Ecological Systems, a.k.a. Ecosystems

Many people already know what an ecosystem is. The word was first coined in 1935 meaning ” the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.” Essentially, organisms and the environment function as one unit because both exist in one biosphere, the earth. Now, there is quite a lot of significance in this small definition. Why? It is because it emphasizes the intimacy between systems of living organisms and systems of nature; that even includes us – humans – and our artificially constructed systems – cities – and the natural world around us.

Although Wenche Dramstad, James Olson, and Richard Forman Richard Forman do not speak explicitly through systems terms in Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning compared to Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings in Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, both readings explore the relationships that exist between different ecologies and what is required to keep them healthy, viable, and sustainable.

The Forman reading explores the physical manifestations of different ecosystems through certain universal elements of landscapes. These are patches, edges, corridors, and mosaics. Patches are concentrated conglomerates of populations or systems with edges forming the outer boundary that interacts with other patches. Ideally, these should be amoeba-like in shape, having both a round core to maintain overall stability and arms to interact with and respond to outside forces. Corridors connect different patches, allowing for the movement of organisms, water, and energy through a structure. Mosaics are the networks formed between these different structures. Because these elements can be applied at any scale from an entire region to a single tree, they are invaluable in forming a new form of holistic thinking that makes humanity conscientious of the effects of its growth.

Forman goes on to explain that these elements exist in order to accommodate change, to create resilience. Sometimes the change is simple enough. Sometimes the effects of change are not as they seem; for instance, dividing a patch can increase its edge conditions but also decrease interior habitat and therefore species. This can cause a serious problem in the conservation of a species. Despite the intricacies involved in this holistic manner of thinking, the ultimate goal is for humanity to be more sensitive of the relationships that exist in ecosystems. He states that “what matters more than the specific land-use change or design proposal are the consequences of that change or design.”

Newman espouses the same goal, although he delves into more specific explorations of ecosystems and of the city. He uses Bossel’s definition that sustainable ecosystems are healthy and effective, produce zero waste, are self-regulating, are resilient and self-renewing, and are flexible. Like Forman, Newman believes that systems must accommodate change. Sometimes that change is induced by the system itself through “panarchy” which is a periodical disturbance to maintain overall dynamic stability. This concept is described in four stages: exploitation, conservation, release, renewal. These stages occurs to release potential and reorganize a system with too many connections. Renewals help resilience. In addition, ecosystems have a kind of memory, a library of pathways of development increased through panarchy.

When the human element is added in order to create not only sustainable ecosystems but sustainable societies, more elements are added to Bossel’s defnition. These are ethics based on strong emotional connections, psychological fulfillment, and cooperative existence. Traditional societies are used as examples in order to illustrate how humanity could benefit from a more sensitive mode of thought; for instance, strong emotional connections lead to reverance for land and other nonhuman beings and people. In order to be sustainable, today’s society would require a fundamental re-examination of its values and ideals, and should strive to adjust them in order to be more in tune with the natural ecosystem, with other groups of people, and with life-places. Simply put, it means breaking down the dichotomy between man and nature and reconnecting these two systems to form an ecosystem. Critical examinations of key issues such as cars and other transportation systems (i.e. Forman’s “corridors”), would have to be made.

Both readings ultimately believe that man-made systems need to be reconceieved as more a part of their bioregions, that they must exist with sensitivity in respect to existing ecosystems in order to achieve sustainability. However, diversity, growth, and change are key in keeping a system thriving.  Systems (or patches) tend to reach their most productive points when they are rich with multiple relationships, forming what Forman would see as a matrix or Newman a system. We must reunite what bonds we have lost with the land and create a true ecosystem. We must realize our place in the world and our effects upon it in order to sustain it.


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