Nature and Cities calls for the urgent need to integrate ecology into urban design and planning, working with nature rather than against it to build resilience as the world urbanizes and the effects of climate change grow more severe.
The book builds on traditions by leading thinkers such as Aldo Leopold, Ian McHarg, and Patrick Geddes, and the premise of Ecological Design and Planning (also edited by Thompson and Steiner).

Nature and Cities | Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Ecological Imperative in Urban Design and Planning
Edited by Frederick R. Steiner, George F. Thompson and Armando Carbonell
Order here.


  1. I have a rather critical view on this one.
    Before I drop US$60 on the book (plus shipping), maybe I’ll pull out my battered copy of Ian McHarg’s ‘Design With Nature’ for another illuminating read. That book alone got me into this profession filled with naïve hope, which has been tempered by disappointment three decades later. His parametric approach to planning was one of the most cogent and inspiring methods ever proposed for new development at the time. It will undoubtedly require revision for 21st Century concerns, but no one else placed urbanism on equal footing with natural systems and even agricultural values then. He even claimed developers using his method made more money. This was the 70s and his newfangled site overlays produced a naturally compact urbanism in a lot of cases, meaning more units per area than the typical subdivision. It probably influenced some New Urbanism precepts like mixed use too.
    What troubles me is the narrative in the excerpted preface by the rather academic editors. Great writing, by the way. But when I read about observing the landscape from 30,000 feet, and the lumping together of windmills and agricultural fields with open pit mines and freeways, I start to question the narrative knowing that this is probably a writer’s device. If it is truly a value judgement, then the leading paragraphs of this supposedly progressive book haven’t crossed into the new Millennium yet.
    What we need today is not just great writing and analysis from both the academic and post-construction practicum worlds, but an end view set well beyond mid-century.
    It strikes me as elitist to lecture folks about climate change and urban adaptation when the authors and professionals themselves probably don’t have a clue about their own carbon footprint, or worse, know but willfully ignore it. I know quite a few design professionals who are vociferously opposed to Kinder Morgan and wax poetic on pro climate change mitigation clichés at wine and cheese soirees squeezed between annual overseas vacations and commissions to design instant concrete cites in China, and who ritually book cross-continental flights to attend quite unnecessary annual professional chinwags. Isn’t it the height of hypocrisy to flit to multiple conferences where addressing climate change is central, and snap hundreds of personal development shots of beautiful, sustainable low carbon urbanism in Europe and Asian villages while pumping tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year doing so (doubling it if travelling with their families)? There are now a few very principled climate scientists who choose to no longer fly, or at least minimize it to the essential trips, opting for Webcasts, Skype, conference calls, Google Earth and land-based travel for face-to-face meetings if possible. And their numbers are growing. Is each overseas personal development experience worth a personal contribution of 450 kg of CO2 injected into the atmosphere every trip, 450 kg that will not break down for a century?
    There are more important considerations now that supersede fashionable urban landscape projects, as fun and delightful (and irrelevant) they may be. For example, intensive agriculture in and near our cities will become a vital consideration. The defense of the ALR by planners, landscape architects, agronomists, farmers and civil engineers should be widespread in the media and accompanied by actively standing up for preservation and vocally promoting conservation tillage and responsible soil and water resource management in the urban region. These components are not divorced from holistic and sustainable urbanism. McHarg recognized that and ran far with it 40 years ago.
    As well, materials substitution and appropriate activity programming are too important now to not address, even in firms ordinarily concerned with winning awards where form and object are triumphant over function, or with making the payroll through environmentally and socially unsustainable projects, like shrubbing up mega-highways and strip malls. Sure, win awards or make bread, but keeping the health of the Commons intact when it is under attack is far more important now, and everyone should care enough to promote more awards, media attention and publications under the title of sustainable urbanism.
    When I read essays and comments or get lectured on green roofs and infiltration rain gardens by people without long-term experience with them, I often groan out loud. These things are now trendy and therefore they are a dime a dozen. I have not met a practitioner yet outside of hydrologists who understands how poorly they perform here over time given the Metro Vancouver climate and geology, or who has done analysis of the long-term maintenance implications and costs. In fact, my colleagues and I have over the years received exceedingly arrogant put-offs by suited practitioners who don’t have a clue about the massive public costs of the landscapes they propose, and that their client wants to financially download to cities. They are inevitably shocked when their “design brilliance” is eventually stripped out for being impractical once they have their portfolio shot and move on. If professional designers had to maintain their projects, their design scope and attitudes would change dramatically.
    In a nutshell, greenroofs don’t work on the Rain Coast unless they are palletized and placed on a load-bearing deck suspended above the membrane. Building envelop engineers here have a very low opinion of greenroofs. I once lived in a building that developed a roof terrace membrane failure, and the six apartments below were uninhabitable for years as the insurance companies fought with each other, the hidden mould and rot were traced well beyond the initial leak, and the contractors added to their huge piles of gouging change orders. Green roofs fail, and when they do the repairs are astronomical. Just ask insurance companies what they think of green roofs (hint, they are a policy line-item priced according to risk). If the goal is to mitigate the urban heat island effect in a climate with over a metre of rain in winter, then plant more trees on streets and in parks. I have far more respect for the simple recycled plastic strata cells placed below pavement to accommodate roots and promote the overall health of the urban forest than I do for the average green roof. If you want to experiment with green roofs, then do it on uninhabited buildings with few permeable materials (e.g. parkades)
    Rain gardens, bioswales, infiltration trenches, soakaway pits and such are now promoted in practically every low-lying empty space in a landscape plan. If the LAs who push these defective devices had to pay for their maintenance for years, they would go bankrupt. You have theory, and you have practice. In the latter, the majority of these features end up in failure. They also become garbage traps in public spaces where daily maintenance is unaffordable. How on Earth can a profession that purports to know all about the land and the principles of runoff infiltration know so little about Vancouver’s geology? Infiltration is as good as the shallow soils placed above 30+ metres of hard, impermeable glacial till that underlies the entire Metro. Infiltration swales and rain gardens quickly saturate the ground in average West Coast rainfall, then overflow or run underground on top of the till, pouring out to erode the side slopes below. Rain gardens and bioswales are poor substitutes for a good storm sewer system, and that means downstream treatment is more effective.
    There is a great example of how to do it right. Burnaby’s Byrne Creek accepts storm flows from tens of square km of urban development. The city fortuitously preserved the banks of the creek and is actively supplementing and increasing the Riparian forest at the edges through its adjacent development policies. There are large, artificial wetlands placed at the base of the south slope where the creek enters the flats, and it is there where the flows are filtered and cleaned by vegetation more effectively than token swales could ever do. The wetlands require periodic maintenance to remove sediment and invasive plants, but overall they are measurably successful, if not perfect or large enough. Upstream naturalized detention ponds bordering new daylighted portions of the creek are proposed, and these will help isolate any toxic spills that occur. Vancouver by comparison covered up 26 major streams, so this opportunity is lost.
    The jury’s out. If the book promotes more of the above, then I’ll save my money. If it truely promotes multi-disciplinary urban design and addresses the increasingly larger influences on our cities on top of climate change, like the symbiotic relationship between urbanism and energy, fossil energy decline and its substitution, moving to electricity-based transportation and compact urbanism, and the problem solving needed to accommodate more people using fewer resources, then maybe I’ll drop the 60 bucks and buy it. Until then, I’d stick to McHarg and try to imagine what he’d say about the challenges of the new century.

    1. As someone who knows little about these things, I find your comment fascinating. I have great respect for your passion.
      I do get the impression that green initiatives are often driven more by fashion than practicality or impact. I’ll never forget the protesters (short-sighted? insincere?) who briefly blocked construction of the Millennium Line because it entailed chopping down habitat for urban wildlife in the Grandview Cut. I have difficulty imagining that any fancy technology can come close to the gains of simply housing more people in less space. It’s a pity that when their B.S. detectors go off, so many decent people throw out the baby with the bathwater, concluding that environmentalism is all a scam.
      “That book alone got me into this profession filled with naïve hope, which has been tempered by disappointment three decades later.” It appears to me that this is the human condition. My profession (in part) is computers; look what a horror show that whole field has become. The more my dreams have been realized, the more my hopes have been dashed. But we can’t walk away; that only surrenders influence to others, usually those who will profit the most.
      “What we need today is . . . an end view set well beyond mid-century.” So much this. Whatever the issue, it seems as if the end of history is at most one lifetime away. For example, I have found it very difficult to find sea level rise projections beyond the year 2100. Though I suspect I might be critical if I re-read it, the story at the beginning of Stewart Brand’s Clock of the Long Now really struck me. It tells of long-ago builders of a great wooden hall, who at the same time planted a forest: in future centuries, when the beams of the hall needed replacing, the trees would be ready. It occurs to me that good stewardship is not the things that we build, it is the processes and practices, habits of civilization, that we develop to guide us.

