January 17, 2014
By: Sarah Stevens
Sprawling cities dominate the Western United States but what happens when there is no land left? According to Bill Fulton, one of the nation’s top planners, San Diego and most American cities are facing this very question for the first time. Cities must focus on redevelopment and revitalization plans which make them more sustainable, resilient, accessible, and successful.
Comparing the major cities of the East and West Coasts, among many differences, one stands out – space. Eastern cities are compact and built vertically, whereas the cities of the West, take Los Angeles and San Diego, are the definition of sprawling spread out cities. However land is not an infinite resource so when all the available land is accounted for, cities must reevaluate their city and community plans.
Mr. Fulton was recently appointed as San Diego’s new Planning Director, with the task of not only building a planning department but helping the city transition towards “non-sprawl” growth. As the eighth largest city in the US and second largest in California, redeveloping San Diego’s growth plans is not a simple task, and one which he believes is as much as psychological change for the city as it is a physical one. Mr. Fulton is the previous Mayor of Ventura, California and Vice President of Smart Growth America, a national organization dedicated to building accessible, healthy, and economically successful communities.
As cities create new resilient and sustainable plans, it’s essential to not only focus on the infrastructure and development projects but also invest in restoring and creating public parks and open spaces. As land becomes more and more scarce, the ecological functions and benefits of open spaces become more valuable. If we look at densely packed urban cities such as New York, public parks and open spaces which have restored natural ecosystems and reintroduced public access are highly valued and protected assets. The High Line, Central Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park are just a few examples of the many public spaces that have focused on reinvesting and restoring existing resources and produced significant ecological, economic, and social benefits. Sprawling cities can take a note from these projects, as future planning will have come reinvesting in existing neighborhoods.
In San Diego, there is a visible difference between neighborhoods planned before and after the growth management plans of the 70s and 80s. The “pre-growth management” neighborhoods lack the public spaces and landscaping of the newer areas, representing what Mr. Fulton refers to as one of the biggest challenges for the city. As a result, planners must identify what aspects are the most important and transformative in these areas to successfully create “smart” communities which are improve the quality of life and integrate urban and natural environments.
While sprawling cities no longer have the land to develop horizontally many high density development areas are also faced with limited land for redevelopment and green spaces. If we look at aerial images of most urban areas, the vast majority of land is developed leaving a very small percentage of open land. Some of this undeveloped land remains because it presents a number of challenges that are not easily addressed. For example, previous industrial sites (brownfields) may provide acres of land for potential redevelopment, but first require significant remediation and ecological restoration. However, before redevelopment can begin, innovative restoration strategies are essential to remove contaminants and restore vital ecological functions.
We may have a long way to go as we transition away from the sprawling city and while we address infrastructure, housing, and transit planning we must provide must also focus on ecological functionality to plan and design truly sustainable cities with ecological, economic, and social benefits.
Showley, Rodger. Bill Fulton: City Makeover-in-chief. U-T San Diego. U-T San Diego, 2 Sept. 2013.
Bill Fulton Tasked by Mayor with Reconstituting San Diego City’s Planning Department. The Planning Report. The Planning Report, 19 Sept. 2013.
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January 16, 2014
Great Ecology is excited to announce President and Founder, Dr. Mark Laska, will be featured on The Brian Britt Show today, January 16 at 11:30 PST. Dr. Laska joins the show’s esteemed list of guests which include some of the nation’s top-selling authors and business leaders.
Don’t miss this exciting interview as Dr. Laska shares Great Ecology’s success story over the past 13 years overcoming challenges and a turbulent economy. Stay tuned for the podcast coming soon!
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January 11, 2014
By: Erin Hathaway
Human civilization depends on Earth’s natural ecosystems. In addition to tangible things such as raw materials including lumber and natural gas, ecosystems provide services and functions such as protection, filtration, retention, pollination, and regeneration. Ecosystem services are so fundamental to life that they are easy to take for granted and so large in scale that it’s hard for us to imagine that human activities could destroy them.
Once valued only as a source for food and fisheries, oysters are now often labeled as “ecosystem engineers” because we now recognize their ability to filter water, provide structured habitat for other species, and protect shorelines from erosion by stabilizing sediments and providing wave attenuation. As oysters grow, they form beds, which provide a substrate for fish and other marine organisms to live and feed on. Their reefs provide our shorelines with buffering capacity acting like natural speed bumps. And, they have an amazing ability to filter water – an adult oyster can filter up to an estimated 50 gallons per day.
