What is a habitat? In natural ecosystems it can be defined as an area with uniform environmental conditions, that is inhabited by an organism or a community. It is a type of place, a biotope. It is made up of abiotic (physical) factors such as soil, moisture, range of temperature, and light intensity as well as of biotic factors such as the availability of food, culture and (in nature) the presence or absence of predators.
“A habitat is an area or region where a plant or animal naturally grows or lives,” 1762, originally a technical term in Latin texts on English flora and fauna, literally “it inhabits,” third person singular present indicative of habitare “to live, inhabit, dwell,” frequentative of habere “to have, to hold, possess”. – The Online Etymology Dictionary
Important in city governance and management is the knowledge of the construction of the web of habitats, their position and interaction as well as of the intrinsic status and working. It is good to think of the city as a set of layers, like the forest has many layers. The real wisdom is found in the knowledge how subsystems are constructed with intelligence to higher levels. Intelligence is built bottom-up. When ecologists diagnose the forest, they like to know how habitats and their communities are linked, how the layers upwards and downwards are connected and what carries the cohesion. Without this no true understanding of the system.
“Higher levels of systems contain not only its subsystems, but also the information serving to keep the subsystems together in an orderly manner: system = subsystems + cohesion.” – Roelof Oldeman (1990)
The habitat (or biotope or eco-unit) forms with food, water and shelter the the life constraints for communities and organisations within. The system has a built-up of habitats in layers. Upwards – in case of the city – it is part of higher systems as region and province, downwards most used in urban planning are the following four layers: (1) district or area (center, industrial, residential), (2) neighbourhood (3) streets and parks and ( 4) mini-habitats (homes, offices, walls).
A niche is the match of a component in an ecosystem to a specific environmental condition within that, the habitat. Here it is an organisation (in the City Ecosystem® defined as biotic component) linked with its physical and biological environment. The niche is the role the organisation has in the city. Most of the niches in modern cities are regulated, but sometimes something unexpected can happen and shake-up the existing palette. As we know, every ecosystem is in constant change. So do cities.
In principal all roles/niches can be taken by all components (i.e. organisations). Per component it though can highly differ and depend on time, place, value and related factors. Sometimes it can take more than one niches at the same time, depending of time and phase. Laws, rules, regulations and above all the Constitution has lead to a strict attribution (than in natural ecosystem) of niches in the city. A usable set can be found in the work of The Quality Institute Dutch Municipalities (KING) and is summarised by Aardema et al. (2005). It is a set of interconnected roles from governance perspective (system world) and from governed perspective (living world). Civitas Naturalis has chosen the chess pieces to symbolise the roles/niches:
Roles in the system world
Steward (black king): symbolise, identify, connect, show compassion, taking care, welcome, strengthen cohesion, carry rituals, guard. Regulator (black queen): decisiveness, power, threaten, demand, courage, persevere, set things right, constrain, discipline, set the rules and enforce them. Collector (black bishop): go-between, facilitate, contract, collect tax, process. Developer (black knight): involve, sense of community, strengthen cohesion, share and distribute, (letting) participate, co-create. Service provider (black rook): deliver, serve, provide, distribute, front office. Representative (black pawn): chosen by the people during election in councils, representing the people as citizen.
Roles in the living world
Inhabitant (white king): citizen, live in city and neighbourhood. Servant (white queen): obey and follow laws, rules, regulations. Contributor (white bishop): tax pay, contribute, donate, volunteer, support, finance, fund. Partner (white knight): develop, contribute in knowledge, feelings and insights, co-create. Client (white rook): receive products and services, indicate choice. Voter: elect the representatives, the best of the best.
Aardema, H. en A. Korsten (2005). De Staat van de Gemeente: Op weg naar een handzame, landelijke gemeentemonitor. Den Haag: VGS, BMC, PON, Open Universiteit Nederland, InAxis.
Oldeman, R.A.A. (1990). Forests: Elements of Silvology. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.