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Designing a City That Makes Room for Nature

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. (primary) | iStock/CharlieTong
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Urban Ark considers how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal species that are sometimes endangered in their native habitats.
Urban Ark

Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The second storyline considers how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal species that are sometimes endangered in their native habitats. Find more Urban Ark stories here.

If you visit the popular online retailer named after the world’s most biodiverse region and search for “bird spikes,” you'll discover a startling array of repellent gadgets. You can choose from plastic, polycarbonate, or stainless steel, in a range of lengths and designs. If abundant rows of spikes are insufficient for your avian repulsion needs, they have Bird Blinder, a “scare tape” that claims if you “buy it once,” you will “never worry about birds again!” Thank you, Amazon, for offering us the promise of a birdless life. 

Bird Blinder screen shot. | Robin Kello
Bird Blinder screen shot. | Robin Kello

Why this fantasy of keeping nonhuman life at a safe distance, relegating flora and fauna to discrete categories of exterminate or cultivate, pest or pet? Surely, the wealthy residents of Bristol, England who recently pasted spikes all over their neighborhood branches to protect their cars from the menace of bird poop also walked their dogs under those pristine birdless trees. I imagine the same Texas Highway Patrol officers who used to incinerate the bat colonies at an Austin bridge with blowtorches would come home and cuddle with the family cat. 

Whatever we do to fend them off, though, flowers and critters will remain. Coexistence with nonhuman life is our lot and always has been. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, the percentage of the global population that lives in urban areas will approach 70 percent. We may plan those future cities for the needs of the human community, but it's a safe bet that we won’t be alone there. As the cities episode in the “Planet Earth” series demonstrates, whatever plans human societies make, resourceful creatures — like the langurs of Jaipur or the peregrine falcons of Manhattan — will find their ways into the urban environment. Recognizing this inevitability, many architects, designers, environmentalists, and citizens are beginning to reimagine the city of the future as a space of biodiverse coexistence. 

Pregrine Falcon | Sergey Yeliseev/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Peregrine Falcon | Sergey Yeliseev/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If there are not enough spikes in the universe to reach that dangerous dream of the birdless life, cities of the future must dissolve the artificial boundaries that separate human and nonhuman life. If cities are more than cages we have built to keep ourselves from the creatures of the ecosystem outside, how might we reimagine environmental sustainability and envision a city where we live side by side? We may not want coyotes at the front door (though they thrive in our graveyards), but must we banish the birds? 

With such questions in mind, I gave Timothy Beatley of the University of Virginia a call. Beatley is founder and executive director of the Biophilic Cities Project. Drawing from Edward O. Wilson’s reworking of Erich Fromm’s term “biophilia,” he emphasizes that human brains have co-evolved with the natural world, leaving an innate connection to nature, and not just the kind we can get on a summer vacation. Though Beatley suggests that the biophilic city will be resilient in a time of global climate change, his is not the doom-and-gloom view that stresses the peril we face if we don’t shape up as a species. Instead, Beatley emphasizes the pleasures of rediscovering our profound affinity for the nonhuman. Beatley and his project ultimately imagine what he calls “a city that makes room.” 

Constructing this city requires not just a reframing of our culture’s relationship to the flora and fauna that surround us, but also a conversation between varied forms of expertise. I suggest to Beatley that perhaps architects and biologists don’t talk enough. He agrees: “The vision of the biophilic city is one that builds on health, it builds on design, it builds on urban wildlife and the biology of critters,” he says.  “Of course, there’s food, urban agriculture, urban forestry, particular communities that relate to particular kinds of nature in the city. [We need to] support cities that make room for all those things.”  

Though Beatley assures me that there are no perfect example of the biophilic city, he says Singapore is doing a fine job. Having recently changed its motto from “The Garden City” to “A City in a Garden,” Singapore boasts the magnificent Gardens by the Bay,  where urban wanderers can find otters returning to the river and arching their necks toward the wondrous vertical gardens of Supertrees. 

