Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On Environmental Sustainability (8/11/2015)

On April 1, we premiered a new class that I developed on the use of plants in erosion and sediment control and stormwater management.  When we announced the class it was still in the design stage and I had hoped it would have even more emphasis on native plants than it did; but looking through all the materials on the books, I felt there was such a tremendous need for a more comprehensive approach to the use of plants and planting that it quickly became a much broader class for people reviewing construction plans and inspecting construction sites (and that from someone not formally schooled in landscape architecture or planning).  Honestly, I am still not sure I cover the entire issue, but what can you do in a six hour class?

It is well recognized that with the increased population throughout the U.S., there is a tremendous pressure on the natural (land) resources.  The cartoon below illustrates this very well.  I use it very often in my classes.

This is actually a sad cartoon, but I think this cartoon is applicable wherever you live: Yorktown, Richmond, or even Dallas (TX).  I have this nagging feeling that we are allergic to moving into the inner-city or older homes and renovating them, but that we all want that new home out in the suburbs, away from what we would consider riffraff.  With it of course comes abandoned buildings, increased city blight, urban sprawl, traffic jams, road rage, and environmental degradation, just to name a few negatives.  The great exception I have seen lately is Cincinnati where we visited in April this year.  Boy what a difference 15 years make, people are finally moving back into town and it has become so vibrant.  I am sure there are other examples as well.

A photograph I took in Over the Rhyn in Cincinnati in April.  The area has been revitalized; all kind of small independent shops and even small chains have moved in, and is an amazing place to hang out. When we lived in Cincinnati more than 15 years ago you would not go to this area.

The photo below shows an example of what I mean when I write about the move to the suburbs and urban sprawl.

Built three (3) years ago, the grass had a hard time getting established in this yard, after the soil was abused during the building process.  This yard had 40 to 50 year-old trees and shrubs growing in it.  They were all cleared in favor of grass (they left those three trees against the fence, or did they misjudge the property line when clearing the site?).  We have been walking by this yard for three years wondering what landscaping they were going to add, but you guessed it.  You can see the surrounding yards where the neighbors left some of the trees.  In addition to being an ecological desert, this house has no shade and I am sure their air conditioning bills are much higher than my home which is surrounded by trees.

I am sure this is a well built home; it was was built three years ago in an infill lot in our neighborhood.   Previously it was a wooded lot with mature trees that were at least 45 years old.  The site was completely cleared or as I called it in my classes "nuked," and just seeded with grass.  That's all!  To me this yard has absolutely zero ecological, biological, or environmental value.  It is a biological desert!  Before this one small infill lot was the home to birds, snakes, frogs, salamanders, turtles, insects, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, mice, etc., and now, I don't think even a bird would want to live in that yard.  Let's not talk about aesthetically value as well.  Boy, can I be any blunter?  But it is not only this house, I see it everywhere.

But you still see this everywhere, a forested track gets cut, turned into a subdivision with 5- to 10-acre lots that are all completely turned into lawn with no trees or when there are trees growing on it they are introduced and have very little ecological value for native animals such as birds and other critters.  Moreover, we fertilize and chemically treat the lawns so that they become net exporters of chemicals and pesticides, while in the past the forests that were growing there absorbed all the chemicals and exported oxygen, clean air and life.

We have a choice how we treat the land don't we?  Even when we want to live in the suburbs.  Landscaping can be done responsibly with humans and all the critters in mind.  I am sure that the people in the home of the photograph above did not choose this landscape with the thought of intentionally messing (or f...ing) up nature, but they obviously did not know any better; do no have the resources; cannot be bothered; are taking the easy way out; or in the worst case have no pride (I am sure you can come up with a few more reasons).

Steve Allison writes that we choose the world we create in our landscaping decisions; it is not only an ethical decision, but of course also a financial and often a maintenance decision as well.  But the question remains: why not do the best for the environment?  I understand that from a builder's/developer's perspective that there is a profit motive; we all need to make a living; and yes I am generalizing here, but I would like to see more people who are proud of their work and more concerned about future generations.  Money is not the end all; actually in the end we can not take it with us any way, but we can leave a legacy of a great ecologically sound landscape for future generations.  I know I am generalizing here; however, I also know there are people who are proud of their work.  I have met them and it was fun working for and with them.

In many of the books and reports that I read, I am told that we humans have reached the level where we are changing the world's environment.  We are the only species on the earth that can do this, all others have to adapt to the environment.  So instead of only changing it for the worst, why not try to change it for the better, or at least try not to have any impact at all?  Yes, we need to build and live, but let's do it with nature instead of against nature.

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