Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Diversity as Strength: Learning from our Prairies

This article from AskNature.org seems particularly relevant this week as we heal from the deadly and divisive events of the weekend. It may seem strange to draw parallels between plant and human communities to learn from them, but by studying our native tallgrass prairies we learn that fostering diversity within a community is its source of STRENGTH and key to its long-term RESILIENCE.

“But when the work of one species is hampered by drought or other conditions, another species in a diverse and multi-talented community is likely to thrive and expand its activities. It is this ability of species to compensate for one another that allows the system as a whole to function steadily over the long term.” (Baskin 1997:24-25) Read more here!

So how can we learn from nature to foster diversity within our own communities? We welcome your constructive thoughts on how we can help our communities be more resilient by learning from nature's diversity strategies.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August iSite: Our Place in the Woodland

Woodland near Railroad Track
It is part of my regular routine to walk my dog and sometimes run through a small patch of forest near the railroad tracks in my town. This small 50 acre woodland is bordered by a railroad track, a river, and single family homes. It is home to mostly maple trees with more than a few black cherry trees of various ages and sizes, from 100 year old grandmothers to a forest floor of saplings. There are few if any oaks to be found in this stand, largely because this park is located on the east side of the river, a location typically shielded from the prairie fires that blow from the west. The woodland also houses typical suburban critters from squirrels and bunnies to skunks, raccoons, and even coyotes. It also houses quite a few insects from mosquitoes that love me to black gnats that fly into my eyes. Ah, the web of life!

This is a managed woodland. The forest preserve keeps up the trails and removes invasive species. This area, and others nearby, also serve our community in another way: they are a part of the overall flood control strategy for our nearby downtown. In times of heavy rain, particularly in the spring, parks such as this are allowed to flood so that the river doesn't damage the valuable economic interests downtown.

So in this small tract of woodland surrounded by suburban low-density housing, humans and non-humans interact quite a bit. I could draw a diagram of the web of life that exists here, but my curiosity lies in the functions this ecosystem performs.

Water Cycles
I mentioned the flood control functions this ecosystem performs. Not only does it slow the flow of water that falls from the sky with its varied layers of vegetation, but it also slows the flow of water runoff from northern developments by allowing additional land for the river to cover in lieu of the valuable real estate downtown. The water stored is filtered through the soil and hummus layers and feeds the underground water table. Adjacent properties could assist with this function by building rain gardens and other forms of green infrastructure to help keep water on site where it falls.

While the biodiversity I mentioned above isn't as high in terms of number and depth of species as a woodland in a more rural location would be, it is much higher than the typical turf grass and trees landscapes adjacent to it. This area becomes an oasis for local fauna to find shelter and food when they cannot otherwise. Biodiversity is key to resilience over time, and our human habitats can begin to foster diversity by learning from ecosystems too.

Carbon and Climate 
This suburban oasis of a woodland helps to cool the ambient temperature of the surrounding area. The temperature is noticeably cooler, not just from the shade of the trees but also from the transpiration of plants which adds water vapor to the air. Trees shade themselves, harness energy, purify the air, and provide shelter. They also sequester carbon in their trunks and roots. Each of these ecosystem functions help provide a livable environment for a variety of life - including humans. The next step is to create buildings that do the same! And green architects around the world are doing just that.

Material Cycles
Woodlands are great examples for material cycling in nature - after all, there is no landfill for them to store their waste! All materials are cycled in nested closed loops (see Rachel's post here), and while doing so create conditions for life to thrive because of readily available nutrients and stable soil. Imagine if the materials we use to construct human habitats were held to the same standard and fit with the nature of the place, were designed for deconstruction, and readily recycled on site. That would truly set a new standard of practice for our built environment.

Community Connections
This is a fairly isolated patch of woodland with hard borders such as railroad tracks being very difficult and dangerous for humans and wildlife to cross. But what if this oasis could be connected to other woodlands and prairies with wildlife corridors and vegetation-rich landscapes, thereby improving the biodiversity and interconnectivity of the land? And else can we learn from ecosystems to improve connections between human communities as well?

Understanding our Deep Roots
When brought together, we can begin to understand the ecosystem standard that our native ecosystems, such as this woodland, set. Our challenge is then to find ways to emulate nature's standard in our built environment, creating human habitats that perform at least as well as the ecosystems they inhabit.

Learn more by visiting the Deep Roots Initiative page of our website!