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Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ Category

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Restoring post-industrial, particularly post-military, landscapes means adding another layer of history to places that already have many. For a group of environmental philosophers at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) in Madison, Wisconsin, those earlier layers of history each have an important meaning — and it’s important they aren’t lost as landscapes long-damaged by industrial or military use are restored.

Preserving Ruination at Orford Ness

According to professor Caitlin DeSilvey, a cultural geographer at the University of Exeter, Orford Ness, a shingle-ridge landscape in the UK, was a secret site for military research during World War II. In 1953, the UK’s National Trust took over the land and transformed it into a sort of preserve. She said military testing, including testing with atomic and chemical weapons, had a “severe effect on the native landscape.” Now, efforts are underway to improve the habitat while managing public access.

There are signs everywhere explaining the still-lurking dangers of unexploded ordinance. If you stay on the paths, the site is “safe but not comfortable.” The remaining buildings are especially uncomfortable. She said there was a “deliberate decision to let the relics of military structures decay.”  A test pit for chemical weapons is now a lagoon filled with rainwater. Moss covers all the surfaces. Yellowhorn poppies appear inside the buildings. But even then, these structures still offer a “palpable sense of secrecy and threat.”

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Beyond these structures, the weedy ruderal ecosystem is starting to appear among the disturbed shingle (rocky rubble) landscape. DeSilvey said Orford Ness’ revival as a landscape is the “naturalization of a violent period of history.” In this instance, nature softens its history.

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DeSilvey also said “there’s beauty in decay.” Orford Ness provides a window into that process and change. Indeed, the site’s fascination may be its “troubling resonance and incoherence.” There are no “pure zones,” only messiness, as the shingles approach, spilling through the door of buildings.

Unfortunately, the question remains whether the National Trust will let the decay stay. If the site is moved into another category of historical value, the site may end up being “cleaned-up.” For now, there are just guided tours through the relics. Artists’ installations have also been added to the landscape. Luckily “they are making a virtue of decay.” (see more images).

Applying Nietzsche’s Three Histories to Landscape Preservation

“What role should history play in restoration?,” asked professor Jozef Keulartz, Wageningen University. This is actually a tricky question, given history can be different based on your point of view. Citing Friedrich Nietzsche, the great writer and philosopher, he said “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Nietzsche thought there were three forms of history: antiquarian, monumental, and critical. Ideally, these three forms of history will balance and correct each other.

Antiquarian history is about the “preservation and admiration of the past.” While positive from a historic preservation point of view, the danger, said Keulartz, is “everything old becomes over-estimated; everything new is thrown out.” This approach can “mummify life” and preserve the “on-going tyranny of the past.” Too often, Keulartz said, England takes an antiquarian approach with their historic sites. As an example, he pointed to the Geevor Tin Mine, which has been kept in its original state. Visitors can take tours and experience the life of a miner.

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In contrast, monumental history is opposed to mummification; it’s a “counterpoint to being stuck in the past.” Monumental history is all about “inspiring contemporary man, finding teachers from the past and using them as role models to encourage future progress.” The danger there is “history can become a fiction, a grab-bag.” Keulartz said the Dutch were less conservative than the English about their historic preservation projects and use a “pragmatic style.” In one example, the Western Gas Factory, the Dutch restored a Neo-Renaissance-style building but renovated for creative uses, including exhibitions, fashion shows, and festivals. “Monumental history is about conserving through development, the creation of new spatial values.” In this model, places get a second life. “It’s a practical use of the past, but in danger of being shallow.”

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In Nietzsche’s critical history, man has the strength to “shatter the past” and “erase histories.” It’s not about “examining the past but destroying it” in order to create a new future. This kind of whole-sale condemnation of the past can be dangerous because “we can destroy the past but can’t escape from it.” Keulartz cautioned, “we can hope for a more decent future but this may be a false hope.” Germany, which is “anything but proud of its past,” often takes a critical historical approach to many of its historic sites.

For Keulartz, one site achieves Neitzsche’s difficult balance of history: Landscape Park Duisborg Nord, which was created by landscape architect Peter Latz. There, lots of plants and trees are mixed within the post-industrial factory landscape. While nature has appeared spontaneously, the reoccupation of the site by nature was stimulated in other areas. Nature was designed, with gardens placed throughout. Duisborg took an old pit and made it the biggest indoor diving pool in the EU. A wall was re-purposed as a climbing course. “Duisborg is about reusing and remembering.”

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Learning How to Read the Landscape

For professor Martin Drenthen, Radboud University, determining the restoration goals for a historic landscape is a loaded process filled with lots of value judgements. Historic landscapes have obviously undergone significant changes over the years, reflecting “conflicting interpretations of the landscape.” As such, with any restoration project, the “meaning of the landscape may not be immediately apparent.”

There have been a ton of books published around the theme of “reading the landscape.” These books argue that “landscapes are essentially texts,” in which layers of meaning must be mined and read. “Places embody people’s histories and cultural identities. Their context explains who we are.” Landscapes are literally “infested with meanings.” For example, he said the idyllic Dutch landscape reflects the “virtues Dutch have cultivated and represent Dutch culture. They reflect the dialogue between man and nature.”

Restoring the ecological function of a site, “rewilding” it, is another “deepening of the history of a site.” It can be “sense of place 2.0.” Underneath all of those human layers, “wilderness always reigns so re-wilding really has a moral message, too. It’s about recognizing the value of history and successive layers but that deeper layers have special importance.” Layered landscapes are like a palimpsest.

But Drenthen added that “each new interpretation of a landscape needs to be open,” too, to allow for future layers of meaning to be added. As an example, he pointed to the work of artist Michael van Bahel, who “doesn’t destroy history” with his new art works, but exposed hidden layers. In one piece, he created a viewing portal for understanding a historical war site. Here, “art is the lens.”

Restoring One of America’s Largest Superfund Sites

Back in the U.S., post-industrial sites are also being restored, raising the same sorts of issues. In Butte, Montana, efforts are underway to restore the area around the 1-mile-wide by 1.5-mile-long Berkeley Pit, one of the largest SuperFund sites in the U.S, into its natural state. According to Michigan Tech professor Frederic Quivik, the former copper mine dump site, which was owned by Anaconda Copper, has “extremely toxic water, some 1,000-feet deep.” But beyond the pit, tailings from the mining actually traveled along the Clark Fork River all the way to Missoula. Quivik said while copper mining is certainly destructive, “everyone is complicit. Everyone loves copper. Automobiles and airplanes depend on copper.”

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Not only did the copper pollute Butte and other communities along the Clark Fork River, it also impacted the air and land. Quivik said in the mid-1950s, smoke pollution from the smelting process poured “arsenic, sulfur, and iron” waste materials into the atmosphere. Livestock in range of the smokestacks “were sickly or dying.” The Anaconda Copper was sued by farmers and the U.S. government. One result of their successful suit was Anaconda had to create a 585-feet stack. Tailings along the river had to be excavated and deposited elsewhere. Amazingly, today, trout are living in the creeks along the river.

Anaconda Copper created man-made ponds to manage the tailings, with artificial waterways to move the copper sulfate. These ponds actually have to be managed in perpetuity, as they remain one of the most contaminated areas. But, interestingly, around these ponds, a new golf course was put in, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Other areas have been restored as wildlife habitat. New educational signage also help visitors interpret the site. The positive changes in the Clark Fork River communities are worth exploring (read a great article on the environmental remediation effort in High Country News).

