Restoring the Remnant Ecosystems of San Francisco

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.

According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the “sagebrush steppe, prickly pear shrubland, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, juniper-pine woodland, upper montane-subalpine forest, alpine forest, riparian forest, cypress forests, mixed evergreen forests, Douglas fir forests, sequoia forests, redwood forests, coastal dunes, and salt marshes.”

In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.

In San Francisco, the amount of space for these ecosystems is far less — they cover just 5 percent of the city, which makes them even more precious. On a tour at American Planning Association conference, we learned about the ambitious efforts of the San Francisco city government to both protect and restore remnant ecosystems.

Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.

The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.

The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.

At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bernardino Mountains. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.

Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”

For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by habitats and use those values to steer planning and design efforts to reincorporate nature into the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”

The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.

Sutro Native Plant Nursery / Jared Green

For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) But there is one big reason to support removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”

Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.

Peter Brastow in restored park in Sunset / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.

Restored landscape of the Presidio / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.

Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”

Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth / Tim Duggan Books

Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”

Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”

Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”

The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.

Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.

Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.

Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”

This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.

This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.

The World Below: A Tour of Earth from the International Space Station

The International Space Station circles our planet 15.5 times per day at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. Through a compilation of high-resolution time lapse video taken by NASA astronauts on the station, Philadelphia-based videographer Bruce W. Berry Jr. has created a mesmerizing tour of the Earth.

Rivers spread like veins through the landscape. Weather patterns churn with visceral power over snow-covered mountains. As night falls on the surface, tightly-packed cities light up like beacons. Above, aurorae dance across the stratosphere.

At the end of the video, the thin yellow line demarking the outer edge of the Earth’s atmosphere — which is actually “light emissions caused by chemical reactions of oxygen, sodium, ozone, and nitrogen” — slides into view.

With the help of an epic soundtrack — a piece called Journey to the Line by Hans Zimmer — Berry has created a dramatic journey over the surface of our planet, which appears like a single living organism. An Earthrise for the video age.

If you are interested in knowing what landscapes were filmed, Berry provides a list of places captured from the space station.

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

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.”

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California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

However, current policy and decision-making frameworks have been “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 Conservancy, sea level rise and the flooding this will cause could damage or destroy nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

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.”

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.

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California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy finds 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.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report presents a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. Habitat 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 Conservancy also calls 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.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“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 proposals 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 Conservancy argues. “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.”

Download the full report and maps.

ASLA Condemns Administration Proposal to Weaken Protections of Wetlands and Waterways

Little Blue Heron in a wetland / Getty Images

A statement by ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, regarding the proposed rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to alter the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act in such a way that severely threatens the quality of drinking water and community health and well-being nationwide:

The Trump administration’s proposed rule redefining the term “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) within the Clean Water Act is a direct assault on the health and well-being of American communities nationwide. The proposed definition severely limits which waterways and wetlands are protected from pollutants, and could have catastrophic effects on the quality of the nation’s water, human health, the economies of communities, and the viability of wildlife populations.

ASLA supports having one clear and consistent definition of WOTUS that balances the need to have safe, healthy bodies of water with commerce and sound development practices. The proposed rule change significantly alters that balance, endangering communities and ecosystems while allowing polluters to adversely affect communities and ecosystems well beyond the boundaries of their property.

The fact is, clean water is good business and polluted water is not. A WOTUS Rule should ensure healthy drinking water, reduce adverse health consequences, bolster communities reliant on tourism and recreation, and facilitate place-making for coastal communities. This irresponsible rule change will undermine those goals.

It is particularly regrettable that this rule would go into effect at a time when climate change is already wreaking havoc with fragile environments, particularly those in flood-prone areas. Increasingly frequent and intense storms will, by definition, affect the dry riverbeds and isolated wetlands that this new rule would exempt from protection. This rule would make a bad situation even worse.

Landscape architects work at the nexus of the built and natural environments and are at the forefront of planning and designing water and storm-water management projects that help to protect and preserve our nation’s water supply and enrich the lives of communities. The administration’s replacement rule would be a drastic step backward from the commitment to clean water for all Americans that is at the heart of the original Clean Water Act and the WOTUS rule, and ASLA will work to oppose this proposal.

Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

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.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

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.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

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.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 1 – 15)

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Brazilian landscape architects and designers, from ArchDaily. Alex Hanazaki Paisagismo / copyright Demian Golovaty

Can We Integrate Natural Ecosystems in Urban Asian Spaces? GreenBiz, 9/4/18
“Emerging Asian economies are fast expanding, and an associated phenomenon has been that of rapid urbanization. However, due to rapid growth, urban spaces are giving way to real estate developments for residential and commercial purposes.”

Landscape Architects Can’t Rely on Architecture-centric Media Dezeen, 9/5/18
“Landscape architects need to fly the flag for their profession if they are to receive the recognition they rightly demand and deserve, says Charles A Birnbaum.”

