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Archive for the ‘Forests’ Category


James Urban, FASLA, noted soil and tree expert, recently gave his talk, You Cannot Fool Mother Nature but You Can Understand Her, at the Arsenal in New York City. Urban is a prolific writer and lecturer on the subject of tree planting and the conditions needed to improve tree performance in urban environments. Urban focused his talk on “eight simple ideas,” all basic steps to yield more productive growth in urban trees. The ideas were driven home by a slideshow containing images from his recent award-winning planting guide and bookshelf mainstay, Up By Roots: Healthy Soils and Trees in the Built Environment. It was refreshing to know that the lecture did not fall on deaf ears as heads of the NYC Parks Department, the ASLA NY Chapter, and New York Restoration Project were all in attendance. If anyone needs to hear Urban’s talk, it would be them.

To Urban, planting trees is “all about the science.” Take a walk down your street and notice the adolescent trees stuffed into the recently curb-cut sidewalk. According to Urban, that is our fatal mistake. “We try all the time [to fool nature] but we never win.” The space below the ground is competing with other urban systems: stormwater structures, utilities, urban compaction systems. These obstacles severely hinder the performance of those adolescent trees, many of which were not even properly selected in the first place. Urban shared his understanding of this paradigm: “Once we have a hypothesis, we tend to give extra weight to any information that supports that hypothesis.” To Urban, this kind of thinking leads to many street trees being planted incorrectly.

Over the past thirty years, Urban has been instrumental in the development of both structural soils and structural cells for use under sidewalk pavement. However, his message has remained and his eight guiding principles to planting trees have as well:

1. Trees need dirt!
2. Plant trees that are native to their urban ecosystem.
3. Can you resolve the conflict between the politics of trees and the planting of trees?
4. There is no free lunch.
5. Get just one tree right.
6. More soil volume please.
7. Harvest stormwater.
8. Improve the nursery stock.

1. Trees need dirt!
According to Urban, New York is actually a relatively easy place to grow trees. To become a functional, mature tree in an urban environment, a tree needs between 800 and 1,200 cubic feet of “good-quality loam soil.” Urban believes that New York City has the space but not the soil.

2. Plant trees that are native to their urban ecosystem.
To further understand this concept the audience was pushed to buy Peter Del Tredici’s, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. No longer are we harking back to the Manahatta planting plan for advice on what to plant on Queens Boulevard. Urban, the consummate pioneer of the urban environment tried to incite the crowd. “Let’s get into it and start figuring it out!” Urban also warned us that in ten years or less we will all be calling nurseries to purchase Ailanthus.

3. Can you resolve the conflict between the politics of trees and the planting of trees?
Urban took this opportunity to speak of the role of the arborist. Currently, certification is relatively easy to obtain. However, as the profession of arborists progresses it needs “serious restrictions.” Making certification more difficult to acquire would promote the profession, putting them on the political map. Arborists could then better join broader political discussions and highlight the importance of trees.

4. There is no free lunch.
Here Urban stressed the idea of compost. His example that “two tons of raw wood only produces one ton of compost” is telling in that he believes there is room to explore this area. He further explains this idea by bashing “the hot item right now,” Bio-Char. After describing Bio-Char as “really bad,” he lightened the assault by clarifying that “it is only good for small amounts of soil.” I wonder if this “simple idea” was an idea at all, or an excuse to diminish the popularity of the charcoal-based soil amendment.

5. Get just one tree right.
In a checklist for tree design, one requirement is to understand the root area index (RAI), the calculation determining the correlation between the root and the surface area. To explain this, Urban used an image of a wine glass standing on a dinner plate. The dinner plate, representing the soil volume and the wine glass base, the trunk flare, are basic visuals of how simple a successful planting can be.

6. More soil please.
Again Urban stressed the importance of understanding soils and the surroundings. Soil can be understood as the community of vegetated and urban systems surrounding the planting site. Urban explained the efficiency of his structural cells compared to that of constructed soils (Cu soils). One attendee, an expert and supplier of Cu soils, vehemently disagreed. He argued that the structural rock matrix that makes up the load bearing component of Cu soils do not inversely affect the performance of tree roots as Urban suggested. Not wanting to get into a fight over the success of his inventions, Urban explained, “I’m almost done with the Cu slide…actually, I’ve been done with the Cu slide since 2003.”

7. Harvest stormwater.
“When designing systems it’s important to allow nature to guide us in protecting our natural systems from floatables, hydrocarbons, chemical pollutants, and runoff toxins.” In the green infrastructure overhaul of New York City, large trees will play an important role in the solution and have the ability to “store and process massive amounts of stormwater both in their roots and leaves.”

8. Improve nursery stock.
Nursery stock, in the age of the New York City’s Million Trees Project, have become a hot topic. Tree growth can be determined before a tree is even planted if a basic understanding of the stock is obtained. There are many issues concerning healthy plant growth at nurseries. Proper limbing, pruning, watering, drainage, sunlight, soil volume, and basic organization are all things to consider when visiting a nursery for healthy plants. However, the number one issue is container plants. “We need to stop buying container trees. It’s an unfixable problem!” The girdling of roots has no remedy and their trees have no chance of reaching their potential.

