E.O. Wilson’s Love Letter to Parks

E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s great biologists and a Pulitzer prize-winning author on the natural world, made a case for preserving and investing in the restoration of urban parks at the 70th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown. Designed by renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the only woman among the founding members of ASLA, the 27-acre park has both formal and natural spaces, including meadows, gardens, dams, bridges and 18 waterfalls. Wilson said Farrand was a “splendid landscape architect.”

Wilson asked, “What is the value of a park within the limits of a city?” Garden woodlands like Dumbarton Oaks Park are valuable in themselves because they are often habitats for very rare endemic species. However, for people, they also offer “intricate pathways for opening up our minds to art, aesthetics, ecology, wildlife, natural successions.” Parks exist, in fact, in the “realm of the mind. We all make parks our own. They belong to us each individually. There’s a proprietorship we all feel.” He added that “parks are a home. There’s a sense of permanent familiarity.” There, we find a “sense of place but what is that?”

He believes this hard-to-describe sense of place is “a solid feeling based in a sense of history, a deep history of the land, unchanged over thousands of years.” Parks create this feeling because they are “the natural world and show us that life preceeded us.” Wilson, who spent a few of his early years catching insects in the District’s Rock Creek Park, went on to say that parks are a “magic well. The more we draw from them, the more there is to draw. They are part personal memory, part nature, part cultural metaphor.” 

National parks, which he said must be saved from proposed funding cuts, can be cultivated or non-cultivated and include native and non-native plants but this mix, in fact, provides the perfect opportunity for an “outdoor lab.” Urban parks today “aren’t studied in this way” but will be with the “growth in the importance of ecology and population.” He believes treating parks as urban labs is needed to educate the public on biodivesity. Already some parks are undertaking inventories of their species, and turning the collection and documentation process into a fun outings by organizing Bioblitzes. Bioblitzes are “treasure hunts” used to find as many species as possible in an area in 24 hours. Wilson, who helped popularize the Bioblitz movement, said the “practice has spread all over the country and to 18 other countries.”

Finally, he asked, “why do we love parks and cultivated gardens?” The idea of nature is often “expressed beautifully in music, arts, and literature.” Nature “excites the imagination,” a process psychologists increasingly understand. In fact, this intense reaction of people to nature may be innate. Biophilia, a term Wilson coined to describe the “intrinsic attraction people feel towards nature,” is now being taken up by “students of landscape architecture” (see earlier post). He described how humans in different countries all like high open spaces they can look down upon and being close to water. “People will pay any price for property” that fits those qualities. 

As for Dumbarton Oaks Park, which Dodge Thompson, National Gallery of Art, called a “cultural landscape treasure” and an “eden in the midst of the city,” its conservancy is starting a “vision charrette” in October. The process is expected to guide a complete ecological restoration to “recraft the park in a environmentally sustainable way,” said Rebecca Trafton, president of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. She said Farrand believed the park demonstrated the “educational and civilizing influence of beauty.” That beauty must be maintained, but issues like invasives, graffiti, worn-out trails, and broken stormwater management systems must also be carefully addressed. 

Visit E.O. Wilson’s new Encyclopedia of Life project, which aims to document all the world’s 10 million or more species online. Also, check out Dumbarton Oaks Park when next in D.C.

Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Park / James Blair, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

The Many Benefits of Public Art

According to Linda Slodki, Mt. Airy Art Garage, the arts are a highly cost-effective way of driving economic revitalization in urban areas. However, the arts not only spur economic development but also “shape our consciousness, create a collective attitude, inspire, remake behavior, and reduce stress.” In a session at the national Brownfields conference, both public artists and arts policymakers discussed how this process works.

Art Has Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the arts industries are deeply connected with economic development in his city. However, there’s still a raging debate over whether art has more intrinsic or instrumental value. Intrinsic value relates to the aesthetic value of any work of art, its own value as a piece of individual expression. Instrumental value relates to the ability of art to educate, create jobs, increase real estate value, build citizens, increase tourism, and provide other benefits.

While in 19th century France the argument was “art for art’s sake” because “art can’t support any political or social agendas,” Steuer says most artists working in the city today think “art can do both: provide aesthetic value and change the world.”

