Monthly Archives: August 2014

Using Photography to Chronicle Drought and Climate Change

drought Climate Central has a new piece on the Drought Monitor photo database, which collects photos from farmers, ranchers and local residents, as well as scientists, providing an in-depth look at changing climate and drought realities on the ground level.

Here’s a clip:

Rather than seeking out the saddest-looking patch of grass in an otherwise green field or a vibrant tree in the middle of a dessicated forest, Shafer and his team are looking for scenes that capture the average state of things. Users can then upload them with a short note using an iPhone or Android app. All the photos are publicly available so anyone can access and use them how they like.

Since the first iteration, Shafer’s group has added Memorial Day and Presidents Day weekends and enlisted the public to participate. That not only means more geographical coverage, but also the chance for a series of images to emerge showing the ebb and flow of drought in places with multiple photos over longer periods of time.

While the results are images that won’t garner too many likes on Instagram, they provide rich data for scientists to scour. Shafer said the photos have been useful in a handful of cases for improving the accuracy of the Drought Monitor. He said the southeast Colorado picture and note is the most striking example.

Shafer compared the photos to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, saying, “It looked like a colored version of those old pictures. That highlighted the severity in southeast Colorado. There’s still a spot in southeast Colorado (of extreme drought) and it’s really from those pictures. It’s a good check on telling us that, well, we have a long ways to go to recover.”

Photos taken this weekend in California could provide simlarly valuable clues about the withering drought currently plaguing the state.

Using the photos as spot checks for the Drought Monitor also point to much bigger usages. As the database grows and contributors add photos season after season, a clearer snapshot of what drought and recovery look like should begin to emerge. And that will help researchers further refine their understanding of the complex topic.

What’s in your urban soil? ISU Leopold Center on urban agriculture and soil

urbansoilThe Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has three new urban agriculture projects this year, in order to explore the creation of a guidebook for city officials that covers municipal zoning regulations on urban food production and sales, as well as research on an agricultural urbanism toolkit to reduce barriers to local food access, and community-based research to find existing and future opportunities for expanding food networks in the city.

According to a press release:

Increasingly, sustainable agriculture practitioners and researchers view cities as places of potential. A green space like an urban garden or farm can revitalize a neighborhood by making abandoned or underutilized land productive again. It also reduces the distance—and disconnect—between people and produce.

“But the soils in these areas have been so altered by prior land use that they could pose some challenges for cultivation,” cautions Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Soils in brownfields—the former sites of factories, gas stations and other industrial or commercial zones—may show signs of past land use in the form of residual chemicals, oils, pest control poisons, detergents or heavy metals. Lead, in particular, may even be present in residential areas from chips of old lead-based house paint. Soils near highways or railways also may accumulate petrochemical residues, including leaded gasoline.

These are not just on-site issues, Rasmussen says, since wind and rain may carry contaminants from other locations. For example, floodplain areas collect soil displaced upstream. Meanwhile, foot and vehicle traffic may have compacted the soil so it holds little moisture and no room for roots to grow. And since only a few hardy plants can eke out a living on uncultivated urban land, there may be very little organic matter built into the soil by plant roots.

Rasmussen suggests that if you are planning to convert an urban lot into a green space, “Start from the ground up, and revitalize the soil first.” – See more at:

Vertical Farming: NPR on Singapore Urban Farms

singapore National Pubic Radio featured a story on urban farming in Singapore, which imports more than 90 percent of its food from some 35 countries. A new movement for vertical farming is taking off in high-rise corridors.

Here’s a clip:

A new crop of farmers is trying to change that. Just as property developers build up when they can’t build out, so, too, are these agricultural pioneers. Vertical farming is taking hold across Singapore — not only in greenhouses in the vanishing countryside but also on rooftops in the heart of the city, amid soaring skyscrapers and housing blocks. The goal is to farm as efficiently as possible and maximize the remaining land — as well as abandoned and under-utilized spaces — and improve Singapore’s ability to provide more of its own food.

In the 1960s, farms occupied about 10 percent of Singapore’s 280 square miles, says Ngiam Tong Tau, a former government official who now is chairman of Sky Greens, one of Singapore’s vertical farms.

Today, it has shrunk to less than 1 percent to make way for housing and industry.

