Dr. George Hess
Urban Planning and Design

NCSU Class Summary:
We had the distinct honor to have Dr. George Hess be present in our class for the entire class session. We began the session on Urban Planning and Design by participating in a class development planning activity. In pairs, we were asked to develop a sketch of a plan to maximize open space conservation on a given plot of land. To avoid building on environmentally sensitive lands, many groups decided to build high-rise structures to optimize the largest area of open space. There was also a great consensus among the class that 50% development was also ideal to allow for the largest area of connected green space with the stream located in the right most part of the given plot of land. While discussing our designs, we all agreed to the importance of community access to open space, even if it is in the midst of dense urban development.
The class was then asked to develop other plots of land in random areas near the plot we had previously planned for. Some of the areas we had to develop were further away, while some were adjacent to the first area. Problems began to arise among the class and the question was asked as to how we could connect the plots or plan for future growth, which is what Dr. Hess wanted us to grasp and think about. This problem is what many urban and conservation planners have to consider while trying to create and implement their plans and simultaneously allow for possible future development. Connectivity to the first plot of land had to be thought of before the third or fourth plot even became available for development.
One classmate brought up the concern as to whether these conservation plans are established simply for conservation’s sake or more commonly for profit? Dr. Hess provided a few examples of places where cities are conserving the environment because it is the right thing to do, but this also creates a very expensive place to live, alienating some people from being able to live there. This catch-22 led us to the question of better planning; does better planning lead to better open space conservation and protection? No, not necessarily. Implementation of the plan is more important to open space protection than the plan quality and more involvement by a wider range of stakeholders within the community are associated with a higher level of successful conservation and protection.
Legislation is also an important driver for green space planning, as most people agree that there is an interest and need to preserve urban biodiversity, but law-makers are limited by their knowledge. As the discussion with Dr. Hess evolved, we discovered that successful planning and implementation also require key people who can build relationships with people in the community as well as law-makers to work together to create the best plan to benefit and conserve the greatest number of species and the community.
We then connected with the BU class and our discussion moved to Maeveen Marie Behan along with many others and their work with conservation in Pima County, AZ.

BU Class Summary:

Greenness of cities: We began class (with our guest lecturer Steve Raciti) by talking about the "Greenness of cities" study from Glaeser and Kahn (2008) to wrap up last week. They compared the cost of a marginal home (a single new house) across cities in the United States, and looked at the correlation between carbon costs and a few potential drivers (location, reugulations, population growth). The authors tackle the problem from an economist's perspective, where the "problem" is that carbon costs are not included in plans for building, and there is no social cost for carbon dioxide emissions. A few findings from the study were:
1) As you move east, the C cost of a new home increases
2) As population growth increases, the C cost of a new home increases
3) As regulations increase, the C cost of a new home decreases
The solution, then, may be for cost to outweigh people's inclination to emit carbon. If we assign a dollar amount in tax to pounds of carbon emitted, we may avoid the incentive to build and emit elsewhere. Finally, we discussed the possibility that this study doesn't capture the whole story. Since correlation does not imply causality, there is likely a larger web of social differences that drive the carbon cost of a home in different locations.

Green metropolis hypothesis: Are living smaller, living closer, and driving less the keys to sustainable living?
After our discussion with George Hess, our classroom took a look at the green metropolis hypothesis: that living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainable living. We mostly focused on "living closer" and how nitrogen deposition and net carbon flux changes from low to high population density.

Wet nitrogen deposition:

  • The deposition of reactive N comes primarily from agriculture, power plants, and automobiles. In urban systems, N deposition also comes from sewage, pet waste, lawns, heating systems and industrial processes.
  • The problem/study design:The NADP sites that ecologists generally use to look at N deposition patterns in the U.S. do not include any urban sites! This raises two questions: 1) Are we underestimating local and regional N deposition? and 2) Can we predict what factors increase wet deposition? The Hutyra lab has been working on these questions by measuring N deposition in several places along the population density gradient in Massachusetts (including Brookline, Newton, Waltham, Harvard Forest, and others).
  • N deposition results: 1) The NADP model underestimates urban deposition and overestimates rural deposition. 2) Higher deposition is strongly associated with local vehicle emissions. 3) N deposition increases with increased proximity to the urban core, increased impervious surface, and increased population density. 4) Increased N deposition is also associated with increased leaching of N.
  • However! N deposition is lower per capita in the city-- support for the green metropolis hypothesis!

