Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Nature and Human Settlements Part I
One would think that after all of these centuries…millennia, in fact…in response to this great migration of the human tribes…our settlements would be places of choice by virtue of the quality of life and environments they provide. But this is not the case. The air in most of our larger and many of our smaller settlements is foul and transportation is abysmal.
It was while living in Atlanta a few years back that I learned some of the more unique aspects of human settlements. I learned, for example of what is called the ‘heat island effect.’ Because of the exhaust of heat as a waste product of the human enterprise, many of our larger settlements are warmer than the surrounding countryside. They are covered in a bubble of essentially waste energy and gases. In some cases, these bubbles are so dense that they create their own weather…within and outside of the bubbles. The heat island can have an impact even on the weather of the surrounding countryside.
The very structure of so many of our communities mitigates against good health practices. We drive everywhere, we walk nowhere, obesity has become the rule, and a major health crisis. I learned about something else in Atlanta. I learned about what happens when the integrity of rivers and streams are not honored. If you put a map of Atlanta (and many other cities) on a flat surface and look at the streams that flow into it…those streams vanish as they enter the city. They don’t actually vanish they go under the ground, under the cities.
I learned some other things during my urban years, however. I learned how wonderful it is when citizens band together with a dream. While serving on an interagency initiative, I remember visiting with a group of people who wanted to create a little niche park in their community. And when I say little, that is just what I mean. A very old house in one of the then more challenged sections of Atlanta, with a stone basement cut into the side of a hill, had decayed and collapsed into its basement. Over the decades an oak had grown from the stone wall. When I visited the site, I saw a mess but the citizens saw a small, pocket park. We gave them the funds and a little technical expertise, they cleaned the site, put in a small path, some flowerbeds, and a couple of benches and had a park.
As an ecologist I have stood looking out over literally thousands of acres of wildflowers after the rains of spring and a bit of snow had moistened the earth just enough for one of those infrequent and incredible desert wildflower blooms. I have floated over a hundred feet below the surface alongside a massive wall of corals, a thousand feet above the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. These are wonderful experiences for someone with my background and interests. But I have also experienced the great pleasure of seeing the first river otter return to a clean and stable urban stream whose rehabilitation I had a small something to do with. I have been part of the day-lighting and rehabilitating of streams that had been buried under a city for decades, and I’ve had the joy of helping link previously detached patches of seriously degraded urban ‘wildlands’ into corridors that allowed the movement of native animal and plant populations.