Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

“This is the Nature of Cities” podcast on urban bees and civic ecology

Posted 25 Feb 2016 / 0

NOC_logo_sphereAs you may have noticed, I have been using a tedious task that I have to complete this month in order to broaden my podcast experience, particularly in the area of urban ecology. Today I found an interesting site that includes a podcast, The Nature of Cities (TNOC). Predominantly the work of ecologist David Maddox and writer Jennifer Baljko, the two episodes of the podcast that I listened to explored urban ecological topics at two very different scales. The podcast is in its early days with six episodes over the last year or so, but it is taking on an interesting variety of topics. Although it is about ecology, the podcast is also as much about human concerns — and human rights — as it is about the ecological nature of the human built environment.

The first TNOC episode that I checked out was entitled The City Bee. As a person who has entertained an occasional curiosity with bees and beekeeping, I was interested to learn more about the technology and culture of urban beekeeping. An expert New York City beekeeper, Andrew Coté, suggested that bees can be kept in pretty tall buildings, but not too tall: he limits his hives to buildings of twenty stories or less. He also discussed how the legalization of beekeeping has been key in spurring a movement in New York City. Jumping across the globe, there was also an interview with Sahra Malik, who trains urban beekeepers in Beijing, China. Her perspective shed light on the fact that the profitability of beekeeping drastically differs with region: for urban Chinese keeping bees could be an economic endeavor, whereas Americans and Europeans keep bees more as a hobby. This idea was reinforced by an interview with San Francisco beekeeper Terry Oxford, who explained that personal profit was a lot more difficult to achieve with urban beekeeping. She suggested that beekeeping in American cities is more of an activist endeavor, one aimed not at making honey but maintaining the diversity of pollinators. Perhaps the coolest perspective on urban bees came from Jaume Clotet, who described his data collection on hives of bees in Barcelona. Using remote sensors in and around the hive, he and his collaborators were able to monitor how bees maintain homeostatic levels of temperature and humidity within their hives, even as these environmental conditions varied dramatically outside of the hive. Clotet also described how sensitive bees can be to urban pollutants such as ozone, suggesting that urban bees can be monitored as bioindicators of urban environmental conditions.

The other TNOC episode that I checked out was entitled What Is Civic Ecology? 25 Definitions. This episode shared really only one quality with the beekeeping episode: it included a lot of different voices. Gathered during a workshop on civic ecology, the collected audio highlighted just how diverse — if not contested — the term “civic ecology” is. The most prominent divide amongst ideas revolved around the centrality of humans. For some of the interviewees, human concerns were at the center of civic ecology, interpreting the term as a description of human inter-connectedness within cities. Others took a more traditional view of ecology, invoking civic ecology as an awareness of the relationship of cities to the natural systems in which they are embedded. I found these larger-scale perspectives to be more interesting, as I increasingly believe that we can only understand cities — and their potential to be sustained — by considering them as socio-ecological systems. There are a lot of different terms for the ecological dimensions of cities floating around, and to be honest the distinction between “civic ecology” and “urban ecology” is pretty unclear to me. But based on this TNOC episode, it’s clear that practitioners of “civic ecology” are involved in a very broad array of activities.

An interesting aspect of this podcast is the diversity of perspectives that it provides. Although it may be produced by a scientist, the podcast is not afraid to put on display some fairly unscientific values. I will admit to being a bit annoyed by the San Francisco beekeeper who wrote off genetically-modified plants and suggested that everyone should be eating organic, and a lot of the visions of civic ecology lie far outside of my conception of what “ecology” means. But this is also a virtue of the podcast, as it puts on display — with really no judgment — a lot of perspectives on these urban ecology issues. Clearly as a scientist interested in urban ecological issues I am just one partisan with a particular set of values; TNOC does not limit itself to the perspective of just scientists.

A Minor Post, Biodiversity Loss, Ecosystem Services, Environmental Justice, Pollination, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Sustainable Urban Design

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