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Three Approaches to Reintegrating Urban Ecology

Cities are strengthening community health, vibrancy, and resilience by reintegrating ecology into the urban fabric in a variety of ways.

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Starting Over: Ecology at the Heart of Things–Resilience in City-Building

By Jennifer Dowdell

It’s not often in this day and age that we have the opportunity to build a city from the ground up. But there have been some opportunities of late, many to do with rebuilding in the aftermath of disaster or in locations where rapid development is driving change. It is a time ripe for innovation, but also for introspection, for considering all the opportunities we have to create cities that are responsive to their natural context, embracing the ecological systems that lie before us, and the myriad of services they can provide.

Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand and the South Island’s largest port. Also known as the Garden City, it is home to a vibrant arts and cultural life and gateway to travel across the South Island and to sites further afield, including Antarctica.

On September 4, 2010 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck just around 4:30 AM. Miraculously, there were no deaths and damage to buildings, bridges, and electric, sewer, and water infrastructure systems were scattered and manageable. But that was before the aftershocks.

Tens of thousands of aftershocks were reported in the wake of this quake, and in February of 2011 a 6.3 magnitude aftershock struck very close to the center of Christchurch (and only 5 km below the surface) at 12.51 pm on a summer’s afternoon. One hundred eighty five people perished in that aftershock, and the Center City was decimated. Seventy percent of the buildings in the central business district were damaged. Historic buildings and cultural sites were destroyed and 50,000 people who worked in the CBD were displaced. The total cost of the rebuild is estimated to be $40 billion (NZD), 15% of national GDP.

A friend who lives and works in Christchurch remembers that day, rushing from his office with colleagues and gathering along the bank of the Avon River, which flows through the city, feeling that along with the nearby Hagley Park and Victoria Park , the river was one of the safest, most stable places to be as further aftershocks rocked the city and many buildings crumbled.

In the aftermath of the quake, the city and national government, along with the Ngai Tahu  and Ngai Tuahuriri (the traditional Maori inhabitants of the area) worked together to progress the rebuild effort. Despite the devastation they caused, the earthquakes were seen as providing an unprecedented opportunity to revitalize and renew Christchurch’s central city. A rebuild offered the chance to add to the city’s social and cultural capital, while drawing on its rich natural and cultural heritage. Christchurch’s efforts were  an  opportunity to rethink city-building and what that meant for community and country.

In 2011, the community of Christchurch was invited by the Christchurch City Council to participate in a share-an-idea campaign. The main themes which emerged from the community’s 106,000 ideas were:  (1) a green city; (2) a city with a strong and resilient built identity; (3) a compact core with well-designed and accessible streetscapes; (4) a city where one lives, works, learns and visits; (5) an accessible city for all ages and abilities; (6) and a city that embraces cultural values and history.

In 2012, the Christchurch Central Development Unit, which is the development arm of the Government’s Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority engaged a multidisciplinary consortium group of international consultants to develop a blueprint for the 1480 acres which make up the Central City. What is inspiring is that at the heart of this plan for revitalization and recovery is an acknowledgement from both the community and its government that the ecosystem that lies at the heart of the city and its cultural heritage must be a key focus of the Rebuild. The Avon River (Te Papa Otakaro) and its associated wetlands have always been highly regarded by the Maori people as an important food source (Mahinga Kai). Don Miskell, General Manager of Planning and Design for the Christchurch Central Development Unit, explained that in 1861 Maori leader Pita Te Hori from Ngai Tuahuriri instructed his successors to “kai atawhai kit e tangata” – “care for the people”.   Don explained that “those of us involved in the rebuild process have been inspired by his wisdom and guidance. We are seeking to rebuild our city for our people and our visitors. We want to be generous, warm and caring hosts and thoughtful stewards of the land.”

