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The Falcon’s Return
The second in a series of articles by Jill Stoner, Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

A falcon and its shadow shown flying onto a ledge of the building 10 Exchange Place in Jersey City, New Jersey. A falcon flying onto a ledge of the building 10 Exchange Place in Jersey City, New Jersey. Credit: Bonnie Talluto. Though vacancy in our older industrial cities has now taken center stage, with empty blocks and empty buildings raising red flags of failure in the American heartland, we should recognize that there have always been holes in our urban fabric. Think of those spaces between buildings-- at the ground they are called streets; in the air above they are shadowy corridors and tunnels of wind that resemble mountain canyons. It is in these empty spaces that the fastest animals in the world re-found their footing, and came back from the brink of extinction. Falco peregrinus was one of the first species to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act; it was also one of the first to be removed from the list.

In 1973, only a few peregrine falcons existed east of the Mississippi River, and none in the west. Our pervasive use of DDT had caused the chemical to seep into the birds’ rural habitats and hence into their food supply, causing eggshells to thin and crack before hatching. When wildlife biologists proposed transplanting the birds to high-rise buildings in urban centers, where the food supply (mostly pigeons) would be free of pesticides, their plan was greeted with skepticism. Yet over the course of the next two decades, more than fifty cities in the United States and Canada eventually participated in the program, depositing pairs of birds (the falcon mates for life) on such cliff-like promontories as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel, and the Fisher Building in Detroit. Since 1999, when over 900 pairs were counted, the falcons have continued to prefer their urban homes.

If we did not know better, we might think that the falcons had appropriated our colloquialisms of urban canyon and urban jungle for their own purpose. But the falcon’s reading of this urban landscape is literal, not metaphorical. World cities of commerce are formed by clusters of tall and densely packed buildings, built topographies that echo the natural cliffs, canyons, and plateaus that form the falcons’ indigenous habitats, where they dive at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour for their prey. These raptors responded without prejudice or preconceptions to the physical conditions of vertical distance and craggy footholds; they perceived the simple forms. Animals operate according to their own time frame, and in my own city of San Francisco the nesting box on the roof of the PG&E building sat empty for seventeen seasons before being discovered and claimed by a falcon pair in 2003. Since then, a webcam has entertained us with the daily urban life of the falcon parents George and Gracie, and their yearly offspring.

What can we learn from the falcon’s return, and what kinds of other infiltrations might similarly reanimate our current urban emptiness? Beneath most American cities are complex systems of waterways, creeks long ago contained into culverts and buried beneath roads and buildings, an unseen pattern of natural forces whose latent potential is just coming to light. Two years ago in Detroit, the Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit, Mercy developed a visionary plan for Bloody Run Creek on the east side of the city. The creek runs diagonal to the urban grid, thus in the conceptual plan a sinuous ribbon of water with flanks of green animates the existing blocks. The vision includes native wetland species, which would purify water while naturally supporting a diverse community of fauna. If realized, this plan is no master of the city. Instead, it marries functional public space with the ebb and flow of storm water drainage, the unpredictability of local ecosystems with the economic potential of urban waterfront property.

Once upon a time we closed our cities off from the birds and the creeks, sealed up the buildings and paved over the ground. But the falcons asked us to let them in, and they did more than survive. As the creeks are brought back to the light of day, they blur the property lines; they resist zoning in favor of physics, and follow paths embedded in the DNA of geology. Urban creeks are visceral, unencumbered by conventions, meaning and selective memory. Their memory is deeper and stronger, like the falcon’s memory of height, distance and speed. These fluid and resilient threads, in the air and on the ground, help tie our urban voids together.