The City as Urban Reef

2013•03•29 Jose Edgardo Gomez Philippine National College of Public Administration & Governance

Human Dimensions is the in-house biannual magazine of the United Nations University International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (UNU-IHDP). As part of each issue of Human Dimensions, UNU-IHDP invites young scholars to participate in a topical writing contest. For the second issue, published in January 2013, the contest theme was the ‘human dimensions of biodiversity and ecosystem services’. The following article is the second place entry, published in the issue: House of Cards: The perilous state of global biodiversity.

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“’There, you see’, men will say, ‘I knew they were there all the time. I just had a feeling they were there.’ Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans.” — John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

When the world was much younger, Spanish conquistadors crisscrossed the erstwhile-uncharted Pacific in search of passages to the Indies and other fabled lands of the Orient. In their logs, these sailors wrote of many a strange sea creature caught writhing in their nets, or of monsters they had espied spouting and churning the waves from afar. They described too how natives of islands along the way snared turtles with carapaces larger than shields, or fished for limbless undines of the most delectable flesh.

Soon, much of what had been encountered in terra incognita and mare liberum was named and subdued, as Europeans and latter-day Americans founded many settlements along the Pacific Rim from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In some cases, these explorers integrated themselves permanently by conquest, trade and intermarriage into indigenous seaboard communities that were already thriving in a region of diverse co-existing cultures that would later be called Southeast Asia.

“This, interestingly, is the same principle that governs the Internet and the constancy of Jane Jacobs’ quintessential New York neighbourhoods: there is strength in numbers, and even more strength in networks.”

Those nascent settlements have since burgeoned into cities like Jakarta, Singapore, Malacca, Dili and Manila, which have prospered largely because of their inhabitants’ maritime trade with one another, and because of a historical reliance on the bountiful seas that have sustained their ports.

By definition, these places constituted the loci of civilizations that were formed out of a magnificent implosion of humans from all walks of life. Physically, this grouping is reflected in the flourishing of buildings, markets and ordered spaces where talented people come to try their luck in such hubs of opportunity — sometimes only to become mired in poverty, or worse, to eke out a living in that limbo of the masses that Thoreau labelled as “quiet desperation”.

Cities, we need to remind ourselves, are simultaneously concentrations of junk, diseases and psychological ills that hatch out of enforced mingling. Nowadays, in a global community that has been heeding the clarion call to sustainable development since the first Rio Summit in 1992 and which has been bedevilled by climate change that spawns hotter summers and more violent storms, cities have come under scrutiny for at least two reasons. First, they funnel an inordinately huge amount of resources into human consumption (and away from other organisms’ use), and second, they discharge an appalling glut of wastes. Both of these characteristics have deleterious effects on the marine environment, ranging from overfished waters to degradation of coastal habitats.

These effects harm biodiversity. This essay revisits that seldom-appreciated kinship between cities — especially coastal ones — and the undersea environs, by focusing on that one place on the globe where abundance of marine life is enthroned and yet where developing nation-states are urbanizing in ways that imperil its cornucopia. There are three fundamental changes in perspective that we may espouse, in order to guide respectful and restorative action towards the centre of oceanic biodiversity.

Before taking the plunge, so to speak, let us disabuse ourselves of that romantic notion touted by media that we shall be playing Earth’s saviours. What does the ocean care if we add another harbour or oil rig, or launch more trawlers? We are saving ourselves first; or rather, ensuring the conditions that make the planet delightfully habitable for generations of Homo sapiens. The oceans will endure, along with their countless denizens whether or not we, sooner or later, go the way of the dinosaurs. By sheer force of numbers, ease of reproduction and adaptability to extreme conditions and remote corners of the Earth, microorganisms and lesser aquatic beings could simply wait out any man-made nuclear holocaust that has made land unliveable, and perhaps evolve into a wiser replacement of us eons later.

