Urban Ecology: Knowing or Making?

Our friend and colleague, Alex Felson, of the Yale School of Architecture and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has a unusual perspective on what urban ecology is and does.  Trained as a landscape architect, urban designer and as an ecological scientist, his perspective is quite unusual among urbanists.  You can find information about his work and laboratory here: http://uedlab.yale.edu/
He often argues that urban ecological science is about understanding the city, suburbs and exurbs, as a given.  Science seeks to determine the patterns, mechanisms, processes and dynamics that characterize existing urban ecosystems.  In contrast architects, planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and engineers intend to make the city-suburb-exurban system, in part or in whole, de novo or repurposed.  The big contrast is between knowing and making.
Such a contrast is useful in highlighting the range of stances about the city as a subject.  Alex emphasizes that working with designers – that inclusive community of people who design or change urban systems – forces ecologists to engage in the process of city making.  Bridging the difference between knowing and making is a significant opportunity for ecological scientists.  But there is a variety of ways to accomplish such bridging.
Individual people can be trained and practiced in both ecological research and the theory and practice of urban design (in the broadest sense – architecture, landscape architecture, engineering).  Currently, that is the rare bird.  There are not many people who are trained like that.
Alternatively, people who are trained as designers – the makers — and those trained in ecological research – can interact through the design process as practiced in architectural firms, municipal planning departments, and sustainability offices.  Ideally, engagement of makers and researchers should be constant through the entire design process, from inception through construction, through assessment of performance of the built project.  Feedbacks between knowing and making should be a constant spiral of interaction and reflection. 
Thinking about designs as experiments, as both envisioned and built projects and as assessments of the performance of the projects, is a real advance (Felson and Pickett 2005, Felson et al. 2013).  This is a method and philosophy that Alex has promoted for a long time.  Makers and knowers can share hats.  Makers must know (as they do via site analysis and observing urbanistic successes and failures), and knowers can be a part of making.  The dichotomy is ultimately a false one.  In addition, monitoring should not be an optional after-the-fact activity, rarely funded or contracted, and thus rarely done.  Rather, knowing and making can be combined in an ongoing, seamless process. 
Urban ecology and urban design can both be improved by the union of knowing and making.  Many ecologists have always been interested in making – conservation, restoration, and management were passions of many of the founders of modern ecology.  For example, Frederic Clements (Clements 1935), the pioneering theorist of plant community dynamics, was deeply exercised by wanting to restore damaged prairie lands.  Other members of the first generation of American ecologists, such as Victor Shelford, were the instigators of such practically motivated organizations as The Nature Conservancy.  Contemporary expressions of the marriage of knowing and making are found in the Ecological Society’s Earth Stewardship Initiative, which calls ecologists to be engaged – along with other disciplines and making professions – in helping to shape sustainable futures (Chapin et al. 2010).
Urban ecology has much to gain from an smoother connection between knowing and making.  It may be time to retire the contrast, at least as a community, if not as individual renaissance-style polymaths.  As the world becomes increasingly urban, making and knowing can’t remain far apart.


Chapin, F. S., S. R. Carpenter, G. P. Kofinas, C. Folke, N. Abel, W. C. Clark, P. Olsson, D. M. S. Smith, B. Walker, O. R. Young, F. Berkes, R. Biggs, J. M. Grove, R. L. Naylor, E. Pinkerton, W. Steffen, and F. J. Swanson. 2010. Ecosystem stewardship: sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25:241-249.
Clements, F. E. 1935. Experimental ecology in the public service. Ecology 16:342-363.
Felson, A. J., M. A. Bradford, and T. M. Terway. 2013. Promoting Earth Stewardship through urban design experiments. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11:362-367.
Felson, A. J. and S. T. A. Pickett. 2005. Designed experiments: new approaches to studying urban ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 549-556.