Friday, January 21, 2011

Reconciliation Ecology

Ironically, TV shows on nature that aspire to deepen our appreciation of nature can also distance nature from us, describing nature as apart and focusing on remote unsettled landscapes.  Reconciliation ecology is a rather new concept in our still birthing eco-literacy, involving “sharing our habitats with other species.”  Rather than separating human and nonhuman to optimize other species, this concept suggests that settled  landscapes, as well as unsettled landscapes, can contribute to the optimization of other species.   The following is an excerpt from a manuscript entitled The Living City: The Adaptive Features Of Urban Ecology:

Enhancing Nonhuman Urban Life

THE CITY CAN ASPIRE to become an oasis of life, both human and nonhuman, rather than aspire to be either less intrusive or more accommodating to nonhuman urban life.  And an authentic urban oasis would not be isolated like an island or fortress or oasis of human life.  Even if separation was desired, it is not possible, nor would it be optimal.  Optimal human life is integrated within the larger Earth ecosystem that provides quality resources at next to no cost, such as recycling and air and water and soil quality that are beyond our capability to either fund or design. 
Design for the “living city” emphasizes the human need for immersion in the larger Earth community.  Rather than only aspiring to enhance the unsettled landscape beyond the city, an integral design element to integrate the city into the larger Earth community involves enhancing nonhuman life within the city. 
A beginning example that provides insights for optimizing nonhuman urban life in this direction has been described in reconciliation ecology.[i]  In Win-Win Ecology, Michael Rosenberg describes reconciliation ecology as the intentional effort of “sharing our habitats with other species.”  Reconciliation ecology aspires to biologically enhance the areas of land that we use in a way that is positive, practical and backed by science.  Rosenberg writes, “Reconciliation ecology is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work or play.”[ii] 
Reconciliation ecology challenges the traditional approach to culture and nature as opposites, and aspires to focus on the settled land and land in production to support human and nonhuman species.  It is not a replacement for setting aside nonhuman habitat, but rather is a compliment where, heretofore, a “reconciliation” approach has been largely proscribed as either impossible or as intrusive interference that “artificially” imbalances a natural process.  Human imbalancing of natural landscapes is seen as obviously present not only in the city but also globally, and it is the thing to be confronted wherever it occurs.  There is this odd presumption that the influence of human activity could be stopped when it never has been, with dramatic intrusion occurring since the Stone Age. 
While it does not inherently do so, reconciliation ecology can challenge the presumption that we should not interfere with “wild” life, by encouraging nonhuman species in the urban environment—an activity that is presumed to ultimately degrade the quality of the overall Earth ecosystem.  It is argued that human activity should be restricted because it is intrusive, but the most benign act of conservation is intrusive.  While some urban projects have been described, reconciliation efforts have typically involved non-urban inhabited landscapes and/or land-in-production.  It would be rather new to suggest that as we “reinvent” cities to be more livable and sustainable for human habitation, we can also reinvent more livable and sustainable nonhuman urban habitat.
Rosenberg has challenged traditional conservation as “reservation ecology” that aspires to preserve but manages or controls efforts in small areas.  This “reservation” emphasis may limit the reach of environmental efforts.  He offers examples where conservation accelerated destruction while land in production increased wildlife success.  Conservation efforts in general are criticized as “restoration ecology” that control rather than preserve nature.  Choices are made, especially with regard to the devaluing and eradication of “exotic” species. 
These invasive rather than indigenous species express a natural process of succession that has positive functions such as seed dispersion and “nursing” depleted and disturbed land, as well as continuing to control exotics that rapidly overwhelm indigenous species.  This approach to exotic species doe not mean that no effort should be made to manage species that are completely overwhelming established species.  It is more of a recognition that we need to consider that we are managing rather than trusting wildness and imposing a value.  For example, red cedar is treated as negative exotic in a prairie ecosystem when it is a natural successor.  It is derided primarily because the prairie ecosystem has been reduced to remnants that are trying to be “preserved” from succession since they are no longer sustained naturally by fire.