This resonates substantially with one of the arguments put forth as early as 1962 by Rachel Carson, who pointed out the futility of formulating more virulent pesticides that would only exterminate a fraction of those insect populations labelled as pests. Cockroaches and their ilk would resurge with a vengeance, responding to what she called the “obligation to endure”, while the death-sprays would seep into aquifers and poison their makers’ drinking water. Such adversarial resilience would make an entertaining parody of Star Trek’s Borg were it not gradually suicidal on our part to be fouling our own nests. Of late, we have thus learned to vote green, bike to work, turn vegetarian and legislate rights for animals because of a growing recognition of the need to tread with a lighter step in the great mansions of Mother Earth.

As we sink our heads beneath the waves moreover, we realize how unfamiliar we are with the submerged complexity that embraces every diver in the teeming tropics. If the modern, coastal city can be likened to the Fort Knox of human diversity, then the coral reefs just offshore must be compared to the vaster, legendary Mines of Solomon. That is, the sheer numbers of creatures that swim about, float, cling to rocks or grow out of sand and stone boggles the imagination. This is Nature’s ultimate spawning ground, where the first semblance of life emerged from the primordial soup some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago and evolved into all types of creature — including the latecomer human being, who emerged a mere 2 million years ago. If the history of life were analogous to a year-long party, we literally arrived at the scene near midnight on December 31st — and then proceeded to lord it over the millions of other guests who had been there earlier.

This place on Earth where marine life explodes with such exuberance is a geographic region called the Coral Triangle. It roughly encompasses parts of Malaysia, half of Indonesia, most of Timor Leste, all of the Philippines and sections of Papua New Guinea and islands of Melanesia. Its margins start at the northern tip of the Philippines, stretch southwest through Sabah and Java, and southeast to the Solomon Islands. In an area that covers some 6 million kilometers, two or less than two percent of the planet’s oceanic surface, it contains about 75 percent of the world’s known coral species, which host 6,000 species of reef fish and 27 species of marine mammals. An impressive 51 of the world’s 70 known mangrove species are also found in these parts, along with nearly half of all kinds of seagrass. Because of its globally-unrivalled zones of 500 coral species and other attractions, it draws thousands of scholars, tourists and migrants from all over the world, who study, recreate and settle down in this paradise of sun, sea and sand.

“If we think of the city as the agora of human heterogeneity, then the reef is an even larger bazaar of biological differences.”

Perhaps more relevant from an ordinary person’s standpoint is the fact that no fewer than 120 million people also inhabit this area, all of whom are directly or indirectly dependent on the oceans around them — yet often unaware of their impacts on the same waters. More vitally, from a global perspective, the Coral Triangle is a biological bastion against the onslaught of climate change. That is, while global warming and carbonation wreak havoc on marine habitats elsewhere around the world, this region sustains relatively less overall damage and has been determined to bounce back faster, so that fisheries in the Asia-Pacific owe much of their recovered volumes to this generator of life. Such steadfastness, marine ecologists will readily explain, is intimately linked to the degree of biodiversity in the region — the greater the number of interlinked species in the food web, the less likely it is that acute disasters can knock out the whole system; this, interestingly, is the same principle that governs the Internet and the constancy of Jane Jacobs’ quintessential New York neighbourhoods: there is strength in numbers, and even more strength in networks. Would it be too far below us therefore, to join such a community rather than inadvertently destroy it?

How is the city like a reef?

The coral reef, the main feature of this geographic region, is after all, in many ways the perfection of our ideal urban areas. In the greatest cities of Asia, most of which are coastal or control a major riparian outlet to the sea, one can find every imaginable good and service to satisfy citizens’ needs and caprices. Yet more can be said of the functions of coral reefs, which are immense banquet halls of nutrients and debris that are taken up and transformed by free swimming and bottom-dwelling creatures. If we think of the city as the agora of human heterogeneity, then the reef is an even larger bazaar of biological differences.

