December 9, 2006

The theoretical origin of "local ecology"

In the fall of 2004 I wrote a prospectus outlining the idea of "local ecology." I will present it here in four parts : theory, case example, methodology, and conclusion.  

Theory The intersection of ecological and social systems in cities is the framework that I use to shape my thinking about the restoration of local greenspaces. Restoration, as I define it, is laying claim to a space and transforming the social and ecological cultures that exist within and around that space. In other words, cooperative place-making can be effective in establishing healthy relationships within communities; residents working together towards a common goal are more than a mechanism for developing community feeling (Francis 1984). It is a chance to involve people with the land: to form persistent bonds through daily interaction in a local space. It is an opportunity to reinstitute the idea of making a “claim,” of becoming a steward. In general, urban greenspaces are narrowly defined and typically include parks, plazas, and trailways. I would like to expand the definition of urban greenspace to include front yards, community gardens, street-trees, alleys, balconies, and rooftops. A healthy social system supports the long-term maintenance of our urban greenspaces. The localEcology paradigm is nested in the idea that the process of claiming our local environment can not only foster healthier social relationships, but can, in increments, change the face of the city and the way the city is perceived by city dwellers. Sandercock notes that ordinary urban landscapes have the power to nurture public memory and in many neighbourhoods, this power is largely untapped. The incremental accretion of small steps forms a cluster of ecological and social systems that blend in/outward. Wendell Berry supports the idea that “good land” has to be earned through virtues like justness, kindness, generosity, and honesty. He recognizes that these are social values but argues that these values have ecological consequences. In addition, Smith argued that all elements of planning, even most of the social concerns, are anchored upon or affected by the way in which land is used. But we have lost our “land ethic”: the idea that the earth and its ecological systems support our physical and emotional lives. Our contemporary city forms have negatively altered our interactions with neighbours. Modernist planning has constructed our city spaces through a scientific and mechanical lens. We need to revise this mode of planning, not by creating a na├»ve utopia, but rather, by reconstituting a trust between the land and people. But how do we create a new planning typology that reconnects urban people and land? There are numerous studies that document the social and ecological benefits of “nature” in urbanized areas. This research is generally only applicable to residential landowners (suburban lots), municipalities (parkland and other traditional public open/green spaces) and corporate and university campuses, and not to urban smallholders. Urban smallholders (after Waters-Bayer 1989) are city residents who own small lots or have limited access to land, and often weaker social networks. The new planning typology—locally sustainable land management—will be created and maintained by smallholders. The greenspaces that are accessible to smallholders typically comprise our city streetscapes —front yards, street trees, community gardens, balconies, and rooftops. These spaces are multi-functional; they are urban locales, where smallholders can create functional green and social spaces. Within urban areas, individual patches of greenspace contribute to the intricacy of a city’s ecology. Habitats not traditionally viewed as corridors e.g.: gardens, may act as wildlife conduits in urban areas (Szacki et al. 1994). Furthermore, the true importance of “corridors” may, in fact, lie in extending areas of habitat rather than acting as a corridor per se (Dawson 1995). But many streetscape designs hinder ecological dynamism—common practices like salting sidewalks damage tree roots and installing tree grates provides limited access to soil/root zones. In addition, some streetscapes are monocultures with a lack of understorey layers—a tree farm vs. an (urban) forest. There are often inadequate growing spaces above and below ground, a lack of frontage to support yards and balconies, and underutilized rooftops and alleys. “Vacant” (see Corbin 2003) land is removed from the public domain, public green/open spaces are privatized, and community gardens and other community managed spaces have insecure use rights. Locales can be spaces for cultural expressions of “being green”. Here, being green, is defined as providing spaces for basic natural functions (habitat, growth and decay, phenology) and “green city” concepts (energy balance, stormwater attenuation, and air filtration). Social function can be enhanced through interactions at a local/street level. People become aware of each other and the actions of others as they view and relate to their local spaces. There are many cultural variations of using local knowledge for small-scale land management. How can we strengthen community capacity for sustainable greenspaces? How can we engage the individual or a group of individuals to create ecologically functioning greenspaces while valuing cultural perceptions of “nature near” (after Richard Neutra) and building social networks to sustain these systems? Urban planning theory has evolved from modernism to postmodernism, as a change from a master narrative created by the state, to the integration of physical city building, democratic participation, and mediation between capital, labour, and the state (Beauregard 2003). Contemporary planning’s many paradigms include the communicative model which addresses moral issues reminiscent of nineteenth century planning (Fainstein 2003) and focuses on mediation among stakeholders, new urbanism which relies on physical form to create social integration, and the just-city model which strives to integrate capitalist and social economies in a spatial relationship based on equality.  

References Francis, Mark, et al. 1984. Community Open Spaces. California: Island Press. localEcology is a proposed planning typology, an approach to influencing the ecological character and social content of our cities through active participation in the creation of greenspaces. A typology of human/nature. Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Page 403 In Campbell, Scott and Susan S. Fainstein, editors. Readings in Planning Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Berry, Wendell. 1982. The Gift of Good Land. New York: North Point Press, pages 271 – 272. Smith, Herbert H. 1993. The Citizen’s Guide to Planning. Chicago, Illinois: Planners Press, page 83. Waters-Bayer, 1989. Smallholders definition modified from rural agricultural research; smallholder defined as resource-poor farmers, i.e. persons who derive their livelihood mainly from agriculture and have very limited access to land and capital (Waters-Bayer, Ann. 1989. Participatory technology development in ecologically-oriented agriculture: some approaches and tools. Agricultural Administration Network. Overseas Development Institute. London). Szacki, J. et al. 1994 and G.M.A. Barker 1997. Cited by Young, Christopher H. and Peter J. Jarvis. 2001. Measuring urban habitat fragmentation: an example from Black Country, UK. Landscape Ecology 16: 643 – 658. Dawson, K.J. 1995. Cited by Young, Christopher H. and Peter J. Jarvis. 2001. Measuring urban habitat fragmentation: an example from Black Country, UK. Landscape Ecology 16: 643 – 658. The declaration of vacancy or emptiness erases important dimensions of a site: natural processes and characteristics above or below the scale of conventional perception, cultural history or meanings that may not have a physical presence, and systems that are not recognized as having immediate functional purpose. Corbin, Carla I. Vacancy and Landscape: Cultural Context and Designed Purpose. Landscape Journal 22(1): 2003, page 12. Title of a collection of late essays by Richard Neutra’s in which according to Leslie Dick, he deconstructed the architectural dichotomy between inside and outside. Neutra believed that the nature should enter the domestic space. Beauregard, Robert A. 2003. Pages 108 – 121 In Campbell, Scott and Susan S. Fainstein, editors. Readings in Planning Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Fainstein, Susan S. 2003. Page 190 In Campbell, Scott and Susan S. Fainstein, editors. Readings in Planning Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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