Embracing more of an urban ecology mindset would help struggling, post-industrial cities like Cleveland cope with climate change. Urbanization can be a force for good, but currently, the “pattern” in cities is not sustainable. Cities are net producers of carbon emissions, for example, and it is resulting in hotter, drier and more unpredictable weather events like floods and heat waves that are causing property damage and loss of life.
Climate resilience is possible for Cleveland. Inviting wildlife into the city by providing habitat and building in ways that reduce carbon emissions is possible, and will improve living conditions all around. Wildlife habitat, transit systems, green infrastructure are vital as we look to control rampant carbon emissions, cool and buffer cities from climate change.
Taking a step back—ecology is a field of study that looks for patterns in nature and for understanding the factors that influence them. Recently, urban ecology has expanded on the tradition. It studies the pattern of cities and, combined with urban planning, takes a proactive approach to challenges like the loss of biodiversity globally by weaving strands of green and grey together in the patterns of how we live.
“To understand (urban) ecosystems in which humans are key drivers of change, we need a paradigm shift in the way we study these ecosystems,” writes Director of Urban Ecology Research Laboratory at University of Washington, Marina Alberti.
Cities concentrate consumption and production in markets, but where profits are concerned the current paradigm measures growth in the economy with a single yardstick (GDP) and “externalizes” the losses, like pollution. Shifting the paradigm could mean finding a “non-market” solution. Biodiversity for better cities. Clean air, clean water and biodiversity, or conditions for natural diversity to thrive, are non-negotiable when it comes to our health.
“The interactions between society and the environment are both the mechanism for accelerating global change and the source of innovation,” Alberti writes.
In other words, once cities have passed an initial stage of development — creating markets or industry — they need to strive for their next stage or they cannot support life. How does nature play a role in improving our economies and conditions for living? Urban ecologists say the pattern of sustainable urbanity is a hybrid ecosystem where nature and built form co-exist. We benefit from a balance between nature and building, and so do many more species.
We are part of nature, and we are inventors of the new, hybrid “socio-ecological” system. Private property owners can do their part by planting native, organic gardens and cities can act at the community scale by elevating green infrastructure to their guiding principles, laws and plans.
Cities that are in flux like Cleveland have lots of opportunity to encourage natural growth in spaces formerly occupied by us. Sometimes, it happens by accident. Plant seeds are moved throughout a transportation corridor because of vehicles, Alberti notes. Picture the RTA Red Line corridor. Its novel state was not anticipated when it was first opened—augmented by the presence of technology. Novelty is essentially instability, but that is where it can be a “force for good”—the longer it remains, the greater likelihood it accummulates the conditions for a new system, a more “heterogenous” system that is better equiped to respond to a massive regime change. The Red Line corridor is not textbook sustainable (native, permaculture, productive or aesthetically pleasing) landscape. Seed dispersal from a train line is novel. But, it could protect both biodiversity and human well being (fast transportation and abundant organisms).
The Flats. Rooftops that collect bird droppings. River and streams corridors. Back yards that form a linked network of green space. We can probably identify lots of places where a hybrid socioecological system is taking root in Cleveland, and that should be enabled as spreading pools of biodiversity.