The ecology of where we live
I am occasionally asked, “Just what is human ecology?” For an answer, I turned to our new Associate Dean for Human and Social Sciences, Patsy Eubanks Owens. She is a landscape architect who joined the UC Davis faculty nearly 30 years ago with her passion for getting communities engaged in the design process.
Owens became the inaugural chair of the Department of Human Ecology when the existing departments of environmental design and human and community development merged in 2012. As she explains it, the idea of human ecology can be understood as the relationship between humans and the natural, social and built environments. It’s the ecology of where we live.
Perhaps as never before, we need our faculty working at this crossroad. Climate change seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, particularly here in California where we have suffered through years of drought and devastating wildfires. The impacts of rising temperatures and erratic precipitation rates on our environments and our communities are clearly evident and at the center of much emerging research throughout the college.
Understanding the science driving climate change is incredibly important if we are to be able to adapt to an uncertain future. For instance, how do we predict sea level rise in the vast coastal areas of the world where human civilization is highly concentrated? This will have a profound effect on places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where our human ecology faculty are already engaged in asking hard questions. How will individuals and communities respond? There will be real disruption in the social fabric if people are forced to move, so understanding the potential implications and interactions on Californians is essential. Similarly, increasing wildfire risks as we’ve seen the last few years beg for more comprehensive research on how to adapt to a new reality in the state’s urbanized areas surrounded by drought-stressed vegetation.
The human environment is both social and ecological, and includes different social groups, institutions, landscapes, ecologies and physical settings. Our human ecology experts are weighing the unique, daily challenges and stresses that affect young parents and babies of Mexican origin in California, for example. The research could improve the well-being of thousands of families in this growing yet underserved population.
Our faculty are also decoding depression, working across the globe to understand and treat the debilitating condition that often starts early in life and can limit educational, economic and social opportunities. Our child development experts collaborate with the Center for Poverty Research and others to make sure children have the behavioral skills and resources they need to lead fulfilling lives.
Human ecology is also about understanding how the physical and social environments we live in support or hinder our health and well-being. For instance, incorporating principles of active living into community design can prompt people to get more exercise and to make better choices. Some of our faculty are looking at how social relationships influence food choices and whether tracking our steps with electronic devices can increase our physical activity and improve our mood.
A defining aspect of human ecology is its applied scholarship. We actively engage with communities as we design research questions and involve our students directly in the decision-making process. Our students and faculty are supporting local food security, for example, and developing interventions to reduce obesity, chronic disease, social inequality and health disparities.
Just over five years ago we launched a new major, sustainable environmental design, to put some of these ideas into practice. From five students in the first year, it has now grown into a popular major with about 130 students. These undergraduates have been helping communities in the Sacramento region and beyond rethink their park systems and other communities develop climate action plans. They are thinking deeply about the future and coming up with new approaches to shape our cities, rural areas and the natural world.
The challenges we face in society are always evolving. But with the creativity and dedication of our faculty, staff and students in human ecology and throughout the college, we aim to make a big difference in designing a sustainable and resilient future for California and the world.