Carbon and Communities: How do local-scale factors influence carbon dioxide emissions, sinks, and mitigation opportunities across NE USA? The goal: inform local and regional climate policy.
  • Carbon flux results: 1) Net C flux (emissions balanced with sequestration) increases as population density increases. 2) Emissions are net zero at 31 persons/km2. The bad news is that the northeast currently has a pop density of 134 persons/km2. 3) The lowest density location (Coos, NH) has the same per capita CO2 emissions as the highest density location (Baltimore City, MD). 4) There are greater differences between regions than between population densities-- not good support for the green metropolis hypothesis!

Conclusions about the green metropolis hypothesis: All other things being equal, we might expect that it is more sustainable to have a high population density than a low one. But the reality is that all other things are NOT equal. Particularly in the case of result #4 of the carbon study (above): factors like climate and fuel choice are not equal between locations, and have a large influence on sustainability. For instance, climate affects how much air conditioning or heat the population requires, and this can be a large contribution to C emissions. Other than emissions, we may also consider how wildlife respond to population density-- in the case of urban avoiders, high density is preferable (so we can set wildlife areas aside), whereas for urban adapters, lower population density is beneficial.

Urban design:
Urban design is similar to architecture, but operates on a larger scale. It is important to consider who and what we are designing FOR. Options include:
  • People: aesthetics, utility and recreation, economic value
  • Wildlife: planning for urban adapters versus urban avoiders result in very different urban plans!

The urban design process follows the following path:
  • Identify conservation targets (and map species ranges) Do do this, designers must prioritize species and create maps around areas over which they have jurisdiction over and can develop for conservation- one example might be identifying an expanding highway over which to design a wildlife corridor
  • Come up with a comprehensive plan with the big picture in mind. This is where you might consider how the conservation goals align with other goals, and open it up to public comment.
  • Zoning ordinances to support the master plan (compartmentalization: the separating of areas based on function; OR compromise: in which areas can serve multiple functions)
Just a few of the challenges of urban planning include:
  • Scaling: How do we work from the individual building level to a region? What if the goals aren't all the same?
  • Private property rights: In America, we LOVE property rights. How can government work with people who have ownership to reach conservation goals?

George Hess: The Sonora Desert Conservation Plan:

George Hess gave an excellent talk to both BU and NCSU about urban conservation planning, using Pima County and the Sonora Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP) as a case study. In 1972, the concept of a Sonora State Park to conserve wildlife in a fast-growing Pima County was conceived. A combination of social triggers for public support, motivated and skilled individuals, serendipity and patience resulted in the SDCP's approval and implementation in the 1980's. In using this case study, Dr Hess emphasized the need to relate conservation efforts to stories and people, not just science, to make conservation relevant to people. Ultimately, the following are some of the factors that Dr Hess believes made the SDCP successful.

A trigger:
There were a few triggers to the SDCP. One was the increasing frustration that local people had with development. They were losing access to and views of wild places because of large development complexes moving outward from the city center, so pressure was building. Then, when the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl was listed as an endangered species and were detected living in developing areas of Pima County, this triggered government involvement-- particularly the involvement of Maeveen Behan. These triggers began the "Battle in Sonora" between conservationists and developers. When tropical storm Octave dropped 13 inches of rain on Tucson in 24 hours, wiping out bridges and infrastructure, this triggered the need for action to respond to flooding. This triggered Chuck Huckelberry's involvement, and his post-flood engineering plans included recreational areas that also served as wildlife protection areas (including access ramps, and a bike and pedestrian network).

"Someone like Chuck":
Chuck Huckelberry, a civil engineer and native of Tucson, managed the political process, stood up to pressure, and negotiated against those in opposition of the SDCP. He overlapped the social and cultural issues with conservation issues, and headed up the Science Technical Advisory Team with Maeveen Behan and the chair, Bill Shaw.

"Someone like Maeveen":
-Maeveen headed up hundreds of meetings of the Citizen Steering Committee, allowing everyone to speak and be heard. She was able to see the big picture as well as the details, and she was a speed reader (which meant she managed to get a PhD and a law degree at the same time). She was in many ways the heart of this plan, and wrote in her dissertation: "Conservation efforts need to increase the cultural relevance of the natural world, rather than hope that science alone will change the ethics and priorities of lawmakers." Maeveen's work across the project highlighted the need for conservation efforts to be unified, identifying similarity and overlap of ideas and priorities through committees.

"Someone like Carolyn":
Carolyn Campbell created the consortium of environmental groups that brought a single, common voice of science to the planning process.

