Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why Not Create a Little Wilderness in Your Neighborhood?

Habitat Restoration Projects Abound in Urban Settings
By Andrea Hauser
Associate Editor Sustainability |
Wed May 21, 2014
Nature is coming to your doorstep. Or close to it, at least.
The line of demarcation between city and wilderness is fading, with U.S. cities around the country spearheading urban habitat restoration projects. It’s a topic that is getting increased attention.
“Most people’s contact with nature is going to come in the city, so there’s more interest in understanding how plants and animals survive in the city,” said Rebecca Dolan, the managing editor of Urban Naturalist Journal, which was launched this spring in response to a growing interest in urban ecology. Part of the effort is to “understand if a lot of ecologic ideas developed in wild land areas apply in human dominated landscapes.”
While people often think of habitat restoration as a huge project, such as rehabbing a former industrial site, smaller projects also can be effective and cities and counties have developed methods to support them. For example, in King County, Washington, which includes the Seattle metro area, a grant program called Wild Places in City Spaces has been in place for more than 20 years.
The grant has been awarded to a variety of projects, from salmon creek restoration to creating more habitat for migrating birds, but “one thing that they all have is stewardship development,” said Ken Pritchard, grants coordinator for the county’s Water and Land Resources Division. “They’re not done strictly by the city and the city crew or a consulting firm or construction firm.”
Making sure that the community is engaged in the project is an important part of ensuring its long-term success, Pritchard said.
“That’s the purpose, that is one of the things that we absolutely make a requirement, is how engaged is the community in this, in making sure that they keep an eye on it, that they maintain it, that there are educational opportunities for things like school field trips or just casually walking a trail,” he said.
Funding wasn’t available for the grant in 2013 and 2014, but Pritchard said it is coming back for 2015.
“The two years we did not have money to give out, I heard a lot,” he said. “And I think that’s good. It’s not that people were coming to the trough to feed themselves … it’s, ‘Do you know where I can find some resources to do this?’”
Occasionally there will be questions about how grant money is being used or why an area is being restored, but Pritchard said those are pretty rare.
“By and large I think people in the community are very desiring of this,” he said. “One thing I’ve heard is … this is just a plaything, this is not important. But a bunch of neighbors get together and truly believe this is a cornerstone of the northwest ecosystem, who’s to tell them they’re wrong? It really creates an environmental ethic and they carry that will them, and that will affect others who they come in touch with.”
One program that received funding from the Wild Places grant was the Natural Yard Care Neighborhoods program, in the City of Kirkland, Wash. The program brings urban habitat restoration projects down to a small scale, focusing on resident’s lawn care and gardening practices.
The yard care program emphasizes five steps to a healthy lawn, which include encouraging participants to reduce or eliminate pesticide use, use smart watering techniques and consider the benefits of native plants in their gardens and yards, creating small habitats with cheaper and easier maintenance, said Jenny Gaus, a surface water engineering supervisor for the City of Kirkland.
“In recent years we’ve added rain gardens and benefits, so it draws people in because … the idea you can make it less expensive and easier to maintain your yard, and can also have all these environmental benefits, we try to sell it as a win-win,” she said.
The program targets a different neighborhood in Kirkland every year and usually attracts 70-100 participants, Gaus said, adding that educating the entire neighborhood is an important part of getting everyone to buy into the new lawn care ideas. For example, since the Pacific Northwest gets very little rain during May-September, the program highlights trying a “golden lawn,” to encourage more responsible water use.
“A huge part of this is cultural change,” she said. “If you’re going to have a lawn and have to water it, to talk about smart watering techniques and that it’s OK to have a golden lawn. We’ve done follow-up surveys – three months, six months – and find that in general people have changed their behaviors and are supportive of the program.”
Including community stakeholders in a habitat restoration project is an essential part of its long-term success, said Mark Laska, president of Great Ecology, which plans urban habitat restoration projects around the country.
“We communicated our vision and what we’d like to accomplish there, then we get feedback,” he said. “Typically the practitioners of habitat restoration are always engaged in the community development aspect of this.”
In business since 2001, Laska’s company has expanded to five different offices around the country, with a sixth opening soon. The company works on projects for both public and private entities, coordinating the site prep work, design and development.
“That’s a wholesale change from 10-15 years ago, and we’re starting to see it a lot more today,” Laska said. “There are a lot of folks that are focused on this and there are a lot of cities that would like to see natural habitats returned to urban areas. I think it’s occurring all over the place.”
Restoring wetland habitats are some of the most popular projects his firm does, Laska said, with the Brooklyn Bridge Park wetlands, in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the most visible they’ve worked on. While wetlands are natural habitats for many different species, migratory birds usually get the most attention.
“In general in an urban setting there is a heavy emphasis on birds,” he said. “You don’t want to bring coyotes, bears and large mammals into an urban setting, and a lot of wetland restoration definitely promotes and helps fish populations, but it’s hard to see them and hard to get excited. Birds are highly mobile and people love seeing waterfowl.”
Considering what kinds of wildlife a restoration project might attract is an important part of a project, especially if it’s near a busy road or residential area.
“Along with creating habitats for them, we have to expect the possibility that they’ll show up and use them,” Laska said.