What would a true renaissance in Cleveland look like? A pathway of opportunity for people left behind that reclaims thousands of vacant lots around the city?
The current mood is a neighborhood-based approach like that being explored by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress—with its Resilient Cleveland program and climate ambassadors building up social and physical capital in four neighborhoods. The city with its Cleveland Tree Plan, the Sewer District’s green infrastructure program, Thriving Community's tree stewards all hold promise for growing parks, farms, green spaces and urban forests.
The re-greening of Cleveland could take ecomimicry as its guide. Like biomimicry, ecomimicry looks to nature for inspiration. In this case, for creating the conditions where beneficial invertebrates (bees, beetles, butterflies) and their predators like birds live and thrive.
"One reason we should care about biodiversity is that it might be the solution to our environmental impact," writes the leading ecomimicry group, The Nature of the City. "After 3.8 billion years on planet Earth, nature certainly has some sustainability and resilience lessons to teach us."
The field of urban ecology has emerged to make this scenario possible. Land does not need to be pristine to become functional to this degree.
Imperfect as a vacant lot may be, the perfectly manicured lawn is another imperfect choice. We need to move “beyond binary” choices in the provision of functional green space. We may need to define new goals such as a symbiosis of diverse species (Kurokawa). And that’s why the tenets of ecomimicry have to be well articulated, whether its for a suburban yard or a vacant lot in the city.
The Nature of the City (TNOC), an international group of natural scientists researching ecological restoration on vacant urban land, explains the frisson between ecomimicry and "blandscaping” which they define as “landscaping that uses the same designs, and often the same species, has become a ‘best practice’ model that has been shared and used across different urban regions nationally and globally.”
Ecomimicry is where natural, accidental, and even remnant elements of a landscape are integrated. Biologists study soil and how “specialist” and “generalist” species vary. One of urban ecology’s leading thinkers, Nan Ellin, Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at University of Colorado, describes the theory in her book, Integral Urbanism, that blending or convergence of human made and natural.
“Whereas the Modern sought liberation through scientifically and creatively controlling nature and the irrational, integral urbanism cultivates liberation from oppression, inequality, ignorance, pain and discomfort by understanding our place in nature, including the irrational, by drawing on science, technology, creativity and deep empathy,” she writes.
In London, for example, a railway corridor and derelict industrial site were going to be blandscaped. A plan emerged to save an endangered, native, striped beetle. A sand barren form, remnants from the rail yard (steel) and an exotic wildflower species were in the beetle’s preferred habitat. Thus the “beetle bump” was born; it supports many “specialist” invertebrates, including the beetle.
A study in the United Kingdom of biodiversity in similar projects in urban London found biodiversity comparable to an undisturbed forest. The remarkable urban ecology “mosaic” that can form with an intentional strategy stands in stark contrast to the blandscaping that typical grass and shrubs, often employed in urban greening projects, produces in terms of improving a city’s biodiversity. It found that,
“Naturally seeded urban areas or industrial sites such as demolition sites, disused railway lands or unexploited industrial land. These areas can be particularly rich in species, often reflecting the complex mixture of features. In the early stages of colonisation, ephemeral species are favoured and include many uncommon species including some bees and wasps for which urban areas are now their stronghold and early successional carabid beetles. Laterstages of succession – short perennial, tall ruderal and then through to woodland – equally contain many uncommon invertebrates with flies, bees, wasps, including some parasitic species and sawflies. The lichens of disused land include several rare species. Both plant and animal communities contain recently established species, some of which are virtually confined to urban areas but a few of which have also established in rural situations.”
As Cleveland searches for answers on how sustainability informs neighborhood revitalization, a goal to promote biodiversity on vacant land and in green infrastructure projects, an open conversation about where residents are comforted or concerned about nature in the city is the starting point. Cleveland has opened the door to many conversations and projects that have restoration of nature at its center.