Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Making Urban Nature: Book Review

Stadsnatuurmaken/ Making Urban Nature (Vink, Vollaard, & de Zwarte, 2017, nai010, Rotterdam)

..is a dual-language Dutch- English handbook of urban design and management incorporating nature. The book proposes that “adaptation of the city is first and foremost a task for designers: product designers, architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners” (p. 7). Designers, however, rarely have training in ecology, zoology or botany. They need a guide to get to known these other customers and users, their characteristics, needs and desires. This book is a great introduction, and also recommendable for biologists or ecologists interested in how designers think and what their considerations may be.

The book starts with an overview of human-nature relations (from a northern European perspective) and a brief introduction to basic concepts of ecology, such as habitat, ecosystem, trophic levels, biodiversity, dispersal and resilience. They introduce the concept of points, surfaces and lines: how species occupy space as seen from the perspective of designers. Points are places where animals can settle, e.g. make a nest, take shelter, or forage. Surfaces are habitats made of a collection of such points; ideally they contain other habitat elements needed by the species in question. Lines are structures through or over which animals can travel between points and surfaces. How does the city look when it is seen as a set of points, surfaces and lines corresponding to different species’ needs and capabilities?

The core of the book was a very enjoyable and useful guidebook to common urban species (of northwestern Europe), and biotopes (typical habitat types) of cities. The featured animals, plants and insects have different proclivities and levels of success at living in cities. The chapters on them provide specific descriptions and tips of how to design buildings, infrastructure, gardens or dedicated objects for them. One of the observations that stood out was that modern buildings, which are less ornate, more professionally built, and more energy efficient than historical buildings, have very few nooks and crannies, holes, interior spaces between walls, or even rough surfaces, where species can establish themselves. The slick, shiny, hermetically sealed office towers and designer homes of today provide none of the complex, porous, slowly degrading texture typical of rocks, trees, cliffs, river banks, and so on, that make up the structure of nature. There is therefore a need to design buildings and infrastructures that are deliberately full of holes (that don’t go all the way through anything), or with artificially empty pockets and cracks (but still airtight), or with exactly the right texture to appeal to some target species.

The biotopes chapters make the same kinds of points, but from the perspective of particular kinds of urban habitats or urban structures. The great thing here, and indeed throughout the book, is the many featured examples. One could fruitfully do a tour of the Netherlands and a few cities in other countries, visiting each of these examples and assessing how the design for nature is incorporated into the city or garden design and use of the site. A few of the concepts that stand out from this section are the ideas of having multiple layers of vegetation in a mosaic or gradient, to provide different microhabitats for different species, life stages, or activities; the value of temporary installations of nature, whether planted or spontaneous, in abandoned lots or spaces waiting to be rebuilt; and the value of ‘poor habitats’ where many species—which may be rare ones—live on dry, hard, or overly nutrient-rich (or polluted) soils.

In the last section, on management, the authors argue for a Dutch policy of encouraging companies to leave land they own in unmanaged or ‘natural’ states, in exchange for a promise not to stop them from building on it in the future even if protected species establish themselves. Apparently, many companies will deliberately maintain land in a nature-unfriendly state in order to prevent species with conservation protection from moving in, so that the land will always be free for future construction and development. This is a depressing, if logical, perversion of conservation regulations that are meant to help preserve or increase the habitat for rare and endangered species. The Dutch authorities decided that having more habitat for protected species on a temporary basis is better than having less on a permanent basis. As long as some other areas of cities or peri-urban areas are abandoned at all times, this seems like a perfectly reasonable policy. After all, nature is dynamic, not static. The authors also stress the importance of doing management in mosaics or staggered across seasons or years, so that not all of a meadow is mowed at the same time, or not all of a wall or embankment is cleaned at the same time. This allows part of the species populations, eggs, nests, food sources, and so on, to survive at all times, and repopulate the managed areas. They refer to these two concepts, which are related but at a large and a smaller scale, as ‘nomadic or temporary nature’ and ‘management for variation’.

Out of their 10 recommendations for nature-inclusive design, the 3 most important in my opinion, which really reflect the core of the book, are (1) design a process, not a pattern or an image, (2) make complex and diverse designs that include textures and spaces for all, including abandoned and bare spaces; (3) design points, surfaces and lines into a coherent system at the city scale. Key to doing all of these things, in my reading, is really taking seriously the idea that each urban species is a kind of design client or end-user in their own right, with preferences and needs just as important as those of the humans living in the city. Learning to recognise the presence (or the right to presence) of these species, and learning to understand what they want and prefer, is a key step in nature-inclusive design. In the end, it is design that is not just about style or aesthetic appeal, but that is all about detail, specificity of function, and natural history.

Many years ago, I went to a couple of industrial design conferences to talk about design for animals, and I ended up writing one of my first papers, based on my MSc project, about design for animals (Root-Bernstein & Ladle 2011). At the time it was hardly a subject, and I would never have guessed that so much expertise could be developed in less than a decade. It is exciting to see that people are taking the subject seriously. One of this book’s major contributions, in my view, is the all the examples and case studies. Most of this practical knowledge of what works and what doesn’t is hard to find, and is thus hard to learn from. The other big contribution, which in some sense is just a sign of how views are rapidly changing, is the way the book treats as nearly obvious the idea that nature belongs in cities, on walls, in buildings, and in abandoned lots. In my MSc project in 2008 I found that industrial design students who were most interested in supporting nature conservation were least interested in design for animal conservation—because they felt that human objects and nature didn’t mix. I am happy to see that attitude softening, at least in the urban context.

Reference:
Root-Bernstein, M., & Ladle, R. 2010. Conservation by design. Conservation Biology 24(5), 1205-1211.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 28 November 2019

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