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Strong Communities

September 2015

Adversity comes to communities in many forms – wildfire, urban decay, pollution, flooding.  Nature can play an amazing role in helping communities and their residents heal from catastrophe. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership all related to how nature can help make communities healthier, stronger and more resilient.    

Environmental Education Link

Logo for Every Kid in a Park

Calling all fourth graders!
Every Kid in a Park launched September 1.
This initiative gives every fourth grader and their family free access to hundreds of parks, lands and water for an entire year.

Visit Every Kid in a Park website for details.

Featured Scientist

Michelle Kondo

Michelle KondoResearch Hydrologist Michelle Kondo strongly believes that all people deserve to live in healthy environments, even when that environment happens to be the center of a big city and is associated with an array of urban woes. Her eclectic academic background in civil and environmental engineering, urban ecology, environmental health and epidemiology, all with a public management twist; have positioned her well for her work within the NRS’ Philadelphia Field Station where the emphasis is on improving urban natural resources stewardship in the Philadelphia metropolitan region.

“I always strive to do research that answers questions that are relevant to urban residents and policy makers” Kondo said. Her research looks at the negative effects of exposure to factors such as illegal dumping, vandalism, and vacant lots on the health and wellbeing of urban residents. And then on the flip side, she examines whether and how environmental improvements can impact people’s health by reducing stress and signaling “cues to care.”  

Kondo is currently leading an effort to evaluate some of the value-added impacts of creating green stormwater infrastructure.  This practice involves increasing vegetation, creating green spaces, and enhancing water absorption to better manage stormwater and reduce sewer overflows. Her research suggests that one  of the potential benefits of these added green spaces is reduced crime rates. 

In another project, Kondo and her colleagues are evaluating the effectiveness of “Nature Rx” programs and their effectiveness in increasing patient use of outdoor spaces.  “Nature Rx” or “Park Rx” programs are partnerships developing across the U.S. between doctors, hospitals, non-profit groups and land managers to increase support for people to spend more time outdoors.   

As a child growing up in Seattle, Kondo was always curious about the natural and man-made world, and felt compelled to do work to help vulnerable populations.  “With my research, I always seek to reduce perceived differences, to work with communities and the diverse perspectives within them, address power inequalities, and build collaborative projects” she said. “I believe that these values, which are important in my research, are also important to building strong communities.”

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Featured Product

WIdland Urban Interface Map Book

The Wildland-Urban Interface Map Book tells the WUI story from a national and state-by-state perspective.This summer, like many summers in the U.S., the news has been full of images of housing developments wreathed in dark smoke from approaching wildfires. Fires are especially complicated to manage in wildland urban interface (WUI) areas where houses and other buildings meet up or mix with undeveloped natural areas. WUI areas are also places where human influence on natural systems is greatest due to greater habitat fragmentation, more exotic invasive species, and reduced water quality. About 99 million people live in WUI areas of the conterminous United States in a total of 44 million houses. 

The WUI is the focus of a recently released publication, “The 2010 Wildland-Urban Interface of the Conterminous United States,” also known as the WUI Map Book. It is designed to inform national policy and local land management policies in WUI areas. Wildland urban interface is not exclusive to the West.  In fact, states with the largest WUI area are all in the eastern and southern United States.  California and Texas have the greatest number of houses in the WUI.   The authors provide a state-by-state analysis of the WUI using color coded maps and graphics of state land cover, land ownership, wildland vegetation cover and housing density.  Organized by regions of the country, the document tells the story of each state through a two page spread. 

In addition to the published document, the maps, statistics and datasets underlying the WUI Map Book are available at https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/data/WUI

Featured Research

Urban Forest Inventory and Analysis

Detecting stress in trees via biomarkers.In 2014 -- 84 years after the Forest Service conducted it first rural forest census -- scientists combined Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) protocols with i-Tree, a computer model used to assess urban forest structure, function and value, to begin Urban FIA measurements involving survey of both public and private urban trees.  Expanding FIA into urban areas is a logical extension of forest inventory and monitoring given that over 80 percent of the nation’s population lives in urban areas. 

Baltimore, Md., and Austin, Texas, served as the inaugural cities for the new Urban FIA program carried out by Forest Service staff, with assistance from state and local partners.  “At this point, Urban FIA is a strategic inventory of the nation’s urban forests with special focus on cities with populations of 200,000 or more, roughly 100 of the nation’s largest cities,” said Mark Majewsky, forester with the Station’s FIA Program. “Rather than a one-time snapshot of our urban forests, we are building a continuous inventory that involves measuring panels of plots annually so the data is constantly being refreshed.”

On the local level, data from Urban FIA will provide strategic level, city-wide data to city planners and elected officials to assist them in making budgetary decisions regarding future investments in their city’s urban forests.  “As the program expands over time to include the sampling of more metropolitan area hub cities and their surrounding urban areas, we will build a body of data that will support the analysis of forest trends nationwide across the urban to rural gradient,” Majewsky said.  “It will also help fill a critical information gap in the nation’s carbon accounting system.”

Urban FIA will complement to the rural FIA program, creating an even more compelling story about the benefits of trees and forests. The story includes the role of forests, both urban and rural, in carbon sequestration, moderation of air temperatures and water pollution, reduced heating and cooling costs, more wildlife habitat, increased property values, mental health benefits, strengthened social connections and reductions in crime rates.    

The first Urban FIA report, titled “The Urban Forests of Austin” is currently in press and will be published in late 2015.  Beginning this fall, a new tool, DataMart, will be released that will enable the public to access and download FIA data onto their own machines

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Featured Partnership

Chicago Wilderness

: More than 300 conservation organizations are working together as Chicago Wilderness to enhance biodiversity. Photo Courtesy Chicago Wilderness.

In 1996, a group of forward thinking local restoration volunteers originated the idea of joining forces across public and private, government and civic groups, to preserve and restore the natural areas in the 9-county area surrounding Chicago.  The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were founding members of the group, which gave the nascent effort the seemingly oxymoronic moniker “Chicago Wilderness."

Almost 20 years later, no one is scoffing.  Chicago Wilderness has become a strong community of more than 300 conservation oriented organizations working together to protect, enhance and improve biodiversity and the associated environmental services for an urban population of more than 10 million Americans. 

At the foundation of many Chicago Wilderness efforts is the much lauded “Biodiversity Recovery Plan” from 2000.  Chicago Wilderness members worked to establish the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet, Ill., and the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge along the Illinois/Wisconsin border. Both sites help meet critical goals of the plan. Chicago Wilderness efforts were also responsible for establishment of the national “Leave No Child Inside” month.  Chicago Wilderness has served as a model for other similar conservation efforts across the country, including Houston Wilderness, the Intertwine Alliance in Portland, Ore., and Amigos de Los Rios in East Lost Angeles County. 

“The flexible structure of Chicago Wilderness allows members to take on issues they see as important in a nimble and responsive way,” according to Lynne Westphal, who has been active in Chicago Wilderness since its inception. “It has been key to the success and endurance of the partnership.” 

Chicago has made great strides in improving the region’s biodiversity, and challenges such as climate change and flooding issues will have serious implications for human and natural communities of the Chicago region over the course of the next decade.  Chicago Wilderness will continue its focus on nature for people’s sake.   

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