One of George Hess' recommendations to students and researchers interested in conservation planning was to start building good relationships now. One of the successes of the SDCP was how much trust was formed between landowners, the public, and government officials, as well as the ability of those in charge to recognize and expect that each situation is different and each landowner is a unique individual.

The timing and confluence of factors all led up to the SDCP working in a specific place at a specific time. The building of pressure, followed by a trigger, and motivated, skilled people building strong relationships made this situation uniquely successful! But the last thing George Hess stressed was that even with all of these factors coming together, and even with the success of the SDCP, the process required a TON of patience.

We had a question and answer session with George Hess after his talk- below are some highlights:

Q: What can we do as individuals, since we can't control serendipity?
-Biologists have to work to understand the public process. Select the right meetings to attend, understand the planning process is slow, has many steps and is arduous, and understand where your science will be most useful. Make planner friends! And try to anticipate where the triggers for conservation might occur. For instance, highways expansions can serve as triggers, and these are often planned decades in advance. If you are there waiting with a plan and have build strong relationships, you are more likely to be successful.

Q: Is there a scale at which conservation planning is most successful?
-It is important to always be thinking holistically and at the large scale, but people get excited about the small picture. If you don't consider how all of the pieces will fit into the larger tapestry, you may end up with disjointed policy, and fragmentation of not only the physical, but also the political. Parks departments actually have what they call "levels of service" that deal with scale. For instance, one level is that people should have a small park within walking distance. Another level is that people should be able to drive to or somehow access a larger wildlife area. We as planners and biologists can make use of these built-in levels to deal with issues of scale and operate across political regions.

Q: In the case of Pima County, the scientists came up with a plan separately and then presented it to stakeholders. This isn't the normal order of things-- are there any ethical problems with cutting people out of the planning process like that?
-The primary goal in the case of the SDCP was not to collaborate with stakeholders, it was to protect biodiversity. Instead of having the stakeholders involved in the science, they brought he scientific product to the stakeholders. So nobody was cut out of having a say, it was just that every compromise made to the plan and the goals was explicit, rather than being part of the process. Doing the science first and separately allowed scientists to say, if this is your goal, here's how you do it.

Scott Beck: It was very nice to have George join us for the entire 3 hour class this past Friday. He lead us through an interesting exercise that demonstrated the complexity of conservation and open space planning - yet another reminder that people are unpredictable, and its nearly impossible to account for the actions of individuals in most planning scenarios. The readings were nicely organized, and provided excellent context for the exercise and discussion. The readings on the Pima County, AZ (Sonoran Desert) conservation plan could have been a case study for our (NCSU) mandatory policy class (NR571) of what NOT to do when developing/implementing conservation strategies. This was clearly a point of contention for several NCSU students -- although it achieved success, it came at a cost. We are taught to be inclusive of stakeholder participation and seek input from the very beginning, which would have included the scientific assessment portion. Although the science behind the Sonoran Desert plan has been lauded, its implementation permanently damaged relationships between many in the business & development community, and those who supported it. There have been, and continue to be, numerous lawsuits attempting to get the plan overturned or amended. Could all of this vitriol have been avoided if it were a more inclusive process?

In George's book chapter reading he presented two case studies: (1) the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and (2) the Chicago Wilderness Plan. they have both been successful examples of urban conservation, but they walked very different paths to achieve these goals. We were given much more information on the Pima County plan, but from the summary of the Chicago plan it was evident that it used a much more inclusive process to create an extended conservation network. The organization does not 'own' the land it conserves -- but it directly partners with the conservation organizations that DO own the land (much like the Conservation Trust for North Carolina is essentially a go-between for other smaller conservation NPO's like TLC). Much of what was done in Chicago was also done in Pima County; they formed coalitions, had critical support from government & NGO's, and integrated biodiversity concerns into scientific reports. However, the Chicago plan included a 'full court press' geared toward public relations, and implemented an educational plan directed at the citizenry. These two components drummed up a lot of support from residents & the community. I'm sure there is more information about the Chicago plan (including what I'm sure are challenges to its implementation) if anyone is interested in digging it up. The contrasts between these plans serves as a reminder that there are many ways to arrive at the same end.

