The Tangible Ecosystem

The Tangible Ecosystem

How can we trace relationships between ecosystem components in the city?

“Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but they unite us to it. Let this be known to be true. Let us abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of human-nature” — Ian McHarg, Design with Nature

This workshop is part of the 🌱Urban Ecology workshop series from PLIX.

Background & Materials

Workshop at a Glance

In this workshop, we'll notice how to highlight biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) factors as the key actors in the urban environment. By tracking how these environmental components interact—as well as how they are related—you can more deeply understand unique ecologies in your local community

  • Age Range: 8–13 years old
  • Group Size: 5–15 participants
  • Number of Facilitators: 1–2
  • Session Length: 2 hours
  • Cost: $5 – $7 per participant (note that materials can be reused (like the bins) or can be used for repeated workshops, like trace paper and easel pad paper)
PLIX Tip: Remember, like all PLIX activities, we encourage you to use this guide as a jumping off point — feel free to remix it to suit your local community! And if you try something new, we'd love to hear about it on the PLIX Discussion Forum.

Supply Kit

PLIX zines — folded & cut Sorting and Collecting printouts (one sheet per participant)
field journal (or any notebook) with zine holder (one per participant)
viewfinders (one per participant)
pens and pencils (one per participant)
tape—to affix clippings in field journals
tracing paper and crayons for rubbings
easel pad or other large sheets of paper
bins for collecting objects (one per 2–3 participants)
a variety of biotic and abiotic samples collected from around your city or neighborhood (9–12 samples per 2–3 participants)
outdoor protection: sunscreen, water bottles, hats, shade structures—or ask participants to bring their own!
optional: Flower press or heavy books
optional: Polaroid Zip Wireless Mobile Photo Mini Printer, photo paper, and smartphone

Sorting and Collecting Zine

The Sorting and Collecting zine introduces the concepts of biotic and abiotic components of urban ecosystems and what forms these factors take (living things, objects, and processes). The zine also includes a section on "Six Ways to Collect" to give inspiration for how to document the living and nonliving world during this workshop's field exercise. Finally, it provides some tips for how to organize and curate a collection of objects, through the generation of either a taxonomy or phylogeny.

Download here →


A note about zines: Our PLIX zines are designed to be supplementary resources for patrons and librarians to refer to during workshops. They're a quick and easy way for people to learn some fundamentals. You can print them on 8.5x11" paper, and they're easy to assemble. Here’s a resource that shows you step-by-step how to cut and fold them after printing!

Workshop Flow

Workshop Musings

  • What are the major living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) components of ecosystems?
  • What processes do they influence?
  • What makes these factors biotic or abiotic?
  • How do abiotic and biotic factors interact?
  • What do these interactions mean in the context of the city? Do they affect plant or animal life in some way? Do they disrupt natural cycles? Pollute? Create new habitats?
  • How can we creatively represent these interactions or relationships?
Collections of biotic and abiotic samples from this workshop's field exercise.
Collections of biotic and abiotic samples from this workshop's field exercise.

Introductory Activity: Biotic-Abiotic Sorting

Suggested Timing: 40 minutes

This introductory activity will require some set-up in advance of participants' arrival. You'll need to prepare Venn diagram and spectrum drawings on large sheets of easel pad paper (one per small group of 2-3 participants) as well as gather a variety of biotic and abiotic samples from around your city or neighborhood (see Materials List).

We suggest setting your room up with workspaces for small groups of 2-3 participants. Each workspace should have one large sheet of paper with a biotic-abiotic Venn diagram drawing, one sheet of large paper with a biotic-abiotic spectrum drawing, pens and pencils, and ~9-12 samples for sorting.

PLIX Tip: For the samples, it's important to make sure each group has a good variety of items to categorize during this introductory activity. We suggest selecting samples in varying stages of life and decay; you can also consider incorporating objects that are not naturally occurring (e.g., a bottle cap, empty soda can, or candy wrapper). Finally, we suggest including vials of water or dirt, as well as sticky notes with concepts or hard-to-collect materials on them (e.g., "clouds," "rain," "construction," or "bacteria").

Getting Started (10 minutes): When participants first arrive, hand out copies of the Sorting and Collecting zine and make sure everyone has their field journal. Encourage participants to pair up and spend 5 minutes looking through the zine. They should discuss with their partner any questions or observations they might have. Next, using the zine as a jumping-off point, spend another 5 minutes as a full group discussing the concepts of biotic and abiotic components of urban ecosystems and what forms these factors take (living things, objects, and processes).

Small Group Exploration 1, Biotic-Abiotic Venn Diagram (15 minutes): Begin by having participants work in their small groups of two to three to sort their samples into the Venn diagram categories of biotic, abiotic, or something in-between (things that are “hard to place,” or not obviously living or nonliving). The participants might find that some objects are easier to place than others: over time, some materials may transform from biotic components to abiotic ones. For example, leaves are biotic when living and attached to trees, but become abiotic when they fall off, die, and decompose.

An example of a Biotic-Abiotic Venn diagram sort.
An example of a Biotic-Abiotic Venn diagram sort.