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From Military Sites to Wildlife Preserves

Many former military sites in America are being swiped clean and restored to earlier versions of themselves, natural areas. According to professor David Havlick, University of Colorado, there are nearly two dozens former Department of Defense sites across the U.S. that are now wildlife preserves, some 1.2 million acres.

Havlick called these places “unique hybrid landscapes” because they are “ecologically valuable but highly contaminated.” These sites are layered with multiple meanings: They reflect national sacrifice (they are often called “sacrifice zones”) but also the resiliency of nature. The restoration process itself also generates meaning, as a “previously restricted space now comes back into view.” As these sites are restored, they also show the possibility of “military stewardship,” and the military taking environmental responsibility.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is leading the restoration at many of these former military sites. Havlick said they take a “wildlife-first policy.” At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, FWS is restoring the short grass prairie at a former chemical weapons facility that is heavily contaminated. The old bunkers are presented as amenities. Havlick said people are really drawn to these. At the old Arsenal site, wetlands are now bringing in waterfowl.

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Thousands of acres of prairie grass are now munched on by imported bison.

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A visitor’s center tells the “narrative about individual and community sacrifice.”

Another Perspective on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal

For philosophy professor Marion Hourdequin, Colorado College, the question is “what is the role of history?” She argued that “most traditional ecological restoration projects aren’t up to preserving diverse values.” Historical fidelity means restoring a site to its pre-settlement conditions, prior to colonization by Europeans. This means trying to undo the legacy of human interventions in the site before then. But Hourdequin thinks this isn’t even possible. The new model for ecological restoration accepts this, offering a “dynamic view of ecology, contingency, and global warming. We are now dealing with altered and fragmented landscapes.”

Hourdequin thinks sites up for ecological restoration should instead be treated as “complex, layered landscapes that don’t ignore the past or only restore to pre-settlement conditions. We need a middle way that integrates humans and nature.” She believes this is because “human values are intertwined with places.”

At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, there is a rich history that goes beyond the “weapons to wildlife narrative.” Before Europeans arrived, the place was used seasonally by native Americans. The area was eventually homesteaded by European settlers. Later, in the 1940s, it became a primary site for American chemical weapons production, including VX, Sarin, and Napalm. Then, it was leased to Shell for pesticide production. In the early 90s, efforts began to clean-up and restore the site. The story today is bald eagles, owls, bison, prairie dogs living in what looks like a natural site.

Hourdequin says it’s important not to forget these many important layers of history. While a wildlife refuge today, the place actually holds multiple meanings. Just look at the comments from visitors, who call it “quiet and sad” and “peaceful and redemptive.”

Image credits: (1) Orford Ness / Wikipedia, (2) Orford Ness / copyright Gareth Harmer, (3) Orford Ness / Tomoland, (4) Geevor Tin Mine / My Daily, (5) Western Gas Factory / Outerhop, (6) Landscape Park Duisborg Nord / Landezine, (7) Berkeley Pit / Wired magazine, (8) Clark Fork River restoration / High Country News, (9) Rocky Mountain Arsenal / David Mendosa, (10) Bison / The Denver Post

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Bees aren’t all alike. The tens of thousands of different bee species around the world need different habitat to do well. Getting unique species to take root in restored habitat is a whole other story. In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologists discussed how challenging it is to create habitat bees will use year after year, particularly in restored landscapes.

Places for Bees in Agricultural Areas

Claire Carvell, who is a researcher at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, outlined how English bees have responded to habitat restoration projects. The situation for bees there is pretty dire. Some 75 percent of the UK is agricultural land. Some 97 percent of wildflower meadows, places bees love, are gone. As a result, “bees have significantly declined over the 20th century.”

The UK has more than 260 bee species, with some 26 species being social. There are 25 native bumblebees (2 have gone extinct). While there are still many types of bees, Carvell said bee diversity has decreased in more than half of the UK’s landscapes — by more than 50 percent since 1980.

To combat these trends, the UK government has initiated a program that pays subsidies for the “intensification of landscape quality.” Farmers must chose wildlife-friendly options to quality for those subsidies, which can total 280 pounds a year. One common outcome of this subsidy is natural strip of land left alone within farmland. There, a mix of agricultural plants and grasses bees like are added. Bumblebees take to agricultural legumes, while sunflowers are also good for bees.

In a recent project, Carvell said ecologists tested a few different options. In land where were there simply crops, there was no value for bees. In areas without pesticides, there was only a limited response. Where the “natural generation of plant communities” was allowed, there was also only a limited response. She said the key is creating sites with pollen and nectar, a diverse seed mix, which resulted in a “significant response” from the bees.

But one seed mix, no matter how diverse, will “not have sustained benefits.” There is a seasonal component; some plants die off. Flowering plants that offer nectar need to be re-sown every 3-4 years. Diverse plant mixes must include perennials.

Former Mining Sites Can Provide Habitat

Former mining sites litter the globe. Given all the untapped land, there are lots of opportunities to restore them as habitat for bees. But how good are these sites?, asked Karen Goodell, an ecology professor at Ohio State University.

The answer: reclaimed mines “can aid bee conservation,” but they will not be as good as remnant (untouched) habitat. It’s difficult to restore plant communities that existed in mining areas before. Forests can be re-created, but the full ecosystem is another story. While “floral diversity and abundance will positively affect bee recruitment,” bees will be less diverse in these mining sites than in remnant habitats.

In an observational study of 24 sites at The Wilds, a leading conservation site in Ohio, Goodell netted bee species, counted floral resources, and assessed nest habitat. She looked at sites that “vary in proximity to natural habitat.” A few experimental sites had “augmented nest sites;” another set only got “nest blocks” in the second year.

Looking specifically at Megachilid bees, which are more solitary than honey bees and nest on or in the ground, she found that “the abundance of floral resources wasn’t really important, restoring nesting substrate was far more critical.” Nesting “subtrate” includes stem wood and bare soil. She added that “adding additional artificial nest substrate didn’t help.” To that end, she said it’s important habitats, whether they are restored or not, have ample hollow stem wood lying around, shrubs, dead wood, and bare ground, if you want to attract Megachilids.

Challenges with Ecosystem Restoration

For Neal Williams, University of California – Davis, the transformation of wild areas into agricultural areas is the primary reason for bee habitat loss. Near the Sacramento River in California, a group of farmers and other interests are restoring an 80-kilometer swath along the river corridor from Red Bluff to Chico. Williams’ study there is looking at the community of pollinators in the restored fragments in comparison with the remnant riparian forests. His interest is what factors contribute to the “persistent differences” between the two areas.

Williams said the sites were actually restored. A mono-cultural landscape filled with Walnut orchards was turned back into a forest, but now there is no understory. The issue then was that “species richness was restored, but not composition.”

Lastly, Rufus Isaacs, Michigan State University, discussed bee habitat restoration in managed lands in Michigan. He said there’s a “great diversity of fruit and vegetable production in the area and farmers are very interested in the health of bees.” Hopefully, more will actually do something about setting aside land for bees, given so much of America’s farm produce relies on pollinators.

Image credits: Bee Habitat / Honeybee Conservancy

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In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologist John Munro worried that SER is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” Pointing to Temple University’s landscape architecture and horticulture program, which features the first ever-accredited concentration in ecological restoration, he said the focus must remain on “doing rather than studying.” His fear is that many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.”

