Tag Archives: urban ecology

clean water is not enough

This article presents evidence for the expected trend in biodiversity of riparian areas (whether lake, river, stream, etc. I can’t tell from the abstract) in response to urbanization. Large water features might be the one piece of the landscape that urban development has trouble erasing. But by changing the nature of the shoreline and adjacent habitat, you would expect a degradation in ecosystem quality, even if the water quality itself is perfectly fine (which it often is not, of course). The question is, could you design a shoreline and adjacent city that would support a significant fraction of the biodiversity and ecosystem function that was once there? In other words, a smaller nature that is still healthy? Or should we write off the idea of a high-functioning urban ecosystem and focus on protecting more wild areas? Well, I don’t know but I can guarantee that not making a serious attempt at either one will not lead to a good outcome.

Decadal declines in bird abundance and diversity in urban riparian zones, Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 159, March 2017, Pages 48–61

Urbanization is frequently cited as a major driver of species losses worldwide; however, most studies in urban areas use a space-for-time substitution approach to document effects of urbanization through time. Ultimately, understanding the effects of urbanization on biodiversity requires long-term datasets. We examined long-term changes in bird assemblages at 12 riparian sites in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and nearby Sonoran Desert region, featuring a range of human modifications and levels of water flow. Riparian areas in arid cities represent a key habitat type that is sensitive to human modification and supports high levels of species diversity. We used long-term data to: (1) explore variation in bird communities as a function of water permanence and degree of human-modification; (2) identify which environmental variables best describe differences found across riparian site types; and (3) assess how riparian bird communities, abundance, and species richness have changed through time. Engineered riparian sites supported more broadly distributed generalists; whereas, natural riparian sites supported more specialists. Sites with perennial flows had more vegetation and water compared to ephemeral sites and engineered sites had more impervious surface compared to natural sites. In nearly all comparisons, bird species richness, diversity, and abundance declined across riparian types during the period of study, even for common species. Bird communities in natural settings have changed more than communities at engineered sites. Overall, the riparian bird community is shifting toward urban dwelling, resident species that are characteristic of riparian sites with less water and more impervious surface.

July 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The financial crisis triggered by U.S. banks in 2008 may have been a major factor behind a resurgence of right-wing politics in Europe.
  • Household chemicals may have adverse effects on the developing brain, including a contribution to the risk of “neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the brain and nervous system including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities, and other learning and behavioral disabilities”.
  • The CIA is just not that good at spying.

3 most hopeful stories

  • There are new tools for considering ecosystem services and biodiversity in development decisions.
  • Uber Pool could be a game changing technology that ushers in a new kind of flexible transportation system.
  • The problems of a civilization in overshoot can seem overwhelming, but one thing you can do is convert your lawn to a sustainable ecosystem. Moss is an option. Also related to this, some ecologists are paying more attention to soil.

3 most interesting stories

  • I was a little side-tracked by U.S. Presidential politics. Nate Silver launched his general election site, putting the odds about 80-20 in favor of Hillary at the beginning of the month. The odds swung toward Trump over the course of the month as the two major party conventions took place (one in my backyard), but by the end of the month they were back to about 70-30 in favor of Hillary. During the month I mused about NAFTA, the fall of the Republic, the banana republicThe Art of the Deal, how to debate Trump, and Jon Stewart,
  • It’s really okay to cook pork chops medium rare.
  • It’s really hard to predict earthquakes. Many scientists think it is impossible, but once upon a time they thought that about predicting weather.

ecological landscaping

I recent linked to an article by Odum on ecological landscaping, or sustainable gardening, or whatever you want to call it. Her article linked to a number of other articles in the mainstream press. These are the articles I would share with friends and neighbors if they were to express an interest (or quite possibly, skepticism) about my own gardening methods. I’ll grab an interesting paragraph from each. The articles also have lots of interesting pictures and links to even more articles.
“Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn” from Scientific American

Experimenting with alternatives to grass lawns does not require banishing turfgrass altogether, however. As Smith’s research underscores, turfgrass has a useful property not easily matched by other plants: its impressive material resilience. Grass tolerates a lot of trampling without dying and will spring back when compressed by cleats and lounging people’s backsides. Some scientists are currently focusing on how to make regions of private lawns and public green spaces more attractive to native pollinators, without uprooting a lawn altogether. Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky and her colleagues visit golf courses in the state and persuade the managers to transform some out of the way spots into wild habitat by planting a mix of perennial, native, low-maintenance wildflowers that bloom from April to October—coneflowers, columbines, black-eyed susans, clover, hyssop, and goldenrod, for example. The owners of five golf courses, including one belonging to Marriott Hotels and Resorts, have agreed so far—and the results are astounding.

“What is Sustainable Landscaping?” from Daily Kos

A landscape based on a small palette of non-native species supports less than 10% of the insect species needed to sustain native birds (Bringing Nature Home). Replacing these landscapes with a diversity of native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers supports the hundreds of species of native insects needed to sustain birds and other organisms such as frogs, toads, lizards, and bats, which help control annoying or dangerous insects such as flies and mosquitoes.  It also links together an increasingly fragmented landscape that isolates natural areas between areas of biological desert.

“It’s come to this, yards are the next frontier of conservation” from Fusion

Native plants boost insect populations significantly, Louderman said.

“In your backyard, if you have just a lawn and non-native plants, you’d find just about a dozen species of native insects. If you have native plants, you can usually find hundreds of almost all native and beneficial insects,” Louderman said.

These are not bad or dangerous insects, Louderman pointed out. In fact, the honeybee is the only one that might sting a human.

Mary Odum vs. Lawns

Here Mary Odum, Howard T. Odum’s daughter, talks about “a prosperous way down“. If someone named Odum thinks we are going down, there is a good chance we are. It’s pretty depressing stuff that seems like an individual could have little impact on, but later she suggests that doing away with your lawn is a good first step.

