Wednesday, October 29, 2008

AU students enjoying their green campus

Urban Environmentalism the Next Big Thing

Urban environmentalism is more than taking the bus, planting a rooftop garden or attending an Earth Day rally. It is a growing movement among community leaders, scientists and colleges and universities nationwide to make city spaces into thriving, sustainable places.
American University, with its picturesque main quad and extensive florae, is an actor in this movement due, in part, to its status as a national arboretum.
The AU arboretum, a certified green space of 85 acres in the middle of the nation’s capital, is home to a scarlet oak tree older than the campus itself. There is an exotic parrotia tree from Iran and a rare Franklinia tree, one of only 2,000 descendents of the tree discovered by Ben Franklin in 1765.
Just 10 years ago AU was mostly concrete, grass and much less attractive than it is today, said Mark Feist, assistant director of Facilities Management at AU. Since the arboretum was established in 2004, facility staffers have been hard at work making the arboretum more verdant and environmentally sustainable. They use organic fertilizer and a computer-controlled sprinkler system that first measures weather and precipitation conditions, and then uses only the amount of water necessary to keep the plants healthy and beautiful.
All of these efforts are part of a larger, nationwide goal in urban areas to reduce waste and reuse resources. “It’s a sign of the times,” said Feist. “The greening of America has been a result of a grassroots effort, and the urgency is setting in to start reversing environmental damage,” he said.
AU President Neil Kerwin took a major step toward meeting that goal April 21, 2008, when he signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, making AU one of over 500 U.S. colleges and universities that pledged to make their campuses climate neutral.
The commitment requires AU to measure its yearly greenhouse gas emissions from school vehicles, electricity, heating, air and bus travel and then set a date by which to become climate neutral. AU has pledged to use biofuel and electric-run campus vehicles, increase its use of wind and solar power, buy recycled office supplies and build more sustainable buildings, like the School of International Service building under construction, which has received the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold standard approval.
To become climate neutral the university will offset its greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing carbon credits, said Feist. The money goes toward green technology initiatives and is worth the amount of GHG emissions the school cannot cut out, he said.
“[The commitment] is not going to be a project or a document but a new way of life for us and how we interact with the environment here at AU,” Feist said.
Beyond lowering emissions and reducing waste, water management and aquatic studies are a growing part of urban environmentalism. AU biology students study the human and industrial affects on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Among other problems, these rivers are the repositories of untreated human waste and runoff when the city’s century-old sewage pipes overflow during heavy rainfall. Under normal circumstances the pipes carry wastewater and storm water runoff to the Blue Plains water treatment plant in Southwest D.C., but when the system is overloaded raw sewage and pollution from agriculture and industry create high levels of nitrogen and other chemicals, which are hazardous to marine and human life.
Water quality is often determined by its concentration of hydrogen to oxygen on the poly-Hydrocarbon, or pH, scale. Pure, or neutral, water is comprised of two hydrogen compounds to one oxygen compound, H20. But when hydrogen to oxygen levels exceed the 2-to-1 ratio the water is basic, and when there is more oxygen than hydrogen, acidic. Both basic and acidic water systems disrupt ecosystems and their plant and animal life.
Acidic water, also acid rain, is caused when sulfur and nitrogen are released by industry, mining and farming. Basic, or high, pH levels are caused by nitric oxide, hydrocarbons and sulfur emitted during vehicle combustion, released every time you start your car.
The Potomac and Anacostia rivers are highly basic. About 50 percent of the brown bullhead catfish in the Anacostia River have tumors, for instance; a sure sign of high pH levels, according to Dr. Karen Bushaw-Newton, professor of Microbial Ecology at AU.
Area ecologists commonly know the Potomac and Anacostia rivers have high pH levels, she said, but no one has done research to see what bacterium in the water system are doing to clean the mess in which they live, a process known as bio-remediation. Bushaw-Newton and her students are conducting ground-breaking research on organisms natural to the rivers that help break down the high levels of pH.
“The Anacostia River system is such a wonderful study area because it’s not a pristine system,” Bushaw-Newton said. “You understand that when you start studying it. And then you go from there,” she said.
Many of the toxic chemicals found in the rivers are carried downhill from lawns, streets and vehicles when it rains. Planting trees and vegetation that absorb rainwater and runoff are some of the best ways to decrease the amount of toxic chemicals that reach waterways, said Bushaw-Newton.
As a part of the solution architects and landscapers are looking for new surfaces on which to plant more foliage. The green rooftop at the AU Media Production Center is the most innovative and effective project for water management and climate change on campus, said Feist.
The roof is covered with sedum, a high-sun, low-water flowering shrub, planted in four inches of soil over an egg-crate-like structure. The soil structure and the plants themselves store rainwater for use in dry weather, and the roof controls up to 80 percent of what would normally be water runoff. The sedum roof at AU was an experiment, and Feist plans to add more green roofs around campus. About a quarter of AU’s buildings can support sedum roofs, said Feist.
The long-term answers to climate change lie in education and raised awareness, said Bushaw-Newton. “Understanding urban ecosystems is extraordinarily important so our urban areas can be maintained in a more sustainable manner,” she said. Having tree ordinances, no oil/toxic dumping signs near storm drains and increasing green spaces in cities are all ways to improve the urban environment, she said.
“I think environmental attitudes and knowledge are getting better,” said Bushaw-Newton, “I’m a hopeful person. I believe the cup is half full.”

Monday, May 5, 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Interview 2: Mark Feist

Mark Feist, assistant director of Facilities Management at American University, has been with the university for 12 years and saw the AU Arboretum become reality.

Interview 1: Karen Bushaw-Newton, Ph.D.

Dr. Bushaw-Newton, "Doctor B" to students, microbial ecologist and assistant professor in American University's Department of Biology Environmental Studies program, researches nutrient and toxic pollution in the nation's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.
"The Anacostia River system," she said, "is such a wonderful study area because it's not a pristine system, and you understand that when you start studying it. And then you go from there."
She does cutting-edge research on the multiple-antibiotic resistant bacteria found in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and on natural organisms within the river systems that can break down the highly toxic concentration of pH's (poly-hydrocarbons) in the water.
Dr. Bushaw-Newton spoke to me about her research and the importance of preserving and planting green spaces in urban areas.
You can visit her university website here.