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ivory
At the White House yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the launch of a new federal council on wildlife trafficking and expanded efforts to combat the global elephant ivory trade. The council, which met at the Forum to Counter Wildlife Trafficking, will advise the Interior department and a presidential task force on this issue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also “crush and destroy” nearly six tons of elephant ivory captured by its agents and inspectors on U.S. soil.

Jewell said: “Poaching of wildlife has become a crisis that threatens large numbers of species including elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers, sharks, tuna and turtles. With guidance from the new Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, we will continue to work in partnership with countries where these animals live and roam and other nations to shut down the illegal trade in wildlife products and to bring poachers and traffickers to justice.”

According to the secretary, the ivory “crush” will highlight “the rising tide of poaching and trafficking that is threatening wild populations of elephants, rhinoceros, and other iconic species – and strengthen global efforts to crack down on these criminal activities.”

Beyond destroying the raw and carved whole tusks the agents seized, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also update regulations to close loopholes that make it easier for criminals to bring ivory products into the U.S. In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the service will provide more equipment and support to build up countries’ efforts to combat the trade.

The U.S. is trying to make this a global effort because the ongoing slaughter of elephants and other species isn’t just an African problem. Demand is coming from the U.S. and other rich countries. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said: “The United States is part of the problem, because much of the world’s trade in wild animal and plant species – both legal and illegal – is driven by U.S. consumers or passes through our ports on the way to other nations.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the total population of forest elephants in Central Africa is down 62 percent. “Elephant massacres have taken place in Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic in the past year, as well-armed and organized criminal enterprises have taken advantage of insufficient protection capacity in remote landscapes and the rising price of ivory on illegal markets.”

The Service uses a conservation fund to finance more than 170 global conservation projects, providing more than $8.6 million in aid, which is matched by $14.3 million in support by foreign governments and non-governmental organizations. To finance additional efforts to combat the wildlife trade, Ashe encouraged Americans to buy the Save Vanishing Species postal stamp at their local post office or online. The stamp has raised $2.4 million so far.

But clearly, these efforts, while commendable, are far from enough — as elephant ivory is being seized in record numbers across the globe. Just recently, inspectors in Hong Kong made another large seizure of elephant ivory, nearly 1,200 tusks weighing 4,800 pounds, worth some $2.5 million. The tusks were hidden in a container coming from the African country Togo. Two other busts in the past year found another 12,000 pounds of tusks.

Image credit: Elephant Tusk Seizure / Elephant Ivory Project

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greenspace
According to the TKF Foundation, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the global population now live in urban areas. To ensure people can live in dense environments packed with people, parks and open space are critical. Without those, people flee to the suburbs to get away and have access to more nature.

So to green cities, landscape architects and planners are now “comprehensively integrating ecology and nature into built environments using systems approaches, such as green infrastructure, low impact development, and urban landscape ecology.” The cost of these efforts is justified by “call outs of better air and water quality; reduced heat island effect; and reduced carbon emissions.” While those benefits are clearly very valuable to quantify, there has been a recent movement to quantify the human health and well-being benefits of all this urban green in “stress recovery, improved mental health, faster healing and improved community situations, including lower crime rates.”

But, they argue, Americans still often want their nature to be pristine — they want to access nature in “grand natural areas that inspire awe and instill a deep, meaningful sense of the power of nature.” The trick is to then create urban places where people can also experience the “power of nature.”

So they’ve started the National Open Spaces, Sacred Places, a design and research initiative, which is designed to “propel greater community commitments to creating those spaces that satisfy the soul.” To this end, the foundation recently announced $4.5 million in awards for six landscape design and research projects, involving some top researchers from the fields of neuroscience, genomics, immunology, psychology, and others.

According to the foundation, this “collection of exceptional spaces will demonstrate how nearby nature in the city can provide sacred and spiritual experiences. Each project will combine the creation of tranquil, restorative spaces in urban environments with rigorous study of their impact on users’ well-being and resilience.” The landscapes were selected because they “target and engage an urban population in need.”

The six projects will share some common characteristics, which seem rooted in biophilic design concepts:

  • They must include a “portal,” which is defined as an “archway, a gate, a stand of trees, a pergola, or other marker” where “there is a clear movement from the space of everyday life and functioning.”
  • Each site features a path, “whether linear and well-defined, or more meandering.” Paths allow people to focus their “attention and achieve a mindfulness about the surroundings.”
  • Landscapes will also have a destination, “an appealing feature or end point” that can “draw in a person to the welcoming space.” TKF Foundation describes this as a “sojourn, however brief,” that is “rewarded by a feature that encourages quiet, fascination, joy, and spiritual connection with nature.”
  • Lastly, the “surround,” or design elements, such as plantings, fencing, or trees must be included to “provide an encompassing sense of boundary, safety and enclosure. Portal, path and destination invite one to experience a space; the sense of surround ensures that one experiences a sense of being away and an emotional separation from the stress and challenges of life.”

Each landscape will also include a “signature bench” where visitors are invited to sit and write in a journal attached. Since 1995, TKF Foundation has been creating “temporary green refuges” in universities, “tough inner-city neighborhoods, in hospitals, and prisons,” writes Grist. In these places, they’ve created access to journals, where visitors can sit and write down their thoughts. From these, more than 20,000 comments have been collected and transcribed.  The foundations writes that in these journals, “one finds remarkable, heartfelt testimonials about the power of nature to transform, heal and bring clarity through reflection.” Based on these comments, the foundation decided to enroll scientists to further study the health and well-being benefits of nature.

The six projects:

The Green Road Project at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: “Built on a woodland section of the campus, it will surround ‘Wounded Warriors’ and their families with the healing powers of nature in an oasis of respite—and combine a healing, patient-centered approach with rigorous data on what works to improve the health of veterans.”

Dr. Fred Foote (CAPT, MC, USN, Ret.) said the Green Road project will use three metrics to study the impact of the space on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “combined biomarkers of the stress response; qualitative analysis of journals and stories using natural language processing; and advanced genomics.”

A Green Space a Day: “Following up on findings from research conducted in Japan and the Netherlands that links being in nature with healthy immune response, A Greenspace a Day research will help determine what it is about nature that improves immune functioning and reduces stress for urban dwellers.”

