A while back I wrote on the importance of creating more maintained meadows in our urban parks (see here). At the same time that many of our parks continue to appear as if they are more “golf course” in nature, rather than urban wilds (much the way Olmsted originally envisioned them), we should also pay attention to our residential and commercial neighborhoods, to see how private and public green spaces are treated.
I am happy to say, that in my neighborhood, west of Elmwood Avenue, I have been seeing significant changes over the last 18 years. When I first moved onto my street, every lawn was over-mowed and there were very few “naturally” growing landscapes to be seen in any direction. These days, more and more homeowners are re-thinking their front lawns, and are opting to convert them into lower maintenance, more natural and sustainable growing areas. On certain blocks of Ashland Avenue and on Bryant Street, taking a walk is infinitely more interesting and beautiful merely due to the green surroundings that are encountered.
Every time a traditional lawn is dug up and green thumb is allowed to do his or her thing, a number of side benefits are realized. First off, water runoff is not as great. Also the need for continual lawn maintenance is alleviated. How many times do you walk past a lawn where little signs are posted to keep dogs away due to chemical treatment? Do you really want that in your neighborhood? Continual mowing of lawns, when nothing else is allowed to grow, means that there is no habitat for wildlife – bees, birds, butterflies, etc. Allowing for nature to thrive in an urban neighborhood not only looks beautiful, it’s important for the environment (especially indigenous plants). Not to mention water conservation (something that is not an issue in Buffalo, although it should be).
I was recently reminded of how important a healthy green neighborhood really is when I read about “Other Order”, which is an audio project that revolves around the sounds of Urban Wilds (see here). It’s basically a variation of a Sound Garden, where an audio headset allows listeners to hear places rather than simply seeing them. Often times when humans interact with nature (walking or jogging in public parks), they do so while listening to music (thus canceling out the sounds of the immediate environment). Even simply thinking about one’s own life can drown out the sounds of our natural surroundings, not to mention myriad manmade sounds that prevent us from hearing the calls of the wild.
Recently a UB professor (Teri Rueb – Department of Media Study) teamed up with a senior research scientist (Peter Del Tredici – teaches botany at Harvard Graduate School of Design) to create a virtual listening lab where visits to natural sites bring about auditory experiences that allow visitors to interact with natural environments in a completely unique way.
“My hope is that visitors will be able to view these landscapes that may initially look unkempt, shaggy and even in moments appear a little derelict and recognize that these places have a beauty of their own because they have been allowed to evolve according to their own spontaneous processes,” said Rueb.
Listeners of these fantastic audio experiences are treated with sound bites that are triggered via a phone’s GPS coordinates. Not all of the sounds are natural, as the clips tell the entire tale of the surroundings. This inspirational exercise goes well beyond the realm of maintained meadows, to show just how important undisturbed settings actually are. The problem is, that living an urban existence usually doesn’t allow for natural interactions such as this, unless you take a trip to Times Beach or Tifft Nature Preserves.
I’m not saying that we should let all of our lawns run rampant with nature’s plan… that would never be allowed to happen anyways. But there is a balance that would suit our neighborhoods nicely. For far too long we were told (probably by the lawn mower and pesticide industries) to keep our lawns dutifully trimmed and unnaturally green. Thankfully a number of urban homeowners have opted to take a completely different route when it comes to tending their front yards. I love living in a neighborhood that has evolved into a place that is much more a reflection of nature than the boundless manicured lawns that once ruled the streets.