Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nature and Human Settlements - Part II

(Continued from the preceding post.)

Much has been accomplished since The Granite Garden was written. For example, in 1990 Black Rose published David Gordon’s book Green Cities dealing with ecologically sound approaches to the use and management of urban space.  In 1994 Platt, Rowntree, and others published a book titled The Ecological City focusing on preserving and restoring urban biodiversity.  In 2001 Richard Register, with the urban ecology group in the Berkeley/Oakland area of California and leader in the Ecocities movement, published Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature, and then, in 2006, revised it and reissued it as Ecocities: REbuilding Cities in Balance with Nature.

From all of this theory and professional practice has developed an evolving movement that is making inroads, some small, and some very large, into the ‘greening’ of human settlements.  Early on, the American Forestry Society turned its attention to urban forest cover and developed guidelines for the reforestation of urban areas. Green roofs are another technique used to reduce the urban heat island effect and increase urban wildlife habitat. Roofing materials have been developed that reflect light and thus heat from rooftops, rather than absorb heat and require air conditioning. Construction techniques are now being used in buildings and other places in our settlements to reduce environmental impacts.  For example, porous concrete is used to replace asphalt in order to make more efficient and environmentally sound use of the rainwater that falls on the thousands of acres of urban hard surface.

In order to move all of this forward and put all of it into practice, Urban Ecology study centers have been established at a number of places and the United Nations has a sustainable cities initiative.

Government is also involved in the greening of our settlements, sometimes through planning, ordinances, laws, and even funding. In number of areas we see nonprofit consultative groups, that concentrate a substantial amount of professional skills, focused on greening the built environment. A lot of this energy and movement is reflected in literally thousands of organizations in communities, cities, and towns across the world.  These organizations often take on the role of advocates, and sometimes as consultants.

Much of the greening movement within communities has centered on the stabilization and restoration of streams and, where they exist, rivers.  These projects have ranged from removing trash from streams, to planting vegetation or placing structures to slow or stop erosion, to the restoration of special wetland communities, to 'day-lighting' streams that were covered over in the past.

Other work has been undertaken to establish corridors of habitat along which wildlife can move with some freedom and safety.  Still other efforts include general protection, conservation, and restoration of existing patches of forest or desert or shrub-land habitat, depending on where the city or urban center is located.

The urban restoration movement seems to have merged, to a great degree with the broader sustainability movement, and to some extent with the community gardening and permaculture movement, and now we talk about ‘sustainable ecocities.’  In fact, the first International EcoCities Conference was held in 2000 and there have been others since. An increasing number of very fine colleges and universities now offer training in the field of Urban Ecology. 

Living in community requires that we reach agreement about how to proceed on the greening of our settlements.  There are other factors stirring out there, however, that will affect any decisions we make concerning the nature of our settlements, our place in them, and the place of other species.  Not the least of these are the costs and availability of energy, the costs and decreasing availability of water, and the inconvenient but undeniable truth of global climate change and its impacts.

On the morning of December 13, 2000 I was cochairing a regional committee of a US federal initiative. One of the young staffers, who had flown down from Washington to be with us, excused himself to take an urgent call.  When he reentered the room he asked for a moment to make an announcement.  We all knew what was coming. US Vice President Al Gore, following a decision of the US Supreme Court, had conceded the election to George W. Bush and our urban greening initiative had been dissolved by the incoming administration. Several months later buildings in American cities would be under attacks from the air and bombs would fall on Baghdad. The world had changed.