If cities serve as refuges against tyranny and rural drudgery, then coral reefs, by analogy, are even finer sanctuaries against danger. In medieval German cities, it was a popular refrain that city air made one free — a place where serf and journeyman might afford respite from landlord and cleric. To this day, cities shelter oppressor and oppressed alike in more than the physical sense embodied by roof and bed; the future Mother Teresas and Al Capones are often but a wall apart in the slums and go-downs described by Kipling and Maugham. Mirroring this, but on a more labyrinthine scale, coral reefs serve as the nurseries of shoals of fish, pods of seals, beds of oysters. Not only do these habitats ensconce the competing juveniles of various species, they also physically protect continental coastlines from erosion and flooding by acting as undersea wave breakers and as dikes.

If cities are the toast of human variety, then coral reefs are incessant celebrations of marine miscellany. In the first instance, if one were to look hard enough, maybe around the next street corner, one would find a treasure-trove of social roles: the Broadway diva, the corporate yuppie, the street-corner mime and the painted courtesan rub shoulders with the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. But in grander fashion, if we were to zoom into the reef’s crevices, we would find not only Nemo, but his clownfish parents, tangs and moorish idols, starfish and sea snails, clams and octopi, crustaceans and anemones, all linked together in the endless dance of life: spawning, settling, metamorphosing, dying and being absorbed back into a soupy flux. Nor is identity the rule here; for many creatures aggregate or host other smaller commensals or parasites — as a dog in the city has fleas, so does a dugong at sea carry barnacles.

“We would not be looking so far abroad for the elusive El Dorado if we knew that we were sitting atop a pile of gold.”

There is therefore much at stake in this kaleidoscopic medley of life on the equator, because it constitutes the liquid base that terrestrial existence rests upon. Not only do the waters of the Coral Triangle provide the consumable biomass mentioned earlier that keep cities alive, but they are also indispensable for the absorption of carbon and other chemicals by marine plants and animals, for regulating and stabilizing patterns of currents and thus temperatures, and for providing the experiential bases of cultures of Southeast Asia and adjacent regions. To lose or substantially damage corals which took thousands of years to accumulate is to invite hunger, inundation and a tragic loss of living icons and folklore that make up the human heritage engendered by such seascapes.

How, might we ask, can a responsible citizen do her share to remedy the despoliation? Without having to go into the well-meant but hackneyed calls to reduce urban carbon footprints, join coastal clean-ups, protest against rapacious fishing and participate in turtle egg-laying vigils, I propose some shifts in mental perspective based on the classic sustainability trio of economic, social and environmental viability, as follows:

How to live as a citizen of the coral triangle

The first order of the day is to take account of our true riches. We would not be looking so far abroad for the elusive El Dorado if we knew that we were sitting atop a pile of gold. Gold, that is, in terms of the breadth and depth of life that this region offers to the world. If we could prudently manage just the Coral Triangle alone, we would be able to feed, nourish and employ millions even beyond its fringes. But still there are those who would mine this biodiversity for potent organic chemicals that could be used to manufacture new epoxies, rejuvenate our bodies and cure cancers. But this is utilitarian biodiversity — we should rather be interested in valuing locational richness per se. After all, how does one measure the worth of a clear day on a sparkling beach, spent collecting an endless variety of seashells? And all this enjoyed not just by moneyed vacationers, but also by the public at large? This part of the undersea realm is decidedly fecund; it generates new species, crafts beautiful landscapes and seascapes and allows its surplus to be carried by wind and wave to the sparser and colder reaches of the watery empire. Coupled with our own moderated consumption, there would be enough for everyone, and no need to jealously hoard such bio-opulence. Education is thus crucial for raising public awareness in cities about the value of marine biodiversity, as well as for emphasizing our responsibility to exercise temperance in harvesting it. It is equally difficult to imagine that any but the most mean-spirited might choose to continue acting irresponsibly, as to do so would be tantamount to squandering one’s own natural heritage.

