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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

ecosystem-services

ASLA 2011 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley, Milwaukee by Landscapes of Place / Nancy Aten

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international organization committed to strengthening the role of science in public decision-making on biodiversity and ecosystem services, seeks expert landscape architects, ecologists, and others with policy experience to assess its latest research. The call for more engagement was made at a recent presentation at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Washington, D.C.

IPBES explains the reason for its existence on its web site: “Biodiversity from terrestrial, marine, coastal, and inland water ecosystems provides the basis for ecosystems and the services they provide that underpin human well-being. However, biodiversity and ecosystem services are declining at an unprecedented rate, and in order to address this challenge, adequate local, national and international policies need to be adopted and implemented. To achieve this, decision makers need scientifically credible and independent information that takes into account the complex relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. They also need effective methods to interpret this scientific information in order to make informed decisions. The scientific community also needs to understand the needs of decision makers better in order to provide them with the relevant information. In essence, the dialogue between the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders on biodiversity and ecosystem services needs to be strengthened.”

To reiterate, Douglas Beard Jr., National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and a co-lead for the science component of IPBES for the U.S. Delegation, said: “It’s always better to hear from a diverse group of people.”

Established in 2012, IPBES has convened multi-disciplinary groups of experts to conduct public assessments around the globe. With 114 member countries, IPBES is dedicated to becoming the leading international organization on ecosystem services.

Assessors will help make progress on the status of pollinators, pollination, and food production; scoping for a set of global and regional assessments of the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services; and scoping for a thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration.

If you are interested in nominating someone or being nominated for an upcoming call, please contact Clifford Duke at ESA, which coordinates the U.S. stakeholders.

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Blue Urbanism / Island Press

Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, has done it again. His excellent book from a few years ago, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, has been followed-up by an equally well-written and persuasive new one, Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections between Cities and Oceans. In this book, Beatley expands his purview beyond the “green urbanism” of Biophilic Cities to the vast oceans that make up 70 percent of the face of the Earth and contain 97 percent of its water. While he still argues that cities must integrate green — really ecological design principles at all levels — into dense urban environments, he cautions that cities can’t ignore oceans and marine environments. He admits that he basically left out oceans in Biophic Cities. He certainly makes up for it in this book, which argues that we also have biophilic connections to the oceanscape, and that connection is essential to building a more “complementary, mutually sustainable relationship between city and ocean.”

It seems much of the inspiration for Blue Urbanism came out of a fortuitous experience Beatley had in Perth, Australia. There, he witnessed how “urbanites, under the right circumstances, can take on ocean conservation.” A real estate developer wanted to build a massive hotel resort along the coast facing the vulnerable Ningaloo Reef. The spot proposed was apparently the “worst location for preserving marine biodiversity.” Beatley was amazed by the collective sense of outrage, manifested in everything from bumper stickers to rallies and letter writing campaigns. Under pressure, the state’s premier (similar to a U.S. governor) shut down the plans. Beatley says “this story has stayed with me as a remarkable example of how urbanites, even those hundreds of kilometers away, can care for and advocate on behalf of the ocean world.”

The trick is turning all those good feelings about oceans — and the charismatic sea creatures we all love: whales, sea turtles, sea stars, to name a few — into real urban policies and plans that protect oceans. Beatley points to a few examples of local governments that have taken the lead, from San Francisco, with its ban on plastic bags; to Hong Kong, with its burgeoning movement to stop the consumption of shark fins; to Wellington, New Zealand, which has forged a deep and sustainable connection with its coastal environment. Still, Beatley thinks most cities can go much further than they are now, creating “blue belts,” to protect ocean spaces in the same way cities create designated “green belts” on land.

The world’s oceans — and their rich coastal zones — are in dire need of protection. While ocean diversity is important in its own right, our protection of it is really self-interested. This is because our “urban future and ocean world are intimately connected in numerous ways.” The world’s oceans are major carbon sinks, soaking up 2 billion tons of CO2 annually. Ocean related jobs total 350 million worldwide. Seafood generates $108 billion in economic value, while eco-tourism to reefs creates another $9 billion alone. We also get energy from the ocean — in the form of undersea oil deposits, and, hopefully, in the future, more offshore wind farms. Beatley says offshore wind farms could provide today’s energy needs four times over, if we were smart. Oceans are also our main transportation channels. But all of these interactions with our oceans must be done in a more considered, sustainable fashion to prevent more of what Beatley calls “ocean sprawl,” which negatively impact the “integrity of ocean ecosystems.”

