Urban Ecosystems: Breakthroughs for City Green

By Moll, Gary | American Forests, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Urban Ecosystems: Breakthroughs for City Green


Moll, Gary, American Forests


I was 23, a year out of college, and enthusiastically engaged in my first permanent job. I was working for a big electric utility that covered most of the state, and we were doing big stuff. The company was into everything - housing developments, coal mining, and, of course, electric power generation. My job was to come along after the company had built something and replace or rebuild the landscape.

In the 20 years since that job, I've spent my time trying to revise that scenario by making natural landscapes relevant to people who build big things, like power plants, or make decisions about building even bigger things, like cities. After several national surveys of urban forests and hundreds of conversations with urban foresters, I realized that trees and even existing natural landscapes were not recognized as a valuable community resource. Community leaders must make difficult decisions - often choosing between costs and community benefits - and until now have lacked the information they need to understand the benefits natural resources provide.

As a natural resource expert, I believe it's my job to supply this information, and it's getting easier now to do that. AMERICAN FORESTS is helping communities map, measure, and analyze their local ecosystem using a computerized planning tool, and the results show natural resources are more than pulling their weight. Early estimates suggest the national savings from urban ecology total $40 billion a year.

Let me give you an example to show how far we've come in how we view our natural resources.

That electric utility I worked for decided to standardize the way it built power plants, beginning with one under construction along the Ohio River. The "recipe" called for a couple hundred acres of land to be literally turned upside down to fit the standard design.

I realized the magnitude of the job when the landscape architect asked me to meet him on-site to review landscape plans. Over the next two years we would need to rebuild and stabilize hundreds of acres of land with various grasses and plants. We were to reroute a stream to reduce flood risk, then "reattach" it to the Ohio River. I looked at the stack of plans but couldn't concentrate. That stream thing stuck in my mind.

Those plans were ambitious, but the construction guys were not intimidated; they had a piece of equipment for everything the landscape architect wanted done. Over a few months a ditch became a stream with lush green banks and flowing water. The landscape architect showed me plans for fish habitat, complete with old logs and rocks lowered into place with a crane.

Although I felt better rebuilding the natural landscape - work that put my forestry education to good use and gave me some practical experience - my sense of accomplishment was soon overshadowed by a daunting question: Had we restored the natural landscape or just patched it up to solve a development problem?

I turned my attention to planting large trees on a quarter-mile-long dirt mound that looked like a burial ground for a truck convoy. We mobilized lots of people and big equipment to dig up trees at the nursery and prepare the planting holes. But on planting day only five workers were available, making it impossible to get even half the trees in the ground. Faced with the prospect of trees drying out over the weekend and dying, I turned to the construction manager for help.

When I ex-plained the problem, he changed the subject to insects on his trees at home. He would not help. That's when I realized that what I saw as a critical ecological-restoration project was viewed by the company as a low-priority beauty treatment. Nothing I could say about the trees could be related positively to the bottom line, because though the dollar benefits of electric power could be measured, the dollar value of the landscape could not.

Since then I've made it my No. 1 concern to quantify the costs and benefits of the natural landscape and communicate them to decisionmakers. …

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