By Pierce Holloway
Picture yourself in a forest. You are surrounded by trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, and deer. A creek. Insects. All around you is a cacophony of living organisms and beings large and small, each playing a crucial role in the overall health of the environment. Hold this image in your mind. Piece by piece, visualize the creek being replaced with a sidewalk, the trees with buildings, the insects with cars, the deer with people, the flowers with street performers, and the shrubs with manicured landscaping. Before you know it, you have teleported from the Pisgah National Forest to downtown Asheville, NC.
This thought exercise introduces you to the many parallels that exist between ecological ecosystems and the human made forest of urban environments. In an urban playground of steel, concrete, and street vendors, an intricate ecosystem exists that can be observed, studied, and learned from- just like the nearby forest. Within the concrete ecosystem, city planners can and should act as pollinators. A planner acting as pollinator facilitates and encourages societal growth through the cross pollination of ideas between residents, social organizations, governments, and academics.
The idea of modeling our systems after the natural world is not new, but is of the utmost importance. Parallels between the natural world and human design have a long history of intellectual thought and self reflection. Plato (428-328 BC) stated, “The natural world we perceive through our senses (see, hear, touch etc.) reveals only a fallen, shadow, incomplete versions of this Ideal Truth.” The ideology of nature informed design has evolved time and time again, cropping up more recently in Urbanism through the minds of Ian McHarg and his seminal 1969 book Design with Nature or Timothy Beatley and the Biophilic Cities movement. The blog The Nature of Cities dedicates itself to the core elements of these concepts.
The metaphor of a planner as pollinator builds on the complicated relationship that pollinators have with plants in their natural biome. Pollinating is not a one size fits all profession. General pollinators like Bees and Butterflies transport pollen between countless flora species. Specialized pollinators such as the Yucca moth (Tegeticulla yuccasella) have evolved to pollinate only one plant, the soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca), whose seeds provide the food for the Yucca Moths larvae. The Yucca moth exemplifies the idea that pollinators are in a symbiotic, interdependent, and mutually beneficial relationship with their environment. The pollinator benefits the flower, and the plant provides critical nourishment for the pollinator.
This symbiotic relationship is at the heart of my connection between planners and pollinators. Planners can be generalists or specialists, both of which benefit from interacting with and listening to individuals across the spectrum of municipal services and city ecosystems at large. Planners are not only pollinators, but can act as cross-pollinators and should seek a variety of experiences outside of the blinders that planning school offers. Planners are bestowed with a wealth of tools and power as municipal servants or private consultants. This position consequently gives planners a responsibility to expand their interdisciplinary thinking as a way to offer the best services possible. It behooves the profession of planning for individuals to seek out experiences from people outside the planning hive mind.
Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best,
“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”
Planners can expand their horizons and their toolboxes through exposure to new ideas in their ecosystems, which helps create a sum total that is rich with nuance and considerate of the complicated needs present in city ecology.
Pollinators, while an integral part of the ecosystem, are just one part. Planners perform a similar function, as processors that are one of many important revolving parts of an ecosystem. If you are a planner, an urban enthusiast, or otherwise, I encourage you to see the parallels between planning and a forest ecosystem. Begin to notice the other aspects of your ecosystem / your city that help you create a more comprehensive and interconnected understanding of your world. What ecosystem are you a part of, and how can you build new symbiotic relationships within it?
Pierce Holloway is a first-year master’s student at the Department of City and Regional Planning with a focus on Climate Change Adaptation. Before coming to Chapel Hill he worked as a geospatial analyst for Urban3, working on visualizing economic productivity of communities and states. Through his coursework he hopes to explore the nexus between adaptation for climate change and community equitability. In his free time, he enjoys long bike rides, trail running, and any excuse to play outside.
Piece edited by Ruby Brinkerhoff