments and observations made in this article. As we continue to learn how ecosystem biodiversity and public health influence each other, addressing this interconnectedness in urban areas will be uniquely important—for characterizing the most immediate responses to the pandemic within environments that host a growing majority of the world’s population and some of its most critical biodiversity. The complicated relationship between urban biodiversity and the novel coronavirus offers essential lessons for our post-pandemic cities.

Urban centers and biodiversity must be re-contextualized during our present moment: who uses city spaces? What does use of urban greenspace look like during the pandemic? And how has COVID-19 challenged urban biodiversity management? These questions address the urban ecosystem stakeholders with whom I am most concerned: Homo sapiens, particularly policymakers and urban citizens. Critically digesting their experiences and choices can inform reflections—four are presented here—for equity and resilience in the face of future public health crises. Lessons from the pandemic for research scientists are also incredibly salient, and much has been written about these already. Although an effort has been made to approach this topic from a global perspective, the cities whose stories are examined here are primarily English-speaking for ease of research.

This piece is written to address urban environmental conservation through the lens of a social-ecological system (SES) analysis. An SES is a framework for understanding complex ecosystems in which “multiple sets of actors consume diverse resource units extracted from multiple interacting resource systems in the context of overlapping governance systems.” This definition is challenging to conceptualize and it may help to consider an SES as a unit in which humans interact with natural ecosystems in specific ways informed by institutions. The urban ecosystems with which I am concerned are greenspaces: sites of terrestrial urban vegetation that provide habitats for urban biodiversity, including private yards, public parks, and grassy sidewalks. This definition does not encompass previously developed sites (i.e. brownfields) or bodies of water (i.e. blue space). However, many topics addressed in this article are also applicable to these areas. The living organisms within greenspaces make up the urban biodiversity of the environment (a term that also applies to their structural and functional diversity).

Urban Biodiversity Hub’s definitions of “urban” and “biodiversity conservation”, as used by the organization. Urban biodiversity conservation offers a framework for understanding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on urban social-ecological systems. Source: www.ubhub.org

Unpacking Urban Biodiversity and Greenspace Use

Hungry monkeys are roaming the streets of Lopburi, Thailand. The number of Australian backyard bird watchers is soaring. British citizens are using parks more—some littering, others picking it up with greater frequency—than park officials can ever remember.

Around the world, the pandemic has reshaped the relationships between urban dwellers and their natural environments. These relationships are emerging and multidimensional, making them challenging to quantify and assess for significance. Nevertheless, public engagement with nature has long been a cornerstone of conservation and can offer illuminating lessons for biodiversity advocates. Themes of increased and diversified use of urban greenspace have begun to emerge and, importantly, bear implications for public health. However, access to nature is not shared equally by all, necessitating the question:

Who uses city spaces?

In the United States, the early months of the coronavirus pandemic were characterized by narratives of egress from urban centers. Those with the option sometimes left high-risk areas to avoid high levels of viral exposure and to access more affordable living with family and friends; others (those with means) sought safety in rural second homes. But, not all who left urban areas did so willingly—many were evicted.

Social distancing protocols take effect in Edinburgh, Scotland, presenting unique challenges to underprivileged groups without the means to follow best health practices, like staying home when sick. Source: “Let’s Keep a Safe Distance 02” by byronv2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The ones who remained may not have had much of a choice; either due to lack of economic means or the need to stay near employment sources, particularly for those jobs deemed essential. American cities have witnessed an incredible demand for the services of essential workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, many of these workers are low-income or people of color, making them highly vulnerable to COVID-19. People without homes have also faced unique challenges; social distancing and quarantining can be especially difficult for those without a safe place to live. Because the pandemic has increased rates of homelessness and evictions worldwide—despite government efforts to make it otherwise—these challenges are increasingly consequential. Those who continue to live and work in American cities in the midst of the pandemic often do so because they lack the means to leave.

In many South and Southeast Asian countries—from India to Myanmar—migration out of cities has occurred with greater magnitude, and in a different fashion: poor, migrant workers have left after their jobs disappeared in cities to head for their rural homes. Around the world, migrant workers who choose to stay at job centers face the prospect of living in packed dormitories, where the virus may easily spread.

In Thailand, international aid organizations have targeted COVID-19 education towards vulnerable individuals with limited ability to socially distance, many of them migrant workers from Myanmar. Source: “IMG_9861” by USAID Asia is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The pandemic is shifting the demographics of city users and dwellers worldwide, spurred by urban inequities that are not new but are certainly garnering new attention. Social science scholars often frame these inequities within a question, first proposed by sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968: who has the “right to the city?” Our responses help to explain why urban (reverse) migrations are happening and highlight which city amenities need to be made more accessible in an age of sickness, stress, and uncertainty.

For example, patterns of Asian reverse migrations have implied that migrant workers typically work and live in cities temporarily but are not necessarily welcome permanently. In American inner cities (at least in the more affordable ones), vulnerable essential workers may work and live but may have less access to resources, like public parks, that are disproportionately located in wealthier neighborhoods. Likewise, homeless communities have limited rights to greenspace when their desired use—to stay overnight, for instance—does not align with the official intended use of the space. Importantly, many European cities have begun to address homelessness during the pandemic by offering temporary housing in hotels and shelters—a significant first step in synergizing social justice and urban planning.

This is just a small sampling of “rights to the city”-related issues exacerbated by COVID-19. Although a more complete analysis is beyond the scope of this piece, we must address who is living in cities and how they are living there before we can understand how greenspace is used in the age of COVID-19.

What does the use of urban greenspace look like during the pandemic?

Even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of a pandemic, the importance of greenspace for human health is becoming more apparent. Research has long observed the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor access, from improvements in respiratory function and physical fitness to stress reduction. The eminent biologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson was the first to coin the term “biophilia”: humanity’s innate tendency to desire interaction with nature. These benefits for humans provided by the environment are called ecosystem services and are essential to understanding the importance of urban biodiversity.

Advantages for human health become only more poignant as efforts to limit COVID-19 also limit mobility, planning, and social gathering. Resultant stress and reduced exercise opportunities in urban populations have powerfully illuminated the value of greenspace for human health and wellbeing during the pandemic. Worldwide, rural parks and recreation areas have shut down as social distancing mandates continue, and funding and staffing for parks sputter. The result is a perfect storm: suddenly, urban greenspaces have become vital sites for recreation and leisure.

Signage in Dublin, Ireland urges greenspace users to socially distance as parks reopen. Source: “Take the right path in life” by through the lens of Cityswift is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While demand for greenspace has soared globally, accessibility to these spaces has fallen—due in large part to mobility restrictions placed upon urban centers by city officials. In Barcelona, for example, March and April saw the imposition of fines for those caught running and cycling in public areas. France’s lockdown lasted for months, severely limiting access to public space. These observations should not be misconstrued as a call to defy public health measures. Rather, this moment can be harnessed as an opportunity to improve how urban greenspace is used and managed.

Many cities are doing just that. Seattle, Washington has sped up its adoption of new pedestrian-first crosswalks that improve mobility for runners and cyclists. Other urban centers from Mexico City to Berlin are adding bike lanes and considering permanent through-traffic closures on city streets. Experts have already begun to debate whether these changes may be maintained long-term, and what the implications may be for developing greener, more efficient, and less polluted cities.

The pandemic has not only increased urban greenspace use but also diversified it. Outdoor learning modules have been implemented in rural Kashmir to much acclaim. The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative in the United States follows in the same vein. Notably, these outdoor education models have had success in European cities— particularly in Germany’s “forest kindergartens”—for decades, where teachers harness the beneficial effects of biophilia in their approach to learning.

Children in Kashmir continue schooling in outdoor classrooms amidst social distancing guidelines to combat the spread of COVID-19. Source, with permission: Abid Bhat/BBC News

Biophilic education has also caught on at home, where children and adults are using citizen science to stay entertained and globally engaged. Urban “bioblitzes”—community events organized to record biodiversity by an interested public have moved to the backyard, where they can continue in a socially-distanced fashion. The online forum iNaturalist is a popular site for the events, which are occurring everywhere from New Hampshire to Kerala. Elsewhere, first-time gardeners are looking to the backyard for sustenance: to reduce their reliance on grocery stores, to develop a new hobby, or even to reduce stress. As the pandemic upends lifestyles and livelihoods, reconnecting with nature offers urbanites a means to adapt.

How has COVID-19 challenged urban biodiversity management?

The pandemic has caused local governments worldwide to go to new—and opposing—extremes when it comes to biodiversity management: some ecosystems are now more highly controlled than ever before, while attention towards others has fallen to the wayside.

Depleted budgets and lost workers have made urban greenspace maintenance an unaffordable or low priority expense for many cities. In Singapore, vegetation has been growing wild and untamed during its “circuit breaker” (lockdown) period, inviting new insects and delighting nature-enthused city residents. Elsewhere, cities under lockdown—notably lacking in traffic and snack-bestowing tourists—have witnessed ever-encroaching wildlife on the lookout for food. Coyotes and foxes in American cities, deer in Nara, Japan, and those pesky Thai monkeys have all forced residents to reassess their relationships with local wildlife.

In some cases, that means striking a balance: Lopburi locals have taken to feeding their monkey visitors, and some residents and business owners argue that humans should be the ones adapting to wildlife, not “the other way around.” Still, urban wildlife experts argue, the return of wildlife is likely to be cut short once cities begin emerging from their lockdowns. Rebounding traffic and reductions in social distancing can deter these curious animal newcomers—for example, some may be disturbed by increasing noise pollution while others who have found new sites for migration and breeding may be interrupted by reemerging humans.

At the other end of the spectrum, the public health crisis has, in some cases, resulted in more highly managed human-wildlife interactions. Local and national officials in China have imposed new regulations upon wildlife markets—largely cited as a possible reservoir of SARS-CoV-2—garnering praise from conservationists and public health authorities. Elsewhere, from Tehran to Tokyo to Venice, city workers are spraying antimicrobials in public areas to stop the spread of the virus, a measure that could have far-reaching implications for ecosystem health.

In Lopburi, Thailand, monkeys have long been accustomed to being fed (here, photographed in 2012). Reductions in social mobility (and thus food handouts) during the pandemic have led animals to encroach further upon urban centers, sometimes causing excitement for residents as well as nuisances and public health concerns. Source: “Feeding Macaques” by Buzz Hoffman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some of the negative impacts of returning wildlife in major cities have already begun to draw the attention of city officials. Lopburi has recently begun sterilizing its hungry monkeys to control their rapidly growing numbers and Singapore’s grassy sidewalks have become a point of contention between local nature-lovers and the National Parks Board, which is mandated to maintain roadside greenery. Of particular concern for the Southeast Asian city is a rising incidence of dengue, a disease spread by mosquitoes that use stagnant waters amongst dense vegetation to breed.

Balancing biodiversity conservation, public health, and human livelihoods is no easy task for municipal officials, especially in the midst of a health emergency. Yet, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that these issues are not independent of one another

Many cities have already proven this point. In Pakistan, the COVID-19 crisis has caused high levels of unemployment in urban areas, spurring the expansion of the country’s 10 Billion Tree Program to make more tree-planting jobs available for those looking for work. Nairobi’s response to COVID-19 has involved expanding city parks for better social distancing and outdoor access, with city officials explicitly approaching public health management as a tool in climate resilience. In Amsterdam, planning for economic recovery post-pandemic has meant the adoption of policies that put human health and conservation first. And, even during its dengue and COVID-19 concerns, Singapore’s National Parks Board has acknowledged locals’ appreciation for more “naturalistic” vegetation and has proposed the expansion of its Nature Ways.

Reflecting on Urban Environmental Management

The following four reflections build upon these stories of COVID-19 experiences, observing ways in which the pandemic can spur us to reimagine urban greenspace and urban areas more broadly. Importantly, responding to the pandemic has occurred across fields of expertise and benefited from collaboration among them. The following insights fall within such distinct fields—social justice, technology, microbiology, and public health—and yet will be most useful if understood by urban residents and researchers alike, regardless of profession. A collective appreciation of the potential to restructure our urban systems with an eye to resilience must begin with an understanding of equity, leading to the first reflection:

Reflection #1: Accessibility is becoming a core value in urban greenspace planning

The pandemic has brought severe cuts to city budgets worldwide as unemployment rates jump and city revenue falls in the face of soaring public health expenditures. When push comes to financial shove, city park budgets are often the first to fall. Deciding which greenspaces remain open or maintained can be a highly political act as access is not equally distributed across the socioeconomic regions of most cities.

“Right to the city” literature can be a valuable framework for defining best practices as cities manage budget cuts in order to establish greater inclusivity in nature post-pandemic. Especially in light of the many beneficial ecosystem services that greenspaces may offer for public health, it is important to recognize that marginalized groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. That is, the people who have suffered the most from the pandemic are often also those with the most limited access to greenspace and ecosystem services. Therefore, recovery efforts must seek to redress these inequalities.

Collaboration between the spheres of urban planning, parks management, and public health will be key to addressing these inequities and powerful conversations among stakeholders have already begun to gather momentum. For example, integrating social justice principles within spheres of architecture and urban design is helping to re-conceptualize the functionality of citiesconcerning city user demographics. Simultaneous efforts to engage underrepresented groups—students of color, for instance—in urban ecosystem management are paving the way for more equitable greenspace use.

Reflection #2: Technology can be adapted as a resource for conservation

In response to the pandemic, cities, educators, and families have applied technology in creative ways to strengthen biodiversity engagement and management. Citizen science ventures accessed via smartphone have opened doors for communities to learn more about their local ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity conservation in the process. In an effort to support social distancing, parks departments had developed online mapping tools to inform greenspace users of activity and crowd levels by area.

Emerging technologies have also been co-opted to monitor and manage public health. Nairobi’s new air-quality sensors will provide valuable data about air pollution, a boon not only for managing environmental risks associated with COVID-19 but also for tracking ecosystem health. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has opted not to use antimicrobial chemicals in some of its efforts to sanitize subways and buses, choosing UV light-emitting robots instead. Robots have also been employed in Singapore, where they’re programmed to roam public parks and encourage social distancing.

Whether or not these technologies are explicitly intended to target the environment, many of them have the potential to link communities more strongly with nature and to aid in more efficient and less damaging ecosystem management. Yet, as the pandemic challenges cities to become “smarter” and “greener”, it will be more important than ever to remain mindful of Reflection #1 (accessibility) and to implement technology in ways that are equitable and globally productive. Asking where and how technology will be use—and inevitably, who will use it—can serve these goals.

Reflection #3: Broadening perceptions of ecosystem services to include the microbial world can benefit public health

In recent decades, the emerging fields of microbial and disease ecology have shown us that greenspaces have the potential to affect human health in ways beyond traditional understandings of ecosystem services. That is, our appreciation of nature as a source of clean air and clean water and a site for physical exercise and mental rejuvenation is expanding to include ecosystem services that act at the microscopic level. Microbial ecosystems (i.e. “microbiomes”) have become more common in public vernacular; with respect to the human microbiome, for example, the benefits and detriments of probiotics and antibiotics are becoming well-known by the general public.

Growing widespread awareness of the human microbiome is an exciting first step in microbiology-based public health education. Yet, portraying the human microbiome as an independent entity limits the effectiveness of these efforts: challenging and broadening our understanding of the human microbiome to better address the greater microbial ecosystem should be a central aim of future microbial ecology research. Researchers, for example, have recently proposed re-imagining humans as “holobionts:” living, breathing microbial ecosystems whose members interact with other microorganisms in the greater environment.

This concept is especially useful for municipal public health dialogue, as it helps to inform how we frame urban ecosystem services. For example, reduced microbial biodiversity in the so-called “urban microbiome” has been documented and may have broad effects on human health. The hygiene hypothesis is a classic explanation of this proposed phenomenon, predicting challenges to immune system development in more developed, sterile environments. Recently, links between human health and human and ecosystem microbiota have been expanded to encompass even more disease outcomes, from the transmission of diseases to humans from other animal species (zoonoses) to the development of multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease.

The COVID-19 crisis offers a unique opportunity to contribute to this growing body of evidence. Of particular significance are emerging studies that propose limited coronavirus transmission in outdoor settings and possible links between asymptomatic infections and previous exposure to other coronaviruses. As the pandemic modifies human-environment interactions across ecosystems—whether through the wide-spread spraying of antimicrobials or the growing presence of urban wildlife in many cities—it will be exciting to uncover how urban microbiomes have also changed.

