Over the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a source of excitement, inspiration, and concern for residents, city officials, and planners and landscape architects as renewed attention is being paid to its revitalization.
At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of city services for Los Angeles; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA; and Teresa Villegas, office of Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda L. Solis offered background on the river and planning and design efforts already underway.
Historically, the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch of waterway, served as a vital water source for agriculture, but its constantly-changing course led to massive flooding that killed 115 people in 1938; and its unpredictability hindered development. By the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river, encasing it in concrete.
As a result, today, “the river resembles a freeway more than a waterway,” said Frances Anderton, host of DnA and moderator of the panel.
The river is at the center of complex jurisdictional overlays, with a number of organizations and agencies, like the city of Los Angeles, the county department of public works, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few, sharing responsibility over its maintenance and future plans.
Thirty-two miles of the river falls within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Romero explained how the city is working to implement their 2007 master plan, focusing on reconnecting people, particularly in adjacent neighborhoods, to the river.
“The scale of this is enormous,” Romero said, underscoring the jurisdictional complexity of the revitalization efforts. Within the existing master plan there are 240 projects that incorporated community engagement, representing some $500 million in investment.
Romero pointed to the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore ecological function and public access to an 11-mile portion of the river. Within this segment is Taylor Yard, a 42-acre parcel, purchased in March from Union Pacific Railroad Company for $60 million. Work is underway with Studio-MLA and WSP to make it a public park, after cleaning up the contaminated brownfield site.
“If we’re really going to revitalize the river; if we’re really going to change the course of the river; if we’re really going to look at this ambitious plan, we needed to get this parcel into public ownership,” Romero said, referring to how acquiring Taylor Yard fit into the city’s revitalization plans.
Lehrer and her studio is designing public spaces in Taylor Yard, which is at mile 25, almost half way down the river.Her design studio is also situated on the river, and its revitalization has been a “passion project” of hers for three decades.
Lehrer said there is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods to the river while addressing environmental concerns like soil contamination and incorporating green infrastructure and creating new wildlife habitat. Lehrer also said there is an opportunity to use the river to create green infrastructure projects that recharge groundwater and get more water down into underlying aquifers.
“We think it’s good these 51-miles of infrastructure were kept away from any other kind of development. It has become an opportunity to bring the communities together to address environmental ills.” She added that “we want it to be resilient, inclusive, and an inspiration for Los Angeles.”
Villegas is coordinating revitalization efforts at the county scale. “We will be dusting off the old plan, opening it up, and adding to it,” she said, referring to the county’s master plan, which was last updated in 1996. They have created a stakeholder group of about 40 people.
The group is focused on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river. A park needs assessment completed last year showed a critical lack of access to green space. “We know we need additional park space in the lower Los Angeles River because it is densely populated.”
Revitalization efforts will coincide with the city’s preparation to host the 2028 summer Olympics. Romero said the major event can serve as a framework to invest resources. “This is not about bringing the world here for two weeks — it’s about reframing the discussion we want to have in our city,” she said.
While high-profile urban tree planting campaigns like New York City’s get a lot of attention, most U.S. cities have experienced a decline in their urban forests, with a loss of about 4 million trees each year, or about “1.3 percent of the total tree stock.” The Nature Conservancy builds the case for recommitting to expanding our urban canopies for health reasons, instead of just letting them slowly diminish.
The many benefits of trees are well-documented: they clean and cool the air, combat the urban heat island effect, capture stormwater, mitigate the risk of floods, boost water quality, and, importantly, improve our mental and physical health and well-being.
According to the report, the U.S. Forest Service and University of California, Davis found that “for every $1 spent in Californian cities on tree planting and maintenance, there were $5.82 in benefits.” Another study found that for every $1, benefits ranged from $1.37 to $3.09.
