The Chronicle Review

Ecological Urbanism for the 21st Century

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

January 22, 2012

In the age-old cultural ebb and flow between city and country, the city has made a remarkable turnaround. Not so long ago, cities were seen as a cancer that would have to be contained if we were to save the planet. Now cities are more often portrayed as the best solution to what ails life on earth.

Even more remarkably, this turn has taken place at the same time as a crucial demographic shift: Globally, more people now live in cities than in the countryside. During a similar transition in England in the 19th century, there was a romantic cultural turn to the pastoral, as Raymond Williams observed in his classic The Country and the City. In the United States, in the early 20th century, this demographic transition was marked by President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of a Commission on Country Life amid profound cultural angst about the fate of rural America.

We've come a long way from the Roosevelt commission's concern with the "deficiencies" of country life, although the Obama administration recently created a White House Rural Council to "address challenges in rural America." To be sure, we still hear plenty of paeans to that "real America," though only one out of five Americans lives there now, as well as to "wild nature," though most ecologists have come to accept that virtually nothing about nature is untouched by humanity.

The dominant discourse these days, however, unabashedly celebrates the city as the future, in books with titles such as David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009) and Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin Press, 2011).

We share much of their excitement and optimism, but we are wary of this urban triumphalism. We worry that it is blinding us to problems as well as to opportunities for understanding the vital relationship between the country and the city, and right at a time ripe for innovation in the academic fields most concerned with this relationship, particularly urban planning and ecology.

As Raymond Williams wrote of the country and the city, "we must not limit ourselves to their contrast but go on to see their interrelations and through these the real shape of the underlying crisis." Nearly 40 years later, it is a crisis still. Shaping cities will be the biggest human challenge in the 21st century. Pollyannaish urbanism notwithstanding, dealing with that challenge will not be easy, particularly in the developing world, where rapidly growing urban areas are expected to absorb virtually all of the global population growth projected between now and 2050: 2.1 to 3.8 billion people, according to the United Nations. Almost 90 percent of that growth will come in cities of less than one million people—hundreds of small cities that will grow into big cities—not in the well-known, glamorous megacities, such as New York and Tokyo. To visualize that growth, imagine a new city the size of Washington or San Francisco popping up somewhere on the planet once a week.

But these cities will neither be as well planned as the District of Columbia nor as geographically contained as San Francisco. They are not likely to be the dense urban cores of the creative classes celebrated by Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida, or the transit-oriented metropolitan hubs with walkable neighborhoods of Andrés Duany and the New Urbanists, or the landscape urbanism of Charles Waldheim and James Corner that attempts to integrate the city into its ecological matrix. The cities—and the countryside—of the future, indeed the whole planet, could benefit greatly from these galvanizing ideas, but that is unlikely to happen without more concerted effort to bring these fields together in unified, focused, and pragmatic programs that integrate the latest advances in ecology and conservation science with other disciplines concerned with the urban. Unfortunately, that integration is taking place all too rarely in isolated university programs, courses, and design studios, although there are a few promising exceptions.

There are two big problems here. The first is with architecture and urban planning, fields that are fractured by internecine battles that pit environmentally minded urbanists against one another for control of intellectual territory in academe and in design ateliers. The debates between "new urbanists" and "landscape urbanists" have been among the fiercest in the field. Meanwhile, in most academic departments as well as in practice, ecology is too often treated as a trendy design element or embellishment rather than a fundamental discipline, if it is considered at all. And some very influential urbanists, like Glaeser, dismiss many ecological concerns out of hand as impediments to efficient economies of scale in cities, believing that the efficiency of cities is sufficient on its own to solve our ecological problems.

The other problem is that ecology and conservation science still tend to frame cities as the enemies from which nature needs to be protected, despite several high-profile longitudinal studies of cities as ecosystems. These studies have made good progress in mapping out the metabolism of energy and resource flows in the hybrid human and natural systems of cities. But strange as it may seem, by and large urban ecology is still more marginalized in conservation science than it is in urban planning. That is changing, however, under pressure from the accumulating evidence that cities will be the creative forces shaping the global environment for better or worse in the foreseeable future.

The sharp rise in attention to "ecosystem services" and "natural capital"—concepts which attempt to define and quantify nature's value for human well-being—is one measure of this change. These terms have meaning only in relation to people, and in an era when most people live in cities, nature that provides goods and services such as clean water for city dwellers will be increasingly valuable.

The world's largest conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy, is deep in debate about how to refigure its global strategies in light of these trends, and its own aging, wealthy, white American base of support. This tweedy fly-fishing and bird-watching demographic bears less and less resemblance to diverse urbanites in the United States, not to mention elsewhere in the world. "Conservation is facing a crisis of irrelevance—it is an enterprise that is not urgent to most people," the conservancy's chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, recently warned its members. "If conservation is to build the support it needs, it must energize young urban dwellers, who now make up most of the world. The best way to get city people to care about conservation is to do conservation where they live, so that nature is seen as relevant and connected to modern life."

