July 28, 2008

Tree Walk: More than 36 hours in Toronto, part 2

Taking public transportation in a new city is a skill and one I did not fully master during my short stay in Toronto. My intention was to participate in the Rouge Park tree tour offered by Toronto Tree Tours but the series of transit was overwhelming. Rouge Park is at the edge of the city and I was staying in the university district. The more than one hour trip was a combination of subway, light rail, and bus, and shuttle. In lieu of the walk on June 21, I downloaded the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood tour. This tour is one of five that published on the Toronto Tree Tours website.

I did not walk the entire route. Instead, I visited three locations: the London planetree at the Berkeley Castle; the ginkgos and Norway maples in the courtyard of the Canadian Opera Company; and the courtyard of a mixed-income housing project. I could not access the Berkeley Castle courtyard so the photograph, above, was taken from the sidewalk. The opera courtyard is gorgeous. The site, pictured below, is described by Toronto Tree Tours as follows:

To come upon this courtyard while walking down what appears to be a neglected alley is one of the true joys of exploring the city by foot. With its tall stately trees, ornate gazebo, and brick walls covered in ivy, the courtyard is a lovely secluded place to seek reprieve on a hot summer afternoon. The grand brick building that surrounds the courtyard is home to the Canadian Opera Company and includes rehearsal spaces, workshops and administrative offices. Completed in 1888, the building was first a purifying house of the Consumer’s Gas Company and had been designed to look like a Christian basilica.

Slightly southwest of the condo and co-op housing is a verandah shaded by maples (not pictured) that is not on the official tour.

My experience with Toronto's trees was not limited to the abbreviated version of the St. Lawrence tour. I walked and ran through Queen's Park, below, the city's nineteenth century central park (the plan view can be seen here). The park supports a diversity of mature trees like white oaks and horsechestnuts. Toronto Tree Tour will tour the park on August 20, 2008.

Not all the treescapes were as impressive as the park. The young trees on College, pictured below, showed signs of vandalism and stress. Also, the impervious concrete grate is unnecessary. I cannot recall the street on which the trees bedecked with annuals is located. What I do know is that the mounding of soil around the trunk flares exposes these trees to health problems like root collar rot and feeder-root suffocation.

My spirits were buoyed when I saw the tree protection zone policy being enforced at a construction site in The Annex neighborhood. Many cities have implemented this policy but it is not always enforced. A barrier, pictured below, is installed to enclose the tree and its root zone. The rule of thumb is that for every inch of diameter, at least one and half feet of root circumference measured from the trunk should be protected

Finally, on most evenings, I enjoyed looking across the balcony to a canopy set among two-story row houses and against a backdrop of skyscrapers and cranes.

July 27, 2008

Sustainable setting for scholarship

None of the University of California campuses placed in the top tier of the Princeton Review's "greenness" index according to the Times reporter Kate Zernike. It is not hard to believe that UC Berkeley did not make the list; after all, the university will replace a carbon sink (an 80-year old oak grove) with a carbon source (a modern sports facility). Read about the lawsuit here.

However, the university has taken some steps towards sustainability which can be seen on its sustainability walking tour. Interestingly, Strawberry Creek is featured on the tour even though the proposed sports facility will add impermeable surface area to the creek's watershed. The creek feature is described as follows:

Cal has provided a role model of environmental education and stewardship through its program to restore Strawberry Creek: over 3,000 students use the creek as an outdoor lab annually, and design of new buildings incorporates features to protect water quality and improve habitat.

The newest dormitories on campus are also featured on the walk. Known as Units 1&2 Dormitories, the site's landscape (below) was designed by GLS (Gary L. Strang) Landscape/Architecture of San Francisco, California. The design received one of the ASLA 2006 General Design Category Awards of Honor. (ASLA is the American Society of Landscape Architects.) The dorms status as infill housing, pictured below, contributed to the project's receipt of LEED status.

Photos: ASLA 2006 Professional Awards

The university's walking tour does not include many landscape-related sustainability features like food production, cooling (the replacement of the oak grove with a building will presumably increase the urban heat island effect), habitat, or stormwater management though the latter exists on the campus.

