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Home > Feature Articles > Landscaping

Our Urban Species

The impact of dense development in cities is growing. Creative strategies and common sense are imperative.

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urban density of city planning More than half of the world's people now live in cities, and in the UK around 90% of of the population are urbanites.

People are quickly becoming an urban species.

Urban green spaces become more critical than ever -- both for quality of human life and for the wildlife and habitat that are part of the rich tapestry of nature's support system.

Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl has created vast expanses of moderately dense "humanized" habitat with a high ratio of concrete and a low diversity of plants. The result of suburbanitis has been a dependence on cars to replace personal locomotion. Cars, trucks, planes, and trains replace foot power. And the result of that is lack of exercise, obesity, fast paced, stressful lives filled with noise and anonymity. Work, play, family and recreation are separated by miles rather than blocks. Children can no longer walk or bike to school or a neighborhood playground in relative safety.

High Density City Planning

Proponents of the compact city have captured the attention of community leaders because a vertical city offers practical solutions for tough issues such as pollution inherent to a rapidly growing population that expects the energy-driven amenities to which we have become accustomed.

They are already putting into place high density cities based around public transportation and compact green spaces. Rivers are being looked at with new eyes -- the Los Angeles River is one such example. It is not longer being looked at as a wasteland used for flood contro, but precious and potential green space that runs for 50 miles or more through densely packed urban communities. It is a new green vein of nature in a world of gray concrete and brown haze.

The benefits of high density makes it possible to return to a walkable community. People can walk to work, the library, the park, church, and to visit at the local cafe. They can bike or cart their groceries from the local farmers market or grocery store. Walking produces less noise, less pollution, and less obesity-related health costs. That means a lower carbon-footprint for the quality of life each step delivers.

In England, the government is now recommending that all new housing be more-or-less doubled in density. That's a house in roughly the space of a tennis court. This high density urban planning strategy is possibly the most important piece of housing legislation for our generation. And the impact is still being debated even as the laws are being finalized around the world.

The downsides of urban density are also escalating.

Benefits of Urban Open Spaces

Loss of green space. Green space is usually the first casualty of high density urban development. Backyard gardens are vital fresh food sources for many low-income and elderly residents...and they provide respite and natural resources education for everyone involved.

Pocket parks also tend to shrink and evaporate. These gathering places for friends provide places to walk the dog, go for a jog, feed the errant ducks and for children of all species to play and grow.

Scientists and social scientists have a growing body of research that documents the value of green spaces. This open space promotes community togetherness, reduces crime, improves physical health and mediates psychological well-being. Green space even promotes inward investment into cities and increases property values.

But more fundamentally, green spaces are the last link many urbanites have with the natural world. Without personal experience in nature, we have no understanding of how rainfall works, how ecosystems are woven together, how wildlife is part of our natural life support system. Children learn how birds mate and care for their young. We learn how bees pollinate flowers and are necessary to produce seeds and fruit. We learn that birds sing -- just like we do. We learn what it means to be part of the chain of life. And we learn valuable lessons about survival -- both individually and together as a community.

The Science of Density Planning

Many of our sciences and applied sciences are based on early childhood experiences in the natural world. The sciences of biology and botany and even astronomy and materials science can be fostered by an early fascination with natural processes and materials. Even psychology and sociology can be fostered by studying the antics of squirrels and birds and algae on the pond. The web of life is a powerful motivator and stimulant for the love of learning and participating in life.

Green spaces are also critical to biodiversity. If nature is anything, it is local, local, local. Just like real estate is about location, location, location -- nature's real estate is also about location. Migrating species need places to rest and recover on their thousand mile journeys. They can't always jump over massive urbanscapes and need those little puddles for food, water and rest. Species and subspecies adapt to regions and without adequate habitat they crash. Generalist species are sometimes more abundant in cities that are rich with parks than they are in rural areas.

Building density, height of buildings, and the amount of concrete used to support those densities all affect the habitat balance for all species. People included.

Carbon Balance in Urban Landscapes

Clean air and an adequate water table are also affected by the amount of land available to absorb rainfall. Salt water incursion is a growing problem for the highly populated coastal areas. Creeping salt water makes soil impossible to support plant life...and plant life is necessary to replenish and filter our air quality. And plants provide cooling temperatures, food, water filtration and flood prevention.

The current battle with carbon balance also is affected by open space. Carbon is stored in vegetation. Plants are truly the labor class, the "green collar workers" of our world.

How much open space do we need per person to maintain a life support system? That is a critical question we need to answer before laws are enacted that upset the urban habitat further.

Population Control's Role in Urban Planning

Leaders are remiss in focusing on building higher density cities without also focusing on the need for population control. We can no longer inundate the globe with an escalating population. We are being irresponsible by growing the population at current rates. Until we see billboards encouraging lower reproduction rates, we just aren't being responsible neighbors in our delicate habitat.

This editorial was localized and based on a BBC editorial by Dr Richard Fuller, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, in "The Green Room", a series of opinion pieces on the BBC News website.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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