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Regional planning and environmental systems science

The theory of property interests grew up in the law to answer an economic need. The instrumentality by which society assured that the application of personal wealth and effort to particular individual or social uses would be protected was the law of property. In many communities, however, the economic need that was once satisfied by the law of property as it now seems to exist is undergoing profound alteration. It is evolving as an institution of society and the direction of its evolution is being determined by principles of human ecology.



Ecology is often characterized as the scientific study of the “web of life. Human beings can be found somewhere in that web, either as spinner or unwilling captive, and there has been much written about man’s “place in nature.” As a modern science, Ecology deals with organisms in their environment and with the processes that link organisms and their habitats.

Ecology, however, is more than the study of any organism in its environment, it is the integrated study of organisms and their environment. Ecology involves consideration of the prerequisites of human existence on earth: the essential physical and chemical factors, food, and energy. Ecology as an integrative discipline provides a framework within which seemingly disparate human activities can be seen in relationship to each other; although the vision is less than clear at times in relation to the whole of life.

The study of the relationships among different organisms and between organisms and their environment has resulted in the description of various biogeochemical cycles which provide a convenient way of modeling very complex systems. The most nearly perfect cyclical processes are those involving water and nitrogen, while the least cyclical processes are those in which mate­ rial is removed from the continents and deposited in the permanent basins of the ocean. ·

While individual ecologists may work on only one problem at a time and their working view of ecology may be quite limited in scope, the ideas and concepts that are the consequence of their individual work fit together to build an intellectual construct of greater dimension and significance. What ecologists are about is no less than building an understanding of the role of living things within the structure and function of the universe. Although there is a discipline in sociology designated Human Ecology, it has dealt mostly with urban geography and population demographics. In 1969, Paul Shepard observed that

“Ecology . . . as such cannot be studied, only organisms, earth, air, and sea can be studied. [Ecology] is not a discipline: there is no body of thought and technique which frames an ecology of man. It must be therefore a scope or a way of seeing. Such a perspective on the human situation is very old and has been part of philosophy and art for thousands of years. It badly needs attention and revival.”
The Subversive Science: Essays Toward An Ecology of Man (1969).

The fundamental and basic concepts of animal ecology are also the fundamental and basic concepts of human ecology. The laws of Nature apply to the human species as they do to animals. Human beings cannot ignore the dynamic forces of the environment with impunity.


The Regional Environmental System

In environmental land use planning and resource management, considerable emphasis is placed on the need to understand the system of interacting elements or component parts of the social, economic and natural environments. Environmental systems analysis demonstrates the extent of the overall impact on the environment of a region —The Regional Environmental System —which can be expected from any alteration, modification or disturbance of any particular system or system element.

Before the Regional Environmental System can be defined, the word “environment” which has become so common must be precisely defined since it has come to mean different things to different people.

“Environment” should be defined in the broad sense now accepted by environmental systems scientists after a series of courtroom tests which began in 1966 with the first challenge to DDT as an environmental toxicant, (Carol A. Yannacone v. Dennison, et. al), and tested during hearings before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and in the federal courts during the Project Rulison litigation,.

Environment is the word used to represent the complex System established (in the mathematical sense) by the union of the sets of natural, social, economic and societal resources existing in a region; and the set of all interactions among those resources; and the sets of natural, social, societal and economic processes operating within or upon the region.

One of the most valuable results of a comprehensive definition of “Environment” is the ease with which the region within which the potential for liability resulting from the use of property must be evaluated.

The constant feedback between man and environment inevitably implies a continuous alteration of both. However, the various aspects of biological and social nature constitute such a highly integrated system that they can be altered only within a certain range. Neither physicochemical concepts of the body machine nor hopes for technological breakthroughs are of use in defining the ideal man or the proper environment unless they take into consideration the elements of the past that have become progressively incarnated in human nature and in the human societies, and that determine the limitations and the potentialities of human life. R. Dubos, So Human An Animal (1968).