Many chaotic current compete for our attention, yet the speed with which they are occurring suggests we are in an era of tipping points. How does one describe the collapse of an empire—where do we start with so much chaos in the world, and a global world view that promotes the mandate for economic growth? Do we begin with politics, or culture, or the financial system, pollution, or even renewable energy? Those competing current events are all related, but only if we use systems thinking to view the picture at a larger scale. The focus of most people on single causes such as climate change, or politics, or tech-happy solar futures, is comforting, since reductionism to single cause issues creates solutions such as adding technology (and thus more energy and pollution) allows us to keep on with our lifestyles. We tell ourselves (or we read too much Grist or Treehugger who tell us) that we don’t have to do anything except to buy more technology—we can keep what we’ve got, and the problems lie at the larger scale with us as helpless victims. We can buy a Prius, or a solar panel, and just keep on trucking, while blaming a powerful other, such as a presidential candidate, or Exxon, when it is the entire system, including us, who is responsible. Voting for one political party or the other is inadequate. Staying quiet while xenophobia and gun violence takes hold of your country is inadequate. Focusing on single cause environmentalist issues is not enough.

Reductionism closes the conversation to the real problem of growth, and the big picture, creating denial and a comforting absolution to Business as Usual (BAU). Reductionism allows us to fit in culturally to a world whose religion is economic growth, but it is a form of self-deceit. Our mandate that insists on the economic need for growth has to change in order for us to accept our personal responsibilities in all of this, and not blame our problems on scapegoats or find solutions that just make things worse.

I pretty much agree with all this. It’s not that the ideal concept of “growth” or improvement in our standard of living is wrong at its core. There is no theoretical limit to how much we could improve ourselves. But as long as we are dependent on planet Earth and its resources, there is a physical limit to how large our ecological footprint can grow without causing overshoot and collapse. Some technologies enable us to reduce our footprint per person or per joule of energy used or per dollar exchanged in the course of our economic lives, but when we adopt these technologies we often just take it as an opportunity to add more people, use more energy and exchange more dollars. And of course, not all technologies reduce our unit footprint – many increase it. In aggregate, our footprint is continuing to grow, most likely at an accelerating pace. There are only two possible endpoints – either a serious setback that forcibly reduces our footprint for us (like, god forbid, catastrophic war/plague/famine), or a turning point in technology/policy that allows us to begin shrinking our footprint while still improving ourselves. While the latter is theoretically possible, I don’t see any evidence that we are anywhere near it. Instead, we pat ourselves on the back for small reductions in our footprint per unit of growth, or even a reduction in the rate of growth of our rate of growth! For example, a reduction in our annual carbon emissions, despite the fact that they are too high and every year they are too high makes the situation worse, not better. That’s not the system thinking that H.T. Odum advocated.

Which brings me to Mary’s lawn. Ecological gardening is one of those “simple things you can do to save the Earth”. Not sufficient, but necessary. So let’s do it!

We can be the change, beginning today. Plant trees, as they take a long time to grow. Convert your lawn to native plants. Stop irrigating, except for watering new plantings by hand. Stop using fertilizers and pesticides. Begin building soil instead of depleting it. Compost on your property, Return hardscapes to permeable surfaces, and use rain barrels and rain gardens to limit runoff. Use a corner to plant an organic vegetable garden if there’s room and sun, to add to your sustainability. Foster a complete ecosystem for the critters. And finally, talk to your neighbors and friends about the changes and why you’re doing them. While you’re at it, talk to the person who manages your kid’s soccer field, or the golf course. Why are you letting your children roll around on a carpet of pesticides, or eat food grown by a poison-maker?

May 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • There are scary and seemingly reckless confrontations going on between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Indian Ocean. And yet, it is bizarrely humorous when real life imitates Top Gun.
  • The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • Obama went to Hiroshima, where he said we can “chart a course that leads to the destruction” of nuclear weapons, only not in his lifetime. Obama out.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • I try not to let this blog get too political, really I do. But in an election season I just can’t help myself. This is a blog about the future of civilization, and the behavior of U.S. political, bureaucratic, and military elites obviously has some bearing on that. In May I mused on whether the U.S. could possibly be suffering from “too much democracy“, Dick Cheney, equality and equal opportunity, and what’s wrong with Pennsylvania. And yes, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, TRUMP IS A FASCIST!
  • The world has about a billion dogs.
  • It turns out coffee grounds may not make good compost.

“hybrid” infrastructure

I like a couple things in this abstract from the journal Cities.

One is a definition of hybrid infrastructure as “infrastructure systems that are integrated within buildings and landscapes that also provide non-infrastructure uses”. In other words, you are trying to kill two birds with one stone. This should be efficient and cost-effective compared to killing two birds with two stones, but the reason it often doesn’t happen (at least in the U.S. cities I am familiar with) is that there are typically two entities responsible for killing one bird each, and if their stone happens to kill the other bird they will ignore that and not count it as a benefit. Each agency calculates the cost as one stone, while the actual cost to society was two stones. (The only problem with this analogy, obviously, is that we are talking about ecological benefits and killing birds would actually be bad.)

The second thing I like is that the question asked is about the “maximum ecological performance potential of buildings and landscapes”. This is a nice question to ask – not just how can one type of infrastructure perform one function cost-effectively, but how can it fit into the landscape and perform many functions at the same time. If those two agencies (or in real life, 10 or 20 agencies) were all asking this question together, maybe you could achieve much better outcomes in cities.

January 2016 in Review

I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.

3 most frightening posts

  • Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
  • Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.

3 most hopeful posts

3 most interesting posts

  • There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
  • Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
  • The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”