Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.
However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.
The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”
“However, current policy and decision-making frameworks were developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.
At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”
Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the authors, “sea level rise and associated flooding will threaten nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.”
The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.
Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”
The report’s maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.
The authors found that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”
In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report’s authors present a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. According to the authors, conservation managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.
The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.
The authors also call for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.
“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”
The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific recommendations for areas depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.
“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the authors argue. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”
In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.
The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.
Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.
Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.
Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.
As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”
Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.
In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.
Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.
Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.
Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.
To limit planetary warming to 1.5° Celsius (C), we need to undertake an immediate, multi-trillion-dollar transformation of global energy, land-use, food production, transportation, and urban systems, stated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a new report that aggregates the findings of thousands of scientific studies. Humanity can only put a maximum of 420 more gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere if we want a good chance of only increasing temperatures by 1.5° C (2.7° Fahrenheit), instead of 2° C (3.6° Fahrenheit). At the current pace, our remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2030. The transformation that has already begun in many parts of the world must accelerate and scale across the globe.
To date, global temperatures have increased 1° C (1.8° F) above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC argues that limiting warming to just another half a degree Celsius will still have terrible global impacts, but stave off some of the worst effects and make a major difference for several hundred million people.
Achieving the 1.5° C limit can only happen in the very near term. IPCC states if the planet can achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades that would essentially halt warming. But if emissions reductions instead occur at a much slower pace up until 2100, then planetary feedback loops — like defrosting permafrost perpetuating warming trends — would make halting warming at 1.5° C impossible.
With a 1.5° C increase, some 6 percent of insects, 8 percent of plants, and 4 percent of vertebrates are projected to “lose over half of the climatically-determined geographic range” — meaning their habitat will disappear. While this is awful, the scenario at 2° C increase is far worse: 18 percent of insects, 16 percent of plants, and 8 percent of vertebrates. Impacts from forest fires and invasive species would also be commensurably more at 2° C.
The chance of an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer is far less with a 1.5° C scenario. But coral reefs face a dire future under both 1.5° C and 2° C scenarios: either a 70-90 percent loss with 1.5° C or near-total extinction with 2° C.
Climate change is also expected to have major impacts on food production, resulting in reduced yields and less nutritious crops. Limiting warming to just 1.5° C would result in “smaller reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and other cereal crops, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Center and South America.” The report authors are also semi-confident that limiting warming to 1.5° C would also reduce the populations affected by water shortages by 50 percent. Still, millions of people would be impacted.
The report estimates the damage of a 1.5° C increase to the global economy to be tens of trillions a year as soon as 2040. To avoid this, major investments must be made. The report calls for investing $2.4 trillion a year on renewable energy through 2035, which would be about 2.5 percent of global GDP annually, while weaning off coal. The planet would also need another 10 million square kilometers in forests, taken back from agricultural land, and a dramatic reduction in emissions from buildings and transportation systems through energy efficiency and smart growth.
IPCC is confident this global transformation can occur. If a mix of adaptation and mitigation measures can be “implemented in a participatory and integrated manner,” they can enable a “rapid systemic transition.” Adaptation measures don’t have to be purely defensive — they can also help communities improve, ensuring “food and water security, reducing disaster risks, improving health conditions, maintaining ecosystem services, and reducing poverty and inequality.” Now, the political will is needed to act.
New reconciliation parks in the South — like the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Alabama — are explicitly designed to bring together previously-segregated communities. But the new Unity Park in Greenville, South Carolina, goes a step further: it will not only bridge communities but also actually merge two once-segregated parks. Meadowbrook Park, which was once white-only, and Mayberry Park, a smaller green space designated for African Americans, will come together in the new 60-acre Unity Park while still maintaining their distinct histories and identities. This inclusive, $40-million green space is expected to open in 2020.
According to Darren Meyer, ASLA, principal at Ohio-based MKSK Studios, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, the park comes out of a broader planning process for the Reedy River Development Area, an area just west of downtown Greenville. The goal for the city is to create more equitable downtown neighborhoods, with the new park at the center.
In an interview, Meyer said the park is only one component of a new “community character plan” for a 350-acre district that includes form-based code, mixed-use developments, affordable housing, and transportation. A ring of new affordable housing will be built around the park, in an attempt to prevent Unity Park from inadvertently becoming a gentrifying force that displaces the existing community.
According to Meyer, the city has increased investment into its affordable housing trust fund, which is also receiving private and philanthropic funds. The first round of affordable housing is now being built while work begins on the underlying park infrastructure.
Unity Park will include a 120-feet-tall observation tower, which will act as a beacon at night; a great lawn; nature and “destination” playgrounds; a gathering space and visitors center; and pedestrian bridge to improve connectivity.
The city brought an inclusive, community-based planning effort that won approval from African American communities along the park. Greenville News reports that “Mary Duckett, head of the traditionally low-income and African-American Southernside neighborhood association….has been satisfied that its voice was heard and that the park will be one that is welcoming for all.”
