In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.
Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.
“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”
This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.
The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.
“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”
“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”
To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.
One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”
In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.
“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.
However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.
Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.
“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”
Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.
“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”
Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”
In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.
While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.
“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”
For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”
Climate change is intensifying the negative impacts of standard development practices and is putting people and communities across the United Sates at risk. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience in September 2017, and this week ASLA released a blueprint for helping secure a sustainable and resilient future that summarizes the panel’s work and recommendations.
Promote holistic planning and provide multiple benefits
Take into account environmental justice, racial and social equity
Reflect meaningful community engagement
Regularly evaluated and reviewed for unintended consequences
Address broader regional issues as well as local and site-specific concerns.
Smart Policies for a Changing Climate also found that:
Designing and planning in concert with natural systems promotes resilience, capitalizes on the benefits of natural systems and provides greater long-term return on investment.
Key strategies include use of green infrastructure, native plants, urban and suburban tree planting plans, and healthy soil management practices.
Compact, walkable, and transit-oriented “smart growth” communities reduce energy use and are climate smart.
Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains and underserved and low-income communities.
Transportation should be considered critically as not only a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a contributor or detractor to a community’s appearance and function in light of a weather event.
Agricultural systems must be addressed because they are being stressed by unsustainable farming practices and farmland is being lost to expanding development and sprawl.
“Our nation, states, counties, and cities are looking for solutions to mitigate the risks from the changing climate and extreme weather events,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “With this report, landscape architects and their design and planning colleagues forward public policy recommendations that can make communities safer while taking climate change and existing natural systems into account.”
ASLA released the report at an evening reception and candid discussion yesterday with Somerville, and ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel members Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Diane Jones Allen, program director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC.
We have provided a platform for landscape architects, public officials, and other design and planning professionals to share their views on how to help communities adapt to climate change through smart design policies. Go to https://climate.asla.org.
The Blue Ribbon Panelists included a diverse range of practitioners, experts and stakeholders with different levels of experience working in different aspects of geographic and technical design. They are:
Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP, ASLA Immediate Past President, Chair;
Armando Carbonell, FAICP, Senior Fellow and Chair, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;
Mark Dawson, FASLA, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates Inc.;
Tim Duggan, ASLA, Founder, Phronesis;
Ying-yu Hung, ASLA, Managing Principal, Principal, SWA, Los Angeles Studio;
Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia;
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC;
Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland;
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, SITES AP, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA; and;
Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, Environment, The Kresge Foundation.
Some quotes from panelists on the importance of adopting effective public policies and landscape architecture design solutions:
“The plans we’re going to have in the future to deal with living with water have to be more realistic. We have to live with the acknowledgement that there will be hurricanes and areas that naturally want to flood. How do we build differently as opposed to thinking we can keep water out?”
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington
“We have a number of antiquated policies within governmental structures. Reevaluating them every five years or so would help us to reflect what is currently happening and to better project how we should design communities to be able to proactively respond to such changes and challenges.”
Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia
“All public projects really have to be interdisciplinary. They have to incorporate the local culture, the local economy, forward-thinking design concepts, as well as good engineering. All that together, in a very thoughtful way that respects the complexity of our society, is a way to make a sustainable project that people enjoy and love.”
Adam Ortiz Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland
“One of the things we need to be doing is do a lot more experimentation. Sometimes you just need to be able to try things and see if that solution can take you forward. If it’s not a good solution, let’s try something else. That kind of creativity and ideas is really what innovation is all about.”
Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP Immediate Past President, American Society of Landscape Architects
“Our standard development practices are not sustainable, but when we understand and work with natural systems, we can build safer and healthier communities.”
Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA. SITES AP Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects
“My hope is that we embed true kinds of community engagement, justice, and equity into our focus on climate change and resilience. We need to really do that in a way where it’s not so scientific. The social engineering matters as well. It’s what you’re doing in your profession that impacts people and makes those impacts equitable.”
Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D. Senior Program Officer, Environment The Kresge Foundation
The brief shows a luscious new park in the middle of the campus, which connects corporate buildings on the east and west ends of the space. A “green loop” — which goes through the park, then through the center of the building, and then follows a “riparian habitat” — links Google employees and the community to the campus, shops and retail, and welcoming outdoor spaces. Adjacent to the park is a protected burrowing owl habitat.
According to the design team, the connecting pathways within the campus were designed to make access roads feel safe and easy to cross.
Landscape is used to draw in the neighbors. And in keeping with Google’s mission to support local ecosystems, they write: “our plans for the indoor and outdoor spaces include native habitats and vegetation designed to support local biodiversity and create educational opportunities for the community.”
The building itself is designed to connect Google to the neighborhood. The ground level offers events spaces, cafes and restaurants, while the upper level will use clerestory windows to bring in light. The bird-friendly building will feature a tent-like roof that will be embedded with photovoltaic panels.
Hargreaves Jones propose removing the few Redwood trees from the site — which aren’t “locally native” to the area and “possess many traits that make them undesirable when planted in urban areas outside their historic range” — and replacing them with locally-native trees and plants that will help re-establish “mixed riparian forest and oak woodland” ecosystems that once existed in the area. Part of this effort will include a “re-Oaking initiative” designed to bring back the lost ecology of the Santa Clara Valley. Furthermore, the landscape architects argue their approach will help the nearby burrowing owls, as there will be fewer perches for predatory falcons. Green infrastructure, including permeable pavements, will ensure all run-off is captured via the landscape.
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.