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Posts Tagged ‘environmental protection’

Given that the United States once set global precedents for environmental protection and physical planning, it is hard to grasp just how far we have fallen. The U.S. Supreme Court, though, has now made the reversal clear. In a “A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development,” the New York Times details the impact of the latest blockbuster court decision on planning.

In simple terms, the Koontz vs St. Johns Water Management District case involved a development permit decision. The developer, Koontz, applied for a permit to build a small shopping center, and his plan included filling three acres of wetlands. In a common negotiation practice, the water management district suggested changes to Koontz’s plan that would make it more likely that his permit would be approved. Koontz could either reduce the size of his development, or he could pay a fee for wetland restoration elsewhere and proceed to fill the wetlands on his own property. Koontz refused to negotiate, and the water management district denied his permit. Koontz sued, and the case went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court which sided with the water management district. Koontz has since died, but his case went on from Florida to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yesterday, the justices delivered a 5/4 decision to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. In this blockbuster decision, Koontz has achieved a measure of immortality.

From the Times:

Lost amid the Supreme Court’s high-profile decisions on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage was another ruling that may turn out to have a profound impact on American society. The court handed down a decision on Tuesday that, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, will “work a revolution in land-use law.”

While that may sound obscure, the decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will result in long-lasting harm to America’s communities. That’s because the ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause.

As for implications:

As Justice Kagan correctly explains in her dissent, the decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t.

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Jim Robbins, author of a forthcoming book called The Man Who Planted Trees, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that alerts readers to the mounting threats to trees and the reasons why the planet needs them more than ever. The lines below caught my attention, especially the repercussions from the Texas drought that I discussed in a post last summer.

North America’s ancient alpine bristlecone forests are falling victim to a voracious beetle and an Asian fungus. In Texas, a prolonged drought killed more than five million urban shade trees last year and an additional half-billion trees in parks and forests. [Emphasis added.] In the Amazon, two severe droughts have killed billions more.

The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.

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Researchers from the Royal Horticultural Society, the University of Reading, and the University of Sheffield published a paper this month (Cameron et al., 2012) in the journal, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, called “The Domestic Garden – Its Contribution to Urban Green Infrastructure.” The article attracted attention from the UK newspaper, The Independent, because of the seemingly counter-intuitive claim that gardening can actually be harmful to the Earth, or “eco-unfriendly” according to The Independent. For a mere $39.95 US, you can read the article yourself from Science Direct! Among the indicted are peat, pesticides, petrol lawnmowers, and hardscape materials with high carbon footprints. Even a newly planted tree has a carbon footprint that may not be overcome for as much as a decade. Anyone with knowledge of sustainability already knows these things, but it is good to see it in mainstream publications available to the general public for far less than $39.95.

via The Independent

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Last summer, a post in this blog posed the question “how do you handle the constant stream of discouraging environmental information?” Shortly afterwards, I saw an article in Grist titled, “Do environmentalists need shrinks?  Apparently, I am not the only one thinking about this issue – although I suggested that designers are natural optimists (feel free to disagree) and less likely to be consumed by the pervasive environmental negativity. Now there is an article in New Scientist that boldly states “Ecologists Should Look on the Bright Side.” Is this even possible? (Colleagues at SUNY-ESF, what do you think?)

A key graph, also the introduction, states:

It’s hard to spend your working life charting the demise of the things you love. Ask an ecologist why they chose that career, and you will often hear a tale about being mad about animals as a kid. These days, they are more likely to spend their days modelling how quickly their favourite species will disappear. As Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC puts it: “My whole generation spent our lives writing obituaries of nature.”

As someone who once had a job writing obituaries for beautiful places (called environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impacts statements (EISs), I know how that feels!

Even so, conservationists are starting to worry that their message is counterproductive. In a 2010 editorial in BioScience (vol 60, p 626), Ronald Swaisgood and James Sheppard of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research wrote: “We contend that there is a continuing culture of hopelessness among conservation biologists… that will influence our ability to mobilize conservation action among the general public.”

What do you do when you hear bad news all the time? Turn it off. Pessimism leaves little room for action.

What’s at stake is more than what makes the best message, it’s what makes the best conservation strategy. Chronicling demise offers little guidance. But if we tell stories about positive outcomes and share details of how they are achieved, the likelihood that they will be replicated will increase. Hope engenders conservation success, and success breeds more success.

Fuel creative responses to what is, yes, a bad situation by giving people a reason to think that there is hope. This is a message that is especially important for young people. My children are growing up in a world where they are told that the planet is dying (and that somehow they are charged with saving it). Even if they watch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, there is a little voice in their heads telling them that the oceans are dying. What an oppressive thought! We have to preserve the sense of awe, wonder, and love of the Earth if we are going to motivate people to act on its behalf. IMHO.