In particular, urban forests can help catch harmful particulate matter in their leaves and reduce “ground-level ozone concentrations by directly absorbing ozone and decreasing ozone formation.” High levels of particulate matter and ozone can trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems. Planting trees to deal with these issues in New York City alone could result in $60 million in health benefits annually.
Researchers are more closely examining how trees fight air pollution. In Louisville, Kentucky, Green for Good is now testing a “vegetative buffer” at the St. Margaret Mary Elementary School designed to filter the particulate air pollution coming off a nearby heavily-trafficked roadway. Initial results show that “under certain conditions, level of particulate matter were 60 percent lower behind the buffer than in the open side of the front yard. Among the health study participants, immune system function increased and inflammation levels decreased after planting.”
A Harvard Nurses Study found a 12 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for those who lived within 250 meters of a high level of greenness. And an exciting study now underway will look at 4 million Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California with the goal of determining if there is a relationship between healthcare use and the proximity and amount of nearby tree canopy.
Despite all the great research, the news still hasn’t reached the general public or even arborists. This is reflected in the fact that average U.S. municipal spending on urban forestry has fallen by more than 25 percent since 1980, to around $5.83 per urbanite today.
If the 27 largest American cities instead reinvested in their urban forests, “planting in the sites with the greatest health benefits (the top 20 percent of all potentially plantable sites in a city)” the cost would be around $200 million a year. Maintenance funds would also need to increase. The total gap between current realities and this needed reinvestment in our communities’ health is only $8 per person — so in a city of one million residents, $8 million.
Trees just get a tiny share of municipal budgets. But with these arguments backed by numbers, the hope is a relatively cheap investment in trees for public health — which would also result in so many gains in livability and property values — can win greater support.
Plants are central to a functioning global ecosystem. Plants oxygenate the atmosphere and reduce atmospheric pollutants. Ecological restoration in both developed and developing countries is a primary strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change. Native plant communities are not only key to the global ecosystem, but also crucial to environmental and human health at the residential and neighborhood scales.
Urbanization has fragmented what were ecologically-productive landscapes. According to the Audubon Society, the continental U.S. has lost 150 million acres of wildlife habitat and farmland to urban sprawl over the last century. Sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can help build a network of productive landscapes. Native plants can be used to regenerate sustainable plant communities and reconnect fragmented ecosystems in residential areas. Creating a network of productive ecosystems expands wildlife habitat areas and boosts human health and well-being by bringing nature’s benefits right to residential yards and outdoor spaces.
ASLA has created a new guide to applying ecological design at home, which contains research, projects, and resources on residential landscapes. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.
Homeowners can use native plants to reduce the use of excess water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides that damage natural ecosystems, as well as support pollinators.
Residential landscapes can also be used to grow food at home and in communities. When growing food, gardeners should apply principles of ecological design and permacultural practices to ensure food production and garden systems are integrated with the natural environment and avoid contaminating local watersheds with runoff. Homeowners and communities can create composting systems for efficient waste removal and to increase organic matter in the soil.
And plants can also be used inside the home to improve air quality and human productivity.
Homeowners should be mindful of the quality of the soil on their property. Healthy soils are essential to plant and tree health and enable the infiltration of stormwater into the ground. Years of development and construction can lead to layers of compacted soil that restrict movement of water and air, and limit root growth. Homeowners can achieve credit from The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) by using techniques like subsoiling and adding soil amendments to help rebuild ecological function in soils.
Landscape architects partner with communities, non-profit organizations, and local governments to increase public awareness about using sustainable residential design practices that yield productive plant systems and reduce the negative ecological impacts of typical residential development.
Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.
The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.
By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.
In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.
The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.
And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.
But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.
For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.
Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.
Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.
New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”
Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.
Creating a Garden Oasis in the City – The New York Times, 6/23/17
“Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard.”
Highland Park’s First ‘Green’ Stormwater System Completed – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/26/17
“The first, and so far only, green infrastructure solution to flooding in Highland Park’s valleys is completed along Negley Run Boulevard — a 1,100-foot bioswale that will intercept an estimated 600,000 gallons of water running off pavement annually.”