The rebuild includes a series of 16 anchor projects that are intended to help kick-start the redevelopment efforts and to build confidence in the future of the city center. The first anchor project to break ground was the Avon River Precinct – a decision which underlies the importance of this natural feature to the resilience of the city. The River project includes a 1.9 mile (3.2 km) waterfront revitalization that weaves together natural and cultural values, integrates river restoration initiatives to improve habitat and water quality, a provides a continuous promenade for walking and cycling, and renewed civic and gathering spaces. The river corridor restoration includes indigenous riparian plants to invite more native birds (like the bell bird that was once common in the lowlands around the Christchurch area), and improvements to the morphology and texture of the river bottoms (clearing silt and cleaning the gravels that serve as habitat for fish, eel, whitebait and other key species).  Along with the river, other anchor projects that focus on urban ecology, include an open space corridor lined with new residential development, and facilities for education, research and innovation, are proposed within a frame that helps define a more compact center city and a connected community.

While Christchurch is unique in its inclusion of an ecosystem at the heart of its rebuild it is not alone in celebrating the importance of urban ecology in rebuild efforts after disaster. In Greensburg, Kansas, in the wake of an EF5 tornado that destroyed 95% of the town and displaced 1500 people, a unique master planning effort was led by Bob Berkabile and BNIM Architects. The plan features a citywide stormwater strategy that integrates with a park system and trail network, and furthers an objective to make Greensburg a green city based on goals of economic, social and environmental sustainability, (with all new buildings built to LEED platinum standards). And as New York and New Jersey continue to contemplate long-term considerations for the coastal communities battered by Hurricane Sandy there is an acknowledgement that the dynamism of natural systems may be the key to understanding long-term resilience in light of climate change and severe weather events.

Even in the case of building new cities, there is a growing focus on ecological systems, and what they can provide in urban design.  A Master Plan for Lavasa Hill Station near Pune, India was completed recently as a collaboration between HOK architects and the Biomimicry Guild.  Janine Benyus, a biologist and cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild, explained that in considering the design of this new city they used a three part process: (1) understanding what makes the place tick from an ecological perspective; (2) examining and understanding the practices of the site’s native flora and fauna, to see how their survival has been sustained in this unique system; and finally (3) developing ecological performance standards using nature as a measure.

In Lavasa, Benyus explained that their main focus was on water and its role in the native moist deciduous woods in the region. Lavasa had seen a loss of its native forest so in envisioning a new city they wanted to restore the key functions of the forest, even if the forest couldn’t be fully restored.  From examining the curves and slopes of the native harvester ant mounds to the functions of the tree canopy in promoting transpiration, they were able to create a design for the town that could begin to function again like the native moist deciduous forest, while incorporating a mixed-use development footprint. Though the design of brand new cities is not something that happens every day, and though we hope the redesign of cities in the wake of disasters does not become a regular occurrence, it is clear that urban ecology may actually be the key to resilience and sustainability for the next generation of cities.

Thanks to Don Miskell and Janine Benyus for taking the time to speak about their design projects and process. References: see Resources

Taking Stock

As cities begin recognizing that the most sustainable backbone for development is the community’s underlying and surrounding ecology, they are getting busy. They are mapping, studying, and maximizing the use of previously untapped resources to reintegrate this ecology into the urban lifeblood and infrastructure. As many cities grapple with urban blight and contaminated land, they are also beginning to regard not only their open spaces and parks, but their stockpiles of contaminated land, former industrial sites, and vacant lots as assets—not for regenerating just real estate, but also nature, and the many benefits that come with it.

Inspiring examples abound. New York City has created an “Eco-Atlas” of city-owned vacant lands and their potential for ecological restoration and stormwater management. In 2010, as part of an effort to create a new vision for the ailing city of Detroit, the city conducted an audit of its landscape, ecology, and open space. Viewing these systems as the city’s central organizing and capacity-building features, the audit informed the Detroit Future City Framework. This Framework will serve as a guide for the city’s future decision-making, and includes the transformation of largely vacant areas through blue and green infrastructure. Philadelphia recently took a look at all of its parkland forests in order to better protect, restore, and maintain them into the future.