The human community and its social and economic systems constitute integral elements of any region just as surely as do the aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, precipitation, climate, topography, watersheds and drainage units, groundwater, soils, vegetation, wildlife, scenic vistas, historic sites, and all the other readily determinable elements that environmental scientists and planners are so fond of inventorying. Even private property must now be considered as an element of those natural, social, societal and economic systems the interactions among which establish the Regional Environmental System in which the property may be located at the moment of concern or define the region, in space and time, throughout which the effects of its use can be perceived.

The inflexible and rigid “master plans” spawned by federal largesse during the half century since Euclid and the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act must be replaced by conceptual models of community ecosystems which consider human societies as biomes and consider human ecotones as carefully as plant associations and vegetation gradients.


The elements of Regional Environmental Systems

A natural community is an assemblage of populations of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that live together in some place at some time and interact with one another and their environment to such an extent that they may be considered together as a system of some definite composition and structure, relating to its external environment, and capable of development and function.

A community, therefore, is just a system of organisms, including man, living together and considered as a set (in the mathematical sense of a group or collection of objects, relations or events) by reason of their effects upon one another and their interactions with the environment they share. A community and its associated environment when considered as a functional system of complementary relationships, together with the transfer and circulation of matter and energy thrughout the system is called an ecosystem.

Ecosystems are real like a pond, or a lake or a stream or a forest or an ocean; but they are also abstractions in the sense of being conceptual schemes developed from a study of real systems which, although characterized by great diversity and unique combinations of abiotic and biotic components, still may be characterized by certain general structural and functional attributes that are common to ecosystems as ecosystems. In particular, the two primary ecological processes of energy flow and material cycling establish the basis for consideration of ecosystem dynamics or ecological energetics.

Ecosystems are real like a pond, or a lake or a stream or a forest or an ocean; but they are also abstractions in the sense of being conceptual schemes developed from a study of real systems which, although characterized by great diversity and unique combinations of abiotic and biotic components, still may be characterized by certain general structural and functional attributes that are common to ecosystems as ecosystems. In particular, the two primary ecological processes of energy flow and material cycling establish the basis for consideration of ecosystem dynamics or ecological energetics.



“Highest and best use” of the land, landscape and natural resources

Determination of the highest and best use of the land; landscape and natural resources in any region must be done by teams of individuals skilled in the various disciplines necessary to define the elements of, the processes operating throughout, and the interactions among those elements and processes within, each and all the several natural, social, societal, and economic systems of a region.

Determination of the highest and best use of the limited land. and natural resources of a region mandates a systems approach in order to determine the boundary values and elemental optimizations of the complex, nonlinear, dynamic relations that describe the region as it actually exists in real time, rather than as some stylized formalization which is often little more than a figment of the imagination of some self-proclaimed expert.

Any zoning law or land use regulation — local, state or federal —not based upon such an evaluation must fail. It should fail as legislation and it will fail in the courts if properly challenged.

Land use plans which fail to consider the integrity of regional systems and fully determine the relations arid interactions among each element of the land, landscape and natural resources are scientifically inadequate and legally defective; while land use plans which do consider the relations and interactions among each element of the land, landscape, and natural resources can become the basis for legal restraints upon land use even when such restraints limit private property rights.

Any comprehensive plan, whether for village, town, city, county, state or region, which fails to provide for a thorough evaluation of the effects of any proposed land use upon each and all of the natural, social, societal, and economic systems of a region is an inadequate plan at best and ultimately destined to become a costly hoax upon the community.

“Planning” is an action word, and “planning” should be a dynamic process. Unfortunately, the word “planning” seems to have different meanings for life scientists, physical scientists, mathematicians, social scientists, lawyers, judges, and legislators. Perhaps if conceptual models became a common work product of “planning” in all disciplines, systems analysis could become a common language for land use regulation.


Environmental Systems Science

In environmental land use planning and resource management, considerable emphasis is placed on the need to understand the system of interacting elements or component parts of the social, economic arid natural environments.
Systems analysis is a method for studying, or in the first instance determining, relationships among elements of interdependent systems which can be considered as sets (in the mathematical sense of a collection or aggregation of objects or events) because they behave as a unit, are involved in a single process, or contribute to a single effect.
The principal reason for using systems analysis in ecology, economics and more recently, the social sciences, is the complexity of environmental systems originating from a variety of causes: the large number of variables; the large number of different types of variables; different levels of systems organization (populations, communities, trophic levels, cycles) and the non-homogenous and nonuniform distribution of system elements throughout time and space.

