Seattle street Credit: Chuck Wolfe
Successful integration of nature and the city is a hallmark of sustainability. Sometimes it occurs without effort or provocation, while other times it results from projects or plans. In both instances, the natural and artificial merge, morph and redefine urban reality going forward.
One evening last month my dog and I had a spontaneous meeting with an urban coyote who, for several moments, owned my Seattle neighborhood pavement with conviction. Upon rounding a corner and coming face-to-face, the coyote cast a long stare (with those "I am not a pet" eyes I once saw in Africa), turned around, and moved on. For this feral, walkable urbanist, the city sidewalk was clearly as customary a migration route as wooded paths or the open plain.
Several recent articles call the growing presence of coyotes in urban areas an indicator of changing relationships between the city and larger, surrounding ecosystems. Whether you see them as pests or cool interlopers, coyotes are increasingly sharing (PDF) our places and spaces.
A landscape architect friend used the coyote-city integration as an example of how surrounding nature merges with urban culture and physical form, two things that need not be as distinct as we might expect. That night in Seattle I saw a spontaneous integration of nature and the city without any "urban sustainability plan" in place to allow indigenous wildlife safe passage on city streets. The sidewalk was an animal corridor, plain and simple, a mainstay of this coyote's urban transportation.
This "city in nature" is not the same as calculated insertions of "nature in the city," where artificial edifices are systematically undone and replaced with fundamental green. I recently saw a good example of this while touring the Madrid Rio Project (PDF) by bicycle. The Project, a large-scale linear park was built over the old M-30 motorway. The roadway was relocated within a submerged tunnel, which allowed for restoration of the Manzanares River.
In Madrid, I spoke with another landscape architect about what it means to reprogram places from built to natural. In particular, we discussed the former motorway ramp (shown here) that was transformed into greened pedestrian space, taking advantage of its elegant (and once auto-centric) river-hugging form and artful curve. He explained the approach: at core, there is nothing natural in the city, he said, and anything we can do that resonates with the public and creates a sustainable result, is defensible, proper and legitimate.
Through the experiences described here, and the respective views of the two landscape architects, I’ve learned more than expected about the ways urban and natural systems can merge and redefine. Whether nature embraces the city with coyotes exploiting urban infrastructure, or reclamation projects inserting natural elements into the urban core, such as in Madrid, there are some things to keep in mind:
- The intersection of nature and the urban environment is an elemtal theme for urban ecologists and landscape architects, for whom habitat restoration often plays a key project role.
- As championed by Harvard Professor Joan Busquets, the most sustainable cities integrate natural geography and systems into the urban fabric.
- The first landscape architect I spoke with above is right in his observation that nature, culture and physical form, once separated, now merge more easily.
- The second landscape architect is also right; there are many ways to introduce natural elements into built environments, and innovations — from greened ramps to restored beaches to vertical gardens — need not honor authenticity or precedent in order to resonate. They just need to be done sustainably.
In the end, watching the coyote stroll along the Seattle sidewalk also taught me that while there is arguably little that could be considered natural in our constructed cities, nature and the city will continue to realign. In fact, before too long, in our own cities, versions of Madrid’s green, re-purposed motorway ramp may atttact some non-human users too.