Examples are certainly not limited to the U.S. The Republic of Singapore used an innovative Landscape Biodiversity Index tool (developed by AECOM) to help plan its Jurong Lake District, envisioned as a global example of sustainable development. The planning and design tool, which tracks performance of multiple, customized biodiversity indicators, allows municipalities to determine how a project will protect and enhance local biodiversity. Even in the nation that sparked the Industrial Revolution, cities are changing the ways they view things like brownfields. For example, when it was discovered that more than half of the brownfield land in London’s Thames Gateway area actually supported a high level of biodiversity (including some of the UK’s most endangered invertebrates), local authorities began to take a “biodiversity first” approach to planning, even going so far as to designate some brownfields as protected “Sites of Scientifc Interest.” This in the same city that transformed a brownfield site into a world-famous Olympic Park.

For a closer look at the way one aging, industrial city is reintegrating ecology, we visit Cleveland, Ohio. Located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, Cleveland was, since the mid-1800s, defined by industry. Iron, steel, and automotive manufacturing dominated this city until the 1970s, when heavy manufacturing began to decrease. As it did, the city’s population decreased right along with it. By 2011, the city found itself with more than 20,000 vacant lots, 8,000 of them city-owned. Rather than regard this stockpile as a liability, the city chose to regard it as an opportunity – to revitalize the city and its ecology.

Through ReImagining Cleveland, a city-wide vacant land reuse initiative, the city is creating sustainable solutions to vacancy while strengthening communities and environmetnal stewardship. In 2008, Neighborhood Progress, a community development funding intermediary, collaborated with the City of Cleveland and Kent State University’s Urban Design Collaborative to convene a 30-member working group to explore strategies to return the city’s vacant properties to productive use.  The resulting report, “Re-Imagining A More Sustainable Cleveland” now guides the city’s vacant land use decisions, and ReImagining Cleveland has become a powerful initiative that has helped transform 56 pilot vacant parcels into community and market gardens, vineyards, orchards, pocket parks, rain gardens, and other green spaces. Building on the pilots, ReImagining Cleveland created “Ideas to Action,” a resource book to guide others in transforming vacant lands.

So how effective are these vacant land transformations in terms of regenerating a city’s ecology?

“You can’t change the ecology of an entire city with 56—or even 500—projects,” said Terry Schwarz, Director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University, a partner in ReImagining Cleveland. However, she points out that the “social ecology” of the neighborhoods in which the pilot projects were implemented has improved dramatically. “Community members organizing around a shared problem and turning it into a solution,” she said.

As for official data regarding the benefits of vacant land transformations like the ReImagining Cleveland pilot projects, we’ll have to wait until next summer. That is when Ohio State entomologist Mary Gardiner, who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study 64 vacant lots in Cleveland, will have some information to share. Her study will also examine how diverse plant communities affect insects, and vice versa. In the meantime, a new round of Re-imagining Cleveland pilot projects will soon be announced. What can Clevelanders expect? Fewer but much larger projects, according to Schwarz.

Cleveland also sees vacant properties as assets when it comes to green infrastructure for reducing stormwater runoff and overflow discharges from the city’s combined (wastewater and stormwater) sewer system. Through Project Clean Lake, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is investing $42 million in green infrastructure projects, many of which are expected to be located on vacant lots and revitalize targeted neighborhoods in Cleveland.

Old railways are yet another ecological resource for Cleveland. As part of its efforts to make Cleveland more bike-friendly, the City Planning Commission has begun converting old railroad corridors into greenway trails. Integrating native plants, water quality improvement features, and ecological restoration, the trails provide a new way for people to experience not only the city’s creeks, woodlands, and ravines, but also its unique neighborhoods.

In 2009, at the first Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit, an event convened by Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson, participants clarified a new vision for this formerly industrial city: Cleveland will become a model of sustainability and become a leader in the emerging green economy…

“We still have a ton of work do to before every neighborhood builds ecological sustainability into decisions,” admits Terry Schwarz. True, but if initiatives like ReImagine Cleveland, and other efforts to maximize the potential of urban ecology continue to thrive, it looks as if the city is well on its way to achieving this new vision.

Ingenuity & Innovation

Across the globe, cities are applying inventive strategies to re-integrate ecology into the infrastructure, culture, and spirit of urban communities. Here, we examine the ways in which three types of cities are combining engineering, science, and good old human ingenuity to boost their resilience in the face of just one regional challenge.