Gathering Place Architect: the People of Tulsa Will Shape Park’s Future Tulsa World, 9/7/18
“First, we wanted to understand what he had in mind, what he was trying to accomplish,” explains Michael Van Valkenburgh, the well-known landscape architect responsible for designing Tulsa’s new Gathering Place. “Then we wanted to get to know Tulsa, try to get inside the soul of the city.”

17 Contemporary Brazilian Landscape Architects Arch Daily, 9/8/18
“Landscape architecture is responsible for the transformation and resignification of the landscape, either by enriching architecture or by bringing forth the history of the site. As with buildings, when we design with vegetation it allows us to work a series of stimuli, qualities, and functions.”

Changing China: Luxury Living Is Now About Being Green and Respecting the Planet The South China Morning Post, 9/9/18
“In 20 years working on projects in China, landscape architect Scott Slaney has noticed what he describes as ‘the arc of change.’”

Learning the Subtle Language of Nature

The Weather Detective / Dutton

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs is the new book from forester Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the international bestseller and modern natural history classic The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World. Meandering from the forest to the garden, Wohlleben asks us to pay closer attention to our environment — to “recognize and understand the signs of nature.” With climate change, a deeper understanding of nature has only become more critical — it’s only then that “we will appreciate what we stand to lose.”

For Wohlleben, closely concentrating on what’s going around you outside is a source of pleasure but also discovery. In the first sections of the book, he plays detective — deducing temperature, time, and atmospheric conditions from how plants, animals, and insects behave.

A few tidbits:

Plants can tell you if it’s going to rain: If we closely watch water lilies, we can discover they are a “reliable indicator of a coming change in weather. The flowers close when they sense rain, often hours before it comes.”

Birds and plants can tell you what time it is: If all birds were singing all the time, they wouldn’t be able to hear each other. Somehow they have reached agreement to sing at different times, so as to better communicate with potential mates or rivals. According to Wohlleben, each bird species tends to “observe its relative time slot, day by day, with astonishing accuracy.”

Flowers also open their blooms at particular times of the day with “impressive reliability.” Carl Linnaeus, a great Swedish natural scientist and father of modern taxonomy, planted a “very special flower bed in Uppsala Botanical Garden,” arranging the plants into the shape of a clock face, with twelve sections. “In each section, the flowers opened at the appointed hour, enabling passersby to tell the time.”

If you see bumblebees out, it’s at least 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This precise temperature seems to be the “magic threshhold” for a number of species, including grasshoppers and crickets. Wohlleben notes that to make a decent sound, the air temperature must at least be 54 degrees. And this may explain why that temperature is so significant for some insects — it’s when insects that communicate through rapid vibrations of their legs and wings can start to hear each other.

But as the book progresses, it somewhat awkwardly transitions into discussion about the seasons, climate change, and then, surprisingly, hands-on guidance for gardeners, with some broader insights about nature thrown in. While the structure is disjointed, the book is still enjoyable because it’s interesting to perceive nature as Wohlleben does.

In dealing with climate change, Wohlleben has some advice for gardeners: “Some experts recommend choosing plants that are better equipped for a warmer climate in the face of rising temperatures. I think this is very unhelpful advice. Rising average temperatures mean that dry hot summers and damp winters without snow will become more frequent. But even in the future, winter will still bring hard frosts, only much less frequently than nowadays.”

For him, the best strategy is the most natural: “The closer your garden management style resembles natural conditions, the less impact there will be. Nature is well prepared for climate change.”

He then argues the longer the lifespan of a native tree species, the more tolerant to climatic change they will be. For example, a beech tree, which can live up to 400 years, has seen many different climatic conditions over its lifespan and can tolerate those changes. It’s not about adaptation, but tolerance of a “broad spectrum of temperature and precipitation levels.” Still, trees and other plants have a better chance of survival if they are living in their “climatic comfort zone.”

The end of the book is a dive into practical gardening tips, with detailed guidance on how to measure the temperature of your garden, assess soil types and quality, incorporate native plants, and deal with invasive ones. A final chapter on how the territories of wildlife overlap suburban gardens is fascinating. Who knew that squirrels occupy a territory of 10 acres, foxes 50 acres, and black storks, 25,000 acres?

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

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.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

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.

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New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“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.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

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.”

Intriguing Findings from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)

The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

In Oklahoma City, a unique mix of landscape architects and designers, educators, and technologists revealed the results of their explorations into the world of environmental design. Drawing attendees from around the globe, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) offered thought-provoking, sometimes challenging takes on the human and environmental forces shaping our communities.