Applying microbial ecology to urban planning and ecosystem management is a second avenue along which we can refine our perception of the urban microbiome. Increasingly, the confluence of public health, urban planning, and microbiology is trending towards a narrative of rewilding: re-introducing biodiversity at a macroscopic level to stabilize and diversify the urban microbiome, and thus improving public health and ecosystem health outcomes. This model of ecosystem reorganization is intended to make the urban social-ecological system self-sustaining, with minimal demand for ongoing managementThe Healthy Urban Microbiome Initiative and Microbiome-Inspired Green Infrastructure have emerged to extend these efforts into spheres of public education and urban management.

Reflection #4: Recognizing synergies between public health, urban planning, and greenspace use will be the key to preventing future pandemics

The reflections above have implications for targeting environmental management in distinct and yet highly connected ways. For example, greenspace accessibility, technology, and public health methodologies may all affect ecosystem health and biodiversity. In turn, natural actors may influence various social components of a given social-ecological system. Antimicrobial resistance, for instance, is a result of a social practice—the growing use of antibiotics in medical and agricultural industries—that had an environmental consequence— the increasing prevalence of  antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” What emerges is a highly interconnected social-ecological system from which indirect and unintended consequences can arise. No species—human or otherwise—or habitat type—urban or otherwise—can be independent of this system.

This social-ecological system concept has been applied in public health policy with increasing frequency, perhaps most notably within the World Health Organization’s One Health model, an approach to public health policy that uses expertise from many sectors of ecosystem management, such as food safety and animal health, in its responses to disease. Addressing the COVID-19 crisis has demanded collaboration across these spheres of management and experts identify One Health as a keystone feature in planning to prevent future pandemics.

Benefits of the One Health approach are not necessarily one-sided; what is good for humans can be good for ecosystems, too. Ecosystem management is an essential cornerstone of conservation and active public participation in greenspace management has been shown to strengthen biodiversity.

Actions informed by synergies between human and ecosystem health are already being undertaken—many of which have been mentioned here. Furthering this work in urban ecosystems, in particular, will be an important next step, and will benefit from approaches that also adapt expertise in urban planning, education, and social justice. Notably, cities’ best practices for responding to COVID-19 include changes to waste management systems, food systems, and ways of addressing housing and poverty—aspects of urban ecosystems that are also highly significant for this article but beyond its scope. Many of these municipal responses utilize principles of a One Health approach, although none address the model in its entirety—likely because the model was largely crafted for public health management at the national level and operates through national bureaus and agencies. Developing One Health schema for use at the local level is a promising strategy for grassroots global health efforts, especially as discussions concerning potential future pandemics proliferate.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has made most clear is that we live in a globalized world—our social-ecological systems are highly connected and highly complex. Of equal complexity are humanity’s responses to this crisis; they have yielded mixed results but are not without innovation and compassion. The stories of loss and change-making told within this article reflect all of these themes but are less universal truths than context-specific examples of urban management in the pandemic age. That is, there is no “right way” for all cities to overcome COVID-19. Rather than provide a list of best practices for current public health and urban environmental management (which would inevitably be lacking), this article acts as a conversation starter for a diverse and multidisciplinary dialogue. As we begin to imagine a post-pandemic world, we can learn collectively to reevaluate what matters in our urban centers: diversity, equity, resilience, and of course, a walk in the park.

Kaja Aagaard, with Mika Mei Jia Tan and Jennifer Rae Pierce
Middlebury, Los Baños, Vancouver

On The Nature of Cities

Mika Mei Jia Tan

About the Writer:
Mika Mei Jia Tan

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

Jennifer Rae Pierce

About the Writer:
Jennifer Rae Pierce

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

A World without Cars, as Imagined by Eric Sanderson

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars and Suburbs, by Eric W. Sanderson. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4197-0434-5. Abrams Books, New York. 351 pages.

“…and thus we layered a continent with asphalt and linoleum.”—Eric Sanderson (Terra Nova)

In 2010, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West was transformed with a protected bike lane and pedestrian refuges. Overnight, speeding traffic was replaced with lighter, calmer car flow and increasing throngs of families walking and cycling to the adjacent park. The project nonetheless met fierce opposition from residents upset about the loss of driving and parking space, and it was not long until these local opponents took to public protest. “Your Bike Lane? Not on my Speedway!” and “Don’t be Conned by Sadik-Khan” read a few of the more outrageous signs. Of course, we responded with our own counter-protest. My friend and fellow sustainable streets advocate, Aaron Naparstek, was there. He was clutching Transportation Alternatives’ battery-powered megaphone and he was not afraid to use it:

“This is not just a about a battle for a bike lane. This is about our addiction to oil. This is about our wars in the Middle East. This is about global warming. This is about generations of kids not being able to move around and get the exercise they need to be healthy. This is a battle for the new American Dream.”

“Right On!” I think I shouted. But to others within earshot, Aaron’s megaphone manifesto may have missed the mark. What the heck do bike lanes have to do with national security, anyway?

TerraNova CoverA lot, it turns out, but it’s a much longer story. In Terra Nova: The World After Cars, Oil and Suburbs, Eric W. Sanderson tries to tell it like nobody ever has, in 350 pages rife with detailed infographics and illustrations by Pentagram’s Eddie Opara.

If you read Sanderson’s last book, the acclaimed and best-selling Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, you know that, like Manhattan itself, he really likes to pack it in. Terra Nova is also crowded, like the future utopia it describes. There are a thousand facts here, and sixty-five pages of notes, citations and “elaborations” just for good measure. But the thing about density, as any urban planner will tell you, is that it yields unparalleled benefits if you are sure to layer in swift transportation and attractive open spaces. Sanderson does density right, sweeping his reader quickly from place to place, from a primeval history of oil to the collapse of the suburban housing market in 2008, to a convincing outline of a smarter future tax structure. And the gifted Opara provides plenty of eye-candy accompaniment, with more than 70 captivating charts and diagrams. (My favorite: ‘Tranportation Space’, which clearly illustrates the space-saving magic of walking, cycling, and surface transit).

But Sanderson is trying to do more than just take us on an entertaining and educational journey. He clearly wants this book to spark a revolution in how we live, and to do this he has to touch and motivate our souls. For this he deploys a few mythological frames, invoking Homer and Native American lore. The promise of the car was one of three seductive Sirens, and the heroic striving for a better world harks to the epic task of Nanapush, hero of the Lenape creation myth. These work pretty well, but they seem a bit forced. I think Sanderson would have made these devices more relevant and powerful had he used more modern versions of these ancient archetypes, or simply made some new ones up himself. If George Lucas can do it, so can a brilliant storyteller like Sanderson.

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An infographic from Terra Nova, by graphic artist Eddie Opara.

The pith of the book is Terra Nova itself, the blueprint outline for denser, greener cities coursed with alternative transportation and governed by smart taxes that discourage waste and reward thrift of our limited resources. But before he unveils this ideal future, Sanderson marshals history, physics, biology, chemistry, and economics to carefully explain why transitioning to Terra Nova is much more complicated than changing a light bulb, or swapping your SUV for a hydrogen fuel cell sedan. “The goal is to imagine a future without also having to appeal to some miraculous technological fix,” he says early on. Getting to a post-car utopia requires coming to grips with the systemic nature of our problem: decades of short-sighted decisions have warped our energy, economic, transportation, settlement and political systems into a grossly inefficient dependency on greenfield land and cheap oil.

Other authors have delved deeper into the history of the car in the city (Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton), the march of suburbia (Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson), and the century-long consolidation of our transportation system into a monoculture of driving (Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay). James Howard Kunstler has done pioneering work weaving this all together, but with a touch of conspiratorial crankiness that has kept his important ideas on the fringe. Sanderson connects the big dots, but does it with the authority of a world-class science explainer, and without letting his ego get in the way. Even when Sanderson does occasionally lapse into eco-sermoning, he does it consciously and convincingly. We’ll move our bodies more in Terra Nova, and more daily walking, “combats depression, bolsters the immune system, fights osteoporosis, helps prevent diabetes, and improves sex life.” Preach!

I wish Sanderson spent more time on “Ramifications”, by far the shortest of the book’s three sections. Most of this section is dedicated to extolling the many benefits of trading resource extraction for renewables, sprawl for density, and cars for transit and human power. It’s important to point out the enticements—that there is future money to be made in retrofitting our systems and in selling streetcars. But much more interesting is the shorter subsection in which Sanderson treats the obstacles—we will have to pay more for gas, and give up the habituated convenience of cars and suburban living. And the biggest obstacle of all, evinced in the above-mentioned battle for Prospect Park West, is figuring out how to evolve past our NIMBYism, aversion to change, and new people using our street or moving into our neighborhood. While we mostly-accepting New Yorkers have by definition overcome this obstacle, we can still relate to Sanderson when he writes:

“One challenge that will come with living closer together is that we will need to face up to a social and psychological fact clearly in evidence in our democracy: other people can be really annoying. In the best of circumstances, density is fun and profitable; in the worst of conditions, it foments antipathy for humanity and certain individuals in particular.”

To solve the downsides to density, Sanderson calls for more tolerance, better urban design to give us peace and seclusion when we need it, and people-friendly public spaces where we can rely on Jane Jacobs’ ‘eyes on the street’ to bring out the good neighbor in all of us. This discussion of the cultural evolution required to reach the density requirements of Terra Nova is worthy of much more than a few pages, but perhaps here we have the seed of Sanderson’s next pioneering project, or the next George Lucas-produced motion picture. I eagerly await the next installment.

Paul White
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

A Worldview of Urban Nature that includes “Runaway” Cities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

This article presents an alternative perspective on urban nature that extends the debates on ecology in cities to ecology of cities. In Africa, and particularly Kampala, where we have undertaken research on various aspects of urban development, we are increasingly confronted by a realization that urban built up components are only conveniently “detached” from the urban nature on which these sit. In fact the combination of the built up and urban ecosystems is creating a unique urban form that is a fusion of interacting parts of the city as whole. Cities in other parts of the world that have benefited from long standing planning have the urban form which, to a degree, separates built up from nature areas as nature parks and recreation areas (Grimm et al. 2008). The design and planning has also reserved multi-purpose green parks, as seen in recent urban development, to respond to the environmental change challenges. In contrast, cities in Africa, as is the case of Kampala, can be described as ‘runaway’ cities by nature of the sprawl and fragmentation of natural ecosystem interwoven with built up land. This is a different worldview of urban nature with implications on how to maintain ecosystem functions.

In Kampala, there is evidence of continuous interactions and influences between built-environment and the natural components to form a unique urban fabric. This worldview helps us to understanding the urban system interactions at various scales. Our understanding of how the built environment components interact with nature on which it sits is key in addressing the challenges of urban management, and there is critical importance in sustaining some level of ecosystems functions of provisioning, regulating and supporting services (Shuaib Lwasa et al. 2009). The speed of urbanization in Africa is characterized by, among other things, the degradation and reduction in ecosystem services within urban areas. This dilemma is felt in Kampala where ecosystem services are dwindling due to land competitions for development.

The challenge is that the city is extending further into the rural hinterland. The reduction of ecosystem services along the urban-rural gradient is evident. Exportation of pollution and contaminants into the rural hinterland is also a key urban management challenge, while the importation of nutrients from rural areas and stocking the organic nutrients in the cities has benefits but it is equally of concern. Some of the ecological functions of urban and peri-urban agriculture provide immediate benefits to producers, most notably food production, while other benefits are realized as flood regulation.

The provisioning services provided by agricultural lands are among the most immediately important for the city population. Provisioning services include the production of grain, livestock, produce, fuel, and forage. Along with food production, agroforestry in urban and peri-urban areas of Kampala are supporting the growing demand for wood fuel, which continues to be an important source of energy for domestic use. Sustainable management of timber and non-timber resources from forested lands can be an incentive for sustaining ecosystem services.

Ecology of urbanscapes in Kampala

The growth and expansion of Kampala has altered the natural ecosystem to create a complex system of interactions. Surface conditions of the ‘urbanscapes’ play an important role in mediating regulating and provisioning ecosystem services. The increase in impervious surfaces and reductions of vegetation cover has an influence on the urban heat island (UHI) effect characterized by higher temperatures and less variation in nighttime and daytime temperatures.

While the continued practice in urban and peri-urban agriculture has formed a fusion of built up and nature with patches of nature surrounded by concrete and infrastructure. Urban and peri-urban agriculture regulates local microclimate to some degree but has also contributed to maintenance of vegetation cover in the city. Effects of changes in urban ecosystems include weather extremes and impacts of local temperatures, and increasing wind intensities, partly due to losses of vegetation. Increases in impervious surfaces associated with urbanization reduce soil infiltration and increase surface runoff during storms while lowering the water tables. Thus planning would have to address the reduction of storm runoff with more porous land surfaces to support recharge of water tables, increase groundwater flows and urban vegetation.

Though Kampala can be described as a ‘runaway’ city due to the nature of growth and expansion, its regional extent also offers opportunities to plan for development as a city-region to influence ‘urbanscape’ ecosystems.

Kampala. Photo by Shuaib Lwasa
Kampala. Photo by Shuaib Lwasa
Kampala, the ‘runaway city’. A map of built up areas. Image: Shuaib Lwasa, 2009
Kampala, the ‘runaway city’. A map of built up areas. Image: Shuaib Lwasa, 2009

Trans-boundary city and stock flows

Though we haven tended to look at cities as bounded spatial entities to inform and guide planning, development and investment, the nature of urban growth and expansion has gone beyond these boundaries. This nature of urban development relates to urban hierarchy and convergence of metropolises perspectives in which maintaining a hinterland around the cities as the source of supplies in fiber, timber, food, water and labor is important.

But cities such as Kampala are exemplifying a new phenomena of spatial expansion of the built up with continued reliance, to some degree, on resources from the immediate hinterland. The new feature is that cities have also consolidated distal relations with other resource producing areas, some of which have no direct physical connection with the consuming city. This has accelerated the flow of resources from the hinterlands but also from distal places, accentuated by global trade. In essence, cities are stocking materials and nutrients that originate or are produced elsewhere.

Some of the materials are exported back to the hinterlands and the distal places as pollutants, wastes and consumables. Studies have framed the flows as urban metabolism, which helps in understanding the inflows and outflows (Bohle 1994). The inflows that stay in the urban areas become part of the urban ecosystem in terms of landfills, wastewater treatment plants and concrete infrastructure. This influences the ‘urbanscapes’ of cities like Kampala.

Photo3 Urban nature and biodiversity

Despite the fragmentation of urban nature in ‘urbanscapes’, there is continued recognition of the importance of cities in conservation of biodiversity (Loreau et al. 2001). The existence value of certain species is felt by people around the world, indicated by the extensive investment in global conservation efforts.

Biodiversity also presents options and value for future uses of the world’s genetic diversity. There are policies at national level in Uganda to promote biodiversity conservation and some of the entry points have been wetland ecosystems, forests and conservation of natural surface water bodies. Kampala is lined with extensive wetlands that connect the hills of the city. Though there has been massive encroachment and changes in the wetland ecosystems there is matching effort to conserve the wetlands ecosystems.

But planning for infrastructure needs of a burgeoning population presents challenges of conserving biodiversity. For example, sewage management and treatment plants have been established in the wetlands as the considered best sites for locating such infrastructure. But this comes with loss of biodiversity and ecosystem changes. This is due to the decentralization of treatment facilities that moves away from the traditional central sewer systems that have often transported sewage for long distances to central treatment plants.

One response to sustaining some level of ecosystems and biodiversity is the promotion of decentralized sewer systems that can take advantage of the local resources and purification systems using the natural environment. This has potential for improving infrastructure access and efficiency, but also biodiversity conservation.

Kyanja Edible Landscape Project, agriculture and biodiversity, Kampala City Council 2008
Kyanja Edible Landscape Project, agriculture and biodiversity, Kampala City Council 2008

The role of planning and design

Moving from ecology in cities to ecology of cities provides an opportunity for sustainable city-regional development. But this will have to address the challenge of jurisdictional and territorial responsibilities, since urban ecosystems do not necessarily follow the administrative boundaries.

Even when natural systems like wetlands form the boundaries, there is a challenge of responsibility for biodiversity along the administrative boundaries. One way to optimize the ecosystem services within the city-region is through spatial planning for enhancement of the ecosystem services as a strategic intervention at city-regional scale, compared to the practice of piecemeal planning at neighborhood scale (Lwasa 2013). This requires consideration of the interrelationships between built environmental components with biophysical systems within city-regions. The most challenging consideration is to related to distant relations that cities have with other regions. In Kampala, some steps have been taken to introduce in planning practice design principles that can promote ‘urbanscapes’ with biodiversity and ecosystem functions. As shown in the pictures below, planning at neighborhood scale can also be an entry point for sustenance of urban ecosystems.