Last year Kareiva invited us to contribute to this debate by writing a series of essays for the conservancy's in-house journal, Science Chronicles. We argued that the Nature Conservancy needs to turn itself inside out quickly to engage the challenges at hand. Rather than continuing to follow a fairly successful strategy focused on big, relatively wild landscapes, we advocated a drastic shift to a city-centered, outward-looking conservation strategy that starts in the urban core and moves out to the wilderness, rather than looking in from wild nature and seeing the city as a threat. Why?

Cities have historically been the dynamic engines of conservation, as well as the engines of economic growth and innovation. Some of the best environmental history in recent years has focused on urban environments, including Matthew Gandy's Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (MIT Press, 2002), Jared Orsi's Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2004), Matthew Klingle's Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (Yale University Press, 2007), and Michael Rawson's Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Harvard University Press, 2010).

The meaning of conservation in cities has changed over time, and in the process has left us with a diverse toolbox of useful ideas and practices, ranging from the City Beautiful movement and protected watersheds for clean drinking water to parks and open space for scenic beautification, recreation, spiritual renewal, and lately, as habitat for other species and space for ecosystem processes to continue to unfold and evolve. The geographer Richard Walker celebrates the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study of such a historically constructed metropolitan landscape in his book The Country in the City (University of Washington Press, 2007).

In Triumph of the City, Glaeser begs to differ: Anything that stands in the way of efficient economic development of the metropolis, whether it be preservation of historic buildings or conservation of nature, is an impediment to making us all "richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier." "The environmentalists of coastal California may have made their own region more pleasant," he argues, "but they are harming the environment by pushing new building away from the Berkeley suburbs, which have a temperate climate and ready access to public transportation, to suburban Las Vegas, which is all about cars and air conditioning."

This is a common claim, particularly among home builders, but we have found little evidence that parks and protected areas significantly reduce the housing stock in the Bay Area. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, in our own research we found that if all the parks and open space had been developed in Silicon Valley, for instance, the housing stock would have increased by about 6 percent. Most of that housing would be very expensive on big lots in the hills above the bay, where most conserved land is located. Very little would be affordable by any standard, and that would entail building on all of the pocket parks and playing fields created precisely as amenities within the metropolitan fabric.

While it is true that more housing units could be packed into Manhattan if Central Park didn't exist, our findings suggest that would not have significantly changed the housing market in New York, which would still be an expensive place to live. And without parks and protected areas, many cities would be measurably less pleasant places to live. Arguably, New York City wouldn't be a world-class city without Central Park.

Moreover, Glaeser ignores the many ways conservation and urban planning can work together to increase sustainability. Many urban-planning programs have begun to teach their students how neighborhood form affects walkability and energy efficiency. One of the best ways to achieve these goals is to have more compact cities, as Glaeser and other urbanists argue, but other factors are also important, such as the distribution of green space for urban residents to use and enjoy. Many studies have found, for example, that children are much healthier when they have a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk. While planning for such parks may slightly reduce land available for development, and increase property values, which is not a bad thing, it also drastically increases the quality of life for residents.

Glaeser rightly decries the historical use of zoning codes as tools of racial discrimination, but that need not lead to rejecting all zoning. Urban planning arose in the context of human-health-and-safety reforms. The original point of separating factories from residential areas was to reduce exposure to dangerous pollution. Similarly, building codes and setback rules were put in place primarily to protect people's health and well-being.

Rather than rejecting all zoning and open-space protection within metropolitan areas, on the one hand, or seeing the city as a cancer that needs to be contained, on the other, we ought to be teaching a new generation of students how to balance multiple objectives to increase sustainability from the city core out to the wilderness, along what Andrés Duany calls "the transect." All along this transect, trade-offs must be made between people and nature. But in our own canvas of urban-planning programs at American universities, we found relatively few programs that offer an explicit and sustained focus on ecology and conservation science. And few programs in ecology and conservation offer any in-depth exposure to urban planning. Integrated programs that teach students both urban and conservation-planning principles will be key to overcoming this deficiency. Moreover, other disciplines should be brought into this vital conversation.

At the University of Washington, a yearlong seminar titled "Now Urbanism" ventured into this territory last year with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. More than 30 faculty members from every school on campus participated regularly, said Margaret O'Mara, an urban historian and co-organizer of the seminar with Thaisa Way, a landscape-architecture professor. "The question of the urban knits together fields of scholarly inquiry that are really wide-ranging," said O'Mara. "I'm heartened. I see the camps talking to each other more, or at least saying they should talk to each other. I also see a much deeper acknowledgment that the environment and the city are interdependent and interconnected and really the same thing. I think we're going in the right direction. This is an important shift. The environment and urban are not binaries."

O'Mara said "Now Urbanism" encountered three stumbling blocks. Disciplinary jargon was one. "It's very hard for people to speak the same language," she said. Scale was another. Scientists tend to study patterns of land use change over very large areas. Urban planners, architects, and engineers usually work at the more fine-grained scale of the city, neighborhood, and building. And both scientists and urbanists, O'Mara said, pay too little attention to politics, economics, and history. "You should know something about the neighborhood you're planning to remake," she said. "We need to dream big, but we need to root it in what is already there."

Jon Christensen is executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. Robert McDonald is a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy. Carrie Denning is an urban-planning and transportation consultant in Washington.