Nature and Human Settlements Part I

During the latter part of the 1990's I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects intended to restore some environmental health to the built environment...to towns, cities, and other concentrations of humanity. This was especially rewarding work. I also had the opportunity to reflect on the 'greening effort' of human settlements in presentations and publications.  Nature and Human Settlements is the title of one of those reflections.

Nature and Human Settlements - Part I

The year 2007 was a special year, a landmark year in human history. This was not the year during which war was abolished. This was also not the year when hunger and crushing poverty were vanquished, more’s the pity. No, 2007 was the year of Urban Humanity.  This was the year when over half of humanity came to live in what we call urban settlements. Well over three and a quarter billion people came reside in the cities, towns of Earth.

One would think that after all of these centuries…millennia, in fact…in response to this great migration of the human tribes…our settlements would be places of choice by virtue of the quality of life and environments they provide.  But this is not the case. The air in most of our larger and many of our smaller settlements is foul and transportation is abysmal.

It was while living in Atlanta a few years back that I learned some of the more unique aspects of human settlements.  I learned, for example of what is called the ‘heat island effect.’  Because of the exhaust of heat as a waste product of the human enterprise, many of our larger settlements are warmer than the surrounding countryside.  They are covered in a bubble of essentially waste energy and gases. In some cases, these bubbles are so dense that they create their own weather…within and outside of the bubbles. The heat island can have an impact even on the weather of the surrounding countryside.

The very structure of so many of our communities mitigates against good health practices. We drive everywhere, we walk nowhere, obesity has become the rule, and a major health crisis. I learned about something else in Atlanta.  I learned about what happens when the integrity of rivers and streams are not honored.  If you put a map of Atlanta (and many other cities) on a flat surface and look at the streams that flow into it…those streams vanish as they enter the city.  They don’t actually vanish they go under the ground, under the cities.

I learned some other things during my urban years, however.  I learned how wonderful it is when citizens band together with a dream. While serving on an interagency initiative, I remember visiting with a group of people who wanted to create a little niche park in their community. And when I say little, that is just what I mean.  A very old house in one of the then more challenged sections of Atlanta, with a stone basement cut into the side of a hill, had decayed and collapsed into its basement.  Over the decades an oak had grown from the stone wall.  When I visited the site, I saw a mess but the citizens saw a small, pocket park.  We gave them the funds and a little technical expertise, they cleaned the site, put in a small path, some flowerbeds, and a couple of benches and had a park.

As an ecologist I have stood looking out over literally thousands of acres of wildflowers after the rains of spring and a bit of snow had moistened the earth just enough for one of those infrequent and incredible desert wildflower blooms.  I have floated over a hundred feet below the surface alongside a massive wall of corals, a thousand feet above the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.  These are wonderful experiences for someone with my background and interests.  But I have also experienced the great pleasure of seeing the first river otter return to a clean and stable urban stream whose rehabilitation I had a small something to do with. I have been part of the day-lighting and rehabilitating of streams that had been buried under a city for decades, and I’ve had the joy of helping link previously detached patches of seriously degraded urban ‘wildlands’ into corridors that allowed the movement of native animal and plant populations.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is the power of people when they decide they are just ‘not going to take it anymore’ and begin to green and replant their communities.  In each generation there have been those who look upon the city…the town, the built environment…as the center for the intellectual and spiritual enrichment of the human experience. The urban ecology movement has been part of that.  In a way, it has been around as long as there have been those sensitive to what it means to gather together in human settlements.


In the mid-1980’s, while still wandering the deserts of the Southwestern US, I came upon Anne Winston Spirn’s book ‘The Granite Garden’ in which she discusses the cities from the perspectives of nature and human design. I bought that book and have had it all of these years, never thinking, when I made the purchase, that I would have a small part in the contemporary movement to reinvent that which we call ‘urban.’  In the opening words from the Granite Garden…Anne says, “Nature pervades the city, forging bonds between the city and the air, earth, water, and living organisms within and around it.”  That was her vision and it’s a good vision.

For additional material on this subject search the WEB using the terms baugh with urban residential wildlife or urban ecology or urban resources.


(Continued in the next post.)

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