Green Neighbors: Simple Is Not Always Ideal in the Real World

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:18:00 PM

When I was about 10 years old, something odd began happening in my neighborhood. The houses around the corner on Brisban Street started getting seriously flooded backyards, then basements, when we had serious rains. This was unprecedented enough that many of our neighbors had finished their basements into rec rooms, guest rooms, serious workshops.  

Spring Creek (“The Crick” to us) ran parallel to that block, and took a mild swerve that put its bed maybe 20 feet from the lot boundaries. There was enough slope and enough floodplain that until then, not even the wettest storms had driven creek water farther than a few feet over the banks.  

But a few years after my parents had taken a deep breath and a 30-year mortgage, a building boom had begun upstream. Lawnton and Rutherford and the unincorporated bits of Swatara Township became neighborhoods and proto-malls, and schools and churches joined in the paving binge. Penny Day, a straightforward student fundraising contest—a phenomenon as Catholic as Bingo, I suspect—paid to pave our playground and stripe it for both parking and basketball. We were proud of it: Progress. 

When the floods happened, one year and then a couple of years later and then repeatedly, I remember my mother shaking her head, waving eastward, and asking rhetorically, “Well, didn’t they know what would happen when they paved all that ground out there?”  

Mom wasn’t a hydrologist or even a farm kid, and I don’t think the word “ecologist” had been invented in the ’50s. It was just a perfectly obvious thing, and I saw it immediately: water runs off paving fast instead of soaking in. Duh.  

One of the scary parts of growing up is realizing that the people in charge aren’t any smarter than you are, and have less foresight than your worker-bee parents.  

Fifty years later, here we are again. Lately some people have realized that just getting water to run Somewhere Else isn’t a solution, that maybe concrete isn’t the perfect surface everywhere, that there’s more to water than piping it away. Some radicals are ripping out pavement to plant school gardens or parks. Some are looking into the compromise of permeable paving.  

Creek restorationists seem to be at the vanguard of this sane thinking. Like anyone on the front lines, they have casualties, and the Baxter Creek restoration at Richmond’s Booker T. Anderson Park was one of them. (See the Planet’s March 6 Green Neighbors column.) Fortunately, Lisa Owens Viani was still keeping an eye on her project, and called a stakeholders’ meeting to extract promises that the city, whose crew had destroyed the creek’s planted understory, would re-plant and maintain it.  

Similar stories have come in from all over the country, of city or campus maintenance crews’ clearcutting native plants along restored or original streambanks. The same thing is happening with chaparral, and with forest understory, as both are designated “fire hazards.” Between fire and water, it seems some people are determined to sterilize the world in the name of protection.  

Anyone who’s taken antibiotics knows what happens when you sterilize your guts. How observant do we have to be to realize that we have working biological systems all around us as well as within, and that we “simplify” them, smooth them out at out peril? 

Or is that the question? 

More next week.