    2. @ Alex Botta
      Thanks for that huge interesting post. I’d have to have a little lie down if I wrote that much.
      Have put ‘Design With Nature’ on hold. Was just reading ‘Placemakers: A Brief History of Real Estate Development’ – really good – not at all academic; profusely iillustrated – coffee table quality with content.
      Your account brought to mind a couple of quotes that have reverberated in my mind for many years – both by Lawrence Durrell. I think it was in ‘Spirit of Place’ that he talks about how one locale can feel stultifying, while another makes you feel alive – “two paces east or west and the whole scene changes” is how I think he phrased it.
      To find where you feel you belong is a fortunate thing – to have that sense of home – exemplified in song like ‘Farewell Sorrento’. I recall someone who had visited there saying he couldn’t imagine how someone who grew up there could leave.
      I don’t feel that about Vancouver – not even close – I don’t feel kinship, but there’s nowhere else that I can imagine living. It ticks enough boxes. If Montreal switched places, that would be closer to the mark.
      The other quote is from the ‘Alexandria Quartet’ – that a city is a world when you love one of its inhabitants. I have a wife and two kids. They are rooted to this place. One of them was even born at home, so here we are, here we stay.
      Two men that I admire are Dan Barber, and Joel Salatin. Barber’s TED Talks are two of the best – a chef and farm owner that has a restaurant in Manhatten and one at his farm. He looks and sounds like Woody Allen – but instead of focusing on human relationships, he speaks about relationships with land and animals: Eduardo in the Extremadura, who produces natural foie gras from geese who voluntarily land on his farm; and a talk on how he fell in love with a fish – how an estuary was forcibly and unsuccessfully made to raise cattle – then allowed to express its true nature to raise fish. How this natural fish farming works – having water leave this ecosystem cleaner than when it went in, while producing delicious fish – is inspirational.
      Joel Salatin too, is a genius farmer – an articulate antidote to those brainwashed by industrial ag. I wish these two men would also focus their attention on cities. There’s too much groupthink in urban planning.
      Their favourite thing about Vancouver would undoubtedly be the UBC urban farm. My guess is that they’d be all for expanding this to every schoolyard. What the UBC farm is missing is a diversity of animals. Other animals improve our human nature.
      Ignorant people find the idea of having goats and pigs in the city insane, but accept the plethora of dogs. At least now, you can point out that major cities use goats and sheep for bush and grass trimming. Pigs should also be part of that equation. They’d love to root up blackberry bushes, or eat household organic waste. Mini farms with animals at schools would hands down be the most exciting thing at schools – not some erzatz simulacrum petting zoo. Ask any kid what they think of this.

  2. I often envision that the near perfect communities of the future would consist of villages and compact towns of 100,000 or less ideally built on damaged land (not green field), powered by renewables and strung together like pearls in a necklace by electrified light rail. Farmland and community trust forests would fill the spaces between and offer a sustainable local contribution to the economy.
    While that option may be possible in many areas, most of us live in big, exciting cities and humongous suburbs. Out of all our urban development, it is, in my view, the suburbs that are the least sustainable. There are many reasons why this is so, but the per capita energy consumption and the cost limitations of public services are top of the list. We may have to adapt to about a 1/3 reduction in available energy in the last half of this century, and it is the suburbs that will eventually have to change the most to adapt to the diminishment of the one-time endowment of fossil energy.
    I really don’t see the landscape architecture profession understanding this at present, with the possible exception of Michael Hough. I turn to other practitioners like Jan Gehl and Ken Greenberg to lead the way in creating real life humane urbanism without concern for the confection of design awards and have always found their books inspirational. In 2015 Larry Beasly teamed up with Jonathan Barnett (prof at the U of Pennsylvania) to write “Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs”, which I found relevant and insightful, best of all with real case studies. Vancouver is generously referenced. The authors address climate change adaptation quite well, though one could quibble over a couple of points.
    I’ll look up Barber and Salutin too.

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