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Call of the Wild: A Socio-Ecological Approach to Human Habitats

Diane Pataki knows a few things about an interdisciplinary approach to science. A trained ecologist she is as much at home as a fellow in the American Geophysical Union as she in a traditional biology department largely founded on the study of botanicals and mammals on both the taxonomic and molecular/cellular levels.

While currently a faculty member in the School of Biological Sciences as well as Associate Dean of Research in the College of Science, she is also the AssociateDirector of the U’s Center for Ecological Planning & Design in the College of Architecture + Planning. A further extension of her expertise and interest is in northern Utah where she holds an adjunct appointment in the Ecology Center and the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at Utah State University.

Whether it’s developing an integrated socio-ecohydrologic framework to facilitate the understanding of and transitions to sustainable water systems, or giving the keynote address at the Atmospheric Sciences Symposium at UC Berkeley, Pataki, a PhD graduate from the Duke University Nicholas School of Environment, sees her academic role as a convener of seemingly divergent sectors in pursuit of understanding the emergence of sustainable ecological practices. Little wonder then that her research of late in urban ecology has quickly bled into the kind of community outreach consistent with the “One U” concept, the idea that the University is as much “for” Utah as it is “of” Utah.

Emblematic of that outreach is one of Pataki’s current projects, the Landscape Lab, the construction of which begins the summer of 2019. The Lab is part of the U’s Center for Ecological Planning & Design, and will restore ecological and social functions to a portion of the Red Butte Creek watershed in the University’s Research Park. This in turn will increase access to recreational space for occupants of the nearby Williams Building, the campus community, and the public as a whole. The Lab will also test research questions about urban stream restoration, urban runoff management, hydrology, use of public space, and more.

Central to the installation of the Landscape Lab is the hope of answering a persistent question of Pataki’s and other urban ecologists: Since eighty percent of Americans now live in an urban habitat, exactly what is that habitat? Furthermore, how does this habitat inform both the scientifically-based notion of nature as well as the socially-based notion of culture—an intersection where a species is both radically shaped and where it shapes its (our) environment?

Rendering of the The Landscape Lab courtesty of VODA Landscape+Planning

“This is a big project,” explains Pataki. “It’s about turning [this part of ] campus into a living lab, an unexploited place for us to do research and for learning.” The Lab is a component of a larger seventy-page plan to revitalize the entire corridor along the campus stretch of Red Butte Creek. The overall goal is to transform the riparian corridor from a neglected, underused area of campus to an asset for teaching, research, and community engagement.

The Landscape Lab is intended to be both a scientific experiment and a beautiful garden space designed by local consultants VODALandscape + Planning. One of the experiments to be conducted involves bio-swales, patches of land designed to infiltrate rather than repel stormwater that would otherwise contribute to high stream flows, pollution loads, and erosion of Red Butte Creek. In water-limited places, such as the high desert of Utah, sustainable water management infiltrates storm water into the soil where it replenishes local life cycles.

Eventually, artists, philosophers and other abstract thinkers will also find a home and a “lab” in this green space of an urban garden. “We are creating a scientific experiment writ large, as it were,” Pataki says, “that’s beautiful on top.”

The socio-ecological Landscape Lab is in part an attempt to put science underneath the concurrent public discourse between the empirical (rational) and equally important valuebased discourses about habitats. In this sense, the Lab will ideally function as a catalyst, bringing the two halves of our sometimes contentious and emotional discourse over land management together. This exertion of communicative power happens by bringing diverse peoples into the living lab. At the same time, in ecological studies it’s critical, but still relatively

“We are creating a scientific experiment writ large, as it were, that’s beautiful on top.”

rare, to directly measure the environmental benefits and costs of urban landscapes. The Pataki Lab uses a variety of methods to measure urban plant and soil processes and translate these processes into costs and benefits of interest to urban residents, managers, and policy-makers.

In addition to the Landscape Lab, Pataki and her partners have a number of ongoing projects focusing on the role of different plant species, landscape types, and land cover in influencing urban climate, water resources, atmospheric composition, and greenhouse gas emissions. “We are investigating these processes in Los Angeles, California and Salt Lake City,” writes Pataki in her research statement, “with direct measurements of plant physiology, ecosystem water balance, soil nutrient cycling, and greenhouse gases.”

“Science is about working with the unknowns,” Pataki says. The scientific method requires testing theories and hypotheses about the consequences of designing and managing urban nature in different ways. “Cities [and suburban areas] are really complicated ecosystems,” she continues. “We don’t yet know how to build urban nature that benefits everyone.”

Enlisting the expertise of professionals who represent different disciplines as well as stakeholders in our environment (that is, all of us) means allowing for an urban garden and landscape that is democratized. Basic ecological science is a major underpinning to that broader conversation, a seamless joining of Pataki’s research and community outreach.