What Can You Do? — Xeriscaping — April 30, 2015

What Can You Do? — Xeriscaping

Now you are probably wondering what you can do to help mitigate the issues correlated with urbanization. Well here’s my answer – xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping that promotes water efficiency by using plants that are native and adaptable to semi-arid or arid climates. As water becomes a more scarce and limiting resource, this landscape design technique is a new alternative for all landscaping projects, residential or commercial. Denver Water coined the word in 1981 by combining “landscape” and the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry. The first organization to define this type of landscaping, Xeriscape Colorado Inc., became a partner of Denver Water, which merged with another non-profit, Metro Water Conservation, to form Colorado WaterWise. This is known as the current leader in water conservation in Colorado.

The benefits associated with xeriscaping are spectacular as water becomes scarcer and the maintenance of traditional landscaping is usually high. Xeriscaping saves water, uses less maintenance, doesn’t use fertilizer or pesticides, improves property value, is pollution free, and provides wildlife habitat. The xeriscaping concept is based on 7 principles, which are outlined below.

  1. Plan and Design: Creating a plan provides direction and will ensure that water-saving techniques are implemented in the landscape.
    1. First, look at you existing landscape and create a base plan. This diagram, drawn to scale, should show major elements of your landscape, including housing, driveway, sidewalk, deck or patio, and existing trees.
    2. Observe the natural drainage patterns and assess whether you will need to build terraces to help reduce soil loss and erosion due to rain.
    3. Your existing design should include location of spigots, downspouts, fences, existing lawn, garden, shrubs, trees, and the slopes of your landscape.
    4. Next, think about how you want to use your new xerisacape design a plan and outline what types of plants should go where.
  2. Soil Improvement: Soil in water-conserving landscapes should drain quickly and store water at the same time.
    1. You can achieve this by adding organic material, like compost, in your soil
  3. Create Limited Turf Area: Reduce the size of turf areas as much as possible.
    1. It is best to limit turf as much as possible, but you may retain some for open space and visual appeal.
    2. This helps reduce water use.
  4. Use Appropriate Plants: Select plants that are native to your region.
    1. Use drought-resistant plants that need a minimal amount of water.
    2. Tress can be used to help reduce evaporation, block wind, and shade the soil.
  5. Mulch: Cover the surface soil surrounding plants with mulch.
    1. Mulch keeps the plants cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation, and reduces weed growth.
    2. Mulches include bark chips, wood grindings, leaves, pine needles, or gravel.
    3. Mulch coverage should be inches thick and must be re-applied form time to time.
  6. Irrigate: Avoid over watering.
    1. If you still need to irrigate your landscape, the most efficient irrigation system is drip irrigation or soaker hoses.
    2. These deliver water directly to the plant at a slow rate reducing moisture loss, erosion, and pooling.
  7. Maintain your landscape: Low maintenance is one of the benefits of xeriscape.
    1. Keeping weeds from growing may require a little attention.
    2. Turf areas shouldn’t be kept short – taller grass helps shades the roots and retains moisture.

Now you have the knowledge to start your own xeriscape when you please. Living in Colorado makes it hard to sustain lush gardens, so xeriscape is an alternative that is equally beautiful and more sustainable!

Here are some examples of beautifual and sustainable xeriscape gardens!

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How Urban Green Spaces Balance the Sustainability Stool — April 29, 2015

How Urban Green Spaces Balance the Sustainability Stool

I’ve discussed how individuals living in urban areas can take action to live sustainably, now I will talk about how cities take steps towards improving overall sustainability through urban green spaces. The EPA characterizes green spaces as land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation. Examples of urban green spaces include parks, community gardens, storm water ponds, lakes, playing fields, and public plazas. When analyzing anything in light of sustainability, it is crucial to look at the topic as a whole. In relation to urban sustainability, urban green spaces provide a large variety of benefits for each leg of the sustainability stool; social, environmental, and economic. These pillars are also known as The Three P’s of Sustainability; planet, profit, people I first learned about this concept as a “stool” because equal balance among each “leg” is needed to hold the stool up properly, and if one “leg” is off balance then true sustainability is not achieved.

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I will look at each leg of the stool to thoroughly explain how urban green spaces attribute to a balanced sustainable society.

