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

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