Singapore has also been innovative in incorporating biophilic design into healthcare settings such as the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and fostering a culture of ecologically conscious citizenship. While the specific environmental and economic conditions of Singapore provide advantages that may not exist in other cities, the investment in the future, even in this very densely populated city, is evident. In this sort of biophilic urban zone, Beatley tells me, we can find the chance encounter with the nonhuman that provokes “a moment of wonder, a moment of awe.” 

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore. | Tim Beatley
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore. | Tim Beatley

Inspired by these possibilities, I am left wondering how to apply this vision to my adopted home city. I do not live in Singapore, but Los Angeles, which was recently cited as exemplifying Henri Lefèbvre’s frightening characterization of urban development as “headlong flight ... towards a colossal and shapeless agglomeration.” How can Los Angeles give a careful and biodiverse shape to our sun-drenched and spread-out urban colossus?

Getting in touch with Alexander Robinson at USC and Joyce Hwang at the University at Buffalo helped me think through these vexing questions. Robinson explains to me that, as part of the Los Angeles River Revitalization project, he engaged in a necessary partnership between engineering and landscape architecture, fostering the kind of collaboration that allows for creative designs which can go “go beyond restoration imperatives.” Moving from waterways to buildings, I ask him about the efficacy of greening walls and roofs in such an arid climate. He suggests that irrigation would be necessary, and while perhaps we can repurpose gray water for greening projects, a more immediate concern for Los Angeles is to consider the state of the trees that surround us. The urban forest of L.A. is in dire condition, and we may need to invest in sidewalks that allow for more root volume. 

Some of Joyce Hwang’s architectural work focuses on one of the flying critters with whom we share our built environment — the bat. Although bats are necessary pollinators, and many of them are dying off due to white-nose syndrome, a lethal fungal infection, they are often considered little more than urban pests. Hwang’s Bat Tower provides a livable bat habitat in an aesthetically striking form that creates public awareness.

Architect Joyce Hwang’s Bat Tower. | Joyce Hwang
Architect Joyce Hwang’s Bat Tower. | Joyce Hwang

While bat towers are impressive, the same principles can be applied on a smaller scale. Hwang’s Generative Zoning project looks to the unused and abandoned urban spots created by zoning regulations, those gray areas of vacant land that checker American cities. We certainly have a fair share of them here in L.A. Why not develop those owned by the city as plant and animal habitat? And what about roofs and foundations, those elements of a building where animals often find their way in for warmth? How can we include animal habitat as we design and construct buildings for primary use by humans? 

In constructing cities with an eye to the nonhuman animal world, Europe remains ahead of the United States. Hwang tells me that while walking around the Netherlands, she saw many façades with inbuilt bird habitat. Perhaps, she suggests, the fact that the U.S. is already considering bird-safe buildings to minimize the number one cause of death for urban birds, flying into windows, means that we are moving forward. 

Moving from the bird spike to the bird hollow in your building will depend on forging such collaborations between architects and biologists, government and the private sector, and specialists and the wider public. It’s going to take money, and it’s going to take time, but maybe most of all it will require the kind of shift in culture that we see in the turn from incinerating the bats in Austin to building bridges to the precise specifications of bat life. Now every evening at dusk, tourists and locals flock to the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin to watch the spectacle of Mexican free-tailed bats taking flight. 

Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas | Photo: iStock Photo/derwood05
Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas. | Photo: iStock Photo/derwood05

All this poses a challenge to Los Angeles. Of course, practicing and planning for coexistence across species in the city should not become an open dinner invitation to the coyotes; changes must arise from careful collaboration among citizens and experts. But other urban areas — and not just in Singapore or the Netherlands — are forging and strengthening such partnerships, which offers a great opportunity for our city. The Biophilic Cities Project currently has seven partner cities in the United States. One of those collaborators is the Bay Area. So, beyond environmental ethics, I appeal to the enduring power of city rivalry. Come on, L.A., do we really want to let San Francisco have this one? Or do we want a future L.A. that is not just willing, but happy to make room?

Top image: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. | iStock/CharlieTong

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