Leaf Litter

Form Should Serve Function in Urban Ecology

We issue a challenge to make urban areas “ecologically astounding.”

By Keith Bowers & Jessica Norris

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Urban open space isn’t just about looking good, and it can reach well beyond providing recreation and cultural resources for the community. Urban open space can also provide ecological services and enhance biodiversity depending on its context, connectivity, size, and the effort we put into it.

The basic tenets of conservation science are widely accepted and have been applied to large parks and wildlife reserves and in an international context. However, there is still a deep disconnect between conservation science and the design of urban open space. Bridging those disciplines will require a paradigm shift.

Urban areas have the potential to be ecologically rich. For example, they can improve water quality, reduce flooding, and provide wildlife habitat. To create spaces that provide such stacked benefits, urban designers must employ conservation science principles in their designs and develop metrics for their success.

There are several reasons that conservation science gets neglected in urban designs. The academic backgrounds of urban designers are in landscape architecture, land planning, and architecture. They do not often include conservation biology and landscape ecology, the disciplines that make up conservation science. This is partly because conservation science has become increasingly theoretical. Although there are more models prioritizing areas for conservation each year, many are created without adequate attention to the practical realities of implementation and go largely unread by practitioners.

Second, the potential for ecological services and biodiversity in urban open space is chronically underestimated. Cities tend to look at a site’s recent history and present status and may not realize a site’s full potential.

Urban design and conservation science often consider different scales. Conservation planning has leapt forward with the advent of GIS, and newly available data has allowed conservation scientists to work on large landscapes. Many conservation scientists focus on remote rather than urban areas and fail to connect to local decision makers. Conversely, urban designers typically focus on site-specific challenges and opportunities, and may not be able to put place their site into a regional context.

Finally, the metrics for designing and evaluating the conservation value of urban open space are poorly developed.  The powerful spatial tools for conservation planning have not been tailored to the needs of cities.  We rarely measure the effects of interventions touted to improve ecosystem services or biodiversity.

As practitioners, we should design urban open space with the following in mind:

A conservation scientist should be included on the design team. A trained conservation scientist may identify opportunities to realize multiple benefits that would otherwise go overlooked.

Urban designers should champion the idea of maximizing ecosystem services and biodiversity with their clients. Designers have an opportunity to challenge assumptions about a site and bring forth its full ecological potential. For example, standard design elements such as shade trees can be selected for additional values such as their ability to provide habitat for Neotropical migratory birds.

Design teams should think regionally and design locally. Each site fits into a larger matrix that affects its ecological function and biodiversity.  For example, pollinators and water might move onto and off of the site. Accounting for such factors by planning within a larger context can bolster the strength of a site.

Site designs should incorporate metrics that provide guidance for the design and monitoring of ecosystem services and biodiversity. Quantifying the precise scope of ecosystem services and biodiversity should be the norm rather than the exception.

As urban planning expert Timothy Beatley puts it, sustainable and resilient cities represent our best hope for addressing today’s environmental challenges. To make this hope a reality, we must bridge the gap between conservation science and urban open space planning and design.

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