Urban coyotes: opportunities for wildness and coexistence in cities. Photo: John Harrison

Urban coyotes: opportunities for wildness and coexistence in cities. Photo: John Harrison

One of the landmark ideas in planning history is Clarence Perry’s Neighborhood Concept. Expounded most fully in a monograph included in the 1926 Regional Plan for New York City, many of us in the planning profession have largely internalized its key ideas: that the neighborhood has a compelling scale and the essential DNA building blocks of the contemporary city, and in many respects, is where the experience of living is the most vital and visceral.

I review Perry’s idea in the introduction to the planning course I teach each fall at the University of Virginia. In many ways, it makes infinite sense: the emphasis on defining a neighborhood by the school-shed (the number of homes and families sufficient to populate an elementary school), the mixing of uses and activities, the pedestrian scale, and the attempt to slow and calm the automobile.  I would like to propose, however, that we significantly update the neighborhood concept to better take into account our growing appreciation for the value and need to reconnect with nature and natural systems, building on the insights of “biophilia,” a concept popularized by E. O. Wilson. In Biophila, Wilson defines the term as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” something essential for healthy, happy, productive humans and an essential quality of urban life.

What a biophilic neighborhood looks like remains an important subject for discussion (I hope) among planners and designers, as well as the general public. Some of the elements are clear, however. A biophilic neighborhood is one where nature is close at-hand, where there are trees, gardens, streams and other  life growing just outside one’s door, which are in turn connected to larger, more expansive networks of green spaces and wildness that may be easily reached. Increasingly, we speak of the need for neighborhoods that foster and accommodate free-range kids—where, ideally, we create sufficient gathering spaces and opportunities for children to play in nature, rather than more conventional playground structures. Pedestrian connections, bicycle facilities and infrastructure, and urban neighborhoods that allow adults and children alike to walk out the front door and move from smaller to progressively larger and more expansive natural areas encourages physical exercises, place learning and provides kids with an important measure of independence in an American landscape so dependent on parental car-chauffeuring.  My Australian colleague Peter Newman believes we must set the bar even higher, designing cities for feral kids.

Biophilic neighborhoods and places will make us more resilient as a society. For me, this is partly a project of redefining the ways in which we understand community wealth. We are apt to think of our community assets in the usual, narrow way (property values, built infrastructure, etc). An expanded understanding of community wealth includes, for example, friendships and social patterns, the abundance of time in a community (time affluence), history and stories, the presence of elders and the young together in the same urban spaces, food heritage.

I am reminded of the day I spent in one of San Diego’s remnant and incredibly beautiful canyons, Rose Canyon, with two friends and fellow urban trackers. Over the course of tracking the resident female bobcat, I learned a lot about how the canyon served to bring together different parts of the neighborhood. Those living in biophilic neighborhoods may increasingly need to find creative ways to coexist with other animals. Effective strategies for co-existence are being pioneered in cities like Vancouver, including a program run by the Stanley Park Ecological Society called Co-existing With Coyotes (CWC) which, for example, teaches residents through online instructions how to make noisemakers to keep coyotes at a safe distance.

As our nation continues to age, elders will need to play an increasingly important role in becoming unofficial neighborhood place docents or nature coaches, adding a valuable measure of meaning and pleasure to their lives while rising to the challenge of imparting an ecological consciousness to the next generation.

We might wonder how practical or realistic it is to imagine urbanites living in closer contact with the natural world, living in places with the physical conditions and sensibilities of urban biophilia. But the silver lining of the mortgage crisis and economic downturn is that many households and families are profoundly rethinking their lives and their commitments. A shift is under way in how the home is perceived—a shift from thinking about enhancing the resale of the house to a sense of what might make the house more livable, enjoyable and meaningful.  These shifting attitudes suggest the potential for a greater caring about, and interest in, the urban natural world, and that is a promising development, indeed.