Building with nature: Ecological design for next-generation cities

November 13, 2015

The Ecological Society of America turns 100 this year, with many reflections on the achievements of the discipline and the big questions for ecologists as we embark on a new century marked by great environmental upheaval. ESA's journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment celebrates the centennial of the society with perspectives on the potential for ecological science to influence the design of the next generation cities and their infrastructure.

The November 2015 Special Issue on Innovations in the face of climate change examines innovations big and small, from massive technological installations like Rotterdam's proposed next generation Dutch Windwheel to municipal planning and the individual construction and land use choices of city residents.

"Cities are emergent systems, with only 5 to 7 thousand years of history, mostly during the relative climatic stability of the Holocene," said guest editor Kristina Hill, an associate professor at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design. "We've never tried to operate a city during a rapid climate change, especially not on the scale of population we now have, with our largest cities housing upwards of 20 million people."

New problems require new approaches that strive for harmony rather than control. Hill sees opportunities to solve problems created or accentuated by climate change by hybridizing the concrete-and-steel structures we have been designing for hundreds of years with living systems.

The articles in the November special issue tackle physical, legal, social, and technological interfaces with natural systems.

"It's not about the preciousness of some rare thing that lives far, far away. It's about the water and the wind and the plants in your city," said Hill. "While we've observed that nature can be fragile, we've forgotten that nature is powerful. Our alterations of the planet's climate are going to bite us in the rear end, in the near future it will be up to us to accommodate nature. I find that refreshing."

Hill wants to start a cultural revolution in our relationship with natural systems, working with, rather than against, the force of tides, floods, and storms, and inviting non-human life into our living spaces. Ecosystem services have clear practical benefits. Vegetation brings cleaner air and water as cooler summer temperatures, and as well as beauty, recreational space, and habitat for our non-human neighbors into cities. Making the rhythms of natural systems visible also helps city dwellers connect with the natural world.

"Through ecology, we learn what it is to be human by learning about what is not human. Understanding human experience through other forms of life is so significant and fundamental," said Hill. "Ecology is literally, etymologically, about the house. The problem of climate change is going to bring ecology home. We are talking to people about how they live--their houses. If we all live differently, we can change the world."
Innovations in the face of climate change. (2015) Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Volume 13, Issue 9. (Open access).

Guest Editor: Kristina Hill, University of California, Berkeley

In this issue:Funding: This Special Issue was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (grant # DEB-1541324).

The Ecological Society of America (ESA), founded in 1915, is the world's largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes six journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society's Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at

Ecological Society of America

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