In my previous blog posts, I have specified how urbanization threatens the environmental health of a city. Fortunately, parks protect the quality of the urban environment in a variety of ways. San Francisco’s Urban Forest Plan says green space slows climate change and estimates that all of the city’s trees store 196,000 tons of carbon annually, divert 516,468,000 gallons of water from the sewer system, and the total environmental benefits of the trees is $9.4 million. The urban heat island effect is a significant health risk, as more people die in summer hot spells than all other weather events in the U.S combined. Green spaces reduce the urban heat island effect and help avoid this health risk. According to the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, a mature tree canopy “reduces air temperature by about five to ten degrees.” Also, trees in parks remove pollutants from the atmosphere and improve air quality. Other environmental benefits include maintained groundwater levels, provided wildlife habitat, and reduced noise pollution.

Urban green spaces add a substantial amount of economic value to their surrounding community. Parks increase property values and potential home buyers seek out neighborhoods with parks.

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This table shows the increased property values associated with residential property surrounding parks in San Francisco. According to a study completed by Ernst and Young, New York’s Bryant Park was redeveloped in 1992, and by 2002, asking rents for commercial office space rose between 115 and 225%. Comparatively, asking rents in surrounding submarkets only rose between 41 and 73%. Parks attract tourists and businesses, increasing the city’s revenue. Overall, urban green spaces are good for bringing in money from outside spenders and for increasing property values, therefore expanding a city’s economic value.

Lastly, to balance the sustainability stool, city parks improve social benefits within communities. San Francisco’s Urban Forest Plan associates social park value with stronger communities, improved physical health, reduced violence and crime, and increased bicyclist and pedestrian safety. In relation to improved physical health, health studies have shown that contact with nature offers a range of medical benefits including: lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, enhanced survival after a heart attack, more rapid recovery after surgery, and lower self-reported stress. Also, a telephone survey conducted for the American Public Health Association found that 75% of adults believe parks and recreation must play an important role in addressing America’s obesity crisis.

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This image visually represents some physical health benefits attributed to parks in Portland, Oregon. Parks are important for building relationships among community members and connecting urban dwellers to natural environments.

It is important we take time to appreciate all the benefits urban parks bring to cities. Now that I’ve described the benefits of urban green space in terms of each leg of the sustainability stool, it easy to see how complicated it is to achieve full sustainability. The stool can be easily unbalanced, and this requires much effort from cities to maintain equal representation of each leg. Luckily city officials can use urban green space to enhance any missing part of the stool and direct society towards long-term sustainability.

What Is Sustainable Urban Living? — February 26, 2015

What Is Sustainable Urban Living?

Sustainable living is a lifestyle that attempts to reduce an individual’s or society’s use of the Earth’s natural resources and personal resources. Sustainable urban living incorporates this ideology into a city dweller’s life. This can increase the local economy as well as improve environmental health. Both are equally as important but I will be writing about the environmental aspect in relation to the goal of sustainable urban living and what this lifestyle truly looks like.

In efforts to prevent environmental degradation, the goal of living sustainably is to reduce human ecological footprint – our high demand on nature and its resources. In doing so, we can preserve air and water quality, decrease the amount of waste produced, reduce carbon emissions, sustain natural resources, and preserve biodiversity. In order to achieve a sustainable urbanized world we must develop urban areas in harmony with the natural environment. There are two ways of doing this. One, by reorganizing existing cities and creating new cities while promoting land-use patterns that diminish transport demands, save energy, and protect open and green spaces. The second is to encourage individuals to include sustainable practices into their lifestyle by making it an easy thing to do.

National and local policies along with innovation urban planning and design must be integrated to achieve sustainability within cities. Existing policies must be re-examined to ensure optimal land use. The United Nations suggests that there needs to be an establishment of “legal frameworks to facilitate the development and implementation, at the national, sub-national and local levels, of public plans and policies for sustainable urban development and rehabilitation, land utilization, housing and the improved management of urban growth.” This will take much time, effort, and money but it is absolutely necessary for cities to maintain increasing populations. In the meantime, there are several ways an urban dweller can begin the process towards sustainability on their own.

