Around the globe, an overwhelming majority of people in developed areas live in urban areas. Every year, a massive amount of land in the United States is converted from green space, to alternative land uses like new homes or buildings and impervious surfaces such as roads or parking lots. These land use changes are especially prevalent in urban areas. Within these urban areas across the United States, over 41% of the existing land area is used for homes and their surroundings. Even further, over 75% of our nation’s population lives within, or immediately around, urban areas. This inevitable overlap creates a very extensive dynamic between the people living in these areas, and the world around them.
In a city like Pittsburgh, there is an extensive amount of area that is covered by tree canopy. In total, over 42% of the total area of the city is covered by trees! That’s over 35,000 acres! With this statistic in mind, it’s easy to see that any residents within the city are going to interact with these green spaces in some way, every day.
The dynamic is becoming more and more readily understood as many different disciplines have begun exploring the various relationships and connections that seem to exist from the vegetable gardens of our back yards to cobblestone pathways through our parks, all the way through even the growing street tree population. There is a vast array of evidence that illustrates the benefits of green space around us, too. From health benefits and environmental services, to social conduits connecting neighbors and means to invest in the future generations.
View looking down a trail in Frick Park, one of Pittsburgh’s original parks
Health and Beauty
Forested land in urban spaces has been continually attributed to improving people’s well-being, mental health, and quality of life. Trees help to reduce particulate air pollution, produce oxygen, lower ambient temperatures (reducing your home’s energy bills!), and even capture carbon found in the atmosphere in the form of CO2, a known greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Green space has been shown to reduce levels of stress and fatigue in people who visit them often. It encourages people to want to be active or to seek rest in a rejuvenating space.
In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to have several classic 19th and 20th century parks created specifically for the betterment of the people of the city. Frick Park, for example, provides access to a diverse woodlands threaded with thoughtful trails and whimsical natural features. It inherently provides ample habitat for an array of wildlife, flora, and playful kids! A quick visit here shows exactly how the presence of these green landscapes can facilitate a noticeable change in our psyche.
At the social scale, increased presence of trees and green-space have been shown to decrease levels of crime in urban areas across the United States. The presence of trees has also been indicative of higher levels of social connectivity, and even an increased feeling of safety. Presence of vegetable gardens and fruit bearing trees also provide an extremely valuable food source for individuals and community members.
Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM)
This management approach unifies the objectives of a multitude of different pieces to the greater puzzles.
EBM considers a much broader spectrum of interactions within the environment than more conventional management practices. In natural systems, an example would be making management decisions that consider not just humans interactions, but the interactions of all living things on land or in the water, and non-living things. It would also consider multiple cultural usages and values of resources that goes beyond traditional monetary valuation.
The difference between this type of management approach, and more traditional methods, can be conveyed in this example:
In a typical residential lawn in the urban or suburban southwestern Pennsylvania region is the “American dream home” once always portrayed with its perfectly cultivated and landscaped vast, green lawn. A lawn with very low plant and animal diversity, lots of irrigation, lots of fertilizer and herbicides. This type of landscape does not provide the varying kinds of habitat needed to support an array of insects, or birds, or plant life. So in regards to EBM, the management approach traditionally used to to take care of the majority of residential landscapes in the most populated areas of the country, were focused solely on propagating relatively few species of plants and animals.
The value of the landscape was, relatively speaking, focused on many of the cultural beliefs at play in modern Western society. A belief that a clean and tidy yard was an indication of being put together, and civilized. The focus was narrow, as it excluded so many other organisms values. Native plants have native hosts. Gold finches love the native Asters, like Echinachea, the coneflowers.
Sprinkled around those often vast, green grass single-species landscapes (rivaling corn as the most heavily irrigated crop in the United States), exist often varying sized pockets of trees, shrubs, and flowers.
Especially in the regions at the edge of the yard, where different layers of plants from adjacent landscape types (often called ecotones)begin to mix. In those regions, we can find an array of plants and animals that exist from well below the surface of the earth, to crawling all over the tree tops. It’s across these zones that we begin to see where EBM plays a role. A local Pittsburgh example of a landscape with this type of management in mind, would be any of our parks!
