Unraveling Urban Life and Space
What's the cost to wildness of updating infrastructure?
“Urban wild” immediately brings to mind corridors, the linear routes of infrastructure like interstates and power lines. Paul Gobster lists such corridors as one type in his typology of wildscapes, so I’m not alone in this observation.
Let’s think about these corridors as spaces. These are perfect examples of forgotten spaces that we train ourselves not to see, yet they are large swathes of the city. Utility corridors and freight rail corridors tend to run along the backs of properties - or better said, the properties around them align along the corridors - so it’s easy to miss them in everyday life. These corridors are negative space framing the positive space of the lots around them. The more overgrown (wild) they are, the more they disappear. Interstate corridors are really a contradiction, because we drive through them constantly. Yet what forgotten invisible spaces they are. Here in Syracuse and back in Ann Arbor, and surely a host of other places, interstate corridors are popular spots for homeless camps, which is the best proof you could have that most residents don’t see these spaces. They also collect trash - lots of trash- and are frequent sites for graffiti, both suggesting that these are seen as spaces no one owns. Invisible, yet right in front of you.
Why are these spaces wild? Sometimes they aren’t. In Indiana my husband and I own a rental property in a subdivision that’s bisected by high voltage lines. The space under these lines is kept mowed, if not manicured, and includes some businesses, restaurants and offices. Within the subdivision, the space under the lines contains a retention pond that the houses look out on. Elsewhere in my home state, the interstate right-of-way used to be (maybe still is) kept mowed. You probably know other stretches of highway that were mowed like this. Although interstates are federal, of course, the mow/don’t mow decision varies by state: Indiana mows; Michigan doesn’t. The interstate right-of-way is suddenly wilder as you go north.
It’s more popular now to not mow. We know why that is. It might be habitat or carbon reduction or some other ecological rationale, but primary or secondary rationale is always money. Mowing cost seems negligible, but…it’s all the time, over and over, year in, year out. Someone pays for it, and why is that, again? Why mow all of it, or any of it? Over the past few decades it’s become more popular to plant wildflower mixes (sometimes natives, sometimes not) in interstate margins like this and stop mowing. The same belt-tightening reflected in the maintenance (or not) of transportation ROWs is surely in play with utility ROWs as well; even less reason to mow land no one sees. Possibly there is advantage in having utility corridors and substations and other assorted bits and pieces of the equipment that keeps the lights on be unnoticed by the general public. You don’t vandalize what you don’t see, and neither do you pay too much attention to what’s going on there or fuss over trees topped to stay clear of lines or whatever. It’s the power company’s business what happens in their little wilderness, and maybe they’d prefer that no one else go there.
Except…people do go there - see above re: homeless camps and graffiti. See all previous discussion about transgressive spaces and cues to care and loose space. Wild spaces are loose spaces, the international waters of urban life, where anything can happen. And if a utility corridor is a wild space, well, it’s loose, too.
So infrastructure corridors are wild spaces, socially and naturally, but why “vanishing?” At the risk of mixing a metaphor between “invisible” spaces and “vanishing” spaces, follow this logic:
Energy and transportation are on the cusp of a sea change (to add another metaphor into the mix). Use of fossil fuels faces questions about supply and peak oil, political instability, and the increasingly serious need to address climate change. There are great gains to be made in efficiency, including the landscape-scale issue of where we live in relationship to where we work, and how we get around. Much of our transportation infrastructure in the US dates from the years following World War II, when the interstate highway system was constructed, giving rise to a million suburbs on the public dime. We know this story: the suburbs boom, the cities bust, and we all drive - a lot, alone, in Detroit steel, then massive SUVs. Denser development is more sustainable development. Denser development requires less transportation, is better suited to mass transportation, and at the very least, is more feasibly served by a diffuse grid of surface roads than by limited access highways. This isn’t the end of interstates, but they’ll be less emphasized in the future, and probably share the space of their roomy corridors with other uses and transportation modes. And yes, perhaps some will be dismantled or converted to other uses or downsized. Exit one type of infrastructural wild.
What could make a much bigger difference is a switch to more distributed energy production. Distributed production means energy produced near its point of use, at many locations, in contrast to one large generator, like a power plant. Distributed production is inherently more resilient, because it’s many instead of one, and in many locations instead of one - the eggs are separately arrayed over a large space instead of being all in one coal-fired basket. Distributed production dovetails nicely with clean energy generation, and with smaller-scale energy systems (microgrids) that can remain functional with or without the larger grid in operation. So distributed energy production seems to be the way of the future for several reasons.
If you think about it, and most of us don’t, the current electrical system requires a lot of moving power from place to place, to speak in a decidedly non-technical way. Electricity is generated at large power plants, then travels along a series of increasing smaller lines until it reaches the outlet in your wall. It’s a lot of ground to cover, to say nothing of transporting the fuel to the power plant to begin with. As electricity travels, some of it dissipates, so distributed production means less of that loss; a benefit maximized by placing generation next to use. It seems inevitable that this will mean vacating some of the existing system of lines and structures that currently move electricity from power plant to use.
