Ideas Contributing to a New Human Ecology

Ecology lends itself to reinvention, to reinterpretation. Relationships link things, and how we view connections among elements changes. As early as the 1950s, anthropologists called for a 'new ecology'. The ideas leading to the more recent, expanding view of ecology have come from many sources and a variety of disciplines, including anthropology. The catalysts for change include advances in technologies, the study of urban morphology and landscape ecology, a broader understanding of chaos theory, and increased interest in issues of sustainability. The emergence of urban ecology exemplifies a beginning in the synthesis of these sometimes divergent catalysts. Urban ecology focuses on organism-environment interactions within cities and other human settlements. By concentrating on urban areas, the interests of the new ecological perspective are woven closer together.

Fresh ways to observe nature, primarily as a result of computer and remote-sensing technologies, have altered our understanding of functions, structures, and patterns. These new (and evolving) technologies are yielding a deeper perspective, because many events can be considered simultaneously in a connected network.

A computer technology especially valuable for revealing complex, ecological relationships is geographical information systems, known by its abbreviation GIS. These computer software programs allow analysis to study overlapping spatial data and map the results. For example, the home range of a tiger beetle species can be mapped then compared with a similar map for a species of brown bear. In turn, both can be overlaid on the migration routes of Canada geese and the extent of a coniferous forest and so on. GIS emerged concurrently with new ways to see and to record the surface of the planet, such as remote-sensing technologies. Whereas GIS programs map information, remote sensing creates imagery of phenomena on the Earth's surface.

As the Apollo astronauts approached the moon, they relayed images back to Earth unlike anything previously seen. The hypnotic pictures of the moon riveted our attention, of course, but the photographs of the blue-green orb of Earth were perhaps even more profound. Continents and water bodies were clearly visible beneath swirls of clouds, but borders had disappeared (Figure 1). No longer would we see Earth in the manner of the little globes in our classrooms. NASA continues to produce images of the planet, as do other governmental and private remote-sensing groups. In fact, NASA broadcasts continual images of our planet on its own television network.

Remote-sensed information is collected through satellites or high-flying aircraft. The images can be enhanced with computers to reveal specific phenomena, such as land cover, land use, and fault lines. Climate patterns can be tracked and future weather events forecasted. Remote sensors can also be linked to on-the-ground monitoring stations. Such connections allow phenomena to be observed through time. For example, a drainage basin can have several stream-monitoring gauges, which may be linked to a central data collection center. In turn, satellites may be able to collect rainfall and snowpack information daily that can be combined with the field data to predict future water supplies.

Figure 1 Blue Marble. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stockli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MODIS Atmosphere Group; MODIS Ocean Group. Additional data: USGS EROS Data Center (topography); USGS Terrestrial Remote Sensing Flagstaff Field Center (Antarctica); Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (city lights).

Figure 1 Blue Marble. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stockli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MODIS Atmosphere Group; MODIS Ocean Group. Additional data: USGS EROS Data Center (topography); USGS Terrestrial Remote Sensing Flagstaff Field Center (Antarctica); Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (city lights).

The use of GIS and remote-sensing technologies has spread rapidly among scientists during the past few decades. A geologist can overlay a map of bedrock on an aerial photograph to determine where a fault line intersects with settlement. Additional technologies likely will open more possibilities. For example, visualization techniques present three-dimensional representations of objects. Such visualization can be combined with GIS to show places more holistically. The maps of the geologist and the ecologist can be rendered in three dimensions to illustrate the relationships among phenomena such as aquifers, wildlife corridors, and land use. The Internet opens opportunities, too. For instance, a team of American students can work with a group of Italians in a virtual studio, and share GIS maps and photographs of a place, say, in Africa. Furthermore, one can use websites such as Google Earth for an aerial photograph and a map of almost anywhere on the planet.

Information stored and communicated via computers reveals more and more about our interactions, with each other and with our worlds. GIS combined with real-time satellite images and the Internet provides the equivalent of a central nervous system for the planet. Humans can aspire to provide the brain for that system. How we apply our brains to use these technologies and this information will transform how we live and, therefore, the patterns of our settlements.

As the information landscape advances, we can gain a better understanding of human ecology. For example, satellite imagery can produce daily climate information for settlements. GIS can be used to map these data over time and enable the climate information to be overlaid on land-use and land-cover maps. This process reveals how we use the land and how what we plant on its surface affects urban climate. In this way, GIS and remote-sensing technologies enable us to visualize relationships. Since human ecology is essentially about relationships, our ecological understanding advances as we reveal previously unseen connections.

We especially gain insights into urban places. Urban morphology involves the study of human settlement patterns. People create nonurban settlements as well, ranging from farmsteads and rural villages to mines and ski lodges. While suburbia might lack urbanity, it is often classified as urban by geographers. Farmsteads and suburbia have specific morphologies as well which are important to understand. However, since we live in the first urban century, the morphologies of cities and metropolitan regions especially merit attention. Population trends indicate that the world is becoming more urban. For the first time in human history, over half the world's population lives in metropolitan regions. As the planet has urbanized, the structure of urban areas has attracted increased attention by scholars from many disciplines.

