Patchwork Earth: Rethinking the “how” and “where”

I know that I can’t help but offer rhetoric without at least some hypothetical foundations. I’m usually saying “we should” without explaining how.

I do this because I’m not trained in the “how”. I’m the first to admit that much of my proposals seem to be very hopeful; indeed fringing utopian ideas of forming a marriage between human and natural spheres.

However, I do not think they are deeply utopian in nature and thus unobtainable. They are potentially realistic and undoubtedly desirable goals that would make human activities both easier and more sustainable.

If I could afford the energy and finances to do so, I’d be very tempted to turn to studies to pursue tertiary education relating to urban design to complement my ecological training as I am certain these fields will necessarily become increasingly complementary in the coming century.

Seeing as that really isn’t an option at this point of time and I have avoided the “how” so far, here, I’d like to write about just some of the ideas I’ve mused over without, of course, being able to fully justify their merit in real world application.

Firstly, conservation

I touched on this in the previous article, but before I go on I must make a few points on conservation.

Take a natural range, pristine and untouched by human hands. At that point of time, split it into two different parallel universes so that we can model its change over time (if it were possible). In one, our species moves into the region, while in the other, humans never visit or impact on the water and atmosphere moving into the environment.

Leave both “models” running for ten or twenty thousand years, with the same climatic conditions and look at the results.

Naturally, we would expect both worlds now to look very different. However, what most people would fail to appreciate is that the land untouched by human hands would very likely look different to the initial state also. If you could repeat the experiment again, over the same time period, the untouched world would likely look different yet again!

This is because ecosystems are not static places. We now know that ecosystems are not balanced, but in a constant state of flux.

On the other hand, the forgotten other world in our experiment would more likely show the opposite.

We’ve run the same experiment the world over and it’s highly probable that whatever type of civilization to come to be in the landscape would share an array of hallmark features typical of any given modern city.

As much as it pains me to admit it, species conservation is not a behaviour favoured in the natural world. Climatic conditions change. Food availability changes. Everything is always in a state of change. Likewise, life must continually change to meet those changing challenges. Those unable to change generally die out.

This is why I insist that conservation of the genetic pool should be our primary concern in biodiversity persistence. In promoting abundance and thus a large genetic pool, species have greater ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Greater genetic variability allows for greater adaptive potential; it’s a fairly simple message.

Genetics in an urban landscape

The point to the above is that we have the foundations already worked out for successful human environments, but now we must find ways to promote greater genetic pools to thrive within and around human landscapes.

The best way to do so is to remove barriers. Barriers include; roads, large patches of land inaccessible to other species and pollutants. Urban landscapes open to species movement will include networks of open spaces with diverse floral cover (manicured gardens, as long as certain species are selected for their usefulness, are acceptable) which in turn connect with natural corridors will provide sanctuaries, additional food sources, movement avenues as well as connectivity with human landscapes for access to potentially new niches developed by our activities.

Productive patches

In a recent forum I attended, Prof. Wayne Meyer said, “…those regions that have a diversity of activities survive and prosper in the inevitable ups and downs associated with markets… So we need to farm and live to land capability, use precision [agriculture]. And what we’ll see is that there will be less monocultures and the landscape will start to look more like a mosaic as we figure out where in the landscape is it more productive to put our energies and what are the alternative uses we can bring there.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you looked carefully at a given forest, you’ll notice that it is not homogeneous. If you looked into the water movement within and on the surface or the soil types or the weather patterns, you will find the same thing; real world conditions are not uniform over space and time. Diversity is inherent in all things. Likewise it should be in our agriculture.

But it’s greater than that.

Any planning will need to start with an understanding of such environmental factors just mentioned so that we use the local conditions to the benefit of certain patch in the wider mosaic.

For instance; production land would benefit from both good soil and rainfall; natural corridors to a lesser degree, but that varies (ie. many species have evolved to suit certain soil and rainfall conditions); and urban landscapes at the lowest end (ie. urban landscape should be made to capture water, but they don’t need good rainfall and soil types). Basing what we do and where we do it on what we know about environmental factors could ensure the land is best suited for the use selected.

