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article imageGreen Thumbs Up: Ecological design principles for cities

By Karen Graham     Nov 14, 2015 in Environment
For centuries, we have chosen to alter the environment to conform with our wants and needs when building our cities. But a changing climate is forcing us to look at new approaches in design that strive for harmony instead of controlling the environment.
In a new column called Green Thumbs Up, I'll be exploring various environmental projects and ideas affecting green-friendly regions across the world.
Cities and towns evolved from trading centers along waterways or trade routes, and grew out and around from the city-centers, giving us the urban sprawl so common today. Buildings and other types of structures were built without any consideration of the ecological consequences.
In our defense, the science of ecology, the interrelationships between animals and their environment was known as far back as the fourth century BC, in the writings of Aristotle's student, Theophrastus.
China's cities are often hit by heavy pollution  blamed on coal-burning by power stations and i...
China's cities are often hit by heavy pollution, blamed on coal-burning by power stations and industry, as well as vehicle use
Greg Baker, AFP/File
But it wasn't until the early 19th century that the so-called "balance of nature" was given the name, ecology. Up until that time, the natural world was considered static and unchanging. Little was known about the interrelationship between organisms, their adaptations, and the environment. But we were beginning to learn, albeit slowly, leading to the first ecology textbook in 1905.
The Ecological Society of America (ESA) turns 100 this year, and in celebration of the society's centennial, the November issue of the ESA's journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment looks at perspectives on how ecological science can influence the design of our next generation of cities and their infrastructure.
How ecological science can influence design
In discussing our warming world, Kristina Hill, an associate professor at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, and the journal's guest editor said, "We've never tried to operate a city during a rapid climate change, especially not on the scale of population we now have, with our largest cities housing upwards of 20 million people."
Pripyat - School. View from the class to school playground full of trees. They are growing from conc...
Pripyat - School. View from the class to school playground full of trees. They are growing from concrete and asphalt. Photo taken: June 12, 2010.
Roman Harak
Hill advocates for harmony rather than control of our environment in solving the problems created or accentuated by climate change. As an example, in citing the urban heat island phenomenon, she suggests "hybridizing the concrete-and-steel structures we have been designing for hundreds of years with living systems."
Combating the urban island heat effect could be accomplished with the use of light-colored surfacing or permeable pavements, cool roofs, and the increased planting of vegetation in cities. In tackling the physical, social and technological problems facing us, Hill says, "It's not about the preciousness of some rare thing that lives far, far away. It's about the water and the wind and the plants in your city."
The ESA wants us to work with the environment, rather than continually trying to change something that can't be changed. We can learn to work with the forces of storms, tides, and floods. We can invite green plants and trees into our living spaces, bringing us closer to the natural world.
"Through ecology, we learn what it is to be human by learning about what is not human. Understanding human experience through other forms of life is so significant and fundamental," said Hill. ""Ecology is literally, etymologically, about the house."
In future "Green Thumbs Up" features, we'll take a look at some innovative ways ecological design is changing the way we will live in the future.
More about building with nature, ecological design principles, ecological society of america, green thumbs up, Climate change
 
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