The city as ecosystem

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 1:16 am, September 17th, 2007 | Topic: cities, oakland, books

This evening on the radio there was a short discussion of the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, and how it has revitalized the ecosystem in some indirect ways: aspens are now growing to maturity for the first time since the wolves were first eliminated in the 1920’s, because a reduced elk population no longer kills all the trees in their early years. The renewed health of trees and shrubs has reduced stream erosion and increased beaver dams. Any change to a complex system ramifies in unpredictable ways.

This got me thinking about the city as a kind of ecosystem, in which changes to one part of the system have repurcussions that may be unexpected and seemingly unrelated. The idea of the city as an ecosystem isn’t new. As the late urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in an introduction to her indispensable book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

The two sorts of ecosystems–one created by nature, the other by human beings–have fundamental principles in common. For instance, both types of ecosystems–assuming they are not barren–require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways.

Recognizing the organic, interdependent nature of cities is a source of both optimism and caution. On the one hand, it means that small positive changes can have beneficial effects that are broader than anticipated. On the other hand, it means that well-meaning policies can have unintended negative consequences, and that public policy is only one little piece of a complex system that no single institution or government can ultimately control.

Cars parked on sidewalkViewed in this light, little annoyances like sidewalks being used as parking lots (my own pet peeve) take on more significance. (It’s no accident that the first three chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities all have “sidewalks” in their titles.) The block shown to the right is an extreme example, and the sidewalk parking may be more tolerated there because it is a dead-end street, but I often find myself having to walk out into the street to get around illegally parked cars. Anything that discourages people from walking is damaging to the safety and vitality of a city — having more people out on the streets makes an area more hospitable to local businesses and less hospitable to crime. Reduced crime in turn will make people more likely to walk, further increasing commerce and reducing crime.

There’s no magic bullet that changes a neighborhood from blight to vibrancy, but a myriad of small factors combine to reach a critical mass that can have transformative effects. Encouraging people to get out of their cars and onto their feet would be a good place to start. Not only is walking around a city one of life’s great pleasures, but it’s good for the city, good for the environment, and good for one’s health. What’s not to love?

This is not to say that sidewalk-parking is one of Oakland’s major problems, but that is exactly the point: small, seemingly insignificant things like obstructed sidewalks or lack of crosswalks can have ripple effects in the character of a neighborhood. Much of Oakland’s 154-page Pedestrian Master Plan is devoted to the small details of sidewalk and crosswalk design. But what good is a well-designed sidewalk when it is being used as a garage?

To take another example, The Town notes slow police response times and asks, “I wonder about the psychological effect of letting all of those little things slip through the cracks. How does it feel when you call the police and no one comes?” Aside from the more obvious benefits of an increased police force, the so-called “broken window” theory says that attention to small quality-of-life issues can help a city reach a tipping point in fighting crime. Responding quickly to calls about a stolen bicycle or a car break-in may not seem very important, but residents with no faith in basic public safety are more likely to move out of the city, or drive instead of walking, or shop at a mall in a suburb instead of stores in their own neighborhood. You can’t overestimate the cumulative effects of thousands of people making all those individual decisions.

Seeing a city as an ecosystem also serves as a reminder that power is decentralized. Ron Dellums has gotten a lot of grief for offering feel-good words instead of substantive changes, but one thing I agree with him about is that city hall and police headquarters can only accomplish so much on their own. Dedications of peace poles and block parties may seem silly as the city approaches 100 homicides so far this year, but every person who chats with a neighbor and every family that visits a local park plays a tiny but essential role in making their neighborhood a little less dangerous and a little less desolate. Zoning and policing don’t create communities — they only help create the conditions under which communities can flourish. Ultimately it’s the everyday habits of the residents that make all the difference.