Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Day One

So, Day One of SXSWEco, in lovely Austin, Texas.  Today was only a half day of content, perhaps to give attendees traveling into the city an opportunity to arrive today and not miss anything.
The first panel I decided to attend was "Living Laboratories: How Landscapes Give Back".  This was put on by some of the organizers of the Sustainable SITES Intiative.

SITES is essentially a LEED certification system for the great outdoors, intended to deal with the fact that most developed landscapes are something of a nightmare, ecologically speaking.  SITES is currently in the pilot phase, with approximately 150 projects scattered throughout the US, and a few in Europe (including Iceland, interesting enough). Based on the results from the pilot projects, the guidelines and scoring system will be revised, and then released for general use.  One of the very interesting things about SITES is the a focus on function and ecosystem services; it's not necessarily about restoring the original landscape, but creating and maintaining one that provides value to the human occupants by being a functional ecosystem.  One can get bonus points by planting natives, but it's not necessary and in a lot of cases, simply won't be practical.  And because landscape architects are involved, you can be certain there will also be an emphasis on aesthetics on most projects.  The main points of the program deal with the green part of the landscape (through a biomass density index, which is similar to leaf area index, but the scale has average values for eco-regions) and water.

The water issues addressed by the certification process are those most familiar to anyone who has worked with surface water in urban areas: controlling and reducing runoff from storm events, improving and protecting water quality, and restoring natural/appropriate stream geomorphology.  There is also a focus on water usage, particularly reducing the use of potable water for irrigation.  This provides a balance to the plant side of the equation, by penalizing for installing more biomass than the site can support without additional water inputs.

Soil was also dealt with briefly in the discussion (as I asked about it).  'Prime farmland' will not eligible for the program, unless it has already been developed or otherwise degraded and is no longer in agricultural use, and it sounded like some sort of soil management plan will need to be put in place along with the management and monitoring plans for the plant community and water components of the landscape.

One thing SITES will not deal with (at least immediately) is animal life.  This, according to Mark Simmons (when asked a challenging landscape ecology question), was because there was simply too much regional complexity for the program to deal with immediately.  Over time he thought it was likely that regionally focused animal habitat components will be developed and integrated into the certification.

Personally, I think SITES is extremely promising, and has potential to really deeply affect the way outdoor spaces are designed and maintained in the future.  We can hope--as Mr. Simmons said on more than one occasion--to at least do things less wrong.

The first keynote session, given by the rather famous Alex Steffen was, unfortunately, something of an unprofessional mess.  Steffen has a new book coming out, "Carbon Zero", and he opened his keynote address by talking about climate change, the challenges it poses to us, and the utter lack of progress we're making on them.  He then rapidly shifted gears to talk about cities (one of my favorite subjects), dropping a number of interesting statistics in the process, such as the fact that 250,000 people move into cities around the world every day.  From cities he moved to energy, and from energy to cars, from cars to health, wealth, surplus capacity of the objects we possess, the use of hacker/makerspaces, perhaps a dozen slides that he skipped because of time constraints, and finally, why we should be the Czech Republic, and not Albania.

There was a message mixed into this rather hodgepodge talk (with very pretty, but sometimes mysteriously incongruous graphics adorning the slides), but it was one that he never seemed to address directly.  Put simply, this message was that we need to change the way we live.  Steffen clearly feels that it is not sufficient to just swap out our current stuff, with new, "greener" stuff.  Rather, we should change our lives and culture such that we don't need so much stuff to do the things we want to do (which he never argues we should change).  This is the point about walkable neighborhoods, and wealth, and yes, Albania.

I was somewhat disappointed by this presentation, to be honest.  It was rushed, disorganized and meandering, and never really challenged the audience with new ideas.  Steffen confessed that this was the first time it had been given.  However, I have never had that excuse fly with an instructor (who would simply suggest I practice more), and I certainly wouldn't expect it to fly with an audience who had spent a rather tidy sum of money to attend.

I shall try to write about the two remaining (very interesting, if brief) sessions of Day One during breaks in Day Two, as it is rather late at this point, and I must arise with the birds to go conferencing.

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