“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.
Highlighted are a few of the success stories heard at the summit:
China Is Valuing Its Ecosystem Services: Gretchen Daly, professor of environmental science at Stanford University and founder of the Natural Capital Project, said more cities and countries are starting to put financial value on the many ecosystem services nature provides. Some success stories: New York realized that investing in the ecological functions of the watershed surrounding New York City was cheaper than building a massive filtration plant. Costa Rica has initiated a payment system for conserving nature.
And China has undertaken a massive planning effort to identify and value its critical ecological assets in an effort to become the “ecological civilization of the 21st century.” Some 4,000 officials in 31 provinces have been trained with Daly’s InVest software, which has helped Chinese policymakers identify “priority zones for carbon absorption, biodiversity, flood control, sandstorm control, and water purification.” Today, some 200 million Chinese are now getting paid to restore natural capital. Hainan has become the first “eco-province.” Daly said some 50 countries and cities are using the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service management system.
Truly inspiring, but it only happened after “China kissed disaster,” getting close to total environmental collapse. And China has decades of work ahead before its environment can be deemed healthy. Let’s hope the rest of the planet doesn’t have to get to the brink of catastrophe before it values increasingly-scarce resources.
In the U.S, Renewable Energy Is Where the Growth Is: In the U.S., all new power generation last year was renewable. Wind and solar power are the now the cheapest energy options, even when you remove the government subsidies. “This has been a huge change in the past decade,” said David Crane, Pegasus Capital Advisers. The model of financing solar panels in the U.S., which basically involving leasing someone’s roof space in return for giving them a discount on their home energy bills, made the solar revolution possible. That model has mobilized $1 trillion in capital and generated 250,000 megawatts of energy, explained Jigar Shah, with Generate Capital and SunEdison.
Renewable energy is no longer just a favorite cause of green Democrats either. Dale Ross, the mayor of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, a growing city of about 50,000, explained how he made a long-term agreement with wind and solar companies to power his city’s growth. Ross believes the U.S. will have 80 percent of its energy generated by wind and solar by 2025 if states are allowed to sell more power across borders. But Crane was less optimistic, pointing out that only 1.5 million homes now have solar panels, whereas there should be 50-55 million homes. “The power industry is a monopoly fighting rooftop solar. People need to stand up and pressure companies and regulators.”
On the positive side: GM, a fairly traditional company, just announced it will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2040. And Walmart aims for 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2025. Architect William McDonough believes these companies will help “wage peace through commerce.” The leaders of the firms decided to “do the right thing and set positive goals.” These goals would have seemed impossible a decade ago.
Food Waste Is Now on Our Radar: There is a growing momentum across the developed world to end the egregious waste from the industrial agriculture and food retail industries. Food production is by far the biggest environmental impact humans have on the Earth, with agriculture covering a third of the surface. With the global population expected to hit 9-10 billion by 2050, many argue that food production will need to increase 50-70 percent. But Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, argues that we actually already grow enough food to feed 12 billion people. Food overproduction is really the issue. As a result, we are creating not only huge amounts of waste but also producing obese populations. Globally, some one-third of food is wasted. In the U.S. and Europe, people are eating 1.5 to 2 times what they need.
Stuart said there are positive trends though, because “governments are starting to act and create measurable change.” In the UK, food waste has been reduced 27 percent since 2007. Taking on some of the “blatantly stupid waste of resources” perpetuated through the supply chains of supermarkets, his organization has used campaigns to show how waste can be reduced. For example, he convinced some UK supermarket chains to stop selling cut green beans, imported from Kenya, in favor of full beans that will not only stay fresh longer but reduce the amount of bean wasted in the process. His other company, Toast Ale, uses left-over ends of bread to craft beer. “You can get wasted on waste.”
