The call-out lines in a recent report from a United Nations panel on biodiversity make the picture clear: “Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ … Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ … ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature … 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction.”
The report, compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, made dramaticheadlines around the globe when it was released. But it wasn’t news to Weitzman faculty members Richard Weller and David Gouverneur.
Weller, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Weitzman School, has spent years researching points of conflict between urban development and the natural environment, and released a report last year looking at Hotspot Cities, where development patterns threaten critical centers of biodiversity. Gouverneur, Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Landscape Architecture, has run a series of design studios looking at informal settlements and disaster recovery in Latin American cities. This spring, Weller and Gouverneur joined forces for a design studio focused on managing urban growth and protecting natural habitats in Bogotá.
Gouverneur notes that Bogotá, with a population of some 11 million in the metro area, is expected to grow by millions of people over the next thirty years. Like other cities in developing countries, its development is split: Part of its growth is planned and “responds to urban design schemes,” and another part follows informal settlement patterns developed by residents outside the centers of wealth. Moreover, Gouverneur says, the city straddles “a confluence of very rich ecosystems,” ranging from rainforest to savanna to desiccated wetland plateaus.
“All we knew,” says Weller, “was that Bogotá is growing rapidly and in a potentially destructive manner. Can we redirect that growth?”
At a review in early May, students presented a series of design concepts meant to protect fragile ecosystems in and around the city, provide safe passageways between habitats for threatened species, and allow for urban growth in ways that work against ingrained patterns of social and spatial segregation. All of the teams’ projects were framed around the core concepts of a “Green Heart” and a “Blue Vein” — a massive network of green spaces in the center of the city, four times the size of Central Park, and a restored Bogotá river, with preserved and reconstructed wetlands.
In some ways, the organizing principles of the work are relevant everywhere, Weller says.
“You could find the same issues in any city on earth, probably, but you need a different design in Bogotá than you do in, say, San Francisco,” Weller says. “The tricky thing is, I guess it’s like medicine: every body is actually different. You never know what’s going on until you open it up and look at it.”
The work continues. In June, the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology and the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) will co-host a Hotspot Cities Symposium, featuring leaders from cities in biodiversity hotspots, as well as scholars and representatives of NGOs, foundations, and research centers. Typically, Gouverneur says, the work of making cities and protecting ecosystems is fractured: Developers, planners, and politicians in one silo, and biologists, ecologists, and environmentalists in another.
“The idea of this studio is demonstrating that both sides can sit down at the table and reach a win-win situation,” Gouverneur says.