Restoring Vital Lifelines in the Arid Southwest

In arid southwestern U.S. cities, the demand for water is increasing right along with the population, which is growing faster than the national average (U.S. Census Bureau 2010. State & County Quick Facts). At the same time, climate models predict that the region will only become more arid, and face increasingly severe and prolonged droughts. To put it bluntly, the water situation in arid southwestern U.S. cities is dire.  The rivers that run through these cities, have been drastically altered if not sucked dry in the name of flood protection, irrigation, and water resources control. These rivers, which once served as lifelines for people and riparian ecosystems, were dammed, diverted, channelized, and lined in concrete.

Thankfully, efforts to restore the hydrology and ecology of urban rivers are underway in cities throughout the southwest. A promising example is the restoration of the Santa Fe river in the both the city and county of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Santa Fe River has sustained the city of Santa Fe since it was settled by the Spanish in the early 1600s. For centuries prior to Spanish occupation, Native Americans lived along the river and used the springs it recharged. The Spanish carved a network of “acequias” (gravity fed irrigation ditches) off the Santa Fe River to support agriculture and provide for domestic and livestock needs. Though the acequias diverted water from the river, the unlined ditches actually helped recharge groundwater, possibly to a greater extent than would have occurred naturally without the ditches (spiegel and baldwin, 1963). They also supported the local ecology. In fact, in 1774, a local resident, Señor don Pedro Alonso O’Crouley, described the Santa Fe River as “a crystal clear river full of small but choice trout.”

But the arrival of large numbers of American settlers in the mid-1800s brought the beginning of changes that ultimately resulted in the river’s dewatering in Santa Fe. As development expanded, so did the demand for piped water, and the water company engineers built several reservoirs upstream of Santa Fe. The acequias soon dried up and farming in the floodplain virtually ceased.

The combined change in land use and hydrologic regime soon resulted in a drying floodplain and a river that became increasingly flashy, incised, and susceptible to severe flooding. 1968 saw a major flood that floated parked cars on downtown streets.  Flood control became an urgent priority for the city.

A decision was made to increase channel capacity by encouraging incision in the river channel. To do this, the City deliberately removed grade control structures that had previously been placed in the river to protect infrastructure. The result?  Flood capacity increased, but a host of other problems got worse. In one mile-long reach of the urban channel, the river channel dropped a foot per year over 15 years, decimating its riparian habitat and threatening human infrastructure. The city responded with a classic engineering approach, freezing that degraded reach into a concrete and gabion lined trapezoidal channel that became known as “the big ugly.” Then, in the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed lining the downtown reach with concrete colored adobe brown to make it look “historic.”

The public reaction against these channelization projects was so vocal that the mayor appointed a citizen’s River Task Force to look into restoration alternatives. In 1995, the group developed the river corridor master plan, a multi-year program to restore grade controls, multi-use corridors, and greenways to the river.

The city quickly funded the first phase of implementation, which softened the trapezoidal channel by use of stone drop structures, bank facing and vegetation, but also included a pedestrian/cycling path. This brought people to the river and began to create a constituency for further, more ambitious restoration work.

More restoration projects continued, both upstream and downstream, in the city and county. The Santa Fe Watershed Association led outreach efforts in the downstream, traditional community of Agua Fria to persuade the local folks that vegetative/geomorphic treatments could restore the river their elders remembered. The county acquired a mile of river channel in Agua Fria, displacing an active gravel mine from the reach, and restoration work began in 1998 on the San Isidro River Park.  Now, where there used to be vertically eroded banks as high as 40 feet, there is a sinuous, meandering channel flowing ephemerally and lined with native vegetation.

When Santa Fe’s progressive mayor, David Coss took office in 2006, he defined a “living Santa Fe River” as a top priority for his administration.

Biohabitats’ Neil Williams has been involved with the restoration of the Santa Fe River for more than 30 years–as City engineer, River Task Force member, and restoration consultant.  “In the 1980s, I felt like an outsider opposing the Army Corps’ plans to line the river in concrete,” he said. “Today, the Santa Fe community is virtually united around the restoration of this river.”

2011 saw the completion of a geomorphically-based restoration of 1.5 miles of the river through the city’s densest neighborhood. The project integrated riparian restoration, the creation of a linear urban greenway park running along the river, and a wide hiking/biking trail that has since become a major thoroughfare for commuters.

