Blog

Blue Urbanism: Connecting Cities and the Nature of Oceans

Monday, June 9th, 2014 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

While we are increasingly the planet of cities, we must not forget that we live and share space on the blue planet. We rarely put these two realms (or words) together, but we must begin to. By some estimates, two-thirds of our global population lies within 400 kilometers of a shoreline. As oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer, Sylvia Earle, wrote in her important book, The World is Blue, “Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.” (Earle, 2010)

There are dangers associated with rising sea levels, of course, presenting a need to grow and plan cities in ways that better respect these increasingly dynamic edges. But we are drawn to water, to the sights, sounds, smells of marine environments, and there is a deep biophilic impulse and need at work here that visiting the seashore starts to satisfy. There is at once calmness and intensity and a mysterious world just beyond our reach. Research by Michael DePledge and his team at Exeter University demonstrates what we have always known, which is that we enjoy visual and physical proximity to water and that these settings deliver immense emotional and therapeutic benefit (DePledge and Bird, 2009; Wheeler, et al 2012).

Our human fate here on the blue planet is, not surprisingly, intimately tied to ocean health. And oceans are suffering in many ways—acidification and other impacts of global warming, industrial over-harvesting of fish and seafood, the accumulation of the immense detritus and pollution of modern life, from plastics to chemicals to crude oil.

Is there a chance that growing cities can muster their wealth, creativity and political influence to come to the aid of oceans? The vision of Blue Urbanism (the subject of my new book) suggests yes! From the redesign of coastal edges and the promise of blue urban design, to new approaches of promoting sustainable, local seafood, to a variety of ways to build new emotional connections to the sea, there is much that cities can do.

blueurbanism

At the heart of an urban-ocean agenda is the belief that cities, and the people who inhabit them, can and must exert the leadership needed to protect, conserve and care for the marine world. It is in our self-interest to do so, of course, but there is a broader ethical duty to the immense marine life found there and to all the life on the planet that depends on healthy oceans.

How then, and in what ways, can cities be profoundly ocean-friendly? What does a deep blue urbanism suggest about the ways in which we occupy space near oceans and the many different ways in which urban consumption and lifestyle impact the ocean world? Oceans, moreover, harbor immense amounts of biodiversity, and hold the promise of stoking our collective sense of wonder and enhancing in important ways the quality and meaning of our lives.

How to foster emotional bonds and connectedness between urbanites and oceans is a challenge.  For many cities, from Seattle to San Francisco to Singapore, ocean nature is a big part of the nearby nature, and there are many wonderful opportunities to educate and also enhance quality of life and meaning in these cities. Whether through citizen science programs or public education efforts, there is much that can be done and is being done already. Beach Naturalists in Seattle are helping visitors learn about the marine organisms they see at low tide, amateur scuba divers are monitoring and helping to restore kelp forests off the coast of Los Angeles, and citizens along many coastlines are monitoring water quality through the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force.

wellyfinal

The Taputeranga Marine Reserve, on the south coast of Wellington, New Zealand, and some of the marine life there.
(Photo credit: Tim Beatley)

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” might be one way to describe why we give less priority to oceans. We simply lack the daily imagination to fully appreciate the nature that lies beneath and around when we only have modest glimpses into the water world when a harbor seal or whale provides a glimpse of the mystery there.

One way ocean-friendly cities can help is by supporting research that uncovers and sheds new knowledge on and appreciation for the marine biodiversity and nature around it. Singapore, a Partner City in the Biophilic Cities Project, is the midst of a comprehensive marine biodiversity survey that has already resulted in identification of  14  species of marine life that are likely new to science.  This marine inventory is wonderfully described by Lena Chan in a recent Nature of Cities post.  Other cities have taken similar steps. Wellington, New Zealand, another partner city, sponsored the world’s first Marine BioBlitz in 2007, which took place over the course of a month and also discovered new species.

New technologies make it possible for cities to participate directly in the collection of important ocean data. A company called Liquid Robotics now sells a kind of sea-faring surf board, called Wave Glider, which can be set off on months-long journeys. Propelled forward using the power of waves, the Glider collects a variety of data which could be sent back to and displayed in prominent places (such as city hall? elementary school classrooms?). Cities rarely see themselves as co-generators of knowledge, but could begin to, by helping to drive the push to wire, and better understand, the ocean realm in important ways.

