How to see nature in a city

[Some rough notes about nature in cities…]

vienna-park-by-alex-steffenUrbanization is now the dominant reality of humanity on Earth, and will grow ever more so over this century (and humanity is of course by far the most impactful driver of change on this planet). So if we care about the natural working of this world, we must look to the human realm in cities to find our solutions.

When looking for nature and connection to natural systems within a city, though, we must look through the land occupied by the city itself, and see the much, much larger area that is woven into the fabric of the city by trade and infrastructure, resource and energy use. Even the poorest cities sit at the centers of root systems that tap the water and soil and life of a huge number of distant places.

For reasons I’ve gone into in great depth before (especially in Carbon Zero), urbanization is in many ways the best possible response given the realities of longer lives and diminishing poverty. By bringing people together, we make possible much more ecologically frugal prosperity and much greater innovation and societal dynamism. So cities like great trees with large root systems are something we want.

The trick is that we want those root systems to be as sensible and ecologically sustainable as possible. Mostly, this means reducing the volume of resources and energy cities need to thrive, since extraction of resources and generation of energy are both harmful as currently done. Secondarily, it means making sure the places and ecosystems into which our roots run are being treated with the greatest possible integrity, and that our needs are being met as sustainably as possible. A city with extremely low-energy systems and largely closed-loop resource use can be fed by healthy farms, forests and natural systems, I believe.

What is much, much less important in practical terms is what natural systems work like within the city limits.

That’s because the most important job for any city to do, in planetary terms, is to be as wonderfully urban as it can be. Compact, deeply walkable communities served by transit, efficient infrastructure and good connective technologies give us the leverage to seriously reduce urban footprints. Therefore, maximizing compactness, walkability and efficiency are our main jobs in a city.

Too many old “green city” ideas seemed to be focused mainly on treating urbanization as an imposition on the landscape that needed to be (supposedly) healed in place by low-rise development, lots of urban farms and daylighted streams, on-site green infrastructure and local energy. The simple fact is that it is entirely possible to build a compact city with none of these things that is far more ecologically sound than a low-density community with all of them.Looking natural has very little to do with building sustainable urban ways of life, and the choice between the two is simple.

Nature, greenery, connection to life and more ecological local systems are both possible and important within a city: it’s just that they must be urban versions of these things, where the goal is feeling and function, not naturalistic appearance. Urban forests of full-grown street trees, road pavement reclaimed as linear parks, bioswales and rainwater harvesting, balcony gardens, community mini-farms, parks and waterfronts – all of these can enrich our lives, and make life in the city easier, more relaxed, and often a bit more sustainable.

(Indeed, I think smart cities will start plowing up their parking lots and asphalt and creating far more and far greener public space as a means of increasing quality of life and sense of connection to the larger world in very dense places).

What we don’t need is cities attempting to be poor, damaged versions of natural places. Urban restoration as a project to make cities better cities is a terrific idea; urban restoration meant to undo urbanism is mistaken in its very core.

One of the things I’d like to see much more of is places and systems within cities that enable good systems storytelling– urban gardens that help citizens understand the process of growing food and the nature of their city’s foodshed; water systems that help citizens visualize the source of their water, its finite capacities and where and how water is used in their lives and in their cities; retail stores that tell their products’ backstories; metering, displays, even public art that helps people understand the flows of energy into their cities and the impacts producing that energy is having on the wider world; and so on and so forth.

To my mind, the best ways to see nature in a city are as a companion in urban life and as a metaphorical tool for understanding the world, since that’s what I think will help lead us towards cities that deliver both beautiful urban life and healthy planetary life.