Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at NYU, explained how our built environment is filled with micro-organisms. “The walls of our kitchen and bathrooms are covered in bacteria; most of them aren’t pathogenic.” The micro-organisms found in our environments are constantly interacting with our microbiomes, so we are “perpetually assembling and re-assembling different species.”

For Wener, this begs the question: “What is an individual?” If we are constantly evolving with the micro-organisms in our environment and therefore changing our composition, “what individual are we talking about?”

While our microbiomes may evolve, they still have a distinct signature. Researchers can now identify people by their unique microbiotic markers — crime-scene microbes are now analyzed in forensic studies to identify who was at a location.

Places have unique microbiotic signatures as well. Through their PathoMap project, Weil Cornell Medical College organized citizen scientists to examine the bacteria in subway stations and found stations had “consistent signatures.” The microbes in stations near hospitals were different from neighborhood signatures. “The microbes really depend on who lives there.” (See data visualizations of the findings).

So can we design the city in terms of microbial species? Can we design buildings and parks to create “selective pressure that supports biotic life that is good for humans?”

Turns out good microbes can be put to better use while bad ones can be suppressed.

In Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a highly-polluted Super Fund site, researchers took samples of sludge at the bottom of the canal and found bacteria had been digesting some of the worst industrial waste for decades. “They co-evolved to eat solvents and toxins.” At a slow pace, Wener thinks these bacteria could actually clean-up the entire canal. Through interventions, “we could encourage the growth of this bacteria.”

Buildings could be designed to kill off pathogenic bacteria and support the healthy microbes in our biomes. Wener said a recent Brazilian study found pathogenic bacteria, which comes from people, thrive in closed spaces. In open air environments in the Brazilian rainforest, where domesticated and wild animals roamed through indigenous villages, there were no pathogenic bacteria, but in closed building interiors found in Brazilian cities, researchers found many. The conclusion: If you increase exposure to light and air flow in buildings, you will reduce dangerous bacteria.

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and healthy soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.

New Short Film: Pollinators Under Pressure

A new short film narrated by award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio seeks to raise public awareness about pollinators, which includes bees, bats, butterflies, birds, and other mammals; the important ecological and economic roles they play; and the threats they face. The film was produced by Tree Media and directed by Matthew Schmid.

Pollinator health is the rare issue that spans the political spectrum. ASLA has worked with the non-profit Pollinator Partnership to turn this bipartisan goodwill into government policy.

In 2015, ASLA successfully lobbied for inclusion of pollinator-friendly management practices in the 2015 FAST Act. The law instructs the U.S. department of transportation to implement integrated vegetation management, reduced mowing schedules, and planting of native, pollinator-friendly species on highway roadsides. In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance to state departments of transportation on how to implement pollinator-friendly habitats on the 17 million acres of roadsides across the country.

Despite the bipartisan consensus, the plight of pollinators remains a relatively obscure issue among the wider population. The producers of Pollinators Under Pressure hope to change that, and have made the film available for free online, making it a valuable tool for those seeking to educate others about the issue.

There are practices any home gardener can adopt: plant pollinator-friendly gardens, eliminate the use of pesticides, provide clean water, and leave dead tree trunks.

Learn more about Pollinators Under Pressure.

ASLA Recommendations: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Climate change is intensifying the negative impacts of standard development practices and is putting people and communities across the United Sates at risk. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience in September 2017, and this week ASLA released a blueprint for helping secure a sustainable and resilient future that summarizes the panel’s work and recommendations.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate: The Report and Recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience found that the U.S. needs a new paradigm for communities that works in tandem with natural systems. It recommends that public policies should:

  • Be incentive based
  • Promote holistic planning and provide multiple benefits
  • Take into account environmental justice, racial and social equity
  • Reflect meaningful community engagement
  • Regularly evaluated and reviewed for unintended consequences
  • Address broader regional issues as well as local and site-specific concerns.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate also found that:

  • Designing and planning in concert with natural systems promotes resilience, capitalizes on the benefits of natural systems and provides greater long-term return on investment.
  • Key strategies include use of green infrastructure, native plants, urban and suburban tree planting plans, and healthy soil management practices.
  • Compact, walkable, and transit-oriented “smart growth” communities reduce energy use and are climate smart.
  • Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains and underserved and low-income communities.
  • Transportation should be considered critically as not only a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a contributor or detractor to a community’s appearance and function in light of a weather event.
  • Agricultural systems must be addressed because they are being stressed by unsustainable farming practices and farmland is being lost to expanding development and sprawl.