In partnership with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), the university designed a water conservation landscape south of the biological sciences building. There are several informational signs (above) posted within the project area but they are not at eye level and the graphic design is uninspired. Also, the lawn to the north of the oaks dominates the project area. Although "water efficient irrigation" has been installed, a lawn is not a traditional sustainability motif.

On the other hand, the vegetated swale, at the western edge of the project pictured below, signals an ecological approach to stormwater management. However, the swale is not striking; the vegetation is still immature and the species palette is lackluster.

Some next steps for the university could include meaningful integration with the City of Berkeley's environmental planning; green roofs; rainwater collection; treescapes for climate mitigation, stormwater management, and habitat; and more urban ecology and sustainability courses. The Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning sponsored a green roof demonstration project this spring and a green roof on Wurster Hall (the department's home) is a "Big Idea @ Berkeley." Wurster is often cited as "the ugliest building on campus" by tour guides and even John King, urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, but its roof is an ideal candidate for modelling green roof strategies.

July 26, 2008

Bookshop: Alternatives to the lawn

Permeable landscape, San Francisco

The permeable front yard design, pictured above, is a possible alternative to the lawn. Elizabeth Kolbert's makes an insightful statement about lawn alternatives in her essay titled "Turf War." She writes, "Of course, to advocate a single replacement for the lawn is to risk reproducing the problem. The essential trouble with the American lawn is its estrangement from place: it is not a response to the landscape so much as an idea imposed upon it--all green, all the time, everywhere." Below are several titles Kolbert mentions in her book review and which can be found at our bookshop along with other titles.

  • Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn
  • Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony
  • Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
  • Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn
  • Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community
  • Requiem for a Lawnmower, Revised Edition: Gardening in a Warmer, Drier, World

July 25, 2008

News: water collection, slow food, lazy locavores, and a Jersey tomato

More attuned than usual to storing water - the regional utility company has instituted water rationing - I've noticed several articles about doing so. For instance, Anne Raver, in her latest "In the Garden" essay, describes "garden reservoirs" in New York City. Raver features the 32 inch diameter, 165 gallon capacity tank at the home of Lenny Librizzi, assistant director of open space greening at the Council on the Environment. This tank is one of type of collector that Librizzi designs, mostly for community gardens. Rainwater is collected in community gardens over 20 cities and Raver visited several in New York: 1100 Block Bergen Street Garden (1,000 gallon tank); Long Island City Roots Garden (300 gallon tank), and Brooklyn Bears Carleton Avenue Community Garden (1,000 gallon tank collects water from the roof of an adjacent church).

Raver does not mention permit requirements for disconnecting the downspout from the NYC sewer system. In San Francisco, a permit is required, a fact I learned on a tour of permeable landscape sidewalks hosted by Walk San Francisco and Plant SF. Permits are also required to install greywater systems. The Greywater Guerrillas founder, Laura Allen, " built a home graywater system that bypasses the sewer system by reusing the water from her sinks, showers, and washing machine to flush the toilets and irrigate the deep-rooted plants and trees in her lush backyard garden advise residents on how to collect grey water." According to the East Bay Express, the system developed by Allen and promoted by the group "is a straight violation of graywater guidelines spelled out in the state plumbing code." The first permitted Berkeley and California residential greywater system is installed at the Ecology Center's EcoHouse. The EcoHouse also provides three "guerilla" greywater system installations but cautions they are unlawful.

The EcoHouse like Laura Allen of Greywater Guerillas uses greywater for landscape irrigation. EcoHouse grows native ornamentals and food plants. Harvesting greywater might be too "mussy" for the "lazy locavores" chronicled in the New York Times earlier this week. Journalist Kim Severson writes about city residents with gardens who outsource not only the maintenance but the harvesting as well. What's a food garden if you outsource the harvesting?! I wonder if San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will participate in the harvest of the Slow Food garden at Civic Center Plaza? Newsom was pictured planting with direction from Alice Waters in the print version of the Wednesday Times.