According to TKF Foundation, Frances Kuo, PhD, Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, plans to study “existing green spaces created by the TKF Foundation and its partners in the Mid-Atlantic region to pinpoint which design features enhance the functioning of the immune system, particularly in distressed and vulnerable populations.”

Landscapes of Resilience: This project will examine how “new open space, sacred places can contribute to community resilience while supporting recovery from an array of major crises — human, natural, technological and even political.”

The research will be conducted by Keith Tidball, PhD, an Extension Associate and Associate Director of the Cornell University Civic Ecology Lab, and Erika Svendsen, PhD, a Research Social Scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces: “While a body of evidence has shown that nature improves health outcomes and cognitive functioning, the missing link is still why these effects occur. Measuring What Works for Healthy Green Spaces aims to determine what it is about nature that has such tremendous effects on our brains and our health and create guidelines for the future design of natural spaces.”

The research will be conducted by Marc Berman, PhD, University of South Carolina, who wonders what about nature has a positive impact on our mental health.

Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brookyln: “As one node of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative – a 14-mile commuting route for non-motorized transportation – the Naval Cemetery Landscape project will seek to provide restorative relief to individuals from the urban environment. Sited atop an old cemetery at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, this new meadow will revitalize the native plant and pollinator populations in the region and attract other forms of life that depend on thriving numbers of these native inhabitants.”

The project is being led by Milton Puryear, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, who is partnering with the Green School of East Williamsburg and Brooklyn Community Housing and Services. In addition, Christopher Weiss, PhD, NYU’s Applied Quantitative Research Methods Program, will “collect data from The Green School students and BCHS residents throughout the lifetime of the project, measuring their reaction and response to the natural space as it develops.”

A Nature Place, Portland, Oregon: “A preterm baby — a child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy — is at heightened risk of physical and developmental problems. The earlier the birth, the greater the risk. And a mother’s stress is a significant contributor to preterm delivery. Realizing this, Legacy Health is combining its traditional medical expertise with the healing power of open green spaces to create a four-season garden at the Family Birth Center and Cardiovascular Care Unit at its Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. Patients and their families will be able to walk through and rest in the garden, adding to their peace of mind and rebuilding their strength. There will even be special equipment to make sure less-mobile patients — such as pregnant women on bed rest and patients with reduced mobility — can spend time outside.”

The research component will be lead by Roger S. Ulrich, PhD.

Explore the projects.

Image credit: A Green Space a Day / TKF Foundation via Grist.

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A recent study by urban forestry guru David Nowak and other researchers at U.S. Forest Service and The Davey Institute found that urban trees save at least one life per year in most cities and up to 8 people per year in large metropolises like New York City.

“Trees growing in cities help clean the air of fine particulate air pollution — soot, smoke, dust, dirt — that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems,” Grist explains. As an example, “trees clear 71 tons” of air particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) from Atlanta’s air each year.

As explained in a recent post on outdoor air pollution, urban particulate air pollution kills as many as 2.5 million people each year. PM 2.5 has a drastic effect on human health, including premature mortality.

Researchers noted that larger particles between particulates 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter—also called coarse dust particles or PM10—are removed by trees at a substantially higher rate. However, the health benefits of PM2.5 removal is 30 to 350 times more valuable.

What happens to our health when those trees die from natural causes en masse? Apparently, as another recent study claims, people die, too. This study study showed that the “loss of trees to the emerald ash borer increased mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. This finding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits.” Untrammeled development would then also have the same negative health impacts at the ash borer.

Of course, the health benefits are not restricted to our lungs and heart, but also our minds. As can be seen in a new UK-wide study, parks, gardens, and even street trees in urban areas improve the mood and mental well-being of the surrounding residents.

The value of trees goes well beyond their immediate air quality-reducing properties, too. According to one recent U.S. Forest Service study, “urban forests are responsible for storing 708 million tons of carbon—a service valued at $50 billion.”

Not to ignore the financial side of better health, the Nowak study also claims that “the average health benefits value per hectare of tree cover was about $1,600, but varied [from city to city].”

The study concludes that “trees can produce substantial health improvements and values in cities.” Although more research is needed to improve these estimates, this study also leaves room for new research that explores the local effects of tree-filled landscapes in cities.

Read the study and check out a recent animation from ASLA: Urban Forests = Cleaner, Cooler Air.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: Bryant Park, NYC / Wikipedia

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airpollution
A new study by an international team of scientists has found that outdoor air pollution kills 2.5 million people worldwide each year. According to BBC News, the researchers calculated the vast majority of the deaths, 2.1 million, were linked with fine particulate matter, with some 470,000 deaths from ozone. In addition to contributing to these deaths, outdoor air pollution increased “respiratory and heart disease risks, with the young, elderly and infirm most vulnerable.” Other research has shown that indoor pollution, particularly in developing countries, causes another 2 million deaths annually.

The researchers wrote: “Epidemiological studies have shown that PM2.5 (particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns – about 30 times thinner than the width of a human hair) and ozone have significant influences on human health, including premature mortality.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particulate matter is a “complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.” The EPA is most focused on particles 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller because “those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs.” Finer particles, which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, are found in smoke and haze. Forest fires, residential fire places and wood stoves, agricultural burning, power plant emissions, and car exhaust pipes all release those particles.

The researchers used mathematical models to derive their estimates. Interestingly, they found that their estimate was lower than previous ones. But this may have been because of their methodology: “Our methods likely underestimate the true burden of outdoor pollution because we have limited the evaluation to adults aged 30 and older.”

In the same BBC News article, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated it’s difficult to calculate the world’s most polluted areas because “many cities with high levels of air pollution do not have monitoring systems in place.” Still, outdoor air pollution was seen to be very high in China and India’s booming cities and in major urban areas in Latin America and Africa.

Overall, the WHO stated that mortality rates in cities with higher levels of pollution are 15-20 percent more than in relatively cleaner cities. Indeed, a scary new study states that outdoor air pollution in China is decreasing the life span of the average urban Chinese by 5.5 years. In comparison, in the European Union, which has some of the world’s most stringent air pollution standards, life expectancy is reduced by just 8.6 months because of fine particulate matter.