Although systems analysis has its roots in military and industrial operations research, applied mathematics, probability, statistics, computer science, engineering, econometrics and biometrics, there are common and now somewhat standard approaches for dealing with the great complexities inherent in the considerations of real systems.
One is the operating maxim that complex processes can be most easily dissected into a large number of relatively simple unit components, and that complex historical processes in which all variables change with time (evolve) can be dealt with most easily in terms of recurrence functions which express the state of a system at time t+1 as a function of the state of the system at time t. Thus the system is considered not in terms of its entire history but rather in terms of the cause-effect relationships that operate through a typical time interval.


Recurrence relationships

This idea of the recurrence relationship is common throughout mathematics. Matrices of transition probabilities in Markov processes are merely stochastic versions of a recurrence relation. Difference equations, differential difference equations, dynamic programming, and the “loops” of computer programs are all based on recurrence relations in which the output from each stage in the computation is the input for the following stage. No breakdown in this approach occurs if the state of the system at time t is a function of the state of the system not only at time t-1, but also at time t+1, t+ 2 . . . t+n. Only the number of variables in the recurrence relationship and the dimensionality of the problem are increased.



Another of the basic principals of systems analysis is optimization which brings to many practical problems the whole body of pure and applied mathematical theory related to the maximization and minimization of functions: the mathematics of extrema.


Systems analysis

Systems analysis is a method for studying, or in the first instance determining, relationships among elements of interdependent systems which can be considered as sets (in the mathematical sense of a collection or aggregation of objects or events) because they behave as a unit; are involved in a single process; or contribute to a single effect.

The principle reason for using systems analysis in ecology, economics and more recently, the social sciences is the complexity of environmental systems originating from a variety of causes: number of variables; number of different types of variable; different levels of organization of systems (populations, communities, trophic levels, biogeochemical cycles) and the nonhomogenous and nonuniform distribution of system elements throughout time and space.

Systems analysis combines the basic ideas of recurrence relations and optimization in order to determine the optimal choice from among an array of alternative strategies at each of a sequence of times: .the multistage decision process.

Multistage decision processes share two important basic similarities from a computational standpoint: high dimensionality and the need to be solved by some iterative process; requirements common to other types of problems often encountered in pure and applied mathematics and which have led to development of such now commonplace techniques as multiple linear regression analysis, iterative non-linear regression analysis, and gradient methods for finding maxima and minima among others.

Feedback and feedback control are other concepts of systems analysis that are important ·in the consideration of ecological, economic and social systems, so that a realistic mathematical description of a process includes terms such that deflection toward the equilibrium or steady state follows departure from equilibrium within the recovery limits of the particular system.

Interaction among system elements is easier to describe in terms of changes and the rates of change at some specific instant in time rather than in terms of the history of the process over time, so that models of interactions are typically conceived of in terms of differential rather than algebraic equations. ·

Inequality constraints are encountered commonly in ecological systems analysis problems, as are thresholds and limits. Similarly, the common technique of computer programming in terms of a cyclically repeated routine or “loop” is suitable for consideration of ecological problems where historical processes unfold through the repetition of variants of the same basic cycle of events and dispersal occurs through a parallel process, but in space as well as time.


Information in environmental systems science

Another important concept from systems analysis useful in environmental systems studies in that of information. The amount of information is related to the degree of order or negentropy in a system and this concept plays a role in studies of community organization.



Systems analysis usually involves construction of models which describe a system as the set of its interrelated and interacting elements so that mathematical techniques may be applied in an attempt to predict the behavior of the system as a whole over some future period of time. Traditionally, researchers used physical models in laboratory experiments to study the behavior of real systems, however, it has become increasingly difficult to construct physical models of complex environmental and social systems so the emphasis today is on the mathematical representation of such systems.

Ecological systems are composed of many components which interact in a variety of ways. Each biological component of the system is affected by the physical abiotic elements of the system, and all the variables change not only with respect to time but also from place to place since the environment is heterogeneous. Discrete system elements interact and each component of the system affects all the others in one way or another. The complexity of the system of interlocking cause-effect pathways confronts us with a superficially baffling problem, and systems analysis was developed to handle such situations.

