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by Jack Kruf

To compare the forest and the city ecostem is quite challenging. To find possible analogies is even more exciting. Well, a city can be, like a forest, considered as a community of living components in conjunction with the non-living components. Both can be defined as a network of interactions among the components, that can be grouped in types of relations, habitats, niches, cycles and layers. They both are linked together through cycles of water, nutrients and energy. 

The link

For citizens the city has a strong link and association with their personal well being: you are born, you marry, raise your children and die in a city. Your passport is signed by the mayor of the city. It seems to be the nearest and most tangible scale of area and government, the closest to self identification (“Where are you from?”). 

The public canvas of the city, where components, interests, roles, relations, factors, processes and cycles actually meet, is the most dynamic in cities. The fabric of society is woven within the boundary of the city. It is this entity where at the end, all things meet. The American politician O’Neill  (1994) stated once: “All politics, after all, is local”. The term politics has been derived from the Greek: πολιτικά, politiká, meaning “affairs of the cities”. So there seems some logic to start the journey for exploration on city level.


The city has been built within its natural environment. The way cities interconnect herewith seems to be crucial for present and future quality of life. There is a growing concern for many cities to find the right balance with its natural environment. So the public canvas of the city gives best expression to the existing powers. Tarr² describes the essence of this relation as follows:

“Cities interact and shape the natural environment in several and direct ways. City populations require food, water, fuel, and construction materials... Cities have always placed demands on their sites and their hinterlands... Americans founded cities in locations where nature offered various attractions, such as on coastlines where the land’s contours created harbours, on rivers and lakes that could be used for transportation, water supplies and waste disposal, and in fertile river valleys with extensive food and animal resources.”

The city is not a closed but a lively and open ecosystem. It is upwards interconnected as part of region, metropolitan area, province and state. Downwards it consists of subsystems as districts, areas neighbourhoods, streets, houses/families and individuals.

Like the forest the city is influenced by biotic factors (a result from the activities of human beings, groups and all kind of organisations) and abiotic factors (the non living components such as terrain, climate and availability of nutrients). Those factors influence the city and its inhabitants. They actually form the habitats in the city. These are the places where citizens live. This analogy is elaborated, comparisons explored and new light shared on the governance of cities. A city after all is a living thing.

Zooming out: ecology

Ecology was the starting point for this discovery, because it can offer ways to enter the city from an holistic point of view and surf its levels. Naturalist, explorer and geographer Alexander Von Humboldt (1856) concluded that zooming out leads to more overview and offers the possibility to interconnect things (and even sciences). Von Humboldt gave guidance on the relation between ecosystems and abiotic factors. At the beginning of the 19th century, he came to a fascinating conclusion: “Physical geography..., elevated to a higher point of view, ... embraces the sphere of organic life...”. Quite revolutionary for that time.

Connection between sciences seems to be necessary to find the real answers. Oldeman (et al. 1990) underlined, in cross-border studies of forests, the need for an holistic approach of diagnosis. He always encouraged, within the fragmented landscape of sciences, to try to cross the by individual universities so heavily guarded boundaries. He stated:

“The group that was responsible for the forest components theme decided to accelerate the process by starting an ambitious project, the writing of a common book. There is no way in which cooperation can be stimulated better, but this way has to be learned and practised too. The result is now before you. The book is not yet ideal in our opinion because it still contains too many traces of the old University tradition of researchers working, each apart, on such narrow subjects as they know best. 

This way of executing the research of course is necessary to reach sufficient depth. But it carries the risk of loss of vision of the whole system, parts of which are studied. Still a little bit unbalanced, but on its way to improve along lines that are more clear now, this presentation in a pluridisciplinary way is a first step,however, to overcome both the limits of individual researchers and the shallowness of groups. We trust, however, that it is exactly this wrestling with integration of broad views versus the deepening of restricted views that may be as interesting to the reader as the facts, figures, conclusions and hypotheses on forests and their components which are presented in the following pages.”

Von Humboldt and Oldeman are truly inspiring in this cross-scientific discovery. What a an exciting journey for an ecologist to discover the public domain.


Ecosystem City® is a trademark of Governance Connect.


O’Neill, Tip and Gary Hymel (1994) All Politics Is Local: And Other Rules of the Game. Canada: Bob Adams, Inc. 

Tarr, Joel A., The City and the Natural Environment. Carnegie Mellon University. 

Humboldt, Alexander von (1856) Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 1. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. 406 pp. 

Oldeman, R.A.A., P. Schmidt and E.J.M. Arnolds (1990) Forest components. Wageningen: Aricultural University, 111 pp.

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