Urban Ecology: Understanding Ecological Preservation and Urban Resiliency in Design

By Tim Ottey, Design Intern

Bozeman architecture internship
Tim Ottey joined Hennebery Eddy as a design intern in our Bozeman studio as a part of the Architecture Residency Design Program at Montana State University. His intern research project focused on how we can design urban areas to promote healthy ecosystems.

As part of the firm’s robust internship program, our summer interns each complete a research project that they present to the firm. In this multi-part series, our 2023 cohort shares their findings; see all the internship posts here.

As I finished my undergraduate degree at Montana State University, I heard of Hennebery Eddy through one of my design professors. This being my first internship, I was eager to learn from the firm’s wide array of experience in academic, civic, and aviation design as well as their sustainability pursuits that set them apart from other local firms. I have gained so much valuable experience across multiple design projects, including airport restaurant design, city facilities expansion, and secondary educational buildings. The skills I have learned here laid a strong foundation for my design career, and I am forever grateful for the way the firm values professional development.

In terms of research, I studied ecological urbanism — a topic with increasing significance in urban design that I knew little about. As more of the world’s population moves to urban areas, it is critical that designers understand the importance of the environments we live in and the general principles to reduce the impact of urban growth on our ecosystems. Of course, sustainability is not a new concept. In fact, the conversation around global warming and environmental conservation is more prevalent than ever before. Urban ecology addresses these issues with a new understanding. Ecological urbanism can be defined as reducing the impact of urban growth on the ecosystem to protect biodiversity.

In design, this topic forces the consideration of all living elements that make up an ecosystem, not just humans. We can benefit from every element of the ecosystems of which we are a part. But, as we continue in the direction of growing “grey” infrastructure, public health, recreation, fish and wildlife habitats, and carbon sequestration all start to diminish. What we’re left with is increased carbon emissions, high energy consumption, and buildings that degrade over time with little concern for the health of the users.

Urban ecology seeks to rethink the value of buildings and the process of design to keep the diversity of our ecosystems present in urban areas. Are we willing to shift our thinking and priorities to reduce our impact on the ecosystems and create liveable cities that celebrate biodiversity?

When we look at issues as big as global warming or conservation of water and wildlife, it can seem hopeless to have any meaningful change. But I’ve learned that considering tangible focal points will lead us in the right direction. If we break these issues in to four rings of influence (personal, local, regional, and global), we start to see that we can indeed have an impact. When we focus on implementing changes on a personal and local design scale, it starts to effect regional and global issues — this is how we can focus our time designing for change.

These four “rings of influence” show how individuals can have an impact that adds up to regional and global change.

These five guidelines can lead to successful ecological urban design.

  1. Densification: Releasing the soil and decreasing displacement.
  2. Sustainable Corridors: Sustainable travel through a network of public transportation and intermodal ecological corridors.
  3. Ecological Neighborhoods: Neighborhood units with diversified commerce, civic areas, and public spaces connected by a road system, allowing access to basic needs via a short walk.
  4. Access to Nature: Creation of qualified green spaces such as sports fields, squares, parks, and community gardens.
  5. High-Performance & Green Infrastructure: Low energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions through technology and specific strategies.

(What Is Ecological Urbanism? | ArchDaily)

With these guidelines implemented in the growth of our cities, there is the possibility for restored ecosystems and a higher quality of living in these areas. This brings us to the personal scale of the building envelope. This is the threshold between the spaces we spend most of our time in, and the environment by which we are surrounded — commonly thought of as a barrier to keep elements out and control interior environments. However, emerging prototypes and studies are questioning this logic and exploring whether the building envelope could serve as more than a barrier. What if the envelope considered every living component of the environment as well? While current building codes do not reflect this thinking, it is a point of reference as we work to consider ecosystems in urban design.

What if a building envelope considered every living component of the environment and was designed to support rather than separate an ecosystem?

While this is a topic of new discovery and continued understanding, it is critical for us to begin implementing these principles now. As the connection between architecture and ecology continues to strengthen, the overall goal is to create resilient cities that provide for the well-being of all living elements in the ecosystems. Right now, architects and designers can focus on the personal and local rings of influence to start seeing a tangible increase in the resilience of our cities, the strength of our ecosystems, and the well-being of the people in them. All these efforts work toward a higher quality of living in urban areas — a net-positive for people and for planet.

By focusing on the personal and local rings of influence, designers can help achieve a tangible increase in the resilience of our cities, the strength of our ecosystems, and the well-being of the people in them.