Ten Principles of Civic Ecology

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The restoration of disaster-torn areas cannot neglect ecological systems nor the necessity of community-driven, long-term participation.

Civic Ecology (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015) by Marianne E. Krasny and Keith G. Tidball educates readers about the importance of civic ecology. Krasny and Tidball investigate how people and communities interact, and look at the people who have stepped up to make a difference in their community. The following excerpt is of their ten principles of civic ecology.

1. Civic ecology practices emerge in broken places

Although today’s news is about Detroit and its infamous bankruptcy, not too many years ago similar stories of disinvestment, drugs, guns, factories transformed into brownfields, and abandoned homes and vacant properties that become  neighborhood  dumping  grounds, were  about New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC — cities that now are making a comeback. We call this gradual slide into decline “slow-burn” disturbances, which — similar to war and sudden catastrophes like hurricanes and floods — wreak havoc to places and communities. These are the broken places scattered across our landscapes. But just as dead trees falling to the ground create openings in the forest — opportunities for new life to take hold — so do broken spaces create openings — voids in the landscape waiting to be filled. Civic ecology practices emerge to fill in these voids — the vacant lots, barren median strips, and neglected streams. Civic ecology practices also emerge to fill the voids of landscapes seemingly wiped clear of nature and civilization by sudden and large catastrophes — like tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, war in Iraq, terrorists attacks in New York, and typhoons in South Korea.

2. Because of their love for life and love for the places they have lost, civic ecology stewards defy, reclaim, and recreate these broken places.

How do we explain why Dennis Chestnut decided to take that step into the void — to defy, reclaim, and recreate the neglected Watts Branch and its stream banks?

The urban landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted realized the restorative effects of nature in envisioning a series of parks in cities across the United States. Over a hundred years later, Yale University professor of social ecology Stephen Kellert described how “the quality of human existence continues to rely on the richness of its connections with natural diversity.” Kellert goes on to claim: “Our inborn affinity for the natural world is, in effect, a birthright that must be cultivated and earned.”

In talking about humans’ birthright to connect with the natural world, Kellert is describing biophilia — our affinity for or love of nature. Biophilia today is expressed through all sorts of activities in nature — hiking, hunting, fishing, or simply sitting by the side of a stream to daydream and reflect. Biophilia also can be expressed through stewardship, including in cities and other places where nature seemingly has been destroyed. Biophilia — and its relative, urgent biophilia, which comes into play under extreme stress — are conveyed and cultivated through civic ecology practices. Civic ecology practices allow anyone — people living in cities, as well as in more suburban and rural areas, and in the aftermath of war and disaster — to reclaim their “biophilic birthright.” Perhaps a need to reclaim his biophilic birthright is what led Dennis Chestnut to restore Watts Branch and Marvin Gaye Park.

Chestnut also may have been motivated by his love of a place that was lost. He watched as the creek that had provided opportunities for adventure and exploring nature became contaminated, its channel clogged by trash, and its neighborhood infested with drugs. In addition to biophilia, love of a particular place — or topophilia — compels people to take stewardship action.

3. In recreating place, civic ecology practices recreate community.

The young adults who belong to DC’s Earth Conservation Corps have created their own close-knit community — an alternative to the gangs that have taken the lives of their friends and family. They have learned to trust each other through working together to remove litter from the Bandalong traps and from the paths winding their way along Watts Branch creek, through clearing brush and planting native trees, and through raising and releasing bald eagles and other raptors. In a broken place marked by violence, graffiti, and disrespect, it is these small actions — members of the community coming together to demonstrate a collective caring and efficacy — that can spark a cycle of rebuilding and renewal. These small collective acts include civic ecology practices.

4. Civic ecology stewards draw on social-ecological memories to recreate places and communities.

Dennis Chestnut’s memories of swimming in Watts Branch as a youngster are undoubtedly shared with the other friends he grew up with. These are social memories — the memories held in common by a community. The bald eagles, extirpated from Washington, DC, but with remnant populations surviving in the western United States and Canada, are another sort of memory. They are the biological memories — the seeds, the wildlife, and the ecological processes like decomposition, that are maintained in an ecosystem and that determine its future possibilities. Social-ecological memories are the combination of a community’s memories and the ecosystem’s memories, and they make civic ecology practices possible. If Chestnut and his Anacostia neighbors no longer had memories of a cleaner Watts Branch, and if seeds of trees native to Washington, DC, were no longer available, then we would not have seen the revitalization of Marvin Gaye Park. And if no surviving bald eagles remained in the world, and knowledge of how they build nests had been lost, then the reintroduction of the bald eagle would have been prevented. When social and biological memories are depleted, social-ecological systems have fewer resources to draw from.

