Shifting Urban Realities and Nature Beyond Parks

Traditionally, cities have been thought of as distinct from nature.  In fact, they have often been considered to be the antithesis of nature.  Ecological science in the past seemed to agree with these assumptions, and ignored cities in favor of wilderness or at least sparsely inhabited places.  During this traditional phase, nature was though of a an unchanging or perhaps a deterministically changing “other.” 
Cherokee Park, Louisville KY. Nature in the city.
Into this world of a separate, lasting nature was   If urban and nature were distinct, then the burgeoning populations of cities would need a window onto this separate realm.  Parks would serve as a civilizing influence, a platform for socialization of rural and foreign migrants, a venue for healthful exercise, and a glimpse of the American sublime.  Parks would be an escape hatch from the pressures and pathologies attributed to cities by the scholars and activists of the maturing 19th century.

inserted the American philosophy of urban parks.

Ecology In the City and Ecology In Parks

Ecology, when it finally arrived downtown, would use parks as places to apply its biological toolkit in cities.  Parks, in cities, suburbs and exurbs, would provide the research sites in which to understand the effects of urban environments on organisms, soils, and ultimately on ecosystem processes.  But this understanding would still be framed in terms of the ecology of isolated green spaces in the urban fabric.  Perhaps the human population density or the proportion of impervious surfaces outside parks would serve as explanatory variables, but the emphasis was still on nature versus the urban.  As a participant in that initially cautious exploration of the ecology IN the city, I have to say that many unexpected things were learned — things like the enhanced nitrogen dynamics of urban forests, the role of exotic earthworms in carbon and nutrient cycling, and the constraints on the regeneration potential of urban forests.

Humans as Components of Ecosystems

At the same time that ecological science was colonizing   By the last third of the 20th century, ecology as a discipline was beginning to adopt some new perspectives.  Primary among these was that humans were involved in almost all ecosystems.  Humans were components — whether distant or local — of virtually all ecosystems.  In my own case, the watershed event didn’t take place in a city.  Ecological anthropologist Pete Vayda, his student Tim Jessup, and I designed a comparison of natural versus human-created gaps in Bornean rainforest at various distances from a village in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.  Their field work revealed that all canopy gaps combined natural processes and human actions.  If the middle of Borneo failed to provide natural treefall gaps, perhaps there were few places that might boast purely natural environments. 
Long Sungai Barang, Indonesia (by Akubra)

the novel frontier of the city, changing concepts of nature were beginning to crystallize.

The science of ecology began to discover ever more cases of humans as components of ecosystems.  That has become the expected norm.  The ideal of untouched nature is now seen as a very special and rare case.  Indeed, with climate change, perhaps it is fair to say that the nutrient loadings, precipitation amounts and distribution, seasonal shifts, and frequencies of storms, for example, are imposed by human action on even the most remote ecosystems.

Nature Beyond Parks: Ecology OF the City

As ecology in general began to recognize humans as components of ecosystems, so too was urban ecology beginning to explore beyond the comfortable locations of green spaces in cities.  Ecologists were beginning to interact with social scientists and urban designers to conduct research that encompassed entire cities, and indeed entire metropolitan areas.  Over the last 20 years or so, this approach of ecology OF the city, has produced many novel and in some cases quite unexpected findings.  The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, one of the two Long-Term Ecological Research projects located in a city, provides some examples.  One key insight is that the distributed biology of a city contributes to the absorption of nitrogen pollution.  Similarly, the combined vegetation of cities and suburbs contributes to reduced carbon loading into the atmosphere.  A third example is that tree canopy is unambiguously associated with reduced crime in Baltimore neighborhoods, despite variations in social and economic factors.  The exception proves the rule about trees and crime, since only in the three residential neighborhoods that abut abandoned industrial sites was increased crime associated with tree canopy.  This is hypothesized to be due to a low number of “eyes on the street” in such places.
Combining the insights from Borneo and other   Cities, and urban systems more generally, are human ecosystems, containing biological, social, built, and physical components.  The interactions in these ecosystems, which include material and energy transfers, and the movement of influence, information, and power, involve all four components.  Cities are now seen as being suffused with nature.
The Baltimore Human Ecosystem and spatial complexity.

lightly inhabited places, with the discovery of biological activity dispersed throughout urban systems, led to a revision of the traditional idea that cities and nature are antithetical.

