The majority of people today live in cities around the world. Urban ecology is often defined by dense cement jungles congested with traffic. Green space and safe, clean soil are rare places within densely populated areas, which diminishes quality of life. Though often cut off from wilderness, many developed environments also harbor opportunities to embrace the urban cultivation where you live, or find outings like a day trip into the country or at least across town into suburban neighborhoods with sprawling gardens. Public transit is required to gain most access, and sadly, in many parts of the world that transit is limited, preventing many people a chance to connect with native ecology. Here in Western Washington, King County is continuing to develop more transit access, and our light rail has developed from downtown Seattle, to Redmond, which is only about another 20 minutes to EEC Forest Stewardship.
Location, location, location- where you plant your roots, the soil determines your growth. EEC is located at the mark where development has made its final mark on wilderness. Beyond our nearby town, you climb into The Cascades, and only two main roads take you to the other side of these towering peaks. Within the western foothills, our land straddles a stream which feeds The Snoqualmie River to The Salish Sea, and The Pacific Ocean beyond. Historically, tribes of Lushootseed speaking people lived along the coast and inland, following the rivers and salmon runs seasonally. Today, much of the fish run continues to collapse under human development and pollution pressures, but the waters also offer lessons in how we can better protect and belong to the land, replanting and establishing good setback principals in future conservation recovery, rather than continued expansion and destruction.
In the map above, I lay out the development “rings” expanding out from Seattle. The red zig-zag represents continued space for heavy urbanization development- such as multi family high rise buildings, apartments, and condos. But this urban sprawl can also grow hand in hand with ecological restoration, and I’d like to introduce you to some of the organizations helping to bridge the need for urban development. Not all urban planning means a loss of habitat for nature or people, we’ve just had a mindset of conflict for so long, I think many people loose sight of the green spaces still thriving within our urban jungles. Now, nature restoration and continued education for better community design with quality of life in mind seems to be a theme gaining steam.
Within cities, the first step in bridging towards a thriving environment for land and people together is cultivation. There are many kinds of cultivation, from plants and soil, to communities forming active groups working towards a better future together. Tilth Alliance is a great example of places urban dwellers can go in town to connect with growing food, tending the land, and supporting local food and village. Here is a list of community groups actively bridging in and around Seattle. It is important to recognize that, while EEC offers learning and exploring where we are on the outer ring of human sprawl, we support connection across the greater landscape of King County, and hope readers who live beyond our region reflect on equivalent ways to bridge conservation and community in cities everywhere. You do not need acreage to make change in better land connection and cultivation.
There’s a world wide grass roots movement afoot called Permaculture. This is often a “gateway” (bridge) for people across all walks of life to better understand permanent settlement and land relationship. People are often caught out of context with place, we all reside somewhere, from tents to mansions, human habitat involves settlement on the land. Since we have overpopulated and continue to expand out (for now), this need for literal space has caused massive ecological destruction for basic human needs, but since the military industrialization era in the 1940s, we’ve also embraced consumerism and throw away culture, demanding what’s left of our natural “resources” (finite physical material that cannot be artificially synthesized). In the 1950s, our world population was 2.5 billion, with only a fraction of people living in urban places, even post industrial revolution. Watch this graph to see how quickly urbanization grew in the last 70 years. We are now at over 7.5 billion, with the largest jump in consumer capacity still growing, definitely outpacing our production and the earth’s capacity to maintain under our global extraction impact.
So what do we do? Consolidation is the first logical step- yes, even in a pandemic, and that’s the opposite of what a lot of people did when COVID struck. If you had access to wealth, you moved out of the city ASAP, and found a nice little farm or small village cottage to enjoy. But the urban retreat has been on for a long time, housing becomes unaffordable as gentrification moves in. Seattle has been hit hard by this trend, and as urban pricing rose, developers moved out to EEC’s neck of the woods. Duvall is projected to grow above average in our region, and the recent development of condo sprawl reflects this model. Our small town is starting to look like the perfect place for a new Whole Foods.
The pictures above all come from our little town, and it’s happening all over the country, and has been for many years. Yet, back in the city, other urban growth is happening, and it’s not just in vertical floors. Urban food production, like Beacon Food Forest, is shifting the urban assumptions many of us have regarding agriculture in cities. The revitalization of urban landscape might be some of the most important conservation work happening globally today. Though most of this blog focuses on a small parcel of land an hour outside Seattle, what’s happening in the city is just as pivotal to ecological restoration. Again, you can support ecology anywhere, you just have to open your eyes beyond what sometimes feels like an oppressive concrete mess.
Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, represents food production and green space development in an urban location. This community run permaculture design springs out of what was once decimated land in a high density urban neighborhood. Through hard work and smart planning, people restored this park and focus on organic city farming. Other urban islands of green include city p-patches. These small, personal gardens offer individuals and families a place to cultivate their own plants. King County has an active p-patch community in and around Seattle. Find out more HERE. If you don’t have time to cultivate your own garden in a city, try to find your local parks and spend time in them. By experiencing and relating to green space where you live, nature can still be a part of city life. Here in King County, there are numerous parks and recreational areas accessible to people living in and around Seattle.
Forming connection to your urban landscapes helps protect them. By being in the environment, you care for it, begin to see yourself as part of the natural world, and receive lessons from a living world. You’ll also have opportunities to see wildlife surviving and thriving in your neighborhood, and learn the geography of place. The green walls of vegetation begin to take shape as individual tree species, shrubs of ripe berries, and colorful wildflowers. One particular urban forest I wandered through a few weeks ago was along Thornton Creek. This park is set up as a stream buffer through several urban neighborhoods in north Seattle. There are established footpaths along the creek through a third growth mixed forest with several areas of native under-story replanting. You can follow the trails through this watershed from highway 522 to interstate 5 through a well developed city-scape.
Through much of this park, you can still see houses and hear occasional traffic nearby, but the birds, forest, and flowing stream sooth the soul and calm the spirit as you experience this wonderful green space. There are many entrance and exit spots along the footpaths for shortcuts when needed, but spending a few hours wandering the trails is also possible for more enthusiastic wanderers. Though the city looms all around, these green spaces are bridges into nature without having to travel far. The connection made to rock, tree, and stream weaves into the human subconscious helping to relive stress and bring us into our senses. Please take time to look for the special green spaces near you, even in cities, these landscapes are alive and teaming with nature. They are important bridges for our humanity to reconnect with self, the natural world, and place. Rooting into the soil with plants, animals, and the elements, we make an important connection to the living world. A connection that binds us to an ecosystem we cannot live without.
In trying to re-imagine our city scapes to better understand habitat and our connection to nature, I invite you to watch this wonderful TED talk by an ecologist who is working towards bridging us back to our landscape through mapping what was to help design the future of urban landscape for the betterment of people and our environment. By bridging the pat ecology with present human development, Dr. Sanderson invites us to rethink our cities as living habitats where all living things can thrive. By finding the streams, forests, and wetland lost through mindless development, we can improve our existing city-scapes for a healthier future. His example give me hope for all urban sprawl, and the quality of life for people by reconnecting them to their environment. This is a future I can embrace and look forward to. It is a forward thinking, which encompasses the earth as a whole, rather than people as separate and beyond nature. Find the wild places where you are, form a bond, and look beyond the concrete and see that nature always finds a way. How wonderful it is when we fold ourselves in as part of nature, supporting her restoration for the good of us all.