The solution, according to Munro, is to boost ecological site design education in both landscape architecture and ecology degree programs. Landscape architects and restoration ecologists must understand “specifications, logistics, sequencing, planning. This can’t be handed to other professions.” A landscape architect in Philadelphia discussed the ecological issues landscape architects must increasingly know about. A landscape architect professor and graduates from the Temple program then discussed their innovative program and what they are doing with what they’ve learned.

Landscape Architects Need Ecological Know-How

According to Emily McCoy, ASLA, Andropogon, “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.

Andropogon, one of the most cutting-edge landscape architecture firms in terms of sustainable design, has actually created an “integrative research department” to help incorporate the latest research into their practice. “We are focused on collecting adaptive feedback. We want to apply the latest data on landscape performance.” The firm is doing this because they believe all the new research can support their mission of improving the “health, safety, and welfare of people.” Andropogon thinks “urban environments can positively contribute to our health.”

McCoy identified a number of research areas where Andropogon says they need help from restoration ecologists or landscape architects trained in ecology. They are soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes. They need this kind of research for their sustainable landscape projects, like the green roof for the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., which features native plant communities and now attracts wildlife (see image above).

She also said the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a kind of “LEED for Landscapes,” will further boost demand for ecological research services among all landscape architects. “SITES asks what is the habitat value? How do you measure performance of plants and soils in man-made landscapes?” Right now, data on ecosystem services provided by urban landscapes is largely unavailable.

Learning How to Do Ecological Restoration

Mary Myers, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at Temple University, said Temple has the only accredited landscape architecture program with a concentration in ecological restoration. She defined landscape architecture as an “environmentally-focused profession whose mission is to promote environmental balance and human well-being through sustainable design.”

To get similar programs going in other landscape architecture departments, she advised academic program chairs to “build lateral support within and out universities, get other environmental design schools on campus involved, and bring in expert outside advisers.” At Temple, Myers brought in Andropogon Associates, BioHabitats, and Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

To build the case for the new program, which she did as chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture department, she pointed to U.S. Labor and ASLA reports outlining booming job growth for landscape architecture and ecological restoration, along with a U.S. News and World Report article that said ecological restoration is a growing field.

Myer’s program applies ecosystem design. There are modules on woodlands and wetlands, with classes on technical engineering and ecosystem design spread throughout. The third year has a special “public lands module,” and a capstone project in the field. Myers made a point of emphasizing how important “graphic communication” was in the curriculum, too, which was accredited by LAAB in 2013.
LARC9995Captone Design schedule SP12.xlsx

How Temple University Students Approach Ecological Restoration

A group of Temple University graduates as well as current students then discussed how they are approaching ecological restoration in their work and studies. Sara Street, Construction Specialties, Inc. (C/S), a Temple University landscape architecture and ecological restoration graduate, described C/S’s efforts in designing a sustainable corporate campus for their sales office in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Located on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, the corporate campus is an industrially-zoned site in a region with a long history of human habitation. The campus’s new design includes stormwater capture and reuse, a reintroduction of native plants (including a native vegetation propagation facility), and a new trail system. Street described how the project will serve as an educational facility for local school children, teaching them about ecological restoration.

Street stressed the need for a quantifiable, objective method for judging ecological restoration projects. C/S’s new campus will be highly monitored over time. As landscape architecture and ecological restoration projects become more intertwined, Street expressed optimism for the development of new standardized system of sustainability scorecards.

Patricia Kemper, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Temple University, then discussed the integration of landscape architecture and ecological restoration. She cited several built examples, including the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center in White Lake Township, Michigan. Completed in 2008, the project – a recipient of an ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award – involved a large-scale ecological restoration effort. MSI Design led a multidisciplinary team to accomplish this task, which required the reintroduction of 170 native plant species, the preservation of existing wetlands and woodlands, and a new ecologically-managed stormwater system. Furthermore, an underwater plexiglass classroom entices school children to learn about the aquatic ecology of the site. By merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration, the design of the James Clarkson Environmental Discover Center benefits both wildlife and the public.

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Kemper followed her case studies with the results of a survey of universities with master programs in landscape architecture. Respondents were asked questions regarding the role of ecological restoration education in their landscape architecture programs. She found that while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice. More emphasis on ecological restoration in landscape architecture education is needed.

Sue Ann Alleger, who graduated with a Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Temple University, then reiterating the importance of dual training in landscape architecture and ecological restoration. Alleger outlined how pressures from widespread urbanization, population expansion, and climate change are disrupting environmental systems. In this context, she felt ecological restoration should play a part in any landscape design. She described how ecological restoration is coupled with design projects at Temple University, from inventory to analysis, concept, and final plan. For example, design projects can involve an extensive site inventory of quantitative and qualitative data, which is plotted and compared to a reference model.

According to Alleger, this kind of technical rigor extends to every stage of a design project at Temple University, integrating ecological science with design at all points. Whether or not Temple’s model of merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration becomes more widespread, further collaboration between these two disciplines will be increasingly important as ecological performance is demanded of our landscapes.

This post is by Jared Green, Editor, The Dirt, and Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Green Roof / Rooflite (2) Andrew Hayes. Capstone Restoration Design Project / Temple University, (3) ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center. MSI Design / Image credit: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography

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Few of the world’s ecosystems have been left untouched by humans. While we can restore many ecosystems damaged by people to their historic function, some may be beyond repair and have become “novel ecosystems.” According to experts at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, some 36 percent of the globe’s ecosystems are now novel, meaning that more are now novel than wild. Some goods news though: the maximum extent of novelty, around 50 percent, was reached around 100 years ago. The percentage of novel ecosystems has actually gone down with more intensive agricultural practices that take up less land.

Novel Ecosystems and Shifting Values

Ecologist Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, put novel systems in a broader context. Walking through Southern Vancouver Island, he has seen many invasive species from elsewhere, but has been puzzled about what to do. There’s a limited amount of energy for pulling out every invasive plant species, particularly in areas totally over-run. Even if plants are removed, “the system will revert back immediately” to a state of invasion. At the global level, land use and climate shifts, invasive plant invasions, nitrogen deposition, and cultural changes mean a constant struggle against novelty.

In a new book Higgs and others published, Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order, a model has been created to understand what kind of ecosystems we have today. There are “historical ecosystems,” which have had no change; “hybrid ecosystems,” which have “reversible changes;” and now “novel ecosystems,” where the changes are irreversible. Novel ecosystems are characterized by a “difference in ecosystem composition, structure, and function.” They have a “persistent self-organization,” even if they were created by humans. “They have a practical condition of irreversibility.”

Restoration ecologists mostly work in the area of hybrid ecosystems, trying to restore them to historical ones. While this work is important, Higgs argues that “we have to have flexible goals in some systems.” For example, he pointed to the typical “landscape mosaic” found in exurban or peri-urban areas. There, the landscape is often segmented into hybrid and novel systems. And there, restoration ecologists have to “restore and intervene responsibly.”

In the face of this overwhelming struggle against novelty, there has been a shift in values among society. Years ago, restoration ecologists wanted to restore ecosystems to their “historic fidelity” as much as possible. Now, ecologists, scientists, and landscape architects discuss the value of novel ecosystems’ services, which to some extent are plant-agnostic.

Perhaps reflecting the shift in values, Higgs said “ecosystem services can be achieved in different ecosystems,” meaning that novel systems, no matter how different they are from historic ones, still have some value. Still, Higgs cautioned against those who think novel ecosystems are somehow beneficial, and the way to go in the future. This view point has been promoted by a number of scientists, and articulated well by Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and others in a recent New York Times op-ed. Higgs thinks this point of view is a bit dangerous, as the Anthropocene, the globe as managed by man, could raise problems with biological diversity. “We have to be careful.”