Ocean sprawl has had terrible impacts. Those huge gyres — garbage patches — will continue to grow for the next 500 years, even if we stop putting any plastic in the ocean right now. Coal-burning power plants send huge amounts of mercury into the oceans. Here’s just one scary stat Beatley cites: “A recently released United Nations Environment Program report documents a doubling of mercury levels in the top 100 meters (300 feet) of ocean water over the past 100 years.” Then, there are events like the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Too many cities don’t understand their connection to oceans. Beatley explains how a number of local non-profits are trying to change that. In Seattle, a group called Beach Naturalists is helping locals understand the magic of their coastline. “The program trains several hundred volunteer naturalists in the ecology and life found in the intertidal zone, and these volunteers patrol the city’s parks to help people understand more about life in tidal pools.” And then there’s the group called LA Waterkeeper, which aims to build awareness of the massive kelp forests just off the coast of Los Angeles. Did anyone know they were there?

Returning to Wellington, New Zealand, Beatley explains how that city has “created a new marine reserve on one of its shores, a marine education center providing children and adults alike the chance to touch and see marine organisms, the world’s first marine bioblitz (engaging the citizens in the recording of marine biodiversity), and a powerful new vision of its ‘blue belt,’ a complement to its historic and prized greenbelt system.” Imagine if New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco — and all the major coastal cities around the world — took their marine environments as seriously as Wellington does, and actually extended the marine world into the city.

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Dive instructor with sea stars in the Wellington harbor / Mark Coote

In a few sections of the book, Beatley dives into what blue urbanism looks like. Of interest to planners, architects, and landscape architects, he outlines how the “redesign of buildings and public spaces to foster resilience to climate change and rising ocean levels” can also extend “urban spatial planning and conservation into marine environments.” He points to innovative examples in Singapore, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Oslo.

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. Spadina Wavedeck, Toronto, Ontario, Canada / West 8 + DTAH

Read Blue Urbanism and check out the review of Beatley’s earlier book, Biophilic Cities.

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Tulane University is offering a $1 million prize to the team who comes up with the best solution for combating hypoxia-affected waters, the dead zones in the world’s lakes and oceans. Hypoxia is the oxygen depletion in water bodies caused by “excessive amounts of river-borne fertilizers and other nutrients.” Tulane’s grand challenge is a response to President Obama’s call for universities and philanthropies to step up and pursue innovative solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

While the Gulf of Mexico is famous for its growing dead zone, the issue is increasingly global, writes Tulane. All over the world’s oceans and lakes, “nutrient enrichment can jeopardize the future of estuaries and coastal wetlands that depend on freshwater and sediment delivery for stability and persistence.”

Dead zones not only have an impact on the environment but also the economy. These unproductive areas “destabilize the businesses, families and communities that are sustained by fisheries.”

Phyllis Taylor, head of the Patrick F. Taylor foundation, who put up the million, said: “I believe a market based solution which rewards innovation and risk taking has the potential to create a sustainable and significant new technology for addressing hypoxia.”

Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for Grand Challenges in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, said: “Prizes have led to breakthroughs ranging from Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to new approaches to cleaning up oil spills.”

This is a great challenge because finding a solution clearly won’t be easy: “Solutions must meet a suite of simultaneous and sometimes conflicting needs – from protecting water resources and near-shore ecosystems to ensuring the capacity and vitality of agricultural productivity.”

The university writes that the prize will be awarded to a “testable, scaled and marketable operating model that significantly, efficiently and cost effectively reduces hypoxia.”

Landscape architects and planners should join interdisciplinary teams and enter the competition. They can help create the solutions that keep agricultural and stormwater runoff out of rivers and combat the dead zones.

Another competition for landscape architects: At the European Biennial of Landscape Architecture in Barcelona in October, one landscape created in the last five years will win the Rosa Barba European Landscape Prize, which comes with €15,000. Submit projects before April 11, 2014.

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Humans’ growth spurts stop by late adolescence, but trees accelerate their growth and get bigger as they age. According to a global study by 38 international researchers published in Nature, these findings could have implications for how the world’s forests are managed to contain the ill-effects of climate change.

Nate Stephenson, the study’s lead author and a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said: “This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger. It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed.”

