The Urbane Ecologist

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Greetings from Lima!

Hola from Lima, Peru! I’m conducting fieldwork as part of my master’s program. Our class of almost 60 people has 6 projects in different parts of Lima, including Costa Verde, Barrios Altos, El Agostino, Chiquitanta, and Pachacamac. Feel free to check out the project websites:

  • Learning Lima, at (available also in Spanish) and
  • cLIMA sin Riesgo (CLIMAte without Risk) at

My group is in a centro poblado rurale (rural population center) in the peri-urban region of Lima called Quebrada Verde. It is located in the district of Pachacamac, which was named Lima’s “ecological and touristic district” in 1991. It lies along the Lurin River, one of the three rivers of Lima.

(Google Maps)

Lima. Quebrada Verde is marked with the red symbol. (Google Maps)

Quebrada Verde is the settlement on the left. The river running north-south close to its western urban boundary is the Lurin River. The valley that the  river runs through is known as the "green lung" of Lima due to its agricultural importance.

Quebrada Verde, with the Lurin River on its eastern boundary. (Google Maps) 

Quebrada Verde is the settlement on the left. The river running north-south close to its eastern urban boundary is the Lurin River. The valley that the river runs through is known as the “green lung” of Lima due to its agricultural importance. To the west of Quebrada Verde is an ecotouristic park dedicated to lomas preservation. Lomas are an ecosystem unique to the western coast of South America. Lomas are an ecosystem unique to the western coast of South America.

Having studied Lima for so many months from our laptops and class discussion in London, the opportunity to come to the city was a unique experience. The research gave the city a texture that I have never before felt, and I feel immensely fortunate.

A few days each sub-group had their first day of fieldwork. For the Quebrada Verde group, that meant going to the centro poblado rurale with our partner, and meeting the president of the ecotourist park and the president of the centro poblado rurale itself. We walked around the area and interviewed people, and drew important things we saw or talked about on a large printout of a satellite image of the area we got from Google Maps (which we found out was almost 10 years old, by the way! Thus the map above is actually pretty outdated).

Here’s our first blog post as a group! I’ll be writing more over the following days. A very good article that came out about a week before our fieldwork was “How the World Bank is Financing Environmental Destruction” with a focus on Peru (Guardian, Ben Hallman and Roxana Olivera, 16 April) — enjoy!



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Be careful about how “green” you really are…

I haven’t written in a very long time because so much has been going on! I’ve been learning a lot at work, enjoying Washington, D.C., trying to take various online classes, studying for the GRE, looking up Master’s programs… In my quest for betterment in every aspect of my life, my blog became something I aspired to do sometime in the future when I “got really good”. But I like sharing what I learn too much to let it slide, so I’m making it a top priority again.

I ran an into an interesting idea when reading “The Willpower Instinct“, by Kelly McGonigal. She explored how the way a “green” action is framed can influence a consumer’s perception of their behavior. Yale economist Matthew J. Kotchen found that small “green” actions reduced consumers’ and businesses’ guilt. As a consequence, consumers and businesses gave themselves “moral license” to be less vigilant about the environmental effects of their behaviors and ended up engaging in larger more harmful behaviors. Economists at the University of Melbourne, on the other hand, found that this licensing effect is only present when people pay a penance for bad behavior. When customers replace a harmful act with something good for the environment, they are reinforcing their commitment to the environment. Dr. McGonigal gave the following examples:

  • In the first case, you plant a tree to make up for your carbon emissions over the course of the year. This assuages your feeling of guilt and makes you feel that, as a good person who’s already done a little something, it’s okay to splurge a little bit and leave your lights on overnight or drive your car a little more than necessary.
  • In the second case, you pay 10% extra for electricity in order to use green sources of energy. You feel good about yourself as someone who is consistently environmentally friendly, and you are less likely to consume more.

I’ve been studying plastic bag bans and fees recently. As a result, reading about this psychological subtlety made me consider the effectiveness of various governments and environmental groups in communicating the reasons for plastic bag fees. Some plastic bag fees are very popular (such as the one in Ireland, which was preceded by an impressive public education campaign about the purpose behind the fee) and others cause a lot of controversy.