He said all the debate about novel ecosystems and ecosystem services may prove fruitful though. The old model of ecological restoration was “history as template, single trajectory, and an emphasis on structural composition.” The new model, which he deemed “ecological restoration 2.0,” calls for “history as a guide, multiple trajectories, processional emphasis, and pragmatic goals.” Expectations are diminishing on one hand, while “possibilities are enlarged” with novel systems. “Novel ecosystems can bolster restoration goals for systems in rapid change.”

Planet Now More Novel Than Wild

Mike Perring, University of Western Australia, seeks to quantify the extent of novel ecosystems across the globe. He said “novelty is not new,” so he’s trying to figure out the current and historical extent and how things have changed over time.

Perring and his team have used “proxies” such as land-use maps and population counts. Areas used by humans and close-by areas not used are basically novel. In addition, areas previously used but no longer used, areas where there was “population in the past,” will sometimes still be novel.

While there are different land-use models, Perring estimated that a vast amount of the globe has been converted for human use, meaning about 36 percent of the world’s ecosystems are novel. Excluding the ice-covered parts of the planet, this means that more of the planet is novel than wild.

According to the models Perring used, there has been lots of change over the past 250-500 years. “The wild has been going down over time.” But the good news may be the novel is going down, too. The maximum amount of novelty, around 50 percent, was hit around 100 years ago. Novelty has gone down as humans have cultivated land more intensively.

Perring wondered whether we have reached irreversible thresholds of novelty or not, as well. With ozone, carbon dioxide, and acidification levels changing with climate shifts, there are definite implications for ecosystems.

Novelty in the Era of Climate Change

According to Brian Starzomski, University of Victoria, all ecosystems, even novel ones, are rapidly changing with climate shifts. “You basically need to move 110 meters per year to follow your climate.” Climate shifts are expected to only accelerate, further exacerbating challenges related to novel ecosystem management.

Starzomski asked, “How do we adapt to and manage ecosystems that we have never experienced before?” Ecosystem restoration must also change as the climate does. As an example, he discussed the Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, where leading-edge peripheral populations are losing their range due to climate change. Also, the Garry Oak ecosystems along the Pacific Northwest are experiencing “novel conditions” that challenge restoration paradigms. He said in Canada, nine national parks “no longer contain their original climate conditions.”

The Challenge of Measuring What’s New

Finally, ecologist Jim Harris discussed how difficult it is to measure novel ecosystems, given “no two ecosystems are identical.” He added that “finding the degradation symbol may not be obvious.” An ecosystem may appear fine on the surface, but the hydrological systems may be shutting down because of subtle shifts in groundwater, or the soil compositions may be changing. In addition, some systems are extremely challenging to pin down. “Some exhibit multiple stable states.”

To measure novel ecosystems, one must look at reference sites. But how many do scientists need to look at to be sure? Without enough examples, restoration ecologists can end up with “rigid prescriptions that produce fragile systems, or worse, landscape collapse.”

In dealing with novel ecosystems, landscape architects and restoration ecologists need a “big team,” with lots of data on species and human populations. Subtle surveys collecting lots of on-the-ground information are really critical. “We can’t just deal with simple approaches like numbers and arrangements. With ecosystem services, there is a lot to measure here.”

Image credits: Novel Ecosystem in Hawaii / Image credit: Emma Marris, ASLA Interview.

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Zandmotor vlucht-11 09-05-2011 foto: Rijkswaterstaat/Joop van Houdt
Sea levels are projected to rise dramatically over the next century, impacting coastal infrastructure that was never designed for these new conditions. In the face of this change, simply maintaining the status quo is an implausible prospect. At the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, a set of landscape architects and ecologists proposed ecological strategies for adapting to sea level rise. By harnessing previously ignored or repressed ecological systems, coastal settlements can more effectively respond to their changing landscapes.

Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed strategies for beach restoration in the context of rising seas. Using Virginia Beach as a case study, she explored the potential of the Dutch zandmotor (or sand motor) method of beach restoration (see image above).

Virginia Beach claims to have the longest recreational beach in the world, and, therefore, an economic impetus to keep its beach in a static, predictable form, requiring periodic restoration work. Traditionally, beach restoration work, which was last completed in Virginia Beach in 2002, involves dumping large amounts of new sand on the shoreline and spreading it around with a bulldozer. This process is expensive and highly disruptive to beach ecology.

The zandmotor method involves harnessing wave action to distribute sand across the shoreline. Instead of applying sand directly to the beach with bulldozers, sand is dumped offshore. Over time, coastal currents move the sand and deposit it along the beach. This method is much cheaper and less disruptive than traditional beach restoration.

In order to be applied in Virginia Beach, however, cultural attitudes toward the beach must change. Hill stated that hotel owners are leery of the irregular beach arrangements that result from the Dutch method, desiring the predictability that is achieved through traditional methods. Still, Hill expressed hope that eventually people may embrace a changing beach as something “exciting and beautiful to check in to see every year.” [See more on the Dutch sand motor at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM)]

Next, Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, SeArc – Ecological Marine Consulting LTD, spoke about retrofitting existing coastal infrastructure to support diverse marine ecosystems. Perkol-Finkel described how much existing construction consists of smooth concrete, a material that is not hospitable to marine growth. As an alternative to traditional concrete, she proposed the development of ecologically-active infrastructure that enhances ecological systems without compromising function. Enhanced biological buildup, including the proliferation of oysters and corals, can actually enhance the strength and durability of this infrastructure.

Speculating that concrete’s poor ecological performance has to do with its alkaline composition and smooth texture, Perkol-Finkel discussed a series of experiments with alternate concrete mixtures and arrangements. These experiments, which took place both in the lab and in the field, revealed that some concrete mixes perform significantly better ecologically than others. Furthermore, textured concretes proved to be far more conducive to marine life than smooth concretes. Slight modifications to the composition, texture, and design of marine infrastructure can lead to an enhanced ability to attract flora and fauna. This translates to an infrastructure that is biologically active, contributing to both ecological health and infrastructural function.

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Peter Hummel, Anchor QEA, discussed strategies for integrating ecological restoration and infrastructure in Puget Sound. Much of the degradation to Puget Sound’s ecosystems has come not only from encroaching development, but also from coastal infrastructure itself. Using examples from rural, suburban, and urban settings, he presented case studies where coastal infrastructure was reconnected to ecological systems, enhancing resiliency to sea level change.

Whidbey Island in Puget Sound was given as a rural case study. Historically, the 600-acre site consisted of tidal marshes and mudflats. Most of this was lost with the introduction of a dyke and pump station, as well as a state highway and navel base. Recognizing that the pump station is extremely expensive to maintain, the restoration plan involves the wholesale removal of the levee and the replacement of the state highway with a bridge. By removing everything that limits the site’s hydrology, these modifications allow natural processes to rebuilt marshland – a process-based restoration plan.

Similarly, restoration efforts in Seahurst Park, a suburban setting, involve the removal of hard infrastructure to allow natural processes to function. In this case, a series of bulkheads have prevented landslide material from reaching the park’s beach, piling up uselessly only to be eventually hauled away by trucks. As a consequence, the beach has lowered 3 – 4 feet over 30 years. The restoration plan for the site involves the removal of these bulkheads, allowing landslide debris to reach the beach and rebuilt it over time.

