Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Moving Field Guide

Seeing the World

Science starts with noticing the world – what plants and animals do, the changes in vegetation over time – or in wondering what’s going on beneath the surfaces we see.  Careful observation continues as we devise instruments or methods to extend our initial view, guided by models and concepts.  Experiments are another window for observing new conditions, perhaps ones that don’t usually exist in the real world.

Whatever makes people notice the world and its denizens more closely, or even at all, advances science and the appreciation of scientific knowledge.  I was fortunate to recently see how dance opened the eyes of about a dozen 5th and 6th graders from east Baltimore.  Members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in cooperation with Dr. Mark Twery of the Forest Service and Dr. Marla McIntosh of the University of Maryland led the young people through several activities that sensitized them to their immediate environment, familiarized them with the compass directions, and provided opportunities to observe aquatic and terrestrial situations in Patterson Park.

Moving To Notice/Noticing To Move
Those of us who are trained in science are used to paying close attention to the world, guided by years of experience under the tutelage of mentors and collaboration with colleagues.  After a while it becomes a habit, and paying close attention can be almost automatic.  But how do you get a 5th grader to notice the environment and organisms?

Members of The Dance Exchange company had a plan.  Get the kids to relax into movement.  Get them to do some simple orienteering, and ask them to observe something special and personal along the way, pay attention to each kid.  Some of the company members had backgrounds in environmental education, and along with the visiting experts, engaged in discussions that refined or generated new understanding about life, energy, and leaves of giant oak trees, seed dispersal in little leaf linden, tasty fruit of Juneberry trees, and migration of birds.  The students also thought about the connections, some plausible and some quite fanciful, that might have led to the demise of a giant mulberry tree.  

The dancers and the kids invented movements to represent the insights they learned along the way.  The swirling motion of dispersing winged seeds, the shivering collapse of a dead tree, the upward swoop of water rising in the trunks of  trees, an imagined encounter with a bushy tailed skunk that might depend on one of the trees, and the left handed, right handed, and ambidextrous shapes of mulberry leaves were some of the observations and ideas that made it into the dances.  It was a special treat to see the creative “ah ha moments” as the professional dancers translated ecological facts and observations into motions – sometimes small, and sometimes grand in scope.  These moves were combined into dances that also embodied personal reactions to the local environment, memories of trips, and events in the kids’ lives.

Dancing To Remember
Over the course of a couple hours in the park, a goodly amount of ecological knowledge was imparted or reinforced.  The two groups of students and their accompanying Dance Exchange members collaborated to generate some impressive and engaging sequences of moves.  These dance sequences became the “Moving Field Guide,” a lively phrase created by Cassie Meador of the Dance Exchange.  The Moving Field Guide added a new creative dimension to the usual records of scientists: making notes, recording measurements of dimensions and processes in the material world, and interpreting those observations in the light of existing concepts and knowledge.  Thinking about dance movement as a way to facilitate the entry of novice observers into the complexities of ecological structures and processes was new to me.  It proved to be a powerful tool, and I suspect one that will help cement new ecological knowledge for the students who helped make the Moving Field Guide, Patterson Park, June 2, 2011.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Adaptive Explanations in Cities

Cities are hard to explain, no doubt.  Within and between cities, social capital, historical contingency, economic resources, and the deployment of power are well known explanatory variables.  One kind of explanatory process, however, has been notably absent from the roster of possibilities in urban socio-ecological research.  Surprisingly, that missing element is one of the most fundamental explanatory tools of modern biology and ecology – the adaptation of social organisms as groups.  The application of the principles of natural selection (Box 1) to social groups may also have a role in understanding the social structure of cities and urban agglomerations, and hence the effects of social groups and neighborhoods on environmental processes.

Prof. David Sloan Wilson 
This lapse is being corrected by the scholarly and practical efforts of Professor David Sloan Wilson, of Binghamton University, a part of the State University of New York system.  Prof. Wilson is one of the world’s leading evolutionary ecologists.  He has studied the adaptation of groups of organisms in both model and actual situations for decades.  Although some biologists find adaptation of groups to be problematical, preferring to leave adaptive explanations at the nexus of individuals and the populations they constitute, the weight of models and experimental outcomes has convinced many, including myself, that this kind of explanation has great power and legitimacy.  The emergence of altruism against the seemingly unassailable momentum of individual benefit has required forceful explanatory tools.  Groups that exhibit greater altruism and cohesion are expected to be more successful than those which do not promote group benefit.

Can this explanatory hypothesis apply to cities?  Prof. Wilson and colleagues are investigating this possibility by comparing various opportunities for “prosociality”[i] in Binghamton, NY.  In BES, we might refer to social capital or neighborhood cohesion as related concepts.  The arenas in which prosociality is being examined in Binghamton range from the reward systems in high school classes, to the willingness of persons in different neighborhoods to do good deeds for strangers.  A recent article in the journal, Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110608/full/474146a.html) has summarized in very engaging and clear terms the concepts and the many community-based activities that Prof. Wilson is employing in Binghamton.  His work is aimed at understanding the social structure of this post-industrial, upstate New York State city, but he and his colleagues are also engaged in activities aimed at improving the quality of life for the 47,000 residents in their many neighborhoods.

