Tag Archives: urban

Prisoner of Light

Earth at night

Isaac Asimov played a crucial role in the development of my juvenile imagination, with his wonderful ideas unhampered by his lack of felicity with literary prose. I’ve even invoked his planet Trantor in exploring the limits and ethics of urbanization. I am delighted, therefore, to find that Asimov’s wonderfully imaginative short story Nightfall inspired the latest blog post by Meera, my neighbor here in Coyot.es. In turn, her lovely prose (and the poem she quotes) brought to mind of a bit of my own juvenilia, a poem I had written many moons ago, about trying to break free from the prison of light, to embrace the night. A night we have gradually banished from much of the world today, as evident in the above image you may have seen, of Earth at night, this one composited from over 400 satellite images from NASA and NOAA. (Here’s another recent view, captured by a single satellite during March-April 2012.)

Unlike the world of Nightfall, we have but the one Sun, not six – yet within a few decades of global urbanization we have managed to make strangers of most stars! Many urban-dwelling members of our own species may now be astonished and bewildered, if not actually driven mad, should they suddenly be confronted with the full splendor of the brilliant night sky as it appears still over the world’s high deserts, for instance. I have seen Venus cast a shadow in the pre-dawn night (while camping in the Sahyadri mountains a quarter century ago). I have also had friends report in complete amazement their discovery that the milky way can actually be seen by the naked eye from some places on this earth! And I hope we can halt, and roll back, the marching of the armies of light across our planet, and bring back the night. Not only for ourselves, for we need the stars and the night to nourish our souls, but also for migratory birds and all the wonderful nocturnal creatures who need the dark and the starlight.

Here, then, is the youthful me railing against the light, as I wandered through a suburban woods in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills one spring night, trying to blot out the city lights and find some stars, mayhaps an owl, and find myself.


Prisoner of Light

The soft darkness, an element forgotten
or never yet discovered perhaps? Night,
feeling, reaching out for me with the
gentle fingers of the strong wind, draws
and propels me, into the bottomless pit
of my self. The invisible, dark red
glow of Palash blooms, the Flames
of the Forest, half opened buds of an
incomplete spring paint the night in
terrible, fascinating hues, that drive me
out of my mind and out of my heart.

My intellect struggles to express, throws itself
against the walls of an imprisoned knowledge.
A captive imagination revolts against that dictator,
Language, hurls itself at the grammar bars, and
though bruised, trickles out gradually through
the gaps, amorphous fluid that it is. A chaotic
upheaval as estranged Reason and Emotion,
each denying the other, yet forced to coexist,
come face to face, in the noisy graveyard
of my deforested mind; captive, under siege from
the fluorescent battalions marching all night.

The uneasy half moon, ashamed of itself,
seeking the anonymity of a mist-veil,
unable yet to shut off its light, watches
the fugitive jackal of my intellect scavenging
on the rotting remains of my self-respect
under the cover of lightness. The sombre
trees, living tombstones on my buried
humanity, run from me, as I crash madly
through the dead wilderness of my mind,
like a blind rhinoceros searching for
a resting place, a home or a grave.

But the army of Light, it cannot
bear to watch! It hauls me out of
the enchanting night. Its vice-like grip
squeezes the darkness, pulls my shrivelled,
dry self back into the circle of radiation.
An eternal prisoner of Light, once again
I fail, to understand, to unify myself.

– Madhusudan, 13 March 1989, Dehradun.

Tales from the Concrete Jungle: a symposium on urban biodiversity at ESA 2012

Are you in Portland for the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (or following along in the twitter backchannel via #ESA2012 or, even tripping on the tweetbeam)? Are you interested in urban biodiversity? Want to know how much of the earth’s biodiversity still occurs in cities, how we influence species interactions, and how we might better manage our cities to support more species on our increasingly urban planet? If so, then today is your lucky day, because this afternoon (Portland time!), we have a symposium for you covering just these topics:

SYMP 15 – Tales From the Concrete Jungle: Understanding and Sustaining the Earth’s Urban Biodiversity From Local to Global Scales

Wednesday, August 8, 2012: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM

Portland Blrm 253, Oregon Convention Center


Myla F.J. Aronson


Mark Goddard , Madhusudan Katti , Frank La Sorte , Christopher A. Lepczyk , Mark McDonnell , Charles H. Nilon , Paige S. Warren and Nicholas S. G. Williams


