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Is There Room for Wildlife in City Parks?

ASLA’s The Dirt recently covered the 2010 Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Study Symposium. This year’s focus was “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” which looked at ways to preserve biodiversity in rural and urban environments. America’s cities are an appropriate laboratory for such a movement, given that many city-dwellers’ encounters with wildlife are limited to rats, raccoons and pigeons.

The inherent traits of the urban environment: warmer and drier air, poor nutrient cycling and high levels of pollution hinder efforts to attract and sustain wildlife populations. The forest fragmentation that accompanies urban development displaces species which require large swaths of contiguous habitat, including many mammals and forest interior songbirds. Even where large preserves exist, suitable habitats must be connected by park corridors to other wild places to maintain wildlife  populations. On the other hand, a park system of smaller, scattered parks close to neighborhoods is more accessible to humans than one of a few, large, concentrated parks. Additionally, many of the features of parks which attract wildlife, like multi-level vegetative canopy and tall, unmowed grass, are incompatible with park amenities like athletic fields, playgrounds, and manicured gardens.

In spite of these challenges, access to wildlife has significant benefits for park users. Spending just a few minutes in a natural setting is correlated with improved cognitive function and emotional outlook. Additional research suggests that bird watching improves mood, promotes social cohesion, and can slow or reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s. Park designers need not pit the needs of ecosystems against the needs of users; ecosystem integrity is an important amenity for many park-goers.

Wetlands at Jamaica Bay, New York City (Wikipedia)

Urban nature preserves, like Jamaica Bay in New York and oil-threatened Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans are wild treasures. But even small designed parks can provide important wildlife habitat while supporting recreational use, through park connectivity like in Boston and Minneapolis, or careful plant selection, like in Chicago’s green roofs or Washington D.C.’s butterfly garden. The connection with our natural heritage is a cherished privilege for city dwellers; one which merits inclusion in our vision for livable cities.

Revitalization in Olmsted’s Small Town

Olmsted's plan for Vandergrift.

A small town in Pennsylvania designed by Frederick Olmsted is trying to turn a corner after years of decline by building on its history as a city designed to be in tune with nature. The AP’s Ramit Plushnick-Masti writes how Olmsted designed Vandergrift, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and its streets to follow the river. Street corners and the buildings on them were rounded. Parks dotted the hilly landscape, and the town was walkable. Today the town is not as pedestrian friendly, but there seems to be a new thinking afoot:

While many communities are embracing sustainable revitalization, Vandergrift’s strategy is all-encompassing: to create an energy independent, ecologically low-impact, economically viable town from the ashes of its postindustrial wasteland. It aims to renovate buildings with sustainable materials, from carpet textiles to solar roof panels. A farmers market has been expanded. Trees are being planted and green spaces recovered.

Perhaps the most ambitious is the river energy project. With Weiland’s guidance and a grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Pittsburgh students are seeking to exploit the hydrokinetic forces of the Kiski River to offset energy costs downtown, without building dams or coal-burning electrical facilities.

The city has gone from 6,800 residents in 1980 to about 5,000 today. We often concentrate on the efforts of big cities, but with many Americans still living in smaller cities and towns, and the fact that sprawl is common and energy used more in those places — the work in Vandergrift (and other places such as Greensburg, Kansas) is worth telling.

Goats for Park Revitalization

A brush clearing goat. cc: the Sun

Revitalization starts with goats, or so it goes for Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. The city’s Parks and People Foundation is undertaking a $10 million renovation of a decrepit mansion on the edge of the historic 745-acre park that will house an environmental learning center, the group’s main offices and trail connections to the rest of the park. With the mansion property in need of severe brush clearing, the group weighed the options and found the most reasonable to be hiring a goat herd.

The Baltimore Sun covered the herd of 40 urban brush chewers and reported the following:

“They’ll eat just about anything, except the stuff that’s poisonous,” Knox said…….. The Boar and Spanish species of goats in their second day on the job had been eating much of the vegetation and left a lot of twigs and bare trees. They can reach up to 6 feet off the ground. Goats have been used around the region before to clear parks, residential properties and the shoulders of highways.

The foundation had to gain permission from animal control and health department officials to bring in the goats, which are considered exotic animals in Baltimore. There is some interest in having a resident goat to help maintain the property, but that’s still against the law in Baltimore – unless you’re the zoo. Interestingly, sheep were once used to tend to the lawns of the park, possibly through World War Two.

Trash Compactors in Philadelphia

GOOD magazine takes us to Philadelphia to look at the city’s new trash compactors. LOVE Park (or JFK Plaza as it is formally known) is seen in the background.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Trash Compactors in Philadelphia“, posted with vodpod

Energy Efficient Parks

Many park agencies and park friends groups are trying to go “green” by reducing their carbon footprint. In many ways, this has nothing to do with parks themselves, but tactics to reduce energy consumption that would apply to many other companies or government entities. In any case, the Tacoma, Washington city parks agency just hired a team to help it reduce its footprint, and some of the findings might be interesting to readers here:

Among the consultant’s recommendations: turning off computers at night, restricting air travel, not buying bottled water for meetings, setting all printers and copiers to automatically print double-sided, and purchasing green products such as EnergyStar-rated appliances.Metro Parks has already been finding ways to be greener, said urban forester Kathy Sutalo, who heads up the parks district’s Green Taskforce.Some of those items include: reducing gas and electricity use, offering car-pooling incentives, adding hybrids to its automotive fleet, and limiting use of toxic cleaning products and fertilizers.“We don’t use synthetic fertilizers in most of our parks,” Sutalo said. “Only on the sand-based sports fields, where the organic fertilizers don’t work as well. We mainly use turkey poop.”Green pest control methods have been used instead of pesticides at W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Wright Park since 1991, she said. They include soap sprays, rotating plants out and the occasional release of beneficial insects.

Additional tools recommended include changing lights in the park to the low-energy LED variety. Interestingly, employees driving to and from work accounted for about 40 percent of the 4,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide created yearly by Metro Parks activities.