Much of what James Urban discussed in his lecture seems to touch on the ideas of publicity. Yes, the science of tree planting is essential to success but so are “politics.” Urban reiterated this idea by empowering key figures in the crowd.”The Parks Department, the City of New York, and New York Restoration Project need to put pressure on nurseries!” It’s Urban’s hope that New York City will become the benchmark for intelligent street tree planting.

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s degree candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY), and writer for The Architect’s Newspaper.  

Image credit: Silva Cell / Deeproot

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When we think of paths through nature, we may first think of somewhat muddy trails carved out willy-nilly through the trees, covered in leaves. But a few landscape architects and architects have been showing how paths can be designed, set-apart, yet also enhance the experience of being surrounded by nature while carefully protecting natural habitat.

Reed Hilderbrand, a landscape architecture firm, created a narrow 2,700-foot wooden boardwalk through a previously “unreachable and unknowable” 50-acre wetland near their client’s house in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While the path did cut through undisturbed nature, the idea was to create environmentally-sensitive access to improve the stewardship of the unexplored land, 70 percent of which was made up of re-growth forest.


To complement ongoing “woodlot management, edge restoration, and meadow extension” efforts, Reed Hilderbrand proposed a circuit trail that would loop through the wetland. It took nine months working with “conservation biologists, permit specialists, contractors, the property manager, and conservation commissioners to ensure adequate protection of the resource and mitigation of limited construction disturbance.” According to the firm, the only way the team could get permission was if there was a careful evaluation of the “hydrologic and biotic” characteristics of the site, low-impact construction technologies, and design elements that enhanced the wetland. 

“Path alignments were studied in plan from air and then thoroughly tuned on site to navigate among trees and snags, woody thickets, beaver impoundments, significant perennial stream courses, and wildlife corridors,” writes Reed Hilderbrand. Invasive species were removed, to the benefit of local flora and fauna. Overall, the new boardwalk actually supports local habitat: “Since completion, beneficial plant communities including speckled alder and silky dogwood have responded favorably, improving shade cover and food sources. A corresponding increase in wildlife has been observed.”


Another project, Stone River, in eastern New York state, uses stones instead of wooden boardwalks to create a subtle, new way to experience nature. Landscape architect Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic, writes: “I joined the path itself to the pre-existing stonewall and woods in an attempt to offer the visitor the opportunity to experience a sense of fusion with nature. The goal of this project is to join culture to nature.”

Piasecki, a master with stone, actually moved each stone down the path in a small wood cart and hammered each stone joint into place. “I transferred tens of tons of gravel and sand as a setting bed with a wheelbarrow and I moved nearly 400 tons of stone in the wall and as paving over the 800-foot length of the path. I opened the existing stonewall, chose the course of the path within it and rejoined the residual wall stone in such a way that the path appears to have grown organically within this stonewall where it resides. I was able to personally lay stones so as to avoid individual clumps of ferns, standing trees, fallen logs and existing stones with mossy growths in the wall.”

The silver stone (a mica schist) used in the project is a highly sustainable material because it will last so long. To further cut down on carbon dioxide emissions from the quarrying and cutting process, Piasecki used machines running on vegetable oils. 

The poetry of the landscape is only enhanced by Piasecki’s gentle intervention: “In this instance by joining stone and by making a path into the woods with great sensitivity, I am working to heal, in a small way, the rift between culture and nature that is intrinsic to our modern relationship to the land.”


Lastly, one Japanese architecture firm, Tetsuo Kondo Architects, wound a path through the tree tops in a temporary 3-month project in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia last summer. In the Kadriorg forest, which is located in the center of the city, trees have grown there for three centuries, around a palace built for the Czar of Russia. To provide a startling new look at the trees, a 95-meter-long elevated path was created.  


According to Landezine, the elevated path is made of steel pipe and sheet steel, with no columns touching the forest floor. In places, the paths seem to lean on trees for support (apparently, both the city’s park managers and structural engineers signed-off on this).


The architects write: “Instead of looking up at the trees from the ground, people will be strolling near the leaves, making their way between the branches. A structure made for the forest, a forest that exists for the structure. With no change in the shape of the forest, it will seem that the structure and the forest are one.” 


In these instances, man-made structures complement nature and even enhance the experience of being immersed in nature. These contemporary yet environmentally-sensitive paths help renew these places.

Image credits: (1-3) Half-Mile Hand Built Line: Berkshire Boardwalk, Andrea Jones, Garden Exposures Photo Library, (4-6) Stone River / Jon Piasecki and John Dolan, 2010 (7-9) A Path in the Forest. Reio Avaste / LIFT11

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Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and his fellow speakers got multiple rounds of spontaneous applause at the 2011 ASLA annual meeting for hosting a session on a topic near and dear to many design professionals and wood experts: how to end the unsustainable harvesting of Ipe wood and scale up the use of sustainable alternatives. The real alternative may be Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), which Van Valkenburgh and other progressive landscape architects, architects, engineers, and wood manufacturers have already been using for some time. In addition, domestically-grown Black Locust may offer new opportunities for local sustainable forestry businesses. The trees grow fast and are hardy (in fact, in many areas, they are treated as invasives) and can even take root in urban areas, so they can provide a new source of employment in cities like Cleveland and Detroit, where populations are collapsing and landscapes aren’t as productive as they could be.