In general, a system is analyzed in terms of its components. The processes of affecting each component are analyzed and described so that changes with respect to time and distance can be described and ultimately predicted. The interrelationships among the components of the system are also analyzed and a model of the system is usually developed and eventually tested by attempting to simulate, generally with the assistance of a computer, the consequences of alterations in the state variables representing components of the system.

In the case of a real ecological system, no attempt at simulation can be truly complete. Indeed, the art of systems ecology is to determine the crucial elements and processes that govern the general behavior of the ecological system as a system. Systems analysis is particularly useful to citizens and legislators who have to make decisions from less than a total database.

Viewing an ecological system as an interlocking complex of processes characterized by many reciprocal cause-effect pathways, it can be seen that one of ·the principal attributes of a system is that it can only be understood by considering it as a whole.

After it has been determined which variables need to be considered in order to fully describe a system, a model can be structured. A model is simply some method, usually a mathematical equation or set of equations, which can be used to describe the behavior of a system (a watershed, air mass, etc.). The first models are generally conceptual models which simply seek to fully describe the system and its behavior qualitatively without making any attempt to quantitatively predict such behavior.

Model development must include comparison of predictions based upon the model with observed system behavior. A wide variety of models are available to describe the movement of water and substances contained in water, movement of materials in the atmosphere and the accumulation of substances in individual organisms or communities of organisms. If calculated behavior does not correspond closely enough to observed behavior, appropriate changes must be made in the model to make it more realistic.

Models can often be used to predict the consequences of certain events or actions well in advance, thus allowing the public to consider risks and evaluate the costs, benefits of community action before embarking on a costly and perhaps disastrous courses. ·
Once a model has been developed which accurately describes the behavior of a complex system, it can be used in simulation studies to demonstrate how the system can be managed in real life for optimal benefit.


The process of systems modeling

The ability to explain and simulate events clearly varies with their complexity. An architectural model, although a replica in miniature of a building, generally reflects only the form and visual elements of the building while ignoring its structure. Nonetheless, it is a model of the building.

The same type of simulation is employed to represent new towns and urban redevelopment projects in the abstract sense since they remained unpopulated. But while the dynamics of natural and social processes may not occur, the “model” often permits some prediction of the eventual dynamics of the real system.

In Design With Nature (1970), regional planner Ian McHarg demonstrated an inexpensive and efficient way to model major regions of the United States to describe their environmental systems and permit predictions to be made about regional consequences of specific actions by human beings and nature in and upon those areas.


The elements of environmental systems models

In the first instance, the descriptions necessarily reflect the jargon and technical vocabulary of these independent academic disciplines, but models can nevertheless be developed for simulation of the operant natural, social and political processes of a region and these distinct perceptions can be arrayed in a layered multilevel model or plan reflecting reality, chronology and causality.



The principal long-term natural processes determining the course of future development in all regions will be geological. Bedrock geology provides the basement of a region and becomes the bottom layer in this type of simulation. Generally the geological events leading to the formation of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock are measured in terms of hundreds and thousands of millennia. Bedrock geology serves as the physical foundation for plotting the evolution of a landscape.

Surficial geology or the manifestation of bedrock geology at the surface of the land provides a second layer. The major events determining surficial geological characteristics are those of the Pleistocene which began one million years ago and ended with the last Ice Age a little over 10,000 years ago.



The geologic processes and systems of a region are the principal determinants of ground water hydrology.

Groundwater is likely to be abundant in surficial deposits and sedimentary rocks, but is limited to cracks, fissures, and faults in igneous and metamorphic rocks. The current expression of exposed bedrock and the upper surface of surficial deposits defines the physiography of the region and represents another layer in this model, a layer which includes the most recent geological activity — coastal and fluvial deposits2

Although river courses are dynamic, many large lakes and major rivers may have occupied their corridors for thousands of years.

The hydrology of surface waters follows physiography in time and causality.

Soils can be considered the final step in the evolutionary progress of geological events, and are largely a consequence and expression of surface water processes and climate.