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In all of these examples, ecological processes are integrated into traditionally hard coastal infrastructures, benefiting both marine ecosystems and infrastructure. As sea levels rise, finding creative ways of harnessing ecological processes will be critical to coastal resiliency.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Dutch Zandmoter / Vlugtenberg (2) Shimrit Perkol-Finkel’s youtube channel, (3) Seahurst Park / Daily Journal of Commerce

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Landscape architecture and ecological restoration are really different disciplines, but increasingly these fields are working together in fascinating ways. In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Rutgers ecologist Steven Handel organized a group of landscape architects and restoration ecologists to discuss why collaboration is vital. In a mutual lovefest, the ecologists explained how landscape architects are important to work with because they communicate well with clients and communities. The landscape architects argued that ecologists are critical to making the new wildlife habitats that form sustainable landscapes actually work and measuring their success over time.

Fernbank Museum of Natural History Forest

Christina Kaunzinger, an ecologist at Rutgers University who has worked on the Piedmont forest restoration at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta (see image above), said when restoring a landscape, ecologists can look at habitats and see what’s possible, what interventions are needed, and what natural ecological methods can be used. They also create “environmental education plans.”

Within those same landscapes, landscape architects design access that “integrates people with these places” and create approaches that “sustainably manage resources.” She added that the role landscape architects play in client and broader community engagement was “very important.” Landscape architects also often play the general contracting role, managing the process, and serving as legal authority, dealing with permits. She said it’s clear that “enhanced success comes from collaboration.”

At the Fernbank Forest, which is a remnant oak, hickory, and pine forest long-protected from agriculture and development, landscape architects and ecologists are now restoring the landscape while improving access for educational purposes. Kaunzinger said the forest is actually in pretty good shape given there are no “soil disturbances.” There’s a lot of decaying wood, which is great for biodiversity. The stream heads are intact. There’s a protective fence and bikes are not permitted. The primary issue is the forest, which is near a county school district, is plagued by invasive plants from nearby residential areas.

The goal of the design and ecological restoration efforts are to “restore, protect, and preserve the forest and campus, while enhancing ecosystem services, connecting the campus to the forest physically and programatically.” The team is working in some nice elements: bioswales on the campus, an elevated walkway into the forest along with a new forest boardwalk to protect the existing ecosystem, as well as an improved stream corridor. Ponds will have softer, greener edges to improve access. Where possible, all those invasives will be taken out.

Landscape architect Susan Stainback, ASLA, Sylvatica Studio, then further explained the design rationale, arguing that “people have to have access to nature to care.” She asked “why should people care about this forest?” The answer is because this is an “ancient forest.” The design is meant to highlight the site’s wonderful ecology, “educating people about successional stages.” This educational campaign will be used to get residences around the forest to change their landscape practices. “Landscaping with Ivy and Privet is a big problem.”

Peachtree Creek Restoration Greenway

Another project Stainback is working on in Atlanta is the Peachtree Creek Restoration Greenway, a massive project involving landscape architects, ecologists, and other scientists that aims to help Atlanta rediscover this 30-mile-long creek. Stainback said the project is about “re-balancing natural systems and urban revitalization.” Most people only see glimpses of the creek and then see it as a “dangerous, neglected place overrun with invasive plants.” In fact, it’s a “beatiful riparian system” hidden in plain sight.

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Working with Perkins + Will, Stainback and others are creating a framework plan that will restore the creek and then connect it to surrounding neighborhoods through a system of trails. One segment, between Emory University and Buckhead, will be the first to go live. She said in just this segment, a “huge number of organization is involved,” as the goal is to “weave together social, natural, and cultural assets currently disconnected.” She said the role of the landscape architects in this is to create a “implementable master plan.” As such, she’s working on “orchestrating  input among all the stakeholders. We have to synthesize the ideas of many.”

The creek itself provided paths used by Native Americans for hundreds of years. To prove this, Stainback showed a set of beautiful artifacts from this important cultural landscape. Later, she said, European settlers copied the Native Americans and overlaid railroads on many of these old trails. Today, the creek itself is largely intact, with the flood plain soils in place. But the “lowlands” need to be further protected, and stormwater runoff is affecting the creek so new green infrastructure systems need to be put in.

The restoration project has a few key goals. One is that nature takes precedence over the built environment. Another is to establish the creek corridor as a place for people to truly immerse themselves in nature. Trails will be designed to “maximize the aesthetics of walking in a native urban oasis.” Trail crossings will lie lightly on the land, with bridge and boardwalks. Around the restored creek corridor low-cost green infrastructure will be added to keep runoff from impacting water quality. Lastly, way-finding and educational signage will help bring people in, explaining how these kind of trails improve the health of communities.

Randall’s Island Living Shore

New York City is experimenting with novel approaches to make its coastal landscapes more resilient to climate change. Marcha Johnson, ASLA, who works on ecological restoration and landscape architecture projects with the NYC Parks department, discussed a fascinating coastal restoration experiment that also aims to show the benefits of collaboration between disciplines. “It’s about stepping outside the boundaries and coming up with new creative ways of problem solving.”

Johnson made some observations about the “nature of collaboration.” She said studies of chimpanzees give us some insights into human cooperation, namely that collaboration best happens when there is a “novel or complex problem with no standard, pre-existing solution” and there’s an “urgent need to find a solution.” She said how to create climate-resilient landscape in NYC is just one such problem.

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NYC is planning for 31-inch rise in its sea levels over the next 40 years. Given such massive changes in the environment are coming, innovative thinking is clearly needed. To get to those new ideas, Johnson assembled a diverse team — a coastal geologist, physical oceanographer, geomorphologist, engineer, environmental artist, and planner — to brainstorm together. In a short-term experiment, she challenged representatives from each discipline to “share responsibilities and credit.” The group was invited to a design charrette, which most of the scientists had never experienced. As a result, she said, it actually didn’t work all that well. “It didn’t work to all sit in a room. We had to explore the reality of the site together. There, spontaneous, golden moments of cooperation came out of responding to the world. Light bulbs went off.”

In one part of Randall’s Island, the hard edge, the sea-wall of stone that circles the island was crumbling. Storms have over-topped it too many times. The team found that a new, soft-edged natural shore-line was needed to respond to rising sea levels without collapsing. The prototype landscape they created couldn’t just work for scientists though, it also had to communicate the changing relationship with nature to the public. “How can we deal with sea level rise in a non-threatening way?” The idea was to explore city-friendly “natural flooding” but in a place where there was no critical infrastructure nearby, and then apply the model elsewhere.

The design team came up with a new concept, at least for NYC — man-made “cusp beaches.” A “sacrificial berm” was built inland that will be “deliberately allowed to erode.” The berm will feed the beach in the winter, allowing for a “seasonal exchange of sediment.” A set of terraces was also created, reusing the old sea wall stones. Diverse coastal plantings were set within the terraced levels. As sea levels rise, plants will “inwardly migrate.” Johnson said there will be fixed 5- and 7-feet marks set within the landscape so the NYC parks department can actually track movement of the water.

Johnson said this experiment showed that “landscape architects are very well-endowed to organize collaborative teams,” but other disciplines clearly bring a lot of knowledge and expertise landscape architects just don’t have. Thanks to the chimpanzees for evolving collaborative behavior and getting us to this point.