Myla F.J. Aronson

The rapid urbanization of the world has had profound effects on global biodiversity. The increasing number of people living in cities and towns, coupled with the magnitude and intensity of human activities has resulted in significant impacts for local, regional and global environments. The creation and expansion of cities produces new types of land-cover and environmental conditions. These changes in land use and land cover result in native habitat loss and landscape fragmentation, toxification of the biosphere, loss of ecosystem function, the introduction of exotic species, and the loss of native species. The predicted increases in the number and size of human settlements, especially in developing countries, over the next 20 years, coupled with the predicted changes in climate has created an unprecedented call for scientific information to guide management strategies and mitigation options to create sustainable and habitable cities and towns for the future. Despite recognition for the importance of urban biodiversity by the Convention of Biological Diversity and an emerging base of science on the biodiversity of urban areas, a general synthesis on biodiversity is in a fledgling state. A comparative approach to urban biota is needed to produce comparable methodologies to understand, preserve, and monitor biodiversity in cities. The design and construction of urban infrastructure can create novel habitats for plants and animals that can supplement remnant habitats for species and communities in cities and towns, or that can provide habitat that has been destroyed in a region due to human development of the landscape. This symposium will bring together an international group of urban ecologists to identify: 1) global patterns of biodiversity within and across cities; 2) their environmental and social drivers; and 3) opportunities for using ecological knowledge to develop effective biodiversity management, restoration and planning strategies. The symposium will be structured into two parts. The first will address the patterns and drivers of biodiversity within and across cities in order to provide a general synthesis of biodiversity. The second part of the symposium will address design and planning of cities for biodiversity from the micro-scale (green roof ecology) to the city-scale.

The symposium grew out of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) we convened throughout last year, to compile a global database of urban plant and bird diversity, and address questions about the patterns and processes governing urban biodiversity. Till date we have species lists of plants and/or birds from more than 150 cities from all continents (except Antarctica, of course), and continue to add to this database. Putting together this big database (the biggest one on urban biodiversity of which we are aware) and playing with the data on our computers is the most fun thing I’ve done in recent years! We are pretty excited about what we’ve found so far (first manuscript is in review) and expect others will be interested as well. This symposium is the first big public forum where we will share results of our broad global synthesis (tale #2 by Frank La Sorte, in particular). Many of the collaborators in the working group are also presenting results from their own more local research, focusing in greater detail on the processes governing the big patterns, as we continue weaving the tales together towards capturing a richer tapestry of urban biodiversity. You can find the full list of talks, with links to abstracts on the symposium page. Members of the NCEAS working group who are in Portland (which is no longer actually supported by NCEAS since our funding ended) will meet this weekend (after ESA2012 is over) to work on further analyses, and discuss ways to continue building on this growing network of urban biodiversity researchers. If you are interested in finding out more, and even joining our network, please leave a comment below, or email/tweet me and I will be happy to help in any way I can.

Meanwhile, alas, having helped bring together these tales from the concrete jungle, I can’t hear them in the room myself because I’m in faraway Stockholm! Which means I will, of course, be lurking in the twitter backchannel especially during this symposium (the #BiodiverCity). There I hope to see lots of the participants’ faces/avatars pop up in the tweetbeam as they relay the proceedings to distant participants like me.

Live-tweet this session for me, won’t you?

Cities and Biodiversity: prepping a #BiodiverCity twitter campaign

As you may know, I am in Stockholm, Sweden this summer, working with colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) where we are compiling a global assessment of urban biodiversity for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Here’s a blurb about the project:

Cities and Biodiversity Outlook

A Global Assessment of the Links between Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystems

The “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” (CBO) will consist of a global assessment of the links between urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Combining science and policy, scientists from around the world will analyze how urbanization and urban growth impacts biodiversity and ecosystems, delivering key messages on the conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources to decision-makers. Cities, local authorities and sub-national governments will have the opportunity to showcase their practices on sustainability and biodiversity and learn from existing experiences how to incorporate those topics in their agendas and policies.

via Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO).

If you explore the links on the above page, you will find drafts of the CBO, to the latest version of which I made some contributions. If you are more televisually inclined, here’s Thomas Elmqvist, the Scientific Editor of the CBO (and my host here this summer), explaining what it is about:

The CBO will be officially launched on October 16, 2012, at a City Summit organized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) during CBD’s 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) meeting in Hyderabad, India. I will write more about that over the coming weeks, including information about some side events being planned to publicize the CBO.

As part of the goal to make the CBO an effective tool for communicating the significance and value of urban ecosystems for biodiversity, Maria Schewenius (also here at SRC) has been collating a list of 100 Facts About The Nature of Urbanization which will be part of the report. Seeing her list immediately made me think: twitter campaign! Maria and Thomas liked the idea, so we ran it up the UN flagpole (this being my first serious involvement in a UN scale effort, I’m learning about the opportunities and constraints for communicating science at this level), and we got the thumbs up a few days ago.