Very local tomatoes

I could not identify the plant Newsom was putting into the ground but it was not a Jersey tomato. The return of the Ramapo is good news for New Jersey whose garden state status was threatened by budget cuts at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (I wrote about this news here). The agricultural department will remain intact due to greater than expected tax revenues from 2007. Surprisingly, there are only three Slow Food chapters in the garden state, but the Northern New Jersey Convivium will host Tomato Day on August 10 at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum.

July 24, 2008

Photo du jour: Green walnuts and lavender from Forage Oakland

In exchange for my mints and rosemary, Forage Oakland delivered green walnuts on Monday, above, and lavender today, below. The lavender is from a friend of Forage Oakland. I don't know the provenance of the walnuts, except that three of them I foraged from the walnut street tree on my block.

Vanishing neighborhood life: Beijing and Washington D.C.

Welcome to guest blogger, Nalini Rao. Nalini recently completed graduate studies in natural resource economics, works in Washington D.C., and "enjoys looking at global and local environmental issues."

In Wednesday’s New York Times, there is an interesting article about a vanishing type of neighborhood in China. These neighborhoods consist of large, old houses which include stately courtyards which are connected by alleys, called hutongs, were designed in the 13th century by the Mongol founders of the Yuan dynasty.

Photo: New York Times, Forrest Anderson

As the article states, “the layout of the neighborhoods, with public life spilling into the hutong alleyways and private life hidden behind brick walls in the courtyard houses” existed until the 1960s, when population pressure forced city planners to fit three or four families in a house and courtyard previously designed for a single family. The families would then spill out into the hutongs, eating and socializing in the alleys themselves. Clinics, public kitchens and public bathrooms were located in and around these hutongs, where the communist social ideals were overlaid onto the ancient Yuan city plans.

Photo: New York Times, Shiho Fukada

Now, in the 21st century, another phenomenon, spurred in part by the Beijing Olympic Games, and in part from China’s pace of development, has resulted in these old neighborhoods being torn down in favor of office building complexes and strip malls. In addition, these areas are also currently being gentrified, with small wealthy families displacing the larger groups of people who had lived in these neighborhoods since the 1960s. This has changed both the structure and the community feel of the hutong neighborhoods.

The author finds the current ambiance as sterile as an American suburb. Thus two processes, the population growth and socialism of the 1960s, and the modernization and gentrification of the 21st century, have left very little of the ancient design and feel envisioned by the early city planners. This theme of historical preservation at odds with population growth and the city residents’ changing needs. The article also discusses the local perceptions of living in a hutong neighborhood versus a state issued apartment.

Across the world, gentrification, development, local population changes have caused neighborhoods to change in structure, and in community feel. Examples in the United States include certain areas of Washington D.C. and other larger cities, where neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, are experiencing gentrification which displaces local populations and brings in large scale retail stores, which changes the character of the neighborhood. There are many similarities and differences with the hutong example in China and urban revitalization/ gentrification in the United States, but a common theme is population change—whether growth or shrinkage.

This post was written by Nalini Rao.

July 20, 2008

Site changes

Local ecology is undergoing style changes. Posts made between February and July 18, 2008 will not be available for an undetermined amount of time (you can re-read and comment on these posts here here). New posts, however, will be available for reading and commenting here. Thank you for your patience.

July 18, 2008

Bird Watch: Central Park, East Bay regional parks, and the Okavango Delta

Marie Winn's fascination with the birds of New York is are told in her books "Red-Tails in Love" and "Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife." Winn and others track and observe screech owls, orioles, and moths among other wildlife in Central Park, at night. If I lived in New York I would be a participant in these moon- and ambient-light lit adventures!