Climate change is also exacerbating the effects of bad air, contributing about 3,700 more deaths a year. As cities become even hotter in the summer, the air becomes even more dangerous.

Interestingly, climate change may also be changing the “biochemical characteristics” of plants, and not in a good way. “Trees use chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to attract pollinators as well as deter damaging attacks from insects and larger animals. However, higher temperatures can cause many tree species to emit more VOCs into the atmosphere, which reacts with sunlight to form ozone or more particulates.”

As a recent video from ASLA demonstrates, it’s important to plant low-VOC trees in urban areas, along with dealing with power plant and car emissions. If done so, trees can actually aid in reducing air pollution because they help catch air particulates with their leaves. They also evapo-transpire and create shade, which cools the air.

Learn more about the positive benefits of urban trees.

Image credit: Beijing Air Pollution / Daily Tech

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In the Chicago area alone, there are over 300 types of native bees. In addition to this bounty of diversity, there’s also the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which was introduced by European settlers to the eastern part of North America in the early-1600s. Honey bee colonies eventually went feral and spread throughout the eastern colonies. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the honey bee finally made it to western North America.

During this time, honey bees became an important part of the U.S. agricultural system. While many native bees and butterflies are important pollinators, they are no match for the honey bee and the sheer volume of pollination that creature can accomplish. At the height of summer a single hive may contain as many as 50,000 individuals. In contrast, many native bees are solitary creatures. Through sheer number, honey bees are then more productive at pollinating our crops. Today, pollinators like the honey bee are responsible for every third bite of food we eat. For example, we couldn’t grow almonds in California without beekeepers trucking in colonies of bees.

If you’ve read about honey bees recently, it’s probably news reports about the rapid decline in their populations and the mystery surrounding the exact cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD). You may have heard about how honey bees are hard hit by pesticides, especially neonictinoids, which have been banned by the European Union for the next two years over worries about the adverse effects to all bee species. Similarly, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under more intense pressure to regulate these pesticides, as they have recently been sued by commercial beekeepers and environmental groups, which claim that the insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam – both neonictinoids – have negative effects on the central nervous systems of honey bees, not to mention other beneficial pollinators.

After CCD came to light in 2006, beekeepers across the board noted winter losses that ranged from 30 to 90 percent. While losses fell to 21.9 percent for the winter of 2011/2012 — as bees possibly benefited from what was the fourth warmest winter on record — it still remains true that keeping honey bees alive and healthy is becoming more of a challenge.

According to bee experts, most of those winter die-offs aren’t related to CCD, that mysterious ailment in which all the bees weirdly disappear from one’s hive. The vast majority of die-offs have to do with mites, diseases, decreased foraging opportunities from habitat loss, weakened immunity due to generations being exposed to pesticides and poor nutrition, and unfortunately, sometimes, neglectful beekeeping.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates there are between 139,000 and 212,000 beekeepers in the U.S., most of which are hobbyists with 25 hives or fewer. I have a hive in a back yard in Chicago, though not this summer. I went to Washington, D.C. for an internship instead. Most of the beekeepers I know don’t have more than a few hives here and there. But the fact is there are a lot of hobbyist beekeepers, more and more all the time. Chances are, even if you’ve never met me, you’ve seen my honey bees or the honey bees that belong to my fellow beekeepers. Our honey bees have a range of three to five miles from their hive. Our hives are all over the country, on city rooftops, and in suburban backyards.

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This growing number of beekeepers contributes to the general population of honey bees, which helps fight a general decline in colony numbers. The number of honey bee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million hives in 1940 to 2.5 million today, even while the demands on our agricultural system increase. That demand is also local now. With the push for a return to local food systems and community gardens, honey bees are being introduced into neighborhoods. This only helps increase the yield of neighborhood gardens. Bees can help produce more and bigger fruits and vegetables. Honey bees are so worth keeping: honey fresh from a hive is a wonderful thing. Eating locally-produced honey will also go a long way to help seasonal allergies.

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It isn’t hard to be a beekeeper, but it does require a lot of time and attention. There’s a lot to know about honey bees, but they are worth the time as they are endlessly fascinating creatures.

Unlike the yellow jacket wasp, the creature honey bees are constantly being mistaken for, honey bees are merely defensive, not aggressive. This is not to say that bee stings don’t hurt — they do — but honey bees would rather collect pollen. They will not bother you if you don’t bother them, they only want to defend their hive and protect their queen.

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Getting started with backyard beekeeping can be as simple as ordering all the equipment, a package of bees, and just going for it. But finding a beekeeper to learn from, in addition to reading every book you can before you start, is a better option. Find your local beekeeping club and introduce yourself. Beekeepers love talking bees and share stories of tips, triumphs, and tragedies.

If you can find a place to volunteer and participate in an inspection before you get your own hive, that’s even better. I had the pleasure of volunteering with Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, where I apprenticed under a number of experienced beekeepers before I finally got my own hive. I also took a class with the Chicago Honey Co-op, a fantastic urban apiary that offers beekeeping classes. When you’re ready to become a beekeeper in your own right, check to make sure beekeeping is actually legal in your community.

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Want to help bees, but don’t really want to own a hive? There are number of things you can do. Fill your garden, patio, window boxes, and balcony with plants that honey bees and other pollinators love. If you have a garden, refrain from using pesticides. Urban and suburban bees may actually be healthier than rural bees because they aren’t subjected to an onslaught of pesticides. If you see a swarm, don’t panic. A swarm is a good thing, the natural reproduction of a colony. Call a beekeeper who will be more than happy to take the swarm out of your tree and off your hands. Please note, a swarm, despite the scary connotations of the name, is actually quite docile.

In fact, one of the main challenges for a neighborhood beekeeper is the uninformed community member, whose unfortunate first reaction to seeing a hive is to be afraid. Neighborhood beekeepers generally act as ambassadors for their bees, teaching people and reassuring community members that the honey bee is beneficial and safe. When I inspect my hive, it isn’t uncommon for neighbors to watch and ask questions.

The beekeeping resources I’ve included are those known to me in my hometown of Chicago. If you’re a beekeeper elsewhere and know of great resources in your community, please share them in the comments.

