Urban Ecology Essays: Part 3

Posted on Posted in Cities, Urban Ecology, Water Resources Engineering

Urban systems are shaped by both sociological and ecological factors, which can be referred to as a social-ecological system. Urban systems also influence both social and ecological characteristics of a city. This circular relationship is understood as a feedback loop, providing context to show interconnectedness amongst the possible influencing factors. Feedback loops are at the heart of the concept of social-ecological systems, influencing the ability of both the social and ecological systems to sustain. As conceived, social-ecological systems describe how people and organisms interact at multiple scales, with the hope of revealing linkages that inform social behavior to perpetuate a sustainable system.

In cities, social-ecological systems offer a useful way to define interactions of citizens with the surrounding environment with appropriate scope and specificity. For instance, the below pictures show different architectural styles on Capitol St. (M St.) and L St. in midtown Sacramento. The home on the left is an historic structure, which shows architecture and building materials commonly used at the beginning of the twentieth century. The home structure and trim are primarily wood and stone, with updates such as modern-day roof shingles. Wood and stone would have been readily available during this time period of Sacramento history. The building on the right is a LEED Gold Certified office building, 2600 Capitol. The LEED certification standard requires particular materials, styles, and efficiency projections, drawn from an energy efficiency (thus social) perspective. Both buildings reflect the eras in which they were built, utilizing available resources and capitalizing on knowledge of available ecosystem services such as sunlight and forests, while also revealing common social conceptions about design and construction.

While the buildings reflect both resource availability and social attitudes, they also contribute to ecosystem function. If all buildings in Sacramento were built to efficiency standards found in the older home, energy and water use would likely increase. As a resident of an historic (1-story) house, I can say that older homes are often leaky. Moreover, there may be society-imposed restrictions on some historic homes that affect efficiency, such as requirements to maintain single-pane windows or particular exterior types. In addition, the forest resources needed to sustain wide-scale architecture of that nature would likely outstrip sustainable supplies. While the building on the right is much more energy efficient, there may be significant energy burdens associated with development of key building materials, such as cement. The mix of building styles within a city affects the total energy consumption, which can have an influence on regional air quality depending upon electricity sources. Moreover, in Sacramento, homes heated with wood fireplaces in winter can contribute significantly to air quality concerns. At the same time, the smaller design of the home may provide more opportunities for tree and bush vegetation, which also affects air quality. Thus, designing a building for the singular purpose of personal comfort or energy efficiency is unlikely to result in positive contributions to the health of the social-ecological system. A holistic approach is more appropriate.

Human land-use changes have significant effects on the flora and fauna of a region. In California, as arriving settlers began clearing native vegetation for agriculture, settlements, and urban centers, they often felt they were in a battle with nature to impose social will. Today the results of a century of both successful and unsuccessful interventions surround us. Within Sacramento, the mixture of trees found in a typical urban block may include both native and non-native species. For example, the picture on the left, taken on H Street in midtown, shows several different types of trees, including pine (either redwood or hemlock), palm, and others. These would not be found in the same region, let alone be intermixed. Human intervention established their current location, but human changes in resource distribution, such as water, aid in their survival. The composition of urban flora reflect the mix of many factors, including attractiveness, availability, cost, and social preferences. In many cases, these factors have led to a dominance of non-native species in urban environments, which can then take hold and even be successful. Cities often reflect larger (homogenized) patterns in building and design, so that the ecosystems of cities in different regions may show unexpected similarities. These social patterns may increase the success of a non-native species for that region, potentially at the expense of native species.

Even as humans have had significant influence on species composition in urban, suburban, and rural lands, efforts are underway to reflect more thoughtful species selection for managed landscapes. The picture on the right shows a new office building surrounded on one side by bunch grasses (Deer Grass?). This reflects a social goal to plant vegetation that is both attractive and more adapted to survival in the regional climate. Even as social decisions influence the composition of species, informed decision-making should take into account the ecological system and requirements necessary for sustained success. Notably, on the other side of the sidewalk (barely visible), typical grass (type unknown) covers the surface, which may have higher water requirements. This would provide feedback to the urban hydrologic cycle in a potentially unsustainable way. Perhaps in the future, urban design that reflects a variety of social, ecological, and technological influences will be the predominant approach for built infrastructure and urban ecosystems.

