Planting Projects, Backyard Habitats Can Re-Create Livable Natural Spaces
By April M. Short
The world's wildlife is in danger of dying off, and inevitably taking humanity out with it. Humans have destroyed enormous portions of the planet's natural spaces, and caused a climate disaster as well as the unprecedented acceleration of mass extinction events. Among the many species struggling to stay afloat are the butterflies, birds, bats, bees and other pollinators we depend upon in order to grow basic food crops. People cannot live without the earth's diverse wild plants and animals.
Scientists agree that continued disruption of the earth's ecosystems threatens the future survival of humanity as much as climate change does. And the two aren't entirely separate issues; healthy forests and soil systems, for example, sequester carbon naturally. As they are destroyed, there is increased carbon in the atmosphere. A study published in 2019 in the journal Science found that forest restoration is among the best possible climate change solutions.
The current pandemic brings these issues home, as the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and pollinator decline are intricately linked, as outlined in an article by Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust published in Modern Diplomacy in April.
And, as explained by Ensia's environment editor John Vidal in an article that appeared in Scientific American in March, the destruction of wildlife habitat in particular creates breeding grounds for new viruses — and is a likely cause of the devastating current outbreak of novel coronavirus.
"Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV and dengue.
"But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity's destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 … to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems."
As Vidal notes, this likely won't be the only pandemic we experience. Keeping the next one at bay hinges on protecting and stewarding habitat spaces for wildlife.
While the outlook on both pandemic and climate change can seem bleak, we're also witnessing a demonstration of how quickly the planet can repair itself when people merely slow down a little. In just a matter of months, without changing much other than how often we go out to work, spend and gather in public spaces, the world's skies have cleared up in places that were murky with smog for generations.
The pandemic has caused a steep decline in air pollution levels around the globe. Weeks without hordes of tourists have deepened the blue of the waterways of Venice, Italy, and there are reports of fish being visible through the clear waters for the first time in decades; the Himalayas are visible in parts of northern India that haven't been able to catch a glimpse of them in 30 years; Los Angeles's famous traffic has eased up. It's clear that the small efforts by large numbers of people can and do ripple throughout the world, and they have the potential to combat mass destruction. If so much can begin to change when all we do is ease our operations a little, what can change if we make concerted efforts together in support of nature's resilience?
Planting Habitat From the Grassroots
Gardening to support pollinators and other wildlife is one way individuals can help. The movement for native habitat planting seeks to re-supply wildlife with the plants and habitat spaces that support them, by way of individual garden projects.
Since the 1970s, the native plant movement has encouraged people to garden and grow native species of plants, which can provide biodiverse habitat for birds, butterflies, amphibians and other creatures that live among us. Out of the native plant movement, many backyard and community habitat gardening certification programs have emerged across the country, to educate and incentivize people to plant habitat gardens.
The largest habitat gardening certification effort in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)'s Community Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP), which offers tools and a certification program not just for individual backyard gardens, but for whole communities interested in participating. The program started in 1997 in the small town of Alpine, California, in San Diego County, as a grassroots effort by a few individuals who decided to team up and encourage local native garden projects. Now, the program is a concerted national effort that works with approximately 200 certified communities and municipalities across the country, including some major cities, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston, Texas.
NWF has encouraged people to create habitat gardens for more than 40 years through its Garden for Wildlife. The CWHP builds upon that longstanding initiative, with a science-based program framework for community leaders to restore wildlife habitat — including wildlife corridors and road passage areas — and engage residents. The end goal for areas that participate is to be certified as a wildlife-friendly community through the NWF.
The program encourages communities to integrate a set of wildlife-friendly practices into plans for parks and general sustainability. It offers tools for its members to educate as well as motivate private community members — residents, schools, places of worship, and others — to get involved and transform their garden spaces via native trees and plants, and non-toxic practices.
Patrick Fitzgerald, senior director of community wildlife for NWF, says anyone can get involved with the habitat gardening effort, even people in highly urban areas, via container gardens.
"If you're planting a garden, you can really make an impact for wildlife and the environment literally right outside your front door," he says, noting that the monarch butterfly offers a particularly potent example of a species that might be positively affected by collective individual efforts. The Western monarch's populations have been plummeting, down from the millions in the 1980s, to 200,000 in 2017, and just 30,000 as of 2018, as reported in March 2020 by The New York Times.
"The example of the monarch shows how the simple act of planting milkweeds in your garden, in a pot and just about anywhere, can have an impact for a very specific species," adds Fitzgerald. "A lot of folks, myself included, just love this monarch butterfly for its migration and metamorphosis. It's an amazing species. We've seen a call to action for the monarch butterfly, and so many people are planting milkweed and other native plants that they need to survive in their yards and telling us about it. … Knowing that you're part of millions of people doing this, all for the sake of one black and orange butterfly, is a pretty powerful thing. It's just tremendously rewarding."
