Natural Cities

Raccoon investigating trash receptacle – University of Washington, Seattle

Raccoon investigating trash receptacle – University of Washington, Seattle

As a Master of Architecture and Master of Landscape Architecture concurrent degree candidate, my academic career is motivated by consilience between the two disciplines. How can “landscape” mean more to an architect than an outdoor ground plane? The line between building and landscape is a manifestation of our species’ inclination to see a separation between our world and “nature.” This separation needs to be dissolved to promote systems thinking in design. A lot of our environmental problems stem from the idea that nature is not us, or not in the city, and that buildings are not natural. So A-P and Al Hurd’s “Spaces for Nature,” chapter in their book The Carbon Efficient City, of course, intrigues me.

The chapter addresses biomimicry, an interesting concept. While the idea of biomimicry is a good start and has inspired many interesting projects, I think it falls short. Why?  Instead of imitating “nature”—whatever “nature” is—I am suggesting that those professionals whose work informs the built environment acknowledge that cities are a part of “nature,” and act accordingly. Yes, we can imitate other organisms, but better yet, we can work with them.

Why is habitat for species other than our own important in urban areas? Of course, “green” areas decrease pollution, store carbon, and slow, treat, and store stormwater. But they also increasing human wellbeing. The work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan has demonstrated that “nature” is a remedy for the stress of our daily lives, and exposure to it promotes health and happiness.

How can we support habitat for other species in urban environments? I think that design professionals, notably architects, need to develop greater perceptions of ecological systems, so that their designs can foster habitat for other species—or at least not disrupt those that already exist. This is why I have elected to study both architecture and landscape architecture in graduate school. In addition to this, areas that support other species need to be supported and new ones fostered. Ecological corridors such as walking trails should be designated so fragmented habitat areas can connect. Of course, not all biodiversity can be seen. Some occurs at a microorganism level. We should be wary of assuming the ability to visually identify all valuable habitat.

Hurd and Hurd’s chapter recommends many additional methods for increasing “spaces for nature” in cities. These suggestions are excellent, but seem to be made under the assumption that natural spaces are separate from urban spaces. This 2006 journal article (citation below) addresses the fact that wildlife in cities is often a homogenized sample of generalist species. In order to promote the success of species that are more specialized, we should acknowledge that not all green spaces are alike. Note: simply put, generalist species are those that will eat whatever and live wherever, while specialists are more “finicky” when it comes to food and habitat. The authors of the 2006 article recommend a variety of habitat in cities. Different species require different habitat types, and individuals of a single species will likely require multiple habitat types as they age.

Humans are not the only occupants of cities. Cities couldn’t exist that way.

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Snep, R. P. H., Opdam, P. F. M., Baveco, J. M., WallisDeVries, M. F., Timmermans, W., Kwak, R. G. M., & Kuypers, V. (February 15, 2006). How peri-urban areas can strengthen animal populations within cities: A modeling approach. Biological Conservation, 127, 3.)

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