Urban morphology evolved from both the disciplines of geography and architecture in Europe, where a rigorous and thorough mapping of the physical structure of cities was promoted. Mapping revealed what the Italians call tessuto, or the tissues of the city - that is, clusters of structures, vegetation, and roadways that hold the urban body together. The Dutch use a similar concept and their word for tissue, weefsel, to describe urban ten-segrity. The influence of urban morphology has spread among geographers, architects, and planners in Europe, North America, and Asia. Urban morphologists advocate reading the city as a text, or as a cultural palimpsest, to reveal culture.

Landscapes possess power such as both a cultural and a natural palimpsest. Landscapes offer a scale where social and physical processes and pattern can become evident. We see landscapes and all our senses react to their well-being.

Landscape ecology focuses on the ecological relationships at the landscape scale. Landscape ecology is a study of the structure, function, and change in a heterogeneous land area composed of interacting ecosystems. European scientists advanced landscape ecology before their American counterparts. The landscapes of Europe have been more densely settled than in North America, and, as a result, the human influence was recognized quickly by European scientists. American ecologists are more accustomed to studying relatively pristine landscapes. The refinement of the landscape ecology discipline, coupled with increased suburban sprawl nationwide, has changed this situation as more American ecologists acknowledge human interactions with natural systems. As landscape ecology has evolved through multiple interactions among European, American, and Australian contributors, it has crystallized into something new and powerful. Human settlements form mosaic-like patterns on landscapes and this land mosaic vision makes the landscape readily accessible to scientists, especially ecologists.

We can see change and interactions in landscapes. Edges - or interfaces - between land uses can be especially sensitive and rich. In rapidly growing regions, edges are unstable and conflicting. New homes replace farmland. The land sells relatively cheaply. The open land provides an attractive backdrop. Agriculture practices create dust and noise. Farming often depends on chemicals that have consequences for human health. Suburbanites possess different lifestyles and expectations that vary dramatically from those oftheir rural neighbors. Such landscape change lends itself to scientific analysis. For example, ecologists can ask, What interactions are driving the change and what patterns are resulting?

A growing interest in the ecologies of urban areas provides evidence of a coalescence of these catalysts for change. In the United States, National Science Foundation (NSF) established two urban Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects in 1997. Before setting up these projects in the Baltimore and Phoenix metropolitan regions, NSF located LTERs in nonurban places. Remote locations presented ideal places for ecologists to explore the traditional concept of stable states in relatively closed systems. Increasingly, influential American ecologists began to urge NSF to consider the ecology of metropolitan regions too in order to pursue the study of more complex systems. Urban ecological systems present multiple challenges to ecologists, including pervasive human impact and extreme heterogeneity of cities, and the need to integrate social and ecological approaches, concepts, and theories.

The Baltimore and Phoenix LTERs offer contrasting urban conditions. Baltimore, located in the northeastern region ofthe United States, is an older city than Phoenix and has a more dense urban fabric. The Sun Belt location of Phoenix offers a city developed as a result of automobile, airplane, air conditioning, and refrigeration technologies. Whereas growth in Baltimore is rather slow, population expansion in the Phoenix metropolitan region leads the nation. The humid Chesapeake Bay contrasts the arid Sonoran Desert. As a result, the Baltimore and Phoenix LTERs can help us understand constants in urban conditions as well as specific variations resulting from the natural surroundings and from the period ofsettlement.

Thus far, there has been relatively little interaction between the urban ecology camp dominated by scientists and the urban morphologists led by architects and planners. Geographers are present in both groups and likely will form bridges. The substance of such spans can be provided through better-understanding human ecology.

Human ecology is important if we are serious about sustainable development - that is, economic progress that meets all of our needs without leaving future generations with fewer resources than those we enjoy - a way ofliving from nature's income rather than mining its capital account. Sustainability requires that human communities are adaptable to change, that natural processes and landscape functions are protected, and that resources are conserved for future generations. To be adaptable, communities need to be resilient. We must understand the organization - the function, structure, and processes - of the communities that we inhabit in order to lay the foundations for the future.

Perhaps the growing interest in sustainable development - in seeking to make communities more livable - derives from a sense that we are living in places where something is out of whack. Perhaps the creative impulse derives always from a dread of the future, the feeling that the world may not improve for our children, and our desire to fend off doom to improve things for those who follow. To sustain things, we must keep them from falling apart, now and in the future. All around us, things indeed appear to be coming apart at the seams. Where once children played in the park, now homeless people sleep. Where there was once a vibrant downtown, there are now vacant lots.

The farm field, the park, the downtown; the convenience store, the homeless people, the vacant lots, all form pieces in larger mosaics, larger processes. In itself, the field or the convenience store is neither good nor bad. Both, however, are part of larger systems that may be either healthy or sick, that is, either capable of sustaining themselves or not. The individual farm field contributes to a regional agricultural system. The crops produced in the field help sustain the regional economy. The crops support not only the farm family that produces them, but the local co-op that processes the crop for the market and the tractor dealer as well. The convenience store has an asphalt parking lot. Its impervious surface contributes to regional drainage and flooding problems because of increased runoff.Because the parking lot is black, it adds to the urban heat island effect resulting in summer discomfort among nearby residents. The understanding of how living systems are organized from the local to the regional provides a means for assessing their capabilities to adjust to change.

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