L222 The City as Ecosystem
Dr. Heather Reynolds • Indiana University Department of Biology


Are cities unnatural? They have been around for six or seven thousand years.
— Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden

Over the course of evolution from groups of wild primates towards increasingly complex and highly technological societies, humans have come to see themselves as somehow independent of nature. This perspective is perhaps most pervasive in cities, which are spatially separated from the natural landscape.

Yet cities, like all human settlements, depend crucially on natural ecosystem processes for basic life support services such as air purification, climate regulation, waste decomposition, and the flow of goods such as food, pharmaceuticals, and fresh water. Furthermore, cities are themselves a kind of ecosystem; they have abiotic and biotic components that interact to create flows of energy and cycling of matter.

Our explosive population growth, with its accompanying resource consumption and waste production, has led to environmental change on a grand scale. Humans have transformed nearly half of the Earth's habitable land to urban and agricultural systems, altered atmospheric chemistry, and accelerated rates both of species extinctions and invasions into previously unoccupied habitat. As centers of population density, cities can play vital roles both in preserving remaining open space and leading the way in sustainable use of the Earth's resources.

Building sustainable cities requires an awareness of the problems of our existing approaches and an appreciation of the potential for change that is firmly rooted in an understanding of ecosystem ecology. Emphasizing cities as ecosystems, this course applies ecological principles to sustainable use of energy and resources. We consider the appropriate size of the human economy in relation to Earth's biophysical limits. We address the thesis that to be leaders in sustainability, cities will need to move away from an unbounded, linear (or "cradle-to-grave") model toward a bounded, cyclical model based on natural ecosystem processes, involving lower throughput of renewable energy and "cradle-to-cradle" flow of materials.

Sustainability requires more than ecological and scientific understanding. It entails reconciliation and synergy between environmental, economic, and social concerns and thus requires knowledge that is integrated across fields. Three distinct types of knowledge are key and are emphasized in this course: information (facts, concepts, principles), skills (to think critically about and act on the information), and sense of place, or sense of connectedness to the environment and the whole community of life, both human and non-human.

This course promotes competency in the following areas:

Knowledge, Skill Value
Biodiversity and ecosystem services: Make comparisons of natural, cultivated, and urban ecosystems in terms of ecosystem processes (energy flow, nutrient cycling), biodiversity, ecosystem services (e.g. food production, water and air purification, recreation and aesthetic enjoyment), and ecological limits. Appreciate human dependence on ecosystems.
Global change: Evaluate the human ecological footprint at personal, municipal, and global scales using the IPAT model. Recognize the scale, risks, and ethical dimensions of human-caused global change.
Sustainability: Integrate environmental, economic, and social concerns in critiquing and designing human-environment systems (e.g., food, energy, built environment). Develop civic ethic, sense of place, and a sense of the potential for human alliance with nature.
Information literacy and numeracy: Identify, evaluate, and apply information from appropriate sources, including scientific literature, to inform, analyze, and persuade in both oral and written form. Comfortably work with numbers and units of measurement, evaluate relative numerical quantities. Appreciate wise use of information, including role of science and mathematics in addressing sustainability issues.
Teamwork: Practice teamwork skills such as communication and coordination, empathy, organization, flexibility and cooperation, responsibility, and compromise. Develop the interpersonal skills and perspective to operate effectively and advance sustainability in a world of interdependent relationships.

Service-learning in the community is included in this course as a way to reinforce all of the course competencies. Through both direct service and projects, students will assist community partners in helping Bloomington become a more sustainable city.