Birding also happens in Prospect Park (Brooklyn), Pelham Bay Park (Bronx), and Forest Park and Alley Pond Park (Queens). New York Times reporters Anne Raver (she writes engrossing essays column in the Home & Garden section) and Katherine Zoepf offer some online for birders: the blog, Urban Hawks; nycadubon.prg; prospectpark.org/calendar/audubon_center_events; and Sibley and Peterson field guides.Closer to home, the East Bay Regional Park District offers "Tuesdays for the Birds" bird walks in its regional parks. The next walk is scheduled for July 22, 7 to 9:30 a.m. in Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline. Bethany Facendini will lead the walk; call 510-525-2233 for the meeting place. The park district hosts additional birding programs: Thursday Birding; Wonderful World of Water Birds; Bike 'n Bird; Biking, Botanizing, and Birding the Bay; and Family Birdwalk!.

Source: Wiki Commons

In her article, Times reporter, Katherine Zoepf, mentioned a birder's life list. A life list is "a list of all the bird species [a birder has] identified with absolute certainty during [her or his] whole lifetime of serious birding." As a novice birder my life list is short but it does have a "good bird" on it: a yellow-billed kite seen from a canoe in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. I fell out of the canoe while peering at the kite.

July 16, 2008

Photo du jour: Animal art in the city

The large and small of animal art in U.S. cities.

Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, Calif.

Fulton Street, Berkeley

Addison Street, Berkeley

Denver, Colorado

Byers Evans Museum, Denver

Public library, Denver

Seattle, Washington (one of the Pigs on Parade, 2007)

Finally, it's not quite art, and I think Boston's duck and swan boats are more creative, but here's Toronto's water tour vehicle:

July 13, 2008

More than 36 hours in Toronto, Part I

St. George Street

Several weeks ago we took a six-day trip to Toronto (and Niagara Falls), Canada. My first photograph in the city was of plants and people. I was struck by the simplicity of this landscape feature: a tight allee of birches, a grove, between a last century modern building and traditional brick construction. Another interesting architectural-landscape combination is pictured below, also on St. George Street.

The birches were sighted on a walk after dropping our bags at a friend's apartment in the Bloor/University neighborhood. We visited the Bata Shoe Museum. I was taken by the small sizes of the adult Chinese shoes on exhibit; the women who wore them had bound feet.

Of the neighborhoods I explored, my favorite is The Annex. Respected urbanist, Jane Jacobs, lived in The Annex. (I will be writing about Jacobs's advice for park and neighborhood development in a future post.)

The Annex is also home to the Ecology Park Community Garden which we discovered at the end of our first walk. The park and its stewards will be featured in a nature-made profile. Briefly, the park began as a staging ground for subway expansion but now features plant associations found in the original Taddle Creek watershed and in southern Ontario.

The generous tree lawns within The Annex neighborhood, like the one pictured above on Madison Avenue and adjacent to the Ecology Park, also contribute to an improved watershed. Less impervious surface means less runoff. Larger soil zones support healthier and larger trees; tree canopies intercept, slow, and clean rainfall (and moderate air temperature, store carbon, and filter air pollutants). In addition, if the soil within the tree lawns is uncompacted and pervious, it can absorb rainfall directly as well as indirectly via throughfall (water falling through the canopy) and stem flow (water flowing down the trunk), further preventing runoff and improving the hydrological cycle.

The hydrological cycle of the Taddle Creek watershed has been severely disrupted. The University of Toronto buried the creek in the late 1880s (?). The landscape design within the original creek bed does not appear to use a creek-friendly plant palette. Furthermore, the drainage system, pictured below, appears to follow a more industrial-era model of storm-water management.

Alfred Holden, editor of Taddle Creek Magazine, wrote an interesting essay on the history of the creek. Lost Rivers, an organization that "create[s] an appreciation of the city's intimate connection to its water systems, by tracing the courses of forgotten streams," has posted a map of the creek sections on its website.