At the BES annual meeting, which takes place on 19-20 October 2011, Prof. Wilson will deliver the keynote address.  This will give us a chance to think about how the hypothesis of adaptive altruism of groups can be applied and tested in Baltimore.  For background on Prof. Wilson and his exciting work with Binghamton communities, see not only the piece in Nature referenced above, but also his own Web Log (http://scienceblogs.com/evolution/) and that of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (http://bnp.binghamton.edu/).

I’m excited to explore how an adaptive model and the hypotheses it generates can help us better understand and promote the connection of science and society, and the prospect of people's well being in the Baltimore region.

[i] Prosocial - Beneficial to all parties and consistent with community laws and mores; Contributing to a beneficial outcome by negotiation, problem solving, problem analysis, clarification, or respectful behaviors (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/prosocial).
 The photograph of Prof. Wilson is from http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Complexity: The Hidden Nugget in Jane Jacobs' Book

Well, perhaps it’s unfair to call it hidden.  It is after all the topic of the final chapter, entitled “The Kind of Problem a City Is.”  In that chapter, she explores the nature of cities as complex systems, stimulated by the work of pioneering cyberneticists as summarized by Dr. Warren Weaver[i].  But I have to admit that I missed it the first time around, back when I read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities in college.  (No, you may no ask what century that was!)  But I can perhaps be forgiven for the lapse, because the theory of complex adaptive systems, which has become a mainstay of ecological sciences in the past decade or so, was hardly well known back then.  (OK, it was around 1970 when I read Death and Life.)  Yes, some physical scientists and mathematicians were in on complexity, but it was not something that had sent its tendrils into many other disciplines at that time.  Now we have a journal of Biocomplexity, and the National Science Foundation has made grants in complexity and similar things, such as coupled natural-human systems, for over a decade. 
Jane Jacobs (from http://www.whatwesee.org/)

Two recent reminders highlight Jane Jacobs’ insight that cities are complex problems.  In 2010, I was on a Martin Luther King Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.  My host, the ecologically savvy landscape architect, Anne Whiston Spirn[ii] mentioned to me one day that she had been horrified to have exploited the significance of Jacobs’ final chapter on cities as complex systems.  I went back and read that last chapter again.  It is a stunningly prescient piece.

The second reminder is in Witold Rybczynski’s Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, published in 2010 by Scribner.  Rybczynski is one of America’s best known urbanists, and a writer whose work is easy to read.  In chapter 2, he reviews the three big ideas of urbanism from the early 20th century[iii], and notes, among others, Jacobs’ critique of all of them.  His reminder came toward the end of the chapter, where he points to her assessment of cities as complex systems, and quotes some of her pithier insights into urban complexity.  Cities should not be approached as sets of separate problems to be solved individually.  They are complex wholes, but only because of the interaction of a plethora of communities and processes.

To be sure, Rybczynski (OK, I’m calling him WR from now on) has criticisms of Jacobs.  She was, after all, originally a journalist and not a trained urban scholar.  One important criticism is that she, like many other urbanists, has perhaps made a bit too much of physical characteristics such as density, diversity of use, and pedestrian vigilance.  WR notes that at the same time she was extolling the values of these characteristics based on her own experience, especially in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Lewis Mumford cited other New York neighborhoods possessing these same characteristics as notoriously unsafe and crime ridden.  WR also notes that some of her criticisms, such as the City Beautiful movement being only about civic monuments, and not about incremental improvement in neighborhoods, were incorrect.

These musings are relevant to the theme of the third phase of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER: the transition from the sanitary to the sustainable city.  The sanitary city is merely complicated.  It is seen as a collection of individual problems to be individually solved.  In reality, the problems that cities have to solve are systemic.  They link across media of transport, such as air, water, and surface, across scales from households to regions, and across social and environmental realms, for example.  It is not sufficient to solve problems by discipline – parks for the trees, transportation for traffic flow, solid waste, storm water, sanitary sewers, etc.  Each of these issues has implications for the other, and in fact, each has energy or material flows that connect with others.  The sustainably city goal recognizes cities as complex systems and the solution of urban problems to be multifaceted and require integration across disciplines and existing bureaucracies.  Jane Jacobs was there in 1961.

My meanderings in this essay have three points.  First, Jane Jacobs was ahead of her time in proposing cities as something we would now call complex adaptive systems.  She called them complex problems.  Second, a re-reading of Jacobs is worthwhile.  Finally, Rybczynski’s new book on the Makeshift Metropolis should probably be the next BES Book of the Month.  I’d recommend it to all members of our program, and others interested in urban systems.
Dimensions of complexity (from Cadenasso et al. 2006)

There’s one more thing to say about Jane Jacobs as an exemplar for BES.  She took fine scale observation of the city seriously.  She did not approach the city with the goal of supporting a specific general theory of urbanism, but to understand how cities were structured and how they worked.  She was a consummate empiricist, and her insistent observations have contributed to new theories of the city. 

[i] Familiar to ecologists through the Shannon-Weaver diversity index, which is based on information theory, one approach to complexity.
[ii] http://www.annewhistonspirn.com/
[iii] These are 1) the City Beautiful, 2) the Garden City, and 3) the Radiant City. 

Cadenasso, M. L., S. T. A. Pickett, and J. M. Grove. 2006. Dimensions of ecosystem complexity: heterogeneity, connectivity, and history. Ecological Complexity 3:1-12.