Could coastal cities (especially) begin to understand that part of their mission is the advancement of knowledge about the marine realms on which they are perched? Similar to establishing the position of municipal archeologist (not uncommon these days), cities could expand their roles to include marine research and scientific data collection. Perhaps a “hard sell” to make in times of limited budgets, but I can imagine forward-looking cities investing in their own research vessel, ROV (or remotely-operated vehicle, essentially a tethered submersible), a smart buoy, or a Benthic Lander (that sits on the sea floor and collects sediment and other data).

There are other ways to foster ocean connections, for instance through art in the city. For several months, we had the pleasure of living in Fremantle, the port city in Western Australia. It is a city alive with the images and shapes and forms of the marine world, integrated into the design of buildings, bus stop waiting structures, even cemented into sidewalks. The floor of the city hall boasts a most impressive tile mosaic that features a stingray and hammerhead shark. It is possible also that we might be able to create creative real time visual and aural connections to underwater environments, such as  the windows at the Ballard Locks in Seattle, which allow visitors to see migrating salmon, or the underwater dive-cam at a ship wreck near Albany, Western Australia, that provides a 24-hour window onto this world.

I like the idea of harnessing the power of our now-ubiquitous hand-held technology to foster new connections, such as through smartphone applications like Whale Alert and Shark Net. In the case of the latter, one can select and follow a specific tagged shark, monitoring their movements over time (the brainchild of Stanford marine biologist Barbara Block).

fremantle1

In the port city of Fremantle, in Western Australia, images of the marine world are found everywhere, even on the floor of the lobby of city hall. (Photo credit: Tim Beatley)

fremantle2

Marine Life depicted in Fremantle, Western Australia.
(Photo credit: Tim Beatley)

fremantle3

Marine Life depicted in Fremantle, Western Australia.
(Photo credit: Tim Beatley)

A major challenge, and a necessary step towards blue urbanism, is to re-define the spatial bounds and borders of cities. In many cases, city governments will have limited jurisdictional authority, with state and federal levels having the lion’s share of control, for instance over establishing new marine parks and protected areas. Nevertheless, cities can again assume leadership and begin to re-define the spatial bounds of their planning, taking into account the immense natural majesty and marine biodiversity, often just a few meters away from shore’s edge. Depicting this marine nature in some form on planning maps and diagrams would be a helpful step, as well as a variety of other steps that would acknowledge, celebrate and otherwise make visible this urban nature.

Fostering a pride of place about marine nature is an essential step. I had the chance to interview Brian Meux, Marine Program Manager for LA Waterkeeper.  “My dream,” he told me, “is that people here [in Los Angeles] are as proud of our kelp forests as Hawaiians are of their coral reefs.”  Pride about, indeed even basic knowledge of, the marine nature near to where many city residents live is limited and the chance to develop that pride of place has been limited as well.

Despite these limitations, there is immense ocean nature near many coastal cities. There are the near shore environments, and many biologically diverse and unique habitats are only a boat ride away. Along the mid-Atlantic US coast, for instance, there are a series of major submarine canyons, often taking the names of the nearest city. The Norfolk Canyon, for instance, is one of the largest—and about 60 miles offshore from Tidewater Virginia. Known to deep sea fishers, few residents of the city of Norfolk probably even know of its existence, nevertheless the nature it harbors (though there is some information on display at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center and a local brewing company O’Connor Brewing that produces a Norfolk Canyon Pale Ale!). This submarine canyon is home to a great quantity and diversity of organisms and habitats (from Blackbelly Rosefish to Bubblegum Coral to Bobtail Squid).

The spatial planning vision a city holds and promotes is important as well, and here there are a handful of cities beginning to extend their visions to include the aquatic and marine worlds. Wellington, New Zealand has had a Town Belt dating back to the founding of the city in the mid-1800’s and in more recent years has developed an extensive network of greenbelts that surround this city. Impressively, the city has begun to expand this vision to include the Blue Belt, encompassing the harbor, and other offshore ocean habitats, as well as ocean-flowing creeks and streams, in this peninsular-shaped city. Precisely what the Blue Belt will mean in practice, what implications it will have for planning and what specific actions will flow from it are still a bit unclear. But as an expanded new vision of the nature and spatial planning boundaries of this city, it is quite powerful. The mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown, is herself a diver and so it is perhaps not a surprise that Wellington would be a pioneer in this approach.

