Baltimore’s Watershed 263 experiment in socioecology
Jan16

Baltimore’s Watershed 263 experiment in socioecology

Ecological restoration makes city dwellers happier and healthier. by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer IN the first summer after my move from the cool green climes of western Washington State to Washington, DC, I gained a primal, physical understanding the urban heat island effect. Summer in the District of Columbia is a hot, humid shock for a native northwesterner, and last summer was record-breaking hot. Cycling away on humid summer evenings from the baking concrete and asphalt canyons of downtown, the steady progression into increasingly leafy residential neighborhoods felt like an essential reward, without which the long, sweaty uphill climb would not be psychologically tenable. A patch of woods, one of the many remnant forts of mostly forgotten historical significance dotting our nation’s capital, seemed to breathe blessed, refrigerated air over me as I turned the corner on the last leg of my journey. Thank you, elder generations, for this gift of evapotranspiration! That patch of woods is, of course, contributing more than a cool breeze to passing commuters. It is an ecological refuge, an absorbent surface during intense thunderstorms of the midatlantic summer, and a sponge for nitrogen and phosphorus washing off city streets and lawns. It’s an all-season draw for joggers, dog-walkers, and folks out for an evening stroll.  Parks, playgrounds and tree-lined streets make this working class (though, like much of Washington, rapidly gentrifying) neighborhood a pleasant place to live. And having a pleasant place to live is not trivial, nor is it just a marker of safety and economic privilege. It confers better health and well-being. “We had this hypothesis that there is a link between the social revitalization and ecological revitalization of urban neighborhoods,” said Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. Organizations like the USDA Forest Service and Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation had observed the connection for many years, he said. The people on the ground say that projects that improve water quality by planting vacant lots, parking strips, and other urban spaces with trees and community gardens also bring people out of doors and teach local kids about their environment – and do so at lower cost than traditional engineering solutions to sewage management and stormwater runoff. When you bring neighbors outdoors to work on a shared community problem, the project brings people together. It creates, as the sociologists like to say, “social cohesion.” People see that they have power over their environment – that, as a group, they have access to power and city services. They start to demand access to other services that residents of wealthier parts of the city...

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