A more “wild” landscape, like within those ecotones, exhibits a character that seems unkempt, when in comparison to the traditional American backyard. However, this landscape is supporting the values, and lives, of a nearly uncountable number of living things. For instance, a single oak tree can often provide
shelter and food for dozens of different species of caterpillars. At the next level, many birds need to find hundreds of caterpillars every day to bring their clutch to maturity. Within these varying, “wild” landscapes, often exist a number of native plants that have a history growing and evolving in this part of the world. The animal life in our backyards evolved alongside of these same plants, and so it is between these great arrays of organisms that the already forged relationships sustaining life exist. The plants are especially adapted to the regional water levels, seasonal changes, and soils.
The relatively high frequency of non-native ornamental plants, including plants that have naturalized outside of cultivation, often creates high levels of competitive exclusion to the native plants, as they cannot compete with the often more vigorous non-natives. Native insects and birds often do not use non-native species of plants nearly as often for their shelter or food. The landscape may still provide some ecological services like: reducing surface storm water runoff, providing food, shelter, and resources for some birds and insects. However, it does not support the variety found in adjacent, more native, green spaces.
And, at an even different level, a place like our parks are places where people from different neighborhoods, walks of life, interests, and cultural backgrounds can mingle. It is within these spaces that we as residents of a highly diverse urban place can foster connection with our neighbors, whether they are insects, birds, trees, or people from across the street. The idea of EBM connects the values of all of these members of our surroundings and tries to best emulate a management goal that crosses biotic, cultural, municipal, and even political boundaries.
Managing our backyards with EBM The approach to implementing the more holistic perspective of EBM in our yards involves, simply, emulating the landscape around us! We can take advantage of the hints that the existing, or once existing, landscape leaves with us to best create a yard that bridges the divide between what was once conceived as wild, to our backyards. It’s all just nature! The best part about this approach, and where it is most effective, is when numerous people, or even multiple communities all adopt similar goals that exemplify the broad perspective.
Most easily this is done by reducing the area of our lawn space! Remember before when we saw that lawns don’t sustain the same levels of diversity as landscapes that have a multitude of layers? By reducing that space, we can increase more significant habitat for the native plants and animals. The more our neighbors and neighborhoods do this, too, the more connected of a landscape we can create for a multitude of different living and nonliving things. Also, the more we as residents of these spaces can reap the multitude of benefits.
We can also look to our local city parks and state or national managed lands as an example of how to grow our landscapes more holistically. Pittsburgh has expended a significant amount of energy, time and money to encourage the growth and investment into its parks from a variety of different stakeholders. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Tree Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh, and numerous other public and private stakeholders all are developing a more robust, and considerate vision that emulates the diversity of processes and participants in the natural systems that we are all inherently a part of.
Historically, much of modern landscape design has focused primarily on aesthetics or specific services that landscape plants offer, rather than trying to better reflect what plants may have been in a certain place. In much of the world that has had contact with a global economy, this has been fruitful for many plants that are showy, or tasty, or even just able to survive in the worst possible conditions. The nature of many of these types of landscapes, and the organisms that occupy them, is that without the context of where these plants had originated they are not able to find balance within the natural landscape. Instead, many of these ornamental plants have escaped into the wild, because of a lack of pressure from the native environment. One can tell the difficulty of many plants attempts to survive in a suburban landscape simply by seeing the input from homeowners in the form of money, energy, water, and other resources.
The importance of developing our landscapes to better reflect the natural heritage that occupied these places before major development occurred is critical to better creating a sustainable future. Many would agree on the importance of having an understanding of cultures in a region to shed more light and insight into its history. Likewise, having an understanding of what a landscape previously looked like, or what animals lived there, or what flowers bloomed there, and even what peoples used to live there, can help guide management goals to best reflect the direction that the land was moving. It is generally more difficult to get somewhere new, and ensure you’re not headed back towards where you’ve already been, if you don’t know the history.
Do you want a brief explanation of an acorn? In a nutshell, it’s an oak tree! Really, though, it is that simple.
And with this perspective, I think we can begin to grasp the complexity of different parts of our everyday life. To begin to identify how so many parts of our life are more complex than meets the eye, we can begin to make more conscious decisions that are rooted in not just knowledge, but wisdom. Choices that are driven by a holistic perspective of so many of the different parts of our environment are going to be the ones that best suit all those pieces. We can take steps at growing an ecosystem-centered approach in and around our homes, through a change in our thinking and our actions. Grow your home to grow your connection with the natural world, and to grow closer to a unied mindset that in inclusive of all.