Saturday, February 18, 2012

If it's Friday at noontime, then it's URBAN ECOLOGY

I have not been this excited about a class in a while, and frankly I am always excited about my classes!  So, it should be hefty and satisfying…for me at least. 

We will be using the new text (an edited collection) called “Urban Ecology: Patterns, Processes, and Applications” edited by Jari Niemela. 

Although the course is designed for advanced undergraduates, I will expect them to develop a graduate level understanding of the broad themes of the emerging subdiscipline of urban ecology.  At the very least students should be able to contemplate a series of research-oriented questions in this field when they graduate the class.

I have yet to finalize the syllabus - the plan at the moment is to survey the field by means of a series of questions:

1.         What sorts of questions are answered by urban ecology?  Why is the systematic ecological investigation of cities a relatively new thing?  To what extent is urban ecology an extension of more general ecological theory to urban circumstances, to what extent might urban ecology transform general ecology?

2.         Why do more than 50% of us globally live in cities?  That is, what sequence of events resulted in us being primarily an urban species?  Especially interesting to me is thinking through the evolution of permanent architecture, something that emerged only a few instants ago relative to the age of the species.  We also ask, with some vigor, what exactly is a city?  And we conduct a fairly rapid assessment of the history of cities, concentrating especially on 20th C – present day.

3.         Cities are built habitat – in order to function adequately they must minimally facilitate the transfer of goods and service to the human population and in turn whisk away their shit.  That they do so only minimally is pretty clear in some historical and contemporary circumstances.  That they do so in a manner that encourages human flourishing is also apparent in some circumstance.  So we ask:  how, in very general terms, does the development of cities transform the urban environment, and alter the flows of goods and services into and away from cities?  Included in this section will be an examination of urban climates, hydrological transformation, and soils.

4.         What are the patterns of vegetation distribution in cities?  Elsewhere, I have distinguished between the “intentional forest” and the “interstitial forest”, that is, those aspects of urban vegetation that are deliberately planted and those that are more spontaneous – either weedy vegetation that springs up in highly disturbed situations in the city, or vegetated systems that are remnants of earlier times. 

5.         What are the patterns in the distribution of wildlife and arthropod communities in cities?  Urban wildlife represents an especially distinct community of animals.  How do they survive, how does an animal adapt to life in the city.  What factors explain the recent encroachment of less familiar animals into the limits of the city?

6.         What is the state of ecosystems service provisioning to and within cities?  We will use the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment rubric for evaluating services (provisioning, cultural, regulating and supporting services) and apply it, in very general terms, to cities.  There is less emphasis in the Niemela book on supporting services like decomposition and nutrient cycling than I’d like so we will supplement the book quite heavily here.

7.         Cities can be conceived as coupled human-natural systems – what is the theoretical underpinning for, and the consequences of, considering cities in this way?  Can the CHN perspective alter the way in which we might manage resources in the city or is this just a fancy way of stating the obvious?    In this section we’ll also inspect governance theories and see what they have to offer by way of conceptualizing the future management of cities.

8.         Is Green Infrastructure a useful perspective for promoting the use of ecological principles in urban planning?  We will primarily use the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure vision as a tool for examining this question.

9.         What are the influences of city design of human health?  As part of our inspection of this topic we will read Richard Louv’s work (Richard will be at DePaul in April).

10.       The cities of the future – will they confirm our worst suspicions or most optimistic dreams?  This section will examine the history of utopian and dystopian visions of our environmental future.

More often than not my classes have a whiff of philosophy about them.  Sometimes this is fine, I hope, sometimes not, I fear.  But I will do my best to resist my philosophical urges so that we can concentrate the natural and social sciences in this version of the Urban Ecology course.  These sciences define the scope of our reading; that being said I feel confident that I am forgetting something… suggest additional themes if you feel inclined and I will update my topic list in the coming weeks. 

Also, look out for descriptions of the lab project.

More than likely I’ll video tape the lectures and post them on the blog.  Feedback appreciated.

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