As an example, Steuer pointed to MASS MoCA, a 13-acre site in North Adams, Massachusetts. An unused building was turned into a space for “huge art installations.” MASS MoCa has had a “transformative effect on its community.” The building also houses creative design businesses like Web design firms. The museum itself has attracted 100,000 visitors, contributed $15 million to the local economy, and increased local property values by $14 million. In another example, Steuer explained how the Brooklyn Art Museum draws in half a million visitors a year and has helped preserve a multi-cultural neighborhood filled with old buildings. In addition, both of these projects had positive benefits without kickstarting gentrification.

Future Farmers Use the Land to Create Art

Amy Franceschini, an artist with Future Farmers, explained how her group reintroduced the concept of Victory gardens in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (image at top). Victory gardens were an initiative of the U.S. defense department during World War II designed to improve the self-sufficiency of the U.S. population. Families were encouraged to grow food in back lots or yards. Furthermore, President Roosevelt’s WPA put a lot of great artists to work creating “printed propaganda.” Franceschini believes “the imagery was key to the success of the project.”

To get their own massive public art project going in a major civic space, Future Farmers created their own imagery and tools. Their logo was a “pogo-stick shovel.” They designed a fun wheel-barrow bike. Seed banks were created for San Francisco’s distinct micro-climates. An online garden registry was created. With a $60,000 grant from the city, they also created a set of test plots throughout the city, which included raised beds, seeds, and water. In addition to educating residents about self-sufficiency, urban farming, and American history, one tangible result of this project was a directive that formalized the city’s committment to urban agriculture. Also, the art project brought in lots of visitors to City Hall.

In Philadelphia, Future Farmers has just launched an innovative project called Soil Kitchen. Given the building the team used is near a scultpure of Don Quixote, Franceschini decided to add a windmill on top of the building. Within the building, Future Farmers set up a soup kitchen for local residents. In a sort of interactive art piece, residents get free soup if they deliver a soil sample. Soil samples will be tested for contaminants and then plotted along a map of the city. The goal is to get thousands of samples to determine a broader soil remediation plan in the city.

Mel Chin Makes Fundreds

Mel Chin, public artist and provocateur, leapt to the stage at the conference, ripped off a staid suit to show an undercover miltary uniform, and brought out a large shovel. Leading the crowd in a marching cadence, he sang about his Operation Paydirt and Fundreds Dollar Bill project.

Chin said New Orleans was a “disaster before it was a disaster” because its soils were the most contaminated in the country. Extremely high levels of lead meant that “more than 30 percent of the population was poisoned before they reached adulthood.” He found that $300 million would clean up the city’s soils but he quickly realized getting a hold of those funds from the federal government was going to be very difficult.

Chin decided to create a public art project that would raise awareness about the dangers of soil contaminants and the need to remedy the soil problems in New Orleans. With a revamped biofuel-run armored truck, Chin travels to communities and schools around the country, asking students to create their own Fundred Dollar Bill. His goal is to create millions of these (he already has more than 350,000). Chin said “because we don’t have the funds, we must create something just as valuable as money. Human creativity is worth more than $300 million.”

Within communities, he’s created “safe houses”, buildings with fake bank vault exteriors. Using guards, a safe house stores some 10,000 Fundred dollar bills. Schools gather the community, waiting for the safe house to be opened, only for the kids to discover they need to create their own Fundred once they get inside. The armored truck also drove these bills to Philadephia, the site of the original U.S. Mint. His ultimate goal is to send these to Congress to get them to act on soil health. After coming to D.C., these bills will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. Chin said they may end up at either the American History Museum or Hirshhorn.

Chin sees himself as merely a conduit or channel for collective action, not a clever conceptual artist. “Intense collaboration is the only way to get something done. I play a subservient role. I am just a delivery guy.” Given he’s too old to be an emerging artist, he believes he may be “submerging.”

Learn more about the Fundred Dollar Bill project and see a slideshow.

Image credit: (1) MASS MoCA / More Intelligent Life, (2) San Francisco City Hall Victory Garden / National Empowerment Network, (3) Soil Kitchen / Future Farmers, (4) Fundreds / Arts USA, (5) Fundred Safe House / Good Magazine

Ecosystems: Forever Changing

At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Kathy Poole, ASLA, a landscape architect and urban designer who focuses on “ecological infrastructure,” argued that ecosystems are “forever changing and emerging” because people are intimately linked with their evolution. Instead of thinking of “new types of ecosystems,” Poole believes it’s more useful to look to the past given “nothing new has been happening.” Also, for older projects and ecosystems, “the data sets are so much better and richer.”

