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The Tangible Ecosystem.

Published onJul 10, 2019
The Tangible Ecosystem.

How can we trace relationships between ecosystem components in the city?

“Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but they unite us to it. Let this be known to be true. Let us abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of human-nature”

Ian McHarg, Design with Nature

In this exploration, we’ll learn how to highlight abiotic (nonliving) and biotic (living) factors as the key actors in the urban environment. We will understand how these environmental components interact — as well as how they are related—to form unique ecologies associated with your communities!

Setting Up.

Workshop Musings:

What are the major living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) components of ecosystems? What processes do they influence? What makes these factors biotic or abiotic? How to abiotic and biotic factors interact? What do these interactions mean in the context of the city (do they affect plant or animal life in some way? Do they disrupt natural cycles? Pollute? Create new habitats?)? How can we creatively represent these interactions or relationships?

Materials + Preparation:

  • Field journal with zine holder (one per participant)

  • Viewfinder (one per participant)

  • Pens and pencils

  • Tape

  • Printed, cut, and folded Sorting zines (see below)

  • Trace paper

  • Flower press or heavy books

  • Easel pad paper

  • Smartphone (audio/video recorder)

  • 2 -3 pre-selected field-sites

  • Buckets or bins for collecting objects (like these, one per every group of 2-3)

  • OPTIONAL: camera and mobile printer (we used the Polaroid Zip Instant Photoprinter)

Introductory ‘Zine:

The Sorting zine introduces the concepts of biotic and abiotic components of urban ecosystems, and what forms these factors take (both objects or living things, as well as processes). The zine also includes ‘six ways to collect,’ to give inspirations for how to document the living and nonliving world. Finally, it provides some tips as to how to curate a collection of objects, through generation of a taxonomy or phylogeny. Download and print your copies here:

(Visit this website to learn how to cut and fold the zine after printing.)

Getting Started.

Biotic-Abiotic Venn Diagram:

In our first activity, we’ll sort objects from the local environment into the categories of biotic, abiotic, or something in-between (things that are “hard to place,” or not obviously living or nonliving). As the facilitator, you’ll collect these environmental objects ahead of time as part of your weekly facilitation training. Set up by drawing the Venn diagrams on easel pad paper.

Begin by having participants work in groups of two to three to sort the items. The participants might find that some objects are easier to place than others: over time, some materials may transform from biotic components to abiotic ones (for example, leaves are biotic when living and attached to trees, but become abiotic when they fall off, die, and decompose!). Encourage working together to categorize! Here is an example Venn Diagram:

Biotic-Abiotic Venn diagram

Have everyone take a quick look at how others sorted the objects. Discuss:

  • Where do the disagreements lie?

  • Which objects were hardest to place? Easiest?

  • Looking at the categories, do we see any patterns emerge?

  • Can participants think of ways that objects across categories might interact?

The Living Spectrum:

Following the Venn diagram exercise, patrons will then arrange objects on a Living Spectrum to notice different types of patterns in their sorting of ecosystem materials. After a couple of minutes, have a discussion similar to that for the first diagram:

  • what was easy or hard to place?

  • How did sorting in this way differ from the first activity?

  • Can any patterns be observed across the spectrum, in terms of materiality, color, size, etc.?

Remind participants to keep the answers to these discussions in mind during the later field exercise: encourage patrons to think about what parts of the environment are living and nonliving, and how they are interacting.

Time to head outside!

Living Spectrum

Field Exercise.

The Tangible Ecosystem:

In this exercise, we will extend our sensorial observations of urban ecosystems through thoughtful connection with the objects, entities, processes, and most importantly, life, they hold. We’ll be collecting data both in the field journals (expanding on the ways of collecting information from beyond sensory observation) as well as through collecting physical objects from the ecosystem.

Field documentation is a vital skill for capturing the portrait of a landscape and its ecological nuance. The documentation strategies we will use can help us to understand how ecologies change over time. Collection also gives us unique opportunities to imagine new forms of ecosystems and relationships through creative processes.

The zine outlines different ways of collecting in the urban ecosystem: see how many different forms of documentation the participants can collect in the field. While outside, discuss the idea of generating a shared collection of objects—that you’ll later sort—at the end of this exercise. Ask each participant to collect at least 5 objects (biotic or abiotic) during the field exercise, at each site.

Some methods of collection in the field.

In the Coming Together activity, we’ll collect our own objects from around the neighborhood and create our own way of organizing what we’ve found.

Coming Together.

Taxonomy of Found Objects:

Working in small groups (we suggest doing this while still outside!), all of the participants will create a ‘taxonomy’ or ‘phylogeny’ of their found objects—essentially, an arrangement or categorization of the objects in a way that everyone decides on together. Objects might be sorted by color, by structure, by size and shape: any arrangement which aids in the observer identifying relationships (specifically similarities and differences) between objects. If there are multiple ideas, try arranging the objects in many different ways.

Here are some examples of how objects can categorized:

Here, patrons sorted their objects by size

Here, patrons sorted their objects by color

Here, patrons sorted their objects by category

Wrapping Up:

Once everyone has sorted (this should take about 20 minutes), do a ‘gallery walk’ to observe the many ways in which objects from the same landscape can be categorized differently. Discuss:

  • How did groups choose a category (or categories) for their sorting?

  • What are some trends noticed in the way that their objects are categorized? Are there more abiotic elements or biotic ones? Are there more green objects than brown ones? More red than blue?

  • Where was their largest object found? Their smallest? Can any connections be drawn between where the object was found and its size, color, shape, or texture?

  • What can we learn about the place these objects were collected simply by looking at our categorizations?

If you have time leftover after the gallery walk, remix your categorizations by working together as a big group to combine all of the groups’ sorts!

Facilitation Tips and Additional Resources.


  • Encourage participants to use a a variety of collection methods (not just drawings!) in the exercises—each collection method is like using a different paint color: the more you use, the more comprehensive the ecosystem portrait will be

  • Similar to the Sensory Nature Walk, this activity works best in small groups: if there is enough supervision, encourage groups to explore differently locations within the field-site

  • Have groups think about the scale of their portrait—are they capturing several meters? The whole field-site? A single square centimeter? Probe them about what types of documentation and collection are necessary to accurately capture the location and its ecology

Example Schedule:

This is the example schedule from a playtest we ran with a local library:

Time: 2 hours

10 minutes: Getting started, reflecting on last session

20 minutes: Reading the zine; completing the Venn Diagram and Living Spectrum activity; discussion

50 minutes: Walking between three locations to collect objects (the park, the basketball court, and the courtyard by the library); We spent approximately 10 minutes in each location, with seven minutes of finding, and three minutes of sharing one interesting thing that people found.

20 minutes: Returning and sorting your own collection.

10 minutes: Debrief and reflection

Tune of the Week:

Talking Heads - (Nothing But) Flowers

Candace Walkers:

Beautiful project! The flowers might have fit in 2 categories. Will try to do that with my students. Regards from Canada