Water Works Park

Another fascinating project shows what happens when landscape architects and ecologists collaborate on a master plan. In this case, both disciplines worked together to create one of the most innovative new plans we’ve seen in a while, for a revamped Water Works Park in Des Moines. Kim Chapman, an ecologist with Applied Ecological Services, and Mike Bell, ASLA, a landscape architect with RDG Planning & Design, explained how water will be used to restore an ecological system and update a park. New ponds are being created, connecting them in a “circuit” for recreation. This will help reduce nitrogen in the water. The landscape around the ponds will be restored. Both of their firms are working with lead design firm Sasaki Associates, which won an international design competition for the master planning project. Their collective goal is to “embed local ecology in the community through planning and landscape architecture.” The project will eventually cost more than $25 million.

The Raccoon River that runs through this part of Iowa is heavily polluted. Excess nitrogen comes off miles and miles of farmland, and then moves into the 1,500-acre Water Works Park. Chapman asked, “How can we address the problem of nitrogen?” A filter is expensive. The park is under-utilized. Why not put the water and landscape to use?

The new ponds will help reduce nitrogen load. “The park will have low-nitrogen water.” The plan also reduces habitat fragmentation in the natural landscape of the park, while creating an “engineered landscape” for recreation — with the added benefit of strengthening the existing freshwater conveyance system under the existing ponds. Underneath the ponds is a “gallery,” a pipe 20 feet below the aquifer, a sort of “horizontal well” miles long. When it was first built in the 1800s, the gallery was made of wood. Now, an enlarged one made of concrete is being further extended under newly-built ponds. Chapman said the “volume of water in the gallery will be increased due to the pressure from the additional water,” an added benefit.

galleryBell said Water Works Park really is saving the community money. “It’s an ecological system so we don’t have to turn on the largest nitrate removal system in the world, which is in Des Moines.” This multi-functional engineered park, with its man-made ponds, will also feature spots for tents, fishing, scenic picnic areas, and canoe launches.

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Complimenting Chapman, Bell said ecologists are critical to conducting research and tracking the value of a project overtime. For Chapman, Bell and the Sasaki Associates landscape architects are experts at community engagement and “graphic communication,” which is too often “left out of ecological discussions.” Landscape architects help “clarify the messages” and their participation “always results in better projects.”

Image credits: (1) Fernbank Forest / Wanderlust Atlanta, (2) Peachtree Creek / City-data.com, (3) Randall’s Island / NY Daily News, (4-6) Water Works Park plans / Sasaki Associates

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With the line between human and natural environments becoming increasingly blurred, how can we ethically design with ecological systems? One session at the Society for Ecological Restoration‘s conference in Madison, Wisconsin, examined the ethics of ecological restoration and human interventions in nature.

Ben Minteer, Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, described the tension between two seemingly opposed views on human agency in nature – preservationism and pragmatism. Preservationists have long advocated wild, “pristine” landscapes as holding moral value. Therefore, human intervention in nature should be minimized, except to return landscapes to some kind of historical baseline. In recent years, this philosophy has come under fire as being impractical and simplistic. After all, historical baselines can be arbitrary and difficult to establish, and many landscapes have been altered to a point that they have no natural analog.

Minteer described how new, anthropocentric approaches to nature call for an abandonment of idealized notions of pristine wilderness. According this view – pragmatism – human intervention should aim to enhance ecosystem services instead of attempting to restore to a certain point in history. But he also cautioned that this approach, where humans have complete control over nature, could promote reckless interventionism. Instead, Minteer advocated a middle ground between preservationism and pragmatism – a “pragmatic preservationism.” In this view, humans’ interventions in nature are equally weighted with an ethical responsibility toward the land.

Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, also advocated a middle ground for ecological restoration, worrying about what he viewed as the risk of reckless intervention. Higgs described a spectrum of restoration challenges, from pristine landscapes (historically continuous ecosystems) to radically altered landscapes (novel ecosystems). He defined ecosystems that fall between these extremes as “hybrid.” According to Higgs, a responsible attitude toward restoration involves restoring hybrid ecosystems to historical baselines whenever possible, while still recognizing that many ecosystems may be altered beyond a threshold where this is possible. Ecological restoration then uses history more as a guide than as a template. Like Minteer, Higgs stressed the need for ethical responsibility when dealing with any notions of new, historically-unprecedented natures.

Higgs was followed by Alexander Felson, ASLA, Yale University. Felson, who is both a landscape architect and an ecologist, spoke to the challenges and opportunities facing restoration ecologists dealing with urban ecological systems. Felson emphasized the need for ecologists to expand beyond their field, bridging theory and practice. This involves considering difficult questions regarding how we define nature and what we want out of nature. For instance, is an ecosystem restored to a historical baseline always doing as much good as one designed purely for ecosystem services? He described the need for ecologists to engage in designed experiments within urban ecological systems in order to generate data (the image above is an example of Felson’s work in this area). By integrating experimental research with design projects, we may begin to answer questions about the role of designed ecosystems in sustainable urban design.

Joy Zedler, University of Wisconsin – Madison, concluded the session by exploring how restoration might work in the face of an uncertain future, considering the challenges of climate change, extreme weather events, new hydrological conditions, nutrient loading, and invasive species. Zedler acknowledged that many attempts to restore to a historical precedent, or “turning back the clock,” fall short. Furthermore, this notion of total restoration is becoming even more impractical as we lose pristine reference ecosystems and the ability to quantify ecosystem services.

Still, Zedler stressed that historical precedence should remain the primary guiding influence for ecological restoration, but should not be used as an absolute template. Instead, restoration targets should be flexible and dynamic, and all restoration projects should be treated as experiments to generate new data. By taking an improvisational approach, continually testing alternative restoration methods and evaluating their effectiveness, we can embrace uncertainty and learn while restoring.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: A constructed eco-system. Bio-retention garden system in Bridgeport, CT / Urban Omnibus

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By that statement, Camden, New Jersey, officials mean that the city can’t widen its underground stormwater management pipes enough to carry more water and sewage. Instead, the city is taking a new approach, using green infrastructure to manage stormwater while also dealing with its many toxic brownfield sites. According to Frank McLaughlin, New Jersey Department of the Environment, who spoke at the E.P.A.’s Brownfields conference in Atlanta, Camden has found a new way to work, “greening brownfields” for stormwater management. Their brownfield redevelopment projects are all about capturing and using water to grow and maintain green infrastructure. This is a smart way to take advantage of clean water, because once it hits the built environment in Camden, it basically becomes toxic.

Camden, a small city of 77,000, has two Superfund sites (the places the E.P.A. deems the most dangerous to humans and wildlife) and more than 100 toxic brownfields, making it one of the most polluted places in the U.S. Camden became an industrial hub in the early 1900s, but it has lost much of its industrial base by the 1970s. With that loss, population fell. On top of that, the combined stormwater and sewer infrastructure is aging.

Nearby Philadelphia has shown a new way to do things, though, with its bold green infrastructure program. McLaughlin said Camden has taken up some of those ideas but also made their local green infrastructure initiative, Camden Smart, a “collaborative community benefits program.” The program seeks to reduce flooding in residential areas, but really involve the community in the solutions.

Working with the community, Camden Smart has given out 90 water conservation kits, created 19 rain gardens, two rainwater harvesting systems, and planted more than 230 trees. There are also new rain garden and rain barrel installation training sessions. An old gas station that the community really wanted to see gone has become the Waterfront South Rain Garden Park (see image above). About 12 underground storage tanks were taken out along with thousands of tons of contaminated soils. “The diesel sheen on the groundwater was also addressed.” The new park that has gone in with the help of Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program is now filled with native plants and also mitigates street-level flooding and stores 800,000 of stormwater annually. McLaughlin said “landscape architecture is all about integrating stormwater management practices these days.”