Kyanja Edible Landscape, A rendered neighborhood ecological plan Kampala City Council, 2006
Kyanja Edible Landscape, A rendered neighborhood ecological plan Kampala City Council, 2006


Kyanja Edible Landscape, Plot level planning, Kampala City Council, 2006
Kyanja Edible Landscape, Plot level planning, Kampala City Council, 2006


Kyanja Edible Landscape, Plot level planning, Kampala City Council, 2006
Kyanja Edible Landscape, Plot level planning, Kampala City Council, 2006


In conclusion, Kampala like many other cities of Africa can be looked at with a different worldview. That which differs greatly from other cities is characterized by patches of built form interwoven with smaller patches of nature.

This article argues that the form presents distinct ‘urbanscapes’ in which interactions of the components is important. The interrelationships between urban and peri-urban agriculture in promoting these interactions as well as biodiversity conservation is an important feature of the ‘urbanspaces’, though the conservation can be considered as minimal.

Kampala relates with the hinterland through resource flows but has also distal linkages with other regions to which it is not physically connected. The resource flows contributes to the understanding of stocking of materials and nutrients that influence urban nature but also the complex urban ecosystem. The relations are bi-directional because there are also outflows from the city to the hinterland.

The challenge of determining an urban nature which promotes biodiversity and functioning of ecosystems will remain as urbanization occurs but the role of planning and design is critical in maintaining some level of ecosystem services within which biodiversity conservation can be promoted. Kampala has taken some steps through a city-region planning approach but it is important to note that this will not be the only solution to an urban nature that is sustainable.

Shuaib Lwasa

On The Nature of Cities 



Bohle, Hans-Georg. 1994. “Metropolitan Food Systems in Developing Countries: The Perspective of ‘Urban Metabolism’.” GeoJournal 34 (3): 245 – 251. doi:10.1007/BF00813926.

Grimm, N. B., S. H. Faeth, N. E. Golubiewski, C. L. Redman, J. Wu, X. Bai, and J. M. Briggs. 2008. “Global Change and the Ecology of Cities.” Science 319 (5864) (February 8): 756–760. doi:10.1126/science.1150195.

Loreau, M., S. Naeem, P. Inchausti, J. Bengtsson, J. P. Grime, A. Hector, D. U. Hooper, et al. 2001. “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning: Current Knowledge and Future Challenges.” Science 294 (5543) (October 26): 804–808. doi:10.1126/science.1064088.

Lwasa, S. 2013. “Planning Innovation for Better Urban Communities in sub-Saharan Africa: The Education Challenge and Potential Responses.” Town and Regional Planning 60 (0) (April 30): 38–48.

Lwasa, Shuaib, Charles Koojo, Paul Mukwaya, Frank Mabiriizi, and Deogracious Sekimpi. 2009. “Climate Change Assessment for Kampala, Uganda: A Summary.” Cities and Climate Change Initiative. Nairobi, Kenya: UN-Habitat.


Abandoned and Auctioned, an Old House Finds a Future in Flowers

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Flower House Detroit, which ran October 16-18, 2015 at 11751 Dequindre St, Hamtramck, Michigan.

Once again, something amazing and ephemeral has appeared in Detroit.

Flower House Detroit (which was actually located in the city of Hamtramck, 2 square miles enveloped by the city of Detroit) was, at its simplest, a gorgeous three-day floral installation in a two-story abandoned house. In reality, the project was much, much more.

The back stoop of the Flower House.

Lisa Waud was inspired to create Flower House Detroit after experiencing the 2012 Dior Runway show, which had been staged in an abandoned house filled with flowers in Paris. As a floral designer based in a neighborhood with more than its share of abandoned houses, Lisa knew that she was destined to create an installation that would bring the wild spirit of the Dior show to her hometown. As proprietor of pot + box, a flower studio operating in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, Lisa was uniquely qualified to inspire a team of designers, artists, photographers and event planners to bring her vision to life.

Lisa has long been a fan of the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the French artists known for giant, breathtaking art installations, and she knew that her piece should have that same, awe-inspiring quality. A flower shed just wouldn’t do the trick. Her vision demanded the presence of a grand old house, one of the kind that Detroit was known for in its heyday. The inspiration stuck with her and, two years later, she found herself at a county real estate auction “with her hand up.” For $500 she purchased two houses, located side by side, on a street adjacent to a freeway and not so far from her own live/work studio. That, in her own words, was when “sh+t got real.”

There is a lovely symmetry to the plans for the Flower House. An abandoned, ruined home was filled with flowers, made beautiful once again before facing its final demise.

One year, an Indiegogo campaign and a whole lot of planning later, the Flower House burst into bloom. The project was brought to life by a group of 37 floral artists, was visited by hundreds and was seen by thousands more through social media. Over 100,000 blooms filled 17 rooms; flower-filled tubs and toilets flowed from every bathroom, a 50s kitchen cabinet—trimmed in red and left behind—was stuffed full of coordinated flowers and vegetables. A dining room table grew out of a centerpiece of blooms, mosses and branches that reached from floor to ceiling and featured a self-contained water feature fed by a 50 gallon drum that had been sunk into the ground beneath the floorboards and filled with water.

FH_ExteriorUrban Wall Paper
Exterior urban wall paper at the Flower House.
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Katoi food truck at the Flower House.

From front porch to back stoop, warped floorboard to cracked ceiling, the Flower House was spectacular. Ticketed visitors were admitted in 20-minute intervals and encouraged to post their photographs using the hashtag #flowerhousedetroit. I came to the house straight from another kind of installation: a Greening of Detroit tree planting, where 85 new trees were planted on a nearby street. When I arrived, the whole street was bustling – no doubt with more activity than it had seen in years. The sidewalk was flanked with buckets of blooms and inspired visitors were encouraged to design bouquets of their own after exiting the house. A food truck was on site and visitors were queued up and gazing at the rear façade of the house, which had been covered with “Wild Floral Graffiti” reminiscent of exterior urban wall paper. On entering, visitors’ senses were engaged immediately. There was the happy hum of cameras clicking and visitors alternately whispering in awe and exclaiming with surprise, “Amazing!” “So beautiful.” “I might cry.” The smell was incredible – it was the rich warm smell of earth and fading flowers and long golden grass warmed by late summer sun. The colors were so rich, and the textures so varied, that it was impossible not to reach out over and over again, to confirm that everything was real. In room after room, the decay of a long vacancy was buoyed up by rafts of flowers arranged in the most amazing configurations of color and pattern and motion. “A Floral Whirlwind” spun in an upstairs bedroom, while another bedroom featured the bed that every little princess dreams about, strewn with flowers and bowered with an astonishing daisy chain. In the living room, the seat of a chair burst through with hundreds of stems. Every crack in the foundation, every wall where lath showed through ruined plaster, every hole where a fixture once hung, featured, for one weekend, something alive, and beautiful, and inspiring.

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A kitchen cabinet in the Flower House.
The kitchen at the Flower House.
The living room at the Flower House.

And then, it was over.

The Flower House was designed to last only a single glorious weekend. The web resounded with the anguished cries of those who didn’t get tickets to the sold-out spectacle. But the best may just be yet to come. Lisa Waud and her partners in the Flower House are committed to the Slow Flower movement,  which advocates for propagation and use of locally grown and seasonal blooms.  One of the most delightful aspects of the Flower House was that it made room for local flowers.  During installation, local flower farmers dropped off buckets of blooms to be added to the house, contributing to the unique character of the project.  This generosity is a hallmark of Detroit’s community of growers, and it was a most appropriate way to welcome Lisa to the fold, given her plans for the future. There is a lovely symmetry to the plans for the Flower House. An abandoned, ruined home was filled with flowers, made beautiful once again before facing its final demise. The installation, designed to be fleeting, was then dismantled and composted – 100,000 blooms returned to the soil. Next, the house will be deconstructed. At least 75 percent of the raw materials will be recycled for other projects by Reclaim Detroit, a program of the Detroit non-profit EcoWorks. And finally, the site will once again be made beautiful with flowers, this time as the site of a flower farm, growing blooms that will be used in more wonderful pot + box productions.

Toilette at the Flower House.
FH_Kitchen Plumbing 2
Kitchen plumbing at the Flower House.

Detroit can’t wait to see what grows next.

Rebecca Salminen Witt

On The Nature of Cities

Accessing Urban Environmental Education Opportunities Via Green Infrastructure

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The term “sustainable city” evokes images of green roofs, energy-efficient buildings, bioswales, bike lanes, urban forests, and other types of green infrastructure. These urban features clearly have value for ecosystem and human health, but they also have great educational potential. Green infrastructure can help urban residents improve their understanding of complex sustainability issues, provide opportunities for residents to interact with urban nature, and potentially encourage citizens to take actions to enhance the environment in cities.

Green infrastructure enhances ecosystem health and climate change resilience, contributes to biodiversity, and benefits human populations.

Green infrastructure can be defined as a network of human-managed and natural ecosystems that together enhance ecosystem health and resilience, contribute to biodiversity, and benefit human populations through the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystem services (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2013; McPhearson et al., 2016; Novotny, Ahern and Brown, 2010). Green infrastructure projects provide a broad array of human and ecosystem services in areas such as food, energy, security, climate regulation, water management, education, and aesthetics. The field of urban ecology has advanced a conceptual framework that considers the ecology in, of, and for cities (McPhearson et al., 2016). This framing reflects ecological research taking place in cities; a systems approach to study the ecology of cities that considers the complexity and dynamic interactions of social, ecological, economic, and built components; and how the field can be positioned for advancing urban sustainability and resilience (Childers et al., 2015; Grimm et al., 2008; Pickett et al., 2008).

To see more chapters from the book, click here.
In this chapter, we adopt a similar lexicon to consider how environmental education in cities and urban regions can be advanced in, of, and for urban green infrastructure (Figure 1). Put another way, we address three questions related to green infrastructure education: Where and how do we learn? What do we learn? and Why do we learn?

Education in green infrastructure refers to the rich opportunities for place-based education in cities. Here we discuss opportunities for using green infrastructure in classroom and after-school activities and deepening student contact with and attachment to their local environment. Education of green infrastructure refers to the vast learning opportunities provided by infrastructure projects in cities, where ecosystem services are entangled with human development and can teach fundamental lessons about systems thinking, sustainability, and resilience.

Environmental education in, of, and for green infrastructure provides significant opportunities for improving human-nature connections in the city.

Finally, education for green infrastructure focuses on the need for increased public education regarding the benefits of green infrastructure, which could increase public support, management, and stewardship of present and future green infrastructure projects. (Education for green infrastructure could also include restoration-based education, see the Ecological Restoration chapter in this volume.) These ideas and the discussion of education in, of, and for green infrastructure below parallel the work of Lucas (1972) who proposed an education in, about, and for the environment. Throughout this exploration of education in, of, and for green infrastructure, we bring these themes to life by sharing case examples used by educators in urbanized areas around the world.

Chapter 10 fig 1 copy
Figure 1. Urban environmental education in, of, and for green infrastructure.

Environmental education in green infrastructure

Environmental education in green infrastructure is concerned with rooting education in place. If green infrastructure in cities can be used for environmental education, then the lessons learned are necessarily about the local environment where learning occurs. In the words of Geertz (1996), “[N]o one lives in the world in general” (p. 259). Place-based education in green infrastructure can make abstract ecological principles concrete.

Demonstration projects can illuminate the potential for environmental education in green infrastructure. For example, the Center for Sustainable Building Research at the University of Minnesota in the U.S. initiated a demonstration project entitled “Art, Story, and Infrastructure: A Model for Experiential Interconnection in Environmental Education.” This project takes kindergarten students on a tour of the urban water cycle using water infrastructure from the Minnesota landscape, from treatment facilities to the school building sink, all the while incorporating place-based environmental education and participatory art. Another example is the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park in Milwaukee Wisconsin (Figure 2). This center showcases a green building, solar power station, public art, urban wasteland being transformed into a park, riparian habitats, classrooms, and a climbing wall, all of which are intended to improve visitors’ environmental experiences and knowledge. Educational efforts such as these are rich in their ability to string together disciplines like civil engineering, landscape architecture, and building design to trace both ecological and human processes—all grounded in the learners’ lived environment.

Chapter 10 fig 2
Figure 2. The Riverside Park branch of the Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. Photo: Urban Ecology Center.

Despite the potential to use place-conscious education and systems thinking to advance sustainability education, current public educational models are challenged to use these approaches. Such strategies may require additional financial resources and time from school districts and teachers. Moreover, some green infrastructure projects lack access and educational interpretation, making them difficult destinations for classroom field trips. Further, the place-based nature of education in green infrastructure may not align with more abstract, place-neutral methods of educational assessment that emphasize measurement and accountability. Examples around the world illustrate the potential of environmental education in green infrastructure, though neighborhoods and cities may need to invest additional resources to unleash this potential.

Environmental education of green infrastructure

Environmental education in green infrastructure entails formal and informal place-based learning in built and natural green infrastructure settings.

Urban environmental education provides opportunities to teach the benefits of green infrastructure and therefore improve urban residents’ understanding of the impact that green infrastructure has on their own health and well-being. This approach includes lessons about planning and designing multifunctional and inclusive urban green infrastructure. Teaching about green infrastructure can borrow ideas from urban ecology to increase public understanding of high-performing social, ecological, and biophilic landscapes (Beatley, 2011; Novotny, Ahern and Brown, 2010). In particular, the concept of ecosystem services, a widely used term in urban ecology (Elmqvist et al., 2013), can be used to frame the benefits of green infrastructure and ecosystems for human health and well-being. For example, in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences provides tours of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified (LEED) green building to teach visitors about using green infrastructure to reduce waste, save energy, reuse materials, provide healthy indoor environments, create rooftop habitats for birds and insects, and other ecosystem services (Figure 3).

Chapter 10 fig 3
Figure 3. At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California, U.S., a docent educates visitors about ecosystem services provided by the green roof, including insulation, stormwater control, and fresh air, which help the Academy and surrounding parkland thrive. Photo: Alex Russ.

In general, ecosystem services refer to those ecosystem functions of green infrastructure that are used, enjoyed, or consumed by humans. Ecosystem services can be categorized into four types: provisioning services (e.g., drinking water, raw materials, and medicinal plants); regulating services (e.g., pollination, water purification, carbon sequestration, flood control, climate regulation); habitat and supporting services (e.g., nutrient cycling, soil formation, photosynthesis, habitat for species); and cultural services (e.g., recreational, educational, and spiritual experiences) (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2013; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; TEEB, 2011). Urban residents, whether they know it or not, rely on ecosystem services produced by green infrastructure both within and outside the city. Urban green infrastructure is especially important in providing services with direct impact on human health and security such as air purification, noise reduction, urban cooling, and stormwater runoff mitigation, but also provides places for social cohesion and connection, recreation, and development of sense of place. Further, green infrastructure is being increasingly used as a nature-based solution for climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities (McPhearson et al., 2016). For example, cities are investing in green infrastructure as a specific management tool for combining engineered and ecological systems (e.g., bioswales) in place of engineered non-ecological systems (e.g., concrete sewer drains) to provide ecosystem services such as cooling, stormwater management, urban heat island reduction, carbon storage, flood protection, and recreation (Novotny, Ahern and Brown, 2010).

Environmental education of green infrastructure is about the ways in which cities provide opportunities for complex and interdisciplinary sustainability lessons. Green infrastructure offers lessons in science, mathematics, art, design, history, social studies, and beyond. From stormwater pathways to pocket parks with bird habitat to plazas with permeable surfaces, green infrastructure in cities provides endless venues for lessons about how human settlements interact with ecosystems. In urban environmental education, green infrastructure gives visibility to processes such as water flowing through cities, sunlight converted to heat and electricity, food being grown, species migration using greenway trails, and urban forests that support biodiversity and recreation.

Environmental education of green infrastructure offers a framework for teaching about the benefits of urban green infrastructure, such as ecosystem services.

Cities are complex and best studied as an entanglement of systems that are social, cultural, technical, and ecological in nature (e.g., Grimm et al., 2008; McPhearson et al., 2016; Pickett et al., 2008). By focusing on the multiple functions of green infrastructure, urban environmental education teaches about systems thinking. For example, urban community gardens provide food, absorb excess stormwater, mitigate microclimate fluctuations, support urban biodiversity, and provide aesthetic benefits. These gardens become places for recreation, reflection, social bonding, and cohesion. Similarly, green roofs and vegetated areas, including trees, can increase rainwater infiltration and reduce peak flood discharge and associated water pollution while also delivering mental and physical health benefits such as providing spaces for recreation, relaxation, and reducing stress. These kinds of green infrastructure projects are critical for building community resilience, and simultaneously offer rich contexts for urban environmental education.

