The edge in ecology

Take a step onto the edge
Humans love exploring the edge

The edge! The outer limit! The boundary, the border, the extremity, the fringe. The grey area between two states. The place where something different is possible.

Ecology explains ecosystems as a community of living and non-living things that exist together in the same neighborhood.

The Edge Effect describes the interface between neighboring ecosystems. At the edge of two different ecosystems there is a place of overlap, where members of both ecosystems exist together.

Conditions on the edge are not the same as deep within one or the other ecosystem; instead they hold aspects of both, as well as supporting entirely different species that thrive in the environment created by the edge. Consequently, edges are places where there is greater and more diverse richness of life.

Edges also act as filters; collecting energy, nutrients and materials that pass from one ecosystem to another. In this way, they are connected by the productivity and fertility of each. So, edges can be the most fruitful spaces we can find!

The negative side of the edge 

Not all edges are positive though. For example, threatened rain forest ecosystems are areas where the work of the forest is to provide breath for our asthmatic planet, and to keep it cooler.

The service the forest provides is far greater than the yield of land where deforestation occurs in favour of agriculture. Inevitably farming is unsustainable because the nutrients of the forest do not come from the soil, but are locked in the trees. Therefore, the edges become more vulnerable to fire and disease. In this case, the best plan is to keep the edges minimal, and preserve as much of the forest as possible.

To understand edges, we need to see them as interfaces through which one ecosystem meets and interacts with another, as everything is interconnected and cannot function in isolation.

So how can we translate this into a human framework?

The edge and human society

Humans are vulnerable to the same edge effect. People are always pushing at the edge. As in nature, areas where people of two or more different cultures converge should be richer and more diverse than each of the contributing cultures. This is because they have a wider resource base from which to draw knowledge and productivity, and so they should be more resilient in times of stress and change.

Green belt on city edge
Greenbelts make important city edges

For example, the cutting edge of science and technology is advancing nearly every day with innovative new breakthroughs involving collaborations from scientists all over the world. Artificial intelligence, brain science, energy technology, medical research, nanotechnology, space exploration, genetic engineering, biomimicry and smart farming are some areas where the edges of human knowledge and achievement are constantly expanding.

But human nature seems to run at a tangent to natural order. History shows us that new technologies are often feared before they are embraced. Examples from the past are automobiles, aeroplanes, electricity and telecommunications. Now we can include unmanned weapon systems, artificial intelligence and a myriad of other innovations.

People feel safe and comforted by familiarity. If you share interests, political ideologies and beliefs with others, you tend to stick together. People often avoid those who challenge their safety zone, although it has been found that those who have relationships with someone from outside their culture, are often more creative than insular people, who don’t mix outside of their own ethos.

Cultural and social edges are often fraught with cross boundary disagreements regarding different cultural identities such as values, religion or politics, in which each culture sees their identity threatened by the other. Then edges may become rigid barriers.

With humans it is clear that boundaries exist along cultural edge spaces despite the flow and interaction between the people that live on both sides. Often the contributing cultures may be inequitable, with one culture dominating or overwhelming the other, such as colonialism.

Even within a certain culture, people will be divided by economic classes, where the rich are physically and socially separated from the poor. It is on the edges of such constructs that we meet crime.

The dark side of the edge

Here we see that there is indeed a dark side to the edge. Criminologists know that the edges between different locations have varying risk levels for criminal victimization.

For example, in residential communities where there are bordering environments such as greenbelts or industrial zones, houses on the edge are most often the target of crime. This is because it is less risky for criminals to use the surrounding areas as an escape route.

Today there is a popular trend to develop gated communities, with security guards enforcing barriers at the edge.

Gated communities
Gated communities create new edges

The perception is that residents are safer and can enjoy a sense of community. Here they feel their children are safe to play in the streets and everyone can leave their doors unlocked without the fear of criminal turmoil that takes place in surrounding areas. However, within these gated communities, crime levels have remained the same, and people tend to become more insular.

If people could reconnect with the ecology of things, and live like a member of the planet, the Edge Effect may remain a positive phenomenon, building communities into stronger, more creative and versatile units. But the challenge is great and the default is to succumb to edges that are barriers caused by fear and hatred of the other.

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