Strategies of Ecosystem DevelopmentPosted: August 20, 2013
The amazing image above shows how much can happen in a city over 26 years. We know cities are growing at amazing rates, but these images are poor at capturing any tensions of over stretched infrastructure that struggles to keep pace. Slow development is never desirable in urban growth, but it is hard not to see dystopic visuals of urban decay as the cities struggle to pay their own environmental bills.
Conversations about ecosystem development as a strategy for solving human environmental crises are clearly not new. In a paper from 1969 recently sent to me by Bruce Hinds there is a rich account of the previous thinking and inspiration that has as of yet translated into human innovation. Some of the language and concepts in the paper are clearly out of date, as most of the resilience theory work and C.S. Hollings was not yet integrated, but at the core there are some really key concepts.
Core Trends of Ecosystem Succession
Bruce and I need to get our act together and do a similar table to the one below comparing city succession. It would be curious to note the similarities and differences. For example, what becomes more and less efficient over time in the city? The plumbing of water in the city of Toronto is struggling – like most old cities with New York as a prime example – with aging infrastructure leaking at an alarming rate. As cities increase in complexity, repairing and improving large infrastructure becomes more and more difficult. We see the complete opposite in natural ecosystems where water is a resource that all organisms respond to opportunistically.
These comparisons are easy at the level of resource use, where natural systems are hugely more successful than the human systems. But the intangibles are more intriguing. In cities, access to healthcare increases, employment opportunities diversify, lifestyle choices diversify, so niche specialization is a clear similarity between nature and cities.
Nutrient Cycling & Detritus Agriculture
If the discussion of Urban Ecology focuses on material use and flow and the issues of environmental sustainability, then Nutrient Cycling and Detritus Agriculture are the core themes in this paper to be integrated in urban development. Architects such as Michael Pawlyn and William McDonough have already discussed this at length, and every sustainably focused Environmental Design project at OCAD University attempts to weave it into their work in some capacity. But the reality is, especially with the condominium boom in Toronto, re-using materials and failed buildings is unrealistic for most urban development.
As long as it is cheaper to start from scratch, urban development will involve the levelling of sites to build something brand new with mostly fresh virgin materials. Until costs balance out or specific laws are put into place, nutrient cycling and the active use of waste to generate feedstock is simply not sexy and not necessary. I’ve begun searching for research that quantifies or validates the specific amount of wasted resources generated by cities and the ecosystem of costs that are caused. I want to develop a scenario that paints the case for how local manufacture and local industry can be developed in a downtown core that simply takes the waste cardboard from any number of grocery stores and upcycles them into a new product: flooring, furniture, packaging for a specific downtown client, etc… While it doesn’t sound very free-market of me, I think there is a huge case for local governments to support this kind of activity, to boost local economies and re-introduce a diversity of labour opportunities into cities.
And of course, we need sexier terms than “Detritus Architecture”…
Calling all Ecologists and Biologists
I’m looking for specific mechanisms that organisms use to opportunistically cause or take part in ecosystem succession. In material science I have latched onto the concept of “cell de-differentiation” as a metaphor for future sustainability in product design (this is the process where cells can reverse to something like a stem-cell and then form with new properties, this is how many lizards grow tails back after a predator has bitten it off) but I’m yet to find compelling strategies that enable ecosystem succession.
Are there champion organisms who are so good at niche construction that they have an exponential impact on the other organisms around them? Is there a particular case study or ecosystem that is rich with stories that would inspire some of these specific activities? Are there particular recurring relationships between any species that fosters or encourages growth? Is there champion story of slow growth that makes other fast growth cycles possible? I’m currently diving into research around myccorhizal networks which is giving me a grand systems perspective, but I would really like some specific physical, tangible mechanisms that I could use in some design workshops.
And if anyone knows recent articles that expand upon the early discussion by Eugene Odum, that would be fantastic!