Environmental education for green infrastructure

Environmental education can amplify public support for green infrastructure. Urban environmental educators can play a critical role in fostering support for current and future green infrastructure projects, helping cities push toward a community-based form of urban land management that has been described as urban ecological or civic ecology stewardship (Krasny and Tidball, 2015; Svendsen and Campbell, 2008). Environmental education can help to promote, create, and maintain green infrastructure in multiple ways.

First, educators can involve adults and children in the planning and maintenance of green infrastructure. Such projects may require deep and sustained partnerships between local governments, grassroots, nonprofits, businesses and schools. For example, in the Bronx, New York City, community-based organizations such as the Bronx River Alliance, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, and The POINT Community Development Corporation involved high school students and other urban residents in designing a concept plan for greenways along urban rivers and streets. As another example, the 1.2 hectare Grands-Moulins – Abbé-Pierre garden in Paris offers an inspiring instance of how residents actively manage green spaces and rediscover nature in the city. These examples show that diverse members of urban communities can play a role in decision-making about green infrastructure development.

Environmental education for green infrastructure provides opportunities for promoting urban environmental stewardship by meaningfully engaging residents.

Second, urban environmental education can involve people in using green infrastructure. With bike lanes, gardens ready for growing vegetables, and green buildings open for tours, cities are providing green infrastructure projects that become dynamic examples of sustainability woven into the daily life of citizens. In this way, green infrastructure acts as a stage for informal environmental education as people spontaneously engage “hands-on” with green infrastructure projects. For example, many community-based education/restoration organizations in the U.S. offer free canoeing in restored urban waterways for residents to rediscover local recreational opportunities, potentially raising public support for urban open space.

Third, education related to green infrastructure may inspire interest and future action to expand green infrastructure in cities. Berlin offers an example of how citizens knowledgeable about the benefits of open and multi-functional spaces engaged in supporting the revitalization of an urban green space. In the 1980s, local residents formed a nonprofit organization to protect an 18-hectare railyard. The former railyard had been abandoned for five decades during Berlin’s separation of East and West, a circumstance that allowed the landscape to regenerate while untouched by development. Despite the area’s proximity to a densely populated neighborhood, civic activists and professional planners influenced policy makers to protect it. Their efforts, along with ecological research, helped transform the area into the Natur-Park Südgelände, opened in 2000 (Kowarik and Langer, 2005) (Figure 4). The park offers a model for green infrastructure that fosters a strong sense of place for residents by nurturing cultural values related to art, education and sport. In this way, it also provides opportunities for education in and of green infrastructure.

Chapter 10 fig 4
Figure 4. Natur-Park Südgelände in Berlin resulted from the efforts of civically engaged residents. Credit: Cecilia Herzog.


Urban environmental educators working in, of, and for green infrastructure offer a unique voice as cities design, build, and promote ecologically- and socially-conscious infrastructure. In particular, we suggest that environmental education in green infrastructure can offer nature-based opportunities for place-based environmental education, help to build sense of place, and use spaces that otherwise may not be perceived as educational (e.g., waste management facilities, mechanical rooms of green buildings, and bioswales). Advancing environmental education of green infrastructure can help to showcase the social and ecological benefits of urban green infrastructure to residents’ everyday lives, thus increasing awareness of the value of urban nature. Finally, we suggest that environmental education can be employed for encouraging hands-on stewardship or restoration of green infrastructure, as well as programs that encourage cities to build new and better manage existing green infrastructure.

Laura Cole, Timon McPhearson, Cecilia P. Herzog, and Alex Russ
Columbia, MO; New York City; Rio de Janeiro; and Ithaca

* * * * *

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


Beatley, T. (2011). Biophilic cities: Integrating nature into urban design and planning: Washington, DC: Island Press.

Childers, D.L., Cadenasso, M.L., Grove, J.M., Marshall, V., McGrath, B. and Pickett, S.T. (2015). An ecology for cities: A transformational nexus of design and ecology to advance climate change resilience and urban sustainability. Sustainability, 7(4), 3774-3791.

Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Güneralp, B., et al. (Eds.). (2013). Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: Challenges and opportunities: A global assessment. Dordrecht: Springer.

Geertz, C. (1996). Afterword. In Feld, S. and Basso, K. (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 259-262). Sante Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press.

Gómez-Baggethun, E., Gren, Å., Barton, D.N., Langemeyer, J., et al. (2013). Urban ecosystem services. In Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Güneralp, B., et al. (Eds.). (2013). Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: Challenges and opportunities: A global assessment (pp. 175-251). Dordrecht: Springer.

Grimm, N.B., Faeth, S.H., Golubiewski, N.E., Redman, C.L., et al. (2008). Global change and the ecology of cities. Science, 319(5864), 756-760.

Kowarik, I. and Langer, A. (2005). Natur-Park Südgelände: Linking conservation and recreation in an Abandoned Railyard in Berlin. In: Kowarik I, Körner S (eds) Wild Urban Woodlands. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2005, pp 287–299

Krasny, M.E. and Tidball, K.G. (2015). Civic ecology: Adaptation and transformation from the ground up. MIT Press.

Lucas, A.M. (1972). Environment and environmental education: Conceptual issues and curriculum implications. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University.

McPhearson, T., Pickett, S.T.A., Grimm, N., Niemelä, J., et al. (2016). Advancing urban ecology toward a science of cities. BioScience, 66(3), 198-212.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005). Ecosystems and human well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Novotny, V., Ahern, J. and Brown, P. (2010). Water centric sustainable communities: Planning, retrofitting and building the next urban environment: Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Pickett, S.T., Cadenasso, M., Grove, J., Nilon, C., et al. (2008). Urban ecological systems: Linking terrestrial ecological, physical, and socioeconomic components of metropolitan areas. In: Editors Marzluff, J., Shulenberger, E., Endlicher, W., Alberti, et al. (Eds.). Urban ecology: An international perspective on the on the interaction between humans and nature (pp. 99-122): New York: Springer.

Svendsen, E. and Campbell, L. K. (2008). Urban ecological stewardship: understanding the structure, function and network of community-based urban land management. Cities and the Environment (CATE), 1(1), 4.

TEEB – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. (2011). TEEB Manual for Cities: Ecosystem Services in Urban Management.

Timon McPhearson

About the Writer:
Timon McPhearson

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

Cecilia Herzog

About the Writer:
Cecilia Polacow Herzog

Cecilia Polacow Herzog is an urban landscape planner, retired professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She is an activist, being one of the pioneers to advocate to apply science into real urban planning, projects, and interventions to increase biodiversity and ecosystem services in Brazilian cities.

Alex Russ

About the Writer:
Alex Russ

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

Air Pollution: Urban Myths and Realities

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

You may have noticed ambient air quality returning to centre stage globally as a hot topic of discussion and debate. While the media coverage has helped draw attention to this critical issue, the plethora of data and views can cause confusion and can delay much-needed action. In this article, I will start with recent examples of air pollution stories that have grabbed international headlines, highlighting discrepancies and drawing some conclusions. I will then discuss key policy implications and priorities.

Global rankings

A number of global rankings were released this year relating to air quality. The ranking that probably received most attention, particularly in the Middle East, was the World Bank’s Little Green Data Book 2015. For the past 15 years, this report has presented data on economic, environmental and public health issues. This year, the report replaced its 2014 indicator on urban PM2.5 [i] levels with two indicators describing PM2.5 exposure on a national level.

The recent trend towards healthy, liveable cities has helped bring air pollution back to the spotlight in many regions around the world.

The surprising result was that the country with the worst performance was not China or India, but the United Arab Emirates. China was not far behind, but India was at less than half the average national exposure level of the UAE. The UAE’s response was to focus on the naturally-occurring high levels of PM2.5 due to the country and region’s desert environment. This is true, of course, but it is only part of the issue—studies have shown that a significant proportion of PM2.5 in the UAE is from anthropogenic (man-made) sources [ii].

Within a few weeks, the World Health Organisation published its latest data on PM2.5 at a city level. Ten out of the worst 15 performing cities were in India (including the worst four), and the rest were in Pakistan, Iran and Qatar. Not a single city of the worst 15 performers was in the UAE, China, or in the rest of the world, for that matter.

As a final example, the Environmental Performance Index team at Yale published a world map illustrating results of satellite-based PM2.5 analysis at a neighbourhood level (10-by-10 kilometer square). Areas with the highest concentration of PM2.5 include eastern China, northern India, Pakistan and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. Large parts of Europe, the east coast of the United States, Japan, central Australia and Mexico are in the very high PM2.5 range as well.

Dubai smog 2
Smog in Dubai.

What’s going on?

How can the results of these analyses be so different, and how can policy makers and planners use the data effectively?

It is obvious that the studies are based on different data sets. The World Bank PM data was provided by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The World Bank report states that data is for 2010; however, the Economist’s article on the matter implies that some of the data is a decade old, and that the data collection and analysis methodologies are not entirely robust and are based on a mix of measured and estimated data. Regardless of the date or accuracy of the original data sources, what stands out about this study is the national-averaging methodology used, which masks the poor performance of polluted urban centers, particularly in countries with large rural areas.

The WHO study is more transparent, with the entire data set being available online at both a country and city level. Further, the data set clearly indicates measurement years (typically 2008 – 2012) and whether a data point is an actual measurement or an estimation.

The EPI data map is particularly interesting, as it shows EPI-generated satellite data averaged at both a neighborhood and national level. This is an improvement over the 2014 EPI map, which showed satellite-based data at a national level only. Contrasting the national and neighborhood level views makes it clear how poor the national-level indicator is, particularly for geographically large countries such as China, Russia and the U.S. The Yale team has also provided a clear and user-friendly guide explaining the significance of PM2.5, the data sources used, and the analysis undertaken. In addition, the map’s creators acknowledge that even neighbourhood-level satellite data is an average, and that ground-level monitoring is required, particularly for high-risk neighbourhoods.

It is interesting to note that all three data sets rely solely on PM2.5 as an indicator for outdoor air pollution. This is a testimony to the large body of scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of PM2.5. At the same time, it poses the risk of ignoring other significant pollutants (see below). Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that PM2.5 originates from a wide-range of sources, both anthropogenic and natural. As such, while the global measurement figures may be comparable in one sense, an understanding of PM2.5 composition is required to allow a more informed comparison across cities, countries and regions.


Moving beyond global reporting, it is worth highlighting some of the recent region-specific air pollution stories. These offer a finer grain of detail compared to the global data, particularly in relation to the success and challenges of policy interventions at a regional and city level.

The EU, generally regarded as a leader in environmental policy and implementation, is on the path towards more stringent air quality standards. These were approved by the European Parliament a few weeks ago (October 2015) and are now awaiting endorsement by member states. The new limits would allow the EU to halve the number of premature deaths from air pollution, which currently claims 400,000 lives per year.

London buses
Buses in London.

Some of the 28 member states are already having trouble meeting the current, more relaxed standards. However, the existence of the legally binding EU laws has allowed a group of environmental lawyers to take the U.K. government to court for breaching EU nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits. The campaigners secured a major victory, with the court ruling in their favour and requiring the U.K. Environment Department to draft new plans by December 2015 that would demonstrate EU limits being met prior to 2030 Interestingly, the quote from the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders defends diesel vehicles as being the “cleanest ever,” a myth we do not have to spend much time debating after the recent Volkswagen scandal.

If the U.K., and other EU countries, are looking to implement low-emission-zones (LEZ), then the results of the London LEZ policy should be kept in mind. Disappointingly, a recent scientific study has shown that the London LEZ has had zero effect in reducing air-quality related health impacts on school children. The LEZ was introduced in 2008 to address the air quality issue specifically, after the congestion charge failed to do so. In analysing the reasons behind the results, the authors of the study point to the larger proportion of diesel vehicles in the fleet and the inaccuracy of the EU diesel tests. In short, the London LEZ did not do enough to address the impact of diesel vehicles.

Paris’s mayor seems to be on the right track: she has publicly committed to ban diesel cars from Paris by 2020. This is definitely a development worth watching.


A recent story on blue skies in Beijing makes a very clear point: we know how to address air pollution in cities. To help ensure a successful national celebration, authorities in Beijing banned half of the city’s cars from the streets two weeks in advance and temporarily closed hundreds of factories. On the day of the event, 40,000 construction sites were ordered to close. The result: clear skies and a 73 percent reduction in PM. In this case, drastic measures had to be temporarily applied to produce drastic improvements. The challenge is in making this approach the business-as-usual scenario.

In addition to all-year-round transport and industry-related emissions, China has to face the issue of coal-based heat generation in the winter. There are cities in China that have reported PM2.5 levels over 50 times higher than the recommended level set by WHO. In response, Beijing’s mayor has committed to a series of coal power plant closures.

So what?

As a start, let us remind ourselves of the figures published by WHO last year: air pollution is responsible for over 7 million deaths a year. Out of those, around 3.7 million are due to outdoor air pollution. So, ambient air pollution and its detrimental health impacts are a reality. And we are almost certainly underestimating the negative health impacts, as these figures are based on the impacts of only some of the known pollutants (e.g. PM2.5). Moreover, there are additional health impacts to consider beyond mortality, such as respiratory infections. While the majority of the deaths are in developing countries, air pollution is still a serious issue in the developed world. For example, in the U.K. it is estimated that early deaths from air pollution are higher than those from obesity and alcohol combined.

Let us also remind ourselves that, as a human race, we have previously won the battle against air pollution. In cities such as London and Dublin, where pollution was primarily linked to coal, banning the use of coal in cities has helped us get rid of the visible, short-term black carbon smog. Even in the case of non-coal-related (photochemical) smog in Los Angeles and the wider area of Southern California, improved emission standards and other policy interventions over the past two decades have significantly improved both the air quality and the health of residents. This collective experience has left us with a wealth of knowledge on managing air quality—it is a science that we understand well. At least, the scientists and experts do.

Today, some cities, such as Beijing and Krakow, are still struggling with air pollution impacts of coal burning. Other cities have the challenge of addressing air pollution from transport, industry, agriculture or natural dust. In the vast majority of instances, pollution results as a combination of these sources in varying proportions. Moreover, this pollution is often not generated within the city’s limit, or even within the country’s borders.

Where does this leave us?

  1. Measure: given the evidence on the serious health risks of air pollution and the technology and information available today, there is no excuse for not understanding a city’s air quality performance. Air quality experts can advise on the most suitable indicators to measure and the most appropriate analytical and modeling tools to utilize. With global-satellite modeling data becoming widely accessible through global ranking studies, there is little room for hiding our heads in the sand. Ground-based measurements are still needed to set context-specific standards and to monitor compliance with them.
  2. Address root causes: understanding the root causes will help us to develop and implement effective interventions at a national, regional and city level. In drastic situations, these may need to be equally drastic interventions, such as banning use of all or some vehicles in certain locations or at certain times. Particular focus should be placed on improving air quality where people live. Mitigation and compensation measures (e.g. planting trees, moving residents away from motorways) should be a last resort and not a primary strategy.
  3. Raise awareness: the World Resources Institute is campaigning for better access to environmental information for the general public They report that 53 percent of countries in the world do not report urban outdoor air pollution information. I strongly believe that people have a right to know when air quality conditions are unsafe in their neighbourhoods, to allow them to plan their activities accordingly and take the necessary precautions. Organizations such as Clean Air London have done a tremendous job of cutting through the myths and jargon to bring a clear and compelling argument for addressing air pollution to both the public and the politicians. One Atmosphere is a recent video they produced as part of these efforts, and it provides a good example of effective communication.

The recent trend towards healthy, liveable cities has helped bring air pollution back to the spotlight in many regions around the world. It is a global issue with many local flavours—one which we have successfully addressed before and which we cannot afford to ignore now.

Huda Shaka

On The Nature of Cities

[i] PM2.5 refers to suspended particulate matter of diameter 2.5microns or less, also sometimes referred to as fine particulate matter. While invisible to the eye, their small size allows them to enter deep into the human lung causing serious negative health impacts.

[ii] Environmental Burden of Disease Assessment: A case study in the United Arab Emirates, Springer, 2013.

ALWAYS TOGETHER: A Tale of Indigenous Buried Pasts and Pervasive Futures

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

How many traces of Indigenous or First Peoples’ presence have you unknowingly walked, driven, or otherwise passed over today?

Buried traces of the presence of First Peoples have contemporary cultural significance for the future-making of a more just society.

In my case, walking along the Sydney Harbour foreshore, through the inner-city suburbs of Glebe and Camperdown, and across parklands to my workplace, the University of Sydney, I am conscious of having traversed numerous buried cultural remains of past Australian Aboriginal presence. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the case. In making this statement, I am drawing on more than three decades of work in the fields of Australian Indigenous archaeology and heritage studies.