Urban systems are shaped by both sociological and ecological factors, which can be referred to as a social-ecological system. Urban systems also influence both social and ecological characteristics of a city. This circular relationship is understood as a feedback loop, providing context to show interconnectedness amongst the possible influencing factors. Feedback loops are at the heart of the concept of social-ecological systems, influencing the ability of both the social and ecological systems to sustain. As conceived, social-ecological systems describe how people and organisms interact at multiple scales, with the hope of revealing linkages that inform social behavior to perpetuate a sustainable system.

 

In cities, social-ecological systems offer a useful way to define interactions of citizens with the surrounding environment with appropriate scope and specificity. For instance, the below pictures show different architectural styles on Capitol St. (M St.) and L St. in midtown Sacramento. The home on the left is an historic structure, which shows architecture and building materials commonly used at the beginning of the twentieth century. The home structure and trim are primarily wood and stone, with updates such as modern-day roof shingles. Wood and stone would have been readily available during this time period of Sacramento history. The building on the right is a LEED Gold Certified office building, 2600 Capitol. The LEED certification standard requires particular materials, styles, and efficiency projections, drawn from an energy efficiency (thus social) perspective. Both buildings reflect the eras in which they were built, utilizing available resources and capitalizing on knowledge of available ecosystem services such as sunlight and forests, while also revealing common social conceptions about design and construction.

 

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Sacramento Architecture and Building Styles Can Influence Air Quality, Energy Use, and Plant and Animal Species

 

While the buildings reflect both resource availability and social attitudes, they also contribute to ecosystem function. If all buildings in Sacramento were built to efficiency standards found in the older home, energy and water use would likely increase. As a resident of an historic (1-story) house, I can say that older homes are often leaky. Moreover, there may be society-imposed restrictions on some historic homes that affect efficiency, such as requirements to maintain single-pane windows or particular exterior types. In addition, the forest resources needed to sustain wide-scale architecture of that nature would likely outstrip sustainable supplies. While the building on the right is much more energy efficient, there may be significant energy burdens associated with development of key building materials, such as cement. The mix of building styles within a city affects the total energy consumption, which can have an influence on regional air quality depending upon electricity sources. Moreover, in Sacramento, homes heated with wood fireplaces in winter can contribute significantly to air quality concerns. At the same time, the smaller design of the home may provide more opportunities for tree and bush vegetation, which also affects air quality. Thus, designing a building for the singular purpose of personal comfort or energy efficiency is unlikely to result in positive contributions to the health of the social-ecological system. A holistic approach is more appropriate.

 

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Vegetation in Midtown Sacramento

 

Human land-use changes have significant effects on the flora and fauna of a region. In California, as arriving settlers began clearing native vegetation for agriculture, settlements, and urban centers, they often felt they were in a battle with nature to impose social will. Today the results of a century of both successful and unsuccessful interventions surround us. Within Sacramento, the mixture of trees found in a typical urban block may include both native and non-native species. For example, the picture on the left, taken on H Street in midtown, shows several different types of trees, including pine (either redwood or hemlock), palm, and others. These would not be found in the same region, let alone be intermixed. Human inter­vention established their current location, but human changes in resource distri­bution, such as water, aid in their survival. The composition of urban flora reflect the mix of many factors, including at­tractive­ness, availability, cost, and social pre­ferences. In many cases, these factors have led to a dominance of non-native species in urban environ­ments, which can then take hold and even be suc­cessful. Cities often reflect larger (homogenized) patterns in building and design, so that the ecosystems of cities in different regions may show unexpected similarities. These social patterns may increase the success of a non-native species for that region, potentially at the expense of native species. 

 

Even as humans have had significant influence on species composition in urban, suburban, and rural lands, efforts are underway to reflect more thoughtful species selection for managed landscapes. The picture on the right shows a new office building surrounded on one side by bunch grasses (Deer Grass?). This reflects a social goal to plant vegetation that is both attractive and more adapted to survival in the regional climate. Even as social decisions influence the composition of species, informed decision-making should take into account the ecological system and requirements necessary for sustained success. Notably, on the other side of the sidewalk (barely visible), typical grass (type unknown) covers the surface, which may have higher water requirements. This would provide feedback to the urban hydrologic cycle in a potentially unsustainable way. Perhaps in the future, urban design that reflects a variety of social, ecological, and technological influences will be the predominant approach for built infrastructure and urban ecosystems.

 

 

 

 

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