June 4, 2007

Plant ecology thrives in the middle of the street

‘Plant ecology thrives in the middle of the street’ (from an interview with Robin Grossinger) Cayote bush On a recent overcast morning, I met landscape ecologist Robin Grossinger at the Fulton and Russell traffic circle to talk about the installation of the coastal meadow project. In his professional life, Robin develops restoration and management plans for large, regional scale natural systems. When I asked Robin if the traffic circle project had affected his environmental outlook, he replied that he was pleasantly surprised to observe successful successional processes in such an urban context – the intersection of two urban streets (albeit neighborhood streets). He described the processes that continue to occur in the traffic circle as “ecologically fascinating.” In their oft-cited study of the benefits of ecological (i.e. “sensitive natural landscapes”) restoration, Irene Miles et al. (1998) found that the greatest benefits of ecological volunteerism are self satisfactions like “meaningful action,” “fascination with nature,” participation, “a chance to be away,” positive life functioning and satisfaction. When I asked him to talk about the benefits of making this coastal meadow nature, Robin Grossinger concurred with many of Miles's findings. He said that it was “nice that people appreciate” the work he does at the site and the site itself. He enjoys working on the site with his young son who helps him to weed and to look for bees. Given its location at the center of the street and the community, the site enjoys a “high profile” and “builds community spirit.” Miles et al (1998) do not discuss the social and political motivations behind restorations in general or, behind non-sensitive landscapes restoration. In the Le Conte neighborhood, new spaces for nature can trace their beginnings to Berkeley’s “traffic wars.” The ecological motivations behind a project like the Fulton and Russell coastal meadow differ from restorations of “sensitive” ecosystems. In addition to traditional ideas of ‘revival and healing’ (Miles et al.), insertion and creation play a role in urban ecological intentions. A social motivation behind the production of urban nature might be the creation of observatory and participatory experience. Lewis (1990) writes that though “experiences gained through the intimate participation of nurturing and being responsible for plants are more intense than those gained through distanced viewing of vegetation in the larger landscape….both modes, however, produce well-being” (245). The coastal meadow project is participatory simultaneous with an observatory form of neighboring (see photo above). In terms of the political dimension, the installation of traffic circles in the Le Conte neighborhood of Berkeley is intimately linked to the community mobilization around traffic calming in the 1960s and 1970s. Oak (grown from an acorn donated by "a neighbor up the street") I assume that the Traffic Management Plan does not prescribe greening or a specific form of greening in the circles. I am intrigued by the visions residents generate for urban nature making. The general idea for the circle was to create a space that enabled the community and the landscape ‘to be able to breathe’ (attributed to a retired Tilden ranger who lives in the neighborhood). Residents pointed to the high percent of public hardscape and impervious surfaces – streets and sidewalks in the neighborhood. During meetings to discuss the greening plan, most people voiced a preference for native plants. Robin attributed this preference to the “ecological sophistication” and “ecological interest and knowledge” of Berkeley residents. Ceanothus The ecological knowledge of residents involved in the coastal meadow project did not result in a rigid adherence to more natural plant associations. Robin noted that the “coastal meadow” planted in the traffic circle is not a “true ecosystem;” rather it is a mix of oak woodland, meadow, and chaparral. This palette is possible because the site is designed and maintained to showcase the features of various regional landscapes. Despite the mixed nature of the vegetative palette, a zonal pattern is the basis for the landscape plan. The circle has been planted with clumps of vegetation for visual interest (for humans) and insect recognition. Robin said that the landscape plan strikes a “balance between natural pattern and design.” The site is featured on the Hidden Gems tour and bumblebees are regularly sited at the circle. Bee balm The presence of bumblebees at the circle underscores the idea of scalar greening. Robin noted that a patchwork of habitat circles could have “an effect on local ecology” [I was so pleased that he said local ecology], in particular for mobile species like bumblebees and butterflies (the circle at Ellsworth and Russell is a butterfly habitat). At a similar scale, Robin also noted that yards can contribute to a local habitat network. The dune strawberries he planted in his driveway are established. According to the SF Garden website, the dune (or beach) strawberry “send[s] out runners that root and then send[s] out more runners, eventually making a web of sorts, holding the sand [or soil] together and allowing other plants to establish.”

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