Healing urban ecosystems — the natural way

October 26th, 2023
By Allie Martinsen

This is an excerpt from the Fall/Winter 2023-2024 issue of the Upstate Advocate, Upstate Forever's twice-yearly publication. To read a digital copy of the complete publication, please click here.

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.

Urban ecosystems face unique challenges

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.

Did you know? 

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.

Nature-based solutions can mitigate development impacts

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:

  • Adding native trees and plants promotes biodiversity, improves storm water absorption, prevents erosion, and helps keep the local environment resilient and adaptable. They are more disease resistant than nonnatives and are already adapted to local climates and the animals who thrive alongside them.
  • Leaving riparian buffers — the strip of vegetation along a stream, river, lake, or pond — intact is the most cost-effective way to reduce stormwater runoff, protect drinking water quality, minimize erosion, improve habitat, mitigate flooding, moderate instream temperatures, and replenish groundwater.
  • Streambank repair and restoration address unhealthy streambanks that suffer from erosion and instability through specialized techniques like revegetating streambanks with native plants and trees and addressing issues within the stream channel.
  • Rewilding urban spaces involves reintroducing and restoring native plants and animals to an urban environment that’s been heavily developed or degraded. We can achieve this with roof gardens, wildlife highways, invasive species removal, pocket forests, and native plantings.
  • Investing in green infrastructure uses nature to improve stormwater management, climate adaptation, heat stress, biodiversity, and more. Examples include rainwater harvesting, rain gardens, permeable pavements, downspout disconnection, bioswales, urban pocket forests, green alleys, green schoolyards, and low-impact development.

These adaptive and responsive solutions are sensitive to context and place, and the strategies selected will look different from community to community.

Local efforts to strengthen urban ecosystems

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.

UF's work on nature-based solutions includes:

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!

A proactive, nature-based approach to land use

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.

Community benefits, naturally

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.

Allie Martinsen is Land Policy Manager for Upstate Forever. You can email her at amartinsen@upstateforever.org

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