If governments and other groups promoting plastic bag taxes send the message that they are doing so to make up for the damage already done, they may actually be giving consumers the moral license to consume more, which is at the heart of consumerist, environmentally-damaging culture. However, enacting plastic bag taxes with the clear message that it is done to fund environmental projects in consumers’ communities (which they usually are) may prove more effective. As a longer-term consequence, as consumers pay for plastic bags to fund local environmental project, their attention is likely to be drawn to the ultimate cause of those problems—their wasteful behavior—which is more likely, in turn, to decrease their consumption. Their “green” identity is thus strengthened and more likely to be applied to other issues.

I’m glad to be back to writing! I’m working on a piece about how cities are proving to be more effective at mitigating and adapting to climate change than national governments. I hope to put it up relatively soon!

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Coursera courses starting in the next few months!

  • Environmental Law and Policy: taught by Don Horstein (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill); starts Sept. 16; 6 weeks long; 4-6 hours per week
  • Climate Change: taught by Jon Barnett, John Freebairn, David Jamieson, Maurizio Toscano, Rachel Webster (University of Melbourne); starts Aug. 12; 9 weeks long; 6-8 hours per week
  • Energy, the Environment, and Our Future: taught by Richard B. Alley (Pennsylvania State University); starts Sept. 16; 8 weeks long; 6-9 hours per week

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Population growth in urban environments–examining our future

In the next few posts, I will be writing about urban ecology. Specifically, I will be introducing it as a field and discussing its history and why we really need it as a field. What interests me even more than the general idea of urban ecology is the study of urban ecology in developing and underdeveloped countries.

But before we can even think about urban ecology, sustainability, or anything of the sort, we need to know what the pattern of urban growth is, globally and in certain parts of the world. Here are a few facts to keep in mind:

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, less than 10% of the world’s population was concentrated in urban areas. By 2025, we expect 66% of the world’s population to be urban. The growth is expected to concentrate in developing and underdeveloped nations. (1)
  • Almost 32% of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements, the majority of which are located in the developing world. (2) The top three proportions of urban residents in informal settlements are: (1) sub-Saharan Africa (71.9%), (2) South-Central Asia (58%), and (3) East Asia (36.4%). Other parts of Asia and Africa follow, in addition to parts of South and Central America.

It’s safe to say that future generations are going to be predominantly urban. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, I will convince you that urban ecology is crucial to understanding how cities work. By understanding how they work, we can make them more sustainable and promote environmental and social justice.


  1. UN. 2009. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (accessed April 2013).
  2. Vega, A.Z. 2010. An urban ecology for the developing world. Submitted for Master’s Degree in Natural Resources, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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Urban gardeners are supposedly in a battle with the government–but when will the ecologists weigh in?

I read The Battlefront in the Front Yard today. It describes the difficulties gardeners across the country are facing in determining what they can and can’t plant in their front yards.

Many people choose to grow vegetables and have things like chicken coops in their yards, but they face opposition from local governments, which have strict legislation on the type of vegetation you are allowed to have (i.e. monoculture) and from their neighbors, who fear the decrease in property value as the new gardens make their neighborhoods ugly.

This article paints the battle in very social terms: It is a case of the government trampling on people’s rights to grow whatever they damn well please and it is getting in the way of “sustainability.” There is a single mention of a term remotely ecological. Specifically, Orlando’s sustainability director has defended the list of approved and prohibited plants that are used to prosecute rebellious gardeners as intended to create landscaping that survives the Florida climate and keeps out invasive species. But right after that, he is quoted on explaining that the enforced homogeneity is largely due to the fashion of the early 1990s, when aesthetic was a “formalized thing.”

In this discussion, we have environmental groups, political groups, and citizen groups weighing in. But ecologists need to be consulted or to force their way into the discussion, too. How modern are the plant requirements in Orlando–do they still keep out invasive species that currently plague Orlando? Invasive species rapidly change communities and what may have been a major threat 20 years ago may not be a major threat now. What is bothersome, too, is a terrible assumption that seems to be the foundation of the entire article: that anything that people plant is better than monoculture. Just because someone has a garden rather than a lawn technically makes them more “green” (whatever that is) but it doesn’t necessarily prevent problems like invasive species or mean that what they are growing is helpful.

This battle is an opportunity for a larger discussion on what “green” really is and how people’s gardens can function both ecologically as a way for families to feed themselves. This is also a chance to reinvent our ideal of gardens and to challenge monoculture, supporting, instead, more localized forms of gardens. Houston ecologists, for example, have been pushing for “pocket [coastal] prairies” in various places in the city and even in people’s lawns.