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Posts Tagged ‘environmental protection’

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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Should state & local government be committed to protecting long-term environmental values? Even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, NY State residents respond like this. I’m impressed. The survey was sponsored by CaRDI – Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute and conducted in Jan 2011.

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