Ipe is a tropical hardwood often used in outdoor decks and furniture because it’s so resilient to rain, insects, and weather changes. It’s special properties also mean that it lasts a long time. However, there is a dark side to this wood, which is all too often still used in park and residential projects. Just a few Ipe trees are found per acre in dense, lush tropical forests, which means foresters must wreck havoc on the forest to extract and process those single old trees. Van Valkenburgh and others argue that there must be alternatives.

Why Black Locust?

Stephen Noone, ASLA, senior associate, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, said Black Locust lasts just as long as Ipe. He said it’s a “pioneering, not invasive” plant that “takes root on sites that other plants don’t like.” Unlike Ipe, the tree grows together in densely planted areas. In Europe and Asia, it’s already treated as an acceptable crop. In fact, a number of countries are moving forward with planting large groves for wood production, a business that, oddly, has failed to take root in the U.S. 

A research project by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ interns found a plantation in Hungary producing a range of different quality Black Locust woods, including top quality woods. They found that Black Locust can “only be planted in marginal areas where Oak can’t be established.” In a smart move, a local forestry research organization and local wood producers aforested a massive area. Now, 8,500 hectares of dense Black Locust forests are being harvested in just one area there.

Black Locust has “high natural durability, is heavy and hard, but has a tricky kiln drying process,” said Noone. It’s “not going to rot and is insect resistant.” Noone delved into the details of moisture content, and the process needed to achieve the desired content levels. There is a complex multi-step process that involves lettting the freshly cut wood air-dry to reduce moisture and then using a “dehumidifier kiln.” Noone said “the process is very strict,” and “dilligence is required on the part of the drier.” There’s also a long lead time for landscape architects: 40-50 days until the wood can be used. But it’s worth it: Beyond the sustainability benefits, Black Locust is also cost-effective. In bulk, it’s $5.44 per square foot, while Ipe is more than $7 per square foot.

Building a Bridge in Brooklyn

A new pedestrian bridge made entirely of Black Locust and designed to move people from neighborhoods in Brooklyn into Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park (see earlier post) is now taking shape. Ted Zolli, HNTB, said in this case, “black locust is better than concrete in terms of its compression, strength, and flexibility” and an “incredibly viable structural material.”


Zolli showed how timber bridges aren’t a new thing. Some 20 percent of current bridges are made up of wood and some are more than 100 years old. This 400-foot long bridge is comprised of pre-fabricated pieces created off-site and the delivered and installed in BK. Some parts of the bridge span 120 feet. All together, there’s about 30 tons of wood. He said for this gangway, Black Locust was the right way to go.

HNTB purposefully tested how vulnerable the wood is to fire and found that it doesn’t lose its strength as it burns. “It’s better than steel and will do better in a fire than the cable wires we are using.” For him and his firm, the real challenge was getting a hold of longer planks and finding the right connector systems for the bridge components.

The Properties of Black Locust

Don Lavender, Landscape Forms, a man Van Valkenburgh called a “national treasure,” discussed the opportunities and challenges in scaling up a domestic Black Locust industry. He said there is great potential for the tree in the U.S. but it’s about “obtaining prime examples and taking selections.” Lavender said the best trees are found in the Appalachian region.

Black Locust was originally given to settlers by the government during the early expansion of the U.S. because it’s very fast growing. Within 15-20 years, the material can be cut down and burned. At 30 years old, it can be used for materials in homes. Lavender said the best of these trees “competed for sunlight with other trees.”

The tree can be used for many products, and even lesser-grade woods aren’t wasted. “100 percent of the tree can be purposefully used.” Lavender said lower grades can be used for mulch, biomass fuel, parquet, and greenhouse poles. The higher grades, #1 grade, premium and premium plus (the top 5 percent), are the result of a more challenging “kiln drying process” that requires “patience.” The wood is tough and resistant to drying for the “same reason it’s so resistant to decay.”

Once dried properly, it can easily be “cut, sawed, drilled, sanded, and shaped.” No outdoor finishes are needed and its screw retention is good. Its Janka hardness also compares favorably with other woods. At 1700, it’s better than Red Oak (1290), but a bit less than tropical hardwoods like Jarrah (1910) and Ipe (3684).  It’s also difficult to glue. But biologically, Black Locust is “remarkably decay resistant.”

Scaling up Cultivation and Production in the U.S.

Van Valkenburgh said the U.S. is falling further and further behind globally. “The country is losing its edge.” Currently, there are 5 million acres of Black Locust under cultivation worldwide, but “virtually zero in the U.S.” Korea has 1.2 million acres, China has another 1 million, while Hungary has 270,000 acres. “This is something that has the potential to be an economic engine in many parts of this country.”

