Summary of Week 5 - Pickett Conversation

1a. NCSU discussion - We had the privilege of hosting Steward Pickett for our internal discussion before the presentation. We first focused on a review of the "Ever Since Clements" paper, and then the Urban-Rural Gradients paper. Here's some highlights:
  • Clements/Gleason dynamics - Pickett described their primary differences within ecological succession theory as such: Gleason held that species originate within a community by arriving from another place. Clements held that species originate within a community through a sorting/adaptation process within that place. He also noted that Clements approached ecology with a coarse view of communities, but that many of his mechanisms for studying succession are still highly relevant to today's processes.
  • Climax community - Ecologists are becoming more sensitive to identifying climax communities, and not making assumptions that the found state of a community is the climax condition. This in turn enhances our approach to land management.
  • Reflection on previous articles - Pickett noted that the 1991 article was considered radical at that time. Some of the writing devices were used in order to convey a new concept in a familiar manner. Specifically the 'urban-rural gradient' builds on 50 years of ecological work with the gradient concept, although now some scholars disregard this precedent and make a criticism of the paper by taking the concept too literally.
  • Transdisciplinary work - Pickett noted that most of his current papers have many authors to be able to both consider the knowledge of and convey their ideas to a wider practical application. This work is more difficult, but also more satisfying and impactful.
  • Primary sources: Due to the many questions concerning history of ecology, Pickett recommended relying on primary texts for a better understanding. These included: Paul Keddy,Foundations of Biogeography, Clements book on management, William S. Cooper, Charles Tanzley, and Richard Foreman.

1b. BU discussion - The Global Carbon Cycle

We began class with a review of this diagram from the IPCC 2007:

external image figure-7-3-l.png

We identified two non-atmospheric sinks that are absorbing the increased carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels: the terrestrial sink, and the oceanic sink. We noted that the terrestrial sink is subject to increase and decrease due to land use change. In areas like New England, a good deal of historically-forested land, which had been cleared for agriculture, has been abandoned and is returning to forest. In contrast, land in the tropics continues to be deforested to make way for agriculture. These events, the former absorbing carbon dioxide and the latter producing it, affect carbon cycling is a very transient manner, as this biotic sink has the potential to be short-term through quick reversals in land use change. Ultimately, however, the terrestrial and oceanic sinks are responsible for absorbing much of the 9.5 GtC/yr (numbers updated from figure above) that humans are ejecting into the atmosphere via fossil fuel burning, mitigating the effect of increased carbon dioxide emissions on the atmosphere.

Then we reviewed the Vulcan Project in 2002, which was an effort to map total emissions of fossil fuel CO2 in the United States. Overall the eastern side of United States shows greater emissions, with a few power plants that also stand out in the midwest. We pointed out that the highways also stand out from the map, indicating that transportation is a major part of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. We discussed the limitations of this national estimation of fossil fuel CO2; namely the lack of data, assignation of CO2 emissions by production instead of consumption, and data that is over ten years old. We then reviewed the transportation emission data made by Lucy's group for Massachusetts and compared that to the Vulcan project. Lucy's map focused on the primacy of transportation emissions with a perspective of consumption instead of production.

We then looked at the CO2 concentrations data at 3 different MA sites (Harvard Forest, Worcester and BU). We compared the different components of CO2 concentrations at different locations. We found that vegetation production plays a large role in Harvard Forest and has a positive net value that suggests Harvard Forest is serving as a carbon sink. As the site moves toward the urban area, we observe higher anthropogenic emissions and lower, yet still significant, vegetation consumption. When plotted against ISA, we see that CO2 emissions in MA show a non-linear increase with increase in ISA. Looking at the work of Raciti et al. (2012), we confirmed that biomass is lower in developed land uses and that the definition of urban once again figures prominently into estimation of biomass. We ended the lecture by concluding that although vegetation and soils are not going to sequester a large proportion of CO2 emissions in urban area, changes to these large C pools would still have considerable implications for regional C balance.

