Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Sustainable Urban Spaces: A Possibility or Wishful Thinking?

October 2, 2002

Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Sustainable Urban Spaces: A Possibility or Wishful Thinking?

I was recently at a talk about sustainable urban landscape design; during the lecture I found myself asking whether the terms urban and sustainable can really coexist. Seeing as urban ecological restoration is my graduate research area, I am truly hoping that yes, urban existence and sustainability can and must go together. Still, one has to ask the following question: does an urban landscape requiring nothing but inputs, and contributing outputs that are almost exclusively harmful to the environment, have the potential to be a sustainable system? There are, no doubt, many opposing answers to this question. However, in my mind it is important to focus on ways in which we will in the future be able to answer in the affirmative.
The lecture highlighted something that I think will be of great help in envisioning the sustainable cities of the future. The speaker brought up the fact that cities, while highly removed from the structure and function of a natural environment, are still systems; they are composed of living organisms, of soil and of nutrient cycles, of water movement, of birth, death and decay. There is no doubt that such organisms and cycles have been extremely altered by human activities in urban areas. Nevertheless, when considering our urban environments, the concept of a living city can help us realize that we are still a part of an ecological system, one that is coping as well as it can despite these alterations.
There are ways in which we can reintegrate the city-as-ecosystem concept into our activities. One of the simplest ways to both realize and actualize the city’s organic nature is through an age-old practice: gardening. I know, it sounds strange: how can puttering around in the yard help to create sustainable cities? As it happens, gardening is the number one hobby in North America, so if this whole yard-work idea can actually help to make the city a more sustainable place, then we’re ahead of the game in terms of getting people involved.
But it’s not just any gardening we’re talking about. Planting the rose and peony beds, sprinkling on a touch of chemical fertilizer and a dose of toxic pesticides is not going to do much in terms of increasing the city’s bio-viability. Looking at the garden as a static piece of yard wallpaper is a vision that won’t go far in improving the future health of urban landscapes either. Rather, creating garden spaces using practices and techniques that increase biodiversity and decrease the need for harmful chemical inputs is the type of activity we’re after. 75% of the cost of landscaping is in its maintenance, a large portion of this consisting of input costs such as lawnmowers and their accompanying polluting fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and profuse amounts of water. This level of input does nothing for improving the environment or increasing the diversity of life in your immediate surroundings, nor does it do much good for the pocket book.
The lecturer emphasized a key point: in designing our landscapes for diversity, we are imitating the stabilizing structure of natural communities that allow outputs from one part of the system (e.g. leaf fall) to act as inputs for another part (e.g. soil nutrient levels). Once established, a garden based on these premises is one that fulfills many of its own requirements with respect to input needs. Landscapes using a diversity of plant material and a more complex structure than is typically seen in yard layouts are exciting. It’s an inspiring gardening concept, and just think: it’s only October, so a whole season of new, sustainable landscape design ideas could be yours to mull over during those cold winter nights when thoughts of spring flowers and birdsong are so sweet you can almost taste them.
A lifeless turf and insect-free flowerbed may look pretty in a traditional sense. However, a new aesthetic is required for the era we now live in, one in which “pretty” means seeing the caterpillars for the butterflies they will become, “orderly” means realizing your yard is a mini-ecosystem in which the presence of one organism promotes the growth of another, and “scenic” means being able to look out your window and see birds at the native flowers alongside which they have been evolving for centuries. Let’s see the city as a living system. Such a vision will guide us towards the sustainable future so possible and so necessary in our cities.

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at zk_dalton@hotmail.com.

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