Protecting Urban Ecosystems: An Interview with Timon McPhearson

Timon McPhearson came to our attention when we stumbled across his wonderful article for The Nature of Cities, about the important potential social and ecological benefits of vacant lots in cities. Turns out he’s a bit of an expert in the area — McPhearson is a professor of Urban Ecology at The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center in New York City where he teaches urban ecology, sustainability and resilience. Ideally, he works to help people better understand, protect, and improve nature in urban areas.

We spoke with McPhearson about his work; the state of urban nature today and in the future; and how to best incorporate nature into your daily routine, even if you live in a city. Read on for our full interview.

Open Voices: You’re a professor at the New School, where you study ways to better design, restore, and build resilient and sustainable social-ecological systems. Can you tell us more about your work and studies and what you teach at the New School?

Timon McPhearson: I am a faculty member in the Environmental Studies program within the New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center where I teach an ecological approach to environmental solution making in courses such as environment society, principles of ecology, urban ecosystems, and politics and biodiversity. My students include undergrads and graduate students, but they come from diverse backgrounds, and they focus on environmental policy, ecological science or sustainable design. My teaching approach is one that highlights the critical idea that an understanding of the importance of biodiversity and how ecosystems function must be intersected with education and urban policy and design.

I also involve students in my research, which is very much focused on trying to understand how we can do a better job designing, planning, or restoring our cities to places that are more sustainable. The idea here is to also find ways for cities to become more resilient to the serious social, economic, and environmental challenges that are facing the city – including our city in New York, but also cities across the planet.

We know that humans are dependent on services the ecosystems provide for our daily lives. So, I’m especially interested in how urban ecosystems can be better protected, but also how they can be specifically harnessed to enhance human health and well-being. I think the better that we can understand the broad suite ecosystem services and quantify them, the better we can integrate the value of ecosystems into our policy and planning.

Open Voices: A big focus of your work is urban people-nature dynamics (also termed social-ecological dynamics). Can you tell us a bit more about what that dynamic means exactly, and why it is important?

Timon McPhearson: Dynamics means the change, and we usually think about something changing over time or space. For example, cities are constantly evolving and changing. This is true not just for the species that live in urban ecosystems, but also the people that are part of those ecosystems. One of the standard dinner party discussions in New York is relating how many times you’ve moved in the last few years. At the global scale people are also moving around. The rapidly expanding urban population is expected to be home to up to 70% of humanity by 2050, and this is a fundamental driver of urban dynamics. I’m interested in what this urbanization pattern means for the changing nature of how humans interact with and understand the only nature most humans will know — the nature in cities.

I study urban social-ecological dynamics, which is the interplay between the changes in the social fabric and the simultaneous changes in the ecological fabric of our cities. Social-ecological dynamics are complex because the changes in these two realms aren’t necessarily well coordinated, but we probably need them to be coordinated if we want to make one work well for the other and vice versa, especially in a future where more people need more services from ecosystems.

What I think is interesting about understanding people-nature or social-ecological dynamics is the question of how to design a more sustainable city? I think it’s important to understand also, as the noted urban ecologist, Steward Pickett, has observed, that the dominant way humans understand and interact with nature really comes from interaction with urban nature. That’s where the majority of people live and so that’s the nature that they experience. An underlying motivation for urban ecology is recognizing that if most people live in cities, then the dominant policies and politics about our environment are going to be shaped by urban residents’ view of nature. We should, therefore, better understand, protect, and improve this nature. I’m curious if our urban nature is currently up to the task and whether we’re managing and conserving it at the level we need to for maintaining the vital social-ecological relationships that will influence the very policies that in turn influence how we manage all natural systems.

For example, the majority of the next generation will grow up in cities and interact with whatever urban nature is available to them. The state of that urban nature will influence the very idea of what nature means to them, and how they value it. We may want to actually design, restore or plan our cities, our future urban parks or other green and blue spaces, with this in mind. What idea of nature do we want future generations to have? Is it manicured or wild, is it biodiverse or uniform?

Open Voices: Your research, teaching, and activism center “on the premise that humans are integrated components of ecosystems and therefore must recognize and take responsibility for the intimate role they play in the structuring and functioning of all ecosystem.” In which ways do you think humans can achieve this role? Are humans better these days about taking this responsibility, or not?

Timon McPhearson: I think we have a lot of potential to change our world, whether it’s to improve sustainability or to improve resilience to serious environmental challenges that we know are already changing our planet.

