Want Better Urban Design? Ask an Ecologist

vernal pools study site plans
Graphic: Alexander Felson
After funding a $36,000 ecological study to clarify amphibian migration patterns, the developer of a 500-hectare housing development in Tuxedo, N.Y.  altered the original project (top), moving houses away from critical migration routes and using rain gardens instead of lawns to minimize overland stormwater flow and ensure groundwater recharge.
A few years ago, Alexander Felson was working as a design and ecological consultant on a housing development in suburban New York when he made a suggestion that raised the developer’s eyebrows.
Faced with a local planning board that had concerns about the potential environmental effects on nearby vernal pools and amphibian populations, Felson, now an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Architecture, urged the developer to spend $36,000 on a scientific study that would put their minds at ease.
He took some convincing, but the developer paid for the study, which addressed the local planners’ concerns and led to additional applied research, which yielded a final project that was more ecologically responsible, moving the homes away from amphibian migration routes, while preserving the number of housing units.
The project is one of four cases studies Felson cites in a new Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article, in which he makes the case that ecologists should become more involved in the design and implementation of urban development projects.
“When you build and modify the land, you’re modifying the ecological function and the viability of that ecosystem and the biodiversity associated with it,” Felson says. “And while the regulatory system addresses the relationship between developers and land use change to a degree, they fall short of translating ecological knowledge to practice. Ecologists have very little role in the decision-making process.”
While the regulatory system addresses the relationship between developers and land use change to a degree... ecologists have very little role in the decision-making process.
— Alexander Felson
He suggests that ecologists can take a more proactive part through so-called “designed experiments,” or projects that incorporate ecological research into traditional design and construction, a framework he says should aim to improve individual projects but also reveal greater insights into urban design.
“We’re proposing sustainable urbanism, but we don’t have data and information for what is functioning well and what is functioning poorly,” he said. “We’re at a stage where we need more experimentation and analysis to guide some of our decisions rather than simply implementing based on existing knowledge and practice.”
He concedes that many scientists might not be comfortable with the idea. But with a surge in urban development expected to continue over the next several generations, he suggests that ecologists can provide valuable input both through translating existing knowledge to inform decisions and through experimentation as means to guide and transform development in sustainable ways.
The article, “Promoting Earth Stewardship Through Urban Design Experiments,” which appears in the current issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, was co-authored by Mark A. Bradford and Timothy Terway, also of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Felson, Alexander J., Mark A. Bradford, and Timothy Terway. “Promoting Earth Stewardship Through Urban Design Experiments.” Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment (2013)
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
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PUBLISHED: September 4, 2013

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