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

Image credits: (1) Honey bee in Lurie Garden / Heidi Petersen, (2) Back yard hives / Heidi Petersen, (3) Frame of honey bees and queen / Donna Oppolo, (4) Friendly honey bee / Heidi Petersen, (5) Image 5: Learning to inspect at Garfield Park Conservatory / Donna Oppolo, (6) Capped honey frame / Heidi Petersen

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deer
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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Kevin Shanley, FASLA, is CEO of SWA Group and a long-time resident of Houston.

You were recently in Washington, D.C. speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this is an issue on the minds of just about everybody who lives on the coast. What were the lessons of this disaster?

There are several lessons. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.

The other lesson we need to learn is quite important: we forget really quickly. Katrina happened, now eight years ago. Some structural changes were made to the levee system, but all of the really great plans to re-build New Orleans as a more sustainable community, a better community, a more integrated community came to nothing. In Houston in 2008, Hurricane Ike was a near miss. The SSPEED Center at Rice University is involved with this and has been working to make sure we don’t forget what happened with Ike. If Ike had come in, it would have been a disaster ten-fold Katrina. It didn’t, so we were lucky. It swerved about sixty miles to the east and it literally wiped the Bolivar Peninsula clean, virtually every structure on the peninsula was gone. It went up Chambers County, an agricultural community, and created huge damage, but relatively light because there’s nobody there, which is a lesson to learn.

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The challenge after Sandy is to ask ourselves what’s the next thing that’s going to distract everybody? In 2001, Houston was hit not with a hurricane but with a really amazing tropical storm called Allison. It dumped thirty inches of rain in twenty-four hours. It flooded seventy-five thousand homes and ninety five thousand cars. It was an amazing flood. It actually tracked all the way up to Canada. Post-Allison, many good things started to happen and a number actually did happen. There were bigger policy changes and changes that many of us were working on, but then in September 2001, guess what happened? The national attention, the local attention, everybody’s attention totally changed and a lot of policy-changing momentum was lost.

So will there be a diversion from Sandy? Yes. North Korea is percolating, and, now we’re focused on whether or not something terrible will happen there?” As is the case with media and big events, each successive one diverts energy and intellectual focus from the present problem—in this case, Hurricane Sandy. Sandy will be forgotten in the national attention, and unfortunately at the local level, attention might diminish as well. While there will be some good policy people working at it, and the number of people personally affected won’t forget, our national focus on Sandy will fade. In some respects, the recovery is amazing. The human species is amazingly resilient. The Bolivar Peninsula was wiped clean. Today, you wouldn’t know it. People have rebuilt right there in exactly the same place. It’s phenomenal. The key is finding a way to rebuild strategically and learn lessons from these disasters to shape our future plans. We also need to find a way to take a long-term view on many of these problems.

The New York Times reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to spend $400 million to buy up homes in New York City, demolish them, and then preserve the flood-prone land as undeveloped coastline. The idea is to spend some big bucks to turn some coastal areas into wetland or parkland. Does this approach make sense? Can this model be realistically scaled-up elsewhere in the U.S.? What are the alternatives?

It’s a potentially very powerful tool. Speaking globally, the British and Dutch have been at it for decades. It’s called “managed retreat.” It’s about getting out of harm’s way. FEMA has been funding buyouts like that for a while now. It’s a really good program to remove the most at-risk structures, particularly federally-insured structures that time after time are repeat sinks for federal flood insurance claims.

What needs to be thought about, however, if you’re talking about scaling it up, is how to replace the economic value of the development that’s being removed from harm’s way. It’s about the loss of tax revenue. There are sales taxes based on the occupants, all kinds of revenue to the community. This revenue pays for schools, sewer systems, security, and all of the other things that we take for granted in government. Coastal real estate is expensive because it’s attractive. If you take that out of the equation, you’ve got to be ready to think how to replace that. That’s the challenge facing all of us. Great ecological strategies need to be considered economically, and vice versa.

New York City seems to be seriously considering using “soft” green infrastructure instead of “hard” infrastructure, like hugely expensive seawalls, to protect against another disaster. In a recent Metropolis magazine piece, Susannah Drake, ASLA, ASLA NY Chapter president, described soft infrastructure as “transforming the waterfront from a definitive boundary into a subtly graded band.” The Dutch are already moving ahead with this kind of infrastructure, having seen the ecological damage caused by hard infrastructure. Will American policymakers ever buy into this?

Soft green infrastructure along coastal fringe areas can play a really important role in restoring ecological functions to our coastlines. Our coastlines have been severely degraded from an ecological performance standpoint. Green infrastructure as protection for urban areas needs really serious science and engineering studies to figure out the effectiveness of the interventions across different scenarios. Just how effective is a coastal marsh of several hundred yards wide? We’re not talking about miles wide. We’re talking probably several hundred yards or hundreds of feet. What is the benefit to, say, Manhattan? How does that compare to other strategies? Can we take a blended approach to soften our edges and create redundant and resilient strategies?

I’ve seen some beautiful renderings of the edge of Manhattan as it could be. There would be dramatic changes in ecological performance and a transformation in public perception about the city as a green place. There are a lot of wonderful aspects to this. But from a surge and hurricane risk-protection standpoint, we need to be careful not to set up false expectations. To what extent do coastal marshes protect us when a surge comes in that is 15 or 20 feet above those marshes? The green infrastructure could impede the wave action and the movement of the water or even exacerbate the run-up of a surge in shallow waters. The Gulf Coast of the North American continent has a long, shallow coastal run-up, which tends to exacerbate wind-driven surge.

We need to ask specific questions about where the benefits are. We need to ask our scientists, engineers, policymakers, and economists if we are looking at increased sea-level rise rates that are projected to be about a meter every 100 years (three feet every 100 years). Also, rising water levels drown coastal marshes. That’s what has happened in the Galveston Bay complex. Because of subsidence caused by groundwater withdrawal, we lost square miles of emergent coastal marsh. The bottom dropped out and it drowned the marshes. How does this progression work? One can say, “Well, the marsh will just march inland.” Well, will it? Does the actual geography allow it to just march inward? Will there be a period where there’s nothing and then it has to get above a small bluff elevation? Those are important questions to ask if we’re talking about putting really significant resources into this green infrastructure approach to improving coastal resiliency.