Oyster restoration is gaining momentum as public awareness about the importance of their roles in our waterways, specifically coastal waterways, has increased. In the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary system there are a number of new efforts to restore oyster and mussels habitats such as oyster gardening and pilot oyster reefs. This can be contributed to more awareness of our coastal vulnerability in general with unprecedented storms like Katrina and Sandy.
Since moving away from the East Coast to a land locked state, my perspective shifted from coastal lover to freshwater enthusiast with a new interest in freshwater mussels. Can we put as much energy and enthusiasm towards freshwater mussel restoration as we do oysters? Like their cousin, the oyster, freshwater mussels are bivalves and filter feeders. They filter bacteria, algae, and other small particles, improving water quality. Additionally, they serve as food for fish, reptiles, birds, and mammal populations. Freshwater mussels are found in rivers and streams worldwide, but North America is a diverse hotspot for these creatures and home to 304 species of the 1,000 species worldwide. The majority of these species are found in the southeastern watersheds of the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mobile Rivers.
However, unlike oysters, the reproductive phase of freshwater mussels presents a new challenge to their population growth and restoration. Not only do mussels require a fish host to reproduce, but the host fish also has to be a particular species – bass, darters, and minnows. Dams and exotic fish species threaten this reproduction system, as dams prevent genetic diversification and exotic fish species threaten native host fish.
To combat the declining mussel populations, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries initiated a program to restore mussels. The Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) was created to propagate mussels in housed tanks, which mimic streambeds and contain a variety of host fish. These propagated mussels can be released back into natural waterways in hopes of restoring a self-sustaining population.
Similarly to oysters, freshwater mussels should be a part of the restoration conversation. Their incredible filtering capabilities in addition to their structural beds help stabilize benthic sediment, improve water quality, and provide habitat for aquatic life. They will become food for predators, supporting a larger food web. Many of our freshwater streams and rivers are the sources of our drinking water. The Ohio River is a source of drinking water for more than three million people. These rivers and streams also serve as food and recreational resources, drawing tourism revenue and creating a sense of place. Mussel restoration is not going to transform the systems like the Ohio River into a pristine habitat overnight but they serve as a small part to the larger ecosystem.
Virgina Department of Game and Inland Fisheries – Freshwater Mussels
Ohio River Foundation – Freshwater Mussels of the Ohio River
Ohio River Foundation – About the River
New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary
NY/NJ Bay Keeper – About the Oyster
Bunje, Paul. The Bivalvia. University of California Museum of Palentology.
The Delaware Estuary – Freshwater Mussels.
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January 7, 2014
Great Ecology is proud to announce Associate Designer, Erin Hathaway, will be a visiting professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Erin is honored to accept the position starting this spring and will be teaching the fourth year studio focused on urban design drawing on her ecological design experience in New York City.
Erin shares her expertise integrating design and ecology in urban restoration projects in our weekly blogs.
Restoring the Ohio River With Lessons from the Hudson
The Coolest City…
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January 3, 2014
By: Dr. Puja Batra
From design to agriculture, our society is becoming more aware of our dependence on healthy ecosystems. As a result, we are placing more importance on designing products, processes, and systems in ways that are compatible with nature so that the many millions of other species that we share this planet with, and their ecosystems, can thrive alongside us. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to train as a BaDT — a “Biologist at the Design Table”, in one of the most exciting, inspiring, and truly revolutionary areas within sustainable innovation – Biomimicry. Since then, the field has grown by leaps and bounds, with TED talks, courses, research centers, and entire companies dedicated to the subject.
Biomimicry, at its core, is a design method that asks the question “how does nature solve this problem?” Answers are drawn from learning from the myriad strategies that the living organisms all around us have developed for solving the same essential problems; how to acquire energy, how to dispose of waste, how to withstand the extremes of the environment, how to maintain a constant temperature, how to create shelter, and so on. Not only do we all have to tackle these problems, but we need to do so with efficiency of materials, energy, and time. By consulting other species, especially those that live in similar environments, we open up, quite literally, a world of new possibilities for re-designing our products, processes, and systems in ways that help us move toward more sustainable solutions.
