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.


Assignment 1 | Sun Path

This is a sun path diagram applied on a view taken from the terrace adjacent to Clemons Library at 6:45 PM. At first, I could not understand how the chart shows the sun to be already set when it was clearly in the sky when the picture was taken; however, I realized this was due to daylight savings time. It was in fact 5:45 PM.

Some questions:

What times of year and times of day make up the primary solar window?

Despite obstructions such as Alderman Library, the primary solar window of the site would be all year-round from about 9 AM to 4 PM because of the terrace’s relative openness and position on an elevated slope above Clemons.

How might you respond to this as an architect with respect to the siting and orientation of your meeting place?

As an architect, I would respond to this site by creating adequate shade from the harsh, direct sunlight prevalent throughout much of the day in the southern elevation. Receiving light would not be the issue but controlling it would be. In addition, I would take full advantage of the sweeping views of Memorial Gymnasium, John Paul Jones Arena, and the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to create something that feels open, bright, and full of life.

A Stock-and-Flow Diagram

A chronic problem of the college student is staying awake. A healthy amount of sleep consists of 6 to 8 hours, but because it has  to be penciled into hectic schedules, it seems that no one ever gets enough sleep.

This stock-and-flow diagram illustrates the effects of stress on how awake a person feels during the day. The amount of sleep (the inflow), affects how awake a person feels (the stock), which is released by ability/capacity to function during the day (the outflow); however, this basic process is affected by many more variables.

How much stress a person experiences during the day influences how much sleep they desire in order to be more awake. The discrepancy between this desired level and the actual level of awakeness leads a person to take naps in order to gain more sleep. This loop is called a balancing feedback loop (denoted by the B)  because, according to Donella Meadows, it “opposes whatever direction of change is imposed on the system” (28) in order to maintain relative stability. In this case, the loss of sleep is opposed by the desire to sleep more by napping. Another balancing feedback loop is that stress causes the body to address the discrepancy between normal levels and stressed levels by producing adrenaline. In other words, adrenaline augments the level of awakeness by increasing the body’s ability to function during periods of stress. Then again, too much stress can lead to fatigue.

What this diagram ultimately reveals is that there exist relationships that are not easily seen at first. Variables such as stress can influence the flow of a system in more than one place. Think of mountain runoff into a river. Water from one single peak can flow into multiple sections of a river below, influencing it from beginning, middle, to end.

Now, time to get some sleep.

(What we all need in the A-school: a sleep suit)

What is a System?

According to Merriam-Webster, a system is “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” At a more basic level, this means that a system is a conglomeration of relationships between different components that work with or influence each other. This definition, however, limits the scope of a system’s characteristics and capabilities. In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows elucidates that a system is more than simply a sum of its parts. It is an “interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (11).

What does this mean for us as humans?

(U.S. air traffic as a system)

One thing it reveals is that our world is not as small as it seems. We structure many systems into manageable models in order to have a sense of understanding and control, but history has shown that keeping with only this mode of thought has lead to disastrous results. Where we believe that some actions are inconsequential in the larger system of life there is in fact a multitude of outflows, expenditures, and feedbacks.

For instance, in the case of the Roman Empire, constant military expansion was believed to be one of the only major solutions to the ills of the state. The benefits of conquering new lands and peoples helped to relieve some stresses. This process also continuously fed into itself and eventually helped point to the emergence of new cosmopolitan political, cultural, and religious systems in the Mediterranean and beyond. However, a succession of incompetent emperors, a corrupt political system, an efficient but not resilient military, and other factors led the system to develop a behavior which could not be easily controlled thus leading to the decay of Rome.

(Rome, and any city for that matter, both ancient and modern, are systems)

What this example illustrates are some of Meadows’ definitions of a system. It also reveals the necessity for a certain degree of sensitivity in all the things we do because of their implications. An average individual may never have to face the daunting tasks of a Roman emperor, but we all play a part in the larger machinations of the universe and should thus at least try to think about the world in new ways. Systems should not be seen as too daunting to understand. They should rather be seen as a source humility, that we are not demi-gods but are part of the larger systems of the world.