Having a better definition of urban ecology will allow us to communicate more effectively, make better plans and meet goals across industries, to the benefit of our cities.
Definitions are important in today’s world – just as they’ve always been. Having a concrete, complete and detailed understanding of any given concept helps us carry that concept out to best effect.
The phrase urban ecology is no exception. The problem is, despite the critical importance of integrating our cities and worlds today, we lack any such urban ecology definition. And we really need one.
As Ian MacGregor-Fors explains in his illuminating paper, Misconceptions or misunderstandings? On the standardization of basic terms and definitions in urban ecology, “the lack of homogeneity in technical terms used to describe urban-related sampling sites makes generalizations difficult to establish.”
Such a firm definition is important, says MacGregor-Fors, because “the use of well-defined terms in urban ecology studies will not only permit a better understanding of the nature of study sites across urban ecology studies and grant the possibility to perform robust comparisons among urban ecology studies.”
In plain English, he’s saying that not having a proper understanding of what urban ecology means works against people who would like to talk about it across industries, countries, languages and purposes.
On the other hand, having a widely agreed upon urban ecology definition will enhance our ability to communicate about the issue, work together and make real change.
So if we’re going to work toward healthier cities, healthier natural populations and a greener future, we need to work toward a better urban ecology definition first. That starts with defeating several of the most prevalent misconceptions.
Common Misconceptions About Urban Ecology
First and most obviously, urban ecology applies to the flora and fauna in our cities. However, even this simple claim contains within it the seeds of misunderstanding.
One of the biggest problems is our tendency to compartmentalize heavily. Ask nearly anyone to attempt a definition, and they will unthinkingly divide the city into areas of people and nature. The term conjures up definitions of parks, waterways, large gardens – but ignores the plants and species that are happy to exist right there in the thick of cement, concrete, asphalt and buildings.
Another misconception is that any organism living within our cities, by virtue of it being there in the first place, must necessarily be pretty content. That’s not true, though. Plenty of studies cite evidence that human activities disrupt nocturnal animals, even ones on which we rely for healthy human settlements. Similarly, some animals might be happy in our cities, but wreak havoc on them, such as invasive species that run natives out.
Other definitions do work to take these factors into account, but fail then to wrap in the idea that human efforts are not an outside force or separate engine; they are part and parcel with the urban ecology definition itself.
As you’re starting to see, the ecology of our urban spaces involves a lot of factors. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. How can we get that better urban ecology definition we need?
A Better Urban Ecology Definition
Luckily, some pretty smart people are working hard to get there.
One of the most salient definitions we’ve found today segments the term into in, of and for the city. Let’s break this down.
According to Steward T. A. Pickett and friends, in their paper Evolution and future of urban ecological science: ecology in, of, and for the city, we can’t truly understand urban ecology without encompassing all three prepositions.
“Ecology in focuses on terrestrial and aquatic patches within cities, suburbs, and exurbs as analogs of non‐urban habitats,” they explain. “Urban fabric outside analog patches is considered to be inhospitable matrix. Ecology of the city differs from ecology in by treating entire urban mosaics as social–ecological systems” and “incorporates biological, social, and built components.”
Lastly, and most importantly, there is ecology for the city, which “has emerged due to concern for urban sustainability. It “considers researchers as a part of the system, and acknowledges that they may help envision and advance the social goals of urban sustainability.”
This is the definition we’re working toward ourselves, embracing the idea that there is no true definition of ecology within cities without considering all the human factors – good and bad – that affect it.
How You Can Apply This New Understanding in Your Life
If words like organic, green and sustainable are anything to go by, it might take us a while to settle on an agreed-upon term, both nationwide and across the globe. (Let’s face it; we’re still struggling with those terms.)
We’ll have to work to align our understandings of what urban ecology is across industries. It may take time to land on an urban ecology definition that speaks to everyone, and that’s okay.
In the meantime, working in as close concordance as possible with this new definition is critical. We have a responsibility to modify our approach to landscape architecture, green roof technology, green infrastructure and even urban gardening, with an eye toward supporting the plants and animals who lived in this area before we did.
It’s a lot to take on, we know. That’s why Ecogardens is here to help. So whether you just want to chat buzzwords or are looking to take on a project, we’d love to help. All you have to do is get in touch with us today.