Evan Kuras: The urban ecology literature takes every opportunity to implore scientists to address more interdisciplinary questions and "learn the lingo" of relevant professions. For example, Dr. Hess's book chapter explains various urban planning concepts that may be useful for the conservation-minded ecologist. Students of urban ecology are also encouraged to study human agency and preference since those factors can play a large role in determining the distribution of organisms, nutrient cycling, food web dynamics, and so on. And we often study these phenomena because in cities we have the power to change our surroundings to a tremendous extent. We study nutrient cycling so that we can figure out how to have healthier plants, safer air, cleaner water. We study the distribution of organisms because we want people in cities to be able to connect to nature. And if those statements are not true then why do I hear them so often? Here is the question: should we study the city so that we can make it better? And by whose standards? Is there really something so evil about a city bus covered in plants, even if it is not ecologically functional? Couldn't a mural of a tree be just as important as an actual tree? We can't just study how people make decisions and how those decisions affect the urban ecosystem. We have to start to make some prescriptive decisions and more importantly, compromises about the way cities should be.

Amanda G: Evan, great questions! While I think connecting people in cities to nature is one goal of studying the distribution of organisms, I don't think it is the primary goal of most studies. Rather, I get the impression that studying the distribution of urban plants and animals is more often to identify which are the vulnerable species that need special protection, and how to mitigate the effects of urban sprawl, if that is the community's priority. Generally it helps with setting and achieving conservation goals (as it did in the case of Pima County) if the public feels connected to nature and values biodiversity. However, I think public perception serves a separate function from ecology in a lot of cases. There were two points that really stuck with me from our discussion:
1) I can't remember whether it was George Hess or Steve Raciti (if someone remembers, let me know and I'll correct this to give credit where it is due!) that pointed out that often government agencies think scientists can tell us what our priorities should be. But scientists can't do that any better than any other citizens! What scientists can do is identify a course of action that might accomplish goals set by a community. That brings me to point #2:
2) George Hess emphasized that one very unique and successful element of the Pima County case was that first a committee of scientists collaborated on a plan to achieve the goal of conserving biodiversity and THEN that plan was presented to the community. This allowed everyone to be part of the process, but allowed the scientists to come up with a plan that would achieve the goals presented to them. This way, any compromise to the plan suggested by stakeholders came with an implicit, equal compromise to the goal.
So, the takeaway for me is the following: First, the community at large should be the people to come up with priorities. This is where ecological 'fashion over function' might come into play-- to remind people that they care about biodiversity and the natural world. Then, once they decide those goals, the scientists' job begins. So, if a community decides they value plant biodiversity, for instance, it is the scientist's job to understand landscape-level effects on dispersal, pathogen dynamics, community interactions like competition from invasive species, etc. That's where I think the difference between a mural of a tree and an actual tree becomes really important. For the public, a mural might be a good reminder of priorities, but to an ecologist, an actual tree is part of a plan to help the public achieve their goals. The scientist's job is to sweat the details of that tree whether it is part of a carbon sequestration goal, curbing runoff, or increasing bird diversity, for instance. (As a side note, I think a good mural can have really high aesthetic value that can't be compared to the ecological or community value of a real tree.)

Kyle L: I agree with Amanda's second point that communities at large should come up with priorities, however I think that scientists need to present the community with facts about conservation and how it can effect the community. A community can be mislead by faulty facts and then act on false decisions. Next, I want to discuss how hard it might be to replicate the conservation efforts. Pima county was lucky to have an advocator like Chuck who didn't care what anyone thought about him and fought hard, it seems like a critical piece of the puzzle and it might be hard for most communities to provide a base like Chuck to work off of.

Lital K: While I understand that there is no true environmental benefit to having a bus covered in plants or a mural of a tree painted on the side of a building, I still think these are very important to urban societies. With limited budgets, city and state governments tend to put green roofs or new parks on the back burner and focus on more time-sensitive issues. Actions like painting murals are sometimes the only way to make society consider the necessity of nature, especially in areas with such little natural beauty.
With enough people educated about the necessity of having elements of nature preserved in urban environments, a coalition can develop and grow, and could pressure the government enough that they would prioritize conservation efforts, like Maeveen Marie Behan's coalition did in Pima County.
Evan's questions made me think of my great struggle/debate with trying to accept zoos and aquariums. Even though I love being able to see Bengal Tigers and rare elephants only an hour away from my house, I always feel a bit shameful looking at these majestic creatures trapped in such small enclosures. However, everything always has two sides, right? By allowing people to view all these endangered species for a relatively cheap price, the zoo can educate the public on the importance of conservation and preservation of natural habitats.
I know that comment may seem kind of random, but what I'm essentially getting at is that sometimes we may need to start small and teach the public as much as possible about the threats on our environment and cities, build up support for the cause, before we can move forward to achieve bigger goals like conserving whole forests or building national parks.