Communities Are Organizing to Save Coastal Ecosystems: Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, said there is now a greater understanding of coastal ecosystems and how they sequester far more carbon than terrestrial forests. As such, more coastal communities are making it much harder for corporations to privatize or over-develop coasts. There is a new awareness of the importance of preserving and restoring mangroves, even though some efforts to actually restore mangroves have not succeeded. Furthermore, “oyster restoration is gaining steam,” as communities realize they play an important role in buffering wave forces and filtering water.
In the Caribbean, where Johnson focuses her coastal community development work, there is a growing awareness that conserving ocean resources is a “social justice issue.” When marine reserves are established, “fish populations bounce back.” On the negative side, only 2-3 percent of the ocean is now protected, and scientists think it needs to be around 30 percent.
Not to sugarcoat: the future challenges facing our coastal communities are daunting. With warming waters, many fisheries are expected to migrate towards the poles, threatening millions of livelihoods. It’s not clear what shifting fisheries mean for the “half of the world who depend on seafood for their protein.”
Cities Are Rebuilding Connections to Nature: The old model in which cities were totally cut off from their waterfronts — either by highways or industrial facilities — seems to be ending in the developed world at least. Damon Rich, head of Hector Urban Design, walked us through one prime example of how communities are reconnecting to their waterfront in Newark, New Jersey, which transformed some of the edges of the Passaic River from “toxic nastiness” into the site of the 20-acre, $35 million Newark Riverfront Park that uses a “symbolic system” of bright orange to “reflect this is an anti-racist space.” To accomplish something like this, Rich said you need to “bring together the conservation, organizing, and design communities together and invite them to the same party.”
And then there are individuals who aren’t waiting around for the government to do something, but are starting their own new companies, schools, and movements. David Auerbach launched a company in the Mukuru slum of Kenya called Sanergy, which offers more sanitary restrooms than the standard pit latrine through a novel franchising model and significantly reduces urban water pollution. Users pay a small fee to the Sanergy restroom franchisee to use the restroom. Franchisees then safely collect the waste, which Sanergy picks up and turns into safe, organic fertilizer. Sanergy offers a promising solution to a “crappy problem”: 1 billion live in urban slums and 2 billion will by 2030. 4 billion live in communities where “waste is never treated.” There are 1 million deaths caused by poor sanitation each year.
At the age of 27, Murray Fisher started the public New York Harbor School, which teaches students in New York City maritime trades. Years later, the school moved to a new campus on Governor’s Island and now has 475 high school students, where they can receive credentials in aquaculture, vessel operations, marine biology, and more. After starting a new foundation, Fisher began the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to bring back that many oysters to New York City’s waters. The school engages the students in measuring the oysters the 20 million oysters they’ve planted, welding the reefs, and monitoring water quality. His goal is to “insert the local ecosystem back into the educational system” and eventually export his novel environmental education curricula to other communities who have eager students and significant unmet conservation and restoration needs. “Why can’t young people work on restoring ecosystems in school?”
And, lastly, Afroz Shah, a lawyer who lives in Mumbai, India, and was one of the most inspiring speakers at the summit, explained how he went from picking up trash by himself on the beloved beach where he used to play as a child to leading a movement of thousands who are cleaning up miles of urban Indian beaches. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls Shah’s effort the “world’s biggest beach clean-up,” with more than five million pieces of trash, mostly plastic bags, picked up.
He wants everyone to ask themselves: “What are you doing to rectify things?” You can “complain on social media or sign a petition and wait for someone else to do something,” or get out there yourself and do something to make things better. “We have a fundamental duty to our oceans.”
And Some Species Have Even Found Opportunities in Suburbs and Cities: Animals are also seizing space in our cities, without waiting for an invitation. Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, explained how predatory fishers, which are like large weasels, are making a comeback in the suburbs of Albany, after being brought to the brink of extinction. Coyotes, which are hunted in rural areas, have discovered they are safer in suburbs and cities where residents are not allowed to fire a gun or run traps. Coyotes are now killing pets — “they really don’t like chihuahuas” — but they are helping to limit some pests, like geese. Wolves are now found in the Great Lakes region, mountain lions in Colorado and California, and leopards in urban India. “They are adapting to survive. If we give species a chance, they can survive.”
