Public Release: 

Urban Restorer Sees Trash Trees, Beetles As Signs Of Hope

Penn State

University Park, Pa. --- Ailanthus, the trash tree famous for growing in sidewalk cracks, sewer grates and vacant lots, is usually unwelcome in a landscape architect's plans but Penn State's Ken Tamminga says its presence in Pittsburgh's Nine Mile Run area is a sign of hope.

So, too, he says was the surprising discovery there of African dung beetles. "Both Ailanthus and the beetles are resilient, early colonizers of the valley's extreme environments and symbols of the tenacity of natural processes," he explains.

Tamminga, assistant professor of landscape architecture, is the landscape architect and ecological designer on a collaborative effort, involving Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Penn State, to regenerate the Nine Mile Run area.

Identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of the most degraded urban stream areas in the United States, Nine Mile Run features 20 million tons of steel mill slag in piles 15 stories high, raw sewage mixed in with runoff in storm surges, illegal sanitary sewer overflows and a severe decline of native plant species. All this, and more, exists in the midst of a highly industrialized, thickly settled urban environment. The situation, Tamminga says, requires developing a new, less judgmental and more creative model for regenerating stressed ecosystems.

The Penn State landscape architect will describe the approach and the progress the team has made toward achieving their goals in a paper, "Hope for the Hyperstressed: Regenerating Pittsburgh's Post-Industrial Ecosystems," Thursday, May 13 at the 1999 Annual Conference on Ecosystem Restoration and Creation in Tampa, Fla.

The usual approach to dealing with a situation like Nine Mile Run is to remove the slag, grade the area and plant grass, he notes. However, in this case, removing the slag would be too costly and disruptive and it wouldn't be regenerative.

In the new, more sustainable model developed by the team, Tamminga says, "We have a slag pile. So, we're going to see if it can function as a natural ecosystem, with people, as a living slag pile."

The plan is to try to convert the area to something more suitable for human compatibility by enhancing biodiversity, reintroducing native species and working with and revealing the natural processes underway in the area.

"Nobody else is using this kind of an approach in a situation that has this degree of degradation and level of stress in the middle of a city," Tamminga notes. "The project is a laboratory of ideas that may be able to be used elsewhere if we succeed.

He adds, "We want to connect the science with the community by building awareness of how the ecosystem functions and the people's role in the regeneration. We anticipate that it will take as long to restore the area as it did to degrade it. We'll need patience and tolerance and faith in natural processes to accomplish the task."

Currently working through Penn State's Environmental Resources Research Institute (ERRI), Tamminga and two colleagues, Dr. Peggy Johnson, a stream hydrologist, and Dr. Andy Cole, a wetland ecologist, are collaborating with CMU artist Tim Collins to refine the site analysis, integrate hydrological, ecological and botanical input, and prepare specific site-level concepts and restoration strategies.

Previous biological inventories conducted by the program team established that insects were the most diverse life forms in the area and that at least two thirds of the plant species were non-native. For example, the aggressive vine, kudzu, a bane of the southern states, has found a foothold.

Tamminga says, "Although the kudzu will be suppressed in favor of indigenous plants, its presence this far north is another interesting footnote in the story of a post-industrial city struggling to recover degraded landscapes."

"Although the area isn't fine the way it is, we are taking a 'live and let live' approach," he adds. "We want to emulate the processes that enabled the success of these early non native species to prepare the area for the recovery of native plants and animals."

Officially the "designer," Tamminga sees himself as the "bridge" between the scientific and artistic parts of the restoration project. He says, "Only through rigorous, sustained and inter-disciplinary research and action, community involvement and agency partnering is there any hope for the recovery of hyper-stressed, post-industrial environments such as Nine Mine Run."

In addition to Tamminga's paper presentation, he will co-convene, with Dr. Susan Thompson, assistant curator of botany, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a symposium, "Post-Industrial Landscapes: Vegetation, Ecology and Ecosystems-Based Regeneration," at the 16th International Botanical Congress in St. Louis, Mo., in August.

The Penn State faculty member in the College of Arts and Architecture will present a paper, "Patterns, Processes and Paradigms - Toward Ecological Vital Brownfields," at that symposium.

The Nine Mile Run restoration program is supported in part by grants from the Heinz Endowments, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In 1998, the Nine Mile Run project won the Three Rivers Environmental Award of the PA Environmental Council.


EDITORS: Professor Tamminga is at 814-863-2377 or by e-mail.

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