Sustainability, urban ecology and landscape ecology

By Joern Fischer

I’m currently attending the 4th International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science, held in Beijing and co-organised by Jingle Wu. For many years, Jingle has been an influential figure shaping landscape ecology. In 2013, he published an ambitious paper laying out an agenda for “landscape sustainability science”. Given his background, influence to date, and vision for the future, I was particularly excited to see Jingle talk.

Jingle chose to talk about the confluence of urban ecology and landscape ecology under the theme of sustainability. The reason for looking at this, he argued, was quite simple: humanity has become an increasingly urban species, so cities must not be ignored. Starting in about 2010, both in China and around the world, the proportion of people living in cities first overtook that living in rural areas – indeed, for better or worse, most humans now live in cities, not in rural areas. Cities, Jingle argued, have many problems associated with them (such as slums, crime, poverty, and pollution), but they are also centres of creativity and social and cultural development.

Over the last two decades, urbanisation has sparked a lot of interest among ecologists, largely because cities – unless carefully managed – can cause a large amount of ecological damage. Arguably, urban ecology has now evolved into a coherent discipline. With that, Jingle gave a review of key books on the topic of urban ecology – praising, in particular, Richard Forman’s book “Urban Ecology” from 2014. This book, incidentally, has now been translated into Chinese, driven by Richard’s belief that making China’s cities sustainable was a key challenge of our times.

Jingle then tracked the history of urban sustainability (published in his 2014 paper in Landscape and Urban Planning). It started off in the USA in the 1920s, primarily as a sociological approach. Shortly after that, in the 1940s, the “Berlin school” of ecology in cities emerged – this, by contrast was largely focused on ecology. And third, a systems approach emerged in 1960s, and this was starting to bridge ecological and social issues. The field then developed quite rapidly, with a landscape approach being applied to cities from the late 1980s onwards. (To get a proper summary of all this, read Jingle’s paper!)

With landscape ecology entering into urban ecology, from the 1990s onwards, issues of patterns and spatial heterogeneity became increasingly important, and more recently, the concept of ecosystem services has been an important addition to the field. Today, according to Jingle, there are three types of urban ecology: the ecology “in” cities (which species live in cities?), the ecology “of” cities (including ecosystem processes and services), and third, the “sustainability” of cities (with a stronger focus on human well-being, also drawing on the social sciences).

Given this history, where do we go? In Jingle’s view, cities should be viewed as human-environment systems, and at the same time as spatially structured landscapes, which are under constant human impact – with subsequent consequences for biodiversity, ecological processes and ecosystem services. Thus, it is possible to think about different patterns of cities, different impacts of cities, and different sustainability outcomes of cities. Patterns and impacts are studied intensively, and are increasingly well understood. Urban sustainability, by contrast, is less obvious … Jingle asked: “How do we generate actionable knowledge regarding urban sustainability?”

Relating human well-being directly to urban design, and to urban patterns, is something that Jingle implied to be a key research frontier. At the same time, Jingle argued there was a need to move beyond aesthetics and efficiency, and more carefully consider ecological processes.

“All cities are landscapes” and “all landscapes are heterogeneous”, Jingle told us – but also, landscapes are not just biophysical entities but are equally about people. Sustainability thus should play an increasingly important role in modern landscape ecology. When it comes to urban areas, Jingle emphasized that they cannot be separated from rural areas. A key challenge, therefore, will be to study the interrelationship between cities and rural areas.

Jingle left us with the slogan: Think globally, plan regionally, act locally.

Overall, I found Jingle’s talk to be an authoritative overview of key developments in urban ecology, landscape ecology and sustainability science. Thanks Jingle, for an inspiring talk!

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