Second Nature

Y ou may not recognize his name—yet—but Alex Felson, just a touch over the age of 40, is making one for himself as a pioneer in the burgeoning field of “urban ecology.”

Felson runs the Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory—or UEDLAB—at Yale, a bright, roomy space in a building off Prospect Street. It’s half-wet lab—a space where hands-on experiments using biological and chemical materials are conducted (dried plant species lined one counter during my visit)—and half-architectural design studio, with oversized, write-on cabinets that are covered in scribbles and phrases related to various projects. Among the technical designs, I notice a drawing of The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s famous environmental prophet from the children’s book of the same name.

Felson is busy melding two worlds in the lab—ecology and architecture—resulting in what he calls “Designed Experiments”: innovative projects that not only enhance the landscape aesthetically, but also help study it.

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Take the UEDLAB-designed “Community-Driven Bioretention Infrastructure” in Bridgeport’s Seaside Village. The “infrastructure” is a lovely park with large granite benches and gravel paths, turning what was once an inaccessible patch of land into an inviting space. What’s different about this idyllic spot—which was created and funded through a partnership between Felson, the city and other local groups—is that it’s a “working” model, so to speak. Built-in structures designed by Felson and his team conduct ongoing water quality research valuable to ecologists, while visitors enjoy the wetland scenery, including a family of Mallards that’s taken up residence there.

Previously, Felson was involved with MillionTreesNYC, which was spearheading a reforestation effort in New York City. That proposal eventually became the well-known effort launched in 2010 to plant a million trees across the city’s five boroughs.

High-profile projects have helped put Felson on the map, but so have his day-in, day-out contributions to the field. At Yale, he heads a joint-degree Master’s program in Architecture and Environmental Management, and contributes to the field’s scholarship through articles in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals. September’s issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment features an article he co-authored, “Promoting Earth Stewardship through urban design experiments,” and he’ll have the lead article in the November issue of Bioscience.

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Felson seems most excited when talking about getting to know students in the School of Architecture and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He talks about the “spinoff” effect he sometimes feels after teaching his theories to a group of architecture students and seeing their enthusiasm. His hope is that those ideas will inspire their future designs.

Felson and UEDLAB are contributing to a future design project in Guilford, CT, which is a pilot city in the Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Plan. The proposal—which Felson describes as “radical”—should go before town officials sometime in the next few months, and involves installing boardwalks and cut-and-fill landscape changes along Seaside Avenue in Guilford. The aim is to quell flood damage predicted as water levels rise over the coming decades.

It’s a proactive approach to climate change. “Rather than retreat, you enhance the coast,” Felson remarks.

Especially where global warming is concerned, Felson is a proponent of stronger working relationships between two groups traditionally at odds: ecologists and developers, the former wanting to preserve the land and the latter looking to build on it.

“It’s a process of engagement,” he says, noting that some conservationists strain to understand why he helps “the enemy.” Crain’s New York Business, when it named Felson to its “40 Under Forty” list of 2009, highlighted a 1,200-unit residential development in Tuxedo, NY, which moved forward after Felson helped the developer win an exception to the state’s buffer rules for building near endangered species habitat. Commissioned by the developer, he conducted a study in 2006 and 2007 concluding that the species, the marbled salamander, “needed ‘migration corridors,’ not expansive buffers,” according to Crain’s, which allowed the construction to proceed.

For Felson, marrying conservation with change is second nature. He says he always knew he wanted to work in both ecology and architecture, which is why he determinedly pursued a Master of Science and Land Resources degree from the University of Wisconsin, a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers.

His specialization across both fields makes him an anomaly in each. But the idea is rubbing off anyway. Some of his joint-degree students even started an interest group on the topic of urban ecology at Yale, similar to what Felson did when he was studying at Harvard.

Despite impressive successes so far, the UEDLAB still feels well ahead of its time, which makes sense given a simple impulse felt by the lab’s complex director. As Felson puts it, “I like to go after what’s exciting.”

370 Prospect Street, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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