Sneaking Outside to Find the Real Green

Jan. 1, 2009

Historically, the greening of cities has primarily focused on buildings. It's time to expand this effort into the areas surroundings those buildings—and to take a closer look at the true meaning of green.

By Keri Lully, LEED AP 

Okay, I know the title of this magazine starts with "Interiors," but I was so inspired by two events during Greenbuild this year that I have to take us all outdoors for a while. The events? Greenbuild's closing plenary with E.O. Wilson and Janine Benyus, and then a local fundraiser.

During the closing plenary, Benyus, known for her book Biomimicry, made the statement: "Somewhere along the line we've forgotten we are nature." Wow. I've been doing environmental work for nearly 25 years, but she took me back to my roots in ecology with that one line and reminded me of what it's all about.

We all talk about green in our work, but how often do we connect with the true meaning of green—nature? How often do we get up from our desks and get outdoors? For those of us in colder climes, it may be less green out there as you're reading this, but nature is there year-round. Do you notice it each day? Or, do you only take note of the streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and buildings on your way to work? Do you assume there is no nature because you work in a city or town? Do you know its value?

In Wilson's recent book, The Future of Life, he mentions an effort in 1997 by an international team of economists and environmental scientists to compute a dollar value for the free services provided to humans by nature; services such as purification and retention of fresh water and the pollination of crops. Their estimate was $33 trillion annually, which was nearly twice the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world at that time. That's a bargain that beats all those after-Christmas sales.

Keep your eyes down on this page. What is the nearest bit of nature to where you are now? The second nearest? If you live in a city, the nearest nature may be plants in the office or weeds breaking through pavement (an amazing feat when you think about it), or a nearby tree surrounded by sidewalk and struggling to survive. If you're lucky, there is a small green space with a bench nearby. Whatever you have, take some time to forsake your indoor "seated view"—get up from your ergonomic seating, and sneak outside—then get involved in improving your piece of nearby nature. Why? Because our survival depends on it, and it will make you feel better to be connected (or reconnected) to it.BIOLOGY, BIODIVERSITY, BIOPHILIA ...
They're about life ... nature ... all of it ... in more sizes, shapes and varieties than we can imagine. Wilson has many distinguished titles in the science of life (biology) over his 70-plus years. He recognized that humans' attachment to other living things (biophilia) is brought about by the knowledge of and exposure to those creatures. He and his colleagues at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and the Chicago Field Museum have begun a project called the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to catalog and record every living species on the planet.

The one-page EOL entries will be reviewed for accuracy by panels of scientists (not a Wikipedia methodology) and made available to everyone at www.EOL.org to expand our understanding of the other species that co-inhabit this planet. The more varieties there are (biodiversity), the more likely we all are to survive since their roles in the complex web of life (biosphere) make contributions to human well-being that most people don't recognize. Many of our breakthroughs in medicine have come from the study of interactions between plants and animals, and the health of our food chains are based in complex interactions among species so small we can't see them.

Although most of Wilson's books talk about his explorations of faraway wild places, he admits to being captivated by the tiny organisms in soil. I'm not suggesting you play in the dirt at lunch, but you can sneak out the door to enjoy your very own biome.

A biome is a major ecological community type. Ecologists are usually studying communities such as tropical forests, prairies, savannahs, and other wild settings when they use that term, but why not include cities? The people and natural spaces are in different ratios than in the biomes usually studied, but they don't lack life and they can be dramatically improved.

The greening of cities has focused mostly on buildings—making them more energy and water efficient and providing natural light and views for increased productivity. It's time to expand into the surroundings of those buildings. Trees
and other greenery help to clean the air and decrease heat island effect. They can manage stormwater runoff more effectively and less expensively than human-built options. They can do all those things at once AND make us feel
more connected to our place.

At the Greenbuild plenary, Benyus also commented that she thought that buildings need to do more for us regarding food, energy and water, and that, when flying over cities, there should be green cover everywhere. That probably sounds far-fetched to most city dwellers but there are those who are already rocking that boat. A recent article in Environmental Building News explored the myths and realities of indoor gardens and Scientific American Earth 3.0 includes an article on "vertical farming" in city buildings. The proposed Living Tower in Paris is designed with some slanted floors to admit sufficient sunlight for food production, and for generating electricity from fermented crop waste while housing apartments, offices and retail spaces. Such buildings could provide local food and energy and make cities more self-sufficient.

We won't be able to move into living buildings in the immediate future and most of us aren't yet promoting them with clients, but we can certainly start making our cities greener at the ground level. Every gray space that is taken from solid pavement to partial greenery helps the city, and you get to enjoy the benefits. You don't have to go it alone. It is very likely that there are groups working toward that goal in your town or city, and they will welcome your help. They may be saving the struggling sidewalk trees by getting larger grating to increase water absorption; helping to start community gardens on empty properties; beautifying highways into the city; or putting new green spaces on abandoned or underutilized land.

How do you find them? They may be part of city government; but if they aren't, the city planner probably knows them. They are usually local nonprofit environmental or beautification groups, or local chapters of nature Conservancies or Arbor Day groups.

My second source of inspiration during Greenbuild was just such an organization.

A dedicated group of people is working together to heal a physical wound in Boston's neighborhoods. Not that long ago, my view from Allsteel's Resource Center would have been of an ugly multi-lane elevated highway; but it's gone now, and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy is greening 15 acres that stretch a skinny mile through the city, reuniting the city's neighborhoods. As an "abutter" (an adjacent beneficiary of the new green space), Allsteel held a fundraiser during Greenbuild to assist the Conservancy in its work to attain funding, maintain the green space, and organize inclusive events to facilitate broad-based use and enjoyment of the Greenway. The Greenway is a growing and beautiful green space for all to enjoy and an example of what people can do to restore nature and our place in it—even in the city.

keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally proactive organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to securing the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway's future as one of America's foremost urban parks. The Conservancy advocates for standards of consistency and excellence in design; works collaboratively to create, finance, promote and coordinate public programs and events; and raises adequate and stable funding to support the long-term sustainability of the Greenway's public uses.

Visit www.rosekennedygreenway.org to learn more.

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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