The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Urban Centers Now

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. Seas of pavement. Forests of street lamps, street signs, and leafless telephone poles. Savannas of symmetrical parks, manicured lawns and perfect -unnaturally perfect- ornamental trees. Rivers of highway back-logged with cars and freighters. Mountains of

brick, concrete, wood, and glass built to shield us from the o’-so-harsh elements.

Where there is economic development, there is usually environmental degradation.  One is sacrificed for the other in the name of “Progress.”  Progress includes stripping mountains of their mountaintops, relieving forests of their leafy blankets, replacing verdant prairie with crop monocultures, replacing cropland with shiny-10-mpg-SUV-ridden suburbia, encapsulating municipal ‘trash’ in tombs that rival the ancient Pyramids of Giza, choking once pristine waterways with effluent, trash, and sediment eroded from denuded stream banks, browning and blackening the air, poisoning and exploiting our worldly neighbors. Progress seems to include urbanizing, shutting out, ignoring, destroying, breaking, burning. (I recall the Ent’s rant from Lord of the Rings.)

Urban Centers Re-Visualized

Instead, try to visualize a metropolitan area that aggressively strives to be verdant, sustainable and self-sufficient.

A walk down main street is a pleasure, not a chore.  Old buildings have been restored according to LEED standards, and are teeming with activity.  Building facades are checkered with superinsulated solar windows and trellis-twining vine green walls.  Looking up, roofs are home to plants (green roofs), solar panels, and helical wind turbines. The sidewalk underfoot appears unusual; it’s porous pavement, which reduces stormwater runoff and flooding, and also brings moisture to abundant street trees.

You come to the edge of an intersection and find not a wedge of concrete or a patch of sterile grass but an urban garden.  Some backpacks lay at the edge of the garden.  Some children are tending to their crops.  They seem excited about the plants they’ve learned to care for, the seeds they’ve planted, the plants they’ve watched grow, and the food they get to bring home.  As they scamper home with a few ripe vegetables, you turn back to the intersection.  Instead of a complicated and fuel-wasting 4-way stop, a traffic circle greets oncoming motorists.  As traffic rolls smoothly about this round about, you look closely to the center circle.  Instead of a cement-curbed impervious surface, a rain garden adorns this traffic circle.  The native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, wait patiently for the next rain.  They  gladly accept stormwater runoff that would otherwise drain into the sewer and end up -untreated- in local waterways.

You follow the street to the bus stop, which is adorned by solar panels to generate electricity and provide shelter as you sit at the bench.  A few minutes pass and the bus quietly pulls up.  Fueled by an alternative energy, it doesn’t spew exhaust in your face when it stops.  The doors open.  Going up the steps you see roof reinforcements in the bus.  An infographic shows you pictures of this bus’s extensive green roof.  Drought-tolerant stonecrops (Sedum) wait patiently on the bus roof for the next rain while providing mobile greenery for residents looking out from their restored multi-story buildings.  The roof reinforcements ensure structural integrity, even under the full load of saturated growing media and plants during rains.

You look out the window as the green roof bus enters the highway.  You are not in a claustrophobic corridor of asphalt lanes and concrete barrier walls.  Where possible, the pavement has been painted with electricity-generating nano-solar cells.  The sound barriers that attempt to block displeasing sounds and sights for nearby residences are made more effective with coverings of ivy facades and living walls of other plants.  As the bus rounds the side of a hill, even the retaining walls facilitate vegetation, rendering the living retaining wall itself almost invisible.

Finally you arrive home after walking a couple blocks from your bus stop.  It is dusk and as you approach your yard, the solar-powered LED street lights blink on.  You stop and admire your short-grass prairie lawn.  The buffalo grass might need to be mowed once or twice this year, so no rush.  Your flower garden along your home is vibrant with drought-tolerant, climate-adjusted native plants – bees, butterflies, and birds love them!  You might water the  garden tomorrow, but only with water from your rain barrel at the foot of your gutter.  Your roof also supports an extensive green roof system.  Succulents and grasses thrive up there.  The system retains stormwater, or at least slows it down during larger storms.  The stormwater the roof cannot hold goes down the gutters into the rain barrel or towards your backyard rain garden.  Any excess stormwater from the rain garden passes through a grass swale before finally trickling into the storm sewer.  You are eager to disconnect your stormwater flows from the sewer whenever possible.  The risk of the stormwater inundating combined stormwater/sanitary sewers would mean messy combined sewer overflows and basement backups.  Otherwise, you might not want to eat that fish you caught at your favorite spot.

The greenery throughout your city provides stormwater benefits, thermal benefits for the buildings and the microclimate, efficiency boosts for photovoltaics (See Green Roofs and Solar Panel Efficiency), aesthetically pleasing views, noise reduction, to name a few.  Besides, you can save rain for a dry day.

Green roofs, green walls, rain gardens, public gardens, etc. provide sanctuary to otherwise nature-deficient city dwellers.  Reusing and revitalizing abandoned areas is important. Incorporating safe, useful public transit is important. Educating children that the outdoors are to be explored is important; to learn to dismiss the overbearing fears of a wild nature, the risk of playing outdoors, the intangible but strong grasp of liability (sue-happy society)…is IMPORTANT. (See Nature Deficit Disorder.)  We must mitigate suburban and exurban sprawl and revitalize what we already have. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Three words more powerful than faint arrows on a pop bottle.

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. That said, 7 billion people need to live SOMEWHERE. Perhaps we will realize the necessity of following the principles of sustainability and that we should be stewards of God’s Creation, not robbers of its bounty.

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9 thoughts on “The Nature of an Urban Jungle

  1. Wow wonderfully written and researched. You’ve really thought about the possibilities for sustainable living and exactly what is needed if it is ever to become an adopted lifestyle! Great read and I will be checking out more of your blog.

  2. A beautiful vision! I especially like the green roof on the bus, that would be cool to see! If we are talking an end result here I would personally ditch the car infrastructure completely, switch in street cars and light rail for buses, and emphasize mixed use and increased density along transit corridors to increase neighborhood vibrancy and halt sprawl, leaving the would-be suburbs and ex-urbs to a more natural course.

  3. http://www.treehugger.com/cars/bus-roots-public-bus-doubles-as-mobile-green-roof.html

    My graduate research involves green infrastructure. I learned about the buses just a few weeks ago.

    Ending car infrastructure will need to be a long-term transition for folks to take it on, and for folks to support further progress. It will be difficult for individuals to give up the freedom to go to the store and pick up a bunch of stuff, and be able to haul it home. Albeit, there is an inherent problem with overconsumption and ultraconsumerism that also needs to be addressed.

  4. Great link. I am curious to know what you are studying in grad school. I am currently applying for next fall for urban planning.

    I realize that Americans in particular will only be dragged from their cars kicking and screaming, so to speak. I think it will take at least double current gas prices.

    I think a car-free version of what you are talking about could be feasible on the scale of, say, a single neighborhood, if it was marketed and hyped in the right way to attract enough people that are ready to live car-free. I am working in an idea like that and I’d love your feedback once I post it in my blog.

  5. I am studying the stormwater retention and microclimate cooling benefits of green retaining walls. The plantable retaining walls I mention in my visualization already exist: SmartSlope.

    Neighborhood clusters, built to accommodate walking and public transportation, would be welcomed.

  6. Pingback: Saving Rain for a Dry Day « stewardsofearth

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