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Respected scientists argue that sea levels could rise four feet by 2100. If any of the recent hurricanes to hit the U.S. had occurred at higher sea levels, the damages would have been that much more extensive and costly to repair. What are you hearing about seal level rise? How does this change the timeline for action on improving coastal resiliency?

Sea level rise is like watching the hour hand move. We are like grammar school students: the hour hand doesn’t seem to move during class. Our time horizons are measured in just a few years at best. If we’re forward-thinking, we might think out 10 years. The meaningful impacts of sea level rise, the really serious impacts are happening right now, but this is a process that’s been going on for thousands of years, millennia, actually millions of years.

Are anthropomorphic forces going to increase the rate of change? It’s a really good question and there are certainly many scientists who think that the burning of all this fossil fuel is increasing carbon dioxide, which is increasing the temperature of the globe, which is melting the icecap and raising sea levels. Will public policymakers be able to think out beyond a year or even 10 years to 100-year thresholds? The dialogue is there, but I don’t see it coming down to meet real public policy changes yet.

There are outliers in the predictive scientific community who suggest the possibility that if the Greenland icecap, which is the big gorilla in the room, increased its rate of melt or disintegrated due to some threshold that we’re not sure about, sea levels could rise very rapidly within an individual’s lifetime. It could be a disaster. Would we be prepared for that? Absolutely not. As somebody who thinks about public policy, I think we should be running scenarios. We are uncertain as to the disposition of our climate and sea levels. When you’re not sure of something you should be thinking about different scenarios. You should be thinking “Well, what if it’s only three feet in 100 years? What do I need to do? But what if it’s six feet? What if it’s 10 meters, 30 feet, in 100 years? What should I do?” This dialogue should be occurring so that if the natural world presents us with an existential challenge at least some part of the community has been grappling with it and may have some appropriate paths to take.

You’ve been a long-time advocate for using natural systems to deal with water. In a recent article in The Huffington Post you write that Houston and other cities along the Galveston Bay rely on “antiquated storm-protection techniques and land practices doomed to repeated failures.” What’s needed are “policy shifts rooted in a natural systems-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” What’s holding back these policy shifts? Where are the biggest obstacles at the federal and local levels?  

The biggest obstacle is the lack of public awareness. FEMA creates flood-risk maps or flood insurance rate maps. In the coastal areas of North America they are woefully inadequate. FEMA realizes that and they’re in the process of updating them. In our region we haven’t seen the updates. We’re waiting with bated breath. We’re not sure we’ll entirely agree with their characterization of risk. Large swaths of the community rely on this public information to advise them about the level of risk. They look at the maps and say “I’m not at risk,” whereas actual surge models being prepared show huge areas are at risk. So, first there has to be clear science that determines what defines the level of risk.

Second, there needs to be clear communication about the risks. That can be through things like flood insurance rate maps, but it also needs to be through public education and policy. There needs to be clear disclosure on every real estate transaction. There was an effort in the Clear Lake City area, which is in the Houston metro region where NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located. They actually put up signs, little colored pylons, that indicated “This is the water level for a category four storm. This is the water level for a category five storm.” These little pylons were 10 feet tall and very clear. You see it there and you would wonder, “Gee, should I buy a house here?” or certainly “Gee, should I make sure I renew my flood insurance?” A local politician, at the behest of the real estate community, insisted they be taken down.

Beyond research you’ve also made these natural systems work in real-world landscapes. The Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston really set the example for how to turn a trash-soaked eyesore into a beautiful piece of parkland that also supports flood control. Houston seems to really understand the value of this kind of multi-use infrastructure. What led to the changes in Houston’s approach to its waterways and green space?

Houston is just beginning to learn the value of its waterfront real estate and for Houston it’s the value of our rivers and streams (we call them bayous).

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A lot of cities around the country are actually way ahead of Houston in having recognized that value, whether it’s a coastal waterfront or a river waterfront. In Houston, the new riverfront has been the result of years of work by lots of individuals, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Each main bayou in the city has its own citizen advocacy organizations. Some of them are fairly significant and have permanent staff, whereas others  are purely volunteer citizen groups. There have been willing ears in the public agencies. More recently, there has been support at an elected official-level, including a very supportive mayor right now. That’s very encouraging. But we have a long ways to go. We’re just starting on this effort. We have 2,000 miles of open stream channels in Harris County alone, so we’re just beginning.

You’ve done a lot of work in China. What is your impression about how they are approaching coastal resiliency? Is there a uniquely Chinese approach to these issues that we can learn from in the West?

The universe of what’s going on in China is amazing. You might think “Ah, Beijing controls everything. They can tell everyone what to do.” Well, it actually doesn’t work like that. The local government officials can have a surprising amount of independence and resistance to federal or provincial policies. There’s that normal political friction that happens between different units of government. Good policies are being generated at the federal level, at the Beijing level; good policies are being generated at provincial levels. Good policies and projects are being implemented at local municipal levels. That’s exciting news.

The country is doing great wetlands restoration projects. Wetland parks are all the rage across China. Kongjian Yu, FASLA, principal at Turenscape and professor at Beijing University, probably has a dozen wetland parks on his desk in his office at any given time. We’re working on a number of them. It puts to shame anything we’re doing here. On the other hand, one has to balance that against the unbelievable rate of urbanization and its impact on the environment in China. It’s maybe only a drop in the bucket toward mitigating the impacts of urbanization that are going on right now.

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The good thing is they’re very interested in the topic. The people that we work with, which is a very self-selected group who are willing to pay a foreign consultant to come and advise them, are already interested. I have a biased view… I could paint this rosy picture of China because we go over there and we are talking to people that share our environmental values. But there are many who don’t share those values and that are in business just like in any country anywhere in the world. They’re just trying to add value and sell that value and profit and move on to the next project.

You take the whole climate issue in China. China’s doing some of the most progressive carbon-capture energy production in the world. For a while, they were the largest producer of solar cells. They’re the largest producer of wind generating equipment. There are all these sort of extremes of what they are doing. Yet in the global sense, they’re producing more carbon dioxide than anybody on a more rapid basis. They’re increasing their carbon and energy footprints. They’re still below us on a per-capita basis, but they’re working very hard to catch up to our own huge footprints. So you will find a really mixed bag in China.