During the lecture, Conor Gately was invited to give a short talk on his work to update the plot that shows the relation of transport-related energy consumption and urban population density in the United States. We found that the extent of the area of the city as well as the quality of the GIS data has significant impact on the result. We also found that places that have interstate highways running through them, such has Miami and Seattle, would have relatively higher consumption per capita due to the contribution of interstate travelers.

2. Presentation: "On Urban Resilience and Transformation - The Sanitary to Sustainable City in Context"
  • Based on the "Ecological science and transformation to the sustainable city" paper
  • The Sanitary City is a design reaction to early industrializing areas where sewer services/clean water/waster removal made for highly unhealthy living conditions. Sanitary City design was achieved through: engineering solutions, segregation of hazards, removal of waste, management/planning silos, government-controlled, city system experts, and demographic transitions.
  • While the Sanitary City was a remarkable step forward over dangerous industrial conditions, there are issues with this model moving forward. Sanitary cities do not take into account ecological conditions, planning for adaptation, or larger scale global warming issues.
  • The recommended step is to move towards The Sustainable City, which is socially constructed, normative, and responds equally to economy, ecology, and society. Features of the sustainable city (in contrast to the sanitary city above) are polycentric governance, integrated management, use of bio-ecosystem services, and a new approach to waste-resource economies.
  • In order to more towards a sustainable city, organizers need to move away from deterministic models and make use of resilience and adaptive capacity. Cities will need to optimally respond to future conditions, instead of anticipating how to control unknown future problems.
  • The changing nature of a city is also a concern. For this presentation, the term city refers to urban/suburban/exurban areas. But we are moving toward megalopolis areas where many historic urban areas are becoming a singular region. this change is an example of why these city forms have to become adaptive.

Joint Discussion:
  • Advice for 'forgotten' industrial cities, or those in decline. There is new appreciation for the service economy - happening completely within the boundaries of a place. The idea that there is value in interaction and innovation within a community, perhaps more so than the typical goal of hosting a company headquarters. Also in these places, sustainability cannot depend on one person or elected official, but needs to be a long-term and shared goal.
  • Role of abandonment - vacant lots can represent new opportunities for species types, but also determinental affects to air quality and health. Having more open space is not always desirable if it comes in the form of a fragmented condition.
  • What is next after sustainability? The Sustainable City is not a state or a fixed equilibrium, it is a trajectory that is always in process. The hope is that there is no 'next,' just a continual goal.


Scott Beck - It was a pleasure having Dr. Pickett join us for our discussion. It was particularly exciting for me -- as a budding (baby?) urban ecologist, its not everyday that one of the founders of your discipline sits (appropriately?) at the head of the discussion table and presents his research. I thought it was interesting to get a first hand account of the evolution of urban ecology, beginning with the realization that the urban-rural gradient doesn't exist, and his surprise at the confounding reaction of his contemporaries. Also, the discussion we had (sorry Boston!) about the importance of consulting historical ecological literature in addition to more recent research was fascinating, and really painted a picture of the internal process he uses to theorize new concepts. I sometimes get lost when we discuss plant biology and community assemblages -- I'm more of a spatial nerd and am interested in patterns, abiotic ecological processes, and social drivers of urban landscape characteristics -- but I'm always amazed when someone who really understands all of the components of urban systems can eloquently describe the biological, abiotic, spatial, and social aspects of cities AND connect all the dots in a variety of ways.

I was really glad to hear him acknowledge that sustainability is not a static state of being, but rather a continuously evolving flux. In the urban ecology lab at NCSU we have often talked about sustainability, much to my frustration. Sustainability has most often been presented in a nicely engineered box, far removed from the variation introduced by humans. I get it - its a necessary step in the process, and helps conceptualize technologies that could one day allow cities to be sustainable. My issues with these types of analyses is that they are not practical, and could never be implemented with any success on the ground because humans (migration, preferences, economics, and geopolitics) are a HUGE source of ever changing variation that cannot be accounted for in models of sustainability (Yet!). As he mentioned, sustainability comes in pieces and parts, which I thought was refreshing to hear. It also makes me think more about the idea that sustainability is only truly relevant at a global scale. I have no real answer because I see the value in localized sustainability, but it is interesting thought fodder.