“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.
Highlighted are a few more of the success stories heard at the summit (see part 1 for the first set):
Nature Is Being Preemptively Preserved: National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala, founder of Pristine Seas, stated that marine preserves where no fishing is allowed have five times the amount of biomass as unprotected parts of the ocean. These marine reserves are like “savings accounts that everyone can enjoy.” His goal is to preemptively turn the few remaining wild areas in the world’s oceans into reserves before exploitation can happen. In marine reserves, eco-tourism increases, creating lots of high-paying local jobs. In the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia’s eastern coast, “tourism revenue is 40 times that from fishing.” Today, 3.5 percent of our oceans are protected, but less than 2 percent fully-protected. The United Nation’s goal is 10 percent by 2020, and marine biologists say 30 percent by 2030 is really what’s needed.
On land, reserves are equally as critical to maintaining terrestrial biodiversity. Sean Gerrity, former president of the American Prairie Reserve, explained his organization’s efforts to create the largest nature reserve in America, some 3.5 million acres of prairie in an east-west swath of land 250 miles wide in northeast Montana. When they have finally purchased all the land they need, the reserve will be one million acres larger than Yellowstone National Park. The reserve, which will eventually be larger than the state of Connecticut, will have no fences. Cattle ranches at the edges will be tapped to maintain biodiversity by becoming “Wild Sky certified.” Like the Sustainable SITES Initiative™, Wild Sky requires strict adherence to a set of biodiversity protocols. When cattle ranchers spy rare species on camera traps on their properties, they receive “hundreds of dollars in return.” Gerrity thinks conservation must include a profit motive for the approach to work long-term. “Why can’t we have for-profit nature reserves? We can make money, bring jobs back, and protect wildlife.”
Madagascar, the 10th poorest nation on Earth, has cut down about 90 percent of its forests, which means some 94 percent of lemurs — who are only found on the island — are now endangered. While there are immense challenges, Stony Brook professor and MacArthur fellow Patricia Wright, professed herself to be an optimist. Working in Madagascar since the 1980s, she has seen the country create 18 national parks and a national park service that guards these lovable creatures from logging. She was the driving force behind the creation of the 105,000-acre Ramonafana National Park, a World Heritage Site in the southeastern part of the country, which now attracts 30,000 eco-tourists a year and has saved multiple rare lemur species from extinction.
People Are Making Room for Nature to Travel: Transportation infrastructure, deforestation, fuel and mineral extraction, and development makes life difficult for many species. But using an ecological approach rooted in science, people can reduce or even reverse the negative impacts and give species a chance to survive and even flourish.
Joel Berger, Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC), described how WSC has helped create room for the Pronghorn, which migrates nearly 200 miles from the Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming to the Green River Valley in southwest Wyoming and back again, year after year. Working with county commissioners, chambers of commerce, local non-profits, and newspapers, WSC helped carve out a permanent, protected path for this antelope-like mammal, which is actually a relative of the giraffe and okapi. In 2008, the path became “the first federally-protected wildlife corridor, and a bright spot” in conservation.
In Peru, exploratory oil pipelines are spreading through the Amazon rainforest. When paths are cut through the rainforest for trucks and pipelines, monkeys and other arboreal mammals find their pathways cut off, explained Tremaine Gregory, a scientist with the Smithsonian. Crossing on the ground is very dangerous, as they could more easily become the prey of jaguar. She wondered if companies left some tree crossings to connect the canopy on either side of the disturbances would be used by the monkeys? Analyzing camera traps set up on 13 canopy bridges she found that 25 species of arboreal mammals used the bridges, while just 6 would leave the trees and cross the ground. Out of 3,160 crossings by more than 150 distinct animals, just 16 were on the ground. Gregory is now in discussions with the Peruvian government and extraction companies about working canopy bridges into the regulations. “They are interested in the results; I’m optimistic.”
