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Article on Biophilic Cities

April 14, 2014

It’s been a busy week, so my apologies for not posting anything. I did want to share this article from Grist (be sure to check out their excellent environmental news coverage if you’ve never come across them before).

I’ve discussed the concept of Biophilic Cities before, and it’s something I keep coming back to. The Biophilic Cities Initiative will be interesting to watch!

In the meantime, peak cherry blossom season has come and gone here in DC,
our daffodils are out in full strength, and out tulips are almost there. In other words, spring is here!

Dupont Circle’s “Phantom Planter”

April 3, 2014
Daffodils, Dupont Circle Metro, (c) MMD 2014

Daffodils, Dupont Circle Metro, (c) MMD 2014

You can’t keep a good bulb down. That’s become obvious this spring, when the once-neglected flower boxes along the long embankment next to the Dupont Circle Metro stop’s escalators bloomed with bright yellow daffodils. The flowers were the work of DC resident Henry Docter, the self-described “Phantom Planter,” who has planted flowers in public spaces around the world for decades (most of the time without permission). In 2012, he turned his sights on his hometown and planted daffodil bulbs in the then-empty flower boxes — spaces that were obviously once meant to house vegetation (and indeed I remember when they did contain some ground cover, which ultimately was neglected and died). Last spring he snuck down the embankment on a regular basis to tend to his flowers and plant morning glories and other flowers as well, but then he ran into trouble with Metro.

Long story short, Metro said that what he was doing was illegal (technically true, as he was trespassing) and formally warned him that if he continued with his actions he would be arrested. Not surprisingly, many in the community  publicly supported Docter — after all, who wouldn’t rather have flowers than no flowers? A petition was started, people spoke out against Metro, and Docter got a lot of press. Metro maintained that they were forcing him to stop watering the plants because of safety concerns — both for Docter and the public — but when Docter offered to continue to water the plants from the relative safety of the sidewalk above the station, Metro turned his offer down. In fact, they turned down all offers of help and support by sending in maintenance crews to rip out all of his flowers, even after telling community leaders that they would meet with them to come up with a solution that would satisfy everyone.

But this spring it became obvious that Metro employees did not dig down far enough to pull out the daffodil bulbs, because here they are! Docter’s actions might be controversial, but there’s no denying that they add a welcome touch of nature to the Metro system and the neighborhood.

Docter is by no means the only guerrilla gardener out there (there’s even a Washington, DC community group). What do you think about the “Phantom Planter” and others who garden in public spaces?

Amsterdam’s Canals: A Biophilic Feature?

March 27, 2014
Amsterdam, (c) MMD 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD 2014

We had never been to Amsterdam before, so were very happy to be able to spend almost a week there over spring break. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word against the city, and it’s one of those places that I knew I was going to like before I even got there. And indeed, I totally fell for the place. How could you not, between the canals, those crazy rooflines zig-zagging all over the place, and its people?

It’s a great walk-around city, and since this is my preferred way to see a new place we had a blast. I loved, loved, loved all of the canals — they provided an amazing sense of place and added to the open feeling of the city. The canals are great example of biophilic features — things that bring (and allow for) non-human nature into the built environment. And the canals really do seem to be a central part of life in the city. Although many of the boats on the canals these days are tour boats (yes, we did take a tour — see below for pictures from our sunset cruise), occasionally you see a local boat ferrying someone around from point A to point B. And the city’s famous houseboats are also alive and well. The Houseboat Museum had a neat video showing some of the canals in winter, complete with Amsterdammers flying by on ice skates.

And there is life in these canals. The Chiuki Street Photography blog posted pictures of fingerling bream in one of the canals a couple of years ago, and the official tourism site “I Amsterdam” says that northern pike reside in the city as well. There are also several places that run fishing expeditions in and around Amsterdam (the canals, of course, extend far beyond the oldest part of the city).

There is another part of Amsterdam fishing life that’s although worth noting: “Fishing in the Amsterdam Canals” seems to often refer to fishing bicycles and other debris out of the water! Apparently thieves sometimes dump stolen bikes into the canals once they’re done with them. An AP story from 2011 quoted Arie de Beer, with Waternet (the Amsterdam Water Authority) as saying that they fish 12,000 – 15,000 bikes a year out of the canals.

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Amsterdam, (c) MMD, 2014

Parisian Flowers

March 23, 2014
Parisian Flowers, (c) MMD 2014

Parisian Flowers, (c) MMD 2014

Last week, we got to enjoy a nice, warm spring day in Paris. While we were gone, DC got yet more snow, with another potential storm coming up this week. But our tulips are shooting up from the ground, and our daffodils are almost blooming. Spring is (almost?) here!

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

March 15, 2014

Greetings from Europe! Our first stop on our “Spring Break 2014″ trip was London. We were only there for a couple of days, and on this trip wanted to see something a bit beyond the normal tourist monuments. To have a target (and since we’re huge Olympic fans), we set out to find the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford on the East End. Much of the facility is currently under renovation in a planned effort to integrate it all, land and buildings alike, into the surrounding community (a master plan that will take about 25 years to complete).

