Grammar of Habitat: Can we apply Muir Webs to Development and Planning?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” – John Muir

 john muir

Expanding on this quote, Eric Sanderson, the author and lead landscape ecologist behind the Mannahatta project, helped develop an ecosystem identification process using a tool called a Muir Web. A Muir Web is like an extremely complex food chain or food web, but different in that it is:

 “a new grammar for describing habitat entities and their interconnections across taxa using an analogy to language. This grammar can be used to write sentences relating one ecosystem entity to a series of others, as in resource selection functions that predict the distribution of a subject with respect to other elements.”

A Muir Web in all its glory

In simplified English: if rabbits like to eat carrots, and carrots grow best in temperatures near 50 degrees and in soil with wood ash in it, then you will probably find rabbits in temperate forests.  It was the similar use of the term “language” which reminded me of Christopher Alexander’s work with A Pattern Language and the underlying patterns of our built environments.

A Muir Web helps create a reference ecosystem, which serves as a model. Of course it represents only one single expression of those ecosystem’s attributes at a specific point in time, which occurred during the entire ecosystem’s development. In this respect, it needs to come from multiple sources, sites, and at different times to create a more complete and realistic picture. Again in English: since it would be wrong to assume that rabbits only eat carrots, one would need to compare multiple species across multiple biomes to develop the probability of a given reference ecosystem, and a Muir Web helps with this task.

Look at that fuzzy lil’ face! It’s even got a sweater on!!!

Just like rabbits and carrots, cities are also a network of interconnected and often invisible cords. In fact, cities are (if you want to get far-out for a second) mere physical manifestations of the density of these interconnected cords and nodes.

So can Muir Webs be applied to urban environments? And if so, could this process be reverse-engineered to design and bring about a desired urban ecology, built form, or economy? Yeah, so what, I am really into rational planning.


Instead of rabbits and carrots, let’s use a planning example:

A city wants to develop a Biotech Center. By developing a Muir Web, which in-turn helps define the grammar of a Biotech Center’s reference ecosystem, could we learn how to enhance, or even develop a supportive reference ecosystem from scratch? Meaning, could we figure out what a Biotech Center would need to thrive?

Powerful stuff, especially if you think about the applications in regard to retail gap analyses, supply chains, zoning districts, and the types of people and services most commonly related to a given reference ecosystem. Think people are too difficult and complex to form patterns? ESRI has been working on that kind of stuff for years with Tapestry Segmentation.

So the real question is, if we can develop a Muir Web and a reference ecosystem, do we have the tools to encourage the implementation on the ground? How do we account for anthropogenic change and agency, especially if a reference ecosystem is only just a snapshot in time?

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  1. It’s not you, it’s me: a breakup letter to Brookings | PlaNYourCity - August 21, 2013

    […] as a closeted academic who just don’t read good. For some examples, just check out my posts on John Muir and Economic Ecosystems or about how we could be evolving our industrial zones into Accessibility […]


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