Stephenson added, “in human terms, it is as if our growth just keeps accelerating after adolescence, instead of slowing down. By that measure, humans could weigh half a ton by middle age, and well over a ton at retirement.”

According to the USGS, a global team of researchers took measurements of more than 670,000 trees from more than 400 species across tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions in six continents. They used the same methods to calculate “the mass growth rates for each species” and then analyzed trends across all species. The study found that nearly 99 percent of trees accelerate growth rates as they age. “For most tree species, mass growth rate increases continuously with tree size — in some cases, large trees appear to be adding the carbon mass equivalent of an entire smaller tree each year.”

With their miraculous, ever-increasing growth rate, older trees are then better at adding weight faster than younger ones. The Guardian writes that an older trees can add up to 600 kilograms of weight each year. These older, faster-growing trees, account for a “disproportionately important role in forest growth.” For example, “trees of 100 centimeters in diameter in old-growth western U.S. forests comprised just 6 percent of trees, yet contributed 33 percent of the annual forest mass growth.” This is because older trees continue to add girth as well as branches and leaves. More leaves mean more carbon absorption.

However, as USGS noted, it’s important to not lose sight of the forest for the aged trees. The accelerated rate of carbon absorption by some older, larger trees doesn’t mean “a net increase in carbon storage for an entire forest.” As living systems, forests are constantly in a state of flux — and that’s a good thing. A mix of older and younger trees in a forest may help limit the amount of carbon returning the atmosphere at any given time from the death of older trees.

Adrian Das, a USGS coauthor, said: “old trees, after all, can die and lose carbon back into the atmosphere as they decompose. But our findings do suggest that while they are alive, large old trees play a disproportionately important role within a forest’s carbon dynamics. It is as if the star players on your favorite sports team were a bunch of 90-year-olds.”

Stephenson told The Christian Science Monitor that these findings would ideally lead to more effort put into saving old growth forests. “Maybe if environmental changes are hitting your biggest trees the hardest, this is sort of an added impetus to go: ‘Oh my gosh, we need to mitigate that.'” Doug Boucher, director of tropical forest and climate initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, added that “it reinforces the value of old-growth forests for the storage of carbon in the biosphere.”

One key take-away for local officials, planners, and design professionals: Do as much as you can to keep those old trees in place. It will be much harder to accomplish the same positive climate impact with younger trees.

Read the study.

Image credit: Old Tree by Andrew Danielsen / Fine Arts America

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According to new research out of the UK, moving into a home near green spaces, particularly in urban areas, provides people with long-term mental health gains up to three years after the move. Scientists at the University of Essex, who tracked 1,000 people over five years, found that moving next to a green space had a “sustained positive effect, unlike pay rises or promotions, which only provided a short-term boost,” writes BBC News. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers argue that the research shows “access to good quality urban parks is beneficial to public health.”

Co-author Mathew White, from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, UK, said his study built on an earlier one that showed people living in “greener urban areas displayed fewer signs of depression or anxiety.” His team tried to find out whether nature really was having an impact, or there was some other unknown variable at work.

As White explained to BBC News, “there could have been a number of reasons, for example, people do all sorts of things to make them happier: they strive for promotion at work, pay rises, they even get married. But the trouble with all those things is that within six months to a year, they are back to their original baseline levels of well-being. So these things are not sustainable; they do not make us happy in the long-term. We found that within a group of lottery winners who had won more than £500,000 that the positive effect was definitely there but after six months to a year, they were back to the baseline.”

Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, which has collected information about 40,000 households each year since the early 90s, the team found that “even after three years, mental health is still better, which is unlike many of the other things that we think will make us happy.” He added that “there is evidence that people within an area with green spaces are less stressed and when you are less stressed you make more sensible decisions and you communicate better.”

In The Mail, another co-author, Dr. Ian Alcock, also at the University of Exeter, said: “these findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities.”

While the health benefits of adding more green spaces are now apparent, there would also be economic benefits. In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) said depression was the leading cause of disability worldwide. Disabled workers are expensive for both governments and employers. Imagine if disability due to depression could be reduced simply through the addition of parks.

White said more policymakers, at least in the UK, are taking this type of research seriously, but these studies may raise sticky financing questions. “For example, environmental officials will say that if it is good for people’s health then surely shouldn’t the health service be putting some money in. …What we really need at a policy level is to decide where the money is going to come from to help support good quality local green spaces.”