Looking to the past, Poole said the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece park in Boston, was not an ecological restoration project but it did provide many critical ecosystem services. Before the creation of the Emerald Necklace, Boston was suffering from cholera outbreaks due to improper sewage treatment. Human waste was spilling out of the city’s combined sewage and water management systems and washing up on Boston’s shores. “The carrying capacity of the city’s water infrastructure was overwhelmed.”

Olmsted was tasked with creating a park that also doubled as green infrastructure. The park needed to help solve the city’s water management problems. However, Olmsted didn’t use the site to restore “anything.” There were no native plants. Given the salinity of the soils, “native plants wouldn’t have worked anyway.” In addition, the eventual underground water conduit system put in place bypassed the Back Bay Fens, which is why “the landscape works at all.” Poole said the system “was technically sophisticated but not a natural solution.” She added, “millions of people living tightly together in one urban area isn’t natural” so how could the infrastructure solution be “natural”? In these man-made urban environments, the systems are what matters.

Olmsted only planned for the water management, health, and aesthetic components of the Emerald Necklace. “He did look at soil formation but not at biodiversity.” Aesthetics was a primary focus, “perhaps it was the focus too much. There was no thinking about the trajectory of the ecology put in place there.” Nowadays, Poole added, landscape architects have to be “much more rigorous about initial goals and objectives” for ecological restoration.

When restoring a site now, Poole asks herself a number of questions:

  • How can we keep from degrading things further?
  • What ecological functions can I preserve?
  • What eco-types can I define?

In a project at the 2,600-acre Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the Chesapeake Bay region, Poole is creating a new ecological system for the Mathias Lab building. The project, which the Smithsonian calls “the machine in the garden,” will integrate “experimental wetland pools” into the landscape. These pools will serve multiple functions — they will be test beds for Smithsonian researchers; serve as public education tools; recycle water; nourish nearby native plant meadows; and manage stormwater onsite. “This is a highly calibrated system because they need to be able to do experiments with it.” (As a practical tip for landscape architects working in an era of limited budgets, Poole added that “making your project part of the building means it will be harder to cut.”)

Poole argues that humans, as a species, are “selfish, ignorant, and oppressive” but not invasive. People are inherently a part of ecosystems – intrinsically “native.” As a result, there isn’t any “pristine” nature free of human influence. “People are running the show. We have to leave moralism aside.”

Having said that, Poole said she has “walked away from projects that wreck havoc on the environment.” Getting political, Pooled added that we can’t all be “Saint Al Gore, nor do I want to be, but we do have to ask scientists what to do before we try to restore an environment.”

Poole said in the future landscape architects and restoration ecologist must use “more robust adaptation strategies.” However, in the end, the decision to do this kind of work needs to be made by communities. “It’s a social problem.” What we really need is “brave people who can create new environments without moralism, with science, and with adaptation strategies.”

Image credit: The Emerald Necklace, Boston / Flickr

Restoration Ecologists Must Focus on New Challenges

During a talk at a Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) conference, Alex Felson, ASLA, an Assistant Professor at Yale University and practicing landscape architect, argued that demand for the skills of restoration ecologists is only going to increase as more governments focus on how best to adapt to urbanization and climate change. However, many restoration ecologists aren’t addressing these burgeoning challenges and are trapped in “traditional practices,” like getting degraded ecosystems to work again, which is “understandable” given they have “their hands full enough just with this work.” Furthermore, these ecologists are at a disadvantage because much of their work is research-intensive and “site-specific.” Still, restoration ecologists need to think more broadly and consider how restoration work can serve “science, climate adaptation, and the public good” if they are going to remain relevant and solve today’s pressing environment and social issues.

To serve the public well, restored urban landscapes must be both sanctuaries and public landscapes. However, Felson said there’s “no happy medium.” A restoration project can be a wildlife habitat (an oasis). It can feature bridges over the habitat to improve public access, which would raise infrastructure costs, or it can simply be an open access park, which may mean negative impacts on the restored environment. As an example of one balance that was reached, Felson discussed the recent Presidio Trust afforestation project, which involved creating a new seed bank and trying to strike a balance between ecological and recreation requirements. He also pointed to Michael Van Valkenburg Associates’ Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has both open parks and new constructed wetlands. However, he asked, “How functional is that system?”

