Thursday, January 28, 2016

Where did Urban Ecology Come From? Zev Naveh and the Total Human Ecosystem

Encountering Zev Naveh - A force of nature

One answer to the question of where urban ecology came from has to point to Zev Naveh.  When I first heard Zev Naveh (1919-2011) a professor at Israel's Technion, talking about the "total human ecosystem," I didn't get it.   Zev, whom I later hosted on a sabbatical visit to Rutgers University, was way beyond my thinking about people and ecology at the time.  I had been working on how communities of annual plants that colonized disturbed, post-agricultural lands were put together.  I was also developing and generalizing ideas about natural disturbance, and working to put succession in a connected, dynamic landscape perspective.  I was just beginning to seriously think about humans and nature as a big picture.  But at the time "landscape ecology" was just coming together.  Zev was one of the people who was developing that big new field at the time. 

One of his main points was that people were parts of real ecological landscapes.  That much I got.  That idea resonated with Richard Forman's seminal definition of landscape, exemplified by the book written with Michel Godron in 1986.  Richard and I were colleagues on the faculty of Rutgers University for about seven years.  In fact, Forman had invited Zev to Rutgers for that sabbatical year, but had been lured away by Harvard before Zev arrived.  So I became Zev's host and colleague for that academic year.  Since that visit, I had often seen Zev at national and international ecological and landscape meetings.  But I must admit, that the idea of the total human ecosystem had become a little rusty in my memory. 


A few days ago, I was assembling papers to prepare for writing a new paper.  As is often the case, digging around in the bibliography of one paper leads to new papers, or reminds one of things that one had neglected for a while.  I came across a citation of a published lecture of Zev's that I hadn't read.  It was in an obscure publication, but fortunately The Technion had archived some of Zev's papers on an accessible website.  Here's what I was reminded of.  And the embarrassing admission is how useful Zev's thinking  -- summarized in 1992 -- about urban ecosystems remains.  Here are some nuggets, admittedly filtered through my current lens of urban ecological thinking.

  • It is really useful to think of urban ecosystems as landscapes, and landscapes can exist at any scale.  There is no single landscape scale.

  • Patches are actually three-dimensional things.

  • Urban systems integrate biological, physical, ecological, technological, economic,  and cultural components.  This is summarized as his" total human ecosystem" idea.  Zev uses classical terms like biosphere, technosphere, and noosphere (the global network of ideas), but insisted that they are integrated in landscapes.
  • Ecology's origin as a biological science colored its application to cities, where most attention was on what organisms were present and where.  Some of us later called this the ecology "in" cities approach (Pickett et al. 1997).

  • A hierarchical, systems theory approach is useful for organizing thinking and suggesting both bottom up and top down control in focal components of landscapes in general -- and urban systems.  This is the holon perspective long used in systems theory, for which he cites Koestler (1969), for the idea.
  • Technology is a part of urban systems, so the contemporary emphasis on social-ecological-technical systems (SETS) has a deep precedent.

  •  Globalization is part of his thinking: He acknowledges that even then nearly 50% of Earth's people lived in urban areas; furthermore, technology is represented as a global system, not just a local set of tools and constructions.
  • Landscape ecology -- and by extension -- urban ecology, must be transdisciplinary.

  • He calls for the use not only of ecological knowledge in improving the role of urban-industrial (fossil and nuclear added to biomass powered) systems, but also ecological wisdom and ethics.  Alas, anthropologist Joseph Tinker suggests that social systems -- as drivers of environmental degradation -- are hardly ever voluntarily limited.  Rather, the collapse with the administrative and social costs of increasing complexity.)

  • Ecological knowledge is crucial for urban design, and cities need "green and watered" components, perhaps ideally constituting 10% of urban land, in his opinion.
The total human ecosystem has a long history.

·        There are deep literatures in the components he brings together, going back to plant ecologist and iconoclast Frank Egler (1970) for the total human environment idea first used in discussing industrial agricultural impacts.  His brief literature cited contains classics of hierarchy theory, systems theory, and complexity theory.  Jantsch (1975) is another key contributor to Zev's thinking on complexity.

Well, it's a little sobering to find so many ideas that many of us take as hallmarks of "modern" urban ecology so well articulated and well foreshadowed so long ago.  But on the other hand, it is comforting to know that one of the inventors of landscape ecology, and one of the champions of systems theory and understanding spatial heterogeneity in ecology was pointing to the path urban ecology has followed.

Literature Cited:

The Paper this Essay is About:

Naveh, Zev. 1992. A landscape ecological approach to urban systems as part of the total human ecosystem.  Journal of the National History Museum and Institute Chiba. 2:47-62


Egler, F.E. 1970. The Way of Science: A Philosophy of Ecology for the Layman. Hafner, New York

Forman, R.T.T. and M. Godron. 1986. Landscape Ecology. Wiley and Sons, New York

Jantsch, E. 1975. esign for Evolution: Self-Organization and Planning in the Life of Human Systems. George Braziller, New York.

