March 24, 2009

Suburbitat: A Suburban Naturalist’s Journal.

Suburbitat: A Suburban Naturalist’s Journal.

“Jack do you never sleep? Does the green still run deep in your heart? Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines, keep us apart? Well I don’t think so, I saw some grass growing through the pavement today.”

Jethro Tull

The High Plains Environmental Center, of which I am director, was founded by a developer, Tom Hoyt of McStain Neighborhoods. The center is comprised of 100 acres of open space, surrounding two lakes. The center also leases the surface rights of the lakes, 175 acres of open water, which is reserved for migratory waterfowl. We also manage another 135 acres of open space belonging to other landowners in Centerra, a 3500 acre mixed use development in Loveland, CO.

The project from its conception was intended to be a symbiotic relationship between a developer, an environmental center and a vital business and residential community. The first executive director of HPEC, Ripley Heinz, coined the term “Suburbitat” by combining the words suburban and habitat. The term refers to the relationship between the built and the natural in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. The concept of suburbitat also points to the possibilities for planning and building environments that restore and conserve our native biodiversity.

HPEC is funded by a percentage of permit fees collected by the city of Loveland for building within Centerra. HPEC in turn maintains trails and open spaces that are a source of pride for the community, as well as a tangible example of the commitment to environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility on the part of McWhinney, the developer. Most importantly, this concept breaks the traditional stalemate between developers and environmentalists. It turns “good guys” and “bad guys” into stakeholders engaged in a constructive dialog about land use.

Like many conservation areas, HPEC is constantly trying to strike a balance between recreation, conservation and education. We don’t want to put a chain link fence around the lakes with a sign that says “This is Nature – Keep Out!” People need to spend time in nature in order to be healthy and whole. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has immediate, measurable impact on our physical and emotional health.

It is also essential to allow children to have access to nature. Since Richard Louve’s, Last Child in the Woods, which links what the author calls nature deficit disorder with ADD/ADHD, parents and educators have focused on the necessity of allowing children unstructured time in nature, as well as the need to promote eco-literacy.

As one who is eager to pass my own life-long love of nature on to younger people, this is all extremely good news. If children don’t know that nature is out there they are not going to miss it when it disappears. After all, you don’t become an advocate for something that you never knew existed. We must begin training the land stewards of the next generation now.

On the other hand jogging, boating, pets off leash and other impacts from human activities put a lot of pressure on wildlife and many wildlife populations are already near the breaking point. Bird populations in Colorado, similar to those in other states across the country, have crashed in the last forty years, many bird species declining by sixty percent or more.

Obviously we need to do all we can for birds and other wildlife populations if they are to survive the next forty years. We need to create a culture where conserving nature is a deeply held value and maintaining wildlife is considered an important goal. We need to learn about the wildlife species around us in order to understand what they need to thrive. Then we need to actively design a world that has benefit for wildlife built into it and like so many other things we need to do it right away.

Fortunately this project is going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to make us healthier, livelier and more aware human beings. Sustainability is about much more than the things that we build, what we drive or what we eat, it is a transformational journey that we  are making toward personal and planetary wholeness. Exploring the world around us and attuning ourselves to the rhythms of nature is part of that process.

The entries that will follow in this suburbitat series will be a suburban naturalist’s journal, exploring ways of attuning our senses to the natural world, rediscovering our relationship with plants and animals that share suburbitat, developing environmental ethics and re-visioning our culture, all from the point of view of the suburban householder.


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