Building the Park was meant to not only provide facilities for the 2012 Summer Games, but also to rehab the entire area — land contaminated by industrial waste was cleaned up, new bridges were built across the River Lea, and the area was generally made habitable again.  Much of the land is destined to become and remain developed, but part of the northern end of the Park has been restored to wetlands, which will be a great asset to the area — both for people and nature.

One building that has already been reclaimed by the community is the Aquatic Center, designed by Zaha Hadid. It’s become a community pool (well, pools — there are two swimming pools and a diving pool, plus a gym and other facilities). We were able to take a peek inside, thanks to a nice woman at the front desk, and it was lovely.

Outside isn’t so bad, either. The Center is quite striking, and even boasts a green wall. Nearby is the River Lea and a grove of trees. Although much of the area is torn up and under construction at the moment, we could see how what was once largely industrial waste land would one day become a lovely (and hopefully well-used) part of London. There’s no doubt that any large development project brings its fair share of concerns, criticisms, and controversies, but large projects built with long-term planning in mind (even if the original use of the project was a short-term event), and that incorporate natural features, can enhance the quality of life for a city’s residents, both human and non-human.

Aquatic Center, QE Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Aquatic Center, QE Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Aquatic Center, QE Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Aquatic Center, QE Olympic Park, London, (c) MMD 2014

Should City Parks Become “Tree Zoos?”

March 5, 2014

Interesting article out of Edinburgh, Scotland — the BBC reports that a deal has been struck between the Edinburgh City Council and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh to plant endangered trees in the city’s public parks. The twist is that the trees will be from all over the world — Edinburgh’s climate makes it possible for trees from Japan, North America, other parts of Europe, and even North Africa to thrive — making Edinburgh’s parks into a sort of zoo for endangered trees from around the world.

Although only a few parks will be early participants in this program, David Jamieson, the parks and greenspace manager at the City Council, said that they’re hoping to plant trees in all of the city’s parks over time. The goal is to both increase biodiversity within the city while at the same time helping to ensure the conservation of these trees.

The first trees planted will be Serbian spruces in the Princes Street Gardens (seen here) this week. Should be an interesting experiment to follow over the years!

(c) Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

(c) Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

Urban Canopies

February 24, 2014

Last week, Metro Connection, DC’s NPR affiliate’s excellent show that weaves regional stories together, had a piece on our urban forest, prompted by a symposium that Casey Trees (a great local organization whose mission is to increase our urban tree canopy) sponsored recently. Metro Connection spoke with Richard Olsen, a plant geneticist at the National Arboretum (a local treasure, if you’ve never been there).

Olsen discussed some factors that urban foresters need to consider when deciding what trees to plant. In the past, we often relied on monocultures of trees, based in large part on what we thought was attractive. American elms are a prime example here, and were the cause of a hard lesson learned when Dutch elm disease wiped out large parts of city canopies in the US. These days, we’re also contending with pests such as the emerald ash borer, which is hitting ash trees hard.

At the same time, you need species that are able to survive — and even thrive — with the unique stressors facing them in an urban environment. Olsen used the example of the salt and other substances we lay down on roads every time it snows (or even when snow is forecasted — we’ve certainly all seen salt laid down only to have a storm turn out to be a bust). Unless rains washes the salt away relatively quickly, it’s going to end up seeping into the ground and will ultimately hit trees’ roots. 

Aesthetics also play a role — we want trees that look good, according to our sensibilities. We also don’t want trees that bear lots of fruit (that then needs to be cleaned up when it falls on the ground), or trees that are extra hard for those with allergies to cope with.

At the same time, he points out, we have a new concern for how trees play into the larger urban environment — will they support urban biodiversity? Olsen describes this as a changing aesthetic, which is an interesting way of thinking about it: “We’ve gone from purely ornament, a design feature in the landscape, an aesthetic, to this new aesthetic, which is wouldn’t it be great and wonderful if it supported all sorts of wildlife.”

However, there are barriers to a diverse urban canopy — for example, as Olsen explains, “you can only plant what’s available in the nursery industry…[and] the nursery industry is only going to produce what they can sell.” So perhaps one question we need to ask is: can we encourage nurseries to grow a more diverse set of species? This applies not only to trees, but also other plants — and also begs the question of whether or not we can encourage nurseries to stop selling invasive ornamental species.

This reminds me of a discussion we had in the class I’m teaching this semester last week, although in class we weren’t specifically talking about nurseries and plants.  Can you create consumer demand for environmentally-low impact products (in this case, plants and trees) through the products that a business chooses to sell? Or do you need to create consumer demand to get businesses to sell those trees and plants in the first place? In other words, can a top-down approach (business influencing consumers) work? Or is a bottom-up approach (consumers influencing business) more realistic? In a world where time and resources are limited, which approach is more efficient?

American Elm in Jamaica Plain, MA. Courtesy of the OSU Special Collections and Archives via WikiMedia Commons

American Elm in Jamaica Plain, MA. Courtesy of the OSU Special Collections and Archives via WikiMedia Commons

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