Not only is land in short supply, but water is, too. Singapore imports an estimated 30 to 40 percent of its water from neighbor Malaysia.

All this means that these new rooftop and vertical farms could make a big difference for Singapore, helping to insulate it from both natural and man-made threats to its food supply that result in periodic food shortages and price spikes.

“In times of emergencies or food shortages around the world, [if] our neighbors … don’t want to export to us, we still have some food left for certain short periods of time until the food emergencies subside,” Ngiam says.

Restoration: Author Paddy Woodworth on Prairies, Farms in Climate Change Century

Irish author Paddy Woodworth, who will be speaking on Oct. 4th at this year’s Iowa City Book Festival, addresses the role of restoration in his new book, “Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century.” Woodworth has spent years traveling the globe and talking with people—scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens—who are working on the front lines of the battle against environmental degradation. At sites ranging from Mexico to New Zealand and Chicago to Cape Town, Woodworth shows us the striking successes (and a few humbling failures) of groups that are attempting to use cutting-edge science to restore blighted, polluted, and otherwise troubled landscapes to states of ecological health—and, in some of the most controversial cases, to particular moments in historical time, before widespread human intervention.

woodworthHere’s an excerpt on a visit to Chicago:

And so, by the time Steve Packard sought out the forest preserve sites along the North Branch of the Chicago River in the late 1970s, much of what he found was very different from the “natural forests” that the founders had hoped future generations would enjoy. According to his own account, Packard was at this time a rebel without a cause and without a job, a full- time antiwar activist made redundant by America’s recent withdrawal from Vietnam. The new environmentalism attracted him. He says an eighty-six-page book, The Prairie: Swell and Swale by Torkel Korling, changed his life. His growing fascination with tallgrass prairies and then with tallgrass savannas led to his becoming one of the most inspirational—and problematic— figures in the contemporary US restoration movement. Packard was particularly struck by an introductory note to Korling’s book by Robert Betz, a leading prairie ecologist. He learned that a mere handful of intact remnants of tallgrass prairie remained in Illinois. Insofar as restoration was on the agenda at this stage, it was conceived of as reconstruction, like the pioneering work Betz was doing, literally from the ground up, on cleared land at Fermilab.

“I drove around with my girlfriend looking for the preserves, they were not even marked. We would walk in, and find this wonderful stuff here, but with all this bad stuff growing there that he [Betz] talked about. And I thought, “There is something missing here, something should be done, and I know how to do it, I know about community organization and so on. The problem was that no one cared about them [the preserves]. Those who did traveled around, looking for best ones, but from day to day, even month to month, there was nobody there looking after them.”6

The “wonderful stuff ” consisted of the patches of native prairie, forest, and—he later learned—savanna plants that could still be found on the North Branch preserves. The “bad stuff ” was invasive vegetation, and it looked like it had already won the battle. He described the scene in his fi rst major—and still his best—ecological article, “Chronicles of Restoration: Just a Few Oddball Species: Restoration and the Rediscovery of Tallgrass Savanna”:

The most obvious symptoms of this deterioration are infestations of European buckthorn [Rhamnus cathartica], Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) and garlic mustard (Alliaria officinalis). These aliens create thickets so dense, green up so early in spring, and hang on so late in fall, that they often drive out everything else. An especially sad (and common) landscape features forlorn, aristocratic old oaks in an unbroken sea of buckthorn—the understory kept so dark by the dense, alien shrubbery that not one young oak, not one spring trillium, not one native grass can be found. Except for the relic[t] oaks, whose decades are numbered, the community is dead. Early publications . . . in the 1920s show gracious open groves with table clothes spread for picnics. To traverse some of the same ground today would require an armored vehicle, or dynamite . . . in some places you can only explore the preserves by crawling along for long stretches on bare dirt under the dead, thorny lower branches of buckthorn.

New Book: The Soil Will Save Us, How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

soilNice interview with author Kristin Ohlson on PRI radio today, regarding her new book, The Soil Will Save Us.    Ohlson asks: What if there were a simple solution to fighting climate change right under our feet?

Here’s a cliip:

“The soil has been playing a mighty role in our climate ever since we’ve been a planet,” Ohlson says. It’s full of carbon fuel that helps plants and microorganisms thrive, but today’s industrial farming methods rip up the soil and release huge amounts of that carbon into the air.