By 2012, after three years of experimentation with reservoir management, the city codified its commitment to the river by adopting the Santa Fe River Target Flow Ordinance. The ordinance commits up to 1000-acre-feet per year of the city’s water supply back to the river.  According to Brian Drypolcher, River and Watershed Coordinator for the City of Santa Fe, this signified a monumental shift in the way the community viewed water. “Until this point, reservoir management was all about getting water into a pipe for municipal water uses,” he said. “To say that we are now going to include in our reservoir management practices a commitment to put some water back into the river…that’s huge.”

Current efforts are underway to restore eight miles of the river in Santa Fe County, extending not only the ecological benefits of a living river, but the hiking/biking trail and its recreation and transportation benefits. Together, these stacked benefits translate to good news, when it comes to a city’s bottom line.

“You might think of river restoration as some warm and fuzzy ecological issue that’s just going to cost municipalities money, but it’s just the opposite,” said Drypolcher. “All communities are concerned about economic development and the vitality of the people who choose to live and stay there. Quality of life and aesthetics are big.”

Drypolcher has high hopes for the future of the Santa Fe River. “I want the river to be an ecological success story, with habitat for plants and wildlife but also thriving habitat for the social life of the city,” he said. “This kind of public open space contributes to our sense of community. This restoration is as much about stewardship of our social infrastructure as it is about stewardship of our water resources.”

Taking Pollution by Storm in the Pacific Northwest

Precipitation is part of everyday life in the Pacific Northwest region of North America, but that has not stopped people from streaming in. In fact, growth in the Pacific Northwest has occurred at twice the rate of the continental average. Much of the region’s development occurred before the Water Quality Act of 1987 added non-point source pollution amendments to the Clean Water Act. Thus, throughout this majestic region, polluted runoff from rain and snowmelt flows over impervious surfaces and into the very water bodies that define and sustain it. The impacts of this stormwater runoff are severe. Take, for example, Puget Sound.

Over 10,000 rivers and streams flow to the legendary Puget Sound, home to iconic chinook salmon, orca whales, and another 200 species of fish, 100 species of sea birds, and many types of marine mammals. Indeed, this complex marine estuary is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America. Yet, to quote Washington State’s Department of Ecology, “The Puget Sound is in trouble.” Since 1960 the number of people living in the counties bordering Puget Sound has more than doubled.

In Seattle, Washington, one of the largest cities on the Sound, the number of households is projected to grow by 30% by 2040. At the same time, climate change models predict more frequent and severe winter storms for the region. Combine these projections with the fact that nearly 2/3 of Seattle is served by a combined sewer system, and the knowledge that 75% of the pollution entering the Puget Sound (140,000 pounds of toxic chemicals per day) comes from stormwater runoff, and you can see that the Sound and its tributaries are indeed in trouble.

Just ask Jenifer McIntyre, a fish biologist and ecotoxicologist with Washington State University’s Puyallup Stormwater Research Center.  For the last few years, McIntyre has been collaborating with NOAA Fisheries to study the health and survival of salmon embryos, juveniles, and returning adult spawners in the Seattle region. The findings are alarming:  60-90% of adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning.

Both in the lab and in the field, the impacts of stormwater on salmon are disturbing. “It’s a double whammy,” says McIntyre. “Even if stormwater doesn’t kill the fish, it can cause some serious development problems, including cardiovascular toxicities, hemorrhaging in the brain, and various deformities.” Stormwater runoff also impacts the salmon’s prey, which can also cause mortality and reproductive impairment.

The lessons gleaned from McIntyre’s studies may be useful to others in the Pacific Northwest. “Our research is in the Seattle area,” she said, “but we’ve heard anecdotally that people are seeing the same thing all the way from British Columbia down to Northern California.”

