Review: Civic Ecology: Adaptation and Transformation from the Ground Up

Author(s) Marianne E. Krasny and Keith G. Tidball
Publisher MIT Press
Year 2015

Kransy and Tidball’s Civic Ecology is a book that promises something different and actually delivers. The book sets out a clear mandate to demonstrate the notion of ‘civic ecology’ and to this end presents an array of case studies showcasing people and their practices towards ‘transforming broken places’ through their engagement with community and nature.

At the outset the authors present their ‘two pillars’, drawing on the work of two historic figures pertinent to American history. They look to Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote about civic engagement in his travels across America the 1830s for the notion of ‘civic’, and in turn to Aldo Leopold, one of America’s earliest ecologists, for a definition of ‘ecology’. They make no apologies for their singular selections and come up with clear and interesting definitions and principles that in turn can be readily applied to the case studies in the book. Ten principles are set out to guide the reader. None of these are novel or spectacular in-and-of themselves , but I have yet to see these principles presented together in this manner, and again in a way that is clear and uncluttered by more traditional academic writing.

What follows is a rich collection of stories from ‘stewards’ and reflection pieces ordered to speak to each of the ten civic ecology principles. The varied (both geographically and in nature) content speaks to the emergence of civic ecology in broken places and the exceptional nature of stewards in their pursuit of civic ecology. In turn, the stories show how civic ecology builds community, draws on socio-ecological memory, produces ecosystem services, fosters well-being, and provides opportunities for learning. The role of systems is demonstrated, where notions of scale, partnerships, and cycles of chaos and renewal are explored. In the conclusion, the authors bring the text back to what is possibly a more comfortable and conforming space in positioning civic ecology within the realm of policy makers.

The content is well written and the voices of the stewards evident, making the work feel fresh and relevant. I was of course delighted to see the inclusion of cases from the global south. Amongst others, we meet Helga Garduhn and Marian Przybilla from Germany who share their story of seeking a united environmental community following the fall of the Berlin Wall; Mandla Mentoor who grew up in a township in South Africa and seeks to draw community together through engaging with art and nature; and Nam-Sun Park from South Korea who carries out restoration projects under the banner of Local Agenda 21. The book is peppered with the active voices of these civic ecology stewards, and indeed their stories are nothing short of inspirational. These stories are carefully woven together with chapters that reflect on the emerging narratives in relation to the guiding principles.

In all respects the book manages a balance between clear direction set out in the guiding principles, and a clear purpose and then the more understated narrative and reflection. The reader is never left feeling cramped or stifled. As someone who teaches urban ecology I think this is a most refreshing addition to the otherwise predictable traditional academic texts in this field. The combination of diverse case studies with normative directives provides excellent material for postgraduate teaching where students can be both exposed to a diversity of experiences and also provoked to consider their own civic duty, and more broadly what constitutes civic duty. I thoroughly look forward to introducing the book to my class this year and imagine I will draw on it for teaching and personal inspiration for years to come.

Dr. Pippin Anderson is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town. She teaches urban ecology at the postgraduate level and convenes the MPhil in Environment, Society and Sustainability. Her research sits in the nexus between landscape ecology and restoration; understanding system function at the landscape level to inform recovery to meet conservation and land use agendas. The rationale for her research has always been based on a desire to inform the human wellbeing and livelihood elements of landscape use and simultaneously in achieving conservation ends.


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