.|  Baltimore Ecosystem Study
Why Deal with Urban Design in an Ecological Research Program?
Steward Pickett
 

Brian McGrath leads students on tour of Gwynns Falls, 2005.
Photo: Steward Pickett


Steward Pickett explains riparian ecosystems to Columbia students at the Gynns Falls trail, 2005.
Photo: Mary Cadenasso
The Baltimore Ecosystem Study has matured since its inception to embrace new disciplines and professions. This is natural and healthy for an interdisciplinary research project, so I am happy to flag the establishment of a new working group, the BES Urban Design Working Group, chaired by architect and urban designer Brian McGrath. This working group made its debut via the Quarterly Science Meeting in June, 2005.
 
Why should an ecologically based urban research and education project include design? The short answer is that urban design contributes to each of the three main goals of BES: research, education, and community engagement. How does it make these contributions?
 
Design in relevant to BES research because cities are, at least to some extent, designed systems. Even where the whole is not designed, the individual elements of metropolitan areas are designed, and the structure of the whole, and the interactions among the built elements is affected by their design. In other words, urban design has a great deal to do with the spatial structure of the metropolis. Recall that one of the guiding questions of BES asks about the spatial structure of the urban ecosystem, the interaction among different kinds of structures - biological, geophysical, social and built - and the change in those structures through time. Understanding the spatial structure of the city, suburbs, and hinterlands is instrumental in understanding the bioecological and social functions in the metropolis. Design makes and alters both the built and green facets of urban structure.
 
In linking urban design and ecology, we can follow the same approach that was used to establish the interdisciplinary framework for BES. For example, the founders of BES articulated key “hooks” that linked bioecological and hydrological theories, and bioecological and social theories. This was slow work at first, and required patience, clarity, and continued dialog. Therefore, articulating the assumptions, frameworks, and principles of the design disciplines is an important step in achieving a theoretical integration. A second approach is to conduct joint empirical and modeling projects across disciplinary boundaries. These two approaches can be facilitated by our urban design working group. The conversation begun at our June Science Meeting is a first step in that linkage. The urban design work in BES can ultimate result in conceptual integration as well as practical projects that involve both designers and scientists.
 
Urban design can also serve as a tool for education. Design is a complex collection of disciplines, ranging from planning, to landscape architecture, and architecture. It touches on so many features of the metropolis that it has great relevance for education. The interaction of BES researchers with the urban design studio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is one example of an educational activity. We hope that other design schools will find connections with BES researchers useful. However, design can address the educational needs of other levels as well. The visions that elementary school students participating in KidsGrow have articulated for their school yards are an example of an entry point for design to link with ecology in education. Ecological and social principles can be explored through the process of design, and the discussion of alternative designs in schools and non-formal educational settings.
 



Steward Pickett and students at Middle Branch Park, 2005.
Finally, design is a real way to engage communities. Community engagement is of course the third major project goal of BES. The thinning of the central city and the expansion and densification of the suburban fringe both generate opportunities to explore new, ecologically based urban designs. Involving communities in ecological urban design discussions and evaluation provides an exciting possibility for dialog. If researchers pursue this connection, it will provide them a way to be involved in reinvisioning and ramaking the urban fabric. There are few ways as substantive as the design of new places by which scientists might influence the nature and quality of urban life. Urban design is an amazing opportunity for BES.