High voltage corridors are large. Look at an aerial photo, and they stand out, x-ing across miles. That they are corridors is in itself valuable, because corridors are difficult, impossible, really, to assemble through land that’s already owned by many different entities and developed into different uses and buildings. A vacated corridor is an intact corridor, and it could be intact for something else, even if it’s merely a right-of-way or easement and not owned outright by the electric company. Corridors preserve protected routes for wildlife movement, helping counteract habitat fragmentation. This aspect of utility corridors is even more important in urban areas, where the surroundings may be entirely built out and thus inhospitable to most wildlife.
It’s worth thinking about and assessing what they do for us in their current state, these infrastructural urban wilds. They do all the things vegetation and permeable surfaces and wildlife do for you anywhere - all those ecosystem services, cognitive and health benefits, views out your back door. We take them for granted, because we don’t see them, remember? But should they vanish, we’d notice the effects. We’d feel the loss. Better to notice and value what they do for us before that time comes.
It’s that time of year again - time for crows to congregate in the most unfortunate of city parks, streets, and yards. Sinister seems invented to describe the atmosphere of hundreds of crows roosting in the darkness above you, rustling and softly calling to each other, unseen yet…sinister, a scene out of Poe appropriate to this season. And, as an author in the Michigan Daily noted during my time in grad school, “the crow sh*t falls like rain.”
Places like the University of Michigan’s campus and Forman Park and Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse struggle with how to pull the crow welcome mat back in. Screeching recorded bird calls seem to be a favorite tactic of campuses. Other places try fireworks or gunshots. Really, not much seems to work reliably. Of interest here is that crows are recognized as being remarkably intelligent birds, with recently published research even reporting their use of tools. A memorable 2010 episode of PBS' Nature showed how crows remember the appearance of people who hassle them, and react when the same person returns. This same intelligence and responsiveness to their environment must be the key to persuading crows to roost in places we deem acceptable.
In the winter months I often see flocks of crows flying overhead, high enough and dispersed enough that you don’t notice them at first glance. As you watch, though, you realize that crows continue to pass overhead, on and on, because there are a very large number in the flock. They are all going somewhere, and I speculate that when I see these flocks in the late afternoon, they are heading for roosting spots in town (an attempted murder! Sorry. There had to be at least one “murder” pun). If they are flying from out here, 15 miles away, to spots in town, the choice of those roosting spots must be intentional, because it’s obviously not proximity or convenience at play. What makes a good spot for a murder? What dictates the landscape preference of crows?
I don’t know. Crows aren’t my thing. But revealing the physical environment as a key factor in life in cities is, and so I say: there are environmental characteristics that must matter here, and if we identify them, we can manipulate them, and make the crows decide to sleep somewhere else. There’s got to be somewhere else, though - like every “undesirable” in the city, crows have to be somewhere, so banishing them from one place means their arrival somewhere else. The task of research-based urban crow management might then be to eliminate those characteristics from places where we don’t want crows, and add those characteristics to places where we do want them. For a bonus point, we could draw crows to places where their abundant droppings (falling like rain!) could add needed fertility to the soil. You probably don’t want that to be any place you’re growing food for human consumption, but a degraded brownfield could be the ideal site.
So what do crows like? If I list sites where I’ve personally witnessed mass roosting of crows, I list the north edge of Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse’s Forman Park, and the University of Michigan’s Diag (a central campus quad). Far from an exhaustive list, but even with just these three sites, we can compile a short list of possible crow-attracting environmental characteristics. First, most obviously: mature deciduous canopy trees. In these three sites, those canopy trees have open understory beneath them, with either lawn or low-growing perennials and shrubs. Perhaps the crows feel more secure with open space beneath the canopy and less cover for predators. All three sites also have substantial masonry buildings adjacent to them, and at least some paving - perhaps the thermal mass raises the nighttime temperature? It’s interesting that all three sites have a fair amount of human activity, including both cars and pedestrians. These aren’t isolated natural areas. The cemetery edge abuts the edge of campus, specifically a back drive serving faculty parking, a busy place at dusk in the fall and winter. Given the demonstrated attention of crows not just to human activity, but to specific humans, it seems implausible that this is a coincidence. Perhaps the crows want to be near us because we scare off more dangerous wildlife. Perhaps they know we generate tasty trash and roadkill. Perhaps they like the heat from our buildings and cars. Maybe we’re just entertaining.
To you and me, a tree might just be a tree (well, really, to me a tree hasn’t just been a tree since 1992, when I took my first plant identification class), but to a crow, I very much doubt trees are all the same. Might the species matter? Is an elm better than a maple, but not as good as an oak?
Crows don’t mind noise, artificial light, and urban air quality. Do these environmental characteristics actually attract roosting crows? The question here is whether crows really prefer urban sites to rural ones for winter roosting, or whether we humans only notice them in urban sites. If a murder roosts in a forest and no one is there to complain, would we know about it? Urban heat islands would seem to be a likely explanation, but surely these intelligent birds have their reasons for selecting between the many possible roosting areas available in the warm city. We have to look at the wild city through crow’s eyes to see those reasons.
What Squirrels Can Teach Us About Re-Wilding America's Urban Parks
By Richard Conniff on Take Part
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.