Seth bio photoSeth Zeren is an urban planner, consultant, and teacher currently teaching a course on Urban Planning and Sustainable Environments as traveling faculty on an international study abroad semester: IHP Cities in the 21st Century. This blog is a collection of stories, experiences, and observations from this semester.

A Bit about “the urban land ethic”
The urban land ethic is an series of questions really, prompted largely by Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” near the end of the Sand Country Almanac. Leopold’s land ethic makes the case that people have responsibilities as well as rights to the land community–soil, plants, animals, water, etc. The land ethic spurred a generation of environmental thinkers to take a long view, an ecological view of environments where nature and culture overlap. I was struck by the value of an ethic in shaping actions, as a push-back to profit maximization and economic efficiency, a way of knowing when enough was enough, of embracing our own duties to the land and our community. Yet the land ethic still today speaks best to the agrarian world, small towns, perhaps rural suburbs; as an urban planner in training, I wondered how this tradition could guide our actions in cities and suburbs–you know, where most people live. So the urban land ethic is an attempt to take Leopold and Jacobs and squish them together and to draw lessons for our own time. The land ethic is still mostly questions with few answers, but perhaps that’s how it should be.

The urban land ethic starts with the idea that there are three broadly generalized spheres:

  • Nature: animals, plants, soil, water, sky, seasons
  • Culture: people, art, language, money
  • Buildings: not just structures, but roads, sewers, bridges, infrastructure of all types

(of course these are rough and problematic frames and much could be said about the pluses and minus of the divisions and the results, but we’ll go with them for now)

With this framework, Leopold’s land ethic can really be seen as one of three land ethics. Leopold’s land ethic is about the combination of the first two: nature, “the land community” and people “culture”–emphasizing how those two spheres can work in harmony rather than exploitation. But there is also another land ethic, expressed by the likes of Muir, the preservationists, an “leave no trace,”  which emphasizes the protection of just the first sphere, nature alone, with culture merely a visitor. This is perhaps, the “wilderness land ethic.” Leopold’s ethic could now be called the “agrarian land ethic.” And, when we add in the third sphere and imagine a “land community” that consists of nature and wildness, people and culture, and buildings and infrastructure–the city–we get the urban land ethic.

So, to make an urban land ethic we have to ask what are our responsibilities to nature (whether parks, rivers, wild spaces, birds, street trees), to culture (individuals and community rights, protection of speech, art, sacredness), and to buildings (preservation and development, appropriate scale, beauty, function, economic rents from built capital). This then leads to our questions:

  • How do we build and live in cities for a thousand years, not just next quarter or election cycle?
  • How do we move away from a culture of disposable places, disposable buildings, and disposable people?
  • How do we learn from buildings, and how are they shaped by us?
  • How can we practice this ethic as a “use ethic” as Leopold did–growing a garden, chopping his own wood–and thus participate in the metabolism of our cities, not just as consumers but as creators and maintainers?
  • How can “beauty” return to the planning and life of our communities as a standard and a goal?
  • How can we return “inefficient” ideas of honor, restraint, dignity, and civility to our urban communities?
  • How can we learn to live more deeply in our communities, rather than as nomads?
  • Can we not only own land and buildings, but be owned by them?
  • When is enough sufficient?
  • Do we have to choose to restrain ourselves more, or differently?
  • How do the liberal and conservative moral traditions synthesize in this new century?

Behind all these questions is my belief that uncovering and learning to live by an urban land ethic is essential to creating livable and environmentally sustainable human settlements in the next century. By examining and synthesizing the collected wisdom of the land and the city, the soil and the street, perhaps we can discover new ways of living in mankind’s most complicated creation: the city.

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