Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why Did Cities Come To Be

WEARING THE APPEARANCE of artificiality and environmental decimation, the city is not separable from the rest of the Earth; it is an expression of the development of the Earth.  In fact, the city remains more ethological in nature—a process of natural behavior with evolutionary explanations—than sociological.  Culture, society and personality can appear to be separate and above the Earth ecosystem.  And yet, they exist as expressions of larger ecological themes of land use, resource production and consumption, and reproduction.  In a very real way, the human species continues to be an agent of the grasses, deforesting the Earth, maximizing seed production of grass species, and favoring temperate and structural characteristics of grasslands in the built environment. 

Seemingly domestic and artificial, the function of a city is essentially as a natural, ecological process—specifically, to adapt a global population of billions to the larger Earth ecosystem.  If it doesn’t appear to be adaptive, it is because human emergence is still very new in the history of the Earth and very wild rather than tame and domestic.  Global ecological decimation is not due to global urbanization per se, but rather is both a consequence of the rapid rate of urbanization that cannot yet keep up with its infrastructure and, more importantly, a consequence of a once successful exploitive strategy of pioneering that no longer fits in a now-peopled Earth with no vast physical frontiers.

The contemporary process of global urbanization is provoking spontaneous ecologically adaptive features that intentional environmental advocacy has failed to achieve.  The hard grid of the city reflects the longstanding pioneering strategies, while global urbanization is fundamentally a softening of the grid and reflects a drive toward a new residential strategy.  Perhaps the most notable example of relatively new adaptive features is a reduction in the rate of population growth that might result in a global population at the end of the century that is less than the current global population. 

Overall, there is a new emerging sense that cities come into being as natural and adaptive responses; that they an ongoing development in the evolution of the Earth rather than a separate event that is an intrusion in the larger Earth ecosystem, and that urbanization is an adaptive ecological process that is transforming more exploitive strategies.  Migration that is now toward cities rather than outward to exploit unsettled landscapes reflects spontaneous, intuitive efforts by people toward fittedness with the larger Earth ecosystem.  In a now peopled Earth with no vast physical frontiers, global urbanization reflects a transformative shift from an exploitive pioneering strategy to a strategy of residency that requires integration into the larger Earth ecosystem for sustainability.  The provocation for this change is not driven by a nostalgic desire “to return to the Earth.”  It is an issue of survival, and practical and economic.  And the evidence for this transformation is coming from our most rational measures of population and environmental degradation that begin to describe adaptive features resulting from increasing urbanization.  The implications of this new view suggest that given the intensity of environmental dilemmas that have risen to global issues of public health, it is critical to “get on board” to optimize these adaptive features in our environmental advocacy and legislation rather than try to erroneously treat the city as the poster child for the environmental enemy.  That which appears to be the environmental problem is, in fact, an ecological opportunity.

What cities will become is unknowable.  They are extremely young in the history of the Earth.  As natural processes, the city-form/urbanization is not completely controllable or intentionally designable.  The essence of a city is softness rather than its hard grid.  Dynamically, the city-form is natural and intuitive, and ultimately is more patterned randomness, but structured more like chaos theory than chaotic. 
[overview of longer article of same name]


See Grimm, Nancy B. et al.  “Global change and the ecology of cities,” Science, 319, Number 5864, (8 Feb 2008), pp. 756-760:
Urban areas as hot spots that drive environmental change at multiple scales;
            Urban areas integrate natural and social sciences.

See Ash, Caroline, et al. “Reimagining cities,” Science, 319, Number 5864, (Feb 2008), p739:
            ½ world’s 6.6 billion people now live in cities;
            By 2030: 5 billion people in cities;
            Responsible for 75% energy consumption/ 80% greenhouse gas emissions;
            Positive: closer proximity to health;
            Negative: burgeoning urban slums [but compare with rural poverty];
            Pos/Neg: “sprawl” is also “resilient pattern.”
Future: urban areas produce own crops/ hybrid cars/ super energy of super-conductors and hydrogen energy;
Overall: a need for radical rethink of our concept of cities and their place in the global environment.

See Adam Kissell [on looking at the work of Brian Mcgrath], “On the origin of cities: Adaptive urbanism,” Australian Design/Review: Architecture and Interiors, 6/7/2009:
                        Approach the city as a dynamic urban ecology:
Urban ecology more than nature outside the city or natural pockets within—a complex system dynamics--and
Cities as “vessels of ecology;”

Design should lead to optimization;
Design beyond a single client—a broader multi-stakeholder;
Design that recirculates;
Design that looks at archaeology or city-thru-time—urban archaeology;
Design analysis that looks at “enclaves”—built and natural environments;
Design that sees “rapid flow”—pedestrian, goods, vehicles and how they flow together;
Design that expands “habitat”—both human and non-human;
Design that identifies “blockages” or impediment of flow; and
Design that looks at Darwin as well as Le Corbusier.

After “adaptive reuse” in UrbanOmnibus, some general terms come to mind:
                        Participatory architecture,
                        Reconciliation ecology,
                        Reforesting cities, and
                        Urban “living rooms”

            Odds and Ends:
[Related to reconciliation ecology]: K. L. Evans, et al. “Independent colonization of multiple urban areas by formerly forest specialized bird species,” Proc RSoc, 276, (2009), pp. 2403-2410.

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