Seeking Systems that Serve Us All

by Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

In the western United States, most of our cities are situated in arid landscapes–dryland ecosystems or deserts.  Historically, dry landscapes have been viewed as wastelands, lacking value until we created a use for them. Most humans now live in cities, and dryland ecosystems are currently home to over 2 billion people worldwide. Like any other organism, we humans modify our environment to facilitate our survival and meet our needs. And there is a tendency for us to think of cities as separate from “nature”. Dr. Nancy Grimm’s groundbreaking work examines the relationship of humans and other living creatures with their urban environments and looks at ways we might rethink the socio-cultural value of the water-limited landscapes we call home.

On Tuesday, February 25th, Dr. Nancy Grimm will present her talk “Rivers of our dreams: water futures in urban central Arizona” from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Grimm, an ecosystem ecologist and interdisciplinary sustainability scientist, is the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences, distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and Regents Professor at Arizona State University. Last year, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Grimm currently serves as the co-director of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN), working with cities to create collaborative visions for future urban infrastructure, building resilience and sustainability plans, and exploring nature-based solutions to urban resilience challenges. As the director of the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER), an innovative interdisciplinary study of complex metropolitan regions, she helped develop conceptual models of social-ecological-technological systems, expanding how we think of ecology today.

Biodiversity makes ecosystems healthier and more resilient to destabilizing disturbances. Climate change is already bringing more potentially catastrophic disturbances like storms, floods, and droughts to our doorsteps. Couple this with the lack of biodiversity in cities, and one can see how, in thinking of our cities as separate from nature, we’ve made ourselves more vulnerable and less prepared to survive climate crises. Dr. Grimm’s research asks the question of how we might come together collectively to make plans and increase our ability to adapt to stability-rattling events.

A desert city like Phoenix, with 20 years of CAP-LTER data, can help researchers model systems around questions like how pollution might cycle through the water of the city and desert streams. Who might be impacted most in extreme events like floods or droughts? How will the city’s infrastructure hold up? How does stormwater impact water quality? Different ecosystems respond differently to the same disturbance, so not every city will approach, respond to, or withstand droughts or floods in the same way. But looking at ecosystem models that include cities is a way to start thinking of all the complex interworking parts of the system.

What does it look like for an urban environment to affect changes in an ecological system? How important is the factor of scale in shaping more sustainable cities? What sorts of tradeoffs might we expect in an effort to create a more sustainable future for ourselves?

Come explore these questions with Dr. Grimm on Tuesday afternoon, February 11, 2020.  Her talk “Rivers of our dreams: water futures in urban Arizona,” will be from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building.  As usual, we’ll have some sweet treats, coffee, and tea, so bring your mug and enjoy.

collaborative Conservation

Photo: Buck Island Ranch by Carlton Ward

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

For many of us, it is hard to envision a role for cows in land conservation. Out here in the West, cattle ranging has completely reorganized ecosystems over the last couple hundred years, and there are strong and complex opinions regarding the practice. The reality is that here in the United States we do range cattle, and we can never go back to exactly the way things were before cattle arrived on this continent. We may also never know every last impact of this past, but we can use what we learn from the past to guide and shape future practices. 

This is the focus of Dr. Hilary Swain’s work, although not out West, but rather in Florida. On Tuesday, February 11, 2020, she will deliver her talk, “The confluence of biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and socio-economic factors in Florida ranchlands,” from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Swain has been the Executive Director of the Archbold Biological Station, sitting in the headwaters of the Everglades in south-central Florida, for 25 years.  \The lands of Florida have been evolving with cattle for even longer than our Western plains have, and Dr. Swain’s work, overseeing the operations, research, and education at the Station, looks at reorienting practices of cattle ranching to a more ecologically productive, healthy, and meaningful relationship with the land. Land and cattle have shaped each other over the years but the relationship doesn’t have to stay unhealthy. Learning best practices for our current moment is a step forward in adapting and rehabilitating rangelands.

Archbold is a world-renowned field station connected to the University of Florida. “[It] represents everything I believe in: great science, active conservation and education,” says Swain.[1] Biological field stations provide wonderful opportunities for science to collaborate across disciplines, with private landowners, and with agencies ranging from local to global, informing conservation in powerful ways. The subtropical Buck Island Ranch that operates with around 3,000 head of cattle on Archbold’s 20,000-acre property is recognized by the Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area,” and ranges land with a mix of native, semi-native, and improved (aka fertilized) pastures. This provides an opportunity to study best ranging practices in a collaborative way where overlapping goals can be taken into account quickly, with the ultimate goal of increasing the area’s biodiversity. 

Buck Island Ranch has been collecting data as part of the field station since 1988, providing an environment to effectively study current land use in relation to historical uses, and to evaluate tradeoffs. “Archbold’s mission is to build and share the scientific knowledge needed to protect the life, lands, and waters in the heart of Florida,” says Swain.[2] Field stations provide the ability to study ecosystems and ecological relationships in unprecedented ways, providing insight into how we might adjust our methods to live more synergistically. As one of 18 nationwide USDA Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network sites, Buck Island Ranch is also helping to link the local ecological data of the ranch to larger ecological networks across the United States. Archbold Biological Station shines as an example of what it looks like to study the intersection of ecological concerns with economic ones, both words rooted in the Greek oikos, meaning home. The land we live on is a part of our home and learning how to coexist with the ecosystem processes of the land is perhaps the most essential adaptive quality of our times. 