Cities and nature can no longer be dichotomized.  However, this insight leaves the second half of the traditional assumptions about nature and cities still to be examined.  What of the view of nature as fixed, deterministic, or equilibrial?  Ecology has come to emphasize process and change rather than stasis.  Dynamics of plant succession, natural and human disturbances, and even changing climate leave natural systems or natural components of urban systems in periodic or constant flux.  Nature is not a fixed thing.  A watershed event in my own understanding of this idea emerged from my work at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest in central New Jersey.  This old-growth mixed-oak forest was set aside for conservation in 1956, using the philosophy of untouched, undisturbed nature.  But over the next five decades unexpected changes took place.  The arrival of exotic species such as Norway maple, wine raspberry, and stilt grass, the explosion of white-tailed deer, and the absence, since 1711, of Native American-set ground fires, have all contributed to the decline of oak dominance in what was once considered a stable forest.  Many of these changes result from the cultural and physical connections of the forest to the adjoining landscape — the shift from farms to suburbs, the demise of deer hunting, the planting of exotic species in yards, and so on.  Although there are many management tools that could have helped maintain the desired 1950s forest structure and composition, the philosophy that nature is stable, prevented their application.  Nature itself, is dynamic, and when entwined with human actions, unpredictably so.

The Urban as Process

Auch et al. 2004. USGS Circular 1252.
What of the related idea that urbanization proceeds   This model sees urbanization as a universal, one-way journey.  Maps of urban spread as a red blob bleeding out over a green countryside, are common.  Such “red-blob” urbanization maps, obscure important things about cities.  First, they hide even the obvious biologically dominated land and water systems in cities.  This is especially the case with the slivers and fragments that do not excite the attention of planners or managers.  Yet, these small places have contributions to make to biodiversity, water absorption, nutrient retention, microclimate amelioration, and psychological well being.  Second, red-blob urbanization hides the fact that within cities and urban areas, different patches behave differently.  Even as cities grow outward, some core neighborhoods, old commercial districts, and industrial zones may thin and exhibit abandonment and demolition.  Urban change can be via growth, shrinkage, or shift.  Urban ecology has improved as a science so that it now addresses not only the coarse-scale regional expansion of cities and suburbs, but also the ecologically relevant dynamic heterogeneity within them.  Such spatial complexity has great potential to determine ecological functioning of both individual patches and the entire city-suburban-exurban mosaic.

via a set trajectory through mercantile, industrial, and sanitary phases as seen in the Northeastern U.S. or Europe?

Not only do combined city, suburban, and exurban systems change physically, they also change socially and institutionally.  The location of financial investment and disinvestment, the nature and intensity of economies ranging from industrial to service and from formal to informal, the change in household size and composition, the ethnic and demographic shifts in neighborhoods, are all examples of such drivers.   Especially relevant to parks are the changes that may occur in community perceptions, values, and expressed needs.  The desire for passive versus active recreation, for motorized versus muscle-powered activities, for play and sports equipment, for quiet seating, for rustic versus paved paths, and many other contrasting criteria exemplify the diverse judgments that different age cohorts, household types, and social groups may bring to parks. 
The complexity of the ecological role of parks begins to emerge here.  There are parallels in how urban ecology has come to be a more multi-disciplinary and process based discipline.  Starting from its origins as an ecology in the city, an inclusive study of urban systems as social-ecological systems with broad extent and internal variety has evolved.  Early in this scientific history, parks were a window on the effects of cities on ecosystem processes.  Looking at study plots in parks over the long term has confirmed that the parks themselves are dynamic due to succession, natural disturbance, human use, shifting management strategies or financial and human resources available.  Parks are clearly a dynamic element of the urban social and spatial fabric.  They are, to be sure, an element that hosts and amplifies the ecological work that cities and suburbs can do.  It is perhaps no fluke that one of the seeds that led to the establishment of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study was the interaction of Hixon Professor Emeritus Bill Burch with Dr. Ralph Jones, the late director of the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks.  Stimulated by Burch’s community-enhancing forestry work in Nepal, Jones invited Burch to explore similar work — research and action — in Baltimore.  The parks were key to this work, but like BES, the expanded ecology OF the city project the Jones/Burch interaction helped prepare for, the community forestry approach supported understanding of the entire city — parks and all.