A number of notable examples demonstrate the effectiveness and success of biomimicry. By copying the shape of tubercles on the leading edge of humpback whale fins, WhalePower has developed fan blades that move through fluids with about a third less drag than the conventional design. One of the exciting applications of their Tubercle Technology is its use for wind turbines which generate as much as 20% more electricity than other designs, and perform reliably in unsteady or low winds. This is just one of the many innovative examples of bio-inspired product design that mimics form to get function.
But the folks at Biomimicry 3.8 (who literally wrote the book on Biomimicry) realized that in order to achieve true sustainability in which everything we do truly “fits in” with nature, we must go beyond copying form, and re-think our processes and systems. How can we solve problems in a way that is less wasteful, less toxic, and more restorative to our planet? Again, by looking to nature, they honed in on Life’s Principles or “deep patterns in nature” — a set of 20 principles to guide how we design so that we maintain the interconnectedness of life. These include strategies like “do chemistry in water,” “use readily available materials and energy,” and “cultivate cooperative relationships.” By copying the mechanisms that exist in nature, we can take biomimicry up a notch to tackle the roots of sustainability challenges.
And many companies are doing just that. For example, by studying and mimicking the mechanisms of coral reefs, Calera developed a process to manufacture a stable form of cement by using salt water in the presence of a calcium ions and carbon dioxide. And, like coral reefs, this process actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere instead of emitting it, which has become a major concern with the conventional cement manufacturing process.
Taking biomimicry even further, several organizations are leading the way in mimicking entire systems by drawing on foundational principles of ecosystems, such as preserving the local natural water budget in the built environment to design ecologically sustainable sites; cooperatively utilizing waste streams to design symbiotic industrial areas; mimicking CO2 cycling of the local ecosystem to revitalize a city; and reproducing prairie ecological community structure to re-design our food production systems. In fact, for millenia indigenous cultures across the globe have used “food forests” which mimic the structure of native forests to grow diverse assemblages of edible and medicinal plants, while keeping many important elements of ecosystem function and habitat intact.
It’s not always hardscape, nor is it exclusively natural infrastructure, that will work best when designing our systems to meet some of the great sustainability challenges facing us. But can we draw on the deep patterns and mechanisms found in natural systems so that we can design our cities to buffer storms such as a tidal wetland, clean and store water the way an aquifer does, reduce heat the way a forest, prairie, or desert oasis does, anticipate and plan for cycles of change as somewhat predictable, as with ecosystem succession? If we can do this, we will unlock a vast treasure trove of innovation and wisdom, and move a step closer to creating a future in which co-existence and a healthy planet are possible.
All of this, of course, only scratches the surface on the promise that biomimicry holds for designing a sustainable future.
Want to learn more? Check out the following groups and online resources.
Regionally-based biomimicry groups.
Biomicicry, TX – I was a member of and the group recently developed a great experiential exhibit at SXSW Eco conference.
Center for Bioinspiration – a group based out of the San Diego Zoo.
Biomicicry, NYC – a dynamic and active group in NYC.
More Online Resources:
The Biomimicry Manual - written by Tamsin Wooley-Barker who explores innovations in nature from which we can draw design wisdom.
Zygote Quarterly a stunning online journal dedicated to an in-depth look at biomimicry as an emerging profession.
Or find some biomimetic ideas for your next design challenge at Ask Nature.
Other creative case studies by Biomicicry 3.8.
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December 21, 2013
Enjoy the next installment of our favorite posts of 2013.
Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go In the Water
Maybe it will be soon…that is, if you are a shark. Read more to find out why.
Camping ethics are important guidelines for how we interact with the environment, but surprisingly, it appeared that they did not cross most people’s minds. Don’t miss the best recipe for our delicious calzones in the woods!
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December 20, 2013
By: Lauren Alleman
“Coastal sustainability” is a phrase you’ll hear with some regularity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
What does the phrase “coastal sustainability” mean to you? Do each of us define it in the same way? To an engineer, a sustainable coast might be one that includes hard structures like seawalls to control flooding and allow humans to live in low-lying areas. To an economist, a sustainable coast may be one has several industries such as tourism, fishing, shipping, and manufacturing rather than a single economy. To a coastal ecologist, a sustainable coastline has layers of wetlands, oyster reefs, and barrier islands that act in concert as storm energy dissipaters.