Read the article, see more recent research on health and nature, and check out ASLA’s comprehensive guide to the health benefits of nature.

Image credit: Kevin W. Fitzgerald Park, Mission Hill, Boston / Studio 2112 Landscape Architecture

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In the 1970s, landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside, FASLA, Rhodeside & Harwell, created a program with immense, lasting value for Boston: the 1,400-plus-acre urban wilds program. Not quite parks, urban wilds are in-between natural open spaces — wetlands, shorelines, hilltops, meadows, woodlands — saved from development. To this day, they have a “unique hybridity,” and are still not part of Boston’s official park system. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston, Harwell, the program creator; Paul Sutton, the current manager of the urban wilds at the Boston Parks and Recreation department; and Jill Desmini, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), discussed the challenges involved in both preserving and maintaining Boston’s wild urban places.

Protecting Wild Beauty in the City

As a young landscape architect, Rhodeside said Boston’s wild urban spaces had a “profound effect on me.” He felt that “developing these natural areas was the wrong way to go,” because only in Boston can “someone walk out of their house and come across a Puddingstone rock cropping right in the middle of their urban backyard.”

To make conservation a reality, Rhodeside, who was then chief landscape architect for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, had to get a plan in place. After winning a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with some $50,000 in matching funds from the city, Rhodeside began reaching out to the local communities to connect them to the vision. “The idea wouldn’t work unless we could tie it to the neighborhoods.”

Rhodeside said he was inspired by San Francisco’s hilltop parks, with their unique micro-climates. “These places provide relief from the city.” Palo Alto has these wild wetland trails. He also looked to Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Ian McHarg for models.

At first, the goal was pretty conservative: to simply identify 10 sites with natural value, some 100 acres in total. But his team soon set-up a database and recorded all known threatened sites. Using an aerial photographic analysis, they covered the entire city. They decided to focus on “scenic, vacant land next to park lands, undeveloped land, vacant land next to water bodies, and highly publicized areas.” Combing the whole city, they discovered more than 2,000 acres of land possessing “scenic beauty and natural value.” If all these ecologically-valuable lands were protected, they would expand Boston’s park system by 50 percent.

The next step was to create an implementable plan. For that, they had to find out who owned what. Through their investigation, they discovered that the city already owned 25 percent of the prospective urban wilds. “They were just sitting there unprotected.” Collaborating with community leaders and the Boston Conservation Commission, they began pushing the city to protect those.

One advocacy tool was a “beautiful report” that was both “poetic and comprehensive.” A companion education piece was put up in Boston’s subway showing people how they connected to existing natural areas. Then, Eugenie Beal, a local conservation advocate, came in and set up a $250,000 line of credit from the bank to buy up urban wilds and then hand them over to the city. She created the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), “accomplishing an enormous amount.”

Rhodeside said their efforts succeeded in saving 2,000 acres in part because the timing was right. “We were in a recession, so we had a respite from the development era. It was the era of conservation.” He added that a burst of “renewed interest in the great landscape architects of the past helped,” as did the new federal programs that were created in the 70s like the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and others.

Managing the Wilds Without a Budget

After BNAN was set up, it became “extremely active,” said Sutton. Through the 80s and 90s, the program became “adept at purchasing private property and transferring it to the parks department.” But while there were victories, with large parcels added to the network of wilds, the overall condition of these natural places declined, all the way through the 90s. This decline began with the economic downturn in the early 80s and statewide tax cuts. The result: “There was no maintenance, and lots of graffiti, litter, vandalism, drugs, and invasive plants.”

Still, one victory was purchasing Allandale Woods in West Roxbury, some 100 acres of forested wetlands near the Arnold Arboretum. Another was adding 25 acres of woodland near Hyde Park. To connect Boston’s MBTA transportation system with the Arnold Arboretum, the arboretum was given Bussey Brook Meadow, adding another 25 acres.

In the 90s, the city hired a urban wilds consultant who focused the parks department on creating a master plan for these places. Then, beginning in 2000s, there was a renewed effort to purchase and set aside ecologically-valuable land. The city got Belle Island Marsh, “one of the most ecologically-productive systems in the city,” a wetland that is being further restored.

Nira Rock was renovated. “It’s a success story.” The urban wilds program “piggy-backed of a nearby playground restoration,” leveraging the activist neighborhood. There has also been a “subtle, hidden restoration of larger sites,” multi-year initiatives that involve a real “hodge-podge” of local groups. Volunteers now deal with invasive plant removal and trail improvements throughout the system of urban wilds.