Second, we need to wrestle with the question of who shall rightly benefit from the Coral Triangle. There are two knotty problems involved here, both related to observed human behaviour. For one, because we deal with numerous stakeholders competing for site-specific resources, we collide against the Tragedy of the Commons, wherein self-interested rational users conclude that they are better off plundering a resource in a race against their peers. Next, notions of community are still inextricably tied to the mental hegemony of the nation-state. Because nation-states within the Coral Triangle differ in their altruism as well as military might, the larger players may tend to press their demands forcefully, as in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. These are claimed by six countries, behind which are arrayed any possible number of vested third-party interests. We must remind ourselves however, that sea creatures and currents are respecters neither of invisible political boundaries, nor of race.

What does it matter to the tuna whether it gets caught by a Papuan, Filipino or Malaysian? As long as the fish escapes their nets, it lives to breed. Fortunately, some progress has been made with respect to international relations, pursuant to diplomatic and scientific recommendations: under the United Nations auspices, the concerned states have forged cooperative agreements on fishing practices, endangered species protection and standards for shipping. Only state boundaries remain a ticklish issue and require more political will to avoid armed confrontation. Nevertheless, what matters here is the nurturing of a supra-statal consciousness that transcends jingoist sentiments and envisions a truly shared Coral Triangle. This needs to be backed up by legislation and the establishment of funded administrative bodies, in order to become effective.

Eventually, however, one more psychic leap will remain for us to attempt: we were reminded half a century ago by Aldo Leopold that our concept of moral community has been expanding throughout history. We have therefore come to the point where it is less unusual to consider non-humans and their needs as part of the community to be planned for. For governments in the Coral Triangle, this is easier said than done though, and so I shall have to leave it at that, as food for thought.

Lastly, let us recast how we look at the natural environment, in particular that unexamined dichotomy between city and reef. Need there be such a sharp division, when sea and shore actually share flows of resources? One may alternatively view these locations along a gradient, starting from average depths of 60 meters, where reef-building growth may start, and rising with the sea floor, growing in diversity as sunlight increases, up through the intertidal zone, past the high-water tidal mark and onto the coastal-dweller’s doorstep. The coastal settlement, especially if it has been built economically by the profits from the sea, and perhaps also literally out of the limestone and aggregates of the strand, can be considered an extension of the reef. Aside from its potentially humbling effect, the more pragmatic benefit of considering one’s city as the superficial outcrop of the Coral Triangle is that one never takes one’s terra firma for granted. When viewed as a less complex replica of the coral below, the city as urban reef becomes an extension of the sea’s diversity — which indeed it is, in billion-year retrospect. In order to thrive therefore, the coastal city must seek to grow along the same lines as its successful predecessors. As it is below the waters, so must it be above. Subsequently, we become physically and socially part of a larger macro-biological edifice and begin to see ourselves as members, not élite — a change of attitude embraced by deep ecologists and similarly-minded thinkers.

I close by qualifying that my statements are by no means exhaustive prescriptions, but are meant to impart to the reader a spatial planner’s appreciation of the Coral Triangle, a region which seems to be less known than it should be by laypersons outside the circles of scientists and policymakers concerned with Earth-shaping matters. Juxtaposed against, and linked to, another palpable and headline-grabbing phenomenon — that of rapid urbanization of Asian countries — the Coral Triangle has become a topic deserving attention of those who desire to realize full potentials of biodiversity integrated with sustainable development. Through informed and conscience-driven action consistent with the propositions mentioned, we may yet realize that we too should count ourselves among the wondrous creatures born of the copious ocean.

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This article appears courtesy of Human Dimensions magazine and UNU-IHDP. For a list of this article’s references please see the bibliography.

All rights reserved.



Jose Edgardo Gomez

Philippine National College of Public Administration & Governance

“Jed”, as his friends and family call him, is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration & Governance. Concurrently, he is an Assistant Professor at the same university’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. His research interests include streetscape sociology, waterfront development, and resilient cities, although he grew up to appreciate the natural world as well, having learned much from his father, a renowned marine biologist.

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