Instead of being viewed as an invasive, as it is in many parts of the U.S., Van Valkenburgh said it should be grown in set-aside areas. Lavender added that the Amish, who “don’t waste anything,” has been using Black Locust for ages. The Amish, who have perfected techniques over generations, are in fact a perfect model for Black Locust production: “proper kiln drying is not something you just get into one day. It takes generations to learn this.” He added that a number of firms have “blundered into kiln drying” and ended up with kindling. “It needs to be done methodically” if an industry is going to bloom here.

Van Valkenburgh is currently using Black Locust imported from Hungary. A firm in Massachusetts is importing containers from Hungary and “taking it upon themselves” to expand the domestic market. While using this wood puts him out of the 500 mile range the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) calls for in sourcing sustainable materials, he said “we have to think bigger about sustainability. The lifespan of these woods is several multiples higher than others.” Still, he wants to see the woods grown domestically. 

The Black Locust market in the U.S. is “still in its infancy” despite the advocacy efforts of Van Valkenburgh and others. Hopefully, some smart city officials will see an opportunity. As one audience member said, Detroit and other cities could not only turn their abandoned lots into forests, but Black Locust forests. Van Valkenburgh went even further: “Planting on reclaimed sites is a great idea.”

Van Valkenburgh, Noone, Zolli, and Lavender kindly shared their 84-page presentation (8MB) full of rich content, photos, and data. Download and help spread the word.

Image credit: (1) ASLA 2006 General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella, (2) Walkway into Brooklyn Bridge Park / HNTB

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Washington, D.C. leadership has requested input from a range of organizations as it develops a new “unified vision” and “comprehensive framework” for a more sustainable Washington, D.C. The end goal: to connect sustainability with economic development and become the number-one, most sustainable city in North America. Washington, D.C. is currently ranked eighth in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by Siemens.

As part of this process, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) polled members from its Potomac, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland chapters and incorporated their input into a set of bold recommendations in the priority areas identified by the city government. Because the categories of recommendations will be evaluated by different D.C. agencies, recommendations are repeated when appropriate and relevant. Among them:

Energy: Reuse brownfields as solar energy farms. Through revised building codes and local tax incentives, expand use of smart tree placement and green roofs and walls. Reduce building energy use through green infrastructure. Incentivize the use of rooftop solar panels. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Mitigation: Reduce total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by expanding urban park land, further improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, incentivizing the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters, creating highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introducing new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Adaptation: Increase coverage of street trees for shade and expand use of green and cool (white) roofs in order to adapt to higher average temperatures along with more varied temperature fluctuations within the District. Improve building and landscape water efficiency measures. Develop resiliency plans for Washington, D.C.’s plant and animal life within parks and green spaces, including the introduction of wildlife migration corridors and heat and drought-tolerant plants. Read research and recommendations >

Water: Develop a comprehensive green infrastructure plan that leverages existing grey infrastructure. Use Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES™) guidelines to improve water efficiency measures, require the use of appropriate plant species in public and residential landscapes, and enable rainwater capture and filtered or treated greywater (and even blackwater) reuse for landscape irrigation. For stormwater management, require the use of green roofs for new buildings exceeding a minimum size. In addition, approve the use of rainwater cisterns for irrigation of green roofs and other green infrastructure. Improve the permeability of the District’s park surfaces and their ability to capture and store water. Create multi-use infrastructure, or rain gardens or bio-retention systems in District parks, turning them into green infrastructure and water treatment systems. Increase the use of bioswales near transportation systems, and add in permanent green street corridors and green alleys. Continue to expand urban tree canopy and preserve larger trees to manage stormwater runoff. Spread use of tree boxes and permeable pavements for stormwater capture. As part of a public education campaign, parks and public green space should follow the highest water efficiency standards. Read research and recommendations >

Transportation: Expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Create safe bicycle infrastructure. Connect the Metro system with bike infrastructure and bikeshare stations. Require secure bike parking within office and residential buildings. Incentivize the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters. Create highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introduce new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Waste: Set clear, ambitious targets and deadlines for achieving zero waste in the District and measure progress against targets. Ensure all building materials are reused in new buildings (if the materials are non-hazardous). Use Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines for park maintenance and eliminate grounds waste generated from Washington, D.C., parks through composting. Read research and recommendations >

Built Environment: Invest in turning more brownfields into parks. Apply bio-remediation and other safe environmental remediation technologies during park development. Develop an Internet-accessible inventory of all brownfields in the city to enable easier remediation and redevelopment of derelict sites by local developers. Create a certification program for remediated brownfields to facilitate faster reuse. Invest in retrofitting older school buildings to make them LEED Platinum and also integrate green school redesign activities into school curricula. Ensure all schools apply Safe Routes to Schools design guidelines. Read research and recommendations >