“Our nation, states, counties, and cities are looking for solutions to mitigate the risks from the changing climate and extreme weather events,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “With this report, landscape architects and their design and planning colleagues forward public policy recommendations that can make communities safer while taking climate change and existing natural systems into account.”

ASLA released the report at an evening reception and candid discussion yesterday with Somerville, and ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel members Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Diane Jones Allen, program director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC.

We have provided a platform for landscape architects, public officials, and other design and planning professionals to share their views on how to help communities adapt to climate change through smart design policies. Go to https://climate.asla.org.

The Blue Ribbon Panelists included a diverse range of practitioners, experts and stakeholders with different levels of experience working in different aspects of geographic and technical design. They are:

  • Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP, ASLA Immediate Past President, Chair;
  • Armando Carbonell, FAICP, Senior Fellow and Chair, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;
  • Mark Dawson, FASLA, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates Inc.;
  • Tim Duggan, ASLA, Founder, Phronesis;
  • Ying-yu Hung, ASLA, Managing Principal, Principal, SWA, Los Angeles Studio;
  • Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC;
  • Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland;
  • Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, SITES AP, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA; and;
  • Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, Environment, The Kresge Foundation.

Some quotes from panelists on the importance of adopting effective public policies and landscape architecture design solutions:

“The plans we’re going to have in the future to deal with living with water have to be more realistic. We have to live with the acknowledgement that there will be hurricanes and areas that naturally want to flood. How do we build differently as opposed to thinking we can keep water out?”

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA
Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington

“We have a number of antiquated policies within governmental structures. Reevaluating them every five years or so would help us to reflect what is currently happening and to better project how we should design communities to be able to proactively respond to such changes and challenges.”

Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia

“All public projects really have to be interdisciplinary. They have to incorporate the local culture, the local economy, forward-thinking design concepts, as well as good engineering. All that together, in a very thoughtful way that respects the complexity of our society, is a way to make a sustainable project that people enjoy and love.”

Adam Ortiz
Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland

“One of the things we need to be doing is do a lot more experimentation. Sometimes you just need to be able to try things and see if that solution can take you forward. If it’s not a good solution, let’s try something else. That kind of creativity and ideas is really what innovation is all about.”

Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP
Immediate Past President, American Society of Landscape Architects

“Our standard development practices are not sustainable, but when we understand and work with natural systems, we can build safer and healthier communities.”

Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA. SITES AP
Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects

“My hope is that we embed true kinds of community engagement, justice, and equity into our focus on climate change and resilience. We need to really do that in a way where it’s not so scientific. The social engineering matters as well. It’s what you’re doing in your profession that impacts people and makes those impacts equitable.”

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, Environment
The Kresge Foundation

Human Activity Is Making Oceans Louder, Putting Wildlife at Risk

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Right whales breaching / NOAA

Jacques Costeau famously called the planet’s oceans “The Silent World.”

“Unfortunately, that was not really an accurate description,” says Dr. Jason Gedamke. “To the animals that live in the ocean, it is an incredibly noisy and loud place.”

Gedamke should know – he is the director of the Ocean Acoustics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What’s more, Gedamke says that the world’s oceans are getting noisier still thanks to human activity. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, Gedamke discussed his team’s research on this significant but overlooked impact of human activity on the not-so-silent world.

Water, it turns out, is an excellent conductor of acoustic energy.  “Sound travels incredibly efficiently underwater,” said Gedamke. He pointed to the 1991 Heard Island Feasibility Test, in which sounds emitted from underwater speakers off the coast of Australia were heard by researchers on the other side of the planet.

Whales and dolphins have adapted to exploit this property of water to communicate over large distances, but these adaptations also make them vulnerable to adverse effects from human sounds.

For example, there is evidence to suggest that beaching behavior – when a whale or dolphin becomes stranded on the ocean shore – may be related to acute ocean noise events such as loud pings from underwater sonar equipment.

Gedamke’s team, however, is most interested in the chronic effects of years’ worth of sound pollution on marine mammal life. “We’re trying to shift our focus from the acute – the immediate, loud sound that causes an animal to change its behavior – to the broader effects of all this introduced sound changing their habitat.”

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A young monk seal / NOAA

Part of the challenge Gedamke and his team face in their research is a lack of consistent data. The historic record of ocean noise levels is piecemeal, meaning it is difficult to make direct comparisons over time. The researchers are trying to address this with a new system of recorders that were deployed in 2014. These will allow for more accurate assessments of how the ocean’s sonic landscape is changing over time.