Just what does pre-spawn mortality look like? “The fish show a suite of symptoms that are kind of strange,” said McIntyre. “Normally, salmon are afraid of you and swim away really fast. The sick salmon [observed in the pre-spawn mortality studies] are likely to be swimming into the banks, bumping into your legs, swimming on their sides, and very quickly falling apart.” It’s a distressing sight, even for a toxicologist.  “It is very sobering to see these fish, which have led a fantastic, wild existence in the North Pacific, return to their little homeland stream and utterly fail at their life’s mission—to lay those eggs,” admits McIntyre. As salmon become reproductively mature and start spawning, explains McIntyre, their bodies begin to degrade quickly.  “They stop eating and their organs begin failing,” she explains. “But these things are supposed to happen at just the right time in order for them to have reproductive success. When you find them dead and they’re not even physically degraded, it is shocking.”

But the news is not all bad. McIntyre and colleagues have conducted studies on soil bioretention systems in the lab and at a hatchery, and the results are promising. Last fall, the researchers found that untreated, polluted highway runoff killed pre-spawn, adult coho salmon within hours. This fall, the team constructed soil filters, took them to a hatchery and did side-by-side exposures of untreated and treated runoff from coal tar-based asphalt sealant. The fish exposed to the untreated runoff died within five hours. The treated runoff, however, performed “wondrously well,” according to McIntyre, with exposed fish surviving and showing no symptoms of pre-spawn mortality. “This gives us hope,” she said.

This is particularly good news for the people involved with the area’s efforts to improve stormwater management. And the committed community of Seattle is coming at this challenge from all directions.

Seattle is known for its innovative approaches to stormwater management. It was the first city in the nation to successfully use green infrastructure in the public right-of-way with its pilot Street Edge Alternatives Project (SEA Streets), completed in 2001. Since then, the city has implemented “roadside raingardens” in many other areas. Green roofs, permeable pavement, stormwater cisterns, rainwater harvesting and reuse, raingardens, and bioretention cells are common sights around Seattle. Citywide tree planting programs abound. Seattle Public Utilities and King County Wastewater Treatment Division’s joint RainWise program not only educates homeowners about ways to clean polluted runoff from their roofs, driveways, and lawns, but offers them rebates for implementing practices like cisterns and rain gardens.

The city is also addressing its stormwater problem through the Seattle Green Factor rating system, a program of the city’s Department of Planning and Development Department. Based somewhat on Berlin, Germany’s Biotope Area Factor and Malmö, Sweden’s Green Space Factor, Seattle Green Factor demands, among other requirements, that development projects achieve minimum scores based on landscaping features that promote the use of green infrastructure and stormwater BMPs.

The innovation and technology are not limited to stormwater engineering solutions. They are also being applied to stormwater outreach. Sure, there are web sites, flyers, workshops, interpretive signs, and the usual array of communication tools, but in the last two years, a new effort, known as Tox-Ick, is making use of underwater video to present a unique, diver’s eye view of the problem.

Tox-Ick co-founder Laura James has been diving in the Puget Sound for 23 years. Two years ago, after she happened to see a dark plume of stormwater runoff entering the Sound through a pipe, she felt compelled to share what she had seen. “It stopped me in my tracks,” she said, of her experience stumbling upon stormwater during a dive. “I knew that if I had never seen it, there was almost no way the general public had any idea.”

Tox-Ick’s mission is to educate a critical mass of Puget Sound residents about the problem of polluted runoff and promote seven simple steps people can take to do something about it. Tox-Ick provides free outreach resources to anyone, including other non-profit organizations with whom they compete for grants. Among the most powerful resources is the organization’s stormwater theater, a library of underwater videos that show both the problem and the living organisms the initiative strives to protect. Some of the videos are so powerfully haunting, they need no voice over.

But perhaps the greatest milestone in Seattle’s efforts to address its stormwater challenge occurred within the last nine months. In March of 2013, Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn issued an Executive Order –the first of its kind in the nation –directing all city departments to work together to develop a strategy to manage 700 million gallons of stormwater annually with green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) by 2025. Currently, 100 million gallons are managed with GSI. A few months after the Executive Order was issued, the Seattle City Council endorsed its goal and passed its own resolution establishing green infrastructure as “a critical aspect of a sustainable drainage system,” and adopting a policy to “rely on GSI for stormwater management wherever technically feasible” and to “integrate GSI into other appropriate infrastructure investments,” among other actions.