Nature: Develop a biodiversity and environmental education action plan based on the concept of biophilia. Recreate wetlands along riverfront edges and reintroduce native wildlife. Reduce the mortality rate of trees and extend their lifespan by enabling them to grow in larger tree pits with structural soils and under permeable pavements. Use appropriate trees grown locally for urban forestry campaigns. Experiment with growing trees in park nurseries. Read research and recommendations >

Food: Develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan. Evaluate all available empty lots (including brownfield sites) as potential opportunities for commercial and community urban agriculture. Develop new codes enabling local food production. As a priority, target food desert communities with high numbers of brownfields. Allow local residential food production. Develop new soil testing and clean-up requirements for growing food in former brownfield sites. Allow and also increase tax incentives for rooftop food production. Read research and recommendations >

Green Economy: Invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvement projects to boost job growth. Use green infrastructure systems, including green roofs, to increase number of local, non-exportable green jobs. Launch a comprehensive green jobs program, training chronically unemployed and former convicts in brownfield remediation, green roof installation, and other tasks. Launch a national campaign in an effort to lure the best green talent to the District. Read research and recommendations >

Governance: Organize watershed councils at the local level and appoint ward-level sustainability advocates to help implement and align SustainableDC initiatives. Use Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines as a management tool for achieving high-performing landscapes across the district. Read research and recommendations >

Go to the report Web site and explore the recommendations in detail, or download the PDF version of the report.

Also, be sure to add your comments below on how D.C. can become greenest.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Honor Award. Monumental Core Framework Plan, Washington, D.C. AECOM, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.

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Watch an animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that explains how urban forests fight air pollution and the urban heat island effect. See how cities can add in millions of trees, while ensuring the trees themselves live long, healthy lives.

Poor air quality has led to an explosion of asthma cases and other health problems among vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, and low-income residents. Each year bad air causes two million deaths worldwide. Also, in the U.S., there have been 8,000 premature deaths from excessive heat over the past 25 years. Urban heat islands, which are caused, in part, by sunlight being absorbed by paved surfaces and roofs, lead to higher surface temperatures, up to 90 degrees. Atmospheric air temperatures are also higher: in the day by up to 6 degrees, and at night, by up to 22 degrees. Vulnerable populations also face greater risks of heat exhaustion.
(Sources:  Heat Island Impacts, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), World Health Organization (WHO))

Increasing the tree canopy in cities is one way to fight both poor air quality and urban heat islands. Research shows significant short-term improvements in air quality in urban areas with 100 percent tree cover. There, trees can reduce hourly ozone by up to 15 percent, sulfur dioxide by 14 percent, and particulate matter by 13 percent. U.S. trees remove some 784,000 tons of pollution annually, providing $3.8 billion in value. Furthermore, a single large healthy tree can remove greater than 300 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. In fact, New York City’s urban forest alone removes 154,000 tons of CO2 annually. Through their leaves, trees also provide evaporative cooling, which increases air humidity. Shaded surfaces may be 20-45 degrees cooler, and evapotranspiration can reduce peak summer temperatures by 2-9 degrees. (Sources: Heat Island Mitigation: Trees and Vegetation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), “Sustaining America’s Trees and Forests,” David J. Nowak, Susan M. Stein, Paula B. Randler, Eric J. Greenfield, Sara J. Comas, Mary A. Carr, and Ralph J. Alig, U.S. Forest Service.)

Some other benefits: Urban forests reduce energy use by providing shade in the summer and wind breaks in the winter, reduce stormwater runoff, remediate soils, and provide animal and plant habitat. Trees have economic benefits: they increase property value. Lastly, trees have positive cognitive effects and may even help improve moods. (Sources: Does Looking at Nature Make People Nicer?The Dirt, “The Restorative Effects of Nature in Cities,” The Dirt, “Sustaining America’s Trees and Forests,” David J. Nowak, Susan M. Stein, Paula B. Randler, Eric J. Greenfield, Sara J. Comas, Mary A. Carr, and Ralph J. Alig, U.S. Forest Service.)

In the U.S., cities take up just three percent of land but contain 80 percent of the population. Cities may take up a relatively small share of all land now, but are projected to consume an area the size of Montana between 2000 and 2050. Two-thirds of the planet is expected to live in cities by 2050. With rapid urban growth, it’s essential that trees remain, whether along streets, in small pocket parks, or big green spaces. A 40 percent tree canopy is a challenging but worthy goal for every city to reach. (Sources: American Forests Tree Canopy Goals, “Projected Urban Growth (2000-2050) and Its Estimated Impact on the U.S. Forest Resource,” David J. Nowak and Jeffrey T. Walton, U.S. Forest Service, “Sustaining America’s Trees and Forests,” David J. Nowak, Susan M. Stein, Paula B. Randler, Eric J. Greenfield, Sara J. Comas, Mary A. Carr, and Ralph J. Alig, U.S. Forest Service.)

