• Davide

Ecology and urbanism, an overview. Part 1

As we increase our focus on ecology, both at the architectural and the urban scale, it is useful to recall the concepts and theories that guide our research and practice. The first concept we want to explore is ecology; we even call ourselves ecological, and we like ecological thinking. But what exactly is ecology in urbanism?


In the context of urbanism, the word Ecology has several meanings. Urban designers and architects sometimes simply adopt concepts or models of ecological derivation; other times by pluralising the term "ecologies" some describe the relational aspects of the social, spatial, morphological structures they are investigating. Ecology has supplanted the word “environment” as a richer concept embracing relational dynamics between elements of the environment and man. There are, therefore (at least) three definitions of ecology. First, "hard" ecology is a scientific discipline that investigates ecosystems and the effects of actions on ecosystems (including human beings) as well as the different forms of disturbance, decay, pollution that affect ecosystems.

Second, the variety of spatial and thermodynamic relationships that occur in different environmental contexts are defined as "ecologies": a term that replaces and integrates the word "habitat", which instead limits itself to describing only the environmental conditions, leaving out the plurality of relationships that they can trigger with the dwellers. Ian McHarg, the founding father of the discipline, spoke about human ecologies.

Third, a plurality of ecologies defines different ways of interpreting the hybridisation between biological, urban, planning theories and models, which are redefined in a dynamic, relational and processual sense in an attempt to develop more effective interpretative and conceptual models: an urban ecology, human ecology and ecological or environmental planning, whose definitions are less clear and established, but highlight a struggle to find solutions to several complex problems related to the environment. The process is circular: laboratory ecology also acquires terms and metaphors from other disciplines.


Ecology and urbanism. 1 The origins.

Ecology has established itself as a science and has produced relevant results since World War II. Until then, it has been investigated and interpreted within a multitude of disciplinary contexts: biology, geography, sociology, botany, and ecology have composed, a diverse conceptual archipelago, on which various urban planning theories have been developed. Until the early twentieth century, unconventional figures of planners and designers (biologists, agronomists, botanists, sociologists by training) fueled the debate on the role of man in nature and on the relationship between society, city and the environment.

The processual and dynamic nature and the focus on relationships are the characteristics that have defined ecology since its foundation. The affirmation of the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Von Humboldt has allowed overcoming the classic taxonomic definition of organisms based on their physical structures to identify the functions and mechanisms that enable their survival through relations with the environment. The first definition of ecology dates back to 1866, by Von Haeckl as the "study of the economy of nature and the relations of animals with the organic and inorganic environment, above all of the favourable and unfavourable relations, direct or indirect with plants and with other animals ". The pivotal change here is that the focus shifts from the physical structures to organization, in other words, relations. Along this line, which tajes into account the competitive nature of evolution and adaptation mechanisms, the nineteenth-century studies on plant and animal communities are developed. Organisms, adapt to fit the organized system of life as efficiently as possible: their fitness measures their ability to survive. Following this principle, early ecologists imagined that that the entire organization of life tends towards efficiency and equilibrium through the progressive adaptation of organisms. Their linear and incremental vision of natural processes did not yet take into account the possibility of disturbance, imbalances, and the processes that govern change. Ecology is, in its initial phase, research and affirmation of nature as order and progress.


In 1905 Frederick Clements developed the theory of plant succession, understood as a natural tension towards a state of maximum efficiency, defined as a climax; the idea was subsequently questioned (see Ecology laboratory 3). Clements also coined the term "ecotone" which describes the edges and points of contact between different plant communities; tone indicates a state of tension between different biochemical conditions, which manifests itself in the greater biological richness of these areas.


Ecology and Planning


Environmental awareness and the socio-ecological idea of the city have a double origin. First, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idea of man's dominion over nature, with all its religious had religious and philosophical roots, was contested by romantic thinkers and artists. The writings of Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau describe the dynamic beauty of nature, highlight its thaumaturgical properties and allude to a moral value of natural laws. The return to nature, as a physical place for the rediscovery of original values was the bee big thing.

A second origin can be traced back to the critique of the industrial city, both as a living environment and as a physical representation of the capitalist development model. George Marsh first enunciated the concept of imbalance and contrast with nature due to economic development. In 1866 he maintained that the role of human beings should be that of "co-workers with nature in the reconstruction of its damaged fabric”: a recognition of the damage caused by man's opposition to nature. In the United States, the conquest of the western frontier would come with the almost complete depletion of midwestern forests, resulting in environmental disasters such as the "great dust bowl". The subsequent intensification of disastrous episodes and the highlighting of the relationships between cities and natural resources inspired the work of environmentalists such as Jhon Muir and of technicians such as Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold. They "will support and inform the" philosophies "of management and planning of federal agencies and national parks, of wild fauna and flora forests and of the arid, but rich, lands of the west", which will emerge especially during the administration of Theodor Roosevelt. Thanks to their work, for the first time the areas of most outstanding naturalistic value and the water reserves on which the prominent American cities depended (New York among them) became "reservations", protected by federal laws. Muir and Pinchot represent two contrasting approaches to the theme of conservation of natural resources. The environmentalist Muir prescribed the preservation of nature: the total protection from human influence. The conservationist Pinchot (conservation, which today we could define "sustainable development") recognised and interpreted unconventionally the cultural, political and social dimensions of the relationship between man and nature; he aimed at identifying tolerable levels of management of the resources for use.




Muir and Pinchot, when they were still friends.





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