In a film made as part of our Biophilic Cities Project, Mayor Wade-Brown speaks passionately about the importance of this connection to the ocean realm to Wellingtonians:

When I visited Wellington in August 2013, I had the chance to see firsthand the efforts in this city to educate about and foster connections with the ocean environment. On the south coast of the city sits the Taputeranga Marine Reserve, a 9 square kilometer protected area, only a short distance from the center of Wellington. A biologically rich area, its location includes overlap of three major currents. The diversity of life here is amazing, with some 400 different species of seaweed. There are many different ways to enjoy this nature, including through a “snorkel trail,” where one might see starfish or limpets or anemone. Or, through “rock pooling,” exploring the shallow and deep rock pools along the edge of the shore.

I had the chance to visit the City’s Marine Education Centre located there, and to see the ways in which visiting children, many quite young, were enjoying the Centre’s touch tanks. There were volunteers on hand to allay fears about touching things and to convey to kids some of the fascinating organisms they were seeing and experiencing. The overall feeling that day was one of elation and joy and you could see in the faces of these kids an innate glee and delight at experiencing a little part of the mysterious marine world in which their city and home were embedded. There has been a strong effort over the years to integrate the center and reserve into the education of Wellington children. Staff of the Education Centre regularly visit Wellington schools, as well as host visitors at the center.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 4.33.55 PM

The touch tanks at the Island Bay Marine Education Centre in Wellington, where kids can experience marine life up close.
(Photo credits: Tim Beatley)

What else could blue cities do? Some ideas include:

–Speak out for ocean conservation and marine organisms and habitats; find ways to provide urban leadership for ocean conservation;

–Cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop and implement an aggressive climate change action plan;

–Reduce nonpoint and other pollutants and their impacts on coastal waters;

–Sponsor research of the marine biodiversity and ecosystems, nearby and not-so-nearby;

–Develop green ports and green port/marina facilities and practices;

–Support and subsidize the development of Community Supported Fisheries (CSF’s, that build connections between consumers and local fishermen) and closed-loop, aquaponic systems that have the potential to reduce some of the pressures on global fisheries;

–Create and subsidize programs that make it easier and more affordable to sail, scuba dive, and otherwise enjoy the marine environment;

–Teach students in schools about oceans, and help all citizens reach a minimum “oceans literacy”

–Work to understand the many ways that local consumption and lifestyle choices impact oceans and seek new ways to reduce these impacts;

One of my favorite ideas, though admittedly a bit unusual, is the notion of a city establishing one or more “ocean sister cities.” It might be a seamount or canyon, or a coral reef community, but adopting and embracing one or more specific spots on the ocean, getting to know it intimately, visiting and studying it, if possible, might build bonds of caring and friendship, in ways similar to conventional sister cities.

There are many things that cities, both coastal and inland, can do to educate and raise awareness about the marine world, and to exert leadership on its behalf. These are but a few ideas.

What else could cities do to further deepen their commitments to the blue? What is your city already doing that makes it ocean-friendly?

Please let me know: beatley@virginia.edu, and visit blueurbanism.org.

References

Beatley, Timothy, 2014. Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections Between Cities and Oceans, Washington, DC: Island Press.

Earle, Sylvia. 2010. The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One, Washington, DC: National Geographic.

DePledge, Michael and William Bird, 2009. “The Blue Gym: Health and Wellbeing From Our Coasts,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, Vol 58, pp.947-948.

Wheeler, Benedict, et al, 2012. “Does Living By The Coast Improve Health and Wellbeing?” Health and Place, Vol 18, pp.1198-1201.

