November 4, 2014–Madison, Wisconsin needs an urban restoration ecology research center to help it create sustainable ecosystems for the future. An urban restoration ecology center would help Madison and Dane County focus on addressing the ecological, social, and cultural needs of the future. The capital of Wisconsin has all the key ingredients: highly disturbed urban and suburban, and a rural fringe to serve as a living laboratory, it has a long history of leadership in restoration ecology, and it has a world-class, state-supported research university to coordinate the effort and to lead the way.
Madison is the geographic and population center of Dane County, Wisconsin. Once surrounded by a largely rural landscape, it has been rapidly affected by an increasing population and associated human activities. These human activities, which are commonly called “development” but which I call degradation, include the usual road building, construction of housing and shopping complexes, and installation of the associated infrastructure.
Impacts typical of urban human activities plague Madison and Dane County. It’s lakes are clogged with lake weeds and algae due to nutrient overloads from barely regulated soil erosion running from farms, backyard home projects, commercial and residential construction, and road building. Storm water runoff is still handled the old-fashioned way by diverting it downhill as fast a possible to the nearest natural area or lake; little thought or effort is given to including infiltration projects or green infrastructure as part of City projects. A growing population has depleted the area’s ground water reserves and is now meeting its water needs by pumping water from the polluted lakes, instead of from the aquifer. Habitat fragmentation of urban natural areas and loss of rural farmland and woodlots continues with an endless stream of home construction. Efforts to adapt to climate change are many but they are not adequate. The total picture is not sustainable.
How Can An Urban Restoration Ecology Center Help?
An urban restoration ecology center would work with area citizens and with the mix of high quality natural areas as well as degraded and fragmented urban ecosystems in its metropolitan area. The center would do the best it could to learn how to compose sustainable ecosystems for the future.
A Role Model
Rutgers University has an urban restoration center called the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE). It is a collaboration of the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the New Jersey Agricultural Experimentation Station, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This academic center offers both undergraduate and graduate training and degrees as well as continuing education for professionals and the public. Its mission is to:
“restore and enhance the ecological integrity and biodiversity of degraded public and private lands. Work is done throughout the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The center does research and university and outreach education, and publishes a journal, Urban Habitats.”
Emphasis of an urban restoration ecology center would be on ecological restoration in the sense of constructing functional and integral communities that can provide ecosystem services in a disturbed and degraded urban environment, that may or may not replicate historical models. It would as a regional and national model for demonstrating creative ways of dealing with traditional urban influences—such as storm water, invasive species, human pressures. Traditional restoration to historic models–such as is being attempted in Curtis and Greene Prairies, would continue, where appropriate. Its target audience would include citizens, researchers, students, restoration ecologists, urban planners, hydrologists, engineers.
Why Restoration Ecology?
Restoration ecologists have the skills and training to develop ways to help ecosystems survive in a future that will be filled with more urban degradation. In a rapidly changing world, restoration ecology has proven to be a model of how to manage uncertainty, find the connections between social and ecological issues, and turn challenges into opportunities. Restoration is already managing across watersheds and landscapes (see Aurora and Chicago, Illinois and Milwaukee, WI, for examples) that are shifting from rural to urban, and taking what the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) terms a holistic approach to restoration. A continuation of these approaches will be needed in the future.
For example restoration can build upon this expertise by developing management solutions for maintaining and managing resilient social-ecological systems in fragmented and densely populated landscapes, and for resource-demanding societies. Restoration efforts in the future will need not only the ability to manage ecological systems but also the skills to cultivate engaged, well-informed, and ecologically literate civic communities. These are the partnerships needed to compose the landscape of the future.
The mission of an urban restoration ecology center would be to use the seamless combination of restoration science and restoration practice to develop examples of functional communities with ecological integrity that would provide ecosystem services in a typical disturbed and degraded urban environment. The resulting ecosystems might, but would not necessarily, aim to replicate historical reference models. Target audience would include citizens, researchers, students, restoration ecologists, urban planners, hydrologists, engineers.
Madison’s Urban Restoration Ecology Center could use the UW-Madison Arboretum as an outdoor laboratory and its examples of restoration success and failure. The Center could draw upon the UW-Madison Arboretum’s reputation as the place where restoration ecology began in the 1930’s, to attract students and researchers.
For leadership and an administrative home, the new center could look the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (Nelson Institute) at the UW-Madison. The Nelson Institute is named for Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day founder and former US Senator from Wisconsin. The Nelson Institute is already home to four interdisciplinary centers, dealing with climatic research, land tenure systems, sustainability and global environment issues, and its Center for Culture, History, and the Environment, which together would make it an ideal fit for the new Urban Restoration Ecology Center.