Sutton said the urban wilds program is “still a stepchild. We can’t use the park system logo.” There’s no budget, given most of the parks department’s finances go to active recreation areas and historic parks. “We have to market ourselves to the city.” But he said realtors are starting to see the value of the restored areas. And universities and non-profits are getting involved.

Within an increasingly revitalized system, the big challenge remains how to deal with sites spread all over the city and “getting new stewardship groups formed.” For the future, he wants these urban wilds to be “fun, inviting, and accessible,” but he also worries about how the city is going to “market these spaces to the next generation” so they remain valued.

Redefining These Places as Novel Ecosystems

Desmini, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), said there were 143 urban wilds covering some 2,000 acres in 1976. In 2010, there were  just 105 wilds covering 1,414 acres. Of that, 785 acres are permanently protected.

She said in the Allston / Brighton areas of Boston, “lots of urban wilds were lost.” In East Boston, segments near the airport are also gone. Other sites have been “dramatically transformed” over the past 40 years. Many places now have a “unique hybridity.”

Desmini said the definition of an urban wild has also changed over the years as these places have evolved. “Urban wilds are not parks or wilderness,” but something in between. Urban wilds are “unorganized scraps of nature,” celebrated for their “indigenous qualities.”

Urban wilds are “places of natural beauty and reflect a history that predates the American revolution.” They are a living story of “urban ecology and abandonment.” These are spaces “where nature instead of man shapes the space,” yet humans’ influence is still felt. They can be defined as novel ecosystems.

As with any novel ecosystem, they will not be pure, but they can still be celebrated. They have an “openness,” so they can be viewed as either “orphans or opportunity-filled.” They are rich with “vegetative succession and continuously evolving.” They can also have different hybrid uses. As an example, she pointed to an urban wild in Berlin where the local authorities actually allow graffiti spraying during certain hours.

Today, preserving an urban wild is about “conserving spontaneously-vegetated sites.” She said the future will be about “innovative maintenance” that takes into account the unique qualities of these spaces.

She said it’s also important the city starts treating the urban wilds as a comprehensive system of novel ecosystems. “The city can amp up the hybrid qualities.” Otherwise, they will “continue to struggle with fragmentation.”

Image credit: Allandale Woods / Boston Exotic Flowers

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“Great presentation, but a little bit preaching to the choir,” said the woman sitting behind me at Sunday’s general session of the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. Indeed, when Dr. Stephen Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, took the stage to give his talk on biophilic design, he mentioned he felt strange presenting to a room full of landscape architects, as they are on the front line of designing humans’ relationship to nature.

Biophilia is the “inherent human need to affiliate with nature.” This need, while instrumental to our health and physical and mental well-being, is a “weak biological tendency that benefits from and is strengthened by learning.” Biophilic design strengthens and enforces our affiliation with nature, which leads to, simply stated, happier and healthier people.

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If you read this blog with any regularity, there’s a good chance you’ve come across posts on biophilic design and the importance of nature in people’s everyday lives. You’ve seen posts that outline how nature is fundamentally good for us, providing benefits for our mental and physical well-being.

So why do we continuously preach to the choir? Dr. Kellert put it this way: while 99 percent of human evolution happened in the natural world, the modern “natural habitat of people is the built environment.” Consider these facts: 80 percent of the world’s people live in cities. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Children today spend just 40 minutes a week outside versus 52 hours a week in front of some sort of electronic media.

We continue to talk about because it’s not only critically important to our future, but because it’s not yet standard practice and needs to be. “We’re the only species in the world that needs to prove nature is important.” As he pointed out, it’s strange that the “exploitation of nature,” which accounts for 15 percent of the global economy, is accepted without question, while the aesthetics of the natural world is either seen as a luxury of the wealthy or something that’s really very nice, but not at all important.

The truth — a point that cannot be overstated and is also worth repeating — is that if we ignore the human need for contact with nature, one that is deeply rooted in human development, we do so at a risk to our mental and physical well-being. So a deeper understanding of the importance of the aesthetics of nature, and how they can be applied through biophilic design, needs to be explored.

The beauty of a place is actually very important. Beauty invites us in, and, through curiosity, which is the first step to engagement, promotes learning. Learning, in turn, enforces our biophilic needs. Beauty of place promotes a sense of stewardship for a natural setting, which leads to more time spent in nature, which in turn promotes our mental and physical well-being.

