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October 26th, 2023
By Allie Martinsen
Humans build things. It’s what we do. We leave our mark on our environments, and too often, the environment comes out of that interaction worse for wear. It is a difficult balancing act: protecting the sensitive natural systems that sustain life while accommodating community development needs.
Urbanized areas, in particular, face significant challenges to maintaining a healthy environment. With the Upstate’s population rising, local cities and municipalities are grappling with how to accommodate rapid growth in a way that preserves the natural resources we depend on for a healthy and happy community.
While there are no one-size-fits-all answers, many communities are successfully addressing negative development impacts through effective, low-cost naturebased solutions.
Human activity and intensive land use often disrupt natural systems, leading to complex — and sometimes dire — consequences. When the need for city infrastructure like roads, parking lots, buildings, and homes increases, the natural environment pays the price, and we see how the loss of one natural element can lead to a cascade of urban issues.
Our roads and parking lots are impermeable surfaces, meaning they cannot absorb rainwater. This causes more stormwater runoff, erosion, and decreased soil quality along with increased sediment and pollution in waterways. When combined with the loss of old growth, native trees, impermeable surfaces lead to worse flooding events.
An inch of rain generates 36 times more stormwater runoff per acre on pavement than on natural forested land. Preserving urban greenspace mitigates these impacts. (Source: US Geologic Survey)
Urban environments experience tree loss, too, leading to habitat loss, impacted water cycling, and warmer temperatures. If the old trees go, then the species who called them home usually follow suit. Young and ornamental trees do not provide the same habitat for urban wildlife who we depend on to keep all organisms in natural balance. Young trees also fail to provide the same amount of shade and cooling to our urban landscape, and ornamental, non-native trees are not as drought resistant or adapted to our local environment.
These are just a few of the problems that can befall an urban environment. If these issues are not addressed, they can lead to significant loss of biodiversity, property, and quality of life.
Increasingly, communities are turning to a nature-based approach to mitigate and prevent the negative impacts associated with development. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nature-based solutions "harness the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people, optimize infrastructure, and safeguard a stable and biodiverse future." They are based on the principle that natural, healthy ecosystems provide tangible economic, health, and quality-of-life benefits in a way that is lower in cost and more effective than artificial systems.
Examples of nature-based solutions:
These adaptive and responsive solutions are sensitive to context and place, and the strategies selected will look different from community to community.
There are plenty of local initiatives underway across the Upstate. For example, TreesUpstate and the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority have partnered through a NeighborWoods initiative to improve tree canopy in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
In Anderson County, the Rocky River Conservancy is conducting restoration efforts and water quality testing in Rocky River Nature Park, a 148-acre public preserve protected by a UF conservation easement. TreesUpstate and UF are working alongside the Conservancy to add native plants and improve habitat quality.
City/County councils, planners, private companies, and residents alike must work together to identify more opportunities for investments in nature-based solutions. The ongoing management, maintenance, and evaluation of implemented solutions are also crucial to success.
Promoting funding sources for more greenspace conservation
Local funds can be used as matching dollars to help leverage conservation grants from federal, state, and private sources — making applications from Upstate organizations more competitive in the grant-seeking process. UF has advocated for increased conservation funding in a number of Upstate counties.
Strengthening tree canopy and preservation through policy change
Our Land Planning and Policy team has been working to strengthen local ordinances that enhance tree canopy, support tree preservation, and champion native species in municipalities across the Upstate.
Mitigating the impact of invasive species on local ecosystems
Our Land Conservation team has worked tirelessly to provide enhanced outreach and education on habitat restoration, invasive species management, and plant conservation by working with Upstate property owners who hold conservation easements.
Reducing bacterial pollution in rivers
Thanks to SCDHEC funding, we help landowners in critical areas by offsetting costs on projects that reduce bacterial pollution, such as septic tank repair/replacement and fencing cattle out of streams.
... plus many more projects!
While nature-based solutions are a great way to address the negative impacts of development, we should also work to prevent those impacts before they happen through smart land use policies. Too often, local land use policies are created without adequate consideration for the irreplaceable, tangible benefits that healthy ecosystems provide for communities.
In the Upstate, we need robust local policies — at all municipal levels — that more strongly value ecosystems and prioritize nature-based solutions to maintain a healthy environment alongside development.
From a planning perspective, communities and local council members can work together when drafting comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and landscape ordinances to ensure that concern for nature is at the forefront.
Decisionmakers need to ensure that nature-based solutions include concerns for and input from low-income areas and historically disadvantaged areas. Doing so will ensure communities most likely to be disproportionately impacted by a changing climate will have a seat at the table.
The benefits of nature-based solutions are innumerable. They create spaces that are more harmonious for both people and nature, and they strengthen cities and communities by enhancing biodiversity, saving species, improving city microclimates, reducing air pollution, diminishing the urban heat island effect, and mitigating flood risk.
Even if our first steps toward a greener future are small and stumbling, we can make a collective impact by creating a future that is wild, bountiful, and blooming.