On April 20, 2010 — one year ago this week — the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig operated by BP off the southeast coast of Louisiana, exploded, opening a sea-floor gusher that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster that unfolded — some five million barrels of oil would be spilled in the three months before the well was capped — was a gut-wrenching reminder of how profoundly American dependence on fossil fuels affects our marine environments. Yet a mere six months later, after only modest regulatory reforms, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling; the event had already begun to recede from public consciousness. And so we wasted — along with much else — the chance to have a larger, more searching conversation about the impact of our actions and choices on the health of the ocean.
If we are to tilt toward a sustainable world, we've got to show more than fleeting concern for marine habitats. In the words of oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle: "The world is blue." Oceans cover most of the earth's surface — 130,000 square miles — at an average depth of 2.5 miles, forming its largest life zone and serving as the primary regulator of planetary chemistry. They are an important source of protein for the world's almost seven billion people. Our environmental health and indeed our survival — our systems of food production, energy, transportation, temperature regulation, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and more —are dependent upon the earth's waters.
As planners and designers, we need to take up the mantle of blue urbanism. Just as green urbanism challenges us to rethink sustainability at the city scale, blue urbanism asks us to re-imagine ourselves as citizens of a blue planet. How can we become better stewards of the world's oceans?
In October 2010, the Census of Marine Life released the results of a ten-year study of marine biodiversity, which significantly increased estimates of the quantity of ocean life. Genetic analysts believe there are at least one million distinct marine species and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of microbe species. Less than five percent of the sea has been explored and only one-quarter of its species discovered, but already we know that marine environments are more biologically diverse than terrestrial environments at the phylum level. But as we begin to appreciate this biodiversity, we need also to recognize that it is in peril. We are rapidly approaching unprecedented tipping points that, if unheeded, will lead inexorably to systemic failure. Hypoxic dead zones surround river mouths and coastal areas, industrial fishing technologies are rapidly depleting fish populations and degrading habitats, and massive amounts of plastic waste and chemical toxins are polluting marine ecosystems from mangroves to intertidal zones to the deep sea. Carbon emissions are changing the basic chemistry of the planet, raising ocean temperatures and altering acidity levels, which in turn are endangering coral reefs and other marine life. The human reach is so great that it threatens even the vast and remote deep pelagic zone, the area of the open ocean extending from three hundred feet below the surface to just above the ocean floor.
City Planning and Marine Sprawl
Until recently, cities have mostly evaded responsibility for the failure of ocean systems because it is difficult to visualize or quantify the offshore effects of urban life. Our city maps stop at the water's edge, even though the activities that support urban systems extend many miles beyond. In The Urban Whale, Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium have produced a fascinating map of terrestrial watersheds and offshore waters on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, showing areas of urban activity, including high boat traffic, shipping, fishing and dredging. Mechanical noise from ships near port cities has produced "acoustic smog" so thick that the chance of two North Atlantic right whales hearing each other is 10 percent of what it was a century ago. This kind of marine sprawl rarely gets the attention within our profession that terrestrial sprawl does...
Read the rest of “Blue Urbanism: The City and the Ocean” by Timothy Beatley at
Image by Plastic Pollution Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons.