BioCycle October 2017
When I was growing up a long time ago, everybody thought that technology was the answer. Engineers and scientists would find the tools to defeat the common cold, make aging come to a dead halt and make people invincible. This was also the period when wildlife was relegated to Sunday evenings to watch “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom” on television and the monthly National Geographic. Nature was something to conquer, best appreciated on TV or in the magazine. One look in the mirror lets me know that this hasn’t exactly played out as planned. However, if you look at how we have built and continued to build our homes and cities, you would think that we were back in the good old original days of Wild Kingdom.
This hit home when I went to Miami last spring, back when my only association with the name Irma was Irma Kemp, my friend Abby from second grade’s mother. The conference was in Miami, but I ended up staying in Fort Lauderdale. Driving from one to the other, it was hard to tell that they were in fact separate places. I stayed at a great motel built in the 1960s surrounded by massive towers on either side. It was wonderful to go in the ocean but that beach was actually very narrow. One big storm could erode away all that was left of the beach and leave those giant condos even more vulnerable. In short, my impression was that this area was a time bomb waiting to explode.
Now I have a new association with the name “Irma.” Through a great deal of luck that time bomb has not yet detonated, at least on the East coast of Florida. However, the concept that we can conquer nature is pretty much an artifact for anyone with any amount of sense. What makes a lot more sense, and also makes life a lot more pleasant, is trying to live with and foster nature.
This is the rationale behind the whole concept of green infrastructure, which relies on natural systems to work alone or in tandem with engineered systems. Instead of cities as concrete jungles, it means that the concrete is punctuated with trees and plants. Some of the trees may even have birds in them and some of the plants are likely edible. I am using the term green infrastructure here to refer to a broad range of categories including green roofs, storm water bioretention systems, living walls, urban agriculture, street trees, and green open space. All of these things rely on plants and soils to succeed. All of them work best if the soil is high in organic matter and we all know that the best way to do that is to add composts and biosolids to the soils.
The benefits associated with green infrastructure are broad and varied. Systems based on nature are typically less expensive than systems that require power and pumps. They also look better, which encourages people to go outside more and as a result stay healthier. Also as a result of their appearance these systems can increase real estate values. The greenery helps cities stay cooler in the summers reducing the heat island effect. It can also reduce heating and cooling costs for buildings. Urban agriculture can provide healthier diets, generate income, and reduce food insecurity. All of these things provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. They also all reduce carbon emissions by sequestering carbon in soils and plants, reducing fugitive emissions from the landfills where the compost feedstocks would have gone, and reducing energy requirements for storm water treatment. All of these benefits are in addition to reducing the impacts from storm events.
Accommodating Flood Waters
Speaking of storm events, these types of systems can make a big difference in keeping homes, structures and people safe. The Dutch approach to building in flood prone areas is a great example. The Dutch design open spaces and parks as part of their development planning. These spaces are designed to accommodate floodwaters and serve as natural reservoirs when needed. When not needed they are great places to walk a dog or go for a jog. The Dutch are using green infrastructure to let water in, giving it someplace to go. While traditional grey engineering is part of the Dutch model, there is recognition that the costs associated with attempting to keep all of the water out are too high.
A well-designed and thoroughly implemented green infrastructure system can limit the scope of damage from storms. It can keep large portions of cities and their citizens safe. It can limit flooding. However, it cannot save every structure from 140 mph winds or 60 feet of rain. It can’t save houses that are built too close to oceans or rivers. It doesn’t make it acceptable to build without thinking of the position on the landscape. It also doesn’t make it acceptable to pave over all of the soil. To the contrary, leaving it exposed and putting plants in it is a critical part of the solution. Green infrastructure is one component of a city designed to be resilient. Appropriate planning also needs to include limiting construction in sensitive areas and preserving green space all over.
So where do we fit in? Many people that read BioCycle manage the materials that form the backbone of the healthy soils required for just about all types of green infrastructure. However, the people that install the infrastructure are often not as well trained in organics. We can help this process by learning to speak the language of engineers and landscape architects. It can help if we can train them that a high percentage of organic matter is a good thing, not something to fear.
In addition to working with these planners it is good to develop product lines geared to particular end uses. How many composters have green roof blends or blends for bioretention systems? These blends may not need to be very different from your standard products but some additional testing and a few extra ingredients can make it much easier for landscape architects and engineers to trust in what you produce. You can also donate a portion of what you produce to urban farms. If it works as well as you know it should, you will be getting free advertising in the process. While we can’t stop the construction of 4 townhouses on sites that used to support a single home, we can push for construction standards that adhere to the Sustainable Sites Initiative, making sure that the soil that is left is highly capable of doing its job.
If this succeeds even just a little bit, there will be a big difference. It is really a good deal to make floods less likely in a community by making nature more prevalent. And an added benefit of this whole process is that the wildlife is so much nicer in color and in person than it ever was on a Sunday evening on the TV set.
Sally Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.