Transforming the urban ecosystem

Posted by on March 17th, 2008 at 9:03 am

Is urban ecology an oxymoron? Not at all. The sooner we recognize that cities, people, and nature are inextricably linked, the better off we will all be. In order to broaden our focus from fixing what’s broken, we can treat this city as a design problem, as a system of interrelated parts, and begin to look for connections. Just by looking, we will surely find them.

As part of the 2008 Urbanite Project, I saw firsthand the critical connections between urban fishing, water quality, and public health. (“Fishing for Solutions,” March 2008 Urbanite.) Our proposal is to convene a diverse commission that would tackle the complex problem of Baltimore’s storm-water and waste-water with an ecological mindset.

The urban ecosystem is a system of networks and relationships, using nature as a mentor for how to foster healthy connections and environments. We can together consider both natural systems and human systems, for the benefit of both. Natural systems include sunlight, rainwater, clean air, wind, gardens, trees, and wildlife. Human systems include housing, stores, schools, jobs, history, arts and culture, and infrastructure.

The magic lies in the connections between these elements. The Urban Ecology Institute reports that when people in urban communities are educated and engaged in ecology, positive change occurs for both the people and the environment. Transformations such as street tree projects increase social connections among urban residents, which are the building block for public safety. As they write on their website: “These social connections are crucial to public health; multiple studies in over eight countries have shown that people with strong social ties have a reduced risk for all causes of mortality. Collective community projects to transform urban ecology and the environment are the most powerful way to bring neighbors together in this way.”

Another benefit of connective thinking is economic opportunity. The waste-water treatment greenhouse at Kolding, Denmark is also a fish farm and a plant nursery, providing income to the operator. The dramatic glass pyramid is only the most visible aspect of an eco-renovation that includes energy efficiency, rainwater collection for toilet flushing, and affordable housing. The water-efficient design saves money from the local water utility to help pay the gardener’s salary. And the residents benefit from a beautiful and clean environment.

The places that we design can increase the health, happiness, and prosperity of people, as well as the capacity of the earth to support life. We just have to open our minds and start seeing the connections.


5 thoughts on “Transforming the urban ecosystem

  1. The newly-formed Baltimore Psychogeography Association has similar concerns. Psychogeography was started in the late 50’s in France to investigate the effect of the built environment on the moods and behavior of urban residents. We’re looking for members; especially right now lawyers and/or other advisers that can help us set up as a non-profit.

  2. Connecting natural systems and human systems as a form of public health work – that’s a fascinating idea. I would like to see Baltimore’s new Sustainability Commission become a springboard for this kind of thinking. Julie suggests that the greening of Baltimore be recast as a design problem.

    We need new investment in and new energy devoted to making deliberate links between the built environment, urban health (both for individuals and communities), and the natural environment. The economic development potential makes this even more compelling. And the threat of climate change, and its disproportionate impact on the poor, makes this a moral imperative.

    The ideas expressed in Julie Gabrielli’s blog illustrate the tremendously important and exciting work ahead. Where will the leadership for this much needed work come from? How are we mobilizing in Baltimore to redesign our urban ecosystem?

  3. Recently, Baltimore City Council created an Office of Sustainability, headed by Beth Strommen from the Office of Planning. The newly-appointed Sustainability Commission will set the vision and goals for this office. They are meeting soon and I have no doubt they will be looking for help in fleshing out and implementing their strategies. Also, the CSBA is an organization that is dedicated to promoting a local economy, which includes so-called green collar jobs. Check them out at

  4. Be sure to check out the events during Baltimore Green Week, which will provide plenty of opportunity to connect with people who are working in these areas. Speaking of leaders, on Monday, April 28, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., Mayor Sheila Dixon will provide an overview of her vision and action plan for a cleaner greener Baltimore. A panel of speakers will discuss the City’s new sustainability plan and other topics that may include recycling, energy, bike routes, treebaltimore, and more. Details on Baltimore Green Week are on their website:

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