Kelly Suttles:
It was a great experience to learn from Dr. Pickett’s wealth of ecological and urban ecology knowledge. Most of us in the class are not trained as ecologists, so understanding the history and development of the discipline was important. I am pragmatic, so I was particularly interested in ways to promote sustainability by connecting ecosystem services with urban metabolism/nutrient cycling as mentioned in the Cities article. There were two interesting looking books cited by Douglas Farr and Timothy Beatley: Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature and Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities, respectively. I get excited about case studies and examples of innovations.
Last week while reading Saskia Sassen’s article, I was reminded of Biomimicry when she wrote about self-cleaning paint coatings that mimic the properties of a lotus leaf. Finding answers to design questions that are inspired by nature is the purview of Biomimicry. Is anyone familiar with the discipline? I am curious to see how it fits with urban ecology. Designing sustainable cities would certainly include constructing buildings that can better maintain a comfortable temperature without huge energy inputs. Biomimicry would ask what examples already exist in nature and how can that be translated to work in cities. Geothermal heating/cooling systems are one application. I’m finding out that my interests lie with the technology and implementation.

Rene Valdez:
As someone who enjoys environmental history and the history of science (and doesn't spend enough time reading it), I greatly enjoyed the overview of ecology at the turn of the 20th century. As someone who has studied wildlife ecology I am a bit more familiar with ecologists that came after Clements and Gleason. I found my self agreeing with Dr. Pickett, as students we do not spend enough time with literature that forms the basis for our respective disciplines.

The discussion on the evolution of urban ecology was also very enlightening. The way that the discipline has grown in a relatively short time period is astounding. The challenges that both he and Melissa have gone through are extremely relevant to me. I am part of an interdisciplinary research group and hearing someone else talk about the time and effort needed to perform quality interdisciplinary work and the difficulties that can arise when trying to communicate with people who think and talk about issues in different ways sets me at ease because I am also confronted with these issues.

From the readings and the discussion, city modes and the difference between the sanitary and the sustainable city were the most interesting to me. The idea of striving towards the sustainable city is a worthwhile goal, even if it is a moving target. As I looked through the differences between sanitary/sustainable I saw opportunities and challenges. The two features of the sustainable city that most stood out for me were the integration of departments and the increase of public-private partnerships. Both are important but I can't help but wonder how these goals will be sought or attained. City departments were created to contain issues under one roof and attain higher level of efficiency. There is no doubt that there are inter-department communications and collaborations now but I wonder what the drawbacks would be of more inclusions and interactions. The same goes for public-private partnerships. All managers and stakeholders should have input but more seats at the table can produce problems as well. The more people and organizations that are talking the harder it can be to reach consensus. The ability to communicate and cooperate (and compromise) will be more and more important for people of various backgrounds who hope to achieve set goals among different stakeholders.

Janet Felts- As someone who does not have an ecological background, I thought it was a special honor to meet Stewart Pickett. It gave us a lot of insight into urban ecology and its history to hear and interact with someone who has studied and researched urban ecology from its beginning. His transition into urban ecology was a radical transition, as he explained to us, and his article on Urban-Rural Gradients was his way to relate urban ecology to the field of ecology. It makes sense to me to explain a new idea in terms that other ecologists would understand and relate to. It is amazing the transition to acceptance of cities as a legitimate field of ecology from 1990 when Dr. Pickett was convincing ecologists that urban ecology was a necessary part of ecology to 2013 when urban ecology is being taught at universities and has been accepted as a vital part of ecology. I always assumed that cities needed to be studied and were being studied, but Dr. Pickett's transition shows us that nothing is a given, everything that we have come to accept as true was at one time a radical thought.