Gedamke’s team is also using GIS to map areas of high-noise intensity. When those are overlaid with maps showing areas of wildlife population, they could help identify areas and populations most at risk from harmful noise pollution.

There are many risks of a noisier habitat for marine life. Ambient noise could mask sounds that allow certain species to detect their predators, or vice versa, which could lead to food chain disruptions and ecological imbalance. It could also make it more difficult for individual animals to communicate with members of their own species, interfering with behaviors like hunting and mating. Proximity to loud sources of sound could lead to injury or hearing loss.

Oil and gas exploration and maritime shipping are primary contributors to our increasingly noisy oceans. Gedamke said that the Gulf of Mexico, the source of 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, is “an incredibly loud environment, one of the most heavily impacted on Earth.”

oil_rig
An oil rig at the mouth of the Mobile Bay / Andrew Wright

In January of this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed opening all US coastal areas to offshore oil exploration, sparking widespread pushback from many coastal states and environmental groups. Recent reports suggest that industry demand for such a move is tepid, however.

Conventional industrial activity is not the only contributor, however. The installation of offshore wind turbines also contributes to ocean noise.

According to Project Drawdown, offshore wind turbines are an important tool for reversing global warming, with the potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 by 14.1 gigatons by 2050.

Wind turbines, both on and offshore, have also drawn criticism from environmental groups in the past for their potential impacts on wildlife, especially birds.

The risk of rising ocean noise fits into a larger pattern of disregard for the impact of human activity on marine habitat. From warming water temperatures to toxic chemical spills to swirling islands of plastic garbage, the world’s oceans are bearing the brunt of some of the most harmful industrial practices of the 20th and early 21st century.

The recent BBC nature documentary series Blue Planet II illustrated the scope of these impacts in its final episode, “Our Blue Planet.” In the episode, narrator David Attenborough warns that “the health of our oceans is under threat now as never before in human history.”

Among the harmful impacts of human behavior are overfishing, plastic entering the food chain, and yes, noise. “Man-made noise is now everywhere in the ocean, and it has an effect on marine creatures of all kinds,” says Attenborough.

The Blue Planet team follows marine biologist Steve Simpson, who researches how fish use sound to communicate, as well as how man-made sound interferes with that ability.

While it seems to be a complicated issue, for Simpson, the way forward is clear: “We can choose where we make the noise, we can choose when we make the noise. We can directly control the amount of noise that we make, and we can start doing that today.”

Learn more about NOAA’s research on ocean noise: Cetacean & Sound Mapping.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16 – 31)

TMC3-walk-way
A rendering of the helix-shaped public park that will wind through the forthcoming TMC3 biomedical research hub at the Texas Medical Center / Gensler

Two Wildlife Crossings Could Give the Species a Long-Term Chance at Survival in Southern California The Los Angeles Times, 5/16/18
“For humans, Southern California’s freeways link distant communities that are otherwise separated by rugged mountains, vast deserts and inland valleys.”

New York City Launches Pilot to Activate Highway Underpasses in Sunset Park The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/18/18
“It’s hard to imagine that in a city like New York, any space would be permitted to go to waste.”

Open Spaces amid Density Urban Land Magazine, 5/21/18
“Growing, densifying cities have no room to waste in their search for public open spaces.”

Mayor of London Awards £2m for Green Spaces Landscape Insight, 5/24/18
“The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has announced the six winners of over £2m of grant funding for green space improvements, as part of his push to make London the world’s first National Park City.”

A Closer Look at the Double Helix-Shaped Park Set to Join the TMC3 Campus Houstonia, 5/30/18
The Medical Center will soon boast an elevated, DNA-shaped greenspace courtesy of landscape architect James Corner.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1 – 15)

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Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. / Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

The Vaunted Garden at Dumbarton Oaks Reopens After Some Major Surgery The Washington Post, 5/2/18
“Those of us who are drawn to landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s design masterpiece have been cooling our heels since last summer, when the garden closed for major infrastructure repair. The good news is that it has reopened.”

Chicago to Get a Mile-Long Park and Wildlife Habitat The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/4/18
“A vestige of Chicago’s industrial history is slated for redevelopment as an ecologically focused public space.”

Cooper Hewitt Announces the Winners of its 2018 National Design Awards Architect, 5/8/18
“This year’s winners include Anne Whiston Spirn, a Cambridge, Mass.–based author, landscape architect, and MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green distinguished professor of landscape architecture and planning (for Design Mind) and Boston-based landscape architecture firm Mikyoung Kim Design (for Landscape Architecture).”

