Penny Thoughts

Month: May, 2013

Duck Feeding, Dog Poo and Goldfish Dumping: The Nightmares of Public Parks

I must apologise.. I have rather been neglecting my blog recently. I got back to university and have had to jump immediately into my final year project.. so I have been a little overwhelmed.

I’ve been doing tonnes of research so as soon as I come to terms with the endless pages of notes I’ll try to get posting regularly again.

My dissertation is on what works to maintain biodiversity in urban areas. Being that I live in London while I study, it has been something I’ve thought about since arriving at Imperial two and a half years ago. I’ve always looked at the paved streets and concrete buildings and thought that you couldn’t really be further from nature. The idea of looking into the horizon is pretty unexciting when I am at home in Leicester. However, in London I find that I go 8 weeks without really seeing the horizon at all.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in London. The constant hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the people and surroundings keeps me busy wherever I go. But there is no place in London I prefer than Hyde Park.

Being at Imperial has its perks; I’m probably only ever a 2 minute walk from Hyde park. Recently with the weather picking up I’ve been nipping there at lunch times to enjoy the sunshine in a more green and pleasant place than my computer labs.

Being that part of my dissertation is about how London parks manage their grounds to maintain biodiversity, I feel I have some kind of excuse to spend a little more time there than I probably should.

But saying all that, this week I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into maintaining the urban parks of our world. The constant pressure from the incessantly growing urban matrix means our parks are hugely vulnerable and are in a constant war against pollution and people.

Things that I’m sure we are all guilty of doing can have really detrimental effects on our much beloved parks and green spaces. Feeding the ducks, letting our dogs poo all over the place, littering, building dens, making fires, going off the paths, and trampling through meadows and bushes are things that many of us do with only the smallest tingling of mild guilt.

However, these relatively minor behaviours have big impacts on our parks that are already under constant fire from the “big problems” of air, noise and water pollution.

Something I have found surprising is just how bad feeding the ducks is.. I mean I thought I was helping them out. Apparently if you feed park birds and mammals too much bread it fills them up very quickly and means they don’t eat other food. The bread basically leaves no room for the animals to eat the foods that actually provide them with the nutrients they need. Also excess feeding leaves a lot of food on the ground and this attracts pests like rats and foxes, and nobody wants that.

I am not a dog owner so the idea of picking up a dog’s poo has never really been something I’ve worried about. We all know that dog poo is damaging to the environment in many ways; yet I seem to spend my life hop, skipping and jumping these piles of joy whenever I’m walking around London.

In many of the parks in London they have acid grasslands. These are basically ecosystems that are made up of plants that require very little soil nutrient content to survive and thrive. These are rare habitats in urban areas and are being managed to maintain their existence and to enable this ecosystem to thrive in our challenging urban environment.

Dog poo is a big threat to these grasslands as they provide nutrients to the soil, like a stinking, doggy  fertiliser. This added nutrient alters the soil and makes it increasingly unsuitable for the acid grassland plants. It also means that more common species of plants (often weeds) can colonise the area now that there is more nutrient in the soil. If this continues, these less specialist species can spread and take over the rare acid grassland. This is only one example of the damage to the natural environment that can occur when people let their dogs release their load in our green spaces.. pick up your poop.

Not only do we humans let our dogs do their business all over our urban parks, we also discard of our unwanted pets in them.. what a great idea! I’m sure some people probably think they are doing their poor neglected pet a favour by releasing it into a natural environment.. this is not true.. at all.

I spoke to a wonderful lady at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park about her experiences in the urban-based park and she shared some brilliant insight into the difficulties of maintaining these precious spaces. She mentioned that one big problem they have is people releasing unwanted pets like goldfish and terrapins into their lakes and ponds. As multiple goldfish had been dumped they bred and now have increased rapidly in number. Some of their lakes are riddled with these household pets. Yes, goldfish are lovely, but that is when they are in a fish tank fully equipped with fake shrubbery and bubbling treasure chests. The lakes and ponds on Greenwich Peninsula are not where these fish belong and they are eating everything.

The staff at the ecology park are doing their best to control these unwanted gold guests, but with their continued breeding and people’s continued ignorance it is proving relatively difficult. Working with locals and informing them about where they should take their unwanted pets is helping; so hopefully this amazing wetland will be goldfish free in the near future.

