Encountering the title of this book by Richard Forman, my first reaction was one of surprise. It is commonplace, of course, that cities are embedded in natural systems, but the modern city seems such a triumph of modern technology over the constraints of nature that one can easily understand why urban planners have rarely found it necessary to spend much time talking with urban ecologists -- or, to state it another way, why ecology and urban planning have remained quite separate domains of inquiry and action in the modern division of labor.
Ecology, a branch of biological sciences, strives to understand relationships of interdependence in the natural world, and (while not at heart activist) at times to devise strategies for their preservation. As such, of course, it informs environmental regulators and thereby places some constraints on development activity. Urban planning, on the other hand, exists to provide analysis in the service of action, and its principal concerns historically have been economic -to pursue and facilitate development while striving as well to preserve and enhance the market value of existing property investments. Planners have other concerns as well, to be sure, such as improved public health, social equity, and an attractive public realm -- all of which have vital ecological dimensions. So one would be hard-pressed indeed to find a planner who disagreed with the proposition that good plans must be ecologically sound. This agreement has traditionally had a ritualistic quality, however, in that, with rare exceptions, planners have viewed ecological values mainly as constraints -- to be addressed late in their analyses, particularly at the behest of environmental regulators -rather than at the very core of their mission. And they have rarely viewed ecol-ogists as indispensable participants in their deliberations from the outset.
Richard Forman would change all that, and the argument he lays out in this volume is compelling. Though modern technologies are dazzling, he observes, having enabled us to separate urban residents from their sources of nourishment, potable water, and even jobs, by greater distances than would ever have been imaginable in earlier times, the "tsunami" of urban growth now threatens widespread disaster. With three billion people living in urban areas, and two billion more expected within the next quarter-century, with global warming, with energy demand rising more rapidly than energy production (the latter, moreover, often with devastating environmental effects), and with the continuing depletion of fresh water supplies and biodeversity -- we seem to be racing beyond the capacities of our technological ingenuity to shield us from the natural limits of our environment. It is past time, in short, for urban planners and policy makers to recognize ecological health as the single most urgent value to be served by urban planning - without which all the others are likely to prove illusory before too many more decades pass.
Forman's analysis is global, greatly enhancing its power. He examines 38 regions in 32 countries, representing most of the variety of large cities and regions throughout the world, and reports as well on a detailed case example of ecologically focused urban planning in Barcelona, a pioneering effort that he personally led in 2001-2002. The latter provides a truely eye-opening example of big-picture planning, carried out at the behest of Barcelona's mayor and chief planner, to preserve the critical natural assets of that region and direct its development for generations to come in ways that minimize environmental degradation. What emerges clearly from this exercise is that there need not be a major conflict between the objectives of ecological health and economic development, but that one had better focus on the ecology early on if there is to be much hope of reconciling them in the end.
In brief, though written by an ecologist, this is very much a book for urban planners, policy-makers, and all others who care seriously about the future of urban life on this planet. Moving to implement Forman's ideas will be a formidable challenge indeed, even in those very rare enlightened jurisdisctions with planning traditions comparable to Barcelona's, and vastly more so everywhere else. But global transformations invariably begin in the realm of ideas. And Forman here lays out a very big one. Planners and urban policy-makers everywhere, take heed!
Alan A. Altshuler
Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor in Urban Policy and Planning, Harvard University *
* Also: formerly Secretary, Massachussetts Department of Transportation; formerly Director, Taubman Center for State and Local Government, Kennedy School of Government; formerly Dean of the Faculty of Design, Harvard University.
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