July 11, 2008

Ginkgo's smelly fruit is edible and the tree is long lived

Green (unripe) ginkgo fruit

One day last summer on a stroll down 66th Avenue in Oakland, a smell brought me back to a short street (one block) in the South End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, lined with a single tree species. The smell and the tree: the ripe fruit of the female ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba). It was pungent; for me, a cross between a rotten apricot and vomit. Ginkgo derives from two Japanese words: "gin" meaning silver and "koo" or "kyoo" meaning apricot. (Biloba refers to the double-lobed leaf.) A recent essay in the New Yorker about ginkgos in New York City also brought me back to the afore-mentioned street in Boston. The article reports about a group of three youth, known as the Anti-Ginkgo Tolerance Group, who urge "citizens to call 311 if they encountered the smelly seeds." In my capacity as street tree program manager for the Boston Parks Department, I was once asked if the city would remove several ginkgos. Neighbors - at least the resident with whom I met - did not like the smell nor the fruit litter on the sidewalk. It is worth noting that the ginkgos in questions were at least 10 inches in diameter at breast height. A ginkgo grows slowly. An aside: Tonawanda Street in Dorchester, Boston, Mass. has beautiful, mature ginkgos. I explained to the South End resident that the City only removes dead or hazardous trees in keeping with the Massachusetts General Law which gives municipalities tree warden power. In addition to the legislative rule, I offered practical advice. I mentioned that the fruit releases its odor when it is bruised or crushed (triggering the decay process), so the malodor could be mitigated by harvesting the fruit. Neither piece of information satisfied the resident. Unfortunately I could not contact a harvesting group. At that time in Boston, there were no organizations that coordinated street-tree fruit harvests; there still are no such organizations to my knowledge. (However, EarthWorks Projects harvests fruit from urban wilds and schoolyard orchards.)

Many cities no longer plant the female ginkgo. I think this is unfortunate. Street trees potentially embody functional ecology (ecosystem services) and food production. I would guess that more city dwellers have access to a street tree than to a yard. I derive great pleasure from picking and eating the plums from the street trees in my neighborhood, but unlike a plum tree, a ginkgo is long lived and large statured, thus providing more benefits for a longer period. Plant female ginkgos and harvest their fruits! The ginkgo nut is edible: "both a prized delicacy and an invaluable food for long life...throughout Asia" according to the New England Ecology Garden. The nuts, roasted, "make a tasty snack," according to Flordata.com and Lucy at the Nourish Me blog offers a ginkgo nut custards recipe. Note: some people are sensitive to the pulp; also, the extract can be toxic.

July 7, 2008

News: environmental services jobs, salt marsh sparrows, and Sacramento's Blueprint

Donning a Green Collar, Boston Globe
Amid the uncertainty, there's a growing movement among community organizations, environmental groups, unions, and workforce development agencies to pinpoint what jobs will become available and how to get people into them. The goal is to create "green-collar" jobs that would provide those often shut out of new job opportunities - such as people of color, the poor, at-risk youth, the underemployed, the unemployed, and the formerly incarcerated - the training necessary to compete for positions in the burgeoning field.
Wings & a Prayer, Boston Globe North
Scientists aren't sure where the Plum Island contamination is coming from, but they do know that other species around the country with high mercury levels, such as loons, produce fewer offspring. Roughly 95 percent of the world's saltmarsh sparrows breed in the Northeast, where mercury contamination is among the highest in the nation. Because the sparrows spend their lives in the marsh, essentially unable to escape the pollution, scientists believe the elevated amounts of mercury found in these tiny birds may be a harbinger for many other species that also depend on the wetlands.
With Gas Over $4, Cities Explore Whether It's Smart to Be Dense, Wall Street Journal
For decades, backers of "smart-growth" planning principles have preached the benefit of clustering the places where people live more closely with the businesses where they work and shop. Less travel would mean less fuel consumption and less air pollution. Several communities built from scratch upon those principles, such as Celebration in Florida, sprouted across the country. But they were often isolated experiments, connected to their surroundings mainly by car. So, as gasoline remained cheap, the rest of the country continued its inexorable march toward bigger houses and longer commutes. Now, smart-growth fans see a chance to reverse that. Expensive oil is going to transform the American culture as radically as cheap oil did," predicts David Mogavero, a Sacramento-based architect and smart-growth proponent.

July 3, 2008

Fourth of July

Hale Street, Beverly, Mass.