Towards a Deeper Understanding of Urban Ecology

“The city is both an outward form – expressed as spatial pattern – of housing, factories, streets, and parks and an inward pattern of life – expressed as processes – such as cycles of nature, rhythms, of work and play, rates of travel, rules of conduct, and so forth.”

– The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology

(Lowell Brown)

(Lowell Brown)

Urban ecology is a hot topic, but what it signifies is changing as more researchers are focusing on the complexity of the urban environment. While this might not seem important to the everyday citizen, it has implications for how we approach, value, and plan for different and sustainable cities for the future.

In the Baltimore School of Urban Ecology: Space, Scale, and Time for the Study of Cities, the authors seek a deeper understanding of urban ecology. The book is a result of decades of research, supported by a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that funded long-term ecological research in the eastern city. The authors claim that gone are the days of studying ecology in the city. Instead, practitioners must uncover the ecology of the city, a boundless endeavor that includes the complete mosaic of land and water use, the social-ecological relations of the residents, and dynamic processes of change.

The text is undoubtedly intended for academics and not for the urban ecology newcomer. The analysis, which attempts to make sense of the complex interactions taking place in the city, is often quite complex itself. However, fundamentally, it does a good job of exploring the intersection between a city’s dynamic processes and its spatial patterns, which are less transient.

What is the relation between the long-rooted history of a site and the fleeting presence of a migratory bird? Is there something to be learned from a deeper study of these interactions? And must we attempt to account for all presences and processes?

(Lowell Brown)

(Lowell Brown)

Patch dynamics serve as the basis for the study, providing a “structural approach for addressing mosaics, complexity, and social-ecological integration” (13). In this manner, the authors can better identify the “patchiness” of the city, or spatial clustering of activities and social groups, as variable as drone bees or retailers.

While many people might relate insects with urban ecology, stores are not necessarily what comes to mind. However, this follows a basic rule of ecology, that everything is connected to everything else, including your corner store.  Though it is not living, the corner store still changes our patterns of movement and consumption in addition to that of other species by way of its built design, solid waste, emissions, and many other factors.

The study looks beyond a basic typology of urban landscapes and attempts to understand and classify these multi-layered interactions, acknowledging the many intellectual and scientific challenges in doing so. Even the soils of a city prove difficult to categorize as “soils may range from those that have survived the process of urbanization to those that have been paved over to those whose basic structures are entirely human-made” (47). The takeaway: even dirt is incredibly complex and maybe we need to dig a bit deeper in our investigations (pun intended).

(Lowell Brown)

(Lowell Brown)

Given the extensiveness of the field, there is a great need for interdisciplinary studies. The authors argue that applying biology, sociology, or economics alone simply will not suffice. Just as cities “resist the confinement shown on map boundaries,” so does urban ecology resist confinement to a single discipline.

Despite being academic, the authors of The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology are, in a way, proponents of a more creative approach to understanding and managing our urban landscapes. Such an appeal is consistent with the aims of Urban Arboreta, which sees these inextricable links between the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing of a community, often referred to as the triple bottom line. While not everyone should bury themselves in the study of patch dynamics, I believe that the public discussion of urban ecology could more heartily encompass factors that have long been left out of the conversation. Such discussions and collaboration might just lead to the creative solutions sought by today’s cities.