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 The Imagined Landscape. Story by Bob Thomas.


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Back in the 1840s, a small-town doctor in central Illinois penned a not-so-flattering description of his home turf. An "uninhabited waste," he called it. "A giant emporium of malaria."

Today that area, once known as the Grand Prairie, is an intensively developed agricultural landscape where farm after farm provides a harvest undreamed of by earlier generations.

This transformation didn't happen by accident, nor was it in any way inevitable, says Michael Urban, assistant professor of geography at MU. Grand Prairie became what it is today because people in the region saw beyond its pestilential beginning to a time when it would be orderly, fruitful farmland. And once they envisioned it, they found the technology, in Grand Prairie's case agricultural drainage know-how, to make it happen.

This phenomenon, in the parlance of geographers like Urban, is "anthropogenic landscape change." Understanding how it works, he says, is a key component in understanding how the world's increasingly crowded spaces will be used. Or, in some cases, abused.

"People's environmental perspectives drive their behavior," says Urban. "Do we value waterways as roads or as unique ecosystems? Is it right to dump chemicals into a stream? Are there social benefits to altering the landscape? How do you juggle these things? The answers to those questions ultimately drive public policy."

Urban's specialty is fluvial geomorphology, meaning he studies the effects of streams and rivers, along with the sediments they carry, on the Earth's landforms. Within this speciality Urban has made a name for himself by examining agricultural streams and ditches and their impact on intensely modified environments that many people don't consider natural at all.

Richard A. Marston, university distinguished professor and head of the Kansas State University geography department, calls Urban a "geographer with a capital G, by which I mean he is very good at bridging the physical and human sides of the discipline."

Urban looks at land use over time and how this relates to biological and physical changes in stream channels. It's something that others are doing in mountain landscapes, but not in agricultural landscapes, Marston says. "He attempts to separate human impact on streams from what would have occurred without human interference."

Urban is working to ensure that planners involved in these issues approach them with an appreciation of past "interferences." Hence his interest in agricultural drainage in the Midwestern prairies. His latest study, dealing with the Grand Prairie, appeared last summer in the Journal of Historical Geography.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.