Better nature, better relationship, better planet — A conversation with a Pittsburgh urban ecologist

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Urban Ecologist and Professor, Dr. Marijke Hecht shares how design patterns influenced by systemic racism affect green space and the plant and pest variety in cities across the country and Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Courtesy photo)

Urban Ecologist and Professor, Dr. Marijke Hecht shares how design patterns influenced by systemic racism affect green space and the plant and pest variety in cities across the country and Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Courtesy photo)

Are discussions about the non-human natural world relevant to folks outside of climate change and environmentalist circles? After listening to Pittsburgh urban ecologist Marijke Hecht, you’ll understand how everyone plays a role in creating the environment. For episode 6, we’re reviewing a Science Magazine article on how design patterns influenced by systemic racism affect green space and the plant and pest variety in your neighborhood. Do you see more weeds or butterflies where you live?

Hecht discusses her work as an urban ecologist and how community design, race and mental health are all related in Pittsburgh’s environmental ecosystem.

TRANSCRIPT

Jourdan: How many of us can say we've left our mark on the city, if you're familiar with the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill, then you know Marijke Hecht. 

Marijke: We can make design choices that help us connect better with the non human natural world. 

Jourdan: She was involved with the concept, design, execution and construction of that project. 

Marijke: So, like, if you go to the Frick Environmental Center part I'm absolutely most proud of is the way that rain is made visible there. 

Marijke: When it rains, there's a tilt on the roof and so the rainwater shoots off the roof until the waterfall cascades and then that flows around the building through an art piece that an artist created out of stone. That's like a miniature watershed. 

Jourdan: It's an example in our city about the ways that humans and non-human nature are always interacting. the Frick Environmental Center makes that process visible. 

Marijke: We want people to wake up and be excited when it's raining instead of being like, oh, it's raining. I get my umbrella, like waking up and just being joyful that it's raining because the rain brings us so much. How do we make rain celebratory?  

Jourdan: Marijke Hecht is an assistant professor in Recreation Park and tourism at Penn State, Greater Allegheny and mad scientist about the ways we design communities in an equitable way. 

Jourdan: Late last year, I received an invitation from Marijke to engage in a post discussion of a Science Mag article that had been published. 

Jourdan: The article covered examples of how racism affected the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of biodiversity in cities. That's a lot. If you don't follow environmentalism, if you're intimidated by it, like I can be sometimes take a breath.

Jourdan: I think this could be an interesting episode on how who you are impacts the design decisions people are making about the communities you live in and the environmental impacts of those decisions.

Jourdan: I really enjoy speaking with Marijke. She's exciting to talk to. 

Jourdan: She's passionate and full of information and really good examples of how to explain a complicated issue like the science of the space around us.

Marijke: What does it mean to truly have an equitable city? What is the role that humans play in design and how are design choices, do or don't promote equity and don't support equity? So thinking about how the design of cities and things like biodiversity and urban ecology are informing each other is just fascinating to me.

Marijke:  A core value of mine is to completely implode this notion that humans are separate from the rest of the natural world. We are in nature, and then to explicitly call out the ways that systemic racism historically and contemporarily are engaging with urban ecology is, I just think, very important for us to think about. 

Jourdan: Let me tell you what was happening for me. I'm reading it. I'm running into terms. I'm not familiar with. I'm putting those terms into Google, remembering definitions as I'm reading, going back and forth and reading. I want to say I did enjoy the article. I did enjoy it. But at the very start, I knew it was going to require a lot of learning management on my part to get through it, which then made me think about access and who are the people who have the time and, and scholastic ability to dissect the information and how it's being presented. 

Jourdan: After I got that I started to think about how it's not often that I look at myself as an organism, Jourdan, the person, the human being as an organism. 

Jourdan: That was the first thing. The second point was me thinking about how often I get to participate in designing space around me, and, and thinking about space in a way where I'm designing intentionally for my needs as a human, of the ecosystem, of my space, of my neighborhood, of my city. Here's me sharing my reactions with Marijke. 

Jourdan: I've had these conversations before, but not using these terms maybe. And then on the other side of that, what you were saying, wow, how often do I look at myself as an organism and not as a human being separate from the animal world and the plant world and all the top of the pyramid? I guess kind of around that, too, is having the ability to think about space in a way that isn't finite and looking at it as something that I can participate in designing. 

Marijke: There's so much that you said that makes me excited that I want to respond to. So go ahead. Go ahead. 

Marijke: This idea that as humans, we are always designing spaces, whether we're doing it consciously or not, we're always, you know, in relationship with the land and the water and the air and the people in our neighborhood, in our homes. And so can we do this in a way that's more deliberate? 

Marijke: Can we do this in a way that's going to support our health as a species and the health of other species to really move towards this idea of multi species justice? We're all in it together. 