Also, Dr. Pickett’s discussion on interdisciplinary work was particularly fascinating to me since I think I would be considered a social scientist (I am currently in the international studies department) who thinks about things and understands concepts of ecology differently. Take resilience for example, in class we discussed all the meanings that each interdisciplinary field could use to define the concept and I discovered that what my definition of resilience is was different than what Dr. Pickett had come to understand it as, simply due to our various backgrounds. Neither of our definitions are wrong, just diverse. And that is why interdisciplinary work is so important when studying urban ecology, or any topic for that matter. We all bring a different perspective to the table and we each leave with a little of the others’ perspectives in return.

Mary Farina-

I recently saw an exhibit titled “Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure” created by the Boston Society for Architects. This exhibit presented ideas from all over the world on how to use existing city infrastructure in new and more sustainable ways. I wanted to share some of these innovative ideas:

Urban Air (Los Angeles, CA, Stephen Glassman)
Urban Air, transforms existing billboard structures into air-cleaning bamboo gardens. Engineers have developed a water system mounted on the structure to generate a misting cloud forest high above the ground. Benefits: increases urban vegetation, absorbs air pollution and urban heat, increases biodiversity, and reduces nighttime light pollution.

UTEC Water Billboard (Lima, Peru)
Lima has extremely low rainfall and limited fresh water resources. Despite the low rainfall, the air above the city is very humid. Lima’s University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) has developed a billboard that converts the region’s 98% relative humidity air into drinking water. The moist air is processed through a series of reverse osmosis machines are installed inside the billboard, along with an air filter, condenser, and carbon filter. The billboard generates an average of 25 gallons of water per day, which is dispensed through a faucet at the bottom of the billboard.

The billboard itself functions as an “advertisement” for this innovative engineering project as an effort to spur interest in engineering programs among the city’s youth.

Pavegen (London, UK, Pavegen Systems)
Pavegen Systems has developed a tile for high traffic public areas that harvests energy from pedestrians’ steps. Each time someone walks over a Pavegen tile, energy is harvested from the force of the footsteps. A typical installation includes multiple tiles in a high-footfall area, and the generated electricity can light the surrounding area. A recent installation in London’s West Ham Tube station during the Olympics generated over 1,000 watt hours of energy from the footfall traffic.

Charging Booth (Vienna, Austria)
Telekom Austria observed that the number of people using phone booths was rapidly declining, and that the use of electric cars in was increasing in Austria. They began transforming the phone booths into electric car charging stations. A considerable switch of functionality, this transformation is taking place in phases. In the first phase, the phone booths will use their communication capabilities to provide information for electric vehicles. Over the next few years, these stations will be steadily upgraded, eventually offering the ability to charge multiple electric vehicles from one phone booth.

Smart Highway (Rotterdam, Netherlands)
Transportation agencies provide public services and systems: highway signs, overhead notice boards, roadside LED cautions, cones. These signals and messages may be better integrated into the road surface and the motion of the car itself – this is a design for more interactive, sustainable, and safe roads. This design proposes:
Photoluminescent paint charged by the sun during the day, and heat-sensitive paint to indicate icy roads.

Roadside wind generators fueled by the motion of passing cars.

Electric vehicle priority lanes.

La Grande Cantine (Jean-Baptise Hardoin, Paris, France)
Urban design is often oriented toward rivers, with waterfront access a major component of urban development projects. However, almost all water access seating is forward facing, looking at the water. Things might have gone too far in this direction: little attention is paid to shared, communal gathering points where people can face each other. Hardoin designed a seating system for the Esplanade de la Défense in Paris. This seating system is designed to complement the existing seating structures, but allows people to sit face-to-face to eat together. These tables can be easily installed and removed to adapt for various kinds of city events.