While it is oriented toward preserving biodiversity, reconciliation ecology has been criticized as being “resignation ecology” that diverts attention from the tropical landscapes by suggesting that it can enhance biodiversity.[iii]   It is correctly argued that most of the world’s biotic diversity is located in tropical landscapes that are being rapidly depleted because these areas are also destabilized by human poverty and conflict that lead to both human and nonhuman exploitation.  However, criticism that writes off a focus on the city might also be criticized as a form of “resignation ecology” by giving up on the city and having done this for a long time rather than encourage natural process in the city.  Often, the traditional efforts to preserve unsettled habitat have been so adversarial as to be open to criticism for contributing to the demise unsettled landscapes.
  Reconciliation ecology can be explored as a vision that can add to global diversity rather than be an approach that diverts attention from the diversity being lost in tropical landscapes.  Urban reconciliation would not aspire to replace tropical landscapes, and it would increase a public support for the protection of tropical landscapes by increasing value for biodiversity in the centers of human activity that direct efforts toward unsettled landscapes, and that are essential to engage in moving toward a reconciled planet. 
Reconciliation ecology would demonstrate that the  “natural world” extends into the city.  This would enhance public perception of cities as inside nature.  And this expanded sense of human identity including nature would, in turn, enhance efforts in “far off” ecosystems.  It offers a planning directive for areas of human habitation to attend to the nonhuman landscape in those areas rather than continue to write them off.  Specifically, it would address at the biotic vitality of landscapes that have been written off as artificial and devoid of nonhuman life.  Urbanization frequently occurs in rich biotic habitat such as coasts and rivers and forests and fertile grasslands.
Human settlement in general, and in its most concentrated form in urban habitat, has been demonstrated as being capable of amplifying biomass and species diversity.  In some transitions from settled communities to unsettled communities, species diversity has been discovered to decrease.  Species are increasingly attracted to the city as habitat.  In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold lamented the disconnection between modern life and nature, noting that the call of geese was no longer heard in modern life.[iv]  Now, geese reside in cities.  Often now, these geese are the offspring of somewhat domesticated species that were reintroduced, and the criticism is offered that they remain near civilization because they have lost the migrating instinct.  While bird populations may be below average in urban areas, one in four urban areas may have more birds than rural areas.  Regardless of the size of nonhuman populations in cities, all nonhuman urban biota is quantitatively greater than the human population.
There has been increasing emphasis in wildlife ecology upon trying to enhance the connections of ecosystems.  Railway lines, streams and to some extent roadways offer the first point of entry into networks that link urban “patches” both internally and externally.[v]  Looking regionally, the concept of the “meta community” places emphasis upon identifying overriding network or “meta community” that is comprised of “patches” of unsettled landscapes that are connected by dispersal patterns.  The most important value for identifying meta-communities is the support for development of unsettled corridors and, more importantly, overcome the limits of focusing on trying to maintain “islands” of communities or ecosystems.[vi]  But acknowledging meta-communities reinforces the need to include increasingly prevalent urban ecosystems as an inescapable dimension of meta-communities.  Regional hydrology and nutrient systems, for example, are not divided into mutually exclusive urban and uninhabited landscapes.  As we increasingly address urban ecology as including both human and nonhuman events as natural, this orientation toward looking at meta-communities that is currently applied primarily to uninhabited landscapes ultimately applies to settled communities.  There are “human meta communities” termed a megalopolis that is a describable string of blending cities as well as more effusive conurbations that are not finally separable from nonhuman ecosystems that form meta-ecosystems.
In designing for the living city, the focus is upon actively sustaining flora and fauna in urban areas rather than passively allowing it to occur.  Intentional design can encourage enhancement of brownshed and greyshed industrial parks, as well as note the presence of biota in these landscapes rather than envisioning them only as wastelands.  There are overlooked pocket habitats, urban forests, vacant lots, cemeteries, shopping malls, canals, creeks, roadsides, underground drainage systems, railway lines, relatively new features such as bike paths, myriad ecotones or transitional spaces between ecosystems such as a woodland edge and lawn or street.  And this list of overlooked urban pocket habitats is just sample of what we will identify as our ecological literacy increases.  The urban landscape is not streamlined, but rather consists of a general “patchiness” that can promote diversity by offering different eco-niches and that can be enhanced for “mutually beneficial relationships”[vii] between human and nonhuman life.
