The City as an Eco System

Or, Nature Loves Edges

Nature Loves Edges

If you were to look from afar at an English wheat field in August, it will appear both rich and productive: a sea of gently billowing golden yellow, neatly bordered by fuzzy green and brown hedgerows. It is easy to be impressed by the sheer power of modern agriculture, the promise of sweet smelling loaves of freshly baked bread or building material for the most adorable little rural cottages. Look closer though, and in almost every field in England, the field itself is a rather sad monoculture, designed to host a single species only. But linger at the edges and observe those ancient living hedges. A cubic meter of old hedge contains and harbors exponentially more species of mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, flowers, shrubs, trees, fungi, moss, mushrooms etc., than a square kilometer of open field. A mature oak tree growing in the middle of a hedge alone is said to harbor more than 280 individual species of insects. The same thing is true of a good ditch. Not much to look at, but it supports a huge variety of flora and fauna (including amphibians and fish). It is sometimes calculated that a single good length of rural hedgerow-and-ditch-combination harbors populations of between 50-80% of all woodland and aquatic species in the country.

It is almost like there is some universal law of nature that dictates that the more fractal, the more fine grained, the more edged and bordered a habitat is, the more diverse and the more of a wealth of life it can afford to harbor. A sort of glorious living version of the Coastline Paradox1.

The same way of observing a hedgerow can be applied to the way we observe cities. The vast space devoted to the exurban (or suburban) shopping mall holds only a fraction of the number of businesses per acre, a fraction of the number of employees or people able to make a living from it, a fraction of the tax income potential (sometimes these sprawling developments hold only a single employer and automation means that we are fast approaching employee singularity with automated shops employing not a single person).

These suburban developments are also a mere fraction of the fun and variation of human interest that we know to demand from our cities. Just compare any minor Thai street market or rural Ghanian bus station with a couple of miles of cul-de-sacs at the typical Pine View Residential Estate.

So the Art Of Building Cities is partly about achieving the best balance between the single species monoculture field and the fractal teeming-with-life “Old City” (or downtown vs. suburbia).

“The Franken-Corporation-City-State”

Recently there has been a lot of news about rich people wanting to build huge new cities: an attempt to bypass those messy old cities full of history, individuals, customs, patchworks of ownerships, rights and duties, in favor of a more efficient corporate-state (or an undead “franken-corporation-city-state” where the inefficient jostling for control of valuable urban land—land speculation—is once and for all taken care of by just assigning the entire potentiality of urban wealth to a single owner or corporation or conglomerate. In essence (to paraphrase): Everything within the corporation, nothing outside the corporation, nothing against the corporation.

Leaving pure greed aside, what these megalomaniac plans really are, is an attempt to recreate the rather sterile monoculture of that field of wheat that I started this essay describing, and leaving out the many messy but teeming with life hedgerows and ditches.

Culturally we have quite a few myths and legends with cautionary tales of what happens when we try to build one of these over-scaled mono-culture mono-monstrosities. The parable or story of the Tower of Babel being one famous example of early human techno-narcissism, the belief that ever more complicated technological solutions (or structures in this case) can overcome that ever faster approaching event-horizon where the technology we have made ourselves dependent on makes us so unfit for actual life that we as a race simply stop being able or willing to reproduce. Why would anyone any thinking feeling mature person want to dedicate the best most productive years of their life to living in one of these corporate-states? And why would the other countries and states and cities let them? Their whole business idea is basically to lure the cleverest most productive people of the world, make them happy to focus on PowerPoints rather than on babies, and then replace them when they stop being useful/docile workers. It is not a sustainable business model, and it is not a way to build a sustainable city.

Speaking of cities

The solution to the many problems of modern cities is not one of centralized or even globalized command and control, but in reality the exact opposite: localization, reproduction, a multitude of small centers, or, creative marginalization if you wish. Instead of like now, only allowing ever larger and larger developments to happen in and around cities, it is time to start dividing them up into pieces large enough to be handled by organic, human scaled, individuals or groups of individuals (from family to co-operative or NPO). Instead of having a square mile sized chunk of city redeveloped by a single large corporation, divide it into thousands of smaller lots to fit a range of purposes fit to serve the entirety of a human life: play, pray, work and rest. In mature cities this can be tricky but in entirely new developments this is easy: undeveloped land is so cheap that any one who is willing to invest a minimum of cash and a maximum of sweat equity should be able to buy enough land for a family or a business to thrive.

Mariacka Street in Gdańsk, Poland. Homes, offices, shops, cafes, eateries, public streets and private courtyards. Full of life where meetings happen, a patchwork of small lots, streets, niches, backyards, lofts, apartments, etc. We are not building this kind of street anymore. Photo by kind permission by Rale P., https://www.instagram.com/rale_p/

If long distances between say the Big Box Supermarket development and the places where people actually live makes it expensive and inefficient for an ordinary person to buy ordinary bread, the solution is not to add four more lanes to the highway in an attempt to make driving there quicker, but to return to the residential area and open up a scattering of new corner-stores, turn existing high streets (or shopping streets or parking lots or parks etc.) into open air markets and so on.

And this holds true in production, agriculture and finance as well, for the same reasons. The tiny one man or one babushka sized “dacha” garden plots for example compromises a mere 3% of the total agricultural land of Russia while producing over 50% the national value of all agriculture. Imagine what the babushka could do if they were given 6% of the agricultural land.

To summarize: to maximize “species diversity in urbanism”, makes lots small, build to the lot size at least on all sides facing the street, build streets and alleys in a variety of sizes and shapes. When in doubt, divide. Nurture height differences, preserve natural water, keep schools small, churches small but plentiful, shops small and varied. A butcher, baker and greengrocer is better than a corner store which is better than a supermarket which is better than shopping center. And so on. More hedges (walking streets and frontages), ditches (alleys and backyards) and less open field (multi lane streets). And finally, you can’t have a garden without fences: make sure that the city knows it limits.


Post Scriptum, a minimum of a recommended reading list on scale and society:

  1. Human Scale Revisited, by Kirkpatrick Sale, 2017

  2. The Breakdown of Nations, by Leopold Kohr, 1957

  3. Small is Beautiful, by E.F. Schumacher, 1973

1

The Coastline Paradox is the fact that the closer you attempt to measure or map any given coastline, the longer its length appears: it is fractal. In the same way, if we were to look even closer at the field and hedgerow, at the soil underneath the hedgerow, we would find a teaspoon of it to hold billions of living organisms: bacteria, algae, microscopic insects, earthworms, beetles, ants, mites, fungi, microbes, millions of times the amounts of species than that of the hedgerow itself.

It is the same with our great cities: the great CBDs (Central Business Districts) and disappointing “glass’n’steel” office buildings are pathetic monocultures compared to the same floorspace of Old Lahore in Pakistan, or Kabukicho in Tokyo, Japan. I wonder if it might even be true that the merely 1200 m long La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, is more teeming with life and commerce on a summer Sunday afternoon than the whole 7,476 km of the Trans-Canada Highway? Or maybe they are fairly close. Someone should study it.