Pathway alongside Sydney Harbour, Australia. Millennia-old evidence of Aboriginal occupation likely survives under the pathway and waters of this area. Photo: Steve Brown, May 2017

Buried Aboriginal cultural remains have significance in both a present and past sense. But there is a future significance, too, a significance linked to the ability of these remains to contribute to the future-making of more socially just, rights-based cities.

In this post, I consider the archaeological and cultural perspectives on the concept that Indigenous heritage is everywhere. The subtitle of this post, “buried pasts and pervasive futures”, is intended to express the continuous, un-erased presence of an Indigenous past, present, and future. The perspectives presented here are particularly relevant to those cities located within such colonial settler nations as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. However, my focus is on Australia, my country of citizenship.

An archaeological perspective

Traces of Aboriginal people’s presence are to be found everywhere across the Australian continent; this includes within and beneath all parts of the country’s cities and peri-urban and rural landscapes. Evidence supporting this claim is to be found in the huge number of archaeological research reports and commercial archaeology compliance reports prepared in advance of development. In Sydney, for example, extensive archaeological survey and excavation has been undertaken on the Cumberland Plain—a physiographic region now enveloped by the suburbs of southern and western Sydney—in advance of rapid urban expansion and densification.

Virtually all of the archaeological reports, accumulated over more than 40 years and numbering well over 12,000 for the State of New South Wales, detail the ubiquitous presence of “archaeological” remains. The physical evidence of past Aboriginal presence is everywhere.

Most common amongst these surviving objects are stone artefacts, composed of deliberately created stone tool forms as well as the debitage, or chipped waste fragments, of stone tool manufacture. Other relatively common archaeological traces documented within Australian cities include the shells of shellfish and the bones of animals, typically interpreted by archaeologists as the remains of foraging and hunting activities. Together the mass of archaeological survey and excavation reports point strongly to the presence of archaeological traces in all parts of the landscape, though the density of remains varies noticeably.

In Australia, this situation is a consequence of more than 45,000 years of Aboriginal peoples’ occupation of the continent. This is an immense span, not only because of the number of human generations represented (over 2,200), but also because of the dramatic changes in climate that resident populations experienced. Such changes included the Last Glacial Period or ice age (extending from 25,000 to 15,000 years ago), when average global temperatures were between 6 to 10 degrees Celsius (11 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than at present and sea levels up to 100 and 130 metres lower. For example, 18,000 years ago the present day coastline in the region of what is now Sydney was from 6 to 20 kilometres (6 to 13 miles) further east. It was only by 6,000 years ago, following millennia of sea level rise, that the coastlines as known today were established. Although rare, Aboriginal stone artefacts have been recovered from inland estuaries and ocean floors, evidence of the occupation of once habitable landscapes.

From an archaeological perspective, many of the buried traces of past presence are interpreted as “mundane”, comprising the remains of domestic activities represented by the huge numbers of fragments of worked stone, shell, and bone. Within the scientific work of archaeology, such objects are assembled as evidence to reconstruct and reimagine past socioeconomic systems and lifeways. Much of the history of Aboriginal peoples’ occupation of Australia is based on such scientific work, and it has produced powerful stories of past migrations, settlement patterns, technologies, and social organisation. For the Sydney region, an authoritative account based on archaeological evidence and historic records is available, for example, in Val Attenbrow’s Sydney’s Aboriginal Past.

The Goods Line is an elevated walkway, linear park, and open space. Beneath the remaining tracks of the 1855 freight rail system lie the buried traces of earlier Australian Aboriginal presence. Photo: Steve Brown, May 2017

A cultural perspective

For present-day Aboriginal people, the descendants of those who created stone artefacts and discarded shell and bone, such physical remains can mean much more. They can be evidence of an ancestral presence. That is, they mark the presence of “relatives” who occupied the lands and seas of Australia prior to and during non-indigenous occupation of the continent. Initial European settlement of Australia commenced in 1788 with the arrival of the first fleet of English convicts and soldiers. The first settlement was founded at Port Jackson (Warrang), now known as Sydney Cove, and the centre of modern day Sydney. The histories of Aboriginal interactions with the settlers and the continued presence of Aboriginal people across the city to the present has been documented and discussed, for example, by Grace Karskens in The Colony (2009) and Paul Irish’s recently published Hidden in Plain View. It is important to note that Aboriginal people continued to live in and around the settlement from 1788 and continue to do so.

For some Aboriginal people, the objects of past presence can be more than physical reminders of past histories and the presence of past family members. They can also be more than mnemonic devices with a capacity to provoke stories of past and present occupation of the landscape. For some, stone objects take on, or are imbued with, social meanings. That is, stone artefacts are significant as material proof and affective markers of the presence of ancestors. And, increasingly for individual Aboriginal people, there is the capacity of stone artefacts to transmit spiritual ties in the form of “special feelings” connected with familial ancestors and “power” associated with find locales.

In Australia, contemporary Aboriginal people speak of their connection to landscape through the concept of Country, a complex Aboriginal-English term referring to a whole-of-landscape meaning. The phrase “caring for Country” is a multifaceted construct related both to personal and group belonging and to maintaining and looking after the ecological and spiritual well-being of the land and of oneself. Caring for Country in Aboriginal cosmology is a phrase encompassing all parts of the landscape and seascape, as well as people and non-human species. In other words, all parts of the lands and seas that make up the territories of Aboriginal individuals and collective groups are important to contemporary Aboriginal people and integral to their cultural and spiritual identity.

A future-making perspective

Together, the idea of Country with the evidence for ever-present worked stone and shell and bone traces in all parts of the landscape mutually reinforce the notion that city, peri-urban, and rural dwellers in Australia are always amongst ancestral peoples. They demonstrate different yet unifying ways in which Aboriginal presence is constructed across deep time, the post-1788 period, and within contemporary cityscapes. In heritage terms, this can be understood as all parts of the land and seas having Indigenous values based on physical (archaeological) evidence, historical (archival) documentation, and contemporary Aboriginal (cultural) attachments and social meanings. That is, the Aboriginal heritage of Australia is physically inscribed in the landscape and marked by deep time connections. This “always-present” is something all city dwellers are connected to, even if unknowingly, as they move through their urban environments.

How does this experience speak to the idea of “pervasive futures”? In short, the Aboriginal objects accumulated over millennia in Australia’s cities, alongside the millennia-long histories of Aboriginal attachments, are omnipresent and inescapable.

Approaching The Quadrangle, University of Sydney, I sense the presence of past, present, and future occupation of the landscape by Australian Aboriginal people. Photo: Steve Brown, May 2017

The idea of heritage has undergone considerable re-conceptualizing in recent decades. Whereas heritage was once thought of as solely things and stories inherited from the past, increasingly heritage is being reformulated as a “future-making”, forward-looking project. In this regard, the University College of London’s Heritage Futures research programme is leading the way: “It begins from the premise that heritage is fundamentally concerned with assembling futures.” From this heritage-as-future-making perspective, the concern of heritage becomes more about human rights and intergenerational justice, resilience, and survival than about conservation and protection of heritage items.

In Australia, concerns for Indigenous rights and social justice continue to be demanded, following on the work of reconciliation projects from the 1960s. Reconciliation Australia is a leader in this work. In 2017, the organization has called for reflection on two significant milestone anniversaries—50 years since the 1967 referendum supporting Aboriginal people in determinations of population and 25 years since the historic Australian High Court Mabo decision recognizing the land rights of the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands. These anniversaries will be foremost events in the forthcoming National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June 2017). The theme of 2017’s Reconciliation Week is “Let’s Take the Next Steps”.

So when taking your next steps in getting to work today, be aware that you will be passing over the buried traces of past Indigenous presence. And that those traces are not “of the past”, but rather have deep cultural significance to contemporary Aboriginal people and for the future-making of a more socially just, rights-based society. Furthermore, these seemingly “mundane” objects, whether seen or unseen, have the ability to shape the future of cities, since they serve as pervasive markers of the rights of First Peoples and the responsibilities of those citizens and visitors that inhabit the cities of Australia … as well as New Zealand and all countries in the Americas.

Steve Brown

On The Nature of Cities

An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay

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
13.Thompson-FulliloveIn 1993 or thereabouts I entered a contest for women to depict what they did on a particular day. That day, I went to meetings early in the morning at Harlem Hospital. I took photos of the abandoned buildings on West 136th, where I parked my car, and photos of a huge plastic bag in one of the stunted trees. Later, on my way back to my office on W. 166th Street, I stopped to take a photo of man who was selling nuts on the street in front of a burned-out building.  He smiled with tremendous pride—when I took him a copy of the photo a few weeks later, he grinned and said he’d send it to his mother so she would know he was trying to make something of himself. There were photos of the Stuyvesant High School students that I was mentoring for the Westinghouse Science Competition, and photos at home in Hoboken with my daughter Molly and some chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. We were reading Ian Frazier’s New Yorker article about plastic bags in trees. I didn’t win the contest, but the exercise etched what I saw in memory.

The extreme commodification of the land is leading to the destruction of human habitat. It is inimical to public health to sell off our neighborhoods and displace our communities.
Harlem had been devastated by decades of policies of disinvestment. Walking the streets was a painful experience because so many of the buildings had been burned out, and garbage blew in the courtyards and rats ran in and out. Working people were struggling to control the neighborhood, but drugs and violence were the order of the day. Most of my research was focused on describing the problems in front of me—filling out our understanding of a terrible statistic reported in 1990 by Drs. Harold Freeman and Colin McCord: that a black man living in Harlem had a shorter life expectancy than a man in Bangalesh, at that time the poorest country on earth. Some of what I wanted to describe was the historical process that had stripped this neighborhood of its life-giving qualities. I was describing an unjust city.

The more I learned, the more I realized that urban policies were playing a critical role in the neighborhood’s collapse.  From the stories people told us, I hypothesized that Harlem had collapsed from a series of blows, each one undermining and deforming the social structure, so that death and disorder replaced hope and social productivity. As my colleagues at the Cities Research Group and I deepened our explorations, we were able to name the terrible series of policies—urban renewal, deindustrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, HOPE VI, the foreclosure crisis and gentrification—that have and continue to undermine poor and minority communities.

We’ve grouped these policies together under the rubric “serial forced displacement.” Displacement traumatizes people and destroys wealth of all kinds.  Repeated displacement takes even more of the wealth and integrity of the weakened population. As St. Matthew put it, “even what he has shall be taken away.” Through the lens of the agony of Harlem, I learned the somber fact that policies that destroy some communities and neighborhoods are catastrophic for the health of those in the direct path of the upheaval, but they also endanger the health of the whole of the US, and through us, the whole world.

Let us take one example, New York City’s implementation of the mid-1970s policy of “planned shrinkage.”  This policy was designed to manage “shrinking population” in the city by “internal resettlement” of people from very poor neighborhoods and clearing the land for later use.  Planned shrinkage was implemented by closing fire stations in those communities.  This triggered a storm of fires: South Bronx neighborhoods lost as much as 80 percent of housing; Harlem lost 30 percent.

We can trace many lines of disruption that rippled out from these epicenters of destruction. The upheaval caused massive social disorder and a “synergism of plagues,” as Rodrick Wallace called it.  What no one knew when the policy was implemented was that a new virus—which we now know as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)—was present in the very poor neighborhoods. HIV began to spread in the South Bronx and other NYC communities.  The crack epidemic took hold, accompanied by massive violence, family disruption, and further spread of HIV infection. Mass incarceration was the federal response to the drug epidemic, unleashing an era of imprisonment that had horrific consequences for families and neighborhoods.  By 2015, The New York Times reported “1.5 million missing black men,” many in prison and others who had died prematurely. Population fell, families fell apart, unemployment grew, church attendance declined, and trauma became a nearly universal experience.

Having hypothesized the downward spiral of community collapse, my team and I realized we had to start searching for ways to rebuild. We worked first with families, then neighborhoods.  But we learned that the fate of neighborhoods rested in the hands of cities. A great deal of our attention has been directed at learning what actions cities could take to counter serial forced displacement and to rebuild the much-needed social bonds.

In 2007, I went to my hometown of Orange, NJ, for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the fight against school desegregation.  My parents, Ernest and Margaret Thompson, had led that fight. My father went on to organize for the political representation long denied to the African-American population, then 20 percent of the city. In 1958, he and others in Citizens for Representative Government created the “New Day Platform,” which advocated for education, youth recreation, representative government and a more beautiful city hall, among other issues. Their work led to a more inclusive democracy and better schools for all children.

While planning for the celebration of Orange’s desegregation, I learned that a local community development corporation, HANDS, Inc. was continuing the work my father had pioneered.  It was fighting to protect local housing infrastructure and to rebuild community in the face of serial forced displacement. I became so interested in the city of Orange that in 2008 I co-founded the free people’s University of Orange along with Patrick Morrissy, Molly Rose Kaufman, Karen Wells and others.

The University of Orange has participated actively in planning efforts in the city.  The UofO lead the development of the Heart of Orange Plan, which became an official plan in 2010, endorsed by the state of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, making the area eligible for tax credit monies.  We have also invited architects and urbanists from Columbia University, Parsons The New School for Design, Montclair State University and Pratt Institute to work with us to understand the city. We have slowly developed a sense of the city’s potentials and its vulnerabilities.

Orange grew at the foot of the Watchung Mountains, a crossroads of east-west and north-south movement, in the heart of the Lenapehoking.  Its excellent water and good transportation made it a natural site for industry. Hat making boomed after the Civil War, reaching a peak of 4.2 million hats a year in 1892.  The new bourgeoisie equipped the city with a Stanford White library on a busy Main Street, a Frederick Law Olmsted Park and housing enclave, dozens of churches and synagogues, two settlement houses and a park-like cemetery.  The African-Americans and Irish and Italian immigrants were tucked into ghettoes, their children sent to inferior public schools, while the well-to-do created superb schools and tracks for their own children to prosper.  The city is so packed with the best and worst of American urban accoutrements that the University of Orange has developed a signature tour, called “Everything You Want to Know About the American City You Can Learn in Orange, NJ.”  Orange has the advantage of being a small city, so visitors can see all of this in 2.2 square miles.

But Orange now, like many other postindustrial cities, is worn-out.  Sixty-five percent of the largely black population of 30,000 is poor and working poor. Many residents have immigrated from other countries and they speak a wide array of languages. Orange is a city in search of a future. In New Jersey, such places are being converted by “transit-oriented development,” which means the unskilled workers are being replaced by those who commute to Newark—or more likely New York—to work in finance, insurance and real estate, the FIRE industries post-industrial cities have come to rely on. Orange lies just a bit west of Hoboken, Jersey City and Harrison, FIRE cities already remodeled as dense bedroom communities.

For the people who live in Orange, transit-oriented development would be the next turn of the wheel of serial forced displacement. But it would also mean a loss of the complex vitality of people and institutions. Urban bedroom communities are monocultures, a variation on housing projects, albeit with better amenities.

At the University of Orange, we’ve posed the questions: Can’t we take a more interesting path? Can’t we develop new industries? Can’t we help the workforce acquire skills so that they can compete for higher paying jobs and therefore hold on to their homes when the gentry arrive? Couldn’t we combine of the idea of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Schools and Edison’s concept of the “Factory of Invention” to make a “post-industrial city reimaging lab”?

Some exciting opportunities have opened up that are helping everyone in Orange explore these possibilities. The John S. Watson Center at Thomas Edison State College has helped a consortium of cities, including Orange, develop an economic development strategy that will entitle the cities to apply for new federal funds.  The Board of Education, with the support of nearby Montclair State University, has been able to develop community schools, including adult education.  The University of Orange helps to manage the Adult School, which includes courses for workforce development. The Worldwide Orphans Foundation is bringing its first US-based toy library to Orange, and will be training local people to be toy librarians. At the U of O, we are partnering with a local arts organization and a university to understand how the insertion of a highway in 1970 might be mitigated. This project is supported by Arts Place. What we are learning as we go is that building the just city takes all of us.

When I learned of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative focused on creating a culture of health in New Jersey, I convinced our local partners that we should apply for funding. The leaders of our “Healthy Orange” coalition will be expanding our connections to all sectors of business, industry and civic organizations and to all the ethnic and religious groups. Our leaders are insisting on engaging the current residents, which is critical in charting a path forward that is not another round of forced displacement. Instead of planning around this pattern of expulsion, we want to create a “plan to stay.”

This concept, first advanced by Catherine Brown and William Morrish, is the antidote to serial forced displacement.  Groups planning to stay are asked to answer two questions:

  • What brought you here?
  • What would it take for you to be able to stay?