Forests Are Being Designed for Productivity: In Madagascar, Wright has also focused her efforts on reforesting agricultural wastelands. “When a forest is regrown, the animals come back. We didn’t know that 25 years ago.” While there can be challenges in replanting with native plant seedlings on a massive scale, the secret was they only planted seeds “pooped out by lemurs.” Wastelands can be returned to forests. Under their canopies, high-value crops can be grown, such as vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate. “Making these forests productive again triples their value.”
Peter Marra, a scientist with the Smithsonian National Zoo, came up with a vision for how selective agroforesty can help save the world’s remaining forests. The demand for coffee is expected to grow by 25 percent by 2020 due to increasing demand from China and Latin America. If demand is met with more of the same — monocultural plantations, which require lots of water and chemicals — many forests will go under the bulldozer. Today, coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil. The economic players involved earn $173 billion a year and take up 10.5 million acres of land. Each year, some 900 billion cups are consumed worldwide. If this morning essential is grown in the rich soils of forests, it can be less destructive and even be organic.
And Jefferson Hall, with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud project in Panama, told the story of how Panamanian policymakers realized the forested park around the Panama Canal is critical to controlling flooding during storms. A national plan to reforest one million acres of degraded forest land around the canal led to a new strategy to reintroduce native hardwood species, like the rare Cocobolo, which could then be harvested in a sustainable manner. A plus: Cocobolo, which sells for $10,000 per cubic meter, grows well in the acidic soils.
The Best Communicators Are Creating “Conservation Pride”: Instead of creating more and more refined “obituaries” for the planet’s species and ecosystems, more scientists realize they must tell more positive stories to motivate action. This is because “one-fourth to one-third of all children today think the world will come to an end before they die,” said Nancy Knowlton, a scientist at the Smithsonian, and one of the co-chairs of the summit. Brett Jenks, the CEO of Rare, said more conservationists are using marketing and human behavior change best practices to create a more conservationist ethic among the general public.
He pointed to Paul Butler, who created a movement in St. Lucia in the 1970s to save the near-extinct St. Lucia parrot, which featured a catchy song and a mascot dressed as “Jacquot,” which is the local name for the parrot. Scientists thought Butler would have no chance to save the parrot from extinction, but today there are more than 500 in the wild. Jenks said there are now some 350 conservation pride campaigns worldwide in 50 countries.
These behavior change campaigns “make behaviors observable, establish a conservation norm, make the norm clear to all, and make behavior explicit.” The idea is to change the focus of conservationists too: “they must focus on people and become human behavior change agents.” And Randy Olson, author of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs a Story, further emphasized that conservationists can only inspire positive action if they create a narrative that grabs the public. Given there are so many competing narratives, “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.”
And We’ve Learned Everyone Can Make an Important Contribution: Whether at home or school, everyone can take action to improve the environment. Where the West and Rhode rivers meet in an estuary on the west coast of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Riverkeeper Jeff Holland is convincing homeowners to play a role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Homeowners with docks within designated oyster sanctuaries are growing baby oysters or providing space for new reefs. “About 1,500 people are growing 3-4 cages, so it’s not a huge boost but it helps. Things are trending in the right direction.” Year and year, as each oyster filters a bathtub worth of water each day, the water gets clearer.
And across the Bay on the eastern shore, consultant Joanna Ogburn is linking up private homeowners for “large-scale landscape results” to tackle water quality problem areas in the Choptank and Nanticoke watersheds. Whether the homeowners she works with have an environmental ethic or not, she finds a way to motivate them to preserve parts of their estates through conservation easements. For some, it’s just about “keeping the rural character” and preventing out-of-town buyers from coming in and overdeveloping. For some, it’s about creating and connecting wildlife habitats.