High Line (New York, NY, James Corner Field Operations ·Diller Scofidio + Renfro · Piet Oudolf)

Built in the 1930s as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project, the High Line lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air above Manhattan’s largest industrial district. The elevated tracks improved street-level conditions in the city, removing freight trains from daily traffic. However, in the 1950s, interstate trucking began replacing rail transportation, and the High Line was abandoned in 1980. Today, the High Line is a public park built on the rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. For more info and pictures:
highline2.PNG highline3.PNG

The Lowline (New York, NY, RAAD Studio)
Trolleys stopped running through the Williamsburg Trolley Terminal in 1948. The underground terminal, now abandoned, is being proposed as the site of the world’s first subterranean park. Natural light would enter the space through an innovative system to channel sunlight into the underground chamber. Light would be collected at the street level in dish-like devices, transported underground via fiber optic cables, and diffused as a natural light source underground. The underground sunlight would sustain the growth of trees and grass. For more info:

Marsupial Bridge and Urban Plaza (Milwaukee, WI, La Dallman Architects)
In the early 1900s, increasing automobile use brought an end to use of Milwaukee’s trolley car service, and the Holton Street Viaduct was no longer used to transport trolley cars. La Dallman Architects used the existing support structure of the bridge to build the Marsupial Bridge – a “green highway” that utilizes the space beneath the viaduct. It provides space for biking and walking across the bridge.

La Dallman architects also converted the ground-level area under the bridge into an urban plaza. They added seating, turning an abandoned space into an area for picnics, rest stops, and perhaps for local city events.

City Tickets (Boston, MA)
Parking meters have evolved over time – they are now expensive units with networking ability, payment systems, solar panels, and computing powers. Should their only function be to monitor parking? City Tickets explores how existing meters can be repurposed to better serve city residents. Their existing physical infrastructure is a huge resource, and new approaches should be considered to maximize functionality of this infrastructure. Possible ideas: provide maps and directions, give city announcements and alerts, and allow users to report issues or submit suggestions to improve surrounding area. Please feel free to post additional ideas!

This exhibit demonstrated how innovative ideas can make cities more sustainable and adaptable. Technologies change over time, and some infrastructure may become obsolete as new systems are put in place. However, this existing infrastructure can be a huge asset to the city. With lots of creativity, this infrastructure can be used for new and more sustainable purposes. Many of these designs optimize the use of space, reduce the need for additional building materials, and encourage more sustainable living. Concerns may arise over whether some of the designs, such as building parks above or below the ground, have unexpected ecological consequences. Please feel free to comment on any of these ideas, or additional urban design innovations. For more information about this exhibit, see:

Janet Felts- Thank you Mary for these enlightening sustainable alternatives being used in cities around the world. With so much pessimism surrounding the topic of sustainability, it is nice to see some positive initiatives. I was particularly excited to see the Highline and the Lowline in New York City on the list. I have been to the Highline and it is really fascinating what people can do to old abandoned things instead of just tear them down. I am excited to go to the Lowline now, and will be in watch for its completion. I had no idea some of the other things even existed, like the Urban Air billboards (trees in LA and water in Lima). I would love to see some of these things being implemented in other cities across the world and if I ever get to LA or Lima these two "billboards" will be high on my list to visit. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, especially for those of us not as familiar with the ecological world.

Sravya- I thought it was great to be able to meet Dr. Pickett, especially after revisiting his paper. I really enjoyed how interdisciplinary his lecture and work is. It was really fascinating to hear about the challenges of conducting interdisciplinary research, specifically the lapses in communicating from field to field, for example the varying definitions of “resilience.” I also thought it was amazing hear about the progression of urban ecology becoming a discipline of its own.

What I found particularly interesting was the discussion regarding the vacant lots. Intuitively, open space for vegetation seems like a great idea. However, I didn’t consider that undesirable species could also make this space their home, and have detrimental on health. I did not realize that these areas could potentially require lots of maintenance to prevent hazardous species from occupying this area.

