• D. Pataki

New paper highlight: Ethical experiments in urban greening

Are scientists responsible for the negative impacts of green infrastructure projects?

Modern cities are a relatively new invention. In the late 19th and 20 centuries, cities and towns rapidly expanded to become major metropolitan areas, industrial and commercial hubs, and megacities, often with surprising results. Many of today's environmental problems - including climate change, air and water pollution, and habitat loss - are the unanticipated consequences of rapid industrialization and urban expansion.

The urban greening movement arose out of the hope and promise that there are better ways to build cities that align with nature instead of opposing it. Incorporating greenspace and green infrastructure into urban design has huge potential to benefit both people and biodiversity. But this doesn't mean that new green infrastructure designs come with zero risk. In fact, it's commonly documented that adding new greenspace to urban neighborhoods can have unintended consequences of its own, like gentrification.

Do the scientists that help design experimental new green infrastructure have any responsibility for these consequences? To explore this question, I teamed up with philosopher Carlos Santana, urban planner Sarah Hinners, landscape architect Alex Felson, and social scientist Jesse Engebretson. Together we developed a framework to guide scientist-practitioners from the natural sciences, social sciences, and urban planning and design professions who participate in the design of green infrastructure and urban ecological experiments.

The ethical design of urban greening experiments requires us all to consider our obligations to avoid harm to both people and non-human species, as well as to produce credible new knowledge, all while meeting the professional obligations of planning and design practitioners. There are important lessons to be learned from the history of biomedical ethics and community engaged research in public health - but instead of learning hard lessons after our research has already harmed vulnerable people and communities, now is the time to put a common code of ethics into practice, before the widespread adoption of green infrastructure experiments throughout cities.

This paper is published in Plants, People, Planet. You can see a short video about our framework and read the full paper here.