Felson argued that restoration ecologists and landscape architects work with imperfect knowledge, but urban spaces provide a range of opportunities for “constructing nature.” The line between public space and restored habitat is blurring. Urban ecosystem functions can now be the focus. “We can rethink urban watersheds in terms of the function of the city.” In addition, all those current public landscapes serve as opportunities for “embedding restoration.”

Felson said artful representations of nature are needed to get people to care about a site’s natural qualities. However, this type of nature need not be conventional. Indeed, he made a plug for the “aesthetics of experimentation.” Parks can be a “collection of patches,” separate lots spread through a neighborhood. Parking lots can be “replicated wetlands.” A collage aesthetic can be used, like a prairie shifting over time. “In fact, the idea of an ecological system as a collage has influenced many artists over the years.”

With James Corner Field Operations, Felson experimented with creating a small prairie on the new section of the High Line Park in New York City. In a sort of urban experiment, Felson set fire to the prairie grasses in the same way farmers would do controlled burns on real prairies. Working with Ken Smith Workshop, Felson also created a design for East River planters in New York City, which would create a pier that also acted like a food chain, “a catalytic food web.” There are also opportunities for “experimentaiton” with climate change adaptation. In Connecticut, he’s working on a coastal resiliency project with The Nature Conservancy to “collaboratively develop restoration projects through adaptation.”

New York City is investing in ecological research in its Million Trees NYC program. As a director of the ecological research program, Felson is helping to incorporate cutting-edge ecological research into the largest urban forestry project in the U.S. He’s struggling with questions like: How can we set up ecological research in a public environment? He’s using plots or clusters set in the landscape to test the performance of a variety of tree and shrub combinations. The innovative NYC government views its million tree campaign as a way to test the impact of different types of replanted nature to see which has the best impact on biodiversity.

Still, when recreating nature in urban spaces, it’s not clear to Felson whether the “naturalist aesthetic” is the way to go. “Naturalist design lays out complexity; it looks like nature.” Playing devil’s advocate, he wondered whether these sites actually function like nature though?

Image credit: Presidio Forest / eWallpaper

The Rise of Novel Ecosystems

Novel ecosystems are new combinations of species and result from the influence of people, said Marilyn Jordan, Senior Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy at a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). Starting in the 1700’s, classic “biomes” started to reflect human changes. Now, more than half of natural wilderness has been impacted by people, with just 22 percent of the original wild left relatively untouched. Within this new human-dominated globe, some 37 percent of all ecosystems are novel. These could be former agriculture sites or new forms of urban ecosystems. In terms of biodiversity, this has meant a shift from native to non-native. For land-use, this process has meant a shift from functional uses for nature to simply ornamental ones. Both these trends need to stop and be rolled back.

To ensure people can continue to use nature for common benefit and gain from nature’s many ecosystem services, genes found in nature’s diversity must be maintained. Genetic richness is also needed for climate change — future adaptations can’t happen without a wide gene pool. As Jordan put it bluntly, “you can’t evolve if you’re dead.” Conservationists, however, are still debating whether it’s important to “save the stage and lose the actors” or focus on the “place, which is more important than any species there.” Instead, Jordan thinks it’s about ecosystem stability and productivity. 

Ecosystems are fragile. She explained that an ecosystem is like a plane. “If you start taking parts of out of the plane, it may continue to fly, but eventually it will crash.” Ecosystems all have breakpoints. “We can remove species but when we hit a certain point, there’s a rapid decline.” For example, many insect species – even “generalists” – are able to eat only a few plant species. If the native plants they rely on are pushed out of the way by non-native invasives, the insect species die. Looked at another way: in its native range, one plant may support 170 species, but outside its normal range, only supports five species. In ecosystems where 90 percent is non-native, there is no functioning food web left. Jordan says “butterflies can’t be supported by non-native species.” In these instances where native habitat has been taken over by non-native invasives, “we may need thousands of years to return to previous levels of diversity.”