What can we learn from China? We ought to be studying what they are doing right and trying to learn from their successes. To the extent they’re interested in partnering so they can learn from us, we ought to be sharing those solutions with them. It’s a wild ride, like a rollercoaster, and one who’s end we can’t see from our vantage point.

Image credits: (1) Kevin Shanley, FASLA / SWA Group, (2) Hurricane Ike damage at the Bolivar Peninsula / Bryan Carlile, Beck Geodetix, (3) Galveston Texas Galveston Island State Park near the gulf of Mexico / Chris Cornwell. Flickr, (4) ASLA 2009 General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, (5) Fuyang Waterfront Park / SWA Group

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One international organization seems able to wade through the politics and get things done. It’s called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At its meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last week, delegates from 170 countries created new protections for hundreds of species of trees. There was also a big win for sharks and manta rays, which are increasingly threatened by Chinese demand for shark’s fin soup and traditional medicine. There were new efforts to combat international illegal trade in elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Increased illegal trade has decimated these regal creatures. In a press release, CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon said: “It takes enormous effort to negotiate treaties and then make them work. This is a big day for nature.”

Trees

According to CITES, international trade in a range of rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods and ebonies from Asia, Central America, and Madagascar will now be regulated. “Rapidly rising demand for these precious tropical hardwoods has led to serious concerns that unregulated logging is depleting populations of already rare species.” Indeed, rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods are increasingly rare. Removing these trees, which are deeply embedded in forest ecosystems, means carving out huge paths, which open these areas up to further devastation, and destroying habitat for native animal species. Regulating trade in the trees may then have positive impacts on the species that depend on them.

Sharks

Recent studies show that somewhere between 25 and 75 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which are used in shark’s fin soup and other traditional Chinese medicines. Last year saw an even greater jump, with 100 million harvested. Being finned is a particularly ghastly way to go for these animals, as they are often still alive when they are dumped back into the sea. Without their fins, sharks simply float to the bottom and suffocate or are eaten by other sharks.

Under the new agreement, international trade in the oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrma lewini), great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran), smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zigaena) and the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), which are now harvested in record numbers, will now be regulated. BBC News reports that China and Japan tried to block action on these shark species at the last minute, but their efforts were thwarted by other countries. “From now onwards, these [sharks] will have to be traded with CITES permits and evidence will have to be provided that they are harvested sustainably and legally. These listings mark a milestone in the involvement of CITES in marine species.”

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The bigger challenge may be changing cultural norms in China. One delegate from a shark fin-exporting country told The Guardian that the “cultural attachment to serving shark fin soup at weddings in China – now affordable for millions more in the country’s swelling middle class – was very strong and very hard to break.” The delegate said: “It would be like telling the French not to have champagne at their wedding.” (See photos of sharks facing extinction).

Manta Rays

Manta rays, which were described as “slow-growing, large-bodied migratory animals with small, highly fragmented populations,” and having amongst the “lowest reproductive rates of any marine animals,” will get some protections from over-exploitation. Manta gill plates are apparently in demand in some countries. The Guardian writes, “their populations are being devastated off Sri Lanka and Indonesia to feed a newly created Chinese medicine market in which their gill plates, used to filter food from the ocean, are sold as a purifying tonic.” Some 5,000 are killed each year, generating $5 million for traders. Interestingly, leaving them alive brings in around $140 million from tourists. That sounds like a no-brainer.

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Elephants

CITES writes that “strategic decisions” were adopted to collectively address the “elephant poaching crisis and escalating illegal trade in ivory.” For the first time, African countries also set aside their differences and united in support of action. “The general ‘rules of the game’ for trading in elephants or elephant products were thoroughly revised, modernized, and strengthened, addressing e-commerce, systematically using forensics, monitoring ivory stockpiles, controlling live elephant trade, dealing with countries that are persistently involved in illegal trade in ivory, etc.” CITES countries agreed to a “suite of targeted actions focusing on the 30 countries mostly involved in or affected by the illegal killing of elephants and the illegal trade in ivory.”

CITES certainly made some progress on protecting elephants, but perhaps not enough, failing to enact a ban on the sale of existing elephant tusk and rhino horn stockpiles. Time is running out for these grand animals, who form close knit family units. According to a powerful op-ed by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists in The New York Times, a “staggering 62 percent of forest elephants” in Central Africa disappeared from 2002 to 2011. Just last year, more than 20,000 elephants were killed. Elephants attacked by poachers are known to become traumatized, as they witness family members killed. “Rogue” elephants, often young males, have then gone on rampages, basically fighting back at people. These traumatized animals also play a reduced ecological role, staying close to their home range. Wide-ranging, happy elephants distribute seeds through their fecal matter and act as landscape architects, culling certain trees and creating clearings.

The scientists write: “This killing is affecting behavior as these highly intelligent animals respond to the threats they face. They avoid roads not protected from poachers by wildlife guards. Once wide-ranging, the various population groups have become geographically isolated, hemmed in by a shroud of fear. They no longer garden on a grand scale, and they have been cut off from vital food, mineral and water resources they require to remain healthy. There is less time to feed and none for play or leisurely interactions between close and far-flung family. Nor do young elephants develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members — and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone. We increasingly see groups of young elephants without knowledgeable females accompanying them. Lost with these matriarchs are traditions and collective memories passed down through many thousands of generations that guide their offspring to that isolated salt lick or patch of fruiting trees that helped to sustain them.”

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The Guardian says nearly 20 nations now “face bans on all wildlife trade unless they crack down on the poaching, smuggling or sale of illegal ivory. The summit is also considering compulsory forensic testing of seized tusks, so the criminal chain can be traced and compulsory reporting of stockpiles of ivory, to prevent corruption or thefts.” International trafficking in ivory is done by “crime cartels every bit as ruthless as those trafficking narcotics, arms, and people,” argues the WCS scientists. Using forensic evidence from seized ivory may be key to combating poachers. Read more about the poaching crisis in a new report by CITES.

Rhinoceroses

Member states asked international bodies to “prosecute members of organized crime groups implicated in rhinoceros-related crimes.” CITES said what’s needed is more national legislation to create local deterrents. “Countries should also submit rhino horn samples from seized specimens to designated accredited forensic laboratories. Countries were asked to consider stricter domestic measures to regulate the re-export of rhino horns products from any source, and develop and implement demand reduction strategies aimed at reducing the illegal movement and consumption of rhino horn products.”