How Green, Flexible Infrastructure Can Make Cities Resilient Curbed, 5/11/18
“Examine any piece of urban infrastructure—a street, sidewalk, park bench, or dock—and evidence of a losing battle is quickly evident.”

Five Important Reasons Why You Should Hire a Landscape Architect Times Square Chronicles, 5/11/18
“When designing and planning your landscaping, it is crucial to hire an expert instead of creating the features on your own. Landscaping involves a unique balance of amplifying the natural features surrounding your home to come up with a functional and attractive environment.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1 – 15)

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A child plays in Santiago, Chile / Ricardo Moraes, Reuters

How to Design Cities for Children CityLab, 2/2/18
“A billion kids are now growing up in urban areas. But not all cities are planned with their needs in mind.“

Animals Are Using Colorado’s Wildlife Crossings, Reducing Collisions, CDOT SaysThe Denver Post, 2/2/18
“Wildlife bridges and underpasses led to a dramatic decline in animal-related car crashes, according to Mark Lawler, a biologist for Colorado Department of Transportation.

Boston Rethinks the Design of a 60-Acre Park, With an Eye Towards Preventing Flooding WGBH, 2/6/18
“For seven-year-old Ellen Anna Sosa, the best thing about living in South Boston’s Mary Ellen McCormack public housing development is that it’s right across the street from Joe Moakley Park.”

The Case Against Sidewalks Curbed, 2/7/18
“For the past year, the nonprofit Investing in Place has been holding these summits all over Los Angeles as part of an effort to train an army of sidewalk advocates, teaching neighborhood and community groups how to petition the city to fix broken pavement, improve bus stops, and plant more trees.

DFA Proposes “Floating” Affordable Housing for Dilapidated Manhattan PierDezeen, 2/9/18
“New York architecture studio DFA has imagined a series of latticed apartment towers for Manhattan’s Pier 40, which would be able to remain above water in the event of rising sea levels.”

Curbs Have the Power to Transform CitiesModern Cities, 2/9/18
“Everyone wants to work on expanding small business districts, improving health and education outcomes and leveraging data and technology to transform cities (because that’s all the rage these days).

Google Gets It Right with New Community-friendly Campus

Google Charleston East / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

In contrast with Apple’s hermetically-sealed “space ship” headquarters, which critics have complained perpetuates an outdated, car-centric approach to the corporate campus, recently-released plans for Google’s new offices in Mountain View show a campus that is open and accessible, walkable and bikeable, and are as much an asset for the company as they are for the surrounding community.

Designed by architects at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Thomas Heatherwick Studio, along with landscape architects at Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture, Google Charleston East purposefully brings the neighborhood into the campus. In their brief submitted to the Mountain View City Council, the design team illustrated their smart approach, which feels like the next generation of suburban corporate community.

The brief shows a luscious new park in the middle of the campus, which connects corporate buildings on the east and west ends of the space. A “green loop” — which goes through the park, then through the center of the building, and then follows a “riparian habitat” — links Google employees and the community to the campus, shops and retail, and welcoming outdoor spaces. Adjacent to the park is a protected burrowing owl habitat.

Google Charleston East’s Charleston Park / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

According to the design team, the connecting pathways within the campus were designed to make access roads feel safe and easy to cross.

Google Charleston East’s accessible streets / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

Landscape is used to draw in the neighbors. And in keeping with Google’s mission to support local ecosystems, they write: “our plans for the indoor and outdoor spaces include native habitats and vegetation designed to support local biodiversity and create educational opportunities for the community.”

Google Charleston East’s biodiverse plantings / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture
Google Charleston East’s community spaces / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture
Google Charleston East’s community spaces / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

The building itself is designed to connect Google to the neighborhood. The ground level offers events spaces, cafes and restaurants, while the upper level will use clerestory windows to bring in light. The bird-friendly building will feature a tent-like roof that will be embedded with photovoltaic panels.

Google Charleston East building with burrowing owl habitat in the background / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, and Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

Hargreaves Jones propose removing the few Redwood trees from the site — which aren’t “locally native” to the area and “possess many traits that make them undesirable when planted in urban areas outside their historic range” — and replacing them with locally-native trees and plants that will help re-establish “mixed riparian forest and oak woodland” ecosystems that once existed in the area. Part of this effort will include a “re-Oaking initiative” designed to bring back the lost ecology of the Santa Clara Valley. Furthermore, the landscape architects argue their approach will help the nearby burrowing owls, as there will be fewer perches for predatory falcons. Green infrastructure, including permeable pavements, will ensure all run-off is captured via the landscape.