These are only a couple examples of how our behaviours can directly damage the areas we love so much. Urban parks and green spaces keep us happy and provide an oasis in an otherwise grey and polluted environment. Let’s respect these places we love; they are struggling enough as it is.

 

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Sustainability: Fashion or Function?

As I’m currently doing a project on the maintenance of biodiversity in urban areas, words like “sustainability”, “ecosystems”, “biodiversity” are popping up all over the place. These terms are generally all wonderfully defined, fully equipped with a visual aid and chart of the writer’s choice.

After reading my first few reports and papers I started to realise that people are throwing these words around like their going out of fashion. It seems that saying that you’re being “sustainable” is the new cool. People like these words; it makes them sound future-thinking, caring and wordly. Really I think it’s a whole load of crap.

In most cases these words are being thrown out with really very little understanding of what is going on. It seems that the sustainability club is the new jock club of political life. Politicians absolutely love it. As much as I like Boris Johnson it seems that he can hardly go 2 minutes without mentioning being  “sustainable”, and “green”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is brilliant that politicians and policy makers are being more considerate of the environment; it sets a good example for our future. But really they’re just trying to stick a tiny tiara of “sustainability” on the massive turd that is our past. Maybe they think that if they say sustainability enough times the huge damage we humans have done to our environment will vanish in a poof of smoke.

I came across a google program called Ngram Viewer where you can type in a word and see how much it has been used in literature over time. If you want to have a play follow this link. I typed in these new environmental buzzwords and found something rather funny. There has been no mention of these words anywhere up until about the 1960s and 1980s.

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These words are getting people ever so excited; everyone wants a piece of them. They are  like the shiny, new iphones of the word world.. people can’t wait to show off just how sustainable they are being and how much they truly care for these ecosystems they know very little about.

Hopefully there will be some substance behind the politician’s new favourite words. But it still seems to me that the people who are actually making the difference are the conservation charities and organisations. Governments and councils are still realistically more interested in developing their growing economies than helping out the natural world that we have been shitting on for the last few hundred years.

Herbert Girardet: Regenerative Cities

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For my final year project I’m investigating what measures are and can be employed in cities to maintain biodiversity. I was recently allocated this and luck would have it, that two days later I get an email saying that Herbert Girardet was coming to Imperial to talk about regenerative cities.

Girardet has worked in urban development for many years and is the co-founder of the World Future Council. He has released numerous books including “Creating Sustainable Cities” and  “Cities People Planet“. He has also directed more than 50 documentaries, working all over the world. All of this and his receipt of the UN Global 500 Award for outstanding achievements in environmental science suggest just how much influence this man has had in the field of sustainable cities over the years.

So as you can imagine, I was pretty excited about going to this talk and therefore, managed to arrive far too early and ended up sat alone in the lecture theater for about 15 minutes before anyone else trickled in.

Girardet was a great speaker and he oozed with the confidence that comes with many hugely successful years in his field. He started by outlining how our cities have developed across the world and how, even though applicable at the time, this type of development cannot continue forever. Delving into the threats that face us now and are inevitably set to worsen in the future, he emphasised the importance of changing the ways our cities function and develop.

Using numerous cities, including Adelaide, Australia, as examples he has been heavily involved in, he showed how cities could be, shifting from a linear system on resources in and waste out, to a more circular system with the regeneration and reuse of resources. I won’t dive into all of these methods Girardet explained but you can find a little more information on this website.

Girardet’s main message has now switched from his previous idea of sustainable cities to regenerative cities, saying that now, simply being sustainable is not enough. We need to start giving back and enabling regeneration of our environment, not just sustaining present levels.

After the talk there was a short Q&A session, but unfortunately there was no time for my question. However, he was hanging around afterwards so I managed to grab him then. He was huddled within a group of students which I managed to barge my way into. I asked him whether he thought that these actions and the move to becoming more proactive than reactive was realistically going to happen before we reach the ever looming point where our effects on our planet are completely irreversible. Unfortunately, like myself, he did not. It’s a rather pessimistic end but people like Girardet have spent the majority of their lives trying to take actions to reduce our effects on the world, however there is only so much scientists can do.

We need big cultural changes across the globe and actions to be taken now rather than when it is too late. One thing I have learnt recently is that scientists need to concentrate efforts on policy makers, politicians and governments before any serious action can be taken to attempt to resolve our greedy attitudes to the world we live in and the resources it provides.