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Biophilic design of landscapes and buildings mimics the aesthetic coherence and organizational symmetry of nature through emulation and design. It’s also an ancient practice, some of our most revered buildings and landscapes have an essence of natural settings, but it’s one that has fallen away in recent time with sprawl and auto-centric design.

But the negative trends in both human health and unsustainable communities can be reversed. As Dr. Kellert put it, “we designed ourselves into this predicament; we can design ourselves out of it.” At its core, biophilic design is not just a buzz word, it’s simply good design, but one that requires a new design ethic. Until then, he’ll continue to preach.

Read Kellert’s most recent book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, ASLA 2013 intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Image credits: (1) ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small Is Beautiful. Eli Tahari courtyard. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella (2) ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award / Arizona State Polytechnic. Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture / Bill Timmerman, (3) ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Qian’an City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu, FASLA.

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sugar-beach
“Growing plants is the goal,” said James Urban, FASLA, Urban Trees + Soils, at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. To grow healthy plants, one needs healthy soils, and landscape architects who understand soils and know how to call a soil scientist. In a wide-ranging talk, Urban and his co-presenter, soil scientist Norm Hummel, discussed how landscape architects can design with new soils the right way, particularly in challenging, damaged urban landscapes.

Whether natural or man-mixed, soils have physical, environmental, and chemical properties. These are all important to the health of a growing medium. Physical properties include organic matter, water, drainage, and aeration. Environmental characteristics include light and temperature. Chemical elements include the pH balance, and the presence (or not) of phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium, which are all critical elements for plants.

To determine what kind of soil is needed for a project, Urban said goals and requirements are needed early on in the design process. Questions that need to be asked: “What type of trees and plants are you trying to grow? How big do you want these plants to get?” As an example, depending on the requirements, an oak can grow to 25 feet and last 50 years, or grow to its full extent and live hundreds of years. Landscape architects have think through these things in terms of soil early on.

It’s also important to know how a site is being used. A landscape may have lawn, but is that walked on a few times a year or thousands of times? Urban said the National Mall’s turf gets a quarter of a million visitors per day. That space gets 3,000 events a year. Use will determine what kind of irrigation and soils are needed.

Urban said there are eight critical properties of soils, which soil biologists can test to determine if soils meet specifications. They include structure, texture, density, nutrients, pH, organic matter, and density, which are all “inter-connected.”

More often than not, Urban said trees and plants don’t do well because of the physical properties of soils rather than the chemical. If something goes wrong — a tree is stressed, shows early fall color, or even dies — landscape architects may be planting the wrong trees and plants for the soil types.

Some details on soil’s physical properties: The structure of soils has to do with how well-glued together the soil particles are. Particles are attracted to other particles — and organic matter glues them together. Clay soil has a strong structure due to the stickiness of the soil. Silt soil has a weaker structure, while sand has no structure at all. Sandy soils are useful in areas that need to drain.

Urban added that man-made mixed soils are very different from natural soils. Mixed soils include soils that have been broken apart and put back together.

Soils are also made up of spaces or voids where water can flow. Ideal forest soils have a void space of about 50 percent, while urban compacted soils are around 20-30 percent. With the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), Urban said more landscape architects will need to measure soil structure.

Soil texture is also important to examine. Clay, silt, and sand all have different surface areas given the unique sizes of the particles. Fine sand is .24mm, while silt is 2.4mm, and clay, nearly 24mm. Just within the family of sand, there are huge differences as well, with fine sand having properties distinct from coarse grains.

Hummel, who said he has examined over 100,000 soil samples in his career, said organic matter is a major contributor to soil health. Organic matter can be amended with either peats or composts.

He said many peats are actually not sustainable and shouldn’t be used to augment the organic matter in damaged soils. Peat farming can strip an area of nutrients, creating environmental damage. However, he made an exception for sphagum peat, which is more expensive, but a renewable resource. For Hummel, sphagum peat is “superior to compost, which breaks down rapidly.”

But compost is most often added to soils to boost the amount of organic matter. Compost is often used with disturbed urban soils that have suffered from erosion and compaction. Compost types include yard waste (grass, wood chips), bio-solids (treated municipal sewage), animal manure, and mixed waste. Some regional compost specialties include pine bark and rice hulls. Hummel added that soils have a “disease suppressive capacity.” Still, he cautioned against the practice of using 90 percent compost and 10 percent soil, saying that a “tree planted in that will simply fall over or die.”

