Restoration on the Edge

Brooklyn College recently played host to the mid-atlantic chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, providing space for a conference entitled “Restoration on the Edge.” The dialogue, which focused on the fragility, opportunity, and resiliency in changing ecosystems, was mostly centered around those of New York City. As restoration ecologists, biologists, landscape architects, and environmental engineers filled the seats to capacity, it was clear that the issues discussed affected a wide body of disciplines. And although Brooklyn College is home to wild parrots, an ecological wonder, it was the array of speakers who we came to see.

Tim Chambers, currently the Deputy Director of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC) in Staten Island, spoke of ecological restoration in the context of urban agriculture and native seed production. The GNPC, which focuses much of its work on the collection and storage of native seeds in the tri-state region, believes in “land management.” Their mission is “small scale eco-regional seed production.” In their partnership with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, GNPC takes care not to disturb local ecologies. Restoration requires understanding existing natural systems and which systems are susceptible to degradation. Even in seed extraction one must respect nature and be really careful. Chambers assured the audience that “certain methods are deployed to randomize collection processes,” an imperative when “borrowing from nature.”

Erin English, a professional engineer with Natural Systems International, a subsidiary of Biohabitats, Inc., spoke of “living infrastructure.” English’s work focuses on the design of ecological wastewater, stormwater, and greywater management systems. In her opening comments she wondered whether stormwater can “inspire dance.” The answer was yes. She showed images of students interpretive-dancing upon the successful and sustainable stormwater/greywater system at Sidwell Middle School in D.C. Sidwell, a project led by landscape architects Andropogon Associates, shows how “the entire landscape is a living water cycle.” (see a case study)

The project also demonstrates a key aspect of English’s message that “decentralized wastewater treatment needs to be a closed-loop system.” The water cycle, as we imagine it diagrammatically, is a closed-loop system. But what happens when that system interacts with a “pollution bomb” such as farmland and agriculture? She believes that through design solutions, sometimes very “simple solutions” can prove to be very powerful and may inspire us to do more than dance.

In a lecture entitled, “The Theory and Practice of Seagrass Restoration: Lessons Learned over the Last 20 Years in New York,” habitat restoration specialist, Chris Pickerell discussed eelgrass (Zostera marina), a seagrass. According to Pickerell, “seagrass losses have been widespread and dramatic worldwide.” In areas where “sediment and water quality has dramatically changed,” such as New York Harbor, we have seen a major “paradigm shift.”

As far as ecological restoration is concerned, Pickerell acknowledged there has been a decent response. However, studies have indicated that a “large-scale loss of habitat has led to alternative stable states where natural re-establishment of native species may not be possible unless some minimum size or density thresholds are met.” Pickerell’s talk focused on lessons learned through restorative efforts and offered suggestions for creating more successful future ecological restoration efforts. Over those 20 years restoration ecologists have gained valuable experience relating to a number of factors, “ranging from site selection and planting method to timing that affect restoration success.”

The closing lecture was giving by Queens native soil scientist, Sally Brown. On ecological restoration, a science-based approach to the re-creation of past ecosystems, soil seem to be the perfect subject on which to end the day. Soil, whose “ecosystem services have enormous value,” has not seen the top layer of New York City’s surface in a long time. Brown spoke of the importance of soil as “a wonderful medium.” Soil, the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, was well-understood by the informed audience as a dwindling yet critical resource.

That is why it is so vital for landscape architects, engineers, and ecologists to “understand basic soil information.” Breaking down soil components, Brown clarified the organic material and elements needed to build up soil fertility. “Building soil is an artform,” she added. Basically, when it boils down to soil manufacturing, the “carbon-nitrogen ration of a compost is the most important factor.” A soil scientist from Queens talking about manufacturing urban soils? I want to hear more.

Although the data on our degraded environments seems catastrophic, the solutions offered by some of our regions’ most talented and dedicated restoration ecologists were inspiring. Understanding the dire state of our current ecosystems, I took away from the SER conference a renewed sense of duty as a steward of our environments and hope the message will spread.

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 credits: (1) Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C. / Andropogon Associates, (2) Eelgrass / Washington DNR

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