5. Civic ecology practices produce ecosystem services.

Ecosystems provide lots of living things that humans need to thrive and survive — insects that pollinate food crops, bacteria that break down human wastes, fish that we eat, and forests that are sites for religious and recreational experiences. Natural areas — the watersheds, forests, and oceans less dominated by humans, and the biodiversity that they harbor — are the source of ecosystem services. Thus, we seek to protect these areas so that they will continue to provide us with essential services.

While recognizing the importance of natural areas and native biodiversity, civic ecology addresses the reality that much of the globe is already occupied by human settlements and cities. In order to maintain ecosystem services, we need to consider a role for those places dominated by humans. Civic ecology stewards restore broken places in cities, and in so doing, create green infrastructure that provides ecosystem services. Further, the civic ecology practices themselves — not just the green spaces they create — provide ecosystem services. Trees planted along Watts Branch help slow the water rushing into the creek during storms, thus providing a water “filtering” ecosystem service. The young adults removing trash from the stream are also providing a filtering ecosystem service — this time filtering out litter and debris. And through affording opportunities for learning and hiking, the cleanups in Marvin Gaye Park provide what are known as cultural ecosystem services.

6. Civic ecology practices foster well-being.

In 2006, author Richard Louv sounded the alarm about how children today no longer have the opportunity to swim in a nearby creek like Dennis Chestnut did in the 1950s. Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was a watershed moment in our thinking about the importance of nature to children’s health and well-being. It captured the results of hundreds of studies that have shown how spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve physical health, enhance cognition, and even lessen the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Civic ecology practices encompass spending time in nature, as well as actively stewarding nature, which has additional outcomes for humans. These include a sense of satisfaction that comes from leaving a legacy for the next generation, feeling as if one is able to make a difference, and a sense of empowerment that comes from gaining control over one’s life.

7. Civic ecology practices provide opportunities for learning.

About a thousand miles north of the Watts Branch, the Rouge River flows through the community of Scarborough, Ontario — a community that has welcomed immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. And not unlike what happened in Watts Branch and the Deanwood neighborhood of Anacostia, a civic ecology practice focused on the Rouge River and the Scarborough community has emerged — and provides opportunities for learning. At an event sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of the Rouge Watershed in Scarborough, a local rabbi talked about the meaning of tree planting in the Old Testament, followed by a local imam who spoke on the role of trees in Islam. After the talks, young and old members of the Jewish and Muslim communities joined together to plant trees. Such events introduce participants to other cultures, to working across cultures, and more broadly to the functioning of a diverse and civil society.

What does the interfaith event along the Rouge River in Ontario have to do with the Earth Conservation Corps in Washington, DC — and with learning? Civic ecology practices afford opportunities for learning in uniquely “social-ecological” settings. Through planting trees, civic ecology stewards learn about how to build trust and connections with other people, regardless of background. And they learn about the ways in which trees — and tree planting — contribute to ecosystem services and human well-being. And when they measure which planted trees survive and grow, civic ecology stewards gather important information that they can use to improve and adapt their practices as conditions on the ground change. But not only do civic ecology practices afford multiple opportunities for learning, they also demonstrate how people learn through interacting with each other and with the environment that surrounds them.

8. Civic ecology practices start out as local, small-scale innovations and expand to encompass multiple partnerships.

Over time, what begins as a small, self-organized initiative — like Dennis Chestnut joining with the nonprofit Parks and People to transform “Needle Park” — expands into something bigger. The original activists form partnerships with more formal institutions such as local and state government, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and universities. Today Groundwork-Anacostia and Earth Conservation Corps are part of a national network called the Urban Waters Federal Partnership that includes multiple government, business, and nonprofit partners.

Greening practices that emerge after disaster or conflict sometimes begin as small, isolated initiatives and grow to form a network of hundreds or even thousands of partners. For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people in New York; Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Arlington, Virginia; and Washington, DC, began planting flowers in median strips, parks, yards, and community gardens, and along sidewalks and waterfronts. On Staten Island alone, organizations like the local chapter of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York, the local botanic garden, a group of senior citizens called Turnaround Friends, Inc., and individuals like resident Wendy Pelligrino, planted healing gardens on barren traffic islands, created wooded walks in existing gardens, and built a new waterfront park. And in a neighborhood in Queens, rendered barren of green by factories, subway tracks, bridges, and highways, students partnered with the Long Island City Roots community garden and the New York Department of Parks and Recreation to plant a single street tree in memory of lost firefighter Michael E. Brennan. The U.S. Congress recognized these community expressions of grief and resilience, and asked the U.S. Forest Service to form a network of support. Thus, out of thousands of spontaneous acts of greening across the country, the Living Memorials Project and network emerged.