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A new study published in PLoS Biology, a scientific journal, estimates that there are 8.7 million different species on Earth, give or take 1.3 million. Previous estimates have ranged from 3 million to nearly 100 million. According to The Guardian (UK), this study finds that some three-quarters of all species are on land, and a majority of these are insects. Only one quarter reside in the oceans, even though 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. As famed biologist E.O. Wilson explored in The Future of Life, estimating the number of species is incredibly difficult, largely because a huge share of species are still undocumented. Attempting to put a number on our collective ignorance of the world’s biodiversity, the report argues that some 86 percent of all plant and animal species and 91 percent of ocean species have not been “named and cataloged.” Climate change make things even worse: Scientists estimate mass extinctions of up to 10 percent of all species, meaning that many unknown species will die off before they are even identified.

Dr. Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia told The Guardian that counting all species accurately is important for setting a base line: “Scientists have been working on this question of how many species for so many years. We know we are losing species because of human activity, but we can’t really appreciate the magnitude of species lost until we know what species are there.”

The researchers analyzed data on 1.2 million species, and used Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomical “tree-like” system to determine “patterns between [...] hierarchical groupings which they could use to infer the existence of missing species that scientists have not yet described. That allowed them to use data from higher orders – such as anthropods, where there is a lot of data – to predict the number of creatures at the species level.” Their final estimate: 7.8 million species of animals; almost 300,000 different types of plants; more than 600,000 different species of fungi, mushrooms, and molds; some 36,000 species of single-celled organisms; and 27,000 species of algae. The authors didn’t delve into bacteria.

Robert Mays, a UK government advisor, said the findings were realistic: “It is sort of saying that the trunks and lower branches of the tree seem similar from group to group. At one end of the thing, you have birds and mammals that really are completely known. At the other end, you have just got a handful of branches and twigs. But if you do the big assumption the trees are similar, then it seems sensible.”

However, others are critical of the estimate, arguing that if the methodology was changed, an entirely new estimate could easily be calculated. For example, other approaches have tried to classify the Earth’s species based on patterns derived from the size of species or their location, or their relationships with other species. According to The New York Times, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, argued in the late 1980s that the diversity of land animals grows as they shrink in size. “He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.”

Terry Erwin, a carabidologists or beetle expert, found more than 1,100 species of beetle from a single tree in the rainforest of Panama. He estimated more than 30 million species of insects in tropical rainforests alone. On the approach taken in the new study, Erwin told The Guardian: “These guys base these on classification of animals, and classification of animals are human constructs. The reason it is predictable is that humans are predictable, especially in the scientific field. What they are measuring really is human activity. It is not real activity out in the wild.” Also, a specialist focused on fungi, David Pollack at University of Colorado, agrees and argues that there are far more fungi out there, up to 5 million (not the 600,000 estimated in this paper’s approach). Lastly, microbiologists argue that the diversity of microbes will only dwarf animals. “A single spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are new to science.”

The Guardian writes that one problem is that identifying and cataloging new life forms is “expensive and slow,” with only 14 percent of life forms represented in databases. Scientists point to a lack of funding. “At the current pace, it would take 300,000 specialists 1,200 years to go through the laborious process of describing the new discoveries in scientific journals, and then entering them in electronic databases.” The lack of funding may be due to a lack of interest in these efforts among the public given most of the species to be discovered will be very small, and concentrated in remote areas.

Still, scientists are making big finds almost every day. “Last week, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution reported the discovery of a primitive eel in a reef off the coast of the South Pacific island nation of Palau. The new species, Protoanguilla palau, bore little relation to 19 other forms of eel currently in existence and some of its characteristics – such as a second upper jaw – were more in line with fossils from 65m years ago.”

Read the article and the study.

Image credit: Cristalino State Park, Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso, Brazil / Daniel Beltra Conservation Photography

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Working with Edward S. Barnard, author of New York City Trees, Ken Chaya, a graphic designer and artist, has spent more than two years creating Central Park Entire, an illustrated, comprehensive tree and trail map of Central Park available either as a poster or fold-out walking map. This guide to the natural history of the one of the world’s greatest parks, which covers 85 percent of the vegetation in the 843-acre park, painstakingly plots more than 19,600 trees, using a set of icons to indicate the 170 different tree species. In addition, the map explores the visionary landscape architecture created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, including major park design elements such as lawns, lakes, ponds, waterways, rocks, trails, and footpaths. The architecture within the park, including buildings, bridges, archways, monuments and statues are also detailed, along with the park’s recreational areas.

In 2008, Barnard asked Chaya to design a map he was working on with Neil Calvanese, VP of Operations at the Central Park Conservancy. The end product: “the most detailed map of any urban park in the world.” Chaya adds that the map was designed to further illuminate “the masterful design of Central Park’s creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux,” which is now “more evident today than it was in the 1870s when the Park was just completed.” In fact, the map is meant to celebrate the enduring vision of the park’s designers. 

The actual map is incredibly rich in detail, and any lover of Central Park could spend many hours with this. However, even for the more casual visitor to Central Park (and there are more than 37 million each year), the map’s tree icons can be used at any point in the park to identify the species of any tree. The only challenge: while many species have easily recognizable icons, some are somewhat similar, making identification more difficult. For example, the icons for the different cedars (northern white and eastern red) are nearly identical at tiny map scale. Still, this map enables some potentially fun activities and could help kick-start a walking arboreal bioblitz: Try to identify and count as many trees as possible while walking, or try to find the sole peach tree, or the six instances of persimmon, or one of our favorites, the Chinese scholartree.