Positive action is definitely taking place, in some areas driven by local scale needs, such as desire for a community garden or a backyard social space. People are already working to achieve new development goals, taking responsibility for restructuring their world with sustainability goals in mind. My main concern is that we’re not doing enough fast enough. It’s the pace of change that concerns me.

There are positive signs. Mayors around the world are starting to take seriously urban planning for resilience to the effects of the climate change. Climate change has now been elevated to the level where there is real public concern and real concern at the level of governance, at least in cities, and in many urban areas, this concern is being translated into better policy. So, this is great news, but I think we also need to work harder to stem the tide of biodiversity loss that we’re currently observing because it is the biodiversity that underpins the ecosystem services that we rely on for our daily lives.

I honestly do think we are on a positive sustainability path where more and more people are mobilizing to change their lifestyles and communities, but I’m not sure the pace of the movement is at the same pace as the major global environmental challenges that we have to deal with.

Open Voices: You also note that 50% of humanity lives in cities and thus most of people’s experience of nature is urban. In what ways do you think those who live in urban areas can best try to experience nature on a daily basis?

Timon McPhearson: I live and work in New York, and I’ve noticed that the majority of people’s normal daily routine includes little conscious interaction with nature, even though the nature is around us all the time, and we are, whether we know it or not, interacting with it in subtle ways. However, we all need more conscious, intentional interaction with the nature in the city. This may seem minor, but I think taking a few moments out of every day to observe, or touch, or interact directly and consciously with nature when you’re walking, training, or busing to work can do a lot for creating a lasting attention to the fact that this nature does exist, and it is important for your health and happiness.

Even just a few moments to look out the window at a park or making your commute through some green space or along the river can affect mental well-being which impacts our physical well-being. It’s a very simple suggestion, but this is how attention to the nature around you can begin to foster a greater sense of the underlying connectance between us and the environment we depend on.

Even better is to volunteer with a local community organization that’s working to green your neighborhood so you can create more sustained, direct interaction with the nature in the city. These are the kinds of places where you meet like-minded people, and of course, it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of urban trees that need watered in the summer, and abandoned lots that need to be transformed into community amenities, and kids who need environmental education on the importance of, for example, soil microbes to a healthy forest.

Open Voices: In an article you wrote for The Nature of Cities about vacant lots, you say, “vacant, underutilized land has the potential to provide cities with opportunity to create and develop new ecosystems that support biodiversity and increase the provisioning of vital ecosystem services for urban residents.” How do you think cities can best go about utilizing these lots? Why aren’t more cities focusing on revitalizing vacant areas, given all the proven benefits, like crime reduction? How can we incentivize city governments – and local residents – to help change these vacant areas?

Timon McPhearson: Well, I think the first thing to realize on the topic of vacant lots is that vacant land in cities may be owned by the city or it may be owned by private landowners. So, the first step, if you have an abandoned lot that could provide some other, more beneficial use, is to find out who owns it and to see if you can get permission to change its use, even if for a short time. Many urban neighborhoods and communities have been able to take over vacant spaces for temporary use, and we’ve noticed that the benefits of transforming vacant lots into community gardens, pocket parks or urban forests can be significant even if you get the opportunity for only a few years before it’s developed into something else.

I think more and more cities will start taking advantage of vacant land as a sustainable development opportunity, especially if we can better show the potential value of these spaces from multiple perspectives, for example in terms of space for enhancing urban biodiversity, space for social gathering, recreational space, or urban gardening space.

The difficulty at present is in correctly attributing value. For example, if turning 100 paved or abandoned lots into green spaces that are publicly accessible can be calculated to show the benefits at the citywide level for offsetting the urban heat island effect or absorbing storm water or air pollution, then cities should be able to calculate an investment value for achieving those benefits. This could lead to creation of subsidies or incentives for helping communities transform these spaces into ones that, as you have noted, reduce crime, improve property values, and better meet additional community needs.

The potential for creating new models for improving our cities through better understanding of the value of urban land is why my lab and many others are working hard to get the valuation right. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and I think once we can better show the true value of vacant land, as we need to do for all urban ecosystems, there will be a rush to turn eyesores into community assets. The current obstacle we have right now is in demonstrating the full potential value of urban land, and I think it won’t be too long before we do can that effectively and comprehensively. It already makes common sense. I think soon it will make economic sense.