Mustafa - Maybe there isn't a prescription that fits every city. We saw one example of a community developing their priorities together and then working with scientists, who were also members of the same community, to achieve shared goals. But we also saw an example of scientists developing a plan for their community as a course exercise and then applying it to the community with help from others. I wonder if it is worthwhile to prescribe one route over the other considering the number of factors that vary by case and community. The order of operation that worked for a particular project in Arizona at a specific time involving a select group of stakeholders may not be the best course of action at another time or place. That point doesn't mean it’s not worthwhile to analyze what made these projects successful, but just that maybe we should think about what factors come to play in a given city or for a given project and work from there, rather than broadly adopting an order of operation across the board.

Additionally, I think we often create an unnecessarily harsh distinction between “scientists” and “the community,” as if to suggest that scientists have no interest in their communities. If a small group of non-scientist community members decide they care to preserve biodiversity is that somehow more an expression of what “the community wants” than if a group of scientists living in a community develops an informed plan to meet that goal inspired by what they want for their own communities? When it comes to conservation and community planning, even though each of the groups working together (scientists, policy-makers, etc.) will have to use their professional skills, they are also often acting based on more personal motivations if they are aligned with the community. Since these projects involved so much collaboration, it was probably helpful to have a more integrated view in which the scientists were members of the community rather than simply external consultants.

This also connects with the “tree mural” question. Carbon storage (or any other ecological goal) presumably has no role in the artist’s motivation behind the tree mural/ green roof bus, and it would be equally stupid for me to scoff at the green roof bus for not meeting a goal never intended by the art. I certainly hope that being a scientist doesn't mean I can only view things from this single lens! I don’t really care whether a piece of urban art plays a direct function in meeting conservation goals or even if it educates the “public,” I should be able to appreciate it as art or defer to the artist’s goals as long as they aren't somehow hugely irresponsible from an ecological perspective.

Kelly: Storytelling. George is clearly a master - what an engaging presentation! One thing that struck me was something he said along the lines of 'showing up prepared with all the data, but it is the wrong meeting.' I heard this as the need to know your audience and being able to tell your story in a way that resonates with them. People understand the world through stories and so conservation projects need to be framed as stories too. I see these stories as a way to find common ground and create political and public buy-in for your project. For example you might talk to someone who would not identify as an environmentalist, who would maybe appear to be 'anti-environment,' but when you talk with him he likes to hunt and ride horses. Now it does appear that he appreciates a clean environment and unspoiled places for those activities. Maybe it is simply the thought of environmental regulation that does not work for him. In this case it becomes all about how you frame the story, so that it resonates with this person.

Great conversation here. It sounds like there is agreement that there are many paths forward and clearly there is no one-size fits all solution to balancing conservation with urban development.
(NCSU class - please save me from myself! My questions are rambling and never come out the way I want.)

Katy Lawless:
I agree with Mustafa that scientists and the community should not be separated. There are many important groups that are needed for conservation an community planning. Scientists are obviously an important aspect to provide scientific information. But, it does not mean that they should necessarily be valued more than the community residents who want preserve land or the government and policy-makers that can help to achieve it.

I really enjoyed George’s talk this week. I liked how he told a story of the different people that are working to preserve the environment. It was inspiring to hear that people have been successful in conservation. I particularly enjoyed when he talked about the development of a wildlife bridge over the highway when it was decided that it was going to be widened. I think that wildlife bridges are a great idea and are a nice representation of the efforts people are making to preserve the environment. Obviously highway construction is not going to decrease and the development of wildlife bridges will help to decrease the impact of fragmentation. George brought up an important point when he discussed this topic and that is that scientists and planners need to be aware of the city’s plans and do research ahead of time. By being prepared, planners were able to introduce the concept of the wildlife bridge at the time when the highway expansion was proposed. Since the research was already done, it would not delay the expansion of the highway and both could be done at once.

Eric B: I agree with the first statement from Lital, that small-scale green aesthetic projects like vegetation-covered buses should not be written off as unnecessary. This goes back to what (I believe it was Evan) said in class that we view cities through a very westernized lens, that we think the possible future green cities are strange. Maybe the pointless green buses or environmentally conscious artistic statements are what we need to start a sort of paradigm shift towards accepting a more ecological city. Similar movements are currently being seen in places such as Portland, Oregon, where green roofing is actually becoming more common in new development that traditional roofing. Maybe it could be the start to a process that could escalate into highly-ecological cities. That being said, even with public attention and motivation it is going to be incredibly difficult, as highlighted in George's talk. It has been shown that conservation can be successful, but there is little proof that infrastructure such as highway overpasses are worth the investment (in addition to underpasses). That being said, nothing will get done without the will of the people.