Some Principles about the Parallel Views of Parks and Urban Ecology

Can this entwined history of ecology and of parks be tamed with some principles?  The first few principles are the antidotes to the urban legends that introduced this essay.
1. Cities are not distinct from nature.  In fact urban systems are hybrids of social, biological, built, and physical components. 
2. Nature is not always stable or even stabilizing.  Nor is it unchanging.  In fact, natural systems and the natural components of cities are highly dynamic, exhibiting probabilistic and non-linear trajectories of change.  The capacity to adapt is a key part of natural change, but in urban areas management is an ingredient of adaptation, and is required to maintain a natural system or key biological component in some desired range.
3. Parks are a just one entryway to nature in cities.  A lot of the nature in cities remains hidden — even in parks.   Buried streams, nature in slivers on parcel boundaries, abandoned lots and brownfields, biodiversity represented by shy or small organisms — all are a part of the nature of cities.  Of course, large parks are an important source of ecological wealth in urban systems.  But they are part of a larger network of nature in urban spaces.  The hybrid nature in cities goes well beyond parks.  Urban ecology has evolved — from ecology IN to ecology OF — along with this realization.
Next are principles that emerge from improved understanding of both cities and natural processes.  These help link ecological understanding and processes with the role of parks in cities.
4. Parks change.  Parks may have been designed to suit the needs and philosophy of a particular time period.  For example, their design might reflect decisions by elites in the Progressive Era, rather than a more recently articulated bottom up and inclusive process.  Sometimes the changes that parks exhibit were anticipated by their designers and builders, but the need for management may be forgotten by new generations of park users and managers.  Nor may the financial or personnel resources required for management be available over the long term.  Park change requires action.
5. Cities change too, and the demography and culture of park users — whether across the street or across town — is not fixed through time.  Park design and program reflect the values and needs of communities, and as communities change so too do the criteria for judging parks.
6. Parks are a process.  This phrase, coined during discussions among Karen Seto, Lisa Schroeder, Rebecca Salminen-Witt, and Colleen Murphy-Dunning of the recent 21st Century Parks conference at Yale, is perfect for weaving the threads in this essay together.  Parks are a complex process linking biology, society, function, and benefit together.  But contemporary urban ecology also focuses on the processes of social-ecological interaction that structure and transform city-suburban-exurban systems.  Our understanding of parks coevolves with the scientific understanding of urban systems, and with the needs, values, and resources of human communities and institutions.  This leaves us at the doorstep of the most inclusive ecology of them all – the ecology for the city.
Steward T.A. Pickett
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Millbrook NY


A presentation to the Conference entitled “Science and Management of 21st Century Parks,” Hixon Center for Urban Ecology, Yale University School of Environmental Studies and Forestry, New Haven, 13 November 2015.

Background Publications

Cadenasso, M. L., and S.T.A. Pickett. 2008. Urban Principles for Ecological Landscape Design and Management: Scientific Fundamentals. Cities and the Environment 1(2): Article 4.
Cadenasso, M. L., and S.T.A. Pickett. 2013.  Three Tides: The Development and State of the Art of Urban Ecological Science. InResilience in Ecology and Urban Design: Linking Theory and Practice for Sustainable Cities. S.T.A. Pickett, M. L. Cadenasso, and B. McGrath, eds. Pp. 29–46. New York: Springer.
Childers, Daniel L., Mary L. Cadenasso, J. Morgan Grove, et al. 2015. An Ecology for Cities: A Transformational Nexus of Design and Ecology to Advance Climate Change Resilience and Urban Sustainability. Sustainability 7(4): 3774–3791.
Childers, Daniel L., Steward T. A. Pickett, J. Morgan Grove, Laura Ogden, and Alison Whitmer. 2014.  Advancing Urban Sustainability Theory and Action: Challenges and Opportunities. Landscape and Urban Planning 125: 320–328.
Grove, Morgan, Mary L Cadenasso, S. T. A. Pickett, Gary Machlis, and W. R. Burch Jr. 2015. The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press.
McDonnell, M. J., A. K. Hahs, and J. H. Breuste, eds. 2009. Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach. New york: Cambridge University Press.
McHale, Melissa R., Steward T. A. Pickett, Olga Barbosa, et al. 2015. The New Global Urban Realm: Complex, Connected, Diffuse, and Diverse Social-Ecological Systems. Sustainability 7(5): 5211–5240.
Spirn, A. W.  2012. Ecological Urbanism: A Framework for the Design of Resilient Cities.
Troy, A., J. M. Grove, and J. O’Neil-Dunne. 2012.  The Relationship between Tree Canopy and Crime Rates across an Urban-Rural Gradient in the Greater Baltimore Region. Landscape and Urban Planning 106(3): 262–270.