There is a multitude of ways that one can incorporate sustainability into their life. Within urban areas it can even be easier to live sustainably because of the easy access and close proximity to helpful resources. Being a sustainable member of society within a city can be simple because the system to encourage sustainable behavior may already exist. For example, a city may already have a public transportation system available and running. So if someone wanted to reduce his or her carbon emissions and take public transportation this would already be accessible. Here are some ways somebody can integrate sustainable into his or her daily life and the benefits that emerge through these actions. Reducing, reusing, and recycling any product reduces the need to harvest new raw materials, saves energy, cuts down greenhouse gas emissions created during the production process of goods, and decreases the amount of waste generated. Taking public transportation instead of a car will cutback carbon emissions and increase the air quality. Using renewable energy sources like solar water heating and solar panels will reduce the air and water pollution associated with fossil fuel energy production. Lastly, vertical gardens – self-sufficient gardens that take advantage of available vertical space indoors and outdoors – are a great way to be sustainable. The benefits are rewarding because these can insulate homes and buildings, reduce the urban heat island affect, and improve air quality.

Sustainable urban living is a necessity if we hope to see economies survive and the environment to remain healthy and resourceful. As cities become more populated action must be taken politically and personally to ensure a future of sustainability.

Urbanization and the Need for Sustainable Urban Living — February 25, 2015

Urbanization and the Need for Sustainable Urban Living

Urbanization, also known as rural flight, is the movement of people from rural areas into cities, often motivated by economic or social factors.   Some of these desirable factors include less time and expense commuting, access to better job opportunities, education, housing, and entertainment. Currently, about 3 billion live in urban areas. We can see a huge increase in urbanization in the past 60 years. The number of urban dwellers has quadrupled between 1950 and 2000 from 733 million people to 2.587 billion people.  This rapid increase is expected to continue and by 2030 about 5 billion people will live in urban areas, that is 61% of the population. This chart below helps demonstrate the increasing trend and the distribution of urbanization over the past 60 years and into the future.

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There are no signs of this movement slowing down. This trend of increasing urbanization has already and will continue to create issues regarding human and environmental health.

Rapid and unplanned urban growth is often associated with poverty, environmental degradation, and population demands that exceed what can be serviced. These conditions put human and environmental health at risk. Crowding, air pollution, insufficient or contaminated drink water, inadequate sanitation and solid waste disposal services, industrial waste, and increased motor vehicle traffic are all aspects of increased urbanization that affect human and environmental health. Just looking at a picture of Los Angeles as it is cloaked in smog (caused when sunlight reacts with airborne pollution, including ash, dust, and ground-level ozone) makes me scared to visit.

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According to the Population Reference Bureau the effects of urbanization listed above increase respiratory and cardiovascular disease, increase tuberculosis incidences, cause stress related illnesses, discourage physical activity, and promote unhealthy food. I’m hoping you are beginning to worry about the negative effects of urbanization by now.

Environmentally speaking, urbanization creates heat islands and negatively affects air and water quality. Dense urban areas can change the local weather pattern from the heat island effect.  Let me explain. Roads, cement sidewalks, and buildings replace open land and vegetation in cities. These hard surfaces radiate heat back into the atmosphere 15 to 30 percent less than on the open land in rural communities. Higher energy consumption to cool down buildings within the city in addition to less albedo results in warmer temperatures in cities. This increased warming traps atmospheric pollutants close to the surface of the Earth. The graph below demonstrates as you move away from cities temperatures drop and as you move closer to cities temperature increase.

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Within urban areas there is an increase in air pollution due to an exponential increase in the number of vehicles registered. For example, professor J. P. Singh at Patna University in India noted that in the number of registered vehicles in the country have increased from 1.87 million in 1971 to 25.28 million in 1993. This air pollution is hazardous for any life forms and affects communities downwind of major cities. Lastly, many urban cities in developing and undeveloped countries don’t have proper treatment of sewage collection and disposal. The untreated and partially treated waste water contaminates local rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. This disrupts surrounding ecosystems and threatens nearby biodiversity while simultaneously affecting human health. The polluted urban environment affects the health and quality of life of the urban population. Now it should be obvious to see that urbanization is taking a toll on public health and the environment. Enough of this gloom and doom talk though. I’m here to tell you that sustainable urban living is a possibility to help mediate all these issues.

Sustainable urban living helps cities become healthy viable communities for citizens. This way of living can increase the quality of life, create natural open spaces, reduce waste, increase access, build a sense of community, improve the quality of water and air, and create environmental diversity.