Come learn more from Dr. Swain about life on a large field station and the research being conducted at Archbold on Tuesday, February 11, 2020. Her talk “The confluence of biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and socio-economic factors in Florida ranchlands,” will be from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building. As always, there will be coffee and treats, so bring your mug and enjoy!

[1] https://news.wgcu.org/post/hilary-swain-phd

[2] https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.2023

Campus is abuzz with innovation

Imagine a smoldering late-August day on campus. The pavement radiates heat and you struggle to find a place to take cover from the sun. The walk from the Union to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts seems unbearable and you wonder what will come first: The museum doors or your body in a puddle on the walkway. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see an oasis: a tree, shrubs, greenery. The space is alive with color and movement. And behold—a rock to sit on. You take the scene in.

It does not take long for you to realize that you are not the only creature taking refuge in this assemblage of habitats. Bees buzz around you, busy transferring pollen from flower to flower. Birds and insects swoop in and out. There are even a few other humans enjoying the space.  A growing community of plants, pollinators and Utahns.

This unique space is the result of an innovative student-led project funded through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). SCIF is the university’s green grants program managed by the Sustainability Office that provides an opportunity for students, faculty and staff from all disciplines and departments to propose projects that enhance the sustainability of our campus and community. The College of Architecture + Planning and Facilities Management also contributed funds to the $11,850 project.

In spring 2018, a joint team of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students from multiple departments on campus including planning, engineering and biology submitted a proposal to replace turf adjacent to the architecture building with green infrastructure and a pollinator garden. There had been flooding issues in heavy rainstorms as runoff came off the sidewalk, down the slope and into the basement level of the architecture building. So, the team proposed constructing a form of stormwater green infrastructure called a bioswale to better manage this runoff. Green infrastructure is an approach to stormwater management that imitates the natural water system on the landscape; it captures runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and rooftops and directs it into the ground where it is filtered by soil and plant roots that take up some of the water and pollutants. Under the surface of the garden now is an 8-foot-deep trench filled with sand that allows water to soak quickly into the ground while filtering pollutants. On the surface is a rock-lined swale that slows the flow of water and directs it into the ground and away from the building.

In addition to mitigating flooding and improving water quality, a primary goal of this project was to transform the irrigation-intensive turf grass lawn in front of the architecture building into an ecologically and socially functional and attractive outdoor space by reducing water use, increasing biodiversity, creating habitat for wild pollinators and a beautiful retreat for humans. Water-wise native plants reduce irrigation needs while still providing benefit to humans and other species alike. This type of landscaping helps the university meet its goals of achieving water neutrality by 2020 and reducing stormwater runoff by 75% in the next 10 years.

A central component of the garden is its role in attracting and supporting a wide diversity of pollinators. Pollinators play a critical role in our ecosystem. They are an important part of plant reproduction with over 80% of flowering plants requiring a pollinator. This has direct impacts both on natural ecosystems and on agricultural production. One-third of all the food we eat, including some of the most delicious and healthy items like most fruits, nuts and vegetables, are the result of successful pollination. Unsurprisingly, pollinators are also responsible for the reproduction of many plants that provide food and habitat for wildlife. Yet, pollinator populations are in rapid decline as a result of multiple factors–especially habitat destruction. This garden counters that trend by providing a habitat haven for these important ecosystem players. Bees are the most common pollinator, and Utah is home to over 1500 native species.

The garden will also attract the three hummingbird species that commonly live in or migrate through Utah: broad-tailed, black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds. As a result, garden visitors will be able to partake in the enriching and connective experience of hummingbird viewing.

Together, the Green Infrastructure and Pollinator Garden will be a step toward the university’s master plan vision of smart open space, intelligent landscaping and water neutrality. It also provides a point of reference and education for students to see how sustainable systems like this work, it will serve as a living lab helping students convert sustainability principles learned in class into practice.

In honor of Pollinator Week (June 17-23), treat yourself to a walk in the Green Infrastructure and Pollinator Garden to relax, unwind and appreciate the buzzing life around you.


This article was originally published in @theu. The content was condensed from the original SCIF proposal submitted by: Sarah Hinners, Faculty (City + Metropolitan Planning), Amy Sibul, Faculty (Biology), Quaid Harding (Undergraduate Biology), Nick Kiahtipes (Undergraduate Urban Ecology), Amanda Dillon (Masters City + Metropolitan Planning, Real Estate Development), Nannette Larsen (Masters City + Metropolitan Planning), Debolina Banerjee (PhD Candidate City + Metropolitan Planning), Sue Pope (Campus Facilities) and Mason Kriedler (PhD Civil + Environmental Engineering).