Where did Urban Ecology Come From? Zev Naveh and the Total Human Ecosystem

Encountering Zev Naveh – A force of nature

One answer to the question of where urban ecology came from has to point to Zev Naveh.  When I first heard Zev Naveh (1919-2011) a professor at Israel’s Technion, talking about the “total human ecosystem,” I didn’t get it.   Zev, whom I later hosted on a sabbatical visit to Rutgers University, was way beyond my thinking about people and ecology at the time.  I had been working on how communities of annual plants that colonized disturbed, post-agricultural lands were put together.  I was also developing and generalizing ideas about natural disturbance, and working to put succession in a connected, dynamic landscape perspective.  I was just beginning to seriously think about humans and nature as a big picture.  But at the time “landscape ecology” was just coming together.  Zev was one of the people who was developing that big new field at the time. 

One of his main points was that people were parts of real ecological landscapes.  That much I got.  That idea resonated with Richard Forman’s seminal definition of landscape, exemplified by the book written with Michel Godron in 1986.  Richard and I were colleagues on the faculty of Rutgers University for about seven years.  In fact, Forman had invited Zev to Rutgers for that sabbatical year, but had been lured away by Harvard before Zev arrived.  So I became Zev’s host and colleague for that academic year.  Since that visit, I had often seen Zev at national and international ecological and landscape meetings.  But I must admit, that the idea of the total human ecosystem had become a little rusty in my memory. 


A few days ago, I was assembling papers to prepare for writing a new paper.  As is often the case, digging around in the bibliography of one paper leads to new papers, or reminds one of things that one had neglected for a while.  I came across a citation of a published lecture of Zev’s that I hadn’t read.  It was in an obscure publication, but fortunately The Technion had archived some of Zev’s papers on an accessible website.  Here’s what I was reminded of.  And the embarrassing admission is how useful Zev’s thinking  — summarized in 1992 — about urban ecosystems remains.  Here are some nuggets, admittedly filtered through my current lens of urban ecological thinking.

  • It is really useful to think of urban ecosystems as landscapes, and landscapes can exist at any scale.  There is no single landscape scale.

  • Patches are actually three-dimensional things.

  • Urban systems integrate biological, physical, ecological, technological, economic,  and cultural components.  This is summarized as his” total human ecosystem” idea.  Zev uses classical terms like biosphere, technosphere, and noosphere (the global network of ideas), but insisted that they are integrated in landscapes.
  • Ecology’s origin as a biological science colored its application to cities, where most attention was on what organisms were present and where.  Some of us later called this the ecology “in” cities approach (Pickett et al. 1997).

  • A hierarchical, systems theory approach is useful for organizing thinking and suggesting both bottom up and top down control in focal components of landscapes in general — and urban systems.  This is the holon perspective long used in systems theory, for which he cites Koestler (1969), for the idea.
  • Technology is a part of urban systems, so the contemporary emphasis on social-ecological-technical systems (SETS) has a deep precedent.

  •  Globalization is part of his thinking: He acknowledges that even then nearly 50% of Earth’s people lived in urban areas; furthermore, technology is represented as a global system, not just a local set of tools and constructions.
  • Landscape ecology — and by extension — urban ecology, must be transdisciplinary.

  • He calls for the use not only of ecological knowledge in improving the role of urban-industrial (fossil and nuclear added to biomass powered) systems, but also ecological wisdom and ethics.  Alas, anthropologist Joseph Tinker suggests that social systems — as drivers of environmental degradation — are hardly ever voluntarily limited.  Rather, the collapse with the administrative and social costs of increasing complexity.)

  • Ecological knowledge is crucial for urban design, and cities need “green and watered” components, perhaps ideally constituting 10% of urban land, in his opinion.
The total human ecosystem has a long history.

·        There are deep literatures in the components he brings together, going back to plant ecologist and iconoclast Frank Egler (1970) for the total human environment idea first used in discussing industrial agricultural impacts.  His brief literature cited contains classics of hierarchy theory, systems theory, and complexity theory.  Jantsch (1975) is another key contributor to Zev’s thinking on complexity.
Well, it’s a little sobering to find so many ideas that many of us take as hallmarks of “modern” urban ecology so well articulated and well foreshadowed so long ago.  But on the other hand, it is comforting to know that one of the inventors of landscape ecology, and one of the champions of systems theory and understanding spatial heterogeneity in ecology was pointing to the path urban ecology has followed.

Literature Cited:

The Paper this Essay is About:
Naveh, Zev. 1992. A landscape ecological approach to urban systems as part of the total human ecosystem.  Journal of the National History Museum and Institute Chiba. 2:47-62http://tx.technion.ac.il/~znaveh/files/Landscape%20Ecology%20Theory%20and%20Global%20Applications/landscape%20ecological%20approach%20to%20urban.pdf
Egler, F.E. 1970. The Way of Science: A Philosophy of Ecology for the Layman. Hafner, New York
Forman, R.T.T. and M. Godron. 1986. Landscape Ecology. Wiley and Sons, New York
Jantsch, E. 1975. esign for Evolution: Self-Organization and Planning in the Life of Human Systems. George Braziller, New York.
Koestler, A. 1969. Beyond atomism and holism – The concept of the holon. In Al Koestler, and J.R. Smithies, eds. Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences. Hutchinson, London.
The Other References:
Pickett, S.T.A., W.R. Burch, Jr., and S.E. Dalton.  1997.  Guest editorial: Integrated urban ecosystem research: Themes, needs, and applications.  Urban Ecosystems 1(4):183-184. (For ecology in/of cities)
McPhearson, Timon, S.T.A. Pickett, N. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, J. Breuste, D. Haase, and S. Qureshi.  “Advancing Urban Ecology Towards a Science of Cities.” BioScience, accepted. (for social-ecological-technical systems)
Tainter, Joseph A. (1990). The Collapse of Complex Societies (1st paperback ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-38673-X.
An Obituary:
Antrop, M., & Pinto Correia, T. In memoriam Zev Naveh (1919 Amsterdam–2011 Haifa). Landscape Urban Plan. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2011.06.003