Strategies of Ecosystem Development

Source i09: Photos of Shanghai's cityscape, with a 26 year gap. Read more about it here. Truly remarkable.

Source i09: Photos of Shanghai’s cityscape, with a 26 year gap. Read more about it here. Truly remarkable.

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 Some of the language and concepts in the paper are clearly out of date, as most of the resilience theory work and C.S. Hollings was not yet integrated, but at the core there are some really key concepts.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.

Source: Eugene P. Odum, 1969. A comparison to city ecosystem is overdue, unless someone out there knows someone already working on this...

Source: Eugene P. Odum, 1969. A comparison to city ecosystem is overdue, unless someone out there knows someone already working on this…

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!

One Comment on “Strategies of Ecosystem Development”

  1. Clearly there are organisms that transform their environment. Autogenic and Allogenic ecosystem engineers. The beaver (allogenic engineer) damns a river, in so doing she transforms the availability or access to critical nutrients. This in turn changes the physical and chemical structure of the landscape on a scale that is not ecosystem wide, but local or regional. This in turn creates a broader tapestry effect in a monotone forest, and thus increases diversity.

    Trees themselves (autogenic engineers) create new opportunities by their own growth. Creating literally more surface area, and at different heights. This changes the game for many organisms, resulting in moving on or being specialized within this new framework of branches and shade.

    Both of these do something curious. They take a system that is simple, and increase the complexity of the flow of critical nutrients for the broader system.

    So maybe we should start to ask what is doing this to our cities? What is taking a simple distribution system, and making it more adaptive, complex, resilient?

    How is the energy distribution system moving from a simple hub model, to a network?
    How is the flow of water not just a one way affair but finding multiple uses along the way?
    How is the flow of information changing from a centralized control to network of every individual broadcasting?
    How is the flow of people on transit being more adaptive to new communication network?

    Interestingly I think there is another whole aspect to this which is looking at organisms that operate well at different points in the system. Which organisms exist only in early stage systems? Which organisms exist only in late stage systems and why?

    Maybe the late stage successes are able to handle or integrate with others to find and secure difficult nutrients?

    Maybe early stage success are abel to move fast, grow fast, spread quick.

    My guess is that every city is a constantly evolving tapestry of systems where some are clearly early stage, while others are far more mature. The strategies then for a city will likely be a composition that handles the current day-to-day realities of the cities system, along with the ability to evolve as the city continues to change.

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