Biodiversity, or the variety of life on Earth, is eroding.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. According to a report released in 2008 by Harvard University, mankind builds the equivalent of a city the size of Vancouver every week. And invariably, as the number of humans living in any given area increases, the number of other living species, flora and fauna both, declines to the detriment of all.
In the winter of 2010, The Sprout Fund Spring Program granted $190,000 to 20 new biodiversity projects in Southwestern Pennsylvania, to preserve its rich natural resources and encourage creative attempts to enhance biodiversity.
Garfield Farms BioShelter and Food Systems Center
In 2008, when The Open Door church decided to start an urban farm in Garfield, a Pittsburgh neighborhood blotted with blight, they knew it would be easy to find a parcel or two of vacant property. What they didn’t expect was to find almost three acres, approximately 25 lots, of empty land near the water tower. Formerly, the space held row homes and other housing, the last of which was torn down the year the team started planting.
“The whole project is really based on reclamation of abandoned, neglected land,” says Rev. John Creasy, who spearheaded the effort.
The group promptly leased the land through the City’s “Green Up” program, and got started.
“We’re not growing on the entire three acres yet. We’re on about half of it now, and each year we’re expanding,” Creasy says.
With a small staff and a group of volunteers, the Garfield Community Farm maintains an orchard and three garden spaces, which grow herbs, greens and a variety of vegetables. Most of the farm’s crops are either donated to a local food bank or divided among the 15 families participating in its small 20-week CSA, membership to which is available at a discount for low-income individuals.
Since it began, the farm has been gradually expanding space-wise, seeping outward as volunteers rehabilitate soil in new areas of its 3-acre plot. Now, the group is interested in expanding its operation time-wise, too. Its newest project, funded through the Spring Program, entails construction of the Garfield Farms BioShelter and Food Systems Center, which will allow the farm to grow many of the same crops it already produces, but to do so almost year round.
“The difference between a bioshelter and a greenhouse is that it’s designed and managed with ecological principles at its foundation,” Creasy says.
For instance, a bioshelter is heated naturally by things like direct sunlight, compost piles warmed during daytime hours or perhaps a wood burning stove. Inside, plants will be grown according to a school of design called permaculture, which aims to replicate food systems as they naturally occur, creating biodiversity and harnessing mutually beneficial relationships between plants, animals and insects.
“It doesn’t necessarily look like a place where food is growing. It looks more like a jungle, even though pretty much everything is edible. There’s always some insect that is eating another kind of insect; there’s a biological balance,” Creasy explains.
The bioshelter, measuring 30 feet by 20 feet, will be constructed in spring 2012, once land titles are officially transferred, and will be fully operational by the following fall.
The farm has always been a learning space for local grade-schoolers who hike a short way over from a nearby elementary school. Creasy expects the bioshelter will help expand the farm’s educational mission. He is currently talking with several other public and private schools to arrange class trips, during which students will tour the shelter, learn about food systems and perhaps, have a bite of something green.
Borland Green Ecological Garden
In East Liberty, permaculture techniques have been used to rehabilitate a once vacant lot into a garden space alongside the Borland Green Ecovillage, a cooperative housing group.
Pittsburgh Permaculture carefully integrated over 100 different species to mimic a natural system in a space that now includes two food forests growing edible fruits and nuts.
“In a forest, for example, there would be canopy species, shrub species and an understory,” says Michelle Czolba, a co-director of Pittsburgh Permaculture.
The food forests in the garden are intentionally designed in this way to enhance their natural productivity. When leaves fall from the trees, they’ll form a layer of mulch and the nutrients will return to the soil. In the same way, understory species draw nutrients from deep in the ground and bring them to the surface. To a large extent, the system will become self-sustaining.
“We’re trying to utilize the energy of the earth, which is going to happen regardless of what we do, but we’re sort of manipulating it to grow plants that are useful for humans,” Czolba says.
The space will be maintained by volunteers in the Borland Green Garden Group, which includes residents and other interested community members.
Green Roofs for Bus Shelters
A new green roof bus shelter in East Liberty is one of the first of its kind. It was inspired by a simple fact: When you look at a multi-story office building from street level, it’s hard to tell what the roof looks like. When you look at a bus shelter, it’s pretty obvious.
East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) wanted to build a green roof at eye level, to show passersby how the technology works and what it can do for their communities.
“The first step is just letting people know that these things exist and that big-picture environmental issues can be solved with green roofs,” says Loralyn Fabian, ELDI sustainable design coordinator.
For one, green roofs are a huge source of energy savings. Plants and soil mediums serve as insulation, soaking up heat in the summer and preventing its escape in the winter. They clean the air, reduce urban heat island effect and act as sponges, mitigating storm water runoff.
The shelter in East Liberty, built at the corner of Penn and Highland Avenues, takes it one step further. It’s the first green roof bus shelter in the country to foster biodiversity, in both plants and animals.
Often the “green” in green roof is represented solely by plants like sedums, a group of succulents great for ground cover. The East Liberty roof, however, will incorporate over a dozen plant varieties, most of them native, to foster an aesthetic appeal and create a microhabitat that will attract local fauna, including butterflies and birds.
Its design is atypical, too. Foam core will be inserted under the soil medium, to create a cascading, mountainous effect.
“This gives it depth and a more natural feel and will force water to collect in one little area briefly, so that there will be standing water for, say, a bird bath,” Fabian says.
This water, however, will quickly be absorbed into the soil medium. Excess water from heavy rain will flow into a gutter, down through a downspout and into a cistern, located under the seating bench. A solar panel on the roof will harness energy to pump this water back up to the roof during dry weather. If the cistern is full, excess water will escape into a channel carved in the sidewalk that leads to a nearby tree pit.
Educational signage on the shelter explains the technology further. Several panels detail each component in the system, discuss the plant species chosen, and list the benefits of green roof infrastructure.
In Polish Hill, maintaining natural biodiversity is more about battling its enemies. Invasive Japanese knotweed, a hearty, bamboo-like shrub, has overtaken entire hillsides, growing tall and choking out most other species.
As part of Knotweed Knockout, a two-year effort by the Polish Hill Civic Association (PHCA), groups of volunteers have cleared a one-acre space, once dense with commanding, 12-foot-high knotweed, near the Bloomfield Bridge.
“We physically ripped the knotweed out by the roots. We broke shovels and used picks and steel digging bars,” says PHCA president Terry Doloughty.
The space also served as a laboratory where a variety of natural treatments, like cinnamon oil, have been tested. Sections of the fast-growing plant continue to be removed by hand, at least once a month, but Doloughty is optimistic that in several years’ time, this will no longer be necessary.
“Eventually, the knotweed will be worn down to the point where our effort will outpace the reserve stored in its roots,” he says.
Year two of the project, to begin in spring of 2012, will be focused on repopulating the area with native species to prevent the knotweed from easily returning.
“It’s not just here. It’s everywhere,” Doloughty says.
Knotweed has been reported as invasive throughout most of the United States and more than half of Canada. PHCA is creating a guidebook so other communities can replicate their work.