Urban Ecology and Hope

Last week my colleague Erik Strauss gave a talk on urban ecology as as part of a seminar series, “The Urban Ecosystem of Los Angeles: A Discussion of Our Cities Future”. Eric is Presidential Professor of Biology at Loyola Marymount University, head of its Center for Urban Resilience, and an expert on urban ecology.

The seminar was sponsored by The Annenberg Foundation and held at Skylight Studies — the production arm of The Annenberg Space for Photography. The venue was superb, with cutting edge presentation technology, delicious catering, and a professional staff from both Annenberg and CURes who made it all possible. The audience was equally delightful, and full of interesting questions and comments.

Eric spoke about the science of urban ecology as it relates to Los Angeles, with an emphasis on urban resilience in the face of the cities growth and climate-driven environmental change. I am new to Los Angeles, and I must admit I was struck by how his presentation encapsulated the environmental and social challenges facing the city, county and surrounding areas.

The sprawl of the city from the 1970s onward, the growing size and diversity of the regions population, lack of employment and adequate housing, strains on the transportation and energy infrastructure, the region’s fragile dependence on aqueducts highly vulnerable to earthquakes, the channeling of the Los Angeles and Ballona Rivers, the steady destruction of the Ballona wetlands, ongoing habitat destruction and ocean pollution, and the obliteration of the dune ecology for recreational beaches.

Today Angelenos are struggling to sunlight their streams and restore the natural course of their rivers, protect the mere 600 acres left of La Ballona, and bring equity to the many communities that have little or no access to parks, open space, outdoor recreation, or nature reserves. In addition it must rebuild its mass transit, replace its crumbling water mains and gas lines, secure its vulnerable aqueducts, retrofit its building for future earthquakes, fund its schools, provide for a livable wage, and prepare for the extreme weather and ocean flooding caused by climate change. All these are requisite if the city is to thrive in the future.

Still, I was struck by Eric’s emphasis on hope, that is, how these challenges afford greater Los Angeles the opportunity to create more sustainable and resilient communities. One way of looking at urban ecology is as the study of nature in the city. There is nothing wrong with this per se. Yet if we think of the city as a socio-ecological system, then we can think about cities as distinctive ecosystems in and of themselves. And such designed ecosystems can be redesigned for the better.

After all, virtually every urban environmental or social challenge is anthropogenic (created by people), and can be solved, reversed, mitigated or adapted to by human communities. There are difficulties to be sure. Some problems are global in scale, and cannot be solved on a local or regional basis. Climate change and globalization are examples. Other problems like poverty and inequality are the product of political and economic structures that favour privileged elites. Yet these and other problems can be tackled by informed and involved communities at various scales. We need only the will and organization to do so.

In addition, this is the urban century, a time when an increasing majority of the world’s people live in cities. If only because they are becoming the dominant habitat of humankind, increasing attention will focus on the urban issues. Cities are thus the requisite crucibles in which to solve many of today’s environmental and social problems. And cities have a distinctive ability to bring together a critical mass of people whose knowledge and skill can improve our local, regional and global communities.

Finally, many of the solutions that are and will be proposed are technological or political in nature. Mass transit, updated infrastructure, and storm surge barriers are examples of the technological. Reducing the power of vested elites over public policy, and returning decision-making to the community at large, are examples of the political. In the language of urban ecology, such “technocentric” and “political ecological” approaches each have their value.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about our species is that we are able to care so deeply for the well being of others, both human and non-human. This is not a trait unique to homo sapiens. We experience it in the love of our companion animals, and the animal friendships that exist amongst and between other species. Yet no other species but our own appears to jump beyond a network of interpersonal relationships, to a broader concern for the needs of unknown others. People can and do care about other people, animals (wild and domestic), and nature even if they do not know them, are not the same species, or are in a place they have never been or seen. So in addition to the technological and political solutions, there are moral and cultural solutions as well. And these are key to building resilient cities characterized by social justice, animal protection, ecological integrity, sustainability, and the adaptive capacity needed for the people, animals and nature of cities to flourish.

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