Already, this bottom-up-style program has led to the capture of 1.5 million gallons of stormwater annually.

Beyond this program, the city government is also taking on some of the most polluted sites, spending quite a bit of money to turn toxic waterfront drains into environmental resources. Another major project is cleaning up and capping a landfill with “clean, permeable fill.” By the contained vegetation-covered landfill, there will be a new constructed wetland, which together are expected to capture some 25 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually. The city and federal governments, foundations, and the polluters, who have been found and fined, will spend upwards of $100 million to clean up some abandoned toxic sites and restore riparian corridors.

The Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati serves another community that can’t widen its way out of the problem of combined sewage overflows (CSOs). While more than 700 communities have to deal with CSOs each year, Cincinnati has one of the worst problems, spewing 1.5 billion gallons of combined stormwater and sewage overflows into its rivers in just this one area. “This is one of the biggest CSOs in the U.S.,” said Mary Lynn Lodor, Metropolitan Sewage District.

To comply with an E.P.A. consent decree that it clean up its act, the sewage district is creating an ambitious $193 million green infrastructure program in the Lick Run watershed. Just a 5-7-minute car ride from downtown, some 2,700 acres, much of which are brownfields, will become the site of a “designed waterway” and park that will “daylight” the buried Lick Run creek.

The sewage district approached the community with a bunch of different ideas, offering up 150 different photos of all different kinds of green features, asking the community what kind of amenity they wanted. People wanted to see the creek again in a park-like setting. The community “influenced the look and feel of the project.”

The district then worked with a team of landscape architects (local firm Human Nature), and engineers (Strand) to develop a master plan that will create green infrastructure that is attractive and user-friendly and also mitigate the stormwater management problem. “We didn’t want to spend millions on a green infrastructure system that didn’t work, like Milwaukee did,” so the team really did their research. Plans for the newly green area are also expected to lead to additional redevelopment and infill, new trails, and a cultural and recreation center.

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The district will use a rate payment increase to pay for the project, but Lodor said the green infrastructure is a lot cheaper than the conventional grey approach. The new functional landscape, which will handle more than 600 million gallons of runoff, is more than $200 million cheaper than the alternative: 30-ft wide pipes running more than one mile underground. To maintain the green infrastructure, the sewage district is partnering with the parks department. “They are doing some of the maintenance work on this because it’s really a park-like amenity.”

Image credit: (1) Waterfront South Rain Garden / Camden Smart, (2) Lick Run Watershed Master Plan / Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati

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The Calumet region surrounds Chicago and includes Lake Calumet and the Calumet river system. Here, an amazing alliance of nearly 270 organizations, which have banded together under the name Chicago Wilderness, are working towards improving green infrastructure, creating access to nature for children, devising plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and preserving and restoring wildlife habitat. In a full-day tour organized for the American Planning Association (APA) conference by The Field Museum, one of Chicago Wilderness’ members and one of the world’s great natural history museums, pockets of nature were uncovered amid the industrial suburbs and bleak, isolated public housing communities far south of Chicago. The tour was led by Mark Bouman, Chicago Field Director; Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director; Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology; and Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at The Field Museum.

Green Infrastructure in the Burbs

The first stop on the tour was Blue Island, Illinois, a “free standing industrial community” of 25,000 spread over 45 square miles, where city leaders are working with Chicago Wilderness to protect green infrastructure. There, the “stormwater management issue is huge,” said Mary Poulson, community relations director for Blue Island. Currently, the community can’t deal with the issue well, but aims to use “distributed reservoirs and green infrastructure” to handle the problem. To address the broader challenge of water management across the region, the community has joined with 33 other municipalities in the area to create the South Suburban Green Infrastructure Vision.

The town is also working on creating a “more sustainable watershed” around its Midlothian Creek, which runs through part of the community. Part of this effort is to “protect fragmented natural areas.” While they may not be impressive to look at, “they are valuable” from a stormwater management point of view. They are also valuable habitat. Stotz said this place attracts “early bird migrants.”

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To make this green infrastructure more accessible to the community, a new bicycle trail will be going in along the creek. In another part of town we saw a boat launch.

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Planning efforts were supported by workshops around geography and green infrastructure, which led to a map down to the parcel level. One result is that residential areas are now included in these plans. The city encourages homeowners to install rain barrels. To date, more than 1,000 have been installed and there’s now a waiting list. The city government is pushing for the use of native plants in favor of lawns. Connected with all this green work is an economic development planning process that was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) a few years ago.

Learning about Nature in a Restored Landscape

The Beaubien Woods have been set aside for environmental education purposes, not recreation, but that hasn’t stopped locals from Altgeld Gardens public housing, where President Obama got his start in community organizing, from fishing at the Little Calumet River that runs through the area. At its peak, the housing project had 10,000 people living in more than 2,000 units. Now, there are around 2,500 people in this extremely isolated community. Much of the housing seemed to be falling apart. There seemed to be few shops or services nearby. On top of the isolation and limited opportunities, there are also major odor issues caused by the nearby plants that deal with sewage. “Methane gas is a big problem here,” said Bouman.

The 135-acre Beaubien Woods, which is made up of prairie, woodland and wetland habitats, is part of Cook County’s forest district, which makes up around 11 percent of the total land area. Over the last twenty years, the site has undergone intensive ecological restoration. The site is beautiful. There’s woodlands, a river, and rolling hills in the background. Interestingly, those hills are actually covered garbage dumps, so the woods themselves form the hole in the “toxic donut,” said Bouman.

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While the river is so polluted that pamphlets are distributed outlining the dangers of eating fish caught there, Ross said that the river is actually stocked with fish by the Illinois department of natural resources so they are “relatively OK to eat given they aren’t there long.”

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Stotz said the site is really rich bird habitat. The area attracts more than 180 bird species, perhaps because there are 209 species of native plants. The local Afro Birders group uses the landscape to teach kids from Altgeld and other communities how to spot different types of birds. The Field Museum along with the Calumet Stewardship Initiative are also doing “place-based kids education” to teach locals about “where they are living and connect them to their landscape.” There are volunteer days organized for removing invasive species and cleaning and restoring the ecosystem. Each June, there’s a “family-friendly free nature festival.” Wali said “African Americans are as concerned about preserving nature as any other group of people, perhaps even more than others.”

Getting out in Front of Climate Change

Chicago has created a climate change action plan, but it’s not for nature, said Stotz, so Chicago Wilderness has done their own plan that addresses the possible impacts to local flora and fauna. They created a “biodiversity recovery plan,” which aims to restore nature in the region to make it more resilient and create a network of green and blue corridors to help species migrate.

The organizations involved have been collecting observations about what has changed. For example, the prairie burn season is now “much, much longer,” said Ross, because it’s gotten warmer. She said this opens up windows of opportunity because “there’s less snow on the ground. Things green up earlier.” Communities don’t burn prairies in the summer anyway because it just adds to the “ozone and particulate matter,” which is already high in hotter months. Prairies, just to explain, are “adapted to fire.” Native Americans burned these ecosystems to drive out wild game during hunting. Now, these landscape need to be periodically burnt to maintain their health. Burning also keeps woody invasive plants out. “These are landscapes by fire.”

The Field Museum and other Chicago Wilderness partners are also looking at “carbon storage in protected areas.” Stotz said there are a variety of projects underway to measure the carbon stored in above-ground trees, but more work is needed to measure the carbon storage value of herbaceous plants as well as carbon in soils.