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The economic downturn has hastened the move to stormwater green infrastructure (GI) approaches (e.g., permeable paving, vegetative swales, rain gardens, green roofs) as a way to combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the United States. Federal policies that mandate water quality improvements in cities have commonly been met with arguments about how the new measures will not be financially feasible (even in the pre-Clean Water Act days when urban creeks might be called “bubbly” because of methane discharge from rotting waste). However, the financial argument carries weight even with regulators in today’s fiscal environment, and U.S. EPA is now signaling a willingness to be more flexible in the arrangements it makes with cities. EPA’s embrace of stormwater green infrastructure has been apparent for some time, and that trend appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Greenwire, a subscription service, reports on new guidance to regulators from EPA’s water chief, Nancy Stoner, and uses the following example of past agreements with major cities:

Over the past 10 years, EPA and the Department of Justice have sought to stop the overflows by suing cities and striking settlement agreements that require massive upgrades. As a result, at least 40 cities or sewer systems across the United States have entered into such agreements with EPA since 1999.

The agreements tend to require rebuilding pipelines, expanding treatment plants and digging underground tunnels big enough for subway trains. The tunnels act as storage tanks for stormwater that would normally pour into waterways and allow time for treatment plants to clean up the mess.

As part of its 2003 consent decree with the federal government, Washington, D.C., broke ground last month on a $2.6 billion tunnel-building project, the largest since construction of the metropolitan area’s subway system. The tunnel will be 23 feet wide and 100 feet deep and will extend 4.5 miles from the sewage-treatment plant along the east bank of the Potomac River, crossing under the Anacostia River and extending to RFK Stadium on the city’s east side. [Emphasis added.]

With eye-opening treatment options like that, it is no wonder that cities are interested in hosting GI experimentation. Hoping to head off even more tunnel construction, the Washington, D.C. Water General Manager is enthusiastic about contributing to the GI body of knowledge!

“No city or utility has ever done a sustained and large-scale pilot study of green roofs, trees and porous pavement to help in those areas,” D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said. “We hope to do just that.”

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Charts of the Day – From the report, International Energy Outlook 2011  (IEO2011), released yesterday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Global energy use is projected to increase by 53% by 2035, with China and India accounting for half of the increase and with coal being the main source. Alternative energy is on the rise, everywhere, but its impact is fairly small in comparison with the projected increase in demand.

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So the tractor-trailer is parked out in the woodland (or other natural area), and you have to decide which species you will bring on board for a ride to their new habitat. A trip north or to a higher elevation perhaps? You cannot save them all, and you are not even sure that you are saving them because of all the uncertainties involved with the move. What a dilemma! But this is essentially the situation we are faced with as species are threatened by altered habitats due to climate change. The idea of a new Noah’s Ark is called assisted migration, assisted colonization, or managed relocation, (mentioned in an earlier post) and it is very controversial. A new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change acknowledges the controversy, but says that managed relocation is happening anyway. Given the desire to relocate species in the hope of saving them, researchers at CSIRO, the University of Queensland, and the U.S. Geological Survey present a decision-making framework. Dr. Eve McDonald-Madden of CSIRO is quoted as saying:

The decision-making framework we have developed shows that the best timing for moving species depends on many factors such as: the size of the population, the expected losses in the population through relocation, and the expected numbers that the new location could be expected to support. It would also rely on good predictions about the impact of climate shifts on a particular species and the suitability of areas to which they can move –  an often difficult issue in the case of rare species because we just don’t have this sort of detailed information.

Another CSIRO researcher, Dr. Tara Martin, discusses which species are likely to make it into the ark:

Managed relocation is not a quick fix. It will be used in some specific circumstances for species that we really care about, but it will not be a saviour for all biodiversity in the face of climate change.

Western Larch (U.S. Forest Service image)

Yes, controversial or not, people are beginning to actively intervene in species relocation. The June issue of Discover magazine has an article titled The Transplanted Forest: A Bold Experiment in Preemptive Climate Adaptation about ongoing efforts in British Columbia to relocate the western larch (Larix occidentalis), an important timber species. A related effort (and a less controversial one) – linked by the idea of active adaptive management – involves altering the habitat itself if possible. A recent New York Times article, titled Seeing Trends, Coalition Works to Help a River Adapt, highlights efforts to aid chinook salmon, another economically important species, in the Nisqually River (Washington State) through stream and watershed enhancements.

The coalition is reserving land farther in from wetlands so that when the sea rises, the marsh will have room to move as well; it is promoting hundreds of rain gardens to absorb artificially warmed runoff from paved spaces and keep it away from the river; and it is installing logjams intended to cause the river to hollow out its own bottom and create cooler pools for fish.

