Designing Greenspaces…and Addressing Capitalism


On Thursday, April 17th, we discussed the issue of designing greenspace systems in urban areas by reflecting on the New York City model and by referring to past readings and our own experiences.

In “Adopting a modern ecological view of the metropolitan area”, the authors address the challenge of designing ecologically-sound and livable urban areas by providing a more contemporary framework for planning that considers five key ecological principles:

    1. Content (of ecosystems)
    2. Context (interactions based on location, adjacency and neighborhood)
    3. Dynamics (changing circumstances based on succession and disturbances)
    4. Heterogeneity (diversity of habitats, species)
    5. Hierarchy (dividing areas into functional components operating at different scales)

In general, the ideas of “structure” and “function” run throughout the paper as the authors describe the various ways in which planners can consider ecosystems in their design. In reflecting upon the article’s notion of ecologically-considerate planning, we asked ourselves:

  • To what extent must planners understand all of the different aspects of planning and design to effectively plan for sustainable cities?
  • What is the (potential) tension between sociological vs. environmental perspectives in city planning? (e.g., the “woody understory” debate – where one side has the goal of maintaining “safety” and enhancing “social activities”, while the other side considers ecological processes and habitats more important)
  • What is the ideal function or meaning of greenspaces in cities? What are some examples of “good” or “bad” ways of designing greenspace for sustainability?

The following is a summary of our responses:

  • As “planners” (etc.) it is important for us to have a base understanding of different biological functions so that we know how to move forward. This could mean by working with others who have the expertise and skills, finding the resources to make integrated plans happen, and/or doing the work ourselves. It’s hard to be trained in “everything”; our work is more about specialization and then collaboration. It’s good to think of this work as “transdisciplinary” – crossing boundaries of expertise.
  • Some cities are beginning to create more integrated systems and green infrastructure is becoming a bigger focus in more cities (e.g., the City of Philadelphia and the STAR index both address sociological and environmental factors). However, political will is always a main factor (e.g., the Mayor and other key players, big news events and climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, etc. can have big impacts).
  • Usually we default to caring more about social relations than environmental concerns (safety vs. new growth). At the same time, how the space is defined and designed also has an impact on who is using that green space (hippies hiding in the trees of Golden Gate park are harassing neighbors??). Also, meth pipes in Buena Vista park.
  • What are the benefits of large natural spaces vs. small spaces? Are there legitimate concerns of comfort, access and safety – or are unsubstantiated fears or the effects of capitalism bigger drivers? What about connectivity and distribution of green space?

Building off that last question, we then did a straw poll using the diagrams below to start a conversation about the ideal design of green space in relation to urban space (focusing more on the concept – not literally checkerboard designs).

CP 254

Many voted for option C, with some around options D and B, and one or two around A and E.

Some of the perspectives presented included:

  • Option A: Density is  good for concentrating human areas (like Manhattan)
  • Option A: More connectivity within the gray and the green spaces means less disruption
  • Option E doesn’t differentiate between spaces and accepts that we are a part of nature
  • Option E: this is how people are idealizing the future of cities and interactions. Would E look like Brooklyn, where parks are everywhere? Would option E avoid slum settlements?
  • Would option C allow for more communal or shared spaces?
  • Option C: Could it enable better management of spaces? Would it be possible to have community investment in the maintenance of green space? However, examples in Oakland illustrate the current challenges for that occurring (Lafayette vs. Frank Ogawa plaza)

For our last reflections on green space design, a few put forth the following ideas and questions:

  • We don’t want to design open space based on the need to exclude certain people
  • The idea of green space as an “other” can be problematic and a false dichotomy
  • Jane Jacobs quote: “Parks don’t act on community, they reflect it”. On the flip side, how much can design act upon people?

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GRAB BAG QUESTION: Lastly, we went around and shared our videos and stories about alternative economic models to (or versions within) capitalism. Please share your resources and videos in the comments!


Humans and the environment


This Thursday 4/3 we discussed human–environment interaction and the new approach of viewing the city as an Ecosystem.

The seminar discussed Wolch’s reading and animal rights to have a space in the city. The introduction of the Copenhagen case ( led us to discuss how humans, as dominant specie, have shaped today’s environment.