These simple questions lead to the kind of complex interventions that have a shot at helping Orange become a healthy place. In the year ahead, I look forward to the work of Healthy Orange, as it brings all voices to the table to create a blueprint for action, continuing the long struggle for equity and democracy in our city. This is how we get to the just city in Orange and everywhere.

But I worry.  One night, in 2010, I was invited to speak in Harlem. I walked down St. Nicholas Avenue, and passed a brand new building.  A gym occupied its first floor and little white girls in pink tutus were doing ballet. I stood there slack-jawed, too stunned to even take a photograph. The old Harlem was truly gone.

It is not simply that I want to feel at home in my hometown—of course I do. Rather, I fear for all of us. The extreme commodification of the land is leading to the destruction of human habitat.  We are literally chopping the ground out from under our feet: it is inimical to public health to sell off our neighborhoods and displace our communities. The 1958 New Day Platform had it right. What we need for public health are ecologically-sensitive and equitable programs that support the whole city and give all of us a chance to live in a kind and beautiful place.

Mindy Thompson Fullilove
New York


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

An explicitly urban Sustainable Development Goal has been adopted by the UN (#11). Now what? Where could it go wrong?

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
List of writers
Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Eugenie Birch, New York Now comes the hard part—activating the indicators. Three of these indicators are strong candidates for using new geospatial technologies.
Benjamin Bradlow, Boston The key dimension to realizing the elements of the Urban Goal boils down to understanding how cities are governed.
William Dunbar, Tokyo Ignoring vital urban-rural relationships can have negative consequences for cities and their surrounding areas.
Peter Head, London We need a road map and mechanism for deployment of funding for research, integrated planning, and education to build capacity and demos for Goal 11 delivery.
Mark Hostetler, Gainesville Unique opportunities exist in cities to protect both cultural and natural heritage, one of Goal #11’s 10 targets.
Lim Hui Ling, Singapore Relegating cities to the role of providing inputs to the New Urban Agenda is anachronistic. Cities and city groups should drive the formulation of the SDG’s targets and their implementation.
Shuaib Lwasa, Kampala Achieving Goal 11 calls for alternative conceptual frameworks, methodologies, data and tools to measure progress its targets.
Anjali Mahendra, Delhi The urban SDG stands the greatest chance of being successful if city leaders work improve performance not necessarily in comparison with other cities around the world, but in comparison to the their own status.
Jose Puppim, Montreal To achieve Goal 11, we need to recognize the environmental/planetary limits in policymaking at various different levels.
Karen Seto, New Haven The Urban SDG has the opportunity to be a catalyst for changing how we conceive, design and manage cities, but right now we’re on a trajectory to repeat the city-building mistakes of the past.
Andrew Rudd, New York Getting the balance between structure and agency right is essential to achieving SDG 11.
David Simon, Gothenburg If the urban SDG is to prove to be a useful tool, then it is vital that it should prove widely relevant, acceptable and practicable
Bolanle Wahab, Ibadan For SDG #11 to succeed, indigenous knowledge systems must be given adequate recognition and attention.
Lorena Zárate, Mexico City SDG11 raises concerns about the lack of an explicit human rights approach and the associated state obligations.
David Maddox

About the Writer:
David Maddox

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


In May of 2014, TNOC published a roundtable on why we needed an urban Sustainable Development Goal to be one of the SDGs under consideration by the UN. At that time, an explicitly urban SDG was anything but certain, and a large coalition of urbanists was working hard to make urban issues explicitly part of the UN’s sustainability agenda. Well, an urban SDG was, in fact, adopted as one of 17 new sustainability goals that will propel work through 2030.

See https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics for an interactive website of all 17 goals.
See https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics for an interactive website of all 17 goals.

The final SDG Goal 11 is stated this way: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainableThere is a lot of meaning to be explored in these seven words. What does “inclusive” mean in an operational sense? “Safe” from what? Safety for whom? The word “sustainable” makes clear that cities are part of larger, globally interconnected chains of resources that transcend old fashioned rural-urban boundaries. But such an integrated view is at odds with the fact that urbanists and non-urbanists (for lack of a better phrase) typically work in separate spheres. The head spins.

There are ten targets for SDG#11 that start to unpack the SDG’s meaning and philosophy, and also imply actual measures of progress:

  • By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums
  • By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons
  • By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries
  • Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
  • By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations
  • By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management
  • By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities
  • Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning
  • By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels
  • Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials

This is a great, even historic start. But it is only the beginning, and much, much work remains between now and the Habitat III Conference, and then through 2030, to accomplish the goal.

So, now what? Now that we have the goal, what is our path to success? What are the pitfalls? What could go wrong? These questions are the subject of this roundtable, including many of the contributors to the May 2014 panel, and adding new voices from around the world. We invite you to join the conversation also.

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.

Eugenie Birch

Monitoring SDG 11: geospatial technologies offer hope for solutions, but we have a lot of work to do… 

Now that the SDGs are a reality, implementation is going to be the name of the game, and crafting the protocol for monitoring is the next step in that game. As with the MDGs, the United Nations will ask nations to report on the SDG targets—all 169 of them—and at present, is working to develop indicators to provide a set of simple, uniform measures. Sound easy? Well, it’s not. Remember: the SDGs are universally applicable and not all nations have deep data collection capacities. But this situation opens the door to employing new means of monitoring.

The UN Statistical Commission appointed an Inter-Agency Expert Group for the Sustainable Development Goals (IAEG-SDGs) to recommend a set of indicators for approval in mid-March. So let’s take a look at how the IAEG-SDGs is treating Goal 11, “Make cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable,” and the seven associated substantive targets on housing, transport, planning, cultural and natural heritage, resilience, environmental impact, and public space. In November, the IAEG-SDGs met in Bangkok, Thailand to review a list of proposed indicators ranked yellow (caution) or grey (more discussion needed) and set about evaluating them, ranking them green (meaning ok to go) or grey. For Goal 11, six of seven proposed indicators held yellow classifications and one was grey at the beginning of the review. But by the end of the deliberations, five of the seven moved to the green column, one was grey (11.4) and one had no classification (11.5).

Now comes the hard part—activating the indicators. Three of these indicators are strong candidates for using new geospatial technologies.

Now comes the hard part—activating the indicators. Three of these indicators are strong candidates for using new geospatial technologies in what could become a revolutionary way to bring policy-relevant information to public and private decision-makers.

The SDG 11 targets, with those most amenable to geospatial mapping circled in red: 11.2.1, 11.3.1, and 11.7.1. Source: http://unstats.un.org/sdgs/
The SDG 11 targets, with those most amenable to geospatial mapping circled in red: 11.2.1, 11.3.1, and 11.7.1. Source: http://unstats.un.org/sdgs/

Two tools that can help overcome the monitoring obstacles: the Global Human Settlements Layer (GHSL) and World Pop. The GHSL, a project of the European Union’s Joint Research Council, is due to be fully launched in Fall 2016, coinciding with the Habitat III Conference, the first all UN conference to be held after the passage of the SDGs. The GHSL is a free, open source platform that maps the built up area of the entire world—it can produce national, regional and local maps. It can also monitor green space, as the two images below represent, by showing the inverse of the built up area, which can be used to calculate open space. For more information, see here.

Green Spaces in Built-up Areas from the Global Human Settlements Layer. Source: Pesaresi, 2015
Green Spaces in Built-up Areas from the Global Human Settlements Layer. Green is green space; Red is built (grey) space. Source: Pesaresi, 2015

While geospatial mapping identifies the presence of green and open space, it does not indicate public ownership and use. For that, according to UN Habitat’s Eduardo Moreno, who has extensively studied Goal 11 and its indicators, national governments will have to work with local authorities to collect the information. This will likely require developing a sampling method, searching city records for the appropriate information, and transmitting the data back to the national government unit charged with reporting.

World Pop is a statistical application that, when applied with co-variates such as the GHSL, can demonstrate the location of population with greater detail than current assessments. The images below illustrate a progression of detail, moving from mapping census material by enumeration districts, mapping population data blended with Night Lights (one of the most well known of the current remote sensing applications often used to estimate population and economic activity [light means activity—a rough proxy]), and ending with mapping World Pop demographic assessments with the GHSL. For more information see here.

Hanoi depicted in Census Districts, in Night Lights and in Global Human Settlements Layer. Source: Sorichetta 2015
Hanoi depicted in Census Districts, in Night Lights and in Global Human Settlements Layer. Source: Sorichetta 2015

While these applications represent promising efforts in the emerging data collection front, one of the more immediate challenges will be to find ways to develop capacity in the public officials charged with reporting. This means education at national and subnational levels. In addition, work with civil society to communicate and translate the power of the indicators to guide decision-makers as they develop programs and policies in support of sustainable urbanization will also be necessary. It’s an exciting, challenging world out there!


Martino Pesaresi, “Global Human Settlement Data Use in the Perspective of SDG Monitoring,” presented at the GEO-XIII and 2015 Ministerial Summit,  Group on Earth Observations, Mexico City, November 10, 2015.

Alessandro Sorichetta, World Pop and Flow Under Activities to Support the Sustainable Development Goals, presented at the GEO-XIII and 2015 Ministerial Summit,  Group on Earth Observations, Mexico City, November 10, 2015.

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 struggle embedded in the “Urban Goal”

The Sustainable Development Goals, which have now replaced the Millenium Development Goals, herald at least one major shift from the MDG era. No longer is a division posed between the “developed” and “developing” nations of the world. The SDGs are for all countries.

Long-standing divisions of the world economy and political relationships have posed spatial distinctions between East and West, or North and South. So it is interesting that one goal within this otherwise universal list makes a spatial distinction: Goal 11, the “Urban Goal.” In many countries in the “developing” world, a rural bias has been a common feature of post-colonial societies, in which urban populations are perceived to be independent-minded and critical of the excesses of post-colonial nationalist political parties that fall prey to what Robert Michels (1911) called the “iron law of oligarchy.” In the “developed” world, we have witnessed often extreme cycles of both public and private investment and disinvestment in cities, as elites oscillate between desiring the advantages of urban life and escaping its perceived dangers by moving to peripheral suburbs and fortified private enclaves.

It’s up to researchers and policy analysts to highlight the political alignments and relationships that make policy possible.

All of this suggests that the key dimension to realizing the elements of the Urban Goal boils down to understanding how cities are governed. This is not merely a matter of institutional design, which is a common pitfall of universalistic policy debates. Rather, it is of paramount importance that we understand how governing coalitions effect change, and on what bases these coalitions are maintained and changed to continue carrying out transformative agendas. The constituent groups will not necessarily be exactly the same in each city.

Goal 11 concerns the degree of inclusion of city residents in accessing land, shelter, basic services, public transport and livelihoods. These are distributional issues, and, as such, they will be contested. The language of conflict-free “win-wins” in this regard is disingenuous, as distributive struggles are the essence of political institutions. Conflict is unavoidable. The SDGs cannot provide a blueprint for how to manage urban political relationships. However, they do help provide a touchstone for the normative principles that can underpin the assembling of the coalitions that can make these relationships a reality.

My hope is that when cities want to implement, for example, public transport programs that have worked in places such as Curitiba, Brazil, or Bogotá, Colombia, and which have frequently acted as touchstones for recent experiments with bus rapid transit in major cities in Africa and Asia, politicians and planners do not seek only, or even primarily, to emulate the technical engineering details of these programs. Rather, they must first ask, what kind of politics allowed this to happen? Which groups and individuals are important to its success? What conflicts arose? What kind of compromises were necessary?

Universalistic goals like the SDGs are, by their very nature, unable to capture the political difficulties of what is being proposed. By virtue of their need to navigate the sheer complexity of urban social relationships and built environments, those individuals and institutions charged with making the SDGs a reality will be undertaking what is fundamentally a political task.

So what can we do to make sure the opportunity of a rather impressive set of goals is not lost? I believe that it is up to researchers and policy analysts to highlight the political alignments and relationships that make policy possible. Earlier generations of urban planners were once thought of as “doctors” who prescribed fixes to the body of the city. But principles of design and engineering will mean little without an analysis of the political conditions that make governments either able to effect change, or that make governments crumble under the complexity of the urban palimpsest. This will constitute a substantive engagement with the needs of policymakers and planners, which does not treat universalized development goals as a technical blueprint, but rather as a set of norms around which to frame political relationships and institutions. It is up to people in cities, their organizations, and their institutions, to struggle to make these principles reality.

William Dunbar

About the Writer:
William Dunbar

William Dunbar is Communications Coordinator for the International Satoyama Initiative project at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo, Japan.

William Dunbar

“Inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”—this is the list the UN chose for headline attributes that cities should have. These are all good things, and the UN should be applauded for coming up with and approving this Goal. Of course, any list invites the reader to evaluate not only what is included, but also what is not. Some missing terms, such as “healthy” and “clean,” may be considered to be covered under the other list items, while other ideas, such as “having adequate public transport,” are mentioned in the longer description of the goal. One thing I would like to see not so deeply buried in the Goal 11 Targets is the idea of cities “integrated into the wider landscape.”

If Goal 11 is to be met, urban planning must take an integrated approach—not only in terms of the different socioeconomic classes within the city, but also in terms of the city and its surrounding landscape.

Integration into the wider landscape—this wording, which is used for protected areas under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets (also at #11, coincidentally), is hinted at by “inclusive,” but the description of the goal seems to be oriented toward inclusion of disparate classes within the city. It is true that both extreme poverty and wealth are often concentrated in urban spaces. But the inequality between urban “haves” and rural “have-nots” can be even starker, particularly when cities’ role as one part of a connected and integrated landscape is ignored. “Haves” and “have-nots” in this case refer not only to material wealth, but also to access to the opportunities and services that cities offer.

It hardly needs to be stated how much cities typically rely on surrounding rural, semi-rural and peri-urban areas for provisioning, regulating and even cultural services, in terms of peoples’ biocultural ties to nature. But it is also important to consider what cities contribute to the wider landscape. They provide a place for many people to live, relieving population pressures on areas needed for production activities, and also provide markets for agricultural products, among other services. Cities’ policies that ignore vital urban-rural relationships can have negative consequences not only for the surrounding areas, but also for the cities themselves.

As an example, consider a city that traditionally gets its food from surrounding agricultural areas. Policymakers are generally also concentrated in urban areas, and some of these individuals enact policies to make foreign imports cheaper, thinking that cheaper goods will improve life for urban residents. Not only does shipping larger amounts of goods from overseas mean increased pollution, noise, etc., now rural residents, deprived of a market for their products, are forced to abandon their land and move to the city, exacerbating the very problems that the policy was supposed to help, including urban poverty. This type of mass urbanization and rural abandonment is happening in many places around the world, fed partly by urban-centric policies that are meant to improve city life, but ignore the city’s integration into the wider landscape.

If Goal 11 is to be met and cities made inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, urban planning must take an integrated approach as the Goal’s description states—not only in terms of the different socioeconomic classes within the city, but also in terms of the city and its surrounding landscape. Much of our work with the Satoyama Initiative at UNU-IAS is in working toward policies that consider the landscape in a holistic manner, incorporating human settlements along with all other types of production areas. And if this is done in such a way as to maintain a healthy balance in urban-rural relationships, then cities may be able to have some of the other attributes not included in the UN’s list: “pleasant,” maybe, or even “enjoyable” and “a fulfilling place to live one’s life.”


Peter Head

About the Writer:
Peter Head

Peter is a civil and structural engineer who has become a recognised world leader in major bridges, advanced composite technology and in sustainable development in cities and regions.

Peter Head

The first thing that has struck me is that I have been monitoring social media since September 25th, 2015, when the SDGs were launched, and Goal 11 has not had anything like the same coverage as others, apart from the push by the Urban Campaign Group. I think this is because the Goal is mainly about integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management, which is a complex and inaccessible subject for young people, compared with poverty, water supply, energy security or infrastructure provision. The critical importance of urban-rural integration makes it even more complex.

This is, of course, why we had such a tough time getting the Goal over the finishing line, but we all know that the content of Goal 11 lies at the heart of the transformational change we need to improve human well-being and resilience globally. It will be transformational on performance and, as no one is doing it, there will have to be a transformation in every urban settlement in the world!

There is a major disconnect between the words and meaning of Goal 11 and the intentions of cities and the research community.

Communication about Goal 11 and its importance is therefore going to be crucial going forward—getting the Goal is wonderful, but we need to communicate its importance to the whole world if communities are really going to get behind it. This is likely to be the role of cities and urban settlements in achieving Goal 11, as part of their lobbying of national governments to get them to adopt urban development strategies and to dedicate powers and finance to deliver the outcomes.