One goal of the alliance is to engage the local community in climate planning and natural restoration work. Wali said they used an “asset mapping” approach, which is a methodology created by urban planners, to discover “the strength of individuals and their capacities” in the communities involved and create a climate community action toolkit local organizations can themselves use to spur action. In six communities, “we mapped the social strengths, including churches, local gardens, and other networks — the intangibles,” to see how to form bottom-up support networks for biodiversity preservation. This approach is needed because “we have to take an integrated view of nature.”

While the communities that will support these natural areas all depend on industrial work for their livelihoods, the process also showed “these people care about nature.”  Their asset mapping work has shown the group that “there are interesting local environmental practices.” People are “actively recycling” even though there are no formal recycling programs. “Junkeros, local recyclers in the latino community, tap their kinship networks to recycle materials.”

Now, the toolkit, which was actually financed with a $100,000 grant by Boeing, is being used by local organizations to tap their networks.

Restoring Nature to Health

Perhaps saving the best for last, the Field Museum scientists then took us to the Powderhorn Prairie Nature Preserve, a deeply rich landscape where prairie, woodland, and oak savannah ecosystems meet. Just a few miles from skyscraper-sized oil refineries owned by BP, there are undulating dunes and swales create a set of “niche habitats.” Bouman said this is the “most biodiverse site in Chicago.”

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A recent Bioblitz, an intensive biological survey that involves counting as many species as possible in a 24 hour period, yielded more than 250 species. “This is a rich edge area,” said Stotz. A volunteer program helped bring the area back.

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Invasive plants and shrubs were crowding out the rare native species, including Illinois’ only native cactus.

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Ross said there was an intensive “reseeding process” to restore the fragile prairie grasses. Then, they were set on fire to remove the invasive plants.

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The hydrology of the site was also restored, undoing the damage from nearby drainage projects.

The ecological restoration brought up many questions, said Ross. “Can the damage be undone? What should we restore to?” She said ecological restoration is “creative, challenging work. No one size fits all. You have to know the local areas intimately.”

Stotz said the effort was important. “These are just little patches, but there are worthwhile things here. That’s why I do this.” Nature is amazingly resilient but sometimes just needs a hand.

Image credits: Jared Green / ASLA

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Can cities with decades, hundreds, or even thousands of years of history adapt to economic, population, and climate change? Can they renew themselves in the process? At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, a few urban experts, Valente Souza, iQh; Alexandros Washburn, urban design chief, City of New York; and Seng Kuan, Sam Fox School, Washington University in St. Louis, explained the legacies that are shaping Mexico City, New York City, and Shanghai, three of the world’s biggest megalopolises, and the approaches they are taking to adapt, with varying degrees of success.

All cities have deep geographic, hydrologic, geological contexts, said Souza. Mexico City, set within a volcanic range, is seen by geologists as sitting upon a “great bowl of jello,” meaning it’s seismically insecure. Early settlers in Mexico City thousands of years ago knew the city’s terrain and natural characteristics, but modern Mexico City residents have forgotten them. “We have forgotten the memory of the space. The drawing has faded out. It needs to be redrawn.”

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Part of that redrawing is finding out what’s really there now. Souza has been looking at population in relation to landscape and found that people are living on ravines and other landscapes best left for stormwater management. Water then is a key line that needs to be redrawn, in large part because the “mental image now is of a flooded city.” Drawing a new picture, “why not use water to maintain the landscape?” To maximize Mexico City’s water resources instead of piping it out of the city, Souza’s organization has been mapping flood zones and creating forests in those places. To date, they’ve sequestered 4,000 acres for “mini-forests within the city.”

Mexico City is already working with people who live on the ravines critical to stormwater management, providing them with educational materials about where they live and asking them to participate in creating master plans on the new ecological functions for the city. Ultimately, this means some will need to move.

Souza added that with all the real estate investment in Mexico City, it’s important for the environment to have value, too. “We have to give value to forests, water.” To accomplish this, he’s creating a “geographical database” with tons of real data on ecological functions to prove to both policymakers and locals that some undeveloped or newly green places have enormous financial value in themselves. “This is a different approach to dealing with nature.”

Growing while maintaining and even strengthening ecological function should be a priority in every city. It seems to be in New York City, which has been adding great new parks within the city and along its shoreline. Washburn said urban design has proven to be a useful approach for managing this process. Urban design is defined as a “set of tools to change cities, techniques to address the form and function of cities.” Urban design tools include rules, plans, and pilot projects. In practice, urban design works at the “confluence of finance, politics, and design.”

According to Washburn, a few urban designers have shaped the history of New York City, and their legacy provides a framework for how the city may adapt in the future. They include Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, who provided an “oasis” in the city, with his world-famous Central Park. Washburn said “when the city commissioners laid out the grid in 1811, they didn’t include a park.” There were simply spaces for recreation at the water’s edge, which were quickly taken up with shipping docks. By putting a park in the middle of the grid and creating a respite in the middle of the city, “Olmsted changed everything.”

The second is Robert Moses, who, in the beginning of his career, accomplished a lot to “un-crowd” the city, adding parks and playgrounds, albeit in a dictatorial manner. The third urban designer with outsized influence: Jane Jacobs, who “organized, confronted, and then met (but didn’t defeat) Moses.” She was an “advocate for the fine grain of neighborhood.” Together, these two “established top down and bottom up planning” process represented in the land-use planning framework NYC uses for all new projects. “Over 7 months, both Moses and Jacobs’ approaches shape the review process for every project.”

Today, the legacy of these three can be found in new projects like the High Line, a project Washburn got behind early. Washburn said Jacobs would have approved because it “preserves the light and air of the neighborhood,” while Olmsted would have “been pleased because it’s like one of his Rambles in Central Park.” With $100 million in public funds, the High Line park has brought in $2 billion in private sector investment (perhaps something Moses would have appreciated).

highline
Washburn said NYC and other cities are now struggling with how to deal with environment: “Should it be protected from us or managed by us?” The answer may be moot, particularly given nature is now part of the city, and “we must adapt cities to climate change that has already occurred.” While the city is contemplating bold ideas like adding oyster reefs in the harbor to mitigate waves, thousands of acres of new wetlands, and monster-sized sea walls, there are also practical implications. “How do we create a legal framework for oyster-tecture? How do you do an environmental impact statement for that?”

oystertecture

Lastly, in Shanghai, Seng said the city managers are taking the “Robert Moses approach.” The city’s “hierarchical structure” came out of European planning traditions. To adapt to an exploding population, the city is undergoing an amazing expansion under the “1966 network plan,” which calls for a “new center, nine cities, and 66 new towns,” all within Shanghai. To adapt, the metro system, already the world’s largest, is just trying to keep up. It now has 510 kilometers of track serving 8 million users a day. Some $30 billion USD has been put in to effectively double the network.

shanghaimetro
Unfortunately, “Shanghai’s subway doesn’t actually complement the actual structure of the city.” Stations are far apart and far from population densities. The one-kilometer square blocks make navigating the city a challenge to begin with. Seng said Shanghai must further adapt to a changing city and growing population by updating its metro and other transportation system plans. But if the city does this, it will be with the Moses way.

Image credits: (1) Mexico City by satellite / Maps.com, (2) Mexico City slopes / The bicycle diaries. Symaniak, (3) High Line Chelsea Thicket / Guillaume Gaudet (4) Oystertecture in New York City / SCAPE, (5) Shanghai Metro expansion / The Transport Politic.

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