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Image by Thomas R Machnitzki, Wikimedia Commons

Ever since I began giving serious consideration to what specific steps can be taken by landscape planners and designers in response to climate change, I have been thinking about refugia. I first encountered this term as a university student when it was used to describe a place near my hometown. I grew up in the vast, flat inner coastal plain that follows the Mississippi River northward from the Gulf of Mexico. I had never thought of this landscape as being particularly special for its botanical bounty, so I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite places – the forested bluffs along the Mighty Mississippi – provided refuge for species during the last Ice Age. That discovery has given me a curious sort of pride in my hometown landscape ever since! The Botanical Institute of Texas describes the refugia along the Mississippi like this:

During the ice age, many plant species shifted southward, and at glacial maximum around 18,000 years ago, boreal forest reached Arkansas, with spruce and tamarack in the Tunica Hills along the cold, foggy Mississippi valley.  Deciduous forests of oak and hickory extended to the Gulf of Mexico.  As the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed, pines and other species from refugia in Florida, along the lower Mississippi River, and southern Texas and northern Mexico, spread across the southeast.

As we contemplate the opposite movement of species, the northward shift, we must begin to identify and protect places of refugium. Major land conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy are already engaged in this sort of planning exercise as they account for climate change impacts on the lands they manage. Federal land management agencies are also considering ways to provide refuge to species, in part because of a 2009 executive order by President Obama that mandated integration of climate adaptation planning into all agency planning activities. These are positive steps, but, like all conservation activities, they need to extend beyond public lands and private conservation lands to have the greatest effect. This is where planners and designers can make a contribution – considering the potential for refugia on privately held land in communities across the country. It’s the next step in environmentally sensitive areas planning and an opportunity to “mainstream” climate adaptation into ongoing community planning and design.

In its simplest form, “hot-surviving” refugia are found on the northern slopes of hills and mountains, at higher elevations, in mountain coves and hollows (known as “hollers” in another place I’ve called home), and in deep canyon recesses. The good news? These places are very easy to identify in the landscape! The next steps, a bit more difficult. In another post, I will discuss a related topic, the controversial idea of assisted migration.

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PlaceMatters, a nonprofit that developed from the Orton Family Foundation, recently published Bridging the Divide Between Science and Planning: Lessons From Ecosystem-Based Planning Approaches to Local and Regional Planning in the United States. There are six case studies in the report, chronicling the efforts of a partnership between PlaceMatters, the Packard Foundation, and NatureServe to better integrate ecosystem science into community planning. The subjects of the planning efforts are quite varied, and the locations range from Maine to Hawaii. The report is a welcomed contribution, especially given that there are not enough documented cases like the ones detailed here. I was struck, though, by a key finding:

Throughout all of the case studies and lessons, one underlying theme becomes apparent: although good data, robust models, and a logical decision process all matter, the politics matter even more. How effectively a community planning process unfolds is determined in large part by who participates, how they participate, and what power they each wield. How effectively such a planning process incorporates good scientific information depends on how much credibility the experts and their tools have in the process. In other words, community planning efforts are not exercises in abstracted rationality, but rather they are fundamentally political processes involving multiple parties with divergent interests. All community planning processes and decisions, not to mention subsequent implementation, are subject to the politics of their communities, and any approach to EBM that fails to recognize this is much less likely to produce effective implementation of a scientifically appropriate plan. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa, how was this not known from the outset? Because of the gulf between the science of the landscape and the real world of land use decision making. And this is precisely why efforts like this are needed, and why the title, Bridging the Divide is so appropriate. Using scientific knowledge to enhance land use decision making is valid and important, but the local politics of place have to be acknowledged from the get-go, or the planning effort will be doomed.

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What do you do with the relentless stream of bad environmental news? The local newspaper today featured an angry reader comment that said we’d better enjoy the little time we have left in response to what is possibly the most significant environmental news of the week, the release of an IUCN report and UN presentation today on the dire condition of the world’s oceans. So, what do you do with information like this? Compartmentalize it? Use it as fuel for action? Feed depression? What? Does it feel like a disconnect to visit and enjoy some beautiful, “natural” landscape and then think that we’re on the verge of catastrophe?

Can designers be pessimists? Personally, I think we have to remain optimistic to act and to design. In teaching about the relationship between ecological science and design, I choose not to dwell on depressing information, but instead to focus on what positive actions are possible. Young people today have heard since childhood that the earth is on life support and that they were going to be the ones responsible for fixing it. That is an overwhelming message. At some point, the bad news becomes so great that action seems futile. The challenge is to acknowledge the bad news, but still see a way out, actions that you personally can undertake to make a difference. Designers, in particular, have much to offer, as they can often see potential where others cannot, and they can help others visualize new states of being, alternative realities. That’s a powerful response to otherwise overwhelming distress.

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