Wetlands have been adjusting to rising and falling sea levels for thousands of years. The shape of our coastline looked different during the last ice age, and will look different in 100 years. Wetlands are incredibly effective at absorbing flood waters and filtering pollutants, but they do have limitations to how much water they can handle.
Wetlands are programmed to adjust their productivity to match the hydrology of a site through an elegant feedback loop.
When sea-level rise happens at a slow enough rate, plants can adjust by increasing productivity and adding roots to the soil, where they are slow to decompose in the aerobic environment, and eventually become peat. This effectively raises the elevation of the plants to their optimal level. Sediments suspended in the water help sustain the elevation and stimulate growth when they are deposited on the surface of the marsh or swamp. However, when sea level rise happens too quickly or there is not enough sediment deposition, the plants become submerged and drown.
Current estimates from NASA estimate a global sea-level rise rate of 3.16 mm/year. In New York, this will rise sea-levels a total of 2.3 feet by 2100. The flooding that would occur with an increase in sea level would impact much of Long Island, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens. Check out this interactive map which shows what coastal cities would look like if if there is no coastal protection.
The few remaining wetlands that do protect New York City, such as Jamaica Bay, will have a hard time keeping up with this rate of sea-level rise. Those that attempt to migrate upslope will encounter hard edges, piers, seawalls, and structures that will prevent them from settling into a new equilibrium. This is referred to as “coastal squeeze”, the process where natural migration of habitats is prevented by human infrastructure.
In recognition of the anticipated impacts of this sea-level rise on New York City there is healthy debate around what should be done to protect the coastline. The U.S. Department of the Interior allocated $162 million to 45 projects along the Atlantic Coast, from dam removal to beach restoration. Additionally, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force has initiated a competition called Rebuild by Design that challenges engineers, landscape architects, and ecologists to envision sustainable solutions to areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The winning design concepts will be eligible for funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.
Planning for coastal sustainability means forecasting the areas that will be new coastline and planning our roads, cities, and parks around them.
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December 13, 2013
By: George Patten
There are an estimated 41 million acres of wetlands, including both saltwater and freshwater, in coastal watersheds of the US. These wetlands are an important environmental resource that provides critical ecological services to society, such as shoreline stabilization and protection against impacts from sea-level rise. However, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) coastal wetlands have declined substantially in recent years – threatening the important ecological services they provide.
The social and ecological importance of wetlands in many areas of the coastal United States is becoming increasingly recognized, particularly in the wake of severe coastal storms and environmental contamination.
The report by the USFWS studied wetland trends from 2004 – 2009 in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and the Pacific coast regions. The results of the study indicate that wetlands in coastal watersheds in the US had declined by over 360,000 acres, which is roughly a 25% increase over the previous study period (1998 – 2004).
Losses to wetlands have significant implications for environmental systems and to society. Coastal wetlands provide habitat and support an array of aquatic and terrestrial life, as well as provide ecological services to society. These may be less direct service provisions, such as nutrient cycling and as reservoirs of biodiversity, or more socially-pertinent services such as support for fishing industries or for coastal area tourism, a $6.6 trillion industry. Furthermore, coastal communities recognize the critical role of wetlands for shoreline protection and as a buffer to sea-level rise. Although the report doesn’t delve deeply into the issue of sea level rise, studies indicate that marshes cannot compensate if seas rise too quickly and may become submerged and die back.
The report does highlight the importance of wetland reestablishment or restoration projects, which help to offset wetland declines. These projects can be pivotal in supporting fragile wetlands systems and ecosystem services, as well as help to meet the federal policy of preventing impacts to wetlands impacts from development or other human activities, known as the “no net loss” rule.
Successful wetland restoration projects enhance ecological function and can also add economic and cultural value by increasing tourism and recreation opportunities as well as attracting local businesses particularly in urban areas. Over the past decade, wetland restoration and enhancement has been a significant focus in New York City, transforming degraded urban waterfront sites into thriving natural eco-systems. As a part of a multidisciplinary team, Great Ecology has helped enhance a number of waterfront sites including the Brooklyn Bridge Park, East River Waterfront Eco-Park, and Randall’s Island. The City continues to support restoration projects as demonstrated by the community board approval of Matthews Nielsen’s master plan for the Pier 42 revitalization.
Although wetland losses have been significant and rates of decline are increasing in the coastal U.S, the potential for new restoration projects and greater awareness from this report could help mitigate future loss of our wetlands.