The New York Times says even with the map, it’s still easy to get overwhelmed by all the rich flora in some of the denser areas: “Just inside the Inventors’ Gate at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, Mr. Barnard pointed to a diverse group of about 20 species, including the magnolia, the hornbeam with a sinewy bark, the stately American elm, the omnipresent black cherry (there are 3,839 of those on the map), the buckeye, and the invasive Norway maple, which Mr. Chaya jokingly called Eurotrash because it aggressively took resources from other species.”

Interestingly, only about 150 trees are left from the era of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. One from around 1862, the black Tupelo, sits in its own meadown in the Ramble, near the West 70s. Barnard told The New York Times: “Old trees have a sacred element for me. They created us. We’re all mammals that spent our time in the canopy.”

The duo spent more than $40,000 of their own money to design and publish the maps. Neither the city nor the conservancy provided any money, but some proceeds from the maps go back to the conservancy. They just hope to break even on the project.

Let’s hope their efforts prove to be just the first in a slew of projects by dedicated naturalists around the world aimed at unveiling the rich biodiversity found within urban parks.

Learn more about this amazing project, see a slideshow of Chaya and Barnard in Central Park, and purchase the poster ($35) or fold-out walking map ($12.95).

Image credit: Central Park Nature

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After the split between West and East Germany, Communist planners in the east worked out a 870-mile border fence that moved from the Baltic Sea through Bavaria. On the East German side, the actual border control system started 5 kilometers from the real border, writes Christian Schwagerl, a Der Spiegel writer, in Yale Environment 360. There needed to be room for a “first line of control, followed by runs for guard dogs. Then came fences with touch-sensitive alarms, sandy strips to detect footprints, guard towers, minefields, bunkers with automated guns, and — finally — the ultimate fence or wall, behind which lay the forbidden land of West Germany.” Now, with the Cold War over for some twenty years, efforts are underway to preserve the relatively pure nature that took form between the antagonists and expand this “Green Belt” into the backbone of a bold new ecological corridor running throughout Europe.

Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups have joined with German federal and state governments to turn this former “Death Strip,” where escaping Communists were shot, into one of the “world’s most unusual nature preserves.” Schwagerl says the belt is between 30 and a few hundreds meters wide. While not expansive, biologists view the site as ecologically valuable because it was a “safe haven for rare wildlife and plants” for so many years while development occurred on either side of the old borders.


Dieter Leupold, a biologist with Friends of Earth, said: “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing. We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.” In fact, to date, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified in the area by teams of volunteer ornithologists, entomologists, botanists, and other biologists. 

Now, the idea is to not only continue to preserve the habitat for endangered species within this Green Belt but also connect 20 large protected areas around the old border into a “continuous, pan-European nature preserve stretching from northern Finland to the Black Sea along the route of the former Iron Curtain” so that migratory species can move more easily. Within Germany, the Federal Agency for Conservation has come up with a proposal for the German piece of the system: a national network of ecological corridors branching off the Green Belt. Many of these reserves are also pretty big: the Harz National Park covers more 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), while the Schaalsee Lake region features a “15,000-hectare landscape of moors, fens, forests, and meadowlands.”

To ensure the network functions as an ecological corridor for migrating species, a plan for long-term economic sustainability needs to be put in place. According to Schwagerl, much of the land was purchased by the German government, but parts of the area have already been privatized to compensate people for property expropriated by the communists. Political support for the Green Belt is solid, with most German parties seeing the preserve as an environmental success. Even so, Schwagerl says what’s important is to make “the Green Belt truly sustainable, which means spinning off income and opportunities for the people living alongside it, in an area beset by high unemployment and an exodus of the young.” For now, that means encouraging neighboring communities to earn income from ecotourism and birdwatching.

He says major upcoming work includes “turning as many sites as possible into formally designated protected areas and closing the 200 kilometers of gaps in the Green Belt.” With the federal government, the Friends of the Earth are trying to buy up much of the remaining private land to use for conservation. Inevitable conflicts with local farmers’ and business groups are expected.

Read the article

Also, check out the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula, an inadvertant border zone park. In this case, where there’s no peace, nature has also thrived. See an interview with environmental journalist Caroline Fraser, who makes a clear case for valuing and preserving “trans-boundary” parks as ecological corridors.

Image credits: Green Belt / Wikipedia Commons

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Why should the U.S. continue to invest $2 billion a year in earth monitoring satellites? According to speakers at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and its Alliance for Earth Observations, real-time environmental data collected from NASA’s Landsat is crucial to managing climate change and other natural disasters such as the ones that happened in Japan and Haiti over the course of the year. Space-based environmental monitoring infrastructure is also needed to track deforestation rates in the world’s rainforests and gauge environmental damages from oilspills and other man-made catastrophes.