According to Wild Aid, rhinos have existed on earth for more than 50 million years. Like elephants, they are “mega-grazers” and provide an important ecological function. They clear vegetation, maintain grasslands, reduce fire hazards, fertilize soil, and disperse and germinate seeds.

Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine and are believed to cure fevers, headaches, and skin disorders. Given that rhino horns are made of keratin (the same material that make up hair and fingernails), there’s no scientific merit to these claims.

Only five species of rhinos are left. Two-thirds of the world’s population is in southern Africa. More than 600 were poached in 2012.

Polar Bears

The United States and old Cold War-era foe Russia teamed up to propose blocking the trade in polar bear parts. Interestingly, Canada, which is home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining 20,000 wild polar bears, didn’t support the effort and the proposal failed to be adopted. The Guardian writes: “Canada [...] argued there is not enough scientific evidence to show they are in danger of population collapse. Canada says it already has strict rules to ensure hunting is sustainable, and the Canadian delegation leader has dismissed the US proposal as ‘based more on emotion than science.'”

About 600 polar bears are killed each year in Canada, some in “traditional hunts” by Inuit and others by “trophy hunters.”

Given the precarious state of health for polar bears, who are increasingly under stress due to climate change, the lack of action can only be seen as a failure to protect an iconic yet dwindling species.

In another interesting piece of conservation news, Yale Environment 360 reports that the damage done to tropical forests by loggers may have been overstated. “Researchers have discovered a significant flaw in large swaths of ecological research into the impact of logging on tropical forests: Scientists have been dramatically overestimating the damage done by loggers, skewing conservation strategies.”

Image credit: Sharks on display in Indonesia / The Guardian, (2) Scalloped Hammerhead Shark / Tumblr, (3) Manta Ray and tourist / Manta Ray of Hope, (4) Elephant family / Great Plains Conservation

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At the Old Capitol Pump House, a restored building along the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the launch of the long-awaited Sustainable D.C. plan. The result of an amazing public outreach process that involved over 400 local green experts, more than 180 public meetings in front of 5,000 people, and 15 D.C. government departments and agencies, the plan is an attempt to make “D.C. the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S.” by 2032.

Gray said D.C. is already a model for other cities. “We are what many cities hope to become.” For example, the district apparently already leads the nation in the number of green, healthy buildings, or LEED buildings, per capita. New schools must now reach the LEED Gold standard. But even more green buildings now seems to be the goal: the district has signed on to the National Better Buildings challenge, aiming for 20 percent energy efficiency improvements across all buildings by 2020. And they may be moving faster, getting 20 million square feet greener in 20 months. With the Sustainable DC Act of 2012 now signed into law, a new Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) program is underway, aimed at improving financing opportunities for greening commercial and multi-family housing.

The district wants to be greener looking, too (literally). There’s an accelerated tree planting campaign, with 6,400 slated to be planted this season alone. The goal is a 40 percent tree canopy, which would put D.C. in the top tier of major cities worldwide. Beyond trees, the city is implementing “high standard stormwater infrastructure investments.” For example, “we are now building more green roofs than anyone,” with 1.5 million square feet now in place. Green streets, like the first green alley built in Ward 7, are also being rolled out, with more potentially coming soon in Chinatown. Green infrastructure technologies may get a local boost, too, with the $4.5 million that has been dedicated to “innovative pilot projects.”

The district already has the biggest bike share network in the U.S., but “this may not be the case for long, as other cities are catching up.” The D.C. government now purchases 100 percent renewable energy. We have become a “number-one U.S. E.P.A. green power community.” All of this action has led to a 12 percent reduction in green house gas emissions over the past year.

Gray seemed to stress, however, that going green can’t just be the agenda of educated, liberal, white environmentalists. The diverse, multi-ethnic crowd seemed to underpin this point. “We need to focus on jobs, health, equity and diversity, and the climate.” So part of making D.C. more sustainable will involve “expanding access to affordable housing and economic development opportunities” for all, so that “we have one city.” Gray said: “We can’t push people out.”

The actual plan offers some 32 goals, 31 targets, and more than 140 proposed actions. Some goals are quite bold, like “a fishable, swimmable Anacostia River in a generation.” The Anacostia is currently one of the filthiest rivers in the U.S. Other goals: implement a zero-waste plan, with a 80 percent landfill diversion rate. Expand urban agriculture, with 20 more acres of land growing food, so that 75 percent of residents are within 1/4 mile of healthy, local produce. The city wants 1,000 new local renewable energy projects, with a dedicated wind farm for D.C. government operations.

Gray said “this is about nothing short than winning the future.” For a mayor still under federal investigation, Sustainable DC offers a positive way forward and certainly paints the city in a progressive light. As the mayor said, “who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have the biggest bike share network, 100 percent renewable energy for the district government, and 400 local people involved in crafting a new vision.”

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pointed questions from the media at the launch event asked whether the mayor and city council will actually put the funds and government personnel behind this bold plan to “change our society.” In a telling comment, Gray said the District will need to wait to hear the results of the debate in Congress on “sequestration,” which could potentially result in billions being cut from the federal budget. Much of the district economy depends on federal government spending, which is why the mayor said the city must “diversify” into new sectors in his recent state of the district speech. In fact, much of the resurgence of the district in the past few years can be attributed to the new federal money pumped into the district (see a great New York Times article on this).

Perhaps Gray’s broader case is that Sustainable DC will help the district’s economy and people become more resilient to economic, environmental, and social shocks, and diversify into greener industries. This seems like smart local leadership that goes beyond the vagaries of federal spending. Grey also made a point of saying regardless of who is mayor in the future, the plan “reflects the interests of our community.” The plan goes beyond the mayor.

Still, it will be up to the D.C. government, private sector, and non-profit organizations to implement the plan at a very high standard. The race is on, considering many other top-tier cities have similar goals.

Read the Sustainable DC plan and also check out Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a Sustainable D.C., ASLA’s 30-page report produced last year, which seems to have at least inspired a few of the District’s targets and actions.