Vegetation and natural animal populations

The natural vegetation of a region depends on the geology, physiography, hydrology, soils, and climate of the region while the indigenous animal populations depend upon the vegetation.

Existing current human land use provides the surface characteristics which are most recent in time.

This kind of model can be represented by a series of maps at consonant scales. The primary value of such a model is that it is integrative, and demonstrates causal relationships among natural processes.


Causal relationships and environmental systems models

Mountains and hills reflect rock harder than adjacent valleys. Rock type definition explains physiography.

Surficial deposits conceal bedrock and reveal their own morphology.

Terminal moraines, outwash plains, drift, till, kames, kettles, eskers and other topographical features become comprehensible in terms of the geological processes from which they were formed.

The patterns of rivers and streams vary with the permeability of rocks and soils and reveal this in the extent and structure of the drainage systems. ·

The abundance of lakes often reveals obstructions to drainage by glaciation.

The forces of weather and gravity work on rock and produce soils.

Soil textures and patterns are derived from the parent material and the vegetation that has occupied them.

Soils mirror river courses, old and modern.

Coarse material remains at high elevations, while fine sediments occupy valleys.

Plants reveal the most discriminating perceptions of environmental factors. Elevation, slope, aspect, soils and climate are synthesized in the pattern and distribution of native vegetation throughout a region.

Animals, being mobile, are less localized than plants; nevertheless, animal habitats conform to vegetative associations.

Finally, at least until the Second World War, human beings can be seen mining where geology provides mineral resources, farming in conformity to soil productivity, shellfishing in estuaries, building on sure foundations, locating roads and railroads in river corridors and through mountain passes.

The ecological model just described reveals the underlying basis for such superficial perceptions.


Static and dynamic modeling

It can be said that even such a ecologically sophisticated model is static and of necessity frozen at some instant of time past. Indeed, this is true, and any such model must become dynamic if it is to describe and predict even the near future. Nevertheless, important elements of such a model can properly remain somewhat static. Few geological events are so dynamic as to be consequential on planning scales measured in decades, with the important exceptions of earthquakes, beach erosion and deposition, fluvial processes such as floods and subsidence.

Surface water systems are likely to remain within existing geological corridors, and soils to retain their lower horizons within the time scale of human planning.

The native vegetation associations will probably persist or follow well-defined successional patters if permitted to do so by man.

Not all of the elements in this type of ecological model are dynamic to the same degree.

The assemblage of scientists competent to construct each plane or dimension in the model ensures that the professional perceptions essential to describe the dynamic processes which resulted in the present reality will not be overlooked even if the common effort proceeds by initially isolating associated layers and modeling discrete processes.

Bedrock and surficial geology can be considered together with climate as groundwater process.

Soils and climate can be studied to predict runoff, erosion and sedimentation.

Precipitation, runoff, and percolation can be examined as determinants of vegetation distribution and dynamics, while vegetation and land use can be considered as influences on microclimate.

As these and other relationships are integrated, the value of the basic data can be enhanced. There are innumerable sub-models which can be developed as parts of overall regional models. ·

This layered modeling technique p[ioneered by Ian McHarg leads to understanding of the causal relationships among the major phenomena and processes constituting the region as a system. It also facilitates identification and description of relationships among the elements of many seemingly unrelated elements and processes.


The future of environmental systems modeling

Until recently, ecological studies have usually been limited to consideration of small sites by small numbers of scientists. The significant insights that have been derived from such studies can now be used to quantify the great masses of data provided by our national remote sensing efforts.

When relationships among individual elements of major environmental systems have been identified and eventually quantified, predictive models can be developed by means of which the consequences of human activities on natural systems and the modification of natural processes by mankind can be enumerated and quantified.


Mathematical models

Mathematical models can be developed at various levels of sophistication and complexity. While mathematical models must remain generally idealized present representations of reality and at the present state-of-the-art cannot include all the variations of all the elements of even the simplest natural systems, nevertheless, physical and mathematical models have many advantages over verbal descriptions in the study of environmental problems.

Mathematical modeling requires knowledge of the physical aspects of the system being modeled as well as the mathematical techniques for operating upon the model.

In many ways, the characteristic of the model are influenced by the specific objectives of the model builder, and the techniques involved in analysis of the real world system will depend on the model formulated for its study.


