I grew up in a world of rural nations where forests and farmland seemed infinite. Now most are urban nations. Indeed, at this moment the globe zooms over a threshold; half of us (three billion people) now aggregate in and around cities.

Yet the big change lies just ahead. In a single generation two billion more people are expected to join the urban population. Where will they live their lives? In much bigger and more numerous urban regions? Next door? Like an urban tsunami, easily visible today, we sweep swiftly and powerfully across our finite land.

For years I asked people in audiences to visualize the place where they grew up, and indicate whether it is better or worse now. Minds instantly left the room, speeding through images of memorable neighborhoods, glorious experiences, tough times, meaningful spots, and inspiring nature. Upon rapid return, virtually all audiences on different continents agreed: 80 to 90 % of their formative landscapes are worse today. Yet this trend could be turned around. Incremental solutions crowd our plate, while promising big-picture solutions increasingly appear, often ready for serious evaluation or action.

One of the great challenges of history has appeared, the giant urban region. At the center, a huge city population depends fundamentally and daily on resources that are out of sight, out of the city. An engineering and architectural marvel, the city expands at its edges or along transportation corridors or dispersed as sprawl. Too often expansion devours the city's closest and best resources, impoverishing both the land and the people. Proximity is value, as transportation cost, scarce clean water, local food sources, and tourism/recreational access emphasize. Aquifers supply clean water, greenways support walkers and wildlife, and floodplain vegetation reduces flood damage. Natural systems, from groundwater and wetlands to riparian zones and wooded parks, provide these valuable resources to society.

Four motifs with ever-changing harmonies cascade through the book's pages: (1) urban regions, rather than cities or all-built metropolitan areas, are the key big objects today and in our future; (2) natural systems, or simply nature, and human uses of them in an urban region are of major importance; (3) all regional characteristics are changing, driven by growing populations, more cities, and diverse urbanization patterns; (4) using principles and a rich array of existing solutions, society can significantly improve every distinctive urban region.

The book title provides further clues to content. ''Urban region" highlights the 150 to 200 km diameter (90 to 125 mile) area where a major city and its surroundings interact to effectively form a functional region. "Ecology" refers to interactions between plants/animals and the physical environment, though often the slightly broader concept of natural systems is used. "Planning," as used here, is about product (rather than process), the tangible arrangement of human pieces and natural systems that forms the big picture. ''Beyond the city" highlights patterns in the ring around the city. This book does not focus on the city, or all-built metropolitan area, or urban history, or socioeconomic dimensions, or mainstream urban planning, or town planning, or housing developments, or the methods of developing plans, or the implementation of plans, though, of course, bits of each appear. Finally, the book's perspective is global.

What are the benefits, and costs, of creating a globe with a scatter of huge growing urban powerhouses? Concentrating people helps protect natural and agricultural resources elsewhere. Economic growth often occurs in growing cities. Specialized resources such as the opera house and biotechnology center appear. But seemingly intractable problems multiply for cities, surrounding towns, villages, and farms. Natural systems are degraded, even eliminated. Floods and air pollutants are harder to control. As cities grow outward, alas, we keep traveling further and importing more of our needs, at greater cost.

A prominent sign adorns my office: ''Think Globally, Plan Regionally, and Then Act Locally." As a philosophic foundation for a 1995 piece on land management and planning, I was thinking mainly of geographic regions. I now realize the vision especially applies to urban regions.

Big ideas -- nationalism, hard-work-makes-productive-land, economic growth, environmentalism -- evolve, dominate, and are transformed or replaced over time. Will urban-region planning inevitably appear in this overlapping sequence? If so, where will the giant solutions be found? Unfortunately today most planners avoid emphasizing natural systems, and most ecologists avoid studying urban regions. That leaves a near void of directly useful models. Yet both ecologists and urban planners, along with economists, engineers, and architects, are well-equipped to contribute. Who would want to live in a major area planned or designed by only one of the group? Lack of planning might be better. But the full range of expertise would be best. Indeed, fitting together small pieces makes incremental progress, while overall success or failure depends fundamentally on addressing the big picture and the long term.

Why would I, with roots in ecology, write this book? In essence three foundations suddenly came neatly together. One is ecology, especially landscape ecology's spatial scientific focus on land and natural systems at the human scale. The second is more than two decades of Harvard teaching and learning from planners, designers, engineers, social scientists, humanists, and scientists. The third foundation is an intensive 15-month project developing a land-mosaic plan for the Greater Barcelona Region. Highlighting low-profile big problems, offering tangible steps for improvement, and outlining robust frameworks for real solutions are what ecologists in their finest hour do for society.

Imagine, one afternoon the head planner for Barcelona, a major European city, telephoned saying surprisingly that he had been reading my books and articles, and then two weeks later appeared during a family Thanksgiving holiday. We talked and sensed mutual respect. He asked me, in effect, to do an ecological and conceptual plan analysis for his whole urban region based on my recent book, the only model that made good sense to him. "But I'm a scientist, not a planner." Good. ''I've hardly ever been to Spain." No problem. "I've never been to Barcelona." Fine. ''I'll have to think about it." In three weeks you should meet the Mayor and get started. After an awkward seven-month dance I started. But how does one start? I never found a model or a real city plan highlighting natural systems and their human uses as major components, though valuable pieces did accumulate over time. With an impressive team in a magical place, the outlines of a promising land mosaic emerged.

Writing this book for the wide range of people interested in urban areas, plus the equally diverse array interested in ecological science, is tough. Ecologists are overwhelmingly rural, natural systems, plants/animals, water, and management oriented. In contrast, planners are overwhelmingly urban, economics, social, people, and policy oriented. Success also means reaching perceptive educated citizens who will live in, care about, and depend on tomorrow's urban region.

The chapters flow cascade-like through the book, until expanding with broader visions at the end. An unusual array of important foundations (Chapters 1 to 4) launches the reader into a close-up of 38 urban regions of large-to-small cities worldwide (Chapter 5). Numerous characteristics of nature, food, and water, plus built systems, built areas, and whole regions, are highlighted (Chapters 6 to 7). Then alternative urbanization models, also using many assays, identify good and bad patterns of change (Chapter 8). More pieces are added -- a set of basic principles, the detailed Barcelona case study -- and gathered together as key components for a land mosaic (Chapters 9 to 11). Finally, urban-region ecology and planning beyond the city is analyzed in the context of broader big-picture perspectives (Chapter 12).

Lots of promising patterns and trends, plus pitfalls to avoid, emerge for the thousands of distinctive urban regions worldwide. But no single solution is proposed, other than urban-region planning for natural systems and us. Rather, a richness of spatial patterns and principles are portrayed together, ready for readers to arrange, add their own ingredients, and create a land mosaic framework or vision for an urban region. The patterns represent handles for wise planning.

With fire in the belly and a dash of optimism, I expect to see more of the world on a trajectory meshing nature and people so they both thrive . . . and I can't wait.

In addressing the great urban-region challenge of history, this book simply helps get the window open a crack to grasp broader horizons. Insights, solutions, big problems, and surprises lie in wait for the reader.

Land as capital, heritage, nature, as investment, inspiration, home. All finite, all requiring care. So, add planning and ecology as wisdom, for nature's future, our future.

Richard T. T. Forman

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