Koestler, A. 1969. Beyond atomism and holism - The concept of the holon. In Al Koestler, and J.R. Smithies, eds. Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences. Hutchinson, London.

The Other References:

Pickett, S.T.A., W.R. Burch, Jr., and S.E. Dalton.  1997.  Guest editorial: Integrated urban ecosystem research: Themes, needs, and applications.  Urban Ecosystems 1(4):183-184. (For ecology in/of cities)

McPhearson, Timon, S.T.A. Pickett, N. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, J. Breuste, D. Haase, and S. Qureshi.  "Advancing Urban Ecology Towards a Science of Cities." BioScience, accepted. (for social-ecological-technical systems)

Tainter, Joseph A. (1990). The Collapse of Complex Societies (1st paperback ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-38673-X.

An Obituary:

Antrop, M., & Pinto Correia, T. In memoriam Zev Naveh (1919 Amsterdam–2011 Haifa). Landscape Urban Plan. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2011.06.003

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Urban Ecology Takes a Long Time

We are extraordinarily fortunate in Baltimore to have long-term support for our urban social-ecological research and engagement.  BES is funded in 6 year increments, subject to review and approval by the National Science Foundation's rigorous peer driven process.  It is very likely that our ability to contribute substantially to the consolidation and progress of modern American urban ecological science is a result of the long-term funding we have had since 1997.  But what is it about longevity that pays off so greatly in an academic and practical program?

Most obviously, given the participation of BES in the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network supported by the US National Science Foundation, the big value is contributing data sets on long-lasting social and ecological processes and patterns.  Many biophysical processes can take long times to play out.  Change in the composition and structure of vegetation in yards, on streets, and in parks, the development of urban soils, the invasion or extirpation of animal populations, the periodic occurrence of physical disturbances or extreme climatic events, for example, all take long times to observe.  Historical data and simulation modeling can extend the understanding of these slow, episodic processes, of course, and these methods are commonly used in our and other LTER projects.  But another kind of process is both common in urban systems, and takes a long time to occur: Complex events, those that involve multiple causes which occur at different time and spatial scales; those whose interactions are not constant or instantaneous, but rather are lagged or sometimes indirect; and those which reflect rare or unique social or biophysical triggers.  It takes long-term data records to expose all these kinds of changes.  And urban systems are full of these kinds of changes.

There are less obvious reasons to rely on long-term research and engagement, however.  The most important of these is the long time it takes to build social relationships of trust.  This phenomenon characterizes the working relationships within the scientific research team, and the relationships of the members of the research program with an incredible array of people and institutions in the region.  BES as a program and as a collection of individuals requires the trust of residents of communities where we work and install instrumentation, community groups, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies at city, state, and federal levels.  The list of groups in each of these categories is immense.  For example, just to name some of the agencies in the city of Baltimore, we work with the school system, the Office of Sustainability, and the departments of Public Works, Planning, Recreation and Parks, Health, and Housing, among others.  Other counties in the metropolitan region, plus state agencies are equally numerous.  It takes time to build trust between our researchers and educators and all these various constituencies.  Demonstrating good will, a learning attitude, the appropriate level of accountability and responsiveness, and just plain old politeness, are among the cultural attributes that must be built and maintained over time.  Such building rests on a growing number of interactions, and is always vulnerable to missteps and gaffes.  So sometimes there is also the time required for making amends.  Culture is, in other words, a long-term phenomenon.

Alimatou Seck's (L) research has helped local water managers.
Part of the outward-facing value of longevity is the ability to provide information, insights, and support for the local constituencies.  It takes a long time to absorb the needs of communities and other constituencies, and to develop, analyze, and interpret data sets that address those needs.  Continued dialog, with a healthy respect for listening, is the mechanism supporting the growth of this kind of long-term social capital.

Within the project, we have discovered that it takes a long time to build, reinforce, and refine the relationships among members representing different academic disciplines, different career stages, different degrees of theoretical versus practical motivation, and the like.  Underlying many of these kinds of long-term growth is an appreciation of the different terminologies, theoretical structures, and research methodologies that different groups employ.  Bridging this variety of gaps is made difficult by the fact that often the same words are used to represent different practical motivations, and different (but rarely states) theoretical assumptions and mental models.  Besides goodwill among disciplines, it simply takes a long time to become aware of the gaps and to jointly construct conceptual and practical bridges across them.  I have sometimes been surprised to discover that I, as a biophysical researcher, was using the same term as some social scientists were, but using it in a very different way.  Productive surprise and recovery from surprise take time.

So the long-term aspect of our project is very rich.  It resides in the fundamentally long-lasting processes of social-ecological change and interaction; the growth of trust and social capital as participants in the Baltimore social-ecological system, and the blossoming of mutual understanding within an amazingly diverse community of scholars, researchers, and educators.  Urban ecology just takes a long time.