Post by Tim Beatley


Previous Posts


Connecting Health-Nature-Economy: Birmingham’s Emerging Model*

19 May 2014 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Cities today face a myriad of issues, from very bad air quality, to the need to adapt to climate change, to a variety of health-related problems including diet, rising obesity and a lack of physical activity. These are complex and challenging issues to deal with and one potential solution is to explore and develop more […]

Continue Reading


Biophilic Birmingham

19 May 2014 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

In early April, I traveled to Birmingham, UK, to celebrate its intentions to become that nation’s first biophilic city. It was a heady few days, coinciding with a large national conference on Trees, People and the Built Environment (TPBEII).  A pre-conference symposium was organized by the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Advanced Studies to begin […]

Continue Reading


Sutton Park: Wild in the City

19 May 2014 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Sutton Park is described on the City of Birmingham’s webpage as “delivering a sense of wilderness with an urban environment.” Sutton Park, in its size and natural qualities, certainly conveys a wildness, but is also a landscape that reflects thousands of years of human alteration and habitation. It is an unusual mix of history and […]

Continue Reading


Biophilic Cities for Health

31 March 2014 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Few modern challenges are as vexing as health, and as costly it seems.  And the modern dimensions are many, from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, to the rise in depression, to the continuing toll of cancer. In the US we spend an astounding $2.8 Trillion on health care, nearly 18% of our GDP, and yet we […]

Continue Reading


Launching the Global Biophilic Cities Network

20 December 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

By Tim Beatley From October 17-20, 2013, the Biophilic Cities Launch convened an impressive group of urban leaders from around the country and the world. The conference was a significant step forward for our work developing the concepts of biophilic cities and biophilic urbanism, and extending and applying these concepts around the world   It was […]

Continue Reading


Biophilic Urbanism On The Rise

02 October 2013 | Biophilic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

We need nature even more these days. As we increasingly live in cities, nature delivers a potent remedy to many of the environmental, economic (and emotional) challenges living in cities today presents. To address this, a new approach to urbanism has arisen – a “biophilic” urbanism – which assumes that contact with nature and the […]

Continue Reading


Resilient Cities and Adaptive Law Pt 4: Adaptation & Resilient Cities

22 August 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

This is the fourth of four parts about resilient cities and adaptive law. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here.)  In a recent Environmental Law Reporter article, “Adaptive Law and Resilience,” resilience scientist Lance Gunderson and I have identified aspects of the U.S. legal system that are maladaptive to interconnected nonlinear change in […]

Continue Reading


Resilient Cities & Adaptive Law Pt 3: Private Property Rights & Resilient Cities

15 August 2013 | Biophilic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

(This is the third of four parts about resilient cities and adaptive law by guest columnist, Tony Arnold. Read part 1 and part 2 here.) In a recent Environmental Law Reporter article, “Adaptive Law and Resilience,” resilience scientist Lance Gunderson and I have identified aspects of the U.S. legal system that are maladaptive to interconnected […]

Continue Reading


Growing Food in the Biophilic City

05 August 2013 | Biophilic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Growing food is one of the most biophilic activities there is, with the potential to connect us with terra firma and to one another. Growing food involves knowledge of weather, water and nutrient cycles, and place. It means being outside, engaging in physical exercise and activity, and it delivers positive emotional and psychological benefits.  Food-producing gardens […]

Continue Reading


A Box Turtle Returns Home

08 July 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

The story of our box turtle began about 6 months ago, when while hiking along our neighborhood creek, we encountered an off-leash dog carrying something that looked to be large in his mouth.  The dog was having some fun tossing this object around, but we soon realized to our horror that it wasn’t a rock […]

Continue Reading


Part 2: Biophilia is Catching in the Nation’s Capital

01 July 2013 | Biophilic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

(This article is second in a two-part series on Biophilia in Washington, DC, written by Stella Tarnay.  Click here to read Part 1.) Here in the nation’s capital, a movement is afoot to bring nature into the direct experience of residents and for the benefit of the overall environment. Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork […]

Continue Reading


Nature in Our Alleys

25 June 2013 | Biophilic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

One key premise of our concept of Biophilic Cities is that nature is (and ought to be) all around us, nearby and readily accessible. We should not have to make a long trip to enjoy birds, trees and greenery. It should be in our neighborhoods. Increasingly cities are finding creative ways to transform leftover spaces, […]

Continue Reading


Part 1: Biophilia is Catching in the Nation’s Capital

15 June 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Last month a fox was sighted at Logan Circle, one of the Washington, DC’s bustling residential neighborhoods. A wild turkey, part of a flock that lives at the former Civil War encampment Fort Dupont Park, found its way to the windows of downtown law firms, setting off a flurry of tweets and speculation. This spring […]

