Introducing “Rooftop: Second Nature” — Remarks at the Opening Reception, 9 Feb. 2017

425 S. Wabash (looking east), Chicago, IL, June 2013 (photo: Brad Temkin)

425 S. Wabash (looking east), Chicago, IL, June 2013 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Nature within the urban landscape is simultaneously close at hand and hidden from view — a paradox of proximal obscurity. Yet its myriad forms are as diverse in kind as their human denizens. City parks, urban farms, back yards, forest preserves, vacant lots, and green rooftops — all these and more comprise the spaces of urban nature.

Despite the ubiquity and diversity of urban nature, it remains largely invisible to and thus unappreciated by many city dwellers. We are much more likely to assume nature exists “out there,” away from our cities and suburbs — especially in remote places characterized by few people and sublime landforms. An implicit corollary to that is that the city is unnatural.

Lurie Children's Hospital (looking southwest), Chicago, IL, May 2012 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Lurie Children’s Hospital (looking southwest), Chicago, IL, May 2012 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Yet the recent coinage of the seemingly oxymoronic phrase urban wilderness signals that we have begun to re-envision the role of nature within metropolitan landscapes. This nature is almost always hybrid in character, a product of human design and action even when appearing “natural” in outward form. Consider our location right here, along the southwestern rim of Lake Michigan — where the surveyor’s grid was laid down upon the marshy prairie, a river’s current audaciously reversed, and lakefront parkland perched atop thousands of tons of landfill.

Gage_Gallery_Spring_2017 rooftop promo emailThe intersections of the made and the natural can be apprehended in such settings . . . if one observes carefully, knows where to look, and possesses a spirit of exploration. The dramatic roofscapes by Brad Temkin in Rooftop: Second Nature are striking visual compositions that reveal the city from a different and unfamiliar angle, as well as information-rich object lessons in how green infrastructure enhances urban sustainability.

More broadly, though, this exhibit speaks to the vital role played by the environmental arts and humanities in envisioning a more sustainable future for humanity as well as for the millions of fellow species on our beautiful yet vulnerable planet. Thought-provoking ideas, artwork, architecture, poetry, stories, historical accounts, theater, music, and film are necessary complements to painstaking ecological analysis and pragmatic environmental policy.

Why? Because ideas and vision matter. Compelling narratives, whether literary or visual, can animate science, challenge our use of technology, inspire policy, and change hearts and minds. Such narratives must guide our thinking to ensure that social equity and environmental justice are not trampled in the relentless pursuit of short-term profits from, say, building oil pipelines across sources of drinking water in the Great Plains; or dumping the “overburden” of mountaintops into the creeks and rivers of Appalachian coal country; or selling more Pepsi or iPhones.

Skeptics of climate change cannot be persuaded by scientific data and evidence-based policy alone — certainly not when science itself is under unprecedented attack in our society; not when environmental laws are in imminent danger of being dismantled; not when the very status of an observed and documented fact is undermined by the brazen contempt for reason and unsettling embrace of doublespeak that now constitutes the discourse of the new administration.

In such fraught and perilous times, a sustainable future can only be achieved, let alone properly envisioned, with the full participation and engagement of the environmental arts and humanities.

By showing us the “second nature” of the urban landscape in these images of green rooftops, Brad Temkin’s art not only delights and inspires with unexpected manifestations of beauty, but also implicitly challenges us to consider what “first nature” is, and what sort of relationship we want with it — one which in we are conquerors . . . or stewards.

This is a slightly edited version of a short speech I gave at the opening reception for Rooftop: Second Nature on 9 Feb 2017 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL. The Gallery is open 9am-5pm weekdays and 10am-4pm Saturdays.

Posted in Architecture, Arts, Chicago, Education, Events, Green design, Humanities, Photography, Politics, Roosevelt, Sustainability, Urban ecology, Urban nature | Comments Off on Introducing “Rooftop: Second Nature” — Remarks at the Opening Reception, 9 Feb. 2017

Photography, Sustainability, & Urban Design: “Rooftop: Second Nature” Opens 2/9 at RU’s Gage Gallery

Gage_Gallery_Spring_2017 rooftop promo emailPhotographