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Climate & Energy
From the President: Biophilic Cities and Resilience Landscapes
Depending on whom you talk to, cities are either the most sustainable —or most unsustainable—form of human habitation on the planet. Large cities require vast amounts of food, water, and materiel to be brought in daily, and similarly vast amounts of waste and refuse to be shipped out and absorbed somewhere else. They draw in the resources of an enormous surrounding landscape, and their disproportionate economic and political power allows them to outcompete rural communities for both natural resources and human capital.

On the other hand, concentrating human development in metropolitan centers greatly reduces the per capita demand for energy and space, and facilitates the interdependent cooperation that forms the basis for economic and social organization, and that leads to steady advances in technology, architecture, art, and other hallmarks of human civilization. The growth of early cities like Athens and Rome stimulated the development of the first aqueducts, sanitation systems, and transportation networks, along with higher education, science, and democratic government.

Credit: NNECAPA Photo Library CC BY 2.0 America has had a tempestuous romance with its cities, falling in love with them, then out, then in again. At the turn of the 20th century, America’s population was more than 60 percent rural and agricultural.1 Industrialization lured millions of people from farms in the South and Midwest to new economic opportunities in the Northeast and in California. In the second half of the 20th century this tide reversed. Increasing affluence allowed more people to own cars and flee the cramped and polluted confines of the cities for the burgeoning suburbs that exploded across the American landscape in the “housing boom” of the 1950s and 1960s. These communities too required vast inputs of resources. Public and private forests supplied wood to construct more than 21 million new homes between 1945 and 1960.2 Food and fiber came from highly mechanized large-scale agriculture in distant regions of the country, facilitated by a new interstate highway system and abundant supplies of cheap energy.

Today we are finding our way back to the cities. By 2014, more than 81 percent of Americans resided in metropolitan areas. This is in part because of the passing of the era of cheap energy and its associated externalities of polluted air and water, and global impacts on climate. But there is more. We are reinventing our cities, making them more sustainable and turning them into the kind of places in which people actively choose to live, work, and raise their families.

Major new advances in building technology and energy use are making cities much more efficient consumers of lower per capita inputs of fossil fuel energy. Innovations in geothermal, solar and wind energy technologies have demonstrated that buildings even in northern cities can be nearly energy self-sufficient. The energy costs of producing and transporting food into cities are being reduced by the increasing appeal of locally-grown fresh foods, including those produced right in cities in colder seasons from “vertical greenhouses” in converted high-rise buildings.

Perhaps most important in the long run is the complete reconceptualization of cities that is taking place, from hardened built environments apart from nature, to functioning urban ecosystems inextricably intertwined with the natural systems in the broader regional landscapes in which they are located.

Stormwater has long been a problem for cities not only in terms of flooding, but in contamination of waterways and estuaries when pollutants are washed into them and sewage treatment systems are overwhelmed. Cities such as Philadelphia are now opting out of building more concrete and steel “gray infrastructure” to handle stormwater, and investing in the conservation of upstream floodplains with natural capacity to accept, absorb, and moderate stormwater surges.

With leadership from visionaries at the William Penn Foundation, the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the US Forest Service, and the Pinchot Institute, Philadelphia is also learning the importance of investing in the conservation of forests many miles from Independence Square, in the headwaters of the Delaware River. The Common Waters Partnership in the Delaware River watershed is providing a new model for protecting critically located private forest land from development, making these forests more resilient to severe storm events and other manifestations of climate change, and providing clean drinking water to more than 16million city dwellers in the most urbanized region of the country.

The emerging idea of “biophilic cities” goes beyond improving the sustainability and resilience of cities, and dives deeper into the social and psychological aspects of making cities more appealing, more healthful, and more fulfilling places to live. The early work on urban sustainability focused largely on green buildings and energy efficiency. The idea of urban resilience revolved around reshaping cities to be less vulnerable to shocks associated with water scarcity, energy disruptions, and lately to the effects of climate change.

The concept of biophilic cities subsumes both of these, but goes a significant step further. Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson first coined the term biophilia to describe “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms, and the instinctive human need to connect with the natural world.” Biophilic design that incorporates nature and natural elements appeals to something deeply embedded in human genetic memory—of landscapes ideally suited to providing the basics of food, shelter, security, and comfort. Across the world’s cultures and ethnicities there is an uncanny preference for prominent landscapes characterized by a mix of grasslands and open woodlands, overlooking a nearby body of water. Is there something vestigial about the woodland savannas of east Africa from whence humans emerged that continues to shape what we instinctively seek out in parks, natural areas, and livable communities?

Sustainable urban ecosystems as we think of them today maintain functional natural elements at multiple scales— buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions—with a far greater sense of interdependency and mutual reinforcement than ever before. The old boundaries between the urban built environment and the surrounding natural landscape on which it depends are rapidly disappearing. Resilient, sustainable, biophilic cities are creating opportunities for daily interactions with nature that sustain the human spirit and that lead people to better understand, value, protect, and conserve the forests and other natural ecosystems around them.
—Al Sample

1 US Bureau of the Census. Urban and Rural Population. Accessed at: https://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/urpop0090.txt

2 US Bureau of the Census. Table 1438. Economic Indicators for Construction, Real Estate, Manufacturing, Retail, and Foreign Trade Sectors: 1929 to 1998. In: 20th Century Statistics. Accessed at: http://www.census.gov/prod/99pubs/99statab/sec31.pdf

For Further Reading
Beatley, T. 2010. Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning. Washington, DC: Island Press.

DeVries, S., Verheij, R.A., Groenewegen, P.P., and Spreeuwenberg, P. 2003. Natural Environments—Healthy Environments? An Exploratory Analysis of the Relationship Between Greenspace and Health. Environmental Planning (35) 1717-1731.

Hansen, R. D. 1983. Water and wastewater systems in Imperial Rome. Water Resource Bulletin. American Water Resources Association, 19(2).

Peter, N. and Kenworthy, J. 1999. Sustainability and Cities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Pinchot Institute. 2012. Common Waters: Conserving Clean Water, Natural Places and Working Lands. Access at: http://www.usendowment.org/images/CW_Booklet_Oct_2013.pdf

Steel, C. 2009. Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. London: Random House.

Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E.O. 1993. Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic. In: Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Kellert, S. and Wilson, E.O. (Eds.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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