Destabilizing Urban Planning

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We used to think our natural world was stable. Stability meant certainty. A certain input into the system would create a reproducible output. If an objective was reached by a given set of actions, reproducing those actions would always result in the same objective being met. It appears, however, that the modern notions of stability and certainty are a fallacy.

Contemporary ecology is informing us that planning objectives are highly contextual. An output by actions in one circumstance won’t be reproduced by the same actions in another one. I fear that although research in urban planning is highly dynamic and informative, the outputs are less so. As research advances in how cities might evolve, is planning and developing keeping apace?

I write this article for heuristic value to ask the question: What might urban planning look like through a lens of ecology studies? I intend to raise questions, to increase debate, rather than to dictate some design solution because, well, that might be an awfully modern thing to do.

Where might the practice of planning benefit by an ecological gaze? If we accept the premise that committing the same actions will not always lead to the accomplishment of the same objective, where might we let go of objectives? Instead of actions seeking objectives, what if we guided all by established principles? For example, a planning objective wouldn’t be to increase walking—that could be an objective where design strategies ultimately had little impact on walking and thus the objective not being met—but rather to understand walking as guided by a principle. Thus under a larger "truth," a "walkable" environment would be a success even if there was no discernible increase in walking. How might a failure become a success through the ecology gaze?

Theories in contemporary ecology can change our cognitive frame of reference. One truth we might seek could be to advance the services provided by nature that we depend on. Instead of laying down cities for use: road networks, homes, business, and institutions (no matter how "mixed-used" that network is)—what if a city was designed to be responsive to those services provide by nature? How would land be planned and developed to aid pollination and nutrient cycling? How could it better regulate air and water quality? How could our built environment be resilient to natural hazards and disease outbreaks?

For example, a city that advances the ecological value of habitat connectivity would also be one for walking. Narrow roads, shorter blocks, and trees for beauty serve both human and wildlife values; thus if human use falls short, wildlife value might be advanced.

Fortunately, the practice of urban planning is moving away from inefficient and unproductive single-function lands. Hard surfaces are being vegetated. Riparian areas are being re-established rather than fortified with concrete. Underused turf grass is being replaced by gardens. The camber of streets is being inverted to hold and channel storm water away from properties rather than divert waters into often inundated culverts.

This is a slim list of advancements in urban design practices. For the most part, however, they remain marginal actions. Our roads are wide; our roofs are hard; our landscaping is mono-cultural. We put up chain link fences. Storm water goes into pipes underground. We continue to construct the environment rather than respond to it. Maybe we continue such practices because we’re objective-based rather than principle-based. Maybe we think inputs will get to a prescribed outputs. An ecology gaze might augment our ways. 

Principles help give direction in an unstable world. Urban planning practices could be based on a purposeful trajectory aimed at principles.[i] Locally derived truths—that might resonate globally—could guide our actions.

The natural world is not stable nor are we separate from it. Maybe urban planning based on ecosystem value, i.e., actions that attempt to benefit the environment while recognizing our place in it, would advance cities to be adaptable, resilient and flexible—just where contemporary thinking in ecology directs us to look. If nothing else, ecological thinking would help us remove institutional boundaries, to cease thinking that road design, or open space design, or energy production, are separate.

What other principles could guide us? What actions should we be taking? How would embracing an ecological gaze advance urban planning, both the field of inquiry and its constructs? I look forward to the discussion.

Connect Steven on Twitter @stevenpsnell or Facebook stevenpsnell.


[i] Reed, C., Lister, N. (2014). “Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies. “All ecosystems are constantly evolving, often in ways that are discontinuous and uneven. While some ecosystem states are perceived by us to be stable, this is not strict stability in a mathematical sense; this is simply our human, time-limited perception of stasis. The work of Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling pioneered this concept in terms of resource management. He referred to ecosystems as “shifting steady-state mosaics,” implying that stability is patchy and scale-dependent, and is neither a constant nor a phenomenon that defines a whole system at any one point in time or space.” Accessed on June 15, 2014. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/projective-ecologies-parallel-genealogies/38423/

Steven Snell is a professional urban planner and novelist with a master’s degree in urban design. Opinions here are his own.

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