To prevent ecosystem change, restoration ecologists focus on “early detection and rapid response.” To manage inevitable change, they focus on “eradication, containment, exclusion, and suppression.” Managing involves creating refuges for native species and genotypes. In these instances, “we’ll have to accept novel ecosystems.” Still, Jordan argued for not giving up. “We can take an ecosystem-level approach” or a wide view of restoration. “Eventually, this means we’ll need to manage that complex matrix though.”

Residential homes are a central part of novel ecosystems and homeowners can take some positive action on their own in the near-term. She made a pitch to homeowners: shrink lawns, remove non-native plants in favor of native ones, and leave leaf litter, which is habitat for bugs. These steps are actually crucial because lawns now make up more habitat in the U.S. than native land. Furthermore, to make novel ecosystems more amenable to biodiversity, “we actually need to make it illegal to sell non-native invasives” in the residential landscape marketplace.

Image credit: Example of sustainable residential design with use of native plants. ASLA 2008 Residential Design Honor Award, San Juan Island Residence, San Juan Islands, Washington. Paul Broadhurst & Associates, Seattle, Washington

The Brave New World of Ecological Restoration

At a Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference entitled, “Brave New World: Working with Emerging Ecosystems,” Jack Sullivan, FASLA, Professor and coordinator of the new landscape architecture program at the University of Maryland College Park, said ongoing deforestation and urbanization is actually a “war on nature.” Furthermore, any attempt to restore nature that has been taken over by development can’t rely on the “natural history of a site” for guidance. These “post-traumatic” landscapes have been altered too much. Ecological restorationists and landscape architects, who are at the “front lines” of the battle and are the “heroes in this brave new world,” must take better advantage of ecological research in order to restore nature. To date, a restoration approach based in ecological research has often come into conflict with the “big D” design approach to a site. The end goal shouldn’t be a place “that could be anywhere so you don’t know where you are.” A restored landscape must reflect a careful examination of the site and its natural history.

One of the front lines of this war for ecological restoration are “novel ecosystems,” which are “ecosystems that have purposefully emerged because of the presence of people,” said Margaret Palmer, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Professor at University of Maryland. Novel ecosystems beg questions: How do they work ecologically? Should we restore them to a more natural state? Maybe they should be left as is?

As an example, Palmer pointed to attempts at ecological restoration that have gone awry: channelized rivers that were restored and ended up turning into muddy, non-functional ditches. In other cases, large-scale power dams, which are huge interventions in natural riverine systems, are actually blocking the spread of non-native species, so keeping them in some places could be a good thing. In addition, some ecological restorationists have tried to restore to some vision of nature that didn’t really exist in an environment. Referring to well-regarded research on smaller mill dams, Palmer said once mill dams were removed on one site, new natural channels added didn’t work. Instead, “threaded channels” like a wetland were the correct application of nature. 

We live in a “human-dominated world” but nature is constantly changing. “Rivers and streams are actually fixed in a state of change.” In another example, Palmer said fisheries have a changing baseline, having been depleted over time. Relating this to a forest, Palmer asked, “at what point do we chose a baseline?”

“Reference” sites are even declining. “Should we use least-impacted reference sites instead?” She argued that this approach “makes you feel like you are giving up on restoring nature.”

So “how do we restore nature if the world is changing and we can’t go back in time?” One way to restore a stream is to look at flow records, the “historical natural flow regime.” This, in fact, should be “embedded in any stream restoration.” In addition, restoration ecologists can design a channel based on what “we think it will be like,” and calculate slope, depth, and scale based on estimated flow. “This hydrologic and geo-morphologic model for change is extremely complex and multi-variate though.”

Palmer argued that restoration is “big business” these days. Lots of state and municipal governments are investing in restoring nature. In these efforts, the priority has been conservation; then “passive restoration,” or removing obstacles; then “active restoration,” like creating a new wetland from scratch; and finally, creating “designer ecosystems” – creating a wholesale new stream where there was none before. 

She concluded “maybe it’s not possible to keep everything we want. We can restore certain ecosystem service functions.” (Unless, that is, those certain functions can’t even be supported in degraded environments). In these cases, communities need to decide what is the priority, and ask “What services do we want from rivers? Communities can chose the ones they want and decide on a process to get that.” Restoration ecologists and landscape architects can then “manipulate ecological processess and biophysical structures to get services back.” Given tight budgets, communities must first make priorities when restoring nature.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis & Planning Honor Award. Brays Bayou Greenway Framework, SWA Group