Marijke: You've thought about this a million times, of course, because in a way as complex as this article is, it's also quite simple. 

Marijke: But what they've done is they've substantiated it with a really thorough literature review. So you can be like it's not just a thing that I think is true.

Marijke: I notice that there's more trees in a wealthier neighborhood. I notice, you know, things like I know that when you're in the valley, the air quality is going to be worse. But to see that tied to historic design choices is very powerful. 

Marijke: I'm a city girl. I've almost always lived in cities in my life. That definitely informs my perspective. 

Marijke: Because of that, I was slow to recognize my own relationship with the non-human natural world. I am like many people in cities in that way where we're not necessarily aware of all these other things that are going on in the city with us, all these other creatures that live with us and how we interact with them. What this article provokes for me is to go deeper with that design. That design isn't just about educating or inspiring. It's also like, how do we think about design for justice? How do we think about design for equity? The example in the article about redlining and how redlining reinforces still to this day is impacting racial and class distributions in our cities, and how that's tied to the distribution of biodiversity is really something that forces me now to think, OK, what are the choices that I'm making right now and what are the long term potential impacts of that? 

Jourdan: A few years ago, I was doing some community based learning and Hazelwood, that's where I do all of my community work from. I head a nonprofit called the Morningstar Collaborative in Hazelwood, and one thing we wanted to do was figure out how do we use our resources as far as like the land that we own, the space that we have, stewardship over. How do we use that to infuse the community with joy? How do we use it to infuse the community with peace and thoughtfulness? 

Jourdan:  And how do we transform this space to make people want to use it? And so I was like, oh, we kind of kind of took this a little bit. Like this is very relevant to the work that we did with the lot. So we had a lot where there used to be two homes that had since been torn down, so of overgrown lot. And we decided through collaboration with other organizations who do green space work and play work and all types of community stuff. Right. That we wanted to transfer this lot into a space for reflection and like being present. So reflection, you can come and smell lavender. You can also wait for the bus in a place that's open and green in not just a lot, that's overgrown and you have to stand. And that makes you feel a certain way about the space you're in when you're not inspired by your space. And so I say that to say. one thing that was relevant to the article that stood out to me was how in more wealthier areas, the trees were much greener, there were more tree canopies and there were older three canopies. And I said, wow, like how we've had this idea for me, preserving legacy in, like, history that's afforded to people who have the luxury to do that. in the article talked about like the luxury effect and all of that

Marijke: Yes. 

Jourdan: I was like, oh, that's really interesting. From your perspective, do do you feel like that's like super noticeable, like ever apparent in the city, like things that have been preserved, things that are being maintained, things that are being taken care of as far as space, when I talk about buildings necessarily, but just like space? 

Marijke: I mean so noticeable and going back to parks.

Marijke: And we do have a wealth of amazing parks in our city. But the reality is that our city mirrors national trends. If you look at the trust for public lands, you know, they've looked at park patterns kind of across the country, across cities, across the country, and bigger, greener parks tend to be in wealthier areas. So it's not that there aren't parks in poor communities, but those parks are smaller. 

Marijke: They might be more built environment, less trees. And you think about a park like Frick Park, which gives you a certain kind of experience because it's surrounded by Squirrel Hill, it's Regent Square. 

Marijke: And how do those things play into each other? And then you go into those neighborhoods too, and the trees are all mature, these huge pin oak trees. And what does that do for people that are living there in terms of their mental health, in terms of their physical health? How is the urban heat island reduced in those communities? How is the air quality better in those communities? But also like how do people feel when they're walking down the street in those communities? 

Marijke: The tree canopy example is a great example of a disparity. We see basic access to green space is a type of environmental justice in addition to air quality and water quality and trying to limit the exposure to toxins, which is maybe more what we typically think of for environmental justice. 

Jourdan: One thing that popped up while you were talking for me is during the pandemic there was this surge in people buying puppies and kittens and pets. ...they just needed an animal friend. They wanted a companion. They wanted to have positive, like loving relationship with another being another another organism. And I'm thinking about how the pandemic made us bring those things to us instead of seeking them out. 

Marijke: Oh, interesting. Yeah. And wouldn't that be good if everyone had more of that close by, and maybe that's part of a lesson from this article, can we create communities that you don't have to go far? 

Marijke: And actually, I think this site, like one of our counter narrative arguments that was good is that you do find biodiversity like for example, vacant lots will sometimes have tons of biodiversity.

Marijke: How can we embrace that and cultivate it rather than it just being like a side effect? As I was biking on Frankstown Road, I looked over and there was milkweed just growing up. And a lot like milkweed is this incredible plant for monarch butterflies. So in that case, it seemed like it maybe was a volunteer, but could we intentionally designed some of these spaces to have more stuff like that so that people wouldn't have to go so far? They wouldn't have to go to the big park. They could literally just walk outside their door and maybe it's just growing in the crack of the sidewalk.