Anyone with some outdoor space can boost local biodiversity. Phyllis Stiles, founder of Bee City USA and a self-proclaimed “buzzaholic,” is one of the leaders in the movement to fight colony collapse disorder among honeybees. But beyond honeybees, she said some 40 percent of all pollinator species — including numerous species of beetles, flies, native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, and bats — are at risk. Some 90 percent of wild plant species and 52 percent of our produce, covering approximately one-third of our food, depend on them. “It’s easy to point fingers at the big companies, but you can do something about it: plant natives, use less pesticides, remove exotic and invasive plants, and support local native plant nurseries.” Stiles now has 44 cities and 24 academic campuses on board to help pollinators.
And University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, well-known for his book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, re-iterated the importance of getting rid of lawn and exotic plants in favor of native trees and plants that play important roles in sustaining ecosystems. “Use plants that are pretty and support life. Conservation can the goal of our landscapes.” Native plants are the base of the food chain. Without them, there are no insects, which means no birds, bats, frogs, lizards, rodents, or mammals. But instead of trying to create change with “sticks” — through taxing lawns, which happens in dry lands out West — Tallamy wants to see local governments offer “carrots”: tax breaks if endangered species are found on your property.
Finally, an inspiring D.C. high school student Teddy Ammon, who found a grant to build indoor hydroponic farms in his school, cautioned that even with all the positive action and optimism, we shouldn’t be complacent for a moment or expect the next generation to improve on our efforts. “There are some 40-42 million 10-19 year olds. Some 46 percent of them don’t believe in climate change. And 57 percent aren’t concerned about it.” That’s a wake-up call to re-double our efforts.
Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.
Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.
Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.
Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.
But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.
For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.
Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.
At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.
Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.
Seen from 28,000 miles away, the earth is beautiful. But its beauty is deceptive. We don’t see the 5 billion tons of surplus carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, our toxic waterways or our sprawling megacities and the vast fossil fueled monocultures of cattle and corn that feed them. Most importantly, we don’t see the global archipelago of protected areas into which the world’s genetic biodiversity is now huddled. On this Earth Day, 2017 we are launching a new atlas dedicated to examining this archipelago in detail. It’s called the Atlas for the End of the World.
The first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) was published in 1570 by the famous book collector and engraver from Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius. With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy – we can now say “Holocene” – eco-regions ripe for colonization and exploitation. Lauded for its accuracy, the Theatrum quickly became a best seller.
Despite its apocalyptic title, our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress. On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right” says Pope Francis.
At face value, atlases are just books of maps. The maps in the Atlas for the End of the World are however, quite specific. They specifically show the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent (global terrestrial) protected area by 2020 and what is actually today protected in the 398 eco-regions, which comprise the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.
The so-called hotspots are regions agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important and the most threatened biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, much of which is also predicted to disappear by century’s end — suggesting perhaps, that the fate of nature and the fate of culture is one and the same. Many of the hotspots are also bedeviled by poverty, violence and corruption.
When my research assistants and I began this mapping project in 2013, the world’s terrestrial protected area total was hovering at 13.5 percent. Recent figures (2015 data) suggest a total of 15.4 percent. That’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000 sites in 235 different countries. So, with 15.4 percent already secured, only an additional 1.6 percent protected area is needed to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. This amount might seem paltry, but 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks. That’s a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world! The research question we asked was where exactly should this additional protected land be?
According to the Convention, we can’t just fence off 1.6 percent of Siberia, or some other place, and then say we’re done! The crucial words in the small print of the Convention are that the global protected estate must be “representative” and “connected.” In theory, this means 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 eco-regions should be protected and connected.
The Atlantic Forests hotspot serves as an example. Currently it has only 8 percent of its territory under protection. Furthermore, when we break the hotspot down into its 15 constituent eco-regions, we find that 9 fall short of reaching 17 percent representation.