Image credit: Diamond Teague Park, Washington D.C. Landscape Architecture Bureau /Allen Russ

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At the National Building Museum, a controversial set of two new photography exhibits asks us to consider whether a city can die, whether districts of ruined, abandoned buildings reverting back to nature can define a city that still has a population of 700,000 people. The answer is no: Detroit is still alive, but perhaps shamed by its decline. At a presentation by two photographers — Camilo Jose Vergara and Andrew Moore — Detroit was viewed as a warning of things to come, a modern-day Necropolis or city of the dead, but fortunately this storyline doesn’t tell the whole tale about that city.

Vergara, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, sociologist by training, and also an evocative photographer, covers the process of decay in many cities in the U.S. Each year, he travels to cities like Camden, Chicago, and Detroit, to document how “time, elements, scavengers, and people” do “whatever they do to fine buildings.” In Detroit, he has taken series of photographs showing the decay of the same few buildings over time. Year and year, Vergara comes back because he’s fascinated by “what is going to happen” to these buildings. “Some are engulfed in vegetation or become ruins.”

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The Chilean photographer has spent a lot of time at the old Ford Packard Plant, which once churned out the cars and trucks that populated Detroit’s streets and all of America’s arteries. Once the factory closed, the mile-long building became home to over 200 businesses, beginning in the early 90s. However, those businesses seemed more focused on disassembling or scavenging. “This was now the place you took your car to be taken apart and turned into scraps.” Other businesses collected old shoes or cardboard boxes to be reused or recycled.

In a view of the old plant Vergara returns to year after year, he documents a time when there were “wild parties” organized within the walls, organized via pagers, to a period of partial demolition, to nature eventually taking over again.

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Now, it’s a dangerous place filled with scavengers and homeless people. “Fires have further weakened the structures.” But a theme both Moore and Vergara returned to again is that this place and others in Detroit are also sites of creative rebirth. Within all the decay, it has become a “museum of graffiti,” where any graffiti artist of note wants to have a piece.

For Moore, a leading contemporary large-format photographer, the process of documenting Detroit’s glorious ruins are like “mental blueprinting.” His father is an architect and he grew up with the idea that “you can tell a story through a space.” He says that “buildings are an incorruptible witness of history.” Buildings inflect history; buildings can’t lie, whereas the faces of people can tell lots of different stories.

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Like Vergara, Moore takes photographs of cities undergoing change, even if that change is destructive. His work has spanned New York City’s Time Square and Fulton Fish Market areas over the years. In early 2008, he began to really take photos of Detroit and was at once “amazed by the quality of the architecture.” He sees the ruins as particularly “emotionally charged” because that city’s fall is so recent.

In the Ford company’s Dry dock building, where Henry Ford first worked as an apprentice, “one guy is now living there, with a wind screen up to block the cold air.” (The historic building is now slated for condos).

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A grand old theater that opened in 1928 with an appearance by Gloria Swanson is now “damaged by water, neglect.” The muted palette of the buildings create a sense of “loneliness, desolation, and abandonment.”

Both Vergara and Moore also see a “surreal” quality of the city. A theater with an amazingly beautiful ceiling was turned into a parking lot, because it was more cost-effective than tearing it down. Nature is also seen as playing a key role in creating the surreal effect. “Wherever there is a void, nature returns in full force.” For example, what Moore thinks is Henry Ford’s old corner office is now covered in moss. An old post office building’s roof has caved in. The space was once a depot for storing old books. Those books have decomposed and turned into mulch and now provide a foundation for birch trees that grow out of the hole in the roof.

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Within this landscape, Moore said, there’s also good and bad. “There are black hats and white hats. The black hats are interested in destruction, blowing things up. The white hats looking at documenting, taking photos.”

Both photographers, who almost seem to view buildings as living things – with their own cycle of life and death, said the ruins are “always changing over time. Ruins aren’t static.” Vergara, though, also thinks that the ruins are indicative of what “we’ve done to the earth. The ruins are the future. I’ve internalized what I’ve seen. It has energized my life, but it isn’t positive. The experience of these desolate places has marked me.”

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And while both do include photos of living people (occasionally), both said people in these places are few and far between. In their tours, there just weren’t people walking around. And perhaps because of this, both feel a greater responsibility towards the buildings — and to document the buildings, instead of the people who created them and let them decay. Vergara said: “I feel a responsibility to all those buildings. I have to know what’s going to happen to them.” By shining a “strong light on their ruin, we can bring attention to what’s happening here. That’s positive.”

For Carolyn Mitchell, a Detroit native and now Washington, D.C. resident who attended the lecture and was interviewed after, the photographers “only showed the death, but not the life of the city.” The exhibits were “misleading.” She said some great buildings were always well-maintained and others have been newly restored. “We have some of the greatest Art Deco buildings in the U.S.” Still, the exhibits brought back “memories of how the city once was.”

Many neighborhoods are still maintained like those in any other city and are real, thriving places. In neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Corktown, “homes have porch swings. There are lots of community gardens. Neighbors know each other.” This narrative isn’t really out there. The story of nature taking over, both positively in the form of urban farming and new forests, and, negatively, in the form of decay, may not be accurate. As Mitchell argued, “nature has always been in the city.”

In their presentations, Moore and Vergara admitted that they have received criticism from the local community, and there’s no way the exhibits will ever be shown there. As the moderator John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks and a professor at Harvard University, said, “well, these photos don’t paint the best portrait of the city.”

Mitchell also thinks that the photographers failed to place the ruins in a historical context. She said the exhibits could have been more powerful had they shown “the before and after, what the city once looked like, how fabulous it once all was.”

In the end, the photographs then don’t answer the real question: What happened? Why did Detroit fail while other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles renewed themselves? Mitchell, who used to work for the Detroit city government, said it was a real “lack of vision, leadership” at the top. A series of corrupt mayors and their cronies stymied positive change and drove out business owners. City services declined with mismanagement and a falling tax base. And while there are a number of non-profits coming in to create bottom-up, community-led visions, “these can’t really replace the lack of vision from the mayor.” Detroit sounds like any other big city — with its mistakes, but not dead yet.

Learn more about the two exhibits and see a book of Moore’s work on Detroit.

Image credits: (1-3) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara, (4-7) Copyright Andrew Stone, (8) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara 

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