The vocabulary of environmental systems science

There are certain terms commonly used in systems analysis with which planners, attorneys and concerned citizens should be familiar.
The controllable and partially controllable constrained inputs to a system are called decision variables.

When each decision variable has been assigned a particular value, the resulting set of decisions is called a policy.

A policy which does not violate any of the constraints imposed by the system is called a feasible policy.

The set of all possible feasible policies is termed a policy space and may vary with time in space of many dimensions. (For example, air, water, soil, vegetation, and animal communities would each be considered “dimensions” in this sense of the word.)

The condition of the system at any time and place is represented by variables known as state variables.

Supplementing the state variables are the system parameters which may be constant or variable and are determined by considerations outside the system under immediate consideration.

State vectors are quantities which in addition to magnitude are characterized by direction in time (past or future), in space (any direction in any dimension), or both, and must include all aspects of the system which are or can be affected by changes in the decision variables.

The concept of a “best decisions” set or policy implies the ·existence of criteria by means of which the effects of any feasible policy on the output of the system can be evaluated. Such criteria are called overall objectives, and in most instances consist of many component objectives some of which are quantitative, while others are measurable at best only in an ordinal or qualitative sense.

If two objectives can be measured or described in the same units or terms and to the same general relative degree of accuracy, they are said to be commensurate.

Non-commensurate objectives are those which cannot be expressed in excesses of that already moribund system.


The objective function in environmental systems science

The objective function is a statement by means of which the consequences or output of the system can be determined, given the policy, the initial values of the state variables, and the system parameters.

Although conventional usage, particularly in economics has limited the term objective function to quantitative objectives that are commensurate, many environmental systems include non-quantitative and non-commensurate objectives, which may account for the reluctance of many economists to consider environmental factors in cost/benefit and benefit-risk analyses. ·

Weighting and scaling factors can be used as means of combining multiple objectives of varying dimensions into a· single objective function, but such factors are usually determined politically and socially rather than mathematically.

Formulation of an objective function is a major concern of systems analysis, and characterization of the appropriate restrictions or constraints on the operation of a model is one of the most critical steps in the process of formulating an objective function. There are natural and physical constraints, economic constraints, societal constraints, and political constraints limiting the operation of any real environmental system.


Testing and validation of environmental systems models

Systems analysis always includes formation, development, testing and validation of some model, usually a mathematical model, followed by identifying and optimizing an objective function. Human judgment, however, is required at every stage in the analysis of complex systems in order to avoid building computationally unfeasible models or models which may be mathematically feasible but so oversimplified as to be non-representative of the system modeled. This has become obvious in recent attempts at numerical modeling of global climate change.

Enthusiasm by a researcher for a particular solution technique occasionally leads to modeling systems in a way that will permit the use of that particular technique, rather than modeling the system as it actually occurs in nature.

This is particularly true in consideration of economics where unreasonable commitment to linear regression techniques often leads to misrepresentation of the environmental impact of business and government action on environmental systems.

Systems analysis is still to some extent an art wherein success requires a serendipitous blend of real world data, modeling, mathematical and scientific intuition, choice of the “right” optimization techniques, and often represents, in retrospect, the “propitious confluence of fortuitous circumstances.”


Environmental systems optimization considerations

There is no single or “best” optimization technique which can be applied to any specific problem in systems analysis. Each of the techniques available has advantages and disadvantages, so that selection of any specific technique involves consideration of many factors including:

  • the structure of the objective function and constraints inherent in the formulated model
  • the nature of the data available as inputs to the model
  • The level of accuracy of the solution sought
  • the characteristics of the computers available for solution of the problem
  • the computers and computer processing time available.

Optimization methods are generally considered in two groups characterized by the mathematical techniques associated with their implementation: Control theory with its classical roots in the calculus of variations, and Operations Research.

Operations Research which contributed substantially to the success of the Allies during World War II deals mainly with programming analysis of the mathematical model in order to achieve a specific solution goal. The word “programming” when used in the context of “mathematical programming” is analogous to “planning,” and should not be confused with computer programming, although computers generally perform the iterative mathematical computations required by many mathematical programming techniques.