9. Civic ecology practices are embedded in cycles of chaos and renewal, which in turn are nested in social-ecological systems.

The online Free Dictionary describes a vicious cycle simply as a case where “one trouble leads to another that aggravates the first.” Rust Belt cities — where declining employment leads to loss of income and abandonment of neighborhoods, followed by crime and further destruction of properties, loss of jobs, and mass exodus out of the city — are places where one trouble leads to another, each trouble aggravating those before it in a cascading effect. Like vicious cycles, virtuous cycle neighborhoods experience a series of events, each one reinforcing the others, only this time with more positive outcomes. The hope of Dennis Chestnut and his Earth Conservation Corps colleagues is that starting with small acts like cleaning up litter, and moving to more intense actions connecting them with nature and their community like raising and releasing raptors, young people in Anacostia will find alternatives to the vicious cycle of disinvestment, violence, and pollution. Instead the young adults themselves will help to spark a more “virtuous” cycle of civic and environmental renewal, each positive action leading to another.

Vicious cycles help us to understand how neighborhoods become trapped in seemingly hopeless situations, whereas virtuous cycles enable us to envision a different, healthier set of interactions. Now imagine a fifty- or one hundred-year time frame, with periods of crime and disinvestment followed by intervals of community-minded practices and healing neighborhoods. A different kind of cycle — the so-called adaptive cycle — provides a way to understand such cyclic ups and downs over time. To understand the adaptive cycle, visualize a mature stand of trees that is suddenly overwhelmed by a massive forest fire. Immediately after the fire, what was once a verdant, vibrant forest becomes a barren landscape — marred by scorched tree trunks piled at weird angles across the eerie landscape and jutting up into the lingering smoke. This “chaotic” charred landscape is not unlike the barren spaces in parts of Detroit and Washington, DC that have been hit by disinvestment, crime, and arson. But just as seeds sprout, grow into seedlings, and mature into trees that transform the chaos left by the fire into a new forest, people, including civic ecology stewards, start to rebuild their chaotic neighborhoods — which eventually become nurturing places. The adaptive cycle depicts four stages that forests, neighborhoods, and other social-ecological systems cycle through over time — rapid growth, stability, collapse, and rebuilding.

In responding to these ongoing cycles of disturbance, forests, urban neighborhoods, and other social-ecological systems demonstrate resilience. Resilience enables systems to adapt to change, and, most important, to bounce back once they have tipped into decline and chaos. And stewarding nature and community plays a role in the ability of systems to adapt during normal times, and in the ability of chaotic systems to rebound.

10. Policymakers have a role to play in growing civic ecology practices

.Several aspects of civic ecology practices, including that they are self-organized through the initiative of local leaders and often take place in cities, present both a challenge and an opportunity for policymakers. The challenge is to recognize and leverage civic ecology practices as existing assets — as social-ecological “innovations” to address environmental and community decline. Recently, we have seen a shift in thinking among policymakers toward favoring such asset-based approaches to community development and sustainability. City governments that may have discounted or even fought against green infrastructure in the 1990s, now actively support the community groups that are planting trees and community gardens, and monitoring and restoring degraded streams.

 Asset-based approaches to community development, which seek to identify and build on the resources already present in a community, provide guidance for thinking about policies toward civic ecology practices. Such an approach is reflected in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, which claims: “The last 50 years have shown that Detroit won’t benefit from large-scale actions by the municipal or federal government. Residents have discovered that real recovery comes from community initiatives, entrepreneurial creativity and citizen involvement.” This is not to suggest that top-down efforts have no place, and in fact many such efforts, including mayoral sustainability initiatives in cities across the United States, have achieved success in improving local environments and in paving the way for national and international discussions of sustainability. Rather we suggest that homegrown solutions are also important, including in urban communities and in the aftermath of disasters and war, and that recognizing, respecting, and building partnerships with such efforts may contribute to our ability to address what has been called the sustainability crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies that formed the Urban Waters Federal Partnership are supporting the efforts of Dennis Chestnut and the Earth Conservation Corps, and bringing these efforts into a national network of like-minded groups operating at different scales. This work of policymakers, who connect practices and bridge across scales, is a step in the right direction.

Reprinted with permission from Civic Ecology: Adaptation and Transformation from the Ground Up by Marianne E. Krasny and Keith G. Tidall and published by MIT Press, 2015.