What Underwater Canyons Can Teach Us About the Future of Urbanism

New measures to protect deep-sea ecosystems show a new "blue" approach to urban planning.

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Deepwater Canyons 2013, Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Raise your hand if you've heard of the other Washington—the one that's underwater. Extra points if you’ve heard of the other Baltimore, the other Norfolk, or the other Wilmington.

These titular counterparts are as diverse, complicated, and ever-changing as any urban center. They are deep-sea canyons, just 70 miles off the U.S.'s mid-Atlantic coast, where the continental shelf drops off to the seafloor. The steep, narrow walls of these chasms scrape ocean depths from 100 to 3,500 meters. That last measurement is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and about seven times the length of One World Trade Center, the tallest office building in the world.

A squat lobster sits among deep-sea corals in Norfolk Canyon, off the shore of Virginia. (Deepwater Canyons 2013 , Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS)

For decades, fishers have traced and trawled the edges of these canyons in search of squid, butterfish, mackerel, and other commercially important species. But scientists are just beginning to learn about the ecology of these scarcely visible places, which are down so deep that exploration technology is only just catching up.

In the past few years, emphasized research led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed the presence of deep-sea corals. Like their flashy, tropical cousins, these hard corals create important habitat and reproductive sites for sponges, crustaceans, and fish—including those commercial species fishers look for.

I live in D.C., and had never heard anything about Washington Canyon or its extraordinary habitants. True, I haven’t been here long, but anecdotal polling among long-time Washingtonian co-workers revealed that they weren’t hip to these marine ecosystems either.

A deep-sea coral, Paragorgia arborea, on the edge of Hendrickson Canyon. (Nizinski et al. NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC, WHOI 2012)

Renowned urbanist author Timothy Beatley thinks that’s a problem. “Things that happen in places like Baltimore and Washington can and do affect our oceans,” he says. “We live in an increasingly urbanized world. It’s time for cities to take the lead on thinking carefully about the sea.”

In his recent book Blue Urbanism, Beatley—who is also chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia—urges urban centers to build greater awareness of and a more complementary relationship to the ocean.

Marine resources, he argues, are the foundation of the urban lifestyle. The waters that cover 70 percent of the planet drive our weather patterns. They provide the world’s largest protein source in fish; essential minerals like sand, salt, and gravel; and energies such as wind and oil. They’re also the stage of major transport systems that ferry essential goods.

And what do we do in return? We contribute to rising ocean temperatures, we overfish, over-extract, over-pollute. Beatley calls these damages "ocean sprawl"—"the incursions of modern  urban life into the marine realm." Ocean sprawl is fueled in part by a fundamental disconnection towards the ocean, he argues, where we see the sea as separate from our home on land. We see it as an amorphous blue blob rather than carefully considering the effects our human footprint will have on it.

The concept raises two essential considerations. How might urbanites redraw our mental maps so that "home" includes our nearby marine areas? And how might municipal governments incorporate careful thinking about ocean usage to prevent the unhealthy effects of "ocean sprawl"?

On a policy level, Beatley argues, cities should expand the processes of spatial planning to the ocean. “Most future-land-use plans and community visions in coastal cities do not include mention of the wondrous marine habitats typically a stone's throw away from where thousands (or even millions) or urban residents live,” he writes in his book. “As a first step, cities should include an oceans chapter in their comprehensive or general plans, giving explicit attention to the nearby presence of ocean environments." Ultimately, the very real-world connections that exist between cities and oceans should be reflected in municipal plans.

Which may actually happen with those aforementioned canyons, albeit on the regional level. A federally appointed council took steps last week to create “deep-sea coral zones” in the Mid-Atlantic region. These zones would create a barrier to deep-sea fishing—either in chunks around discrete canyons, or in an expanse of 37,000 square miles of ocean floor. If that latter option is passed, it would represent the largest section of Atlantic Ocean bottom ever protected.

The Mid-Atlantic and New England Council Regions.
(Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council)

Notably, these measures would preempt damage to the coral. As far as research has shown, these deep-sea areas haven’t yet suffered fishing-related damage. Trawling nets don’t reach far enough, and fishers know that the hard coral can easily tear up their boats. “It's true that most of these areas we’re looking to protect are deeper than a lot of these fishing has gone on in the past,” says Tom Hourigan, Chief Scientist at NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program. “But we’re looking forward to a time when fishing equipment improves, and techniques get refined to a point where they could do damage.”

Historically, marine-conservation policy has tended to be reactive: after over-fishing has depleted a fishery; after the trawling has ravaged the coral. So these possible protections are remarkable in that they are proactive. "It's a relatively recent approach," says Hourigan. 

The most expansive option in the protections proposed. (Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council)

Soon the proposal will be available for public comment. In coming months, stakeholders—environmentalist, planners, scientists, commercial fishers, and recreational fishers—will have their say. The process is not unlike what a good piece of city planning undergoes to try to get a distinct, proactive vision of how an area could best be used. This vision then gets charted out, discussed at tremendous length, and agreed upon before development begins.

Now, the deep-sea coral zones in question are not being "developed," nor would their designation represent a total "rezoning." Fishing is meant to continue under the new measures; the changes seek to “freeze the footprint” of current fishing practices rather than halt them entirely. It may be best to analogize the deep-sea coral protections as an example of performance-based rezoning, a flexible approach to planning that begins with a set of outcomes (in this case, protect the coral, and let fishing continue as is) and establishes parameters from there (in this case, fishing might only be allowed at a depth of 200 feet, or possibly 500, depending on what number best serves the desired outcomes).

Other strides are being made towards a more thoughtful ocean plan in the U.S. Finalized just last year, President Obama’s National Ocean Policy intends to align and direct state-level management of fishing, energy exploration, conservation, and recreation. Smaller organizations that help coordinate regions have cropped up in turn; the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO), for example, is a multistate collaborative planning body created to address shared ocean priorities, including the identification of critical marine habitats. Founded in 2009, just as the National Ocean Policy was beginning to take shape, it has aided NOAA’s research efforts concerning deep-sea coral.

Is this Beatley’s vision of “blue urbanism”? Well, the measures and entities we’re talking about here are federal and regional, not municipal. But they represent a significant shift in the way we think about and manage our oceans—not as somewhere not to sprawl into thoughtlessly, but as an integrated part of the world and as something that requires thoughtful planning. It's a perspective that could certainly expand into city planning.

And what about the need for a new, "bluer" mental map of home? In addition to good policy,  says Beatley, we need strengthened emotional connections to the sea. And in the mid-Atlantic region, where so many cities have deep-sea canyons named after them, the opportunities for establishing pride in the ocean are vast. “What if the city of Norfolk adopted Norfolk Canyon, the same way we have sister cities?" he suggests. "The city could sponsor an expedition to the canyon, send a submersible, record sounds and video, and send them landward. There could be a setup in downtown Norfolk where you could watch what was happening in your sister canyon, 70 miles away.” 

Hey, if live-streaming opera productions can be smashingly successful, why not the astonishing beauty (and occasional shipwrecks) of deep-sea canyons? NOAA might even be ahead of Beatley here: The Okeanos, a ship dedicated to exploration and research, live-streams footage of marine expeditions all over the world. It traveled the depths of the Mid-Atlantic deep-sea canyons last year. Check out the video:

Not that anyone I know heard about it. Next time, NOAA, how about an outdoor summer screening on the National Mall?

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