According to Seattle Public Utilities’ Pam Emerson, who serves as Green Stormwater Infrastructure Policy Advisor to the city’s office of sustainability and environment, the Executive Order and City Council resolution represent a significant, positive shift in the city’s support of green infrastructure. “Although we have had a very aggressive stance on green stormwater infrastructure in our stormwater code since 2009, we haven’t had this type of unanimous policy statement from our elected officials –establishing green stormwater infrastructure  approach as our default and directing us as a city to rely on it wherever we can—until now.”

Emerson and colleagues from several city agencies are in the process of assessing options and crafting an implementation strategy for achieving the Executive Order’s ambitious goals. The document is scheduled to become public in June 2014.

What types of green stormwater infrastructure projects are Seattleites likely to see as the city works toward its new goal?

“The workhorse technology that people will likely see more of as a result of the Executive Order is bioretention,” said Emerson. New partnerships are likely to emerge, as is the use of de-paving. For the most part, the city is looking at urban retrofit projects that can yield multiple, stacked benefits, and optimize both ecological and social function.

“On a right of way drainage project, for example” says Emerson, “the driver may be a stormwater goal, but at the same time we’re working in the public realm. We may have transportation, economic development, and tree canopy recovery goals for that same place. We’re really looking for opportunities where we can address multiple urban sustainability goals with the same project.”

There are many lessons we can take from the Seattle story. The community’s multi-pronged approach to managing stormwater runoff, which extends from its rooftops and roadways to the depths of the Puget Sound, reinforces not only our connection to water in cities, but the potential of that water to provide valuable ecosystem services, including critical habitat.

If efforts like those being taken by the people, nonprofits, and municipal agencies of Seattle are any indication, there is hope for the salmon, and indeed for us all.

Coastal Europe: Improving Harbor Hospitality for Young Fish

By Fabien Dubas

Coastal areas are among the most productive locales in the world, providing a wide range of habitats and ecosystem services. They also provide people with food, recreational activities, transportation, and a desirable place to live and set up shop. Already, a significant amount of the world’s shoreline is dominated by urban residential, commercial, and industrial development, and according to the Convention on Ecological Biodiversity, 50% of the world’s population will live along coasts by 2015. This intense concentration of population has put enormous pressure on our coastal ecosystems.

Aquatic species that rely on coastal zones for nursery habitat have been especially hard hit by coastal development.  As soft, vegetated, coastlines have become hardened by seawalls, bulkheads, and piers, this nursery habitat has been increasingly difficult to find. Breakwaters, and practices like dredging and sand mining, which often occur in urban harbors, certainly don’t make it any easier.

Most coastal fish experience a life characterized by the following stages: larvae, post-larvae, young of the year, juvenile, adult, spawning adult. Each stage relies on a specific type of habitat. For instance, post-larvae need shallow sheltered water in coastal areas, whereas spawning adult fish are satisfied with the condition found in open water.  Each year, between March and September, billions of larvae head to shallow coasts, seeking “nursery,” where there is the presence of food, calm waters, and protection from predators.  As they grow to young fish, they remain in the shallow coastal areas for varying amounts of time, depending on the species. Only when they have grown to a refuge size when predation is less likely will they move to deeper water. This time spent in the coastal zone is important, as young of the year survival is a crucial factor in the recruitment rate and thus the size of the adult population.  

Unfortunately, this shallow, coastal real estate, so important to larvae and young of the year fish, is also highly sought after by people, for marinas, recreation, commercial endeavors, and residential development. Indeed, bays, inlets, and other calm water areas are preferable for mooring boats, where the lessened intensity of waves protects facilities and limits erosion. This is particularly true in Europe.

According to the European Environment Agency, the growth of hardened or artificial surfaces along Europe’s coast is occurring at a rate one third faster than in inland areas. Seawalls, breakwaters, piers, and harbors destroy important shoreline habitats, thus disrupting the coast fish life cycle.

Healthy coastal ecosystems are essential for food security, livelihoods, safety, and well being of the people who live along coastal areas. But without changing development patterns, coastal ecosystems will  not be able to sustain future human migration trends to the coast as well and continue to be productive aquatic systems. Fortunately, policymakers are beginning to recognize that sustainable shoreline management is a priority, and that urban development must be balanced with the protection and enhancement of fragile coastal ecosystems for a resilient future.  Coastal communities, stakeholders, and organizations are working on new techniques and solutions to address this challenge.