And just a few miles down the road from Charleston East, Google is proposing a 1-million-square-foot campus in Sunnyvale. Also designed by BIG, but this time in partnership with landscape architects at OLIN, the building will feature 5-story buildings with rooftops made accessible via zig-zagging ramps.

Proposed Sunnyvale Google complex / BIG, Olin

One of Bjarke Ingels’ first designs — the 8HOUSE in Copenhagen — featured fun green ramps on its roof. This takes that up a notch.

New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

Hotspot map of Baku, Azerbaijan / The Atlas for the End of the World

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

The study, of which these maps are a part, is titled Hotspot Cities and focuses on urban growth in the world’s 36 so-called biodiversity hotspots – large regions where unique flora and fauna is threatened with extinction. By combining data sets of 2030 urban growth forecasts from the Seto Lab at Yale University with the habitats of endangered species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the study has mapped over 400 Hotspot Cities to reveal that over 90 percent of them appear likely to sprawl directly into remnant habitat harboring the world’s most endangered biodiversity.

Hotspot map of Tel Aviv, Israel / The Atlas for the End of the World

The study also zooms in on 33 of the biggest and fastest growing of these hotspot cities to assess the degree of imminent conflict between growth and biodiversity. The cities are Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Houston, Cape Town, Port-au-Prince, Baku, Brasilia, Santiago, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Sydney, Lagos, Rawalpindi, Mecca, Guangzhou, Esfahan, Osaka, Antananarivo, Ciudad de México, Durban, Tel Aviv, Guadalajara, Tashkent, Chengdu, Auckland, Davao, Honolulu, Perth, Jakarta, Bogotá, Guayaquil, Makassar (Ujung Padang), Colombo.

The 2016 UN-Habitat World Cities Report states that “urban and environmental planning provides opportunities and formal legal mechanisms for biodiversity conservation through design guidelines, building codes, zoning schemes, spatial plans and strategic choices, all coupled with effective enforcement.” Through detailed analysis, the study gauges the degree to which these sorts of mechanisms are being leveraged in the sample set of the 33 hotspot cities.

The conclusion is the overwhelming majority of these cities have not adopted long-term planning visions or mechanisms that include biodiversity values or, if they do, then they do not make such planning documents available or refer to the existence of such documents online. A notable subset set of cities such as Sydney, Perth, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles do, however, and have transparent, readily available, variously-integrated planning documents inclusive of biodiversity protection across levels of governance.

Hotspot map of Los Angeles, California / The Atlas for the End of the World

A survey of the cities’ promotional materials, popular press, and institutional publications also indicates a low degree of cultural association with being hotspot cities, let alone hotspot stewards. Typically, one finds a city’s projected identity pertains to the characteristics of its urban core rather than its peripheral landscapes. Yet, the peri-urban landscape and its regional connections beyond, can not only support biodiversity but also provide cities with the essential ecosystem services they require. As Harvard ecologist Richard T.T Forman writes “you can have a small impact in a city center, but if you want to have a big impact, go out to this dynamic urban edge where solutions really matter for both people and nature.”

A major obstacle to the development of spatial biodiversity planning is also the apparent lack of baseline biodiversity data for each city. Furthermore, this data, where it does exist, tends to focus on wildlife in the city rather than on ecosystem integrity at the periphery. If cities are to properly understand their relationships with biodiversity, there is a significant need to develop and share measurement and monitoring practices that relate to the peri-urban zone and how this zone functions as a filter and conduit for biodiversity.

It is also important to note here that attention to biodiversity is not just a matter of protecting certain charismatic species, rather, biodiversity is a proxy for a healthy ecosystem, without which there can be no healthy city.

The overarching question to ask then is whether the growth trajectories of these hotspot cities can be redirected to avoid the further destruction of biodiversity, and if so how? Having taken the first step of identifying likely conflict areas as this study does, it is important now to recognize and understand the true complexity of the problem. The conflict between sprawl and biodiversity cannot be approached reductively or simplistically, as if sprawl (formal and informal) is only an outcome of economic and demographic growth and conservation only a matter of fencing off areas in its path.

The peri-urban territory of cities is a complex mosaic of different and often contradictory land uses in high states of flux. Indeed, the alteration of peri-urban land is not caused solely by urbanization but is also a consequence of extracting many of the resources required to support cities and their residents. The often invisible and myriad forces shaping these landscapes are not yet well understood by the urban design and planning professions, just as the novel ecology of these lands is not yet well understood by the scientific community.

