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Design Biodiversity Into Our Cities | Sarah Bergmann

Learn about a transformative pilot project and living classroom that links landscapes across Seattle.

John James Audubon was a naturalist and an explorer who arrived in early America in the 1800s and he set out to document every single species of bird in North America as a project that took him 12 years. He created a series of hundreds of lithographs that he eventually compiled into a gorgeous 2-foot by 3-foot book called The Birds of America, or The Double Elephant Folio. The New York Historical Society is lucky enough to own one of these books, and in 2008 I went and saw an exhibition of about 40 of the birds in the book.

The premise of this exhibition was that these 40 birds would be extinct in 10 years. It was seven years ago, and it was one of the most depressing exhibitions I have ever seen. I was struck in that moment by two things: The incredible vastness at the human society that we live in today, and the incredible difference between Audubon's time and ours. That in just a short period of time — really only a couple hundred years — we've moved from incredible vast wilderness to a period where 50 percent of a planet's wildlife has just gone extinct in the last 40 years.

I also concluded that's not a future I want, and I want to try to design a better future. We're living in an incredibly transformative time. It's a profound change and it's one that we've not yet collectively caught up with. There's a name being proposed for this era, and it's the Anthropocene, or the age of humankind. It's a term that's signified we've reached a stage in our planetary history where human beings are a dominant ecological presence in every ecosystem of the globe. Basically, we are nature — it's not over there anymore. That means, then, that all of our systems, our cities and our highways are ecological, and one of the things that we've been doing completely inadvertently — it's not our fault — is designing biodiversity out of our systems.

I was struck in that moment by two things: The incredible vastness of the human society that we live in today, and the incredible difference between Audubon's time and ours.

So I started to wonder, what then would it look like, to design biodiversity back in. Could we create a stable and lasting network for other species that could completely intersect and span the globe. And with 50 percent of the human population now living in urban areas, what could we do in the city? In 2008, I moved to my hometown of Seattle and I got to work on that idea.

I set out to make a public design project that would connect landscape and would support declining native pollinators. When most people think of pollinators, they think of the honey bee, and the honey bee is a beloved domestic collaborator. It's a non-native species; it was brought here from Europe to North America; it is originally a Eurasian species, and we use them in our farming landscapes because of the lack of biodiversity in those systems.

There's a whole other world here, though — 80 percent of the planet's plant life is pollinated by something. So these are bats, bees, beetles, ants, butterflies, midges, flies; and when I say bees, I'm talking about the 20,000 species of bees globally, and about 800 to 1,000 in the Northwest, and maybe 4,000 in the United States. All of these pollinators are effectively pollinating everything we see. So every plant, every shrub, every tree that you see is pollinated by something. They are, basically, the reproductive strategy for plant life, and therefore for ecosystems, and ecosystems thrive best when they're connected.

So I set about making a beautiful public design project that is called the Pollinator Pathway, and the point was to connect Seattle University's campus, around 12th and Columbia, to a small woods, called Nora's Woods, on 29th and Columbia. How I did this was by inviting the community that lives in between these two spaces, one narrow street and inviting them to participate in this project by transforming this simple grass planting strip into a garden that we researched and designed and built for them, so that together, when everyone participated, we would connect these two landscapes.

I meant to build this project as a sort of site of study for myself, and I plan to work on it for about ten years, and it's been more infectious than I ever imagined. At this point, I've worked with over 1,500 people on this project. I've worked with ecologists, entomologist, designers, architects and planners who are all enthusiastic and want to try to help push this idea forward. The project's been a site of study for various entomologists who come out once per week to monitor the project, and it's a living classroom for three different universities.

The result is a public design project that's infectious, that's bio-diverse, and that's connected.

The result is a public design project that's infectious, that's bio diverse, and that's connected. If this were just one project, it really wouldn't be a success. So this year I've opened up to partnerships with different agencies, design firms, architects and agencies around the world to begin to build criteria for developing further projects just like this. This year I developed a partnership with Capitol Hill Housing, the nonprofit developer, and with Seattle City Light, and with Seattle University to build three brand new pollinator pathways.

If I can think of a difference between Audubon's time and ours, it's that we've moved from a time of wilderness to a period of fragmented ownership of landscape. What this project is really trying to do is connect across those ownerships towards connected ecology. The end result, I hope, is a connected landscape that works from cities to farms to wilderness in a national system of ecological design. Thank you.

Sarah Bergmann


Speaker Bio

Sarah Bergmann is the founder of the Pollinator Pathway®, a participatory ecology and design initiative that rethinks the relationship between urban, agricultural and wilderness landscapes. The Pollinator Pathway connects existing isolated green spaces to foster greater biodiversity, and in urban areas works by piggybacking on existing infrastructure (curb space, rooftops, etc.). Nestled in the heart of Seattle, Washington, the original Pollinator Pathway connects Seattle University’s campus to a small woods with a mile-long corridor of native plant-focused, pollinator-friendly gardens inhabiting the planting strips in front of homes. Read more