Marijke: You know, how do we decide these things? what's the kind of cultural implications of what we do and don't want? You know, our vision of, of a clean landscape with a mowed lawn and big trees and not a lot of other stuff, where does that aesthetic come from? That's a European, formal, you know, aesthetic. How does that seep out into the ways that we also think of other people as things that we're just trying to pull up and just kind of get rid of? 

Jourdan: Reading about how systemic racism shape the ecosystems of cities, including Pittsburgh, across the United States was expansive and informational for me, growing up, I was socialized and enculturated to believe that any plan outside of my parent's home or my grandmother's home was poison ivy, that I should stay away from it. That plants outside, if it wasn't a flower, weren't safe. That being too far from home, unseen in the woods, in nature, was unsafe. Thinking back, there wasn't really any encouragement to be curious, learn about the environment and green space and the non human natural world around me. that was in my family being anti environment. That was their biological adaption and response to the racism that they were encountering and had encountered throughout generations in the environments that they were placed in design into. 

Jourdan: Here's me asking Marijke with their urban ecologists, design justice, warrior hats on how and where should we be having the conversations about how different cultures are engaging the natural human world are impacting the shared environment around them and races role in all of it. 

Marijke: I want to make sure I understand the conversation that you're referring to, which is the conversation of. 

Marijke: Of how different cultures are engaging with the non-human natural world and how that is heavily impacted by history, including a history of racism. Is that the conversation? Yeah, we got to have that conversation because on so many levels, I mean, I'm obviously have drunk the Kool-Aid of the benefits of the natural world for human beings. In a way, I'm like an environmental evangelist, because when you come to something as an adult, you're just like born again. You don't take it for granted. But there's also a huge and very pressing issue of climate change. There's all kinds of policies and all kinds of fixes that people propose or don't propose or ignore. But for me, at the core, all environmental issues, whether it's climate change or overproduction of plastics, everything that's related to the Anthropocene, which is this idea that, that humans are heavily influencing the globe at a large scale. The core problem is that we are not in relation with the non-human natural world or with each other. That's why, to me, racial and environmental justice are absolutely like they have to be connected because it's about being in right relation with each other. 

Marijke: It's about respectful, reciprocal relationships with other beings, whether those beings are trees or your neighbor. And we can't see each other respectfully. It all falls apart and now it all falling apart equals climate change because it's just about extraction, right? We extracted everything we could from enslaved peoples. We extract everything we can from the ground by fracking. It's all just about extraction and consumption. 

Marijke: So until we can break that, we're nowhere. What you said was so intense and I'm way out of my lane here, so just call me out on it Jourdan. But, you know, when I hear that there is like a sense of fear about being in the woods, you're not being seen. It's like, well, let's walk out back. We're still potentially coming from let's talk for real. 

Marijke: Like it's not that many generations ago that someone in your family could have literally been running through those woods to escape. 

Marijke: I absolutely think we need to be talking about that. A personal and political levels. 

Jourdan: I've had these kinds of conversations millions of times, maybe not using the exact same verbiage and language, but conversations about noticing differences between the area that I live in versus areas that are completely different than the opposite end of the spectrum, economically, racially. How do we make this conversation around environmental justice, the environment, the reciprocal relationship between human and nature? How do we engage in plain talk with this conversation? 

Marijke: I think that you are you did with your lot project. Right? And this brings us back to design and design, just as the beauty of the project. And you talked about doing is that it's deeply connected to community based knowledge. And it also enhances community based knowledge. You mentioned that you wanted it to be there because people are waiting for the bus there. That's like a really important thing to know as a designer. Right? 

Marijke: Like you, when you're thinking about how people move through space, that's something that architects and landscape architects are always doing. But,  but you knew that as a community member that that space was important to address. And then you're enriching the community by bringing them the witch hazel and the hazelnuts and the red buds and the perennial flowers. So I think that those are ways that you are in conversation with the community about these things. We just need so much more of that. How do we think about real design justice? Because there's so many community projects that get designed for communities, it's easy to slip into thinking that you know what a community needs and try and offer it to them with good intentions. 

Marijke: But i don't know, is that really what we should be doing? Probably not. You know, I think what we really need to do is figure out how to connect different kinds of expertise.

Marijke: I'm sure somebody who really understood plants made some recommendations. They had to have a big body of knowledge. But there's also deep expertise that comes from the community about where do people sit and what time of day and all of these things matter. Right? I don't know how we do more of that. I guess, just through conversations like this, maybe. 

This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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