Urban Ecology: Science of Cities

foremanRating: ★★★★☆

Richard TT Forman. 2014. Urban Ecology: Science of Cities. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978 0 521 18824 1

Urban ecology has a reasonably long history, if almost 100 years can be considered long, tracing its roots back into the sociology of the 1920s. Here it was seen as a way of describing the distribution of people and probably owed little to our popular conception of ecology. Urban ecology has developed from those times and now looks at the way in which urban areas affect the natural ecology. However, the question remains: what do we do when the urban area becomes the ecology? How are we to make sense of the resulting patterns of biotic and abiotic forces in our towns and cities? Into this debate we find one of the key modern figures, Richard Forman, who has developed a particular perspective on the way we view landscapes. My first meeting with this idea (now referred to as landscape ecology) was with Forman’s 1995 text Land Mosaics. Reviewing that, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of the enterprise which seemed, no less than a re-evaluation of the way we perceive heterogeneous areas. It was clearly with interest that I caught up with the latest tome.

It’s worth starting, as the text does, by considering the nature of urban ecology and how that term has evolved and, equally importantly, how it is applied here. It is probably fair to say that for most of the time, the “urban” has been seen as something to disturb the “ecology”. Cities polluted, destroyed habitats, changed air flows and generally made the natural environment that much less biodiverse. If they were considered at all in the ecological realm, they were places that altered nature. Today, and especially with this book, there has been a change. Forman’s earlier seminal work on landscape ecologies gave us the idea that heterogeneous areas could have their own system of working; that ecology was not just a single ecosystem. Let’s add the idea that over 50% of the world’s population are urbanised and we have places, growing places, that can be colonised and used by plants and animals (with some texts arguing that tall buildings are just manufactured cliffs!). This allows us to study cities are reservoirs of wildlife (even London’s bombsites!). If we take this a stage further, then the urban area becomes part of the flows of a region. Since cities are supported by their regions, it follows that the city-region can be considered as an ecosystem. There remains just one more leap to take. If urban areas are ecosystems, then it  follows we should be able to manipulate them to create areas that satisfy the need for human shelter but at the same time, using ecological principles to create better living conditions. The city is now an ecosystem and the urban-rural divide is now more of an ecological gradient. It is from this idea that see this text – a study in the ecology, both pure and applied, of a highly diverse habitat. Urban ecologists study the buildings, flows and organisms in all their complex organisation and interdependencies not just for insight but to suggest ways our cities could be better by harnessing those principles we see in “nature”.

The introduction, above, sets the scene for urban ecology and the tone in terms of its focus. Within the first part of the text, two more ideas are found. The first of these has to do with spatial patterns. Depending on your scale, always a key consideration, cities have a distinct mosaic with its own surface patterns, both human and natural. To this, we add geomorphology, adding, along with air, the third dimension. Once we have these we can examine environmental gradients between urban and rural but also the patterns on the ground that divide area from area. Much of the work reported here is not so much to accept some model but to find one that might give a good fit to observations. These mosaics are not discrete. They are linked by a series of corridors, which are themselves subject to flows. If we start to put this together, we find we have a highly complex mosaic of linked features. It has taken almost one quarter of the book to bring us to this point, but it’s well made. “Urban” means a myriad mosaics, each with their own properties linked by a complex series of flows whose outcomes vary in time.

Part two moves from this dense and complex, but necessary, discussion on the nature of the issue to the more straightforward examination of  key ecological features. The change could not be more striking. We are moved from a tight and complex argument over the nature of urban ecology to the more straightforward world of soil. Here, we move rapidly from soil basics to a consideration of the 3-dimensional impact people whether it be a garden or the underground railway cutting through bedrock. So far, we have set the scene. The remaining parts of the chapter describe, briefly, the key principles of soil classification, processes and biotic components and the importance of these to urban soil ecology. The mixture of these two aspects – pattern and process, familiar to geographers are now brought into an ecological context. To this, we now add underground structures and their ecologies and flows. The overall effect is to create a sense of  complexity – three-dimensional mosaics and their individuals properties and the flows linking them all. The next ecological feature is urban air. Again, we see the patterns and mosaics of urban air be  it in the house, or lot or street and the movements connecting them. To this, we add air pollution and the impact that has.

We continue this approach, as one might expect, with the remaining chapters. The pattern, gives way to processes and flows which in turn, links to a topic specific to that feature. Urban water distribution is linked to flow with sewage, septics and stormwater adding the human dimension. Given pollution reduction measures, it is appropriate that urban water fauna are described (both freshwater and coastal for those cites with a marine water perspective). Urban plants and animals are the subject of the next two chapters where the distinctive elements of faunal and floral adaptation to the city (see urban fox, for example) are recorded.

Our final section looks at those features which are distinctively urban. The first of these is urban structures which examines the ways in which buildings and associated hard surfaces have been organised (i.e. pattern). The importance of soft surfaces, normally ignored in urban planning texts, is given full view here with a consideration of the ecological use of lawns, parks etc. It’s clear that these are low-density areas of town and cities. A subsequent chapter looking at residential, but also commercial and industrial buildings provides yet more habitats, not just the buildings but also any green areas around. A final chapter examines the impact of green spaces on the city.

It is clear that this is a remarkable book. It attempts to create a new perspective on urban ecology. It is not the traditional view whereby the city is something that stops nature and what we need to do is to help conserve wildlife and contain the urban area to stop further “contamination” of the rural areas. In fact, containment has been a key urban theme up to now but we need to move beyond it. It suggests, in the ecological sense, that the smaller the area, the less damage it can do. But what if this is not the issue? What if the city is a part of nature, not apart from? This allows us to explore the urban area as a habitat, as a place which has its own ecology. It follows that if we are to live in this habitat we need to be aware of what is going on and how to minimise our impact. Whereas this is a fairly common viewpoint, the author takes it further and suggests that we develop an ecology of the urban that puts people in as part of the ecosystem. Once we are in this frame, it takes little effort to modify the urban area and our reactions to improve urban life and to reduce the ecofootprint. This is the book’s over-riding theme, and its call for action. It is saying that we need to consider the mosaic of the town and also our place in it but also requires that we work on the ecology of the place to improve liveability in the city and to ensure that we use ecological principles and research to have better experiences. Given the state of many world cities, this book is overdue. It’s rich and complex thinking challenge the way we look at urban areas and demands that we study urban ecology but also use it to create better urban areas.

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