Ohlson argues that returning to no-till farming practices, which leave the soil undisturbed and carbon trapped underground, will help reverse climate change and solve other pressing environmental issues at the same time. “Everything we want for our planet above the soil line depends on the activity of those microorganisms below,” she says.

“Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air,” Ohlson explains. “They convert that into a carbon fuel for themselves, but they share 40 percent of that carbon fuel with the soil microorganisms. The soil microorganisms take that carbon fuel, and they eat it and they grow with it and they make a glue with it to create habitat down in the soil. All those activities fix carbon in the soil.”

But when humans came along, Ohlson says, we started “messing up nature” — with agriculture, burning forests, plowing up the soil and changing the behavior of animals on the land. Worse, we started releasing all the carbon in the soil.

One of the best solutions, Ohlson says, is also one of the simplest: no-till farming. With this method, farmers plant crops with minimal disturbance of the soil, keeping the essential system of microrganisms intact. That helps keep all of that carbon in the soil instead of releasing into the air.

David Johnson, a scientist at New Mexico State University, has been doing “amazing work,” Ohlson says, using no-till agriculture in conjuction with dense cover crops — plants, such as legumes and grasses that grow in places and at times when the ground would otherwise be bare.

Cover crops have roots in the ground that capture carbon dioxide and send carbon down into the soil, feeding the underground community of soil microorganisms. This, in turn, builds up carbon in the soil, making the soil more porous.

“So it’s very healthy for the plants, it’s very healthy for the land, but it’s also removing a lot of carbon from the air,” Ohlson says. In fact, Johnson estimates that returning just 11 percent of the world’s cropland to no-till farming could potentially offset all of our current carbon dioxide emissions.

Fayetteville 2030: Food City Scenario

fayetteWhat if Fayetteville, Arkansas’ new development enabled the city to sustain its food budget through a local urban agriculture network?  That fundamental question underscores an inspiring new report recently published by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.

The answer: Welcome to Food City 2030.

Home of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville shares many similar urban features as Iowa City.

From the introduction:

Food City devises a model transition vocabulary for developing an urban food production system beyond the scale of the individual garden. The scenario plan envisions the foodshed as an ecological municipal utility, featuring green infrastructure, public growscapes, and urban spaces related to food processing, distribution, and consumption. Food City reclaims a missing middle scale of agricultural land use between the backyard garden and the industrial farm.

Fifty percent of Fayetteville’s built environment projected to exist by 2030 has not yet been built, as the city will nearly double its population of 75,000 over the next 20 years. Complementing the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan, Food City envisions a future based upon greater food security with accompanying forms of resilient urbanism that link food production and place making. While the dense metropolis engenders the leanest carbon footprint per capita from efficiencies in shared transportation and housing, small cities also sponsor niche solutions in creating a low-carbon future. Only the small city can plausibly evolve the local food-secure environment necessary to achieve resiliency (vs. efficiency) given the interconnectedness of its natural ecosystems, infrastructure, and urban pattern gradients.

fiveurbanFood City formulates an agroecology of urban growing guilds associated with various scales, functions, and agencies bound by context. The five growing guilds tailored to urban areas are: 1) permaculture/foraging landscapes, like edible forest farms, related to successive perennial landscapes and hosted by existing woodlands; 2) farming and gardening requiring intensive management of primarily annual landscapes; 3) GROW Streets (Gardened Right-of-Way) associated with public right-of-ways involving orchard-lined streets, fruit and nut boulevards, and edible front yards; 4) pollution remediation landscapes that support safe urban growing, primarily through low impact stormwater management, and carbon sinks for metabolizing air pollution; and 5) waste-to-energy districts which upcycle concentrated waste streams.



Art Serves Food: St. Paul’s 2,000-Person Community Meal

createspOn September 14, 2014, 2,000 people will gather at a ½ mile long table in the middle of Saint Paul’s Victoria Street in St. Paul, MN, for a civic dinner table conversation about Food Access, Food Justice, and Healthy Eating. Launched by artist Seitu Jones, Create: The Community Meal, the event seeks to illuminate how artists and their creative collaborators can transform the urban Food System, considering the cultural, health, environmental and access equity aspects of urban food production, distribution and consumption. Create draws its inspiration from Seitu’s on-going collection of food stories and will speak of food traditions and rituals of the world cultures that gave birth to our diverse population.