Additionally, I thought Dr. Pickett’s perspective on suitability was refreshing. I think it’s very beneficial to consider sustainability as a continued goal rather than a final state. I feel that this way, it isn’t such an overwhelming concept, but rather a way to adapt to our changing needs and the environment.

On a final note, I really enjoyed Mary’s post. I was not aware of all these innovations! The billboard in Lima is so amazing, I think this a great example of sustainability that responds to humans needs in that area and I think this technology in particular can be very beneficial to other areas, which perhaps also don't have have the best water. I would love to see innovations like these in older cities. However, it seems like these innovations are in population dense areas, like near highways, subways, etc. I wonder if these innovations can be used to sustainably fill abandoned spaces, such as the aforementioned vacant lots.

Eric Bullock - Mary - I love the post! Those ideas are very innovative. The idea of using existing infrastructure for ecological services is very important, for too often do sustainability ideas require space or finances that cities simply do not have. I think an idea that Dr. Pickett only briefly touched upon, but is very important to consider, is the idea of linking non-ecological urban issues to possible sustainability initiatives. What I mean by this is taking a social problem and linking the policies to fix them to possible ecological benefits. Examples of this that I have seen across the globe are:
-A massive inner-city vacant lot in LA being converted to an urban garden. Local kids were then hired to work there, and others volunteered to fill school requirements. The garden ended up acting as a Boys and Girls Club type institution. Crime was reduced in the area and the neighborhood had an easy access to healthy, fresh produce, which was something they did not have access to before. The garden even took food stamps. (It was bought and destroyed after years of success by someone intending to turn it into a mall - but never did).
-Prisoners in LA being paid to do weed control in the inner city. In addition, they were paid to do fire-clearings surrounding the city.
-Urban gardens in Rotterdam being run as a rehab for drug addicts. They have found tremendous success hiring the addicts who then sell the vegetables grown and get to keep the money. The combination of a natural place to go, work to get paid for, and the fresh food has one of the highest success rates of drug rehab in the world (the streets are literally lined with the gardens)
-Cops in Boulder CO allowing graffiti artists to use 'moss graffiti' without a fine - it adds moss to the walls, reduces actual graffiti, and looks awesome

These are just a couple examples, but have a potential of simultaneous 'greening' a city and aiding people of need at the same time.

Michelle Predi:
First, I'd like to thank Mary for the wonderful post of how we can incorporate sustainability into already existing infrastructure. I feel like so often, even in the case studies that we read for this class, many of the innovations that are proposed, for example, new forms of either more porous concrete or concrete that incorporates microbes, the implementation of these technologies requires completely gutting the already the already existing infrastructure. That is neither practical or economical, so I feel that although such technologies are extremely important, they are only really useful alternatives in new developments. Just as with anything else, sustainable development needs to be implemented in baby steps, (ie bamboo green gardens developed using old billboard structures). I particularly like the bamboo billboard structures because they are so eye-catching (much like a billboard) and not only serve a function, but also "advertise" sustainability.
Finally, I would just like to comment on something that I have been thinking about a lot since Steward Pickett presented. I find the evolution of the urban landscaper fascinating, and I find it very interesting that all cities tend to undergo similar changes, from industrial, to the sanitary city, to the "sustainable" city. The comment that the sustainable city was the last stage that a city would have to achieve, a kind of continuous goal if you will, was made. As much as I would like to believe this as true, I would be surprised if, 100 years ago, city planners would have thought that there was a next step after the sanitary city. Back when the first automobiles were made, they were viewed as environmentally friendly, because unlike horses there "emissions" dissipated into the air rather than strewing the streets. Although I agree that sustainability encompasses so much, and is a goal that cities will always continue to strive for rather than a finite state, I would not be surprised if social stages within the next 100 years bring about new corrective goals for cities that we as a society have not yet realized.