Living systems are organized hierarchically and communicate through feedback networks. The elements within a system may vary greatly in organization. According to urban morphologists, urban form can be understood at different levels of resolution. Commonly, four are recognized, corresponding to the building/lot, the street/block, the city, and the region. A building may be tall or short, with a pitched roof or a flat one, brick or wood or adobe. A lot, a street, or a block may be narrow or wide, straight or curved. A city may be densely settled or spread out. A region can be defined by a river or a mountain or a coastline or all three and by other factors.
Hierarchies help us understand how people are connected with one another - the basic idea of community. To understand human ecologies, the most relevant levels of organization include habitat, community, landscape, region, nation and state, and Earth or ecosphere. These levels present different, yet interconnected, scales of analysis. Each level possesses a history and a literature of analysis and debate. The habitat includes the building and lot. The community is comprised of buildings, lots, streets, and blocks. Landscapes can be urban, suburban, rural, and wild. Regions are hodge-podges of landscapes, while the distinctions between regions, and often those between states and nations, are even more blurred. But there is less ambiguity about the ends of the Earth.
Each level ofhuman organization (nation, state, region, county, and city) is an element in a larger system, but is also comprised of smaller geographic units like neighborhoods and communities, which are, in turn, collections of single households. Home and work places form the habitats for people and are further divided into cells we call rooms. Hierarchy may be seen as a framework, a system of nested networks.
A critical feature of these nested networks is an asymmetric interaction in between levels. The larger, slower levels maintain constraints within which faster levels operate. There are, however, circumstances when slower and larger levels in ecosystems become briefly vulnerable to dramatic transformation because of small events and fast processes. Large, slow levels tend to keep things in place. Small, fast levels initiate changes when the larger levels are not functioning effectively.
Viewing the world hierarchically does not necessarily imply seeing it through a machine-like lens. Rather, it is to suggest components of a vocabulary to read our surroundings, our world.
Traditional ecology was commonly grounded in the assumption that somehow nature is in balance. Even the most casual observation of the human condition indicates that we are seldom balanced in our affairs. Nonequilibrium represents an important change in thinking. An equally, or perhaps even more important change derives from viewing environments at multiple, interacting scales. Landscape-level ecology, in particular, provides spatial form and function to nature's flows and human activities. New ecology, a deeper understanding of interactions at various scales, holds the prospect for better, although more complex, approaches to sustainable resource management, nature conservation, and environmental protection as well as the arts of environmental design and planning.
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