Convergent Futures: Cities, Ecology, and Design

Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York introduces ecological functionality into a highly urbanized environment. image: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates project team: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, Great Ecology
Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York introduces ecological functionality into a highly urbanized environment.
image: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
project team: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, Great Ecology

By 2050, an estimated 66% of the world’s human population will reside in urban areas. That number reflects a steady increase in urbanites from 1950 onward.

As our world becomes increasingly populated and urbanized, how we as designers plan for that growth will affect the health of the planet and its ecosystems. Too often, our urban landscape design solutions oversimplify or ignore the importance of habitat quality, quantity, and connectivity. We grasp the costs and benefits of green roofs, bioswales, urban forests, greenways, and other components of urban green infrastructure. We now need to integrate those strategies into a larger, more connected urban ecological framework.

Through understanding our past and present urban ecological conditions, we can better design for future functionality. The field of urban ecology examines the interactions between organisms and the urban environment – cities, towns, and suburbs. It studies the effects of structures like buildings, roads, culverts, and bridges on communities of organisms. Recent work such as Richard Forman’s Urban Ecology: Science of Cities and the studies completed by the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab support a growing body of research and reference materials.

A restored tidal salt marsh on Randall’s Island in New York provides habitat and water quality benefits in an urban setting. image: Great Ecology project team: RGR Landscape, Great Ecology
A restored tidal salt marsh on Randall’s Island in New York provides habitat and water quality benefits in an urban setting.
image: Great Ecology
project team: RGR Landscape, Great Ecology

Expectations regarding potential ecological functionality within the urban context should be tempered by the constraints inherent to the urban environment. Cities will never function like vast expanses of pristine wilderness. Fragmented by concrete, asphalt, and steel, they hold limited potential as habitat for large animal species and contiguous native plant communities. An incremental increase in plant diversity, habitat connectivity, and small mammals, birds, and aquatic species may prove more feasible within the urban context.  Our urban ecological design solutions should be ambitious, yet realistic, and should accommodate the inevitable need for adaptation and adjustment.

The Corktown Common integrates stormwater management, habitat features, and public access on a former industrial site along the Don River in Toronto. image: Great Ecology project team: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Great Ecology
The Corktown Common integrates stormwater management, habitat features, and public access on a former industrial     site along the Don River in Toronto.
image: Great Ecology
project team: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Great Ecology

Landscape architects are well positioned to dissolve the perceived boundaries between the urban and the ecological.  I invite and challenge you to get inspired, to do your homework, understand your local urban ecosystems, and design for a more functional urban environment. In 2050, a projected 9.5 billion people and countless other species will appreciate your foresight.

by Chris Loftus, RLA, ASLA, Ecology & Restoration PPN Officer

One thought on “Convergent Futures: Cities, Ecology, and Design

  1. ecosentido March 13, 2015 / 1:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Ecosentido and commented:
    Habitar nuestro habitat

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