A brief recap of short lectures, highlighting interesting research:

“What makes homeowners adopt sustainable practices? How do we reach the mainstream homeowner?,” asked Marina Murarolli, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri. Studying the psychological traits of 209 homeowners across the U.S., which she said constitutes a national sample, she found early adopters of green residential practices — like adding solar panels and buying energy-efficient appliances — were largely driven by “altruistic and biospheric motivations.” An altruistic mindset will cause someone to take action for “the sake of doing good.” Someone motivated by biospheric concerns is guided by a sense of interconnection of living things, the ecology of the planet. “It’s a hippie, granola way of thinking.”

Despite the reputation of Americans as being highly egocentric, that motivation didn’t register in her findings. Green homeowners aren’t buying Energy Star dish washers and hybrid cars to save money or show off to their neighbors.

And this conclusion may be frustrating to marketers everywhere: “We can’t profile green homeowner early adopters, other to say they are wealthier than the general population. There are inconsistent demographic results.”

Still, Murarolli thinks “any American could become an adopter.” And the research tells her potential adopters are more motivated by altruism and the planet’s health than looking cool.

Science museums with LEED-accredited facilities get millions of visitors each year, but not all teach the public about sustainability. The culture and political ecosystem of the museum influences how much or how little they address the topic, said Georgia Lindsay, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laura Cole, assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

Lindsey said science institutions in the Midwest must be finely attuned to the politics of climate change and sustainability. “Science museums are publicly funded so they can’t grand stand.” Instead, they use less inflammatory language to tell their story or avoid that aspect all together.

At the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, which focuses on educating the public about the prairie ecosystem, there was a concerted effort to teach Kansans about sustainability — but in terms they can relate to. Roof gardens, a native plant walk, and biomimetic design, and natural features help integrate the building with its landscape. But the museum uses the language of “cowboy sustainability — the words ‘natural resources’ and ‘conservation’ instead of sustainability.” Conservatives respond better to neutral terms like conservation and stewardship.

Flint Hills Discovery Center / VernonJohnson

The St. Louis Science Center offers “no bad news, nothing on climate change. They have to tread carefully as they have a mixed audience.” They don’t use their green building in their pedagogy. The sentiment is: “that is not our mission.”

Health impact assessments (HIAs) have been conducted in Europe and New Zealand for more than 30 years. Relatively recently, they have taken off in the U.S., explained Debarati “Mimi” Majumdar Narayan, with the Health Impact Project, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To date, there have been some 400 HIAs conducted; 100 by the Health Impact Project alone.

An HIA is a tool, a research method for examining whether a plan or project will adversely impact the health of a community. In contemporary America, where communities once red-lined now suffer from extreme health disparities, and zip codes can determine life spans, HIAs can help reduce further inequalities by exposing potential health impacts before they have a chance to do damage.

For example, an HIA conducted on a proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal facility in the low-income communities of Morrell Park and Violettville in Baltimore found already “high rates of morbidity and disease” would be exacerbated by the “increased light exposure, high particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, traffic congestion, noise, and reduced property values” that would result from the facility. The project would have “created an inequity” for the people who had to live near it. “That facility didn’t move forward; the community used the HIA to advocate and organize themselves.”

HIAs can be used to explore a range of social and mental health issues, too. Planners of the Englewood Line Trail in Chicago used an HIA to discover the proposed route, which could bring much-needed green space and access to food gardens to an underserved African American community, could also “create a lack of social cohesion.” And they discovered the city had not investigated potential mental health outcomes — positive or negative — of the trail.

Englewood Line Trail / Streetsblog

Lastly, Sahera Bleibleh, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Palestinians strive to preserve memories associated with home in the Jenin refugee camp in West Bank, Palestine Authority. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli army invaded the camp to fight terrorists, killing more than 50 Palestinians, and occupying it for 10 days, leaving 2,500 families homeless. Entire neighborhoods of the 70-year-old, UN-designed camp, which housed 13,000 Palestinians, were destroyed. In the aftermath, a $27 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) financed a camp improvement program that created new neighborhoods but didn’t restore the structure and feel of the original, dense, intimate neighborhoods, which the Palestinians had built over the years. Israelis said those old neighborhoods, with their network of alleys, more-easily allowed terrorist to find safe shelter.

UNRWA worked with a committee organized by the camp leadership to create an urban design that resulted in “totally new single-family households,” much different from the multi-family households of the old camp. “The widths of roads were increased so it would be easier for Israelis to re-invade. And the camp was re-invaded multiple times during reconstruction.” But Bleibleh said streets were also widened to make the camp more accessible to residents with cars. “Before, you walked in the camp; now everyone has a car.” Bleibleh admitted “some like the new plan — that you can drive in.”

Jenin refugee camp / © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot

Given the more sprawling, car-friendly urban design, not all of the 2,500 displaced families could return to their original camp neighborhood. They were displaced once again. “In the new camp, there are no memories. Displacement is a struggle of feelings. The goal is to make people feel weaker — kill them, kill their houses.” While the intention of the design was to create “no social spaces,” the community fashioned a memorial and built a monument — a horse made of pieces of metal from destroyed cars.