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What is Bioregionalism?

First coined in 1975 by Allen Van Newkirk, founder of the Institute for Bioregional Research, bioregionalism is a philosophy that argues that political, cultural and economic systems are more sustainable when organized and managed around naturally defined areas called bioregions. Bioregions are defined by physical and environmental features such as watershed boundaries or soil or topographic characteristics but they are also a cultural phenomenon that encourages management of human and environmental systems and human / environment relationships through traditional, current and evolving knowledge systems, policies and lifestyles that are local and regional. Bioregions are not eco-regions defined strictly by the interactions of flora, fauna, water, soil, weather and climate but are instead areas defined by long-term human / environment relations that have resulted in a distinct, identifiable regional culture which, when mobilized and directed through local educational programs and policies, community collaborations and citizen engagement, could result in effective ecosystem management in support of cultural goals.

Bioregionalism might be considered the antithesis of "command and control" structures for environmental management that come with funded local, state and national programs that work in political jurisdictions unrelated to the boundaries of ecosystems, large-scale landscapes or traditional human / environment relations but it might, in fact, benefit from the support of governmental (and non-governmental) programs that are congruent with local / regional tradition, current needs and future goals. Local / regional attention to human goals that are related to ecosystem health regardless of political boundaries can result in better land use policies in local, state / provincial and national jurisdictions.

Bioregionalism is a kind of environmentalism that emphasizes the conservation, preservation and potentially the enhancement of ecosystem performance in the context of human settlement patterns and their connections to regional landscapes rather than with regard to segregated areas such as natural preserves and national parks. Hence bioregionalism requires that human affairs be conducted with conscious intent to preserve or enhance biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services!

What are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves?

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves is a global system of 727 designated areas (in 131 countries and 22 trans-boundary sites) that are meant to demonstrate the feasibility of balanced relationships between human settlements / human endeavors and ecosystem viability (biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services) in every climate and in every type of ecosystem in the world except for Antarctica. The network is part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program, "an intergovernmental scientific program that aims to establish a scientific basis for enhancing the relationship between people and their environments. It combines the natural and social sciences with a view to improving human livelihoods and safeguarding natural and managed ecosystems, thus promoting innovative approaches to economic development that are socially and culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable."

According to UNESCO: "Our vision is a world where people are conscious of their common future and their interactions with the planet, and act collectively and responsibly to build thriving societies in harmony within the biosphere. The MAB programme and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR) serve this vision through biosphere reserves and beyond."

In addition, UNESCO's mission through 2025 is to:

  1. Develop and strengthen models of sustainable development through the WNBR

  2. Communicate experiences and lessons learned, and facilitate the global diffusion and application of these models

  3. Support evaluation and high-quality management of biosphere reserves, strategies and policies for sustainable development and planning, and accountable and resilient institutions, and

  4. Help Member States and stakeholders to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by sharing experiences and lessons learned related to exploring and testing policies, technologies and innovations for the sustainable management of biodiversity and natural resources and mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Biosphere reserves are 'learning places for sustainable development'. They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity. They are places that provide local solutions to global challenges. Biosphere reserves include terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems. Each site promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.

Biosphere reserves are nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Biosphere Reserves are designated under the intergovernmental MAB Program by the Director-General of UNESCO following the decisions of the MAB International Coordinating Council (MAB ICC). Their status is internationally recognized. Member States can submit sites through the designation process.

In order to assist the stakeholders with the designation process, as well as periodic reviews, Technical Guidelines are being progressively created by the MAB International Coordinating Council.

Biosphere Reserves involve local communities and all interested stakeholders in planning and management. They integrate three main "functions":

  • Conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity

  • Economic development that is socio-culturally and environmentally sustainable

  • Logistic support, underpinning development through research, monitoring, education and training

These three functions are pursued through the Biosphere Reserves' three main zones

Core Areas - which are strictly protected zones that contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation.

Buffer Zones - which surround or adjoin the core area(s), and are used for activities compatible with sound ecological practices that can reinforce scientific research, monitoring, training and education.

Transition Areas - which are where communities foster socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities.

Biosphere reserves, then, represent formal applications of the concept of bioregionalism. They are collaboration between UNESCO, the host nation and the host region aimed at discovery how humans might live sustainably in a given region / ecosystem. There is no UNESCO funding and no international oversight.

Why Bioregionalism and Biosphere Reserves Matter for SUNY-ESF

It is important that ESF faculty and students understand Bioregionalism and the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves for several reasons. The first is that on a planet with 7.5 billion people, it is impossible to separate ecosystems from the effects of human activities. Our studies of ecosystem health must (in part) be in terms of human / environment interactions and the interdisciplinary approaches to guiding those interactions in ways that support biodiversity and the effective delivery of ecosystem services. Given the rapidity of climate change, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, forest depletion, and the depletion of fresh water around the world, simply understanding ecosystem health in the absence of human settlement patterns and human endeavors is insufficient.

The second reason is that the study of biosphere reserves is a good way to categorically and systematically understand what the challenges are in human / environment relations and what works and what does not work, and where and why, with regard to assuring biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services. This allows for comparative analysis among countries, cultures, climates, governmental systems, levels of resource abundance, etc.

The third reason is that the study of bioregionalism and biosphere reserves is inherently interdisciplinary. Greater emphasis on interdisciplinary work was not only a goal of ESF's 2020 Plan, it is also a necessary approach to understanding the complexities of human / environment relations, to addressing environmental and social knowledge, policies, customs and cultural ways that will determine the future viability of the planet.

The fourth reason is that, given the inherently interdisciplinary nature of evolving professional practice, research, education and policy-making in environmental management, applied ecology and the planning and design of human settlement patterns, SUNY-ESF needs to become a leader in training practitioners, researchers, public officials and citizens who can think locally, nationally and globally in ways that are systematic, comprehensive and integrative about biodiversity, the delivery of ecosystem services and the future of humankind.

The fifth and final reason is that SUNY-ESF benefits from the stimulation of new explorations that challenge and energize existing faculty, staff and students, involve new relationships (biosphere reserves, communities, universities, governmental organizations, not-for-profits, the United Nations, etc.) and put the institution in a position to attract a new and perhaps broader range of faculty, staff and students.

Why Bioregionalism and Biosphere Reserve Studies are Located in the Department of Landscape Architecture

Given that bioregions and biosphere reserves are frameworks for addressing human / environment relations, the most important disciplines for managing the evolution of these territories are planning, design and applied ecology. These disciplines, which at their best, work together to assure harmonious and seamless relationships between natural systems and human settlement patterns, or ideally, the integration of the two, are located in the Department of Landscape Architecture. It is also understood that at territorial, bioregional and biosphere reserve scale planning, design and applied ecology are best practiced as interdisciplinary ventures. Hence the Center is located in the Department of Landscape Architecture but open to participation by faculty, staff and students from all disciplines at ESF.