European governance has tackled this issue by implementing strategic framework directives. The recent marine strategy framework directive (2008) imposes specific objectives associated with coastal development for different countries. For example, the French government translated this directive into a national program ‘National Strategy for Biodiversity’ which aims to reduce marine biodiversity losses, improve knowledge about the life cycle of marine organisms,  and propose operational solutions to halt and reverse biodiversity losses. The United Kingdom’s 2011 UK Marine Policy Statement sets forth  their objectives to achieve clean, healthy, safe, productive, and biologically diverse oceans and seas. Many European countries now utilize the Integrated Coastal Zone Management. This approach attempts to balance the needs of development with protection of the resource that sustains coastal economy.

Thanks to these recent policy decisions and regulations, ecological engineering companies are supported in innovating and bringing solutions that promote both sustainable coastal development and the resilience of coastal ecosystems.  Researchers with innovative organizations and companies across the European Union are working to develop new techniques to promote healthy coastal ecosystems while maintaining the important role coastlines  play in the economies of coastal communities. Several examples show the broad array of approaches being developed across Europe.

An innovative substitute for native sea grass is currently being tested in a laboratory in Spain. The research group has developed an artificial sea grass concept which mimics very closely natural Mediterranean endemic species. Though not yet used by coastal managers, this  newfangled concept should provide ecological functions, including nursery and hatchery habitat for native fish and invertebrates and a food source for many species of coastal and marine organisms. Its innovative features allow easy implementation in different environments (rocks, pipes, coral reefs or natural sea grasses) and use for different issues, such as reducing turbidity levels or protecting facilities from erosive processes. Designed to imitate the engineering capabilities of sea grasses and submerged vegetation, the system could be rapidly used to mitigate the negative impacts caused by coastal urban infrastructure and, as a last resort, to replace harmed natural sea grasses.

Development along the world-famous Mediterranean shoreline, which attracts millions of tourists and boaters every year, has become increasingly prevalent. Ecocean, a company based in Montpelier on the French Mediterranean coast, has developed an innovative artificial coastal habitat enhancement called the Biohut®.

A double cage system that is fastened to structural infrastructure integrates crucial ecosystem function into urban coastal development. Its innovative design prevents any impacts for shipping, marina, and harbor operations or capacity. The Biohut® is a cost-effective way to replace essential habitat in developed coastal areas and provide young, coastal fish with the shelter and food they would otherwise find in shallow, rocky water. This then contributes to the growth of adult populations.

The start-up SM2 Solution Marine based in Clapier in France conducts innovative vegetation engineering projects dedicated to the sustainable shoreline infrastructure. His Marine Green Wall solution composed of algae and other marine plants is based on the phytopurification technology that resorts to the use of natural purification. This eco-conception takes into account both pollution and micro habitat to offer young fish an adapted environment with shelter and food in harbors or other shoreline altered areas. The plants and algae, previously grown into aquariums, are specifically selected for their remediation pollution value. The solutions developed by this company involve the biomimicry approach.

In some places, despite increasing evidence of the important value of coastal ecosystem services, coastal habitats continue to be degraded, one of the factors which could explain this paradox is the poor understanding of ecosystem services.

On the other hand, positive signs have begun to appear, as more and more governments impose  laws to first avoid ecosystem impacts, then to minimize damages, and finally as a last resort, to offset the harm. (NEPA Act, European Habitat Directive)  This government-led awareness encourages companies to develop innovative solutions to respond to these challenges, developing coastal areas while conserving healthy ecosystems.

Some encouraging solutions have begun to appear and show good results.  In addition to providing ecological benefits, these kind of projects are powerful tools for educating communities about the fragility of marine ecosystems, reconnecting ecological networks and ensuring the natural life cycle of fishes continues undisrupted by human development. But even with these promising approaches, there is still a lot to do to ensure healthy, resilient coastal systems. The multitude of benefits to be gained by promoting healthy shoreline ecosystems must be considered before it is too late.

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