Meyer said the planning process was viewed as successful because project leaders “put a tremendous amount of effort into cultivating good relationships. They knew that is really the foundation of trust and a key part to inclusive decision-making.”
As part of neighborhood planning and outreach, the city brought in a fire truck that kids could play on; a mobile recreation vehicle, with sports play equipment; and hosted a cook-out for 300 community residents. “These were great events designed to build community.”
MKSK also coordinated planning and design community meetings, with the goal of collecting stories, including those about the African American minor league baseball team that plays in Mayberry Park, and incorporating them into an authentic design. That led to a temporary installation — a mosaic of names of baseball players set into steps leading to the baseball field.
Meyer said the park is not just about re-connecting once-segregated parks, but also about re-connecting the community to a lost river ecosystem. Some 2,000-feet of the Reedy River that runs through the park will be taken out of its concrete channel and become a showpiece of ecological restoration. MKSK will significantly widen the riparian corridor and treat the floodplain in the park as an ecological system.
MKSK made the case to city leaders that “the health of the river is tied to the health of the community. There is a quantifiable public health benefit to bringing back the river and wetlands. Beyond the ecological uplift, there is also a great educational opportunity.”
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 Mississippi River is now an engineered system, so we are responsible for it,” said Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, at a lecture hosted by Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) at the Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C. The river has essentially been re-designed to serve as a conduit of goods and to protect human settlements from flooding. As civil engineers control and manipulate ecological systems for human ends, Cantrell argues landscape architects should be at the table. By creating models and simulations that mimic how natural systems function, landscape architects can get a better understanding of ecological complexity and help steer the future design of nature.
Cantrell’s work seems to be inspired as much by Ian McHarg’s influential book Design with Nature as it is by the Mississippi River Basin Model, a 61-acre hydraulic model set within a 200-acre model of the Mississippi River watershed, which was developed from the 1940s to 1960 and in operation until the 1970s near Clinton, Mississippi. Viewing the vast model from watchtowers, visitors could “collectively view and understand the river as a system.” Engineers could also get a better understanding of how the river behaved. They could tweak valves and pipes to re-create real-world fluvial events. This is instance where the “model could serve as a guide.”
At Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cantrell created innovative simulations using foam board, plywood, different forms of sand and sediment, and water. Rigging them up with a slew of sensors that measured water flow and sediment accumulation, Cantrell and his students “built physical diagrams that explain how natural fluvial processes occur.” Cantrell was careful to note that “these were only a form of projection, a publicity piece, really. We didn’t build the perfect model of nature. There is no more truth in them than formal models.”
But Cantrell thinks that even with the clear limitations, these models serve an important purpose: “we can let them inform design and generate new systems. Creating simulations is an act of design itself. We are creating an artificial reality that we can learn from, and then we can choose how we apply it to reality — in order to control or interact with the physical world.”
Responsive Landscapes, a book Cantrell co-authored with Justine Holzman and published in 2015, identified what models and simulations can accomplish:
Elucidate: “We can bring out features that are beyond human senses. We can create different forms of sensing.”
Compress: “We can compress the world around us — not only the physical but also the temporal world.”
Shift contexts: “We can displace context, taking experiences and manufacturing them somewhere else.”
Connect: “We can create direct connections — worm holes.”
Modify: “We can change our relationship with the world.”
Working with graduate students at Harvard GSD, Cantrell created advanced simulations that mimic natural fluvial processes. Some were later turned into point-cloud models and further visualized through software. Loaded with sensors, models had a dashboard that enabled real-time monitoring and interaction.
Why do all of this? Cantrell said civil engineers are already creating models and simulations of natural processes, but to be able to participate in the development of these massive, constructed systems for managing nature, landscape architects must have access to the same tools. “To have a conversation with engineers — that’s really the most important part.” Within that conversation, landscape architects can then “be creative and drive new design pathways.”
While Cantrell admitted all of this is in the “speculative and very beginning stages,” and the models he is working with today may be “nascent and naive,” in the near future, models and simulations can be tuned against data collected from sensors in real landscapes, thereby creating a constant feedback loop between model and the real-world.
When that happens, landscape architects can then become more ambitious, engaging with even larger systems. Landscape architects can find new opportunities to design with nature — to harness intrinsic natural processes to direct the flow of water and process of sedimentation and land-forming. “We can use waste streams to create new land. We can use ecological systems to reconstitute the landscape itself. And we can manage the landscape in real-time.”
While all of this is exciting, engineering ecosystems — which are among the most complex systems on Earth — may generate unintended consequences. One can imagine the need for prudence in applying any model or simulation, which are simplification tools, to the real world. In addition, as more of nature becomes less natural and more designed, constructed, and maintained, questions of management and ownership arise. Who will own the designed ecosystems of the future? Who will we decide how they should be used?
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.
“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.