Essay

The Urbanizing Frontier

By Eric Strauss
Illustration by Simon Pemberton

In 2008, the human population passed a critical threshold in its ontogeny, according to the United Nations Human Population Fund.

In 2008, the human population passed a critical threshold in its ontogeny, according to the United Nations Human Population Fund. From our hunter-gatherer beginnings on the grasslands of what is now Ethiopia, humanity has been transformed into city builders. The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities and urbanizing communities. In developed nations, about two-thirds of the population lives in cities. Consider that most models for managing the challenges of the Earth’s fragile ecology come from the perspective of humans as pastoral residents of the land. Humanity’s shift to urban landscapes calls upon our universities to reinvent vocational, technical, ethical and spiritual preparation for our students as they face a radically different world than their predecessors.

Cities are the crucial frontier for creating a sustainable planet for the more than 10 billion people expected to cohabit the Earth by century’s end. As we prepare for globally clustered high-density communities, the nature of healthy ecosystems must be redefined. The urban “hardscape” — buildings, roads and infrastructure — dramatically alters, and often degrades, the landscape’s natural processes. Studies conducted by urban ecologists have found that cities can have healthy underlying ecosystems that continue to provide clean air and water, green space, wildlife habitat, and buffering from severe weather events. Studies in Chicago suggest that careful management of the urban green infrastructure has wide-ranging positive effects, including reduced crime, improved public health and higher social capital. The result has been a nationwide urban renaissance led mostly by local community organizations and nonprofit urban ecology centers.

Loyola Marymount University, located in one of the world’s most important urbanizing regions, has an opportunity as a rich testing ground for novel research and management strategies in the many urban and peri-urban communities of this region’s ecosystem. LMU’s efforts in the Santa Monica Bay Watershed and Ballona Wetlands, along with its great faculty, colleges and community-centered institutes provide a clear way forward to a future as the premier institute for sustainability and urban ecology studies in Los Angeles. These transdisciplinary approaches to the challenge of human global impact require both an appropriate natural laboratory and a dynamic university that is willing to bring its capacities to task.

LMU has entered the 21st century with greatly expanded scholarship capacity, including strong collaborative, interdisciplinary research in the Seaver and Bellarmine colleges, a new environmental studies program, cooperation with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, the work of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, and enhanced programs across the spectrum of higher education scholarship. The deepening participation of the various colleges and the university centers will provide critical components to build a powerful research and practitioner collaborative. LMU has the capacity to understand the challenges of urbanizing ecosystems and transcend the traditional boundaries of university scholarship. The vast social science expertise, engineering talent and science acumen can be a potent force for positive social change through community scholarship and action. Few institutions are positioned to lead in this crucial field. This initiative fits squarely within LMU’s Jesuit mission and has the potential to be a force of positive social transformation.

The creation of the Presidential Professorship granted to me is a crucial step in uniting faculty efforts, recruiting faculty and securing extramural support. Although new to the LMU family, I bring resources to the program in the study of coupled human and natural systems. LMU has embarked on three major projects; first, develop the Center for Urban Resilience and Ecological Solutions (CURES), which will serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research and community-based environmental green solutions; second, develop an interdisciplinary graduate program in urban ecology that will serve a broad community of scholars; and, third, build and operate the new Ballona Discovery Center, which is located just beyond the Westchester bluff adjacent to the restored freshwater wetland and designed to engage students and the community in urban ecology efforts. These initiatives will strengthen our commitment to undergraduate student formation, community engagement through environmental justice and faculty development.

Eric Strauss is Presidential Professor in Urban Ecology and faculty member in the Department of Biology in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Technology.