Projecting Nature

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Driving into Salt Lake City from the west, the shady streets and verdant gardens can feel like an oasis at the edge of the desert. Yet the Salt Lake Valley was not always so green. As people settled the valley, they brought new plants to the landscape. Whether for agriculture, aesthetics, or utility, human hands dramatically changed the ecology of the Salt Lake Valley.

For ecologists, the urban environment presents a compelling and pressing issue, as scientific knowledge is complicated by considerations of human values and decision-making. Diane Pataki, professor of Biology and associate dean of research for the College of Science, will explore the complexities of urban ecology in her lecture from 4-5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25 as part of the GCSC Seminar Series.

Pataki’s faculty appointment is in the School of Biological Sciences, but she also teaches in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning. Her work is necessarily interdisciplinary—her Urban Ecology Research Lab examines the many ecological factors at play in urban spaces. Through research on climate, water, pollution, aesthetics and other factors affecting the ecology of urban spaces, Pataki’s research provides valuable data that can better inform how and what we plant.

As climate change and resource scarcity become more important issues in our daily lives, many seek to make more informed decisions in their garden. “Most of the vegetation in Salt Lake City is planted by people, so people are always making decisions: what should they plant, and what should they remove?” Pataki says.

However, most research in ecology doesn’t fully account for how human decision-making affects the environment. Pataki notes that we have extensive scientific knowledge about how plants interact with climatic and biological forces but less about the human element. Yet, in studying urban spaces, the decisions humans make are significant, and often have little relevance to the native ecology of the region.

“People plant things for certain reasons and many of those reasons are aesthetic, and not scientific,” explains Pataki, “and that’s perfectly valid. So how do you bring in things like aesthetics into a decision-making framework?”

The picture is further complicated by the fundamental objectivity of scientific research, Pataki explains, because “traditionally, scientists are not supposed to tell people what to do. Science is supposed to be objective, and we’re not supposed to lobby for certain outcomes.” Science seeks to be objective and not prescriptive, and yet studying urban ecology means ultimately making decisions about what is necessary to a place. To different people, different things are important. “We project things onto urban spaces and not all of those things are scientific. We project cultural meaning onto spaces, we project values onto spaces, we want spaces to have a certain interaction with people, and that interaction can be highly subjective.”

As a result of these philosophical questions, Pataki has collaborated with researchers in the Philosophy department. Ultimately, she explains, they are seeking to understand, “How do you do science in a normative context?”

How can research on urban ecology navigate this dissonance between objective research and subjective decision-making? Come to ASB 210 on Tuesday, Sept. 25 to hear Pataki explore this fascinating intersection of urban space, science and philosophy.

 


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