T.E. Dahl and S.M. Stedman. 2013. Status and trends of wetlands in the coastal watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. 46 p.
Fears, Darryl. Study says U.S. can’t keep up with loss of ecologically-sensitive wetlands. The Washington Post. December 8, 2013. Accessed Online.
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December 7, 2013
As 2013 wraps up, we’re sharing some of our favorite posts. Each week in December we’ll reveal the next group of our favorites.
An Age Defined By Human Impact?
At night, city lights become the prominent feature on earth and we can see a new physical quality of the earth—it glows. On a planet defined by human impact restoration efforts must fit the context especially to create habitats that thrive in the urban environment.
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is a vulnerable ecosystem that is actively shaped and managed by humans. A controversial debate, without a simple solution.
Restoring the Ohio River with Lessons from the Hudson
We are beginning to see rivers across the country from a new perspective—one that understands the value of riparian ecology, but the Ohio River seems left in the dark. As the source of drinking water for 3 million people, restoration is essential and using lessons from the Hudson, restoration can integrate the currently conflicting urban and natural environments.
Society is exceeding what our planet can handle in terms of waste, pollution, and consumption. It’s going to take innovation at the intersection of disciplines and radical solutions like Styrofoam made out of mushroom materials and ocean roombas, to figure out a way to live sustainably. And Generation Y is leading the way.
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November 23, 2013
By: Carl Carlson
Green roofs have been growing in popularity in the last few years with the recent push towards low impact design. They help mitigate environmental impacts of the built environment by offering storm water sequestering, reduced urban heat island effect, and providing superior insulation for buildings. The idea of putting plants on roofs is nothing new, but up until now the vast majority of green roofs have used non-native plants that are able to survive in the tough conditions of urban roof tops. These roofs can be very effective, however they can also be difficult to establish and maintain properly. Once they are established they usually don’t offer significant habitat opportunities due to the types of plants that are installed. The staff and students at my Alma Mater SUNY, ESF got creative and designed a green roof that thrives instead of survives and fits within the ecological context of northern New York State.
The Landscape Architecture firm Andropogon and the Landscape Architecture and Biology departments of SUNY ESF, collaborated to design and build a highly functioning green roof by recreating habitats that could be found naturally in the northern New York ecosystems.
After studying solar, wind and precipitation patterns they determined that there were two very rare ecosystem typologies that would likely survive well on their Syracuse roof top, Great Lake Dune and Alvar. The Great Lake Dune ecosystem is a very unusual habitat that exists along a 17 mile stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline. The very dry and windy environment of the dunes mirrors the conditions found on top of the building. East of the Great Lake dunes towards Watertown, NY is the Alvar ecosystem. Alvar communities only exist in a few concentrated areas on northern New York. They are high stress plant systems that have very shallow soils on top of limestone substrate. The soil and growing conditions are remarkably similar to what would be found on a typical green roof in Syracuse. The conditions of these ecosystems seemed perfect for adaptation.
As with most construction projects, significant challenges arose after the project started, especially asthis was the first time anyone had created Great Lake Dunes or Alvar ecosystems on a building’s roof. The plants were almost impossible to source and many are protected species in New York State. Using seeds collected from a private land owner students experimented with germination and propagation in their research greenhouses. Using test plots on their roofs, the students were able to study the best combination of soil depth, plant spacing and plant variety.
After a year of research the green roof was installed on ESF’s brand new Gateway building. Styrofoam was used to create “topography”, real limestone flagging was brought in to help mimic the habitat and soil was carefully placed to proper depth. The plants were only watered during the first few weeks after installation to help with establishment. Now, the roof relies solely on rainwater for irrigation. Overall the natural community green roof is a great success. The roof will continue to be studied and monitored as an ongoing research project. Students are continuing to collect data on insects, birds, and the spread of the seed bank on the roof. Future goals are to set up systems to study the stormwater infiltration and runoff rate from the roof. Although the habitats selected for the Gateway green roof are not appropriate for all regions of the United States, their systems can be used to find other native habitats that will provide the same benefits.
The Gateway green roof project was highlighted during the recent American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) annual conference as one of the latest trends and techniques in landscape design. It demonstrates the significant value of integrating science and design, the core practice of Great Ecology. Using scientific processes to influence and enhance design goals is crucial to the long term sustainability and success of projects.
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