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

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