Human developments have led to create a fragmented environment. On one side, there are human settlements with little space for natural space. On the other side, there exist these wild environments where other species are allowed to live. An interesting example arose that broke this fragmented scheme; for example, when coyotes irrupt in cities. In this case, what can we do? Do we have to create space for these species? Should we incorporate these animals into the urban environment?  The problem is the mismatch between human and animal environments. Along time, humans have created dense “concrete” cities which are not equivalent to natural animal environment. Considering these facts, how can we make the city suitable for animals? Should we incorporate all of them? Or should we select only a few? Related to this last question, we discussed rights among animals.  In this part of the discussion, we agreed that humans treat animals according to its existence condition. For instance, we value more species which are near to extinctions.

At the middle of our seminar, Charisma brought equity into the discussion. We were asked how to incorporate animals’ rights into Justainability. Under these circumstances the problem becomes more complicated because we already have a “human equity” problem, so how we can consider animal issues as a topic equally or more important than the human problem?

We also discussed the role of industrialization in the creation of this fragmented environment. In the past, human used to produce their own food on a small local scale. However, as a consequence of industrialization, the scheme changed. In urban areas, the spread of land use regulations curtailed the ability of households to devote land for farming.  Additionally, the economic effects of industrialization made local farming less attractive for people. At the present time, to buy food in the market is cheaper and less time consuming than to produce it at home. Consequently, the expansion of human developments have slowly pushed natural environments out of the city, exacerbating the differences between the social and the resources system. The question that arose here was, if centered and industrialized food supply chains are more sustainable than local individual farm production.

At this point the dialogue shifted to Pickett et al reading. Here, we discussed authors attempt to create a framework to incorporate humans in natural ecosystems in order to fill the existing gap between social and natural components. We finished our discussion reviewing the human ecosystem model (Pag 190), concluding that this model fails to capture the complexity of human-environment relations, but it was a good first attempt to frame the social and resources system.

Considering Thursday’s discussion:

  • How can we reduce the gap between human and natural environments?
  • How can we make our urban areas more suitable for animals?
  • Do animals have the right to be included in the equity discussion?
  • Do you know any inspiring example of animals’ inclusion in urban planning?

Food justice and sustainability


On March 20th, we had the pleasure of a guest presentation by Elsadig Elsheikh, a researcher and project director at the Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Elsadig presented on the global food crisis, ethical and policy questions around food sustainability, and challenges and opportunities for the global South (and particularly Africa) within that context.

The quantitative facts related the global food crisis were striking to me: hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined; 1 in 8 people worldwide are hungry (that’s more than the total combined population of the US + EU); 1 in 4 children in the global South are underweight; girls and women are disproportionately affected. Between hungry, stunted and malnourished people, over 3 billion people suffer from inadequate access to food.

The good news is that we actually produce more than enough food to feed everyone adequately. So how is it that this food doesn’t make it to hungry people? In a nutshell, this is due partly to underdevelopment of agriculture in former colonies that were managed as extractive economies; partly due to the overarching valuation of money over people and the planet; and partly due to the (related) creation of a ‘foodopoly’ that has monopolized the global seeds trade and driven increases in food prices. (On the ‘foodopoly’, note that 10 agrochemical companies control over 75% of the global seed market.)

At the same time, the rise of large-scale land deals (LSLDs) has resulted in the accumulation of agricultural lands by mostly-wealthy investor countries, to the detriment of the economic, social and environmental fabrics of the target countries. Yet despite this trend, and the broader the march of neoliberal capitalism, industrial supply chains feed only 30% of the world’s population, with 50% relying on peasant farming and the remaining 20% on hunting, gathering, and urban gardening. The more agricultural land that is absorbed into the corporate food system, the less equitable and more wasteful the distribution of that food is; and the more negative the local and global environmental impacts.

All that is rather depressing. So what are the opportunities or grounds for optimism? One is the ‘food sovereignty’ movement, which is founded on a conceptual reframing of food: food is for people, not for profit; we should localize food systems and control; we should value food providers and nurture their knowledge and skills; we should work with nature, not destroy it. Another opportunity is reflected in ‘agroecology’ initiatives, which promote agricultural practices that are ecologically sound, for example intercropping, composting, biodiversity, and locally-appropriate crops. These result in social, public health, economic and environmental benefits.

Real policy reforms in the global North and the global South could address food injustices. Elsadig suggested a number of specific reforms, which I present below in near verbatim from his presentation. 

In the North:

  1. Discourage industrial-scale meat and dairy production and encourage diets high in grain, vegetable and fruits. This could liberate 40% of the world’s grain production, reduce energy consumption through transportation saving and reduce GHG emissions while improving human nutrition and lowering health costs.
  2. Reject agrofuels/biomass crops except for locally-produced, community-based consumption.
  3. Prohibit land speculation and land grabs.
  4. Eliminate industrial farming and fishing subsidies, and adopt regulatory regimes that encourage genetic diversity among plant, animal, and aquatic food species.
  5. Eliminate intellectual property regimes and unnecessary phytosanitary regulations that privilege genetic uniformity.
  6. Expand public research on the beneficial use of microbes for soil fertility and as bio-control agents.
  7. Ensure that food retailers do not exploit agricultural workers through labor contracts and procurement standards. 

In the South:

  1. Revise the colonial nature of customary laws that tend to increase land concentration and marginalize small farmers and poor, rural communities.
  2. Reverse existing legal frameworks and institutions that manage land allocation and land use to better serve the interests of the people who suffer most from the impact of large-scale land deals.
  3. Promote targeted access to land and resources for rural women and small farmers.
  4. Halt all LSLDs and renegotiate these deals on the basis of social, political and economic national interests that strive toward food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection.
  5. Strengthen customary use-of-land and -resource rights, while taking special measures to protect women’s rights to productive assets.
  6. Encourage urban and semi-urban food production, which will support women producers.
  7. Support the conservation of endangered genetic diversity for small farmers through conservation programs in gene banks.
  8. Avoid excessive reliance on trade, and ensure resilient local food production systems.
  9. Reject industry-based food safety and phytosanitary standards that discriminate against peasant farmers and small-scale businesses.
  10. Prohibit any measures—public or private—that constrain the right of peasants to save or exchange food genetic resources.
  11. Encourage and support peasant-based food production and facilitate direct peasant-based consumer marketing arrangements with special attention to the role of women.
  12. Incorporate the UN’s Right to Food in binding law, nationally and internationally.

Please share your thoughts on what was most striking to you about the presentation, and where you think the greatest opportunities lie for improving food justice and sustainability. If helping people to see food as something for people and not for profit is a requisite part of the change, how should we try to promote that?

Redefining Cities and Nature


Redefining Cities and Nature

Here is the link to the Copenhagen Zoo controversy:

And the Zoo’s official rationale:

Herein lies some interesting moral and ethical debates! E.g:

  • Rights of animals vs humans – how do we value the rights of each?
  • Can we extend the just-sustainability to include animals? Might be useful to think of communities the have lived alongside animals e.g. indigenous ways of life vs industrial food system. Urban networks for animals depend on scales, species and context.
  • Animal ownership – do we restrict ownership? Regulations e.g. zoning (Illogical or purposeful…) affects use of space
  • Particular spaces may be more suitable for incorporating nature and animals
  • Is there a conceptual or idealogical ‘hang-up’ of cities being outside of nature? This is also partly cultural and institutional (think of the Garden City movement etc and how colonial ideals are transplanted in other contexts)… There might be  a transition away from the human-nature dichotomy e.g. Biophilic Cities
  • Cadillac and Ford adverts:

We also spoke about ecosystem scales and patchiness and the importance of measuring at different scales. Patch dynamics – how much land area is available for particular species – as an indication of biological diversity. Applying this principle of landscape ecology to the urban enters an interesting conceptual terrain because the idea of an ‘urban ecosystem’ is relatively new. Grappling with how to merge the study of ecosystems with human systems, what do we have to measure? e.g. do we assess patches of wealth and poverty in addition to the density of ecological patches? Think about applications of the broader human-ecosystem model, such as urban metabolism modeling (, agent-based modeling amongst others…interesting experiments with taking a more holistic view of human-environment interactions.