To spread real-time environmental images around the world, Fernando Echavarria, Office of Space & Advanced Technology, U.S. State Department, said the U.S. government has been adopted an “open data” policy that has proven to be a challenge to other countries, even those in the E.U. In practice, this has meant making all U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) satellite-collected environmental imagery freely available via NASA’s Landsat, a tool that has been accessed nearly 4 million times worldwide in the last 6 months.  

The U.S. is also working through development organizations to help countries in the Middle East set up their own environmental data monitoring operations. In Egypt, Echavarria said the issue was clearly freshwater and energy has been focused on tracking changing flows. There’s also a focus on “geospatial data for cities.” Echavarria thinks this is smart because “if you are going to do sustainable development, you need to be focused on where the people are: cities.”

For Marty Spitzer, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), accessing satellite data is crucial to establishing a baseline for ecosystem restoration. “We need to understand the baseline conditions, and watch the changes over time in order to restore an ecosystem to its former glory.” Satellites are important because many of these domains are simply too vast and hard to navigate on the ground.

National Geographic, which has been involved in mapping the earth for more than 100 years, is focused on using imagery to tell the story of planetary change. Frank Biasi, Director, Digital Maps and Atlases, National Geographic Maps, said National Geographic and other conservation organizations first “establish an inventory, map a place out, and evaluate how species relate to each other. Next, we assess the threats to those ecosystems. Then, we plan and design actions to sustain those threatened resources. Finally, we do those conservation actions, whether its managing resources or prescribing fires.” However, on the ground, the availability of data is “still patchy” for field work so National Geographic is hoping for newer tools to track water resources.  

“Collecting all this data is one thing, but getting useful information in a useable format for policymakers is another,” said Kit Batten, climate change coordinator at USAID. She said it’s the role of scientists in government to intepret scientific data clearly for policymakers. However, many scientists don’t even know where to start when communicating the complexities of climate science and navigating the D.C. political minefield. Spitzer agreed, arguing that during his time at the House Science Committee, “you couldn’t put 85 percent of scientists in front my boss” (the committee chairperson).

Perhaps, even more depressing, is another idea Spitzer brought up. He said he initially thought “most people were rational and wanted more data. Who would say no to more information?” However, in some cases, some elected officials “don’t want to know more” because that knowledge will negatively impact the interests of their supporters. “I’ve seen that again and again.”

Despite the controversy over climate change and ongoing debate on how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, he said the U.S. is still the number one investor globally in climate change data, more so than all other countries. This earth satellite capability must be maintained in order to improve the “resolution” and ability to track changes over time. Echavarria added: “We don’t want other countries taking this role from us. This is a gift to the world.”

Also, check out ESRI’s free landsat “Change Matters” tool, which shows how any place on the globe looked in 1975 and 2000.

Image credit: South America vegetation cover change 1975 – 2000. Landsat / ESRI

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The U.S. National Forest Service announced it was seeking broad public input into its new 97-page plan for the country’s 193-million acre forest system. The new plan, according to The New York Times, will better enable the Forest Service to respond to natural disasters and climate change, deal with lawsuits, and empower local forest managers. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said the updated forest management rules will encourage forest resiliency. The revamped plan, which could “potentially guide mining, logging, and wildlife protection in 155 national forests” is expected to undergo fierce public scrutiny. More than 3,000 participants in 40 public forums have already logged 25,000 comments in the first phase of review.

Forest Service officials said the new plan enables local knowledge and science to take precendence. Managers can now better draw on science related to their local areas and work out the details on the watershed areas and wildlife species that need protecting in specific forests. For example, the issues facing forests in Alaska will be far different from those in Florida.

Still, some environmental groups argue that the minimum requirements are too lax. According to The New York Times, the current forest rules, which were established under President Reagan in 1982, “require that the forest be managed to maintain ‘viable populations’ of all native fish and wildlife. Under the proposed rule, local managers could choose which species would be of ‘conservation concern’ beyond those already receiving mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act.”

Overall, environmental groups seem split on the plan. Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation advocacy organization, said: “The bottom line is that this is a significant rollback of required protections for wildlife and habitat compared to what currently exists. It is amazing. The public had the right to expect more from the Obama administration.” In addition, in comments to The Washington Post, he was critical of the new plans to give local forest managers more discretion over managing their lands. “They give too much discretion to individual forest supervisors. We don’t know that they’re going to protect species or not. There is no question that this is a rollback to required protection to wildlife habitat.” In contrast, the Sierra Club has said the plan “is a step in the right direction.”

The extensive commenting period is designed to help reduce the expensive litigation the Forest Service has faced in the past. Individual forest plans have taken five to eight years to move forward because of lawsuits and “other hurdles.” Vilsack says this could be reduced to three years with the new plan.

The “proposed planning rule” will be officially released on February 14, starting a 90 public comment period. Learn more about how to comment. There are also public forums, and a blog where responders can ask questions.  

Image credit: White River National Forest, Colorado / Camping Tourist

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