In 1992, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson wrote: “Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology.”
According to the Society for Ecological Restoration, the practice of ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.
As practiced by landscape architects, ecological designers, and ecological engineers, ecological restoration has the capacity to restore damaged sites, landscapes, and even ecosystems.
New York City’s High Line is a notable success. Once an elevated railway, the High Line is a 1.5-mile rail line running through Manhattan. Over time, the rail line saw its cargo shift to trucking and by 1980, it was no longer used. There it sat, a 30-foot tall iron structure slated for demolition.
Robert Hammond and Joshua David, both living near the High Line, took an interest and started Friends of the High Line.
“When I went up on top, it was a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the middle of Manhattan,” Hammond noted in his 2011 TED Talk. “You know with views of the Empire State building, and the Statue of Liberty, and the Hudson River. And that’s really where the idea coalesced around ‘let’s make this a park and let’s have it be inspired by this wildscape.’”
The Friends of the High Line helped to organize a design competition that led to the three-phases of building the project. The first section was completed in 2009, and in 2010 received 2 million visitors.
The Loess Plateau is a region of 640,000 square kilometres in north-central China. Documentary filmmaker John D. Liu created the film Hope In A Changing Climate to show how the Chinese restored areas of the vast Loess Plateau. Liu continued with the film, Green Gold, saying “[w]hen Chinese scientists and civil engineers began to survey the area, they realized that several thousand years of agricultural exploitation had denuded the hills and valleys of vegetation.”
The loss of vegetation created massive erosion problems, with the light, yellow soil clogging rivers and creating huge dust storms, but he observed the Chinese have figured out how to restore the region’s ecology.
"It's possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems,” Liu says.
The Chinese did that in the Loess Plateau by limiting overgrazing, then recontouring and replanting the land, and creating dams. Though some of the land is still used for agriculture, sound ecological practices maintain healthy vegetation and soil fertility.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city has once again embraced the Mississippi River as a resource for people, and is in the process of restoring a 5.5-mile length of the river for recreational use and natural habitat.
The River First project is the latest in a string of projects that have restored former industrial sites into parks, trails, and housing. Between 1977 and 2012, $340 million in public money and $1.9 billion in private investment have transformed formerly damaged areas such as St. Anthony Falls.
Though historically celebrated, the Mississippi River had seen decades of neglect and abuse, including industrial use and dumping, and lack of public access. That started to change in the 1980s with an updated parks plan, and then again in 2000 with the Above the Falls Master Plan for the downtown riverfront.
In 2010 the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative kicked off a competition for “a design-based strategy to leverage parks as the engine for sustainable recreational, cultural, and economic development along the riverfront.” The winners were announced February 10.
Key steps in the next phase of restoration and development include a new “downtown gateway” that links the urban core with the river, a new trail system and greenways, floating islands to aid water quality improvement, and a new wetlands park.