The NWF program also works with communities interested in larger restoration efforts, such as wildlife thoroughfares, urban forestry, water conservation, planting for climate resilience and green infrastructure efforts.
"In terms of climate resilience, a lot of the actions that our teams in our cities, counties and communities are taking have multiple benefits for wildlife and for people — and they're also helpful in terms of addressing climate change in different ways," Fitzgerald says.
He points to efforts like reforestation and planting trees along waterways to reduce erosion and mitigate runoff into waterways, or efforts to increase soil carbon storage.
"A lot of folks who participate in our programs, they just love wildlife, and from there, they're looking for strategies to attract more wildlife to their neighborhoods and communities," he says.
Houston, Texas, is one of the largest communities certified by the NWF Community Wildlife Habitat Program. Kelli Ondracek, the natural resources manager for the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, says that when the city started working toward the certification in 2016 it was a natural fit, as many of the efforts already underway in the city overlapped with the NWF's habitat certification program. The city of Houston partners with the Houston Audubon, for instance, to replace invasive plant species in public areas with bird-friendly natives, and Houston is a certified "Bird City" of Texas by the state's Parks and Wildlife program.
In order to encourage Houston residents to participate and plant backyard habitat gardens, Ondracek says they began to include information about the certification effort at all of their regular events. Since the city was already offering many of the educational events and information required for the NWF certification, once they got enough homes and common areas involved with the project, it came together citywide, by way of volunteer efforts.
Among the bigger habitat initiatives in Houston is its longstanding prairie restoration project, which replants fields full of native prairie grasses and wildflowers throughout the city's parks, medians, and other relevant public spaces. Ondracek, who oversees the city's greenhouses, says the prairie restoration efforts have involved collecting seeds and propagating more than 10,000 gallon pots' worth of native plants.
Ondracek says the wildlife habitat project in Houston involves taking inventory of the land in their parks system — which is vast — and assess what that land would have historically looked like. Then, they work to re-create it.
"We try to get it as close as possible back to the historic habitat, with a focus on really diverse native species," Ondracek says. "We're really trying to focus on native plants — and we're growing them ourselves because often you can't really purchase them — so that we can get our restoration projects completed."
The prairie restoration project serves to provide habitat, and also to mitigate climate change–related threats such as increased flooding and drought, as detailed in a Christian Science Monitor article published in October 2019.
Ondracek says Houston also has a native tree farm and is working to replant trees along waterways in 70 of its parks, with the goal of planting more than 200,000 trees along the city's bayous and other water systems. Trees along the waterways, known as riparian buffers, serve to reduce the impacts of flooding and improve water quality for both humans and wildlife. The goal of this effort is twofold: to rehabitat these spaces as wildlife corridors, and to create a more climate-resilient future for the city. The tree project acts as part of Houston's Climate Action Plan, which centers on large restoration projects like tree installations to mitigate inevitable increased flooding and help sequester carbon.
Many cities, counties and states around the U.S. offer their own habitat certification programs, unrelated to the NWF's certification. Portland, Oregon's local Backyard Habitat Certification Program (BHCP), for instance, is a collaboration between Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust.
Megan Van de Mark, the Portland BHCP's program manager, says the localized program is particularly hands-on and serves more than 6,100 properties throughout Oregon's Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties. The program originated in Portland, where more than 4,600 properties are enrolled, and works hands-on with community sites, including religious institutions, multi-family complexes, schools, etc., as well as private backyards.
"One person can make a difference where they live by incorporating native plants in their yards and gardens, by removing noxious weeds, by reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater at home," Van de Mark says in an email.
Van de Mark says the program shows that the cumulative actions of individual people can add up to a significant positive impact.
"An ecosystem is an interconnected system," Van de Mark says. "What each of us does makes a difference specifically because we're all connected. The ecosystems within which we reside are home to many. By building habitat where you live and reside (i.e., by planting native plants, removing noxious weeds, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater on-site), you can help ensure that birds, pollinators, and other species also have enough to eat, a way to get around, and a place to call home. We're all in this together."
This article was reposted with permission from Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.
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By Gianna-Carina Grün
While the first countries are easing their lockdowns, others are reporting more and more new cases every day. Data for the global picture shows the pandemic is far from over. DW has the latest statistics.
What's the Current Global Trend?<p>The goal for all countries is to make it to the blue part of the chart and stay there. Countries and territories in this section reported zero new cases both this week (past seven days) and the week before.</p><p>Currently, that is the case for 14 out of 209 countries and territories. </p>
How Has the Covid-19 Trend Evolved Over the Past Weeks?<p>The situation has improved slightly: 87 countries report more cases this week than last week. </p>
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