Spend the last 5 minutes having participants take a quick look at how other groups sorted the objects, then facilitate a discussion around some of the following questions:

  • Which objects were hardest to place? Easiest?
  • Looking at the categories, do we see any patterns emerge?
  • Were there any disagreements? Where?
  • Can you give an example of a way that objects in different categories might interact with each other? (For example, a leaf in the biotic category may be sustained by "rain" in the abiotic category.)
PLIX Tip: For the come-together activity during this workshop, you'll ask participants to devise their own way of sorting the samples they collected during the field exercise. In order to encourage creativity during this later activity, we have found that it's important to offer at least two different ways of sorting materials during this introductory activity.

Small Group Exploration 2, Biotic-Abiotic Spectrum (15 minutes): Ask participants to do an alternate sort, this time placing objects along the spectrum of biotic to abiotic. This activity will likely go a bit quicker than the first sort, since your participants will be working with the same set of materials. After about 5 minutes or so, have a discussion similar to that for the first sort:

  • What was easy or hard to place along the spectrum?
  • How did sorting in this way differ from the first activity?
  • Can any patterns be observed across the spectrum, in terms of materiality, color, size, etc.?

Remind participants to keep the answers to these discussions in mind during the field exercise. Encourage patrons to think about what parts of the environment are living and nonliving, and how they are interacting.

An example of a Biotic-Abiotic spectrum sort.
An example of a Biotic-Abiotic spectrum sort.

Field Exercise: Field Documentation & Collection

Suggested Timing: 40 minutes

For this field exercise, participants will visit two to three field sites, differing in the type of vegetation they have (e.g., a basketball court next to a construction site and a landscaped courtyard). At each site, participants will document or collect at least five found objects (biotic or abiotic) that they will then use to create their own custom sort to represent your neighborhood's ecosystem.

We recommend having your group divide up into teams of two or three. Each team gets a bin for storing collected items. Make sure participants bring their field journals with them to record observations of the types of life found at each field site that they might not be able to physically collect. As a facilitator, you may also want to have a camera (and mobile photo printer, if you have one!) for snapping some photos along the way.

The goal of this exercise is to extend our senses-based observations of urban ecosystems through thoughtful connection with the objects, entities, processes, and most importantly, life, they hold. Participants will collect data in their field journals and will collect physical objects from the ecosystem. Field documentation is a vital skill for capturing the portrait of a landscape and its unique environmental features.

Remember, this workshop's Sorting and Collecting zine outlines different ways of collecting in the urban ecosystem: see how many different forms of documentation the participants can collect in the field. While outside, discuss the idea of generating a shared collection of objects that represent your neighborhood's ecosystem. Have groups think about the scale of their collection—are they capturing several meters? The whole field-site? A single square centimeter? Probe them about what types of documentation and collection are necessary to accurately capture the location and its ecology.

The "Six Ways to Collect" page from this workshop's
The "Six Ways to Collect" page from this workshop's Sorting and Collecting zine. Encourage participants to use a a variety of collection methods (not just picking!) during the field exercise.

Use tracing paper and a crayon to capture interesting textures you find in the field, like tree bark.
Use tracing paper and a crayon to capture interesting textures you find in the field, like tree bark.

Come-Together: Custom Sorts of Found Objects

Suggested Timing: 40 minutes (30 min for the activity + 10 min for clean-up & hand-washing)

For the come-together activity, we recommend staying outside (weather permitting!). Working in their small groups, participants will create a ‘taxonomy’ or ‘phylogeny’ of their found objects—essentially, an arrangement or categorization of their objects in a way that the group decides on together. The biotic-abiotic Venn diagram and spectrum from the introductory activity are just two ways that you might make a sort, but there are so many more! Encourage your participants to be creative. We recommend giving each group a large sheep of paper to serve as the backdrop for their sorts. Objects might be sorted by color, by structure, by size and shape: any arrangement which aids in the observer identifying relationships (specifically similarities and differences) between objects. If there are multiple ideas, try arranging the objects in several different ways!

A custom sort by color.
A custom sort by color.
A custom sort by category.
A custom sort by category.
A custom sort on a spectrum by size.
A custom sort on a spectrum by size.
PLIX Tip: As a facilitator, you may consider collecting your own bin of items during the field exercise. This way, during the come-together activity you'll have an extra set of materials to work on your own sort while the small groups are working on theirs. This is a nice way to participate in the activity, and it's also a chance to showcase a slightly more complex way of sorting (e.g., along two dimensions, like biotic-abiotic and hard-soft). And if one or more groups finish early, you can invite them to help you out with your sort!

Gallery Walk & Discussion: Once each group has completed their custom sort (this should take ~20 minutes), do a "gallery walk" as a full-group to observe the many ways in which objects from the same landscape can be categorized differently. Let each small group explain their sort and what was most interesting about making it. Then, discuss some of the following questions:

  • How did groups choose a category (or categories) for their sorting?
  • What trends do you notice in the way that the objects are categorized? Are there more abiotic elements or biotic ones? Are there more green objects than brown ones? More red than blue?
  • Where was the largest object found? The smallest? Can any connections be drawn between where the object was found and its size, color, shape, or texture?
  • What can we learn about the place these objects were collected simply by looking at our categorizations?

Additional Resources


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