Often the species inhabiting brownsheds are disparagingly termed “weeds,” and they occur there because they capitalize on soil disturbance.  “Disturbance” is a feature of urban ecology, not only in land disturbance but also in the rapidity of human activity.  Unintended support for nonhuman life is another feature of urbanization, for example, in protection from predation for some species as well as the availability of unintentional and intentional nutrients (e.g., bird feeding).  Migratory stops that occur within or near cities (due to urban develop along natural corridors such as streams and in woodlands) can be intentionally enhanced through land protection and nutrients.  The possibilities for support are numerous.  For example, uninhabited structures can be built as shelters for bats, owls, small mammals, birds, and reptiles and amphibians.
There is a traditional orientation that it is wrong to interfere with nonhuman populations discourage actions such as feeding the birds in cities.  This orientation can be critical of having dogs and cats because of their domestication, even though these species have been in close association throughout human development, and even owe their rapid emergence as species from this relationship.  The major concern is in interfering in a natural process that we do not understand and thereby possibly contributing to its decline by interfering with the struggle for survival that enhances a species ability to adapt.  This orientation reflects our sense of the city as artificial and discourages making nonhuman life dependent on something artificial.  And yet our conservation and preservation efforts are interference.  We describe non-interference in unsettled landscapes as preservation, when it really is management.  We artificially encourage nesting and set aside crops for population increase, and blood sport for population control.  And we tend to manage “untouched” landscapes more severely when they are reduced to remnants, and sometimes as a nostalgic response to maintain a landscape that we do not wish to see change.  The argument for non-interference reflects an important ecological effort to sustain threatened species.  But non-interference is a strategy on a continuum rather than an either-or choice to be made.  We have the ability to distinguish between the ecological values, for example, of choosing to either increase urban wetland or to feed corn to deer in urban areas.  And this eco-literacy with regard to urban ecology will continue to improve if we make it a priority.  Urban space can become an intentional ecologically enhanced oasis rather than a wasteland, and has the potential to amplify species and integrate within a larger meta-community of ecosystems.
Reconciliation efforts in settled landscapes aspire to complement traditional emphases upon efforts to protect unsettled landscapes rather than aspire to replace them.  The traditional emphasis upon the unsettled landscape beyond the city is to be encouraged because of the deep economic value to the city and to the larger Earth ecosystem.  Especially important, increasing urbanization stands to support rewilding landscapes that we no longer inhabit.  This new uninhabited land may also promote the development of corridors connecting uninhabited spaces.  We can continue “reservation ecology” in uninhabited “preserves” and “restoration ecology” and “resignation ecology” in inhabited landscapes as diversity of response or as a continuum rather than needing to choose one and prohibit the other. 
Finally, the notion of “reconciliation” challenges the predominant concept that we are separate from nature.  Reconciliation ecology expresses an authentic, enduring aspiration that reflects a drive or as Edward O. Wilson writes, an “…urge to affiliate with other forms of life…biophilia,”[viii] that also extends to events such as stone, water, and cosmos.  While human influence is global, well more than half of the Earth remains predominantly a “natural technology” that we can enhance in the areas where human technologies are dominant.  All of the “technologies” of biota can then consistently address the fundamental conditions of existence.

[i] Michael Rosenberg, Win-Win Ecology: How Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise. Oxford University Press, 2003.
[ii] Michael Rosenberg, [].
[iii] find critique of reconciliation ecology as “resignation ecology” by Robert Holt, “Reconciliation ecology, or resignation ecology? The challenge of living with nature,” Ecology, 85 (7), pp. 2056-2057, July, 2004 []
[iv] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, And Sketches Here and There. London: Oxford University Press, 1968 (1949), p. 18.
[v] Marina Alberti, Advances in Urban Ecology: Integrating Human and Ecological Processes in Urban Ecosystems. New York: Springer, 2008.
[vi] Marcel Holyoak, Matthew Leibold, and Robert Holt, Metacommunities: Spatial Dynamics and Ecological Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
[vii] O.L Gilbert, The Ecology of Urban Habitats. London; New York: Chapman and Hall, 1989.
[viii] Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.

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