We are now preparing to launch the twitter campaign using the hashtag #BiodiverCity (which I was pleasantly surprised to find hitherto unused!) starting on Monday, Aug 6, 2012, which is 70 days before the launch of the CBO in Hyderabad. It would’ve been better to start tweeting 100-facts 100 days before the launch, of course, but I got in late on the act, so here we are with 70 days, which actually allows us to start with one tweet/day and ramp up the frequency as we approach the launch date.  The complete list of 100 Facts will be available on the CBD’s CBO website (see links above) along with the rest of the report, and I will also storify the tweets, and any responses they generate.

So, dear reader, if you are interested in urban biodiversity, and are also a citizen of the twitterverse, here’s who you should keep your eye on:

It goes without saying, of course, but: Please RT!

[Updated on Aug 6 with several more twitter accounts added to the list.]

A few thousand ecologists meet in the city to discuss Earth stewardship… but does anybody know or care?


I woke up in Austin, Texas this morning, a bright and sunny one, looking forward to the start of the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The society has chosen “Earth Stewardship” as its theme this year, and the meeting launches not with a lecture or a keynote speech by an eminent ecologist – but an interdisciplinary panel discussion on the topic of earth stewardship! The conference program is appropriately filled with sessions and talks on the topic of how we might be better stewards of spaceship earth even as we continue to do a lousy job of it right now. Drop by on Wednesday, Aug 10, 2011, for example, to catch two symposia (and an evening workshop) I’m co-organizing on Stewardship of Urban Systems:

  1. Ecosystem Services and Processes in the ULTRA Network
  2. Socio-ecology, Governance, and Equity in the ULTRA Network

There is, obviously, plenty more about all areas of ecology – this is, after all, the largest annual gathering of ecologists in North America. I don’t see any meeting stats readily available on the website yet, but know that this meeting will feature a few thousand attendees. If you want to visualize how big this conference is, note this: every morning and afternoon from Mon-Fri, there will be as many as 25 parallel sessions of talks – some organized like my symposia, others consisting of papers contributed by authors. 

Think of the scale again: there may be as many as 25 different sessions of talks for you to choose from at any given time!!! Followed by evening poster sessions with thousands of posters. And workshops, and field trips filling up every available interstice of time. On Thursday evening, we even have an ESA sponsored music concert!

So I sit here this morning, trying to wrap my head around the scope of this meeting, trying to reconcile what I want to attend and what I can, realistically, given my own commitments and meetings with friends, colleagues, and collaborators. Overwhelming as the program is, I am also contemplating the broader context of this meeting. We ecologists are meeting in Austin, the state capitol of Texas. We meet a day after the state governor, Rick Perry, held the Response, a massive prayer meeting “for a Nation in Crisis”, in nearby Houston. In addition to the political, social, economic crises facing this country (whether you view them from the left or right perspectives, you will agree we have crises), Texas itself has been in a drought this year, with associated ecological problems for an agricultural state. Texas is also a state with very little in the way of public lands: it is a model state for private ownership of all land! One would think, therefore, that this ESA meeting about earth stewardship has massive relevance to the community, both locally and nationally. Kudos, therefore, to the ESA for choosing the theme of Earth Stewardship, and attempting to include non-academic perspectives in today’s opening panel discussion.

So it occurs to me to do something I haven’t really done a lot at conferences before: see if there is any news story about this meeting anywhere in the local or national media. I fire up the google to first find local newspapers. There are two: the Austin Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. Neither, it seems, has heard of the ESA or our big meeting happening right under their noses this week. Not even the concert “An Austin Night for Nature” is on their event calendars!


A broader search on Google – its news and blog searches in particular – yields links to but one story: a study about bellybutton bacterial diversity to be presented at ESA on Friday

One study in the news. That’s it. Surely we ecologists are not all navel-gazers? Not at a meeting about nothing less than the stewardship of this entire planet? So why is their nothing else at all about this meeting in any of the mainstream media? The conference website even has a special section for the press. Surely not everything happening at the meeting is embargoed! Or is it?! Will there be more media coverage in the coming days? I sure hope so…

I’ve seen much better news coverage at other scientific meetings, but the ESA has generally always felt behind the curve. There isn’t much blog coverage – not much that I’ve read in any prominent blogs with high traffic. Nor is there much chatter on twitter, yet – but follow #earthsteward and #ESA11 if you’re on twitter, as I expect traffic will increase in the coming days. Although I’d be amazed if we can make either hashtags trend. Where, o where, is our public outreach, ESA??!!

So a few thousand ecologists are meeting in the capitol of the second biggest state (after Alaska) in the US of A, one with most of its lands in private hands, to discuss how we might become better stewards of the earth… does anybody care?

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a real Community Garden @Fresno_State?

Here’s your chance to help make it happen: participate in this survey which is being circulated via email today – and let your friends know too!