Continue Reading


Insect City

13 June 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

In the hubris of our human position, we forget sometimes that it is the smaller life forms that make everything possible for us.   In his eloquent book The Creation, E.O. Wilson writes, “more respect is due the little things that run the world.” Insects, after all, make up the lion’s share of the world’s species and […]

Continue Reading


Hampstead Heath & the Creative City

01 May 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Lately, there has been much talk about the creative power of cities—the churning mix of people and energy, of face-to-face personal contact and interaction. New ideas, cutting-edge concepts and innovative technologies are likely to find their source in urban environments, and this is welcome news in an ever-urbanizing planet. But nature is an equally potent […]

Continue Reading


Urban Rivers of Life

26 March 2013 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

There are few natural features as important as rivers and streams in defining cities, in shaping sense of place, and in connecting us with nature. Many cities began their histories, and owe their economic fortunes, to proximity to rivers. Yet urban rivers have often been abused and undervalued, and we have been more likely to […]

Continue Reading


What Can You Do in Nature? Organize a Gnome Home Build!

27 November 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

I am often confronted with the struggle between being outside and spending time in nature versus the myriad of indoor activities and distractions of modern living. We have countless manners of indoor entertainment–from internet surfing (which seems to involve its own special form of temporal black hole), to computer games, to on-demand movies–available in our […]

Continue Reading


From Cream City to Green City: Milwaukee, On the Move

30 October 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Milwaukee is perhaps best known for its beers and its brewing history. While most of its breweries are now gone, it is a city innovating in many other areas, forging new models for urban sustainability and greening.  I had the chance to see these initiatives for myself on a visit to the city in August […]

Continue Reading


Rachel Carson’s Biophilic Legacy

10 October 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Fifty years ago this month, Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book Silent Spring - arguably the book that launched the modern environmental movement. Despite victories along the way, we seem to have learned relatively little in that fifty years about the impacts of recklessly sending chemicals into our natural environment. Carson would be astounded and likely quite angry […]

Continue Reading


Perth, Australia: expanding our “moral footprint” with animals in cities

22 August 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Last summer I had the chance to interview Marnie Giroud, who works for the Swan River Trust, in Perth, Western Australia. Marnie runs an interesting program called Dolphin Watch, that trains residents to be citizen scientists and to monitor and report about the resident population of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins.  There are presently about 25 dolphins […]

Continue Reading


San Francisco – A Partner City

10 August 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

  by Scott Edmondson, AICP, San Francisco Planning Department What is the difference between a green city and a biophilic one? After all, San Francisco, like  other top green cities (Portland, Seattle, etc.) has many green features. What more could be needed? What difference would a biophilic approach make? The short answer might be that […]

Continue Reading


Wild Urbanism: Deep Connections to Forest + Fjord in Oslo

01 August 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Oslo feels a bit sleepy in early July.  This is partly because it is prime vacation season here.  I had the chance to visit Oslo, my second trip, to further explore its biophilic qualities, to hear about recent projects and progress, and to explore partnerships with the city. In meetings with staff from climate and […]

Continue Reading


Greening and Growing the Leftover Spaces of a City

20 July 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Vacant lots, widespread in many American cities, offer unique opportunities to insert diverse forms of nature into existing urban fabric. Philadelphia, a case in point, has over 40,000 vacant sites within an urban area that is greatly lacking green space and is plagued with storm-water issues.  In recent years, Philly has developed impressive plans, including […]

Continue Reading


Bicycling to the Nature Around Us

11 July 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Bicycling around the Netherlands is a real treat and an unusual experience for an American like me. The Dutch are famous for their love of bicycles, of course, and they have a very pragmatic view of them—they are not unlike umbrellas or backpacks, essential urban equipment for getting to and from work, and for taking […]

Continue Reading


Via Verde: Density, Health and Nature

22 June 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Is it possible to build densely in cities but also ensure access to nature? A terrific new development in the South Bronx, in New York City, is showing the way. There was a time not that long along when the Bronx was literally burning. It was a place where, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, high […]

Continue Reading


Singapore: City in a Garden

04 June 2012 | Biophliic Cities
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

There has been unprecedented priority given in recent years to sustainable cities and green building (a very positive trend), but too often the result are places that are not especially green in the literal sense. While not a perfect story, there are few dense cities in the world today that can claim a better record […]

Continue Reading