Ecological Principles for City Planning

In a time when real excesses of suburban development have in many cases greatly damaged both the natural environment and the health of the cities to which they attach, and while financial shenanigans make suburbanites vulnerable to schemes to “return them to the cities where they belong”, few seem to be considering the basic impacts of Very Dense Cities on our environment or how to mitigate them.  A major rationale of suburban development was to avoid the excesses of the city that had (and continue to) damage the environment, including healthy human community. 

An Impact of Urban Development - Lake Powell (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Population has impacts on the ecosystem that in many cases are only re-ordered when re-imported into dense cities from spread cities.  Analysts and planners often only project their pet projects’ impacts against lifeless, man-made constraints, or visions of Utopian panaceas, instead of comprehending the necessary and real restraints set forth by the living, natural environment – of which mankind is a part, not an alien intervention.

Three basic ecological concepts that have arisen repeatedly in analysis of the efficiency and beneficiality or lack thereof of man’s development practices are presented in different was in  three seminal works, Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature, and Editors F. Fraser Darling and John P. Milton’s Future Environments of North America (Please refer to the Bibliography page for full citation).

The three concepts to carefully consider before presumptively planning the next development scenario for our cities are:

  • The Principle of Ecological Balance
  • The Principle of Complex Stability
  • The Principle of Territoriality.

The Principle of Ecological Balance

Balance in a natural system is not static, but is maintained via a net balance of energy input and energy output.  Similar to the variations of temperature delivered by a thermostat controlled air conditioning system, the ecological system has its ups and downs patterned around a mean of “balance”, a mean that itself changes over time.  In other words, in a balanced community, the population of species may vary as individuals enter or leave the system, or as conditions change.  However, the system ideally does not produce a net surplus if it is to remain balanced.  The total quantity of living matter within the balanced system is a constant.

The Principle of Complex Stability

“The simpler a natural system is, the more unstable it must be.”  “Variation is a tactic for survival” (Odum).    The smaller the number of elements within an ecological community, the more effect any variation in any one element will have on the community as a whole.  And, in a community where balance is to be maintained among many elements, with complex functional integration between them, any variation in one element is more easily adjusted to by the others, with better chances for the survival of all.  Ecology has a “diversification” program, much like many successful businesses!

In both cases, the simple system is often more vital than many complex systems in function, and is much more difficult to reproduce.  The retention of a simple system therefore requires a more detailed consideration of possible modifying factors to ensure survival and to predict or control its replacement if such a situation is required or desired.

The Principle of Territoriality

Within a natural community, individual members with similar requirements will compete with one another to secure and maintain control over the territory most suitable for the sustenance of themselves and their dependents.  The amount of territorial competition depends mainly upon the abundance of resources, the size of the competing populations, and the area suitable for garnering necessary products.

The concept of territoriality may apply to a stable location as well as a particular “migratory path” and is often handed down from generation to generation.  In this manner, the balance usually created is tested mainly by over-population by the tenant groups, or through a changing environment unbalanced by other members of the whole ecological community and outside influences.

Both Simple and Complex!

Although these three principles are on the surface quite simple and straightforward (think about them!), in operation in a natural or man-made community, natural and created relationships can achieve tremendous complexity, which will result in tragic imbalances including the destruction rather than reformation of the existing systems and human communities when little expenditure of thought or effort is applied to the community being impacted by change.  Utopian “one size fits all” urban design impositions have not worked in most instances to date.  Many times they have resulted in disfunctional cities AND suburbs, destroying established natural and manmade environments that were adjusting balance as they matured, needing tender loving care to correct and mitigate errors and excesses, not massive interventions blindly implanting hot house “ideals” like invasive toxic weeds in a garden.

Because of the parallels with “the city” and “urban man”, the images that these three ecological principles are represented by in nature need to be defined and understood as key factors in the ecology of healthy cities.  Then, and only then, can a rational, organized philosophy be formulated for the planning and maintenance of healthy, sustainable and resilient cities meeting human physical and social needs while conserving as healthy a natural environment.


Learn from natural – including human – ecology and history to reform and restore healthy cities!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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