Walking trails, parks and water access are more than just oases in urban areas. They are ways to make cities more resilient in the face of environmental change, says biology professor Heather Reynolds.
“Green space is not just an amenity. Green spaces are ecosystems, involving plants, animals and microbes interacting in cyclical and sustainable ways,” says Reynolds, one of the co-leaders of the Environmental Resilience Institute’s Urban Green Infrastructure working group. “We can easily see the beauty of plants, but we don’t always see that plants, and the ecosystems of which they are part, provide life-supporting services, such as producing oxygen, filtering water and growing food.”
While the working group was formed last year as part of ERI, which is an outgrowth of IU’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenges initiative, Reynolds says attention to greening of urban spaces is not a new idea. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has advocated green infrastructure for years as a way to manage storm water, for example. Smaller groups are promoting urban gardens as a way to increase food security and build communities. Nonprofits promote beautification projects that aren’t just pleasing to the eye but also promote pollinators, clean water and nature therapy.
The Urban Green Infrastructure group is focusing on developing tools and strategies for governments and communities to better leverage green infrastructure to prepare for environmental change, such as climate change. Teams of researchers, often collaborating with local governments and citizens, are addressing issues ranging from how people view their local waterways to how urban vegetation and plantings affect ecosystems. The resulting information can guide policy decisions at the government level as well as provide guidance for individuals.
Reynolds and her colleagues recently took one such project to the national stage. They presented “Inventorying and Analyzing Urban Green Infrastructure for Community Resilience: Best Practices,” at the National Council for Science and the Environment’s conference in Washington, D.C., early in 2018.
In 2017, they led a charrette session with other stakeholders in Indianapolis focusing on how to define a resilient watershed. The working group’s Greening the Pleasant Run Waterway project aims to develop measurement systems of social-environmental resiliency in an urban waterway under transition. The charrette session provided a unique opportunity to collaborate with Indianapolis-based groups concerned with Pleasant Run.
“This also was designed to help us get that grassroots information we will need for our Hoosier Resilience Index,” Reynolds says. The index is a tool ERI is developing to enable Indiana communities and regions to measure their readiness to respond to long-term changes and immediate environmental challenges, and to track their progress over time.
Through another collaboration, the group’s Project Greenspace has been working with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, a 40-year-old organization that deploys 30,000 volunteers to help with 500 projects. ERI social scientists will assess volunteer engagement in green spaces, while ERI ecologists will assess the ecology of the green spaces, such as their biological diversity. Researchers will combine their data sets to gauge interactions between social and ecological components, and provide feedback to Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.
Another project, Green and Blue Bloomington, will host a summit designed to promote greater inclusivity of different cultural perspectives in discourse and action about environmental change, with a focus on lakes and waterways.
Researchers will collect narratives from Bloomington area residents, including diverse cultural groups, about relationships with and concerns about local lakes and other waterways. The narratives will be made public through a digital archive, and will help researchers better understand how Bloomington can work toward a successful green infrastructure.
All of the Urban Green Infrastructure projects aim to draw residents into the environmental issues in their communities as well as develop strategies or tools they can use to prepare for change.
“We can green our cities and change mindsets about green space and its role in promoting healthy human-nature relationships,” Reynolds says. “This is a growing movement we are joining and pushing forward to make cities more resilient.”