In total 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of reaching the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 391 eco-regions fall short. With the new Atlas, any nation can know how much land needs to be protected and where if it wants to meet its obligations under the Convention. This is not to say that blanket targets are always appropriate on the ground, but, it’s a start.
In addition to identifying these protected area shortfalls, the critical nexus this research addresses is the global tension between food production, urbanization and biodiversity. On the world map (below) are three squares. The first and smallest is the world’s current crop land. The second, in the middle, is current crop land plus current grazing land, plus what is thought to be the world’s further potential supply of arable land – a total of 50 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface area. These leave 50 percent of the planet’s land for other uses, exactly what E.O. Wilson has called for in his book, Half Earth. 50 percent seems like a lot, but remember that 33 percent of this land is desert – land which by definition is not suited to either biodiversity or agriculture. Subtracting the world’s deserts leaves 17 percent for biodiversity – precisely the amount demanded by the Convention.
The bigger cause for concern is however the large square: the land area necessary to feed 10 billion people. The UN is now forecasting anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 billion by 2100, so 10 is a conservative estimate. But these projected 10 billion consumers are not “average” global citizens; let us suppose they are people like us; who shop in supermarkets and eat more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. They are average Americans; people with a food footprint of 1.4 hectares each. 10 billion people consuming at this level would require a whopping 93 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface. In this scenario, not only would all the world’s arable land be used for agriculture, but so too would the world’s deserts, plus some. After we’ve finished our burgers, a mere 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface would be left for biodiversity – for all practical purposes a mountainous zoo in the midst of a global monoculture of corn and cattle, hooked up to desalination plants.
These proportions of land-use will likely change when global population drops, as it probably will in the 22nd century due to socio-economic influences associated with urbanization. The other mitigating factor would be if the bulk of food production shifted to the oceans, and/or if meat could be produced independently of ruminants entirely. Then, ecological restoration could take place on a scale commensurate with that which is needed to partially correct the earth system’s current imbalances.
The challenge will be to get through this century’s incredibly tight ecological bottlenecks and come out the other end with some ecosystems, preferably the hotspots, partially intact.
The second major area of this research concerns 422 cities in the world’s hotspots. We zoomed into each city of 300,000 people or more and superimposed their 2030 growth trajectory (as per Karen Seto’s work at Yale ). We then plotted remnant habitat and threatened (mammal) species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. What emerges are the flashpoints between future urban growth and biodiversity.
In the circular images of the cities in the Atlantic Forests hotspot, orange indicates zones of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. Alarmingly, 383 of the 422 cities in the world’s hotspots are on a collision course with unique and irreplaceable biodiversity.
And we are not just talking about a little bit of sprawl. If an extra 3 billion people move into cities by 2100, as is entirely likely, it means we need to build 357 New York Cities in the next 84 years, i.e., 4.25 New Yorks per year. Much of that growth will occur as both formal and informal sprawl in Africa, India and South and Central America, much of it up against biodiversity and much of it unregulated.
As documented in the Atlas, our analysis suggests that most of these 383 cities that are encroaching on valuable habitat don’t have any semblance of as whole-of-city urban planning. This lack of planning at the city scale is also evident at the national scale: almost all the nations in whose jurisdiction the world’s hotspots lie don’t – in so far as we can tell – have national land-use plans incorporating biodiversity.
Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, each nation must develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In practice, these tend to be platitudinous reports and most don’t take into account the 17 percent target for protected area. Most of the nations who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are also signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which demands that they prepare national climate change plans.
The Atlas for the End of the World lays the ground work for the 142 nations who preside over the world’s biodiversity hotspots to now view climate change, biodiversity, and urbanization as interrelated phenomena and plan for the future. To do so would be a new beginning.
This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylania School of Design. Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang collaborated with Weller on the Atlas as research assistants.
Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”
Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:
First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.
(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)
In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”
Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.
Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).
Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”
If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”
While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.
If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”