Hummel also delved into the chemical properties of soils – and whether it’s possible to chemically amend damaged soils. He concluded that altering the PH balance of existing site soils is “unrealistic.” What’s better is to focus on the availability of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous in the soil.

While sending soil samples to a lab will yield data on all these properties, these properties can also be requested in soil specifications. Hummel said landscape architects can even specify things like permeability in soils.

Urban concluded that it’s best to reuse dirt where possible, but sometimes grading and compaction have “killed the soils.” To understand the problems and solve them, landscape architects can use web soil surveys, study soil maps, take their own samples, examine them, and send them to the lab. “Landscape architects need to learn how to do this.”

To learn how to go on to the next step and fix soils, check out Urban’s book, Up by Roots.

Image credit: Sugar Beach, Toronto, by Claude Cormier / Deeproot

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crabgrass_cover
Suburban sprawl is nearly universally denigrated. Aerial photography reveals sprawl to be malignant housing divisions metastasizing across the landscape — a wasteful, ecologically devastating byproduct of a host of misguided policy decisions and cultural values. In contrast to dense urban centers, which are widely promoted as hotbeds of creative thought and innovation, suburbia is closely associated with stifling conformity. In the view of many urban planners and designers, suburban sprawl is essentially a mistake. However, given that a majority of Americans live in the suburbs, should we so quickly dismiss suburbia as a purely negative force? Has suburbia’s unique low-density environment incubated any positive cultural changes independent of the city?

In Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, Christopher Sellers argues that American environmentalism largely arose out of suburbia. Sellers lays out an alternative narrative for the cultural impact of the suburbs.

He argues that suburban expansion is typically viewed in terms of two distinct narratives: city building and nature destroying. In the city-building narrative, suburbanization is viewed in terms of the expansion of the built environment out from the urban core. This view ignores nature, instead concentrating on factors such as economics, infrastructure, and people. The nature-destroying narrative arose as a reaction to this viewpoint, casting suburbanization as a process of consuming natural lands. This narrative still predominates environmental thinking today.

Sellers contends that both of these narratives perpetuate an overly restrictive definition of nature, where nature only exists outside of human influence. As an alternative, he promotes an ecological narrative for suburbanization, where the environment represents a hybrid of natural and human systems. In his view, suburban expansion does not erase nature, but instead creates a new kind of hybrid suburban nature, where ecological systems unavoidably intersect with human settlement.

Using Long Island, New York, and Los Angeles as case studies, Sellers illustrates how American environmentalism first gained traction as a suburban grassroots movement. As Sellers writes, “around 1970, no cluster of issues contributed more to a new environmental politics than the multiple affronts to land, water, air, and human flesh in America’s most transformed urban edges.”

This book is significant because, whether we like them or not, the suburbs are not going anywhere. Instead of devoting all our energy toward designing new communities, shouldn’t we concentrate on improving what we already have? We can reconsider what suburbia has already given us and what it can become.

By tracing the emergence of environmentalism in suburbia and then valuing hybrid suburban nature, Crabgrass Crucible puts to rest the narrative of suburbia as a purely nature-destroying phenomenon. The challenge now is how we might exploit these low-density settlements for ecological and social benefit. Sellers writes, “Any resolve to propel an entire society toward a more sustainable future must take seriously the nature near where most people live, at least as much as the nature where fewer people reside.”

Read the book.

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

Image credit: University of North Carolina Press

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economist
In its latest special report, The Economist magazine put forth a counter-intuitive yet fascinating thesis: more economic growth is the best hope for preventing the next great wave of extinctions. They argue that as countries become richer, their citizens actually demand cleaner air and water, which benefit wildlife. With weekends off — and more free time generally — these rich-world residents also want to go to public parks and experience nature first hand. According to the Living Planet Index, which is created by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), biodiversity is actually rising in the rich world and falling in poorer (tropical) ones. So the answer for the planet’s species may be to boost growth in poorer countries in South America, Asia, and Africa.

