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Urban Ecological Restoration Benefits People, Too

… at least according to Senior Environmental Scientist, Peter May, and Water Resources Engineer Phil Jones

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“Barring love and war, few enterprises are undertaken with such abandon, or by such diverse individuals, or with so paradoxical a mixture of appetite and altruism, as that group of avocations known as outdoor recreation. It is, by common consent, a good thing for people to get back to nature.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

People have altered the ecology of their surroundings for many thousands of years. Nowhere is this more evident than in the urban environment, where development patterns and human behaviors have radically changed local ecosystems. Still, urban treasures such as New York City’s Jamaica Bay and Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River continue to provide essential ecological, recreational, psychological, and economic benefits to city residents.

Such remaining urban ecosystems have been recognized in recent decades as the backbone for broader ecological restoration efforts in urban areas, reversing some of the damage of the past and building on their still-impressive ecological assets. The notion of restoring urban ecosystems has coincided with an evolution in attitudes toward nature. Once perceived as a domain to be dominated, nature is increasingly regarded as a vital element of the human experience. Urban ecological restoration can also be considered the restoration of valuable human habitat, as more people in cities rediscover their own “backyards.”

In addition to achieving environmental and technical goals, successful urban restoration efforts should strive to re-connect people with their local ecosystems and foster in them a sense of place. This isn’t always easy. Impediments include physical and cultural barriers and inadequate financial and political capital. Harnessing the support of local communities is key to overcoming these barriers and often requires a long-term effort. Tapping into existing community networks, articulating a clear vision and set of goals, involving residents early in the planning process, and demonstrating concrete results can all help to develop a constituency for urban ecological restoration.

Many cities are exploring ways to improve access to natural urban areas. Examples include trail networks that link neighborhoods to parkland, expanded opportunities for fishing and boating, and interpretative signage and educational tours. Other efforts involve overcoming the physical barriers created by highways, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle and the Anacostia Freeway in Washington, D.C., in order to improve residents’ access to nearby waterways. These physical re-connections are essential in the renaissance of urban life, but are only recently being commonly considered in urban planning. Creating physical access also helps to break down psychological barriers, as residents become connected to natural areas they may not have previously considered part of their world.

An often-stated goal for urban wetland restoration is to improve the health and diversity of fish populations. This outcome can be considered from a social and economic as well as an ecological perspective. Improvements in an urban sportfishery brought about by wetland restoration, for instance, can increase residents’ interaction with natural areas. This can lead to a shift in local and regional perceptions of urban environments, which are often framed in terms of neglect and decay. These alternate values are worth a deeper investigation in order to more fully understand urban ecosystem restoration in terms of urban societies and economies.

In Washington, D.C., the recreational fishery contributes an estimated $1.35 million annually to the local economy. Given the economic, social, and cultural value that the District places upon its urban fishery, highlighting the benefits to sportfishery production may bolster the District’s often-costly ecological restoration efforts.

Bullhead catfish (Ictaluridae family) have historically been an important gamefish in D.C. Catfish are bottom-dwelling omnivores and come into close contact with river sediments, leading to elevated levels of PCBs, DDT, heavy metals, and other pollutants in fish tissue as a result of contamination in the Anacostia. A public health advisory for catfish has been in effect for over a decade in the District, though many anglers continue to catch and consume catfish. Ecological surveys found that tidal freshwater marsh restoration efforts on the Anacostia River may lead to shifts in local fish populations, with implications for the local sport fishery.

Between 1993 and 2003, most of the Anacostia River’s expansive tidal mudflat areas were converted to emergent marsh. Dredge material was deposited to raise sediment elevations to a point suitable for marsh plant growth. As part of a larger study, fish communities were surveyed and compared in a newly-restored emergent marsh, a mature emergent marsh, and intertidal mudflats.

The greatest fish biomass was found in mudflat areas, primarily because of the prevalence of catfish in this environment. While a connection can be made between total fish biomass and economic benefits, this approach overlooks the public health implications of a sportfishery oriented toward catfish. In addition, the large population of catfish and their popularity among anglers is partly an artifact of human activities. As a result of early river engineering efforts, mudflats were dominant along the Anacostia for the better part of the twentieth century, to the exclusion of emergent marshes.

The river’s lone surviving mature marsh provides a window into the possible future of sportfishing on the Anacostia, now that the majority of the once-expansive intertidal mudflats have been restored to emergent marsh. By excluding catfish from the analysis, the researchers found that the mature marsh outperformed the pre-restoration mudflat in fishery production. The fish community in the mature marsh is more diverse and balanced, including highly-prized gamefish such as bass.

This study illustrates that the ecological, economic, and social effects of urban ecosystem restoration can be complex and interrelated. While tidal marsh restoration will bring about long-term ecological and public health benefits, in part through a more diverse fish population, restoration efforts may cause short-term shifts in recreational and economic patterns that were unanticipated by the general public. The full ecological and economic value of a restored marsh ecosystem will be realized over time as the marsh matures.

Urban ecosystems are intimately linked to the local and regional economy and society, even if the connections are not always readily apparent. Restoration efforts can initiate a positive feedback loop by improving benefits to residents, including recreation, public and mental health, economic activity, and environmental vitality. In turn, city residents have the potential to become a long-term constituency for environmental stewardship and restoration efforts.

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