Here come the foxes, there goes the neighborhood!

In homage to Earth Day, I flash back a semester to an evening seminar, hours nine through twelve of a day in class.  My eyes water under the fluorescents as a colleague nods in and out of the discussion, each dip of his head bringing him closer to the unattainable in architecture.

A pen cap flies from my hand toward him even as I force my own eyes open.  He jolts awake.

Our powder keg of an instructor leans toward us, knuckles pressing into a table as he lectures us on sustainable urbanism. The hot topic of that evening being biodiversity, he introduces E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia. In its simplest form the concept implies that, since humanity evolved in close association with natural systems rife with varieties of organisms, we have a deep affinity for them.

Our teacher argued that while this concept is important to sustainable urbanism, it did not imply a direct physical connection to nature.  “We’re not talking foxes in your backyard.” Even in my sleep-induced attention-deficit state, the wheels started grinding upstairs.

The design world speaks of green-space, of “greening up a city.”  And we seem to accomplish that through a handful of trees in concrete planters atop some concrete pad. Perhaps those trees rest in some narrow strip of dirt and sparse grass, instead. I won’t argue against the vegetation; one tree is better than no tree, two trees are better than one.

Perhaps we’ll go as far as planting a whole open field of grass somewhere. We cover an acre with a couple species of some tiny little hair-like plant, and then we’ll line it with as few species of tree. We call it ‘nature’ and move on, ignoring the homogeneity of it, unaware of the lack of diverse natural life.

We give as little thought to selecting those species of grass as we do to what ‘nature’ really means; that is, a complex interconnection of diverse groups of flora and fauna existing within a dynamic environment.  Biophilia claims that we crave this. Yet our cities and even our residences remain disconnected from it, with the palest of imitations to replace them.

I wonder if our system of fragmented pockets of irrigated alien grasses is the best that we can do. What if the question is less, “How do we create green space,” and more, “How do we bring nature to cities?” Should the “five-minute walk” idea in urbanism include nature? (Or maybe a “fifteen-minute” rule, instead?)

Our settlement patterns create concrete city centers with successively less-populated rings sprawling around them, pushing nature back from the center. What if nature penetrated these rings, rather than circle them? The Cheonggyecheon revitalization in Seoul introduced a variety of plant, insect, fish, and bird species into the city – can we do the same here?

What if foxes did exist in even our most central urban areas?

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