The entire series of articles is worth reading in depth, but here’s a top-line take on some of the key arguments and data presented:

Man Is Evolving

In the past, man has not been good for nature. Man wiped out most the ancient mega-fauna, including the mastodons, mammoths, and sabre-tooth tigers. With the rise of new technologies, “man’s destructive powers increased.” As mining and industrial development expanded across the globe, forests were decimated, rivers poisoned, and sea and land animals driven to the brink. But, they write: “In a sense this orgy of destruction was natural. In the wild, natural species compete for resources, and man proved a highly successful competitor.” The Economist adds that religion fueled the ascendancy of man over nature, with the Bible granting man “dominion over every creeping thing.”

Now, attitudes have changed for the better. “People have, by and large, come round to the view that wiping out other species is wrong. Part of the reason is pragmatic: as man has come to understand ecology better, he has realized that environmental destruction in pursuit of growth may be self-defeating. Rivers need to be healthy to provide people with clean water and fish; natural beauty fosters tourism; genes from other species provide the raw material for many drugs.”

The change in views towards nature has led to political action. Beginning in the 1970s, the world has increasingly come together to protect natural resources and endangered species. Countries have created national parks and financed support for them. There are now rules against polluting air and water. New technologies make conservation even easier. But while all this is increasingly true in developed countries, it’s not yet in developing ones, although there are signs of progress. For example, as Brazil develops, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has actually fallen. In 2004, some 24,000 square kilometers were decimated. Last year, there were just 5,000 square kilometers destroyed.

Extinctions Are Natural

The Economist writes that throughout Earth’s history extinctions have been the “norm.” Amazingly, “around 99 percent of all creatures that have ever lived have disappeared from the face of the planet. Hardly any of the species that are around now existed 100 million years ago; it is unlikely that many of today’s species will exist in another 100 million years. In the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year-history, that is not a very long time.”

Extinctions, as scientists have demonstrated, come in great waves. To our knowledge, there have been five major waves in history. These extinctions were caused by geological events and the impact of asteroids. A sixth one, caused by man, may be underway.

To determine whether a great wave of extinction is now happening, we have to understand how many species there are. To date, only 2 million species – large and small – have actually been identified. There are lots more smaller creatures than larger ones, so scientists believe many more small species remain undiscovered. “The most widely used estimate now 8.7 million species, not counting micro-organisms such as bacteria and archaea.”

Then, we have to calculate whether the rate of extinction exceeds the norm, which Stuart Pimm, a professor at Duke University, has established as a “background rate” of “one per million species years.” This means that if there are one million species, one would go extinct every year.

And then, we need to understand the actual number of species that have gone extinct. According to The Economist, many conservation organizations, in advocacy mode, have said up to a million species could soon go extinct, but the reality is only 9 counted extinctions have happened between 1980 and 2000. Still, most of the world’s great conservation biologists, including E.O. Wilson, have continuously raised the alarm, which should be heeded.

There’s Hope: People Now Value Biodiversity

As the developed world has become more prosperous with economic growth, people have “freedom to think about things beyond their material welfare.” Prosperity has given people more leisure time, and “enjoying nature is one of humanity’s favorite pastimes.” According to The Economist, some 71 million Americans say they “watch, feed or photograph wildlife in their spare time, more than play computer games, and 34 million are hunters or anglers who also, in their own way, enjoy wildlife.” Being out in nature may also boost happiness (as is explored in more depth in ASLA’s guide to the Health Benefits of Nature).

Communities have also realized that they need nature to survive, too. Birds kill the insects that plague crops. Fisherman’s livelihoods rely on stable stocks of fish. Bees are vital pollinators that we depend on for much of our produce. And then there are so many species of flora and fauna that have yet to be examined for their human health benefits. So many drugs have come from the rainforest. Perhaps the cure for cancer may be there, too.

Some positive trends:

  • In the U.S., eagle populations dropped from half a million in the 18th century to 412 breeding pairs by the early 1960s. There are now more than 7,000 pairs.
  • In 1990, Britain’s environmental agency said only 53 percent of its rivers were safe for recreation. Now 80 percent are.
  • China created its first national park in 1982. “It now has 1,865 of them, covering 110 million hectares, three times the area of America’s parks.” A recent article attributed this to the rising numbers of Chinese taking vacations.
  • In 1909, only 3.5 percent of the world’s land area was protected (according to a 1985 study). Today, some 13 percent of the planet is protected, and the target of 17 percent may be met.

The key then may be more economic growth globally, not less. And we’d add: more landscape architects to design parks and access to nature, not fewer.

Explore this fascinating set of articles.

Image credit: The Economist

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