The second thing that has struck me is how the rhetoric in the “cities community” in the middle- to high- income countries has barely flickered as a result of the Goal being adopted. For example, in the U.K., there is a Foresight program underway which is reporting on Future Cities and their material does not reflect the importance of Goal 11. If you go onto the Future Cities Catapult website and search for SDG Goal 11, there are no responses. It seems, in the U.K. at least, that the SDGs are for everyone else?

I think one of the reasons for this is that integrated planning is complex, involves engaging communities and is little used in practice, whereas technology and sensors and IT systems are much more accessible and interesting.

3d-geomapWebSo I conclude that there is a major disconnect between the actual words and meaning of Goal 11 and the intentions of cities and the research community. All the city lobby groups and mayors were great in supporting its inclusion, but I wonder if the meaning of the words was really grasped.

I went to a Future Earth meeting in Xiamen where this disconnect was discussed for China and the Asia Pacific Region and there was recognition (particularly from China) that co-design or integrated planning is really critical if the transformational change set out in Goal 11 and other Goals is to be realized. It requires an integration of social and natural science and economics in order to bring forward new tools to support capacity building for integrated planning and performance-based design.

It has been recognized that access to capital will be key to enabling these transformations to take place and this means making money available for research, planning, education and for projects. At this stage of knowledge and practice in integrated planning, there needs to be a big, fast application of money to research, planning and education that leads to capacity building and demonstration. Then, we need a massive scale up of that finance moving into city transformation using the money we know is available.

With this objective in mind, we are working very hard to develop a global funding mechanism to get money into integrated planning and performance-based design for urban-rural systems in which community participation and the economics of human well-being are embedded. What we need right now is a road map and mechanism for deployment of this funding, linked to the value this will create to society as trillions of dollars are moved successfully into delivery of Goal 11.

Mark Hostetler

About the Writer:
Mark Hostetler

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

Mark Hostetler

Cities can play a role in conserving the world’s cultural and natural heritage

Looking through the ten targets under Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, they essentially cover the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. I agree with previous conversations, particularly Yunus Arikan’s comments, that cities need solutions that are cross-cutting and holistically address social, environmental and economic concerns. I do think there are many synergies among the sustainability targets mentioned under Goal 11, but for simplicity, I’ll focus on one of the ten targets:

“Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

A laudable target, but how do cities move forward to embrace urban biodiversity conservation and to conserve the traditions, values and practices of local cultures? I do think unique opportunities exist in cities to protect both cultural and natural heritage. Many cultural traditions around the world are rooted in the use and appreciation of native flora and fauna. Landscaping and/or conservation of native plants will not only help in terms of biodiversity, but it will present an opportunity for urban residents to retain cultural traditions and practices.

Incentive-based policies that give a monetary benefit to landowners are the best way to encourage new practices that protect cultural heritage through nature.

For example, in New Zealand, the Maori use the fibers of native flax or harakeke (Phormium tenax) to make a wide variety of items including baskets, fishing nets and traps, rope, and clothing. Incorporating New Zealand flax into yards, neighborhoods, and community parks presents an opportunity for city residents to harvest fiber and to create items that were traditionally made by Maori. In addition, the nectar from NZ flax flower is an important source of food for many nectar-eating indigenous birds, such as the Tūī and Bellbirds. NZ flax is habitat to a host of other animals such as arthropods, geckos and skinks that feed on or live in native flax. One can think of such cultural and natural synergies in any city around the world.

To create enabling conditions where native landscaping and conservation practices are implemented, I think the first step is to make city policies where decision-makers, from homeowners to developers, are rewarded for incorporating native plants and habitats into the urban landscape. This can take many forms, but I believe incentive-based policies that give a monetary benefit to landowners are the best way to encourage new practices. For example, developers could get a tax break, a housing density bonus, or a permit break when they landscape with native plants and/or conserve wildlife habitat for a development project. In these native plant and animal habitat areas, educational signage should be installed that describes how these plants and animals were utilized and appreciated by local cultures. At a smaller scale, homeowners could get a property tax break or a reduction of their utility bills when they landscape their yards with native plants.

Also, to kickstart citywide efforts to protect cultural and natural heritage, cities can create examples on their own properties, such as public parks, where portions of the parks are designed for local plants and animals. These areas could serve as cultural demonstrations where people can learn about traditional use and appreciation of native flora and fauna. This can take the form of interpretive signage or outside “workshops” where people learn how to utilize local plants, such as flax weaving done by the Maori in New Zealand.

I believe to move a city forward, we need model examples. Brainstorming between citizens, ecologists, design professionals and planners can provide a suite of practical ideas to help produce local examples. Nothing speaks louder than a local project where one can observe the areas that have been transformed. People can see it and envision how they could do it on their own property. Think of a homeowner that sees his/her neighbor remove the exotic turfgrass and install a butterfly garden that has native host plants for butterfly caterpillars and nectar plants for adult butterflies. Or a developer that sees his/her competitor building a conservation subdivision where the cultural and natural heritage is infused into the design and management of the community. Such examples begin to create a new “norm” for a city and would foster the adoption of novel design and management strategies that conserve cultural and natural heritage.

Hui Ling Lim

About the Writer:
Hui Ling Lim

As a Climate Reality Leader, Ling is dedicated to empowering others to step up and lead on sustainability.

Lim Hui Ling

Not having cities at the forefront would undermine the effectiveness of the ‘New Urban Agenda’

From the experience of the MDGs, global commitments can and have made a difference. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #11, an explicitly ‘urban SDG,’ is a win for the global development community as it signals that we are finally paying due attention to the centrality of cities to the future of sustainable development. In a way, as soon as the SDG was adopted, it exceeded its use-by date. It has served the purpose of focusing attention on the importance of making ‘cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’ Ultimately, however, we will be measured by how well we implement this SDG.

Relegating cities to the role of providing inputs to the New Urban Agenda is anachronistic. Cities and city groups should drive the formulation of the SDG’s targets and their implementation.

The next United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in October, 2016, will be the first of the Habitat conferences to take place after the adoption of the SDGs. Aptly, the United Nations has promulgated that the conference is going to be about the ‘New Urban Agenda.’

Currently, even as the theme of empowering local governments is widespread in the discussions, there is still a focus on country-based national reports and on ‘National Habitat Committees’ in the preparation process for Habitat III. Local and regional governments are providing their inputs to the draft agenda, rather than driving it.

To be effective, the desired outcomes of the SDG have to be tackled at a localised level. From the agenda setting, to the design of the indicators and progress tracking, sophisticated local knowledge is a prerequisite. For instance, reducing urban environmental impact in Chengdu and in Prague could have different contextual meanings and would entail different approaches, with different emphases.

Considering the need for local expertise, and with city governments being most immediately connected to the people they serve, the urban level offers the optimum level of governance where public service and leadership interact with urban actors. Cities have the capacity to respond swiftly to local conditions with innovation, finance and appropriate solutions based on local resources. Good city leadership can corral resources from multiple partners, including from federal and state governments, private corporations and philanthropy, research institutions and sister cities.

There is already much talk about decentralised governance as part of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. It might be worthwhile to bring the timeline forward; rather than centralise the negotiations and leave Member States to be the arbiters of what needs to be implemented under the ‘urban SDG,’ perhaps experiment by having cities and city groupings formulate the relevant implementation plans of the SDG instead. Relegating cities to the role of providing inputs to the New Urban Agenda is anachronistic. The governance of territories by city leadership has been evolving with the growth and expansion in economic power of urban regions. This is not a matter of Member States relinquishing their conventional roles in the international development negotiation process; it is more about recognising the reality of the ‘New Urban Agenda,’ where many cities are now the drivers of economic development, and are blazing the path in sustainable development, climate change mitigation and more; it is about harnessing the capabilities of an existing global constituency of cities, as a deserving and equal partner in delivering on the urban SDG.

Even at this stage of the agenda drafting period, Member States would benefit from bringing their cities into the inner circle of the preparatory process more by supporting Habitat III’s education and outreach efforts and ensuring that cities directly participate and take a more active role in defining their concerns and priorities and proposing implementation approaches for the urban SDG, both through the Habitat III regional and thematic forums and through other major international, inclusive platforms such as the annual World Cities Summit Mayors Forum.

If this unprecedented opportunity comes to bear, cities can avail themselves of bilateral cooperation and adapt from tried and tested approaches and the wealth of best practices that exist. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. At the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), based on our study of Singapore and other cities’ experiences, we have identified two very common factors underlying the successful transformation of many cities, from New York, to Bilbao, to Suzhou City, to others.

First, having a system of integrated planning is crucial, as it keeps the long-term targets constantly in view. Secondly, to make these plans into reality, the governance principles have to be inclusive, responsive and pragmatic, and effectively implemented by sound institutions embodying a culture of integrity. These principles have ensured that the conditions for the attainment of the desired liveability outcomes are well laid (See CLC Liveability Framework). With a holistic and long-range strategic implementation approach—we have until 2030—and with cities at the forefront as actors of change, we can certainly set high hopes to deliver on the targets of the urban SDG as well as the other SDGs.

To assist cities in achieving sustainable and liveable development and integrating the aforementioned principles of the Liveability Framework, the CLC regularly holds capability development programmes. These programmes are for city leaders interested in learning how to address the complex challenges related to rapid urbanisation and high population density. All cities are welcome to apply.

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

The promise and pitfalls of SDG 11

Goal 11 of the SDGs has finally embraced what I think of as a holistic view of cities and human settlements, moving from the slum-improved target of the MDGs to include human settlements ranging from hamlets to megacities. The goal’s adoption as one of the 17 SDGs is a big step in recognizing the importance of human settlements and cities, which contain more than half of the global population, as conveyors of sustainability. But cities and human settlements have long been developed with models and frameworks that idealize ‘space,’ the ‘order of that space’ and the outcomes of such order.

Whereas these frameworks have worked in some regions of the globe, they have failed to deliver in others, including sub-Saharan Africa. This implies that working towards not only effective targets, but meaningful targets that are measurable, is the challenge of the communities concerned with urban development. This is because, despite the dialogues that went towards formulating Goal 11, the dominance of strategies that have previously determined the nature and trajectory of urban development inherent in the goal are clear.

It is critically important to transcend output indicators by developing frameworks for outcomes that can be tracked through progress markers.

For example, the underlying definition of access to safe and affordable housing and to affordable and sustainable public transport systems is underlain with uncertainty. It is a tough challenge to achieve the goal and targets, which are complex. The indicators for whether these targets have been achieved are also likely to be complex, since not one single indicator would adequately measure, for example, the reduction of per capita environmental impact of cities in terms of air quality and wastes, or the sustainable urbanization of and capacity for participatory, integrated human settlement planning.

Grassroot activities for sociotechnical urban solutions and resilience building. Image: Shuaib Lwasa

Scanning the known and tested evaluation frameworks, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate framework for monitoring such complex indictors. It seems as though the evaluation will have to embrace indices, which have a reductionist problem. The relations between goals make it even more challenging to send a signal that defines the resilience of cities and that would have some way to include risk reduction, climate actions, and poverty reduction, in all its dimensions as defined in Goal 1, but in cities specifically.

To achieve and evaluate Goal 11 will therefore require making resilience an actionable concept that is measurable, so that it becomes possible to address the inherent risks of taking action on climate and to deliver equitable development. This calls for alternative conceptual frameworks, methodologies, data and tools to measure progress in achieving Goal 11, among others. Sustainable development may be undermined by increasing risk and disasters and/or progress made so far in terms of development will likely be reversed by the increasing rate of climate-related disasters. Intensity of disasters notwithstanding, the case for extensive risk and associated disasters is a risk profile for much of Africa, and particularly for urban Africa.

There are synergies and tough choices to make to achieve resilient cities. These tough choices are potentially the basis for new conceptual frameworks, methodologies and tools for achieving the targets of as well as developing appropriate measuring indicators for Goal 11. Local specificities will play an important role, since the definition of ‘order’ as it is viewed in the global South now is different from the dominant frameworks of urban development. It is critically important to transcend output indicators by developing frameworks for outcomes that can be tracked through progress markers. These progress markers include but are not limited to the following;

  • Green urban infrastructure with a range of sociotechnical solutions that have been tested after failure of single unified infrastructure systems
  • Reducing urban risk—especially extensive risk and development-accumulated risk— and curbing losses
  • Transforming production processes and infrastructure that creates opportunities for all social groups for inclusiveness
  • Enhancing urban ecosystems and the possible range of ecosystem services dependent on locale specificities
  • Conventional urban development interventions have largely failed to reduce urban poverty; thus, creating opportunities for the urban poor seems a plausible progress marker to transcend traditional output indicators
  • A resilient city would have features that harness opportunities related to scalable resource efficiency, decentralized services and infrastructure, local employment and expanded markets and strategies that eradicate urban poverty
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

The urban SDG is important because it emphasizes the salient role of cities in advancing sustainable development goals in countries and globally. With increasing evidence on the urbanization of poverty—i.e., the fact that poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in urban areas around the world—the urban SDG holds promise as a vision that marries the twin goals of environmental sustainability and poverty reduction in cities.

The urban SDG stands the greatest chance of  success if cities to work to improve performance not necessarily in comparison with other cities, but in comparison to the their own status.
It is a means to achieve four crucial purposes: (i) to engage decision makers and build political will at all levels; (ii) to direct resources to cities through multiple national and international channels for critical investments in urban services infrastructure; (iii) to enhance technical and governance capacity, particularly at the local level and in smaller/secondary cities; and (iv) to instigate civil society, the private sector, and other actors to demand better services and governance in cities worldwide. This is a huge opportunity for nations, given the impending increase in urbanization likely to occur in the global south, especially in Asia and Africa.

Implementation of the urban SDG targets in many countries will be difficult, with some short term costs but long lasting economic, social, and environmental benefits. The targets of the urban SDG should not remain on paper, countries must redirect attention to cities, sign on to the targets, and ensure that policies and plans at multiple scales — national, regional, state, and local — are structured to enable progress towards these targets.

The urban SDG stands the greatest chance of being successfully implemented if helps create a vision for city leaders to work towards as they improve performance, not necessarily in comparison with other cities around the world, but in comparison with their own status at an earlier point in time. Measuring progress towards the urban SDG targets requires current data about gaps in access to urban services, households living in informal or substandard housing, city revenues and budgets, and other such indicators on which data is currently very limited in many cities, especially in the global south. City and national decision makers must prioritize collection of these data. Higher levels of government must design financial and other incentives for cities to improve performance in service delivery and be better accountable to citizens. The adoption of the urban SDG is a good start but decision makers must now commit to making choices that can lead to its successful implementation in cities around the world.

Jose Puppim

About the Writer:
Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira

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

Jose Puppim

How to recognize the natural/planetary limits in urban policy making?

The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda has indicated some of the UN goals (SDGs) for the next 15 years in order to achieve plain human development for all, while keeping life-supporting systems intact for the next generations. Nevertheless, we are far from having comprehensive governance and policy mechanisms to transform urban development processes to achieve SDG 11 (and the other goals), though there are some promising initiatives we could learn from and try to use strengthen policy processes and outcomes. One of the fundamental issues we need to address for dealing with sustainable development is recognition of the environmental/planetary limits in policymaking at various different levels. We need to make huge transformations in the way we think about development processes and their governance.

We are slow to understand how to galvanize transformation towards more sustainable urbanization and to find alternatives to our current model of development, beyond recognizing that we need significant transformation in our governance systems. A shared starting point in the criticisms on the existing alternatives, such as green growth, is that efficiency strategies, which constitute the core of the ecological modernization discourses, are not a sufficient condition for leading to a broader transformation towards sustainability.

Three levels of transformation are required to achieve Goal 11: (1) increasing speed in areas where we have knowledge, (2) ensuring balanced representation in decision-making and (3) altering our ethics.

Moreover, the world is turning into a polycentric system of governance, but our local institutions and organizations have not adapted to this new system. Faced with this reality, we can point to changes in governance patterns, both in theory and in practice, that can move us beyond the technocratic realm and can help us to negotiate a more equitable future on a shared and finite planet.

There are three levels of transformation that may be required with different degrees of efforts, needs and uncertainties. Firstly, we need to move much faster in the transformative helms where we already have control and knowledge, such as use of appropriate, more efficient technologies and existing managerial tools, as well as establishing good public transport and land-use policies to avoid sprawl. But this is not sufficient. For example, China has made great advances in the production of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Still, these changes have not been able to offset the growth in energy demand in China. The second level is the decision-making and implementation systems that constrain broader transformative changes that would come with more balanced power, such as giving voice to different groups and making organizations, in the public and private sector, more accountable, as well as trying to coordinate efforts to identify synergies among networks in a polycentric society. Tokyo has established the first and one of the most climate-friendly policies. This was only possible after almost a decade of debates with policymakers in government and civil society. Now, the city is trying to incentivize other towns to do the same. Last is the ethical level, as we need a significant change in the values and beliefs of society that would lead to changes to the large institutions that shape most of our political and economic decisions. Bhutan has introduced the new idea of the Gross National Happiness index, which challenge the fundamentals of our thinking about development.

New insights from the recent advancements in the discussions on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the possible climate agreement after UNFCCC COP-21 can potentially help to propel larger transformative changes at the different levels. Our capacity to accelerate the transformation we need rests necessarily on how to incorporate the concept of sustainable development into different governance systems, including urban governance systems, and to translate the decisions into results in practice. The SDGs represent a new attempt to transform our approach to development, including the planetary boundaries, but we do not have the governance to steer this transformation. The history of sustainable development is littered with well-intended but ill-designed or ill-executed initiatives. Our hope is that the urban SDG will not be one more among them.

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

We will build more urban areas during the 21st century than in all of human history. Simply stated, we cannot afford to create 21st-century cities with outdated ideas and technology. Yet, that’s what we’re on the trajectory to do if we do not transform the way in which we build new and rebuild existing cities. The Urban SDG has the opportunity to be a catalyst for changing how we conceive, design and manage cities. We need to urgently work towards establishing a plan of action for implementing and monitoring progress towards these goals.

The Urban SDG has the opportunity to be a catalyst for changing how we conceive, design and manage cities, but right now we’re on a trajectory to repeat the city-building mistakes of the past.
I see three potential pitfalls with the Urban SDG. The first is that it sits on a shelf like a family portrait: it’s a snapshot that’s static, collecting dust over the years, but represents happy times and great potential. There has been a lot of energy and effort towards establishing the SDGs, but that is only the first step. The next phase will be even more challenging—implementation. Here, the second pitfall is that implementation and monitoring falls well short of the target. If the Urban SDG becomes a way to repackage and rebrand existing efforts, then it will not achieve its goals. No single city is safe, resilient and sustainable. Substantive effort, by way of science, policy and financing is necessary to make the Urban SDG a living process that can achieve its goals. The third potential risk is that cities emulate strategies from other cities that are not appropriate for their context, constituents or needs. This would be a triple loss in effort, time and opportunity. Cities will need to carefully identify sister cities with similar challenges and opportunities, from whom they can learn what works and what doesn’t.

How can we avoid these dangers? There is a long list of things that should be done, but there is at least one thing that must be done in order for the Urban SDG to be achieved and that is the coupling of strategies across scales. Many of the conditions, processes and policies that affect urban areas occur outside of urban areas, be it the political economy or regional or national contexts. Cities cannot achieve the goals of the Urban SDG if they act alone. They must have the support of regional and national governments and institutions. However, support is also not enough. Cities must work together to ensure that efforts undertaken at the local scale are not subverted by strategies at other scales or by other actors. This will require a lot of coordination and sustained dialogue among diverse institutions, leaders and communities.

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

As with their predecessors, the SDGs will continue to bring attention to sustainability issues of global importance, encourage accountability from governments and (hopefully) attract financing. None of this is new, but that does not make any of it automatic. We, as an urban community, will have to enable much of it. In contrast to the MDGs, the SDGs are also set to tackle contemporary challenges, such as climate change, through contemporary, place-based approaches. The SDGs’ newly consultative formulation means greater stakeholder ownership. And their fresh focus on common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) means that the developing world has as much stake in them as the developing world. (The upcoming agreement in Paris will show whether such an arrangement is feasible in practice.) These more novel aspects will also need our active support if the new issues’ metrics are to be consistently used, if cities are to actively engage in their implementation and if countries in all parts of the world are to take them seriously.

So what do we need to do now? The first thing is to help cities see why the SDGs (or the global development agenda at all, for that matter) matter. How do the million and one choices that urban dwellers make every day add up to the global consequences that ultimately return to impact them in local, personal ways? What to recommend to city dwellers whose choices are too limited in the first place to allow for sustainable behavior? How can they be encouraged to ‘do their part’ for SDG 11?

Behavioral choices generate demand for structural improvement that prompt further behavioral change.

No doubt my colleagues on this panel will have articulated many of the catalysts for its implementation, from cross-sectoral partnerships to cross-scalar governance; from lowering the risk of lending to cities to increasing their ability to generate local revenues. All of these will be essential. Let me add something else: getting the balance between structure and agency right. Urban settlement patterns often limit choice to the point where populations have little alternative but to behave in unsustainable ways (e.g. living in a freestanding house and driving a private car). The developers of such patterns often claim they are accommodating residents’ demands. Residents sometimes claim that they never had a real choice in the first place. How to address this catch-22?

The targets of SDG 11 aspire to a number of structural improvements, but the critical role of agency in them is not always clear. To remedy this, cities can do three things: (1) help urban residents better understand the trade-offs inherent in particular settlement patterns (e.g. high-density, mixed-use over low-density, single-use); (2) get urbanites involved earlier in planning processes (e.g. planning for new urban areas or retrofitting existing ones); and (3) incentivize and advocate for better personal choices (e.g. cycling over driving). Understanding the consequences of personal choices may lead city dwellers to demand more responsible choices from others, and ultimately to demand that the system itself provide more choices in the first place.

The NGO Transportation Alternatives, an advocate of nonmotorized transit infrastructure in New York, recently had an internal debate after another city motorist had struck and killed a cyclist. In this debate, a number of Transportation Alternatives members argued that continuing to advocate for a modal shift to more cycling was premature without more extensive, protected bike lane infrastructure in the first place. An opposing group argued that such advocacy had no credibility until a critical mass of cyclists could first demonstrate the demand for such infrastructure. Ultimately the consensus was ‘both.’ In other words, behavioral choices generate demand for structural improvement that prompt further behavioral change. (It is worth noting how such an intervention would contribute to the implementation of multiple SDG 11 targets: 11.2 on public transport provision, 11.6 on urban environmental impact and 11.7 on accessible public space provision, as well as 11.3 on making density more livable and 11.b on policies for accessibility, resilience and sustainability.)

With SDG 11, cities have their work cut out for them. To effectively balance structure and agency over the long term, key urban stakeholders will need to (re)configure themselves. In an earlier piece on the pedestrianization of Times Square, I wrote that residents need to contemplate and agree on common values. City leaders need to contemplate value-based priorities and execute and maintain a related vision. And enforcement bodies need to prepare to humanely and consistently guide the change inherent in any new vision. The sustainability battle we are fighting is a granular one, and it will not only be won or lost in cities, but by cities through a million different decisions; decisions that both reinforce and challenge the very structure that guides them. The implementation of SDG 11 could be very exciting indeed.

David Simon

About the Writer:
David Simon

David Simon is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and until December 2019 was also Director of Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre on sustainable cities based at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

David Simon

As a member of the Campaign for an Urban SDG, Mistra Urban Futures conducted a unique pilot project during the first half of this year, using its four transdisciplinary co-production research platforms in Gothenburg, Greater Manchester, Cape Town and Kisumu, along with Bangalore, to test the draft set of targets and indicators formulated by the Campaign and the UN statistical team up until that point. The extensive and detailed work of the Campaign has hitherto been undertaken in isolation from the daily pressures and realities of urban local authorities and other agencies that will be required to collect, compute and report on the indicators.

Compared with world or megacities, for instance, the five cities that formed the testbeds for this study—namely Bangalore, Cape Town, Gothenburg, Greater Manchester, and Kisumu—constitute a reasonably representative sample of the multitude of urban areas worldwide that will be faced with the new challenges of annual urban SDG reporting from 2016 forward. The precise extent of such responsibilities will vary by country in terms of how national reporting agencies allocate roles, but the specifically urban focus of most of the indicators makes some urban involvement inescapable. Indeed, this is part of the novelty and added value of Goal 11.

There is a clear discrepancy between the call for international standards on the one hand, and local realities on the other.

Our project examined the extent to which the required data already exist in accessible forms in the five cities and could thus be reported straightforwardly; which variables could be obtained or computed with relative ease, hence imposing only a small new burden; and which were unavailable without purposive primary data collection exercises.

If the urban SDG is to prove to be a useful tool to encourage local and national authorities alike to make positive investments in the various components of urban sustainability transitions as intended, then it is vital that it should prove widely relevant, acceptable and practicable. Otherwise, reporting will become piecemeal or irregular, data will be fabricated to suit perceived political advantages, or compliance with reporting obligations will become the principal objective rather than utilising the reporting as a stimulus to promote positive change towards urban sustainability.

It is noteworthy that not one draft indicator was regarded as both important or relevant and easy to report on in terms of data availability. Since the targets and indicators are supposed to be forward-looking and setting the agenda for the next 15 years, the overall consensus of the local authorities participating in this study suggests that for these to become useful and implemented at a city level, they must be relevant for local policymakers. Hence, they cannot be too few and general in scope and range, while there is a clear dilemma in striking a balance between reducing the number of indicators and increasing the policy relevance. There is also a clear discrepancy between the call for international standards on the one hand, and local realities on the other. This will not be easily bridged.

The project results made an immediate impact on the Campaign’s work and were made available to the UN statistical team for their current phase of finalising the targets and indicators. Once the SDGs are implemented, the Campaign anticipates an ongoing need for monitoring, targeted training/capacity building in urban local authorities in poor countries, and probably some revisions to the initial indicators—much as has happened with the MDGs. Mistra Urban Futures has volunteered to play a key role in this process as a critical friend, since we believe that urban areas and their inhabitants worldwide will be better off and more sustainable with Goal 11 than without it. Indeed, this has formed the basis for the entire Campaign.

A paper summarising the project will appear in Environment and Urbanization 28(1), April 2015 but will be online during December 2015. The project reports are available at: http://www.mistraurbanfutures.org/en/pilot-project-test-potential-targets-and-indicators-urban-sustainable-development-goal.

Bolanle Wahab

About the Writer:
Bolanle Wahab

Bolanle Wahab, PhD, is a Lecturer and Researcher and former acting Head of Department of Urban and Regional Planning and also the Pioneer Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Programme at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Bolanle Wahab

Urban SDG #11 is a good goal, but for us to get things on the right track, especially in the developing world, this goal cannot be isolated from the other 16 goals. Of great importance are Goals 1 and 3: (1) End poverty in all forms everywhere, and (3) Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, respectively.

For SDG #11 to succeed, indigenous knowledge systems and practices of peoples and communities in different nations and regions of the world must be given adequate recognition and attention. The range of issues to which indigenous knowledge systems can contribute is broad, including sanitation; urban planning and development control; climate change and disaster risk management; solid waste management; informality in planning; slum rehabilitation; new housing projects; urban greening and landscaping; and urban and peri-urban agriculture; and more.

Let the people be part not only of planning and implementation, but in setting the goals.

Most ancient towns and cities in Africa, for example, had no master or development plans drawn-up in planning studios; yet, these settlements developed in an organised manner through the active involvement and collaboration of all stakeholders. The siting of structures (buildings, footpaths, tracks, open/recreational spaces, markets, community halls, village square, wells etc.) was done consciously, in relation to one another. Inclusive community planning was employed, whereby physical developments were controlled and monitored to prevent incompatible land uses and developments on flood plains, wetlands and disaster-prone areas, thereby promoting safe and resilient settlements. The tool or approach used throughout was indigenous knowledge, the systems of accumulated local knowledge and practices constructed and applied by local people and communities in the course of their everyday interactions with their living and working environment. Contemporary settlement planning knowledge has abandoned this system and the result is the chaos that is the experience of many African cities.

It will be key to include the participation of “ordinary people” and indigenous communities through the integration of their knowledge, attitude and practices in policy formulation and execution at all levels of government. A shift in the planning paradigm is required; let the people (irrespective of social, economic, cultural and political class/status) be part not only of planning and implementation, but in setting the goals and thereby setting the standards for the creation of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements—the aims of SDG #11. In this way, project beneficiaries will be effectively engaged, will exhibit a sense of ownership, and will ensure project sustainability and capacity for replication.

Although local people may be low in formal western education, the knowledge systems and practices that have sustained their needs and aspirations in their environment over time are nevertheless very relevant for more formal settlement planning process. Such practices are still very dear to them. Their knowledge and modes of thinking, participatory decision-making, and the ways they implement programmes and projects should be integrated into the framework for implementing the urban SDG #11. Local context is critical.

By missing out on key information and strategies that are part of indigenous knowledge systems, SDG #11 could go badly wrong, especially in Africa. . It is even segregatory, discriminatory, morally wrong and against the principles of equity, justice and fair play to not include them. This is more so that the peoples’ roles and services are made indispensable in the social and economic development of any village, town or city. Under SDG #11, settlement planning should focus on making city life more accommodating for the poor through more compact development with adequate infrastructure and minimal risks; urban regeneration with adequate public spaces, and accompanying greens, especially in tropical regions; and creation of employment opportunities which incorporate cultural values. Exclusive developments, as in most African capitals, should be minimized. Population shifts to urban areas could be minimized through the enhancement of living standards in rural areas while discouraging/reducing urban sprawl and its effect on the available land for agriculture.

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

The inclusion of an explicitly urban Sustainable Development Goal inside the Agenda 2030, adopted by the UN General Assembly last September, can be seen as an important step forward if compared with the Millennium Development Goals. But at the same time, it raises some of the same concerns—and new ones too—related in particular to the lack of an explicit human rights approach and the associated state obligations.

SDG11 raises concerns about the lack of an explicit human rights approach and the associated state obligations.
It is more than evident that, in an increasinly urbanizing world, bold commitments and actions should be taken at the city and regional levels if we really want to achieve sustainability and improve quality of life for both urban and rural populations. Local and subnational spheres of government are at the frontline of those challenges and its role should be recognized and supported by national and international institutions. On the other hand, the final formulation of the urban goal and the current discussion of its related indicators reveal some important gaps and concerning omissions that could be misleading in the measurement of “progress” during the coming fifteen years.

From our point of view, here some particular concerns:

a) In tracking the access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, special attention should be paid to the current national and local policies for rehabilitating and increasing the social housing stock, the level of protection for tenants (including those living in so-called informal settlements), the support of social production of habitat projects and the programs to address homelessness. At the same time, mandatory data collection of privatization of public/social housing and an inventory of the stock of available vacant buildings/land and abandonned/subutilized facilities and community infraestructure should be part of the equation.

b) UN-Habitat’s current, broad definition of “slum” and “informal settlements”—that involves the lack of secure tenure, access to basic servicies, sufficient living area, durable housing and non-hazardous location—will not be instrumental in identifying the specific problems that need to be addressed in different national and local contexts. The indicator should be disaggregated in order to get more precise information about each of the five mentioned characteristics.

c) As for the “security of tenure” component, it should include data on cases of harassment and forced evictions and displacements, as defined by international human rights instruments.

d) Affordability of both housing and public transport system (including integrated multimodal and non-motorized/non-carbon-related options) should be measured in relation to the real evolution of basic income and purchasing power of the households.

e) Although the word “participation” is mentioned few times in some of the specific targets, there is no explicit mention of the need to democratize decision making processes and put in place and/or strengthen the institutional spaces and tools for a truly democractic management of the territory. The development of indicators should actively solicit input from civil society and social movements who are effective in participation processes, and include their ideas in the implementation and monitoring of public policies and budgets at local, metropolitan, regional and national levels.

f) In protecting and safeguarding the world’s cultural and natural heritage, indicators should track the percentage of the local/national budget that is being managed by indigenous people and other ethnic and minority groups, who preserve biodiversity and promote social diversity and multiculturalism.

g) The promotion of the use of local materials and traditional building techniques should be a priority for building sustanaible and resilient communities. This will require a revision of the current global and national statistical data collection that frequently characterizes such methods as “precarious,” “informal” or “irregular,” or not in compilance with the construction regulatory framework.

It is clear that we have many challenging tasks ahead. As we can see, many of the targets are multidimensional and their appropiate measurement will require more than one indicator, and often composite ones. At the same time, given the prominent role that cities will play in monitoring progress, adequate technical and financial support should be available both for governamental and non-governamental institutions for doing so. Finally, stronger intersectorial and interactoral coordination will be necessary in order to address the SDG11’s commitments.

The contents for a “New Urban Agenda,” to be adopted at the upcoming UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III, Quito, October 2016) are now being discussed inside a complex and intense process. For that to be, at the same time, ambitious and operative, we should be looking at deepening the debates and filling the gaps from the experiences and proposals for the Right to the City that social movements, civil society and local authorities are putting forward.