Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This Urban Planet, with Dr. Will Wilson

Duke professor Dr. Will Wilson
By Rachel Weber

Green spaces are my favorite part of a city, whether it’s a new city that I’m exploring or one that I already call home. Especially now that it’s the beginning of spring, I love when I can see buds and blossoms brightening up my stroll on the sidewalk.

These natural features are not just beautiful, they are critical. As of 2010, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is growing each year. What does that mean for the environment and our health, and how do we make planning choices in the face of an ever-changing planet?

Duke biology professor Will Wilson, author of ConstructedClimates: A Primer on Urban Environments, will discuss these issues and more on Thursday, April 2, in a lecture titled “This Urban Planet.”  Wilson’s academic and research focus includes urban ecosystem services and urban ecology, and this talk will highlight the essential aspects of an urban climate and how they relate to urban forestry, environmental justice, and policy choices.

One of the main focuses of his lecture will be urban ecosystem services, defined as “the benefits to people provided by birds and bats, streams and wetlands, and trees and forests,” even in a human-dominated landscape. For example, we all know that trees are an integral part of a healthy planet. They reduce urban temperatures, which in turn reduces energy demands, and they improve human health by directly capturing pollutants. Talk about a breath of fresh air for urban dwellers! But did you also know about the social benefits of trees? Research has shown that cities with more trees tend to have reduced crime, higher infant birth weights, higher neighborhood satisfaction, and increased property values? Urban forestry is just one part of the puzzle; many other species play an important role in a thriving urban ecosystem.

Wilson himself has always preferred natural spaces—he grew up on a farm, and he spent much of his time hiking and camping during his graduate and postdoctoral studies. Later, these interests led him to become involved with local environmental policy in Durham. His service on Durham’s Open Space and Trails Commission motivated him to learn more about urban environments and how these policies interplay with socio-environmental concerns.

Wilson says he wants students to understand that “cities are a certain type of ecosystem and, like a farm or a forest, can be coaxed or shaped to provide cost-benefit effects for people.” As a student focused on environmental policy, I know that I’m always thinking about my relationship with my surroundings, and this lecture will give me further tools to consider how urban planning techniques can be good for us and the planet.

Human-dominated landscapes offer unique challenges—for us, for non-human beings, and for the climate—but they also come with possibilities and solutions for how to construct happier and healthier global communities. Plus, I’m sure we will get to hear about green spaces right here in Durham that are perfect for a sunny spring afternoon!

More information: The lecture will take place Thursday, April 2, from 7-8:30 p.m. Admission is free, but pre-registration is required. Contact 919-668-1707 or gardenseducation@duke.edu to register or for more information.

Rachel Weber is a Duke University junior majoring in public policy. 

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