Of course, such factors do change over time (climatic conditions being the most obvious) and so connectivity, especially for species movement, will be paramount.


I know I have discussed favourably on nodal urban landscape and, at first, this may seem to contradict that, however, the only way that I feel we can truly allow species movement within human environments will be to decentralise even more so.

It wouldn’t matter, in all brutal honesty, if we effectively colonised most of the world in a series of connected smaller cities as part of a mosaic with natural regions, agricultural patches and mixed use open spaces. After all, the larger a city gets, the greater the barriers it creates for species movement (anyone stuck in peak hour traffic would also include our species in this).

With modern information technology and increased development of mixed use sub-city regions, it would be possible to have access to essential goods and services and employment opportunities either within a few kilometres of one’s home or simply through the internet.

With efficient mass transport between these regions, access to friends and family elsewhere should remain simple without the high dependency of personal vehicles.

Of course this cannot work in every case and big cities must exist. However, with suburban design focusing on this line of development over the come century, we will start to promote biodiversity movement and connectivity beyond the current state of degradation and could effectively make greater use of natural services within the urban landscape.

Breathing space

We’re not sardines, even though we’re highly social, so we like a little breathing space.

Through decentralisation, into low-medium density sub-cities, we have many other benefits than simply the biodiversity one above.

As car dependence could be reduced, streetscapes can be redesigned to be more appealing and could serve greater functions (ie. water collection, storm protection, species movement, production etc), while also removing a major source of pollution (not only in fumes, but also tyre-ware and other runoff).

Another major bonus would be the localisation of goods and services. Rather than one giant complex servicing many square kilometres of sprawl, there would be incentive to develop a mix of residential and business space throughout the region, with a local “High Street” within walking distance. The most obvious outcome would be greater employment opportunities in increased local services.

I can’t see the junk through the stuff

Arguably, one of the grumbles on the way up in popularity is the consumption of stuff. Not only are we tending to buy more and more of it every year, but even if we attempt to resist this pull, the stuff falls to pieces by an expected date (or, as is increasingly the case with technology, it loses compatibility potential as it ages) to ensure we are forced to open our wallets and save the economy!

Consumption of stuff cannot go on indefinitely. This is especially the case at hand with the value of such stuff depreciating to near zero over its lifespan, which sees them quickly off to the local tip before you know it.

It doesn’t need to be this way and we could squeeze more “growth” in the system yet, but only through other means, such as;

  • Rather than depreciating value to zero, such items are made so that at the end of their lifespan, they create wealth in another process pathway (mirroring nutrient cycles in nature),
  • Goods are truly made to last but, as is the way with cars, require servicing and/or component updates every so often so that there is; far less waste creation, a removal of the technology turn-over rate (thus compatibility loss) and a constant source of income to the manufacturers over the extended lifespan of the item (giving them more incentive to make them last longer),
  • A shift from material consumption to increased entertainment and arts consumption (of which, there is no limit in what can be created)

There is no reason why we couldn’t spend more. In moving away from material consumption and instead to service consumption (eg. entertainment), especially in growing, mixed-use sub-cities and through investing in connectivity of natural corridors and biodiversity integration, we could certainly achieve greater numbers of employment opportunities and in turn spending / investing. In taking the other two points seriously on material consumption, we would also create wealth where there is currently waste.

We are onto a workable design, but it’s far from perfect.

More to follow…

2 thoughts on “Patchwork Earth: Rethinking the “how” and “where”

  1. I’m totally in agreement on the removal of barriers idea. To me, this seems a no-brainer.

    If humanity is to adapt to the pressures being placed upon it by climate change, we will need to be able to accommodate population movement — in some cases, large movement. And yet, what we’re seeing is the complete opposite: nations adopting a fortress mentality that mirrors the head-in-the-sand denialism which has driven mitigation inaction. We need to bring down the barriers between ourselves and our neighbours, and be prepared to offer a helping hand when it’s needed — so that when we are in need of help ourselves, we will have friends who may be prepared to offer it.

    There’s little point trying to hold a fortified position if your food source shifts outside it. With such a siege mentality, ‘climate wars‘ would seem to be inevitable.



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