What would such a community meal event look like in Iowa City?


Should Iowa City Pass Urban Farm Tax Incentive Like San Francisco?

foodsfLast month, San Francisco became the first California city to pass a groundbreaking urban agricultural tax incentive.  The new law will provide tax breaks for eligible  long-term agricultural uses of local properties.

Would such an urban farming tax incentive be beneficial for Iowa City?

Here’s a link to the actual Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act Program and Procedures  ordinance.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that we’ll be able to feed the city with the urban garden space that exists here,” says Marcy Coburn, executive director of San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, told Providing public access to the properties covered by the tax incentive through retail sales—a vegetable stand, for example—is one way to fulfill the positive community impact element required by the ordinance. But thinking of the urban agriculture the incentive will hopefully spur solely in terms of feeding people is limiting: “To me, urban gardens are educational spaces, community-building spaces that can be restorative” for a neighborhood in ways that go beyond providing sustenance, Coburn says.

According to SPUR, the legislation has a number of key features:

  • The entirety of San Francisco would be considered an urban agriculture incentive zone, which means any parcel in the city that met the eligibility requirements set out in state and local law could receive a reduced property tax assessment.

  • The Planning Department would be responsible for certifying a parcel’s eligibility based on its size, existing structures and access to water.

  • If a parcel is eligible, the property owner would submit an application to the county agricultural commissioner explaining the plans for agricultural use of the site. The proposal goes above and beyond the state’s minimum requirements by requiring property owners to demonstrate through their plans that the farming or gardening on the property would have some interface with the public through either distribution or sales of food; educational activities such as classes and workshops; or use of the site as a community garden with members other than the property owners’ family.

  • The agricultural commissioner would be responsible for both reviewing the plans in the application and conducting annual site inspections after a contract is signed to ensure that the site is used solely for agricultural purposes.

  • The city assessor-recorder would be responsible for calculating the change in property taxes and providing that information to the agricultural commissioner and property owner.

  • If an application is approved, the property owner would sign a contract with specific terms, to be enforced by the agricultural commissioner.

  • The legislation explicitly allows the agencies involved to establish fees to process the initial application (no more than $250) and defray the costs of annual inspections (also no more than $250).

Climate Narrative Project Featured on Climate Connections Public Radio Series

Climate Connections is a daily public radio series produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication (YCEC). The series aims to help radio listeners understand how climate change is impacting our lives and what diverse people and organizations are doing to reduce the associated risks.

The series “connects the dots” between climate change and a wide range of issues such as energy, extreme weather, public health, food and water, jobs and the economy, national security, the creative arts, and religious and moral themes. Edited by veteran environmental journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward and hosted by YCEC Director Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., the series consists of 90-second segments for broadcast Monday through Friday, primarily on public, university, community, and alternative radio stations

As part of its launch this week, Climate Connections featured the Climate Narrative Project.

You can listen to the radio piece at this link. Here’s the script:

Climate Connections: Climate As Local Narrative
— August 19, 2014

Iowa City has long been a writer’s haven in America’s heartland. But now it’s also a city of climate action, as writers plant seeds of change.

BIGGERS: “We’re using our incredible legacy as writers, as storytellers, to now galvanize our communities.”

That’s Jeff Biggers, writer in residence at the University of Iowa office of sustainability. He recently created the “Climate Narrative Project” to explore new ways to communicate environmental issues.

BIGGERS: “We felt like the best way to approach climate change and its impact on us here in the heartland was to bring it home. And for us, of course, that is here in Iowa City as the Iowa River.”

Three students were selected to study the river, which flooded in two-thousand-eight. Their topics ranged from the impact of farming, fertilizer, and pesticides on the river’s ecology, to local residents’ personal connections to the river. The students then shared their findings using film, radio, and theater — performances that helped spark a community discussion about local sustainability.

BIGGERS: “Even after these students have moved on, what they have cultivated, the stories they have cultivated like seeds, will continue to grow.”

I’m Anthony Leiserowitz.

Climate Connections is produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication. Learn more at