Hotspot map of Antananarivo, Madagascar / The Atlas for the End of the World

The profession best able to negotiate complex landscapes such as the peri-urban is landscape architecture. Landscape architects work in equal measure with ecological and cultural data to build up holistic understanding of cities in their regional contexts. From that basis, with teams of ecologists and planners, scenarios for alternative forms of urban growth can be visualized and their costs and benefits weighed.

As both the custodians and immediate beneficiaries of the unique biodiversity at their doorsteps, the hotspot cities have a global responsibility and leading role to play in integrating biodiversity with development. It is our belief a better understanding of peri-urban territory, and the forces shaping it, is a prerequisite to the mitigation of further loss of biodiversity. This is not only relevant to cities in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, but cities everywhere.

To that end, we propose hotspot cities come together to form a global knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing alliance to develop demonstration projects that show how urban growth and biodiversity can co-exist. The hotspot cities should lead the way in making the intent of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be discussed in Kuala Lumpur next month, a reality.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Atlas for the End of the World-Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene, a comprehensive audit of protected areas in the world’s biological hotspots. Research team includes: Chieh Huang, Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard, Zuzanna Drozdz, Nanxi Dong, Rong Cong, and Josh Ketchum.

Are Urban Bats the Future?

Urban bats at Congress Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas / Flickr

The plight of the honeybee has been well-documented since the term colony collapse disorder made its way into news headlines about a decade ago. The phenomena fueled public interest in the health of bee populations, ushering in a new generation of bee-keeping enthusiasts. And justifiably so. Pollinators like bees are essential to our nation’s economy and food supply.

Another, albeit less popular, pollinator is also facing a precipitous population decline. Bats are dying at an alarming rate due to an invasive fungal disease that’s wiping out entire species, and the unlikely savior may be one of their own.

Bats pollinate over 500 species of plants around the world, including cocoa and agave — fans of chocolate and tequila, take note. What’s killing them is called White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease that grows on bats’ skin and wakes them up during hibernation. Repeated waking during the hibernation period depletes winter fat storage and causes starvation. The fungus needs high humidity and low temperatures to survive, typical cave-like conditions.

Millions of bats in North America have died from the disease since it was first documented in a cave in New York in 2007. Now, WNS has spread to 30 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces and is reaching the west coast. Last year, a bat in Washington state tested positive for the disease.

“Populations will likely never return to where they were,” said Amanda Bevan, lead for the Organization for Bat Conservation’s Urban Bat Initiative.

Bats in urban areas are less affected by the disease because they tend to hibernate in man-made structures that stay warmer than caves. And migratory species, like the Hoary Bat, do not spend the same amount of time in caves as bats that hibernate, and therefore have limited interaction with the fungus.

With more opportunity and reduced competition, Bevan says, it’s possible that some of these urban and migratory bats could push into the realms of cave and forest-dwelling bats.

“They are what’s going to be the saving grace for white-nose syndrome,” Bevan said. The Evening Bat, for example, more often found in southern regions of the U.S., has recently been discovered in caves in Wisconsin and Michigan where it’s possible it could help rebuild the states’ cave-dwelling bat populations. This is a relatively new, but potentially promising, phenomena that could help bolster species in decline.

Bevan thinks, given current trends suggesting changing behavior, urban bats are likely to become the majority population.

But there is a significant lack of research on the urban bat, and more broadly, trends in bat populations over time. Migratory bats especially are challenging to track because they are hard to catch multiple times. In absence of robust data, it’s difficult to understand movements and patterns across species.

To date, research has focused largely on cave-dwelling bats, but now ecologists seek a better understanding of bat activity in urbanized landscapes. In 2012, researchers from Fordham University published an acoustic monitoring study of bat activity in the Bronx. The report, which was the first of its kind documenting urban bats in the northeast, found five different species at various sites. A subsequent study reported increased bat activity over green roofs, compared to conventional roofs in the Bronx, indicating green roof provide habitat benefits for bats.

Urban gardeners who want to support their fellow urban-dwelling mammal can create habitats like bat houses and supply pollinator-attracting plants. Plants like milkweed and evening primrose attract night pollinators, like moths – a diet staples for bats. Gardeners can also use plants that bloom late in the day, are scented at night, and have a lighter in color. One of the biggest threats to urban bat populations are pesticides, which can affect a bat’s ability to navigate using echolocation.