Begin forwarded message:

From: Jennifer Sobieralski <jsobieralski@CSUFRESNO.EDU>
Date: November 12, 2010 3:35:55 PM PST
Subject: [BULLETINBOARD] Fresno State Community Garden Survey – Please complete
Reply-To: Jennifer Sobieralski <jsobieralski@csufresno.edu>

Terri Payne and Lindsey Hughes are Fresno State Dietetic Interns working under the direction of Mollie Smith, Fresno State Dietetic Intern Coordinator.  As part of our rotation at the Gibson Farm Market we are conducting a survey to determine interest in starting a community garden. Please take a few moments to complete the survey by Wednesday, November 17th at noon.  If you complete the information at the end of the survey your name will be added to a random drawing to win a $25 gift certificate to the Gibson Farm Market.  We appreciate your response.


Please click on the link below to participate in our survey



Gibson Farm Market

How do we reinvent the paradigm of urban water supply for an age of scarcity?

That is the question addressed in a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post on Grist by Steven Solomon, author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization which just made my wish / to-read lists. Here’s an excerpt from this must read Blog Action Day post:

For most of history, cities have
been unsanitary human death traps, unable to provide the two to three quarts of
wholesome freshwater each of us must drink daily to stay alive or the minimum four
to five gallons — roughly the equivalent of three to four modern toilet flushes — needed for
the most elemental cooking, washing, and hygiene. Urban populations normally
restocked only by net influx from impoverished countrysides. Water-borne
diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever
have been, far and away, mankind’s deadliest killers.

Cheap, abundant freshwater and good sanitation
was one of the key, often forgotten enablers of the demographic transformation
that so dramatically increased human population size, longevity, and urban
concentration. In 1800, only 2.5 percent of the world’s people lived in cities. Today
it’s 50 percent. Projections are that 70 percent of us will do so in the future, even as
world population itself surges from today’s 6.7 billion to over 9 billion by

Read the rest at grist.org

The sky boils over suburbia

An angry brooding sky greeted us, stopped us in our tracks as we stepped out of a Costco store in Fresno a few evenings ago. Not sure what had got the clouds all roiled up boiling like that. Took my breath away just looking at the dark grey storm clouds, tinged with the fiery red of the setting sun. Threatening as they were, the clouds didn’t burst on us though. Just sprinkled a bit. Then hurried on eastward instead, to keep some elemental appointment with the mountains looming in the distance behind us. Meanwhile, with a scarce anxious upward glance or two, the restless grind of suburbia carried on underneath. Thus did the summer’s late heatwave break as we entered October, hoping these clouds were harbingers of another wet winter to come. Still parched as ever, California sure can use some more rain.

Park(ing) Day 2010: civic action to reclaim/regreen paved urban space


Intriguing notion this, a sort of guerilla action to take over paved spaces (i.e., impervious cover in the parlance of landscape ecology) in our cities to stage a global demonstration of the human need for connection with nature. How about that?

I know some folks in Fresno are considering joining this movement. I just hope no one thinks to roll out more lawn into this land already overly lush with unsustainable expanses of green lawns! I mean, just look at the Fresno State Campus (click on this aerial image to make the info bubble go away so you can see the “greenspace”, or on the link below the image for a larger view)!

View Larger Map

Going Green does not have to be taken literally: in many parts of the world, the truly Green thing to do is to let your lawn go brown and let the dirt, rocks, and sand show instead. This new user-generated urbanism better be prepared to reconnect with that nature as well, and learn to embrace xeriscaped parks.

So how about we go rip up some lawn somewhere around here, and party to cut down on wasteful water use?

Fresno’s 20 Gallon Water Challenge


Have you, fellow residents of Fresno, noticed a billboard in your neighborhood recently asking you to take the 20 Gallon Challenge at fresnowater.org? It is good to see the City of Fresno make a push towards water conservation – and about time too in an arid zone city that has resisted even metering residential water use! I know my friends in Tucson, or back in India, will be astonished that a city campaign challenging residents to reduce water consumption by 20 gallons/day is only now happening – how can it be, in the arid American west, that the people of a major city refuse to meter their water use and need to be challenged to save water in such quantities per day as are inconceivable even over weeks in other arid parts of the world??!! Yet, such has been the case here – with the residents of Fresno having rejected water metering several times in the past! No more – for now the city is, under a federal govt mandate, installing water meters in homes and preparing to start charging for water based on consumption starting in 2013. As you may know, my lab has begun to address the ecological and biodiversity consequences of how much (and how) we use water in this sprawling sub/urban area. As part of a broad collaborative multidisciplinary project focusing on understanding the linkages between human water and land use decisions and urban biodiversity, my graduate student Brad Schleder has just finished his masters thesis – the first one to leverage data from the Fresno Bird Count which he helped set up and coordinate in its first two years. He will be presenting his work in a thesis exit seminar on campus in a couple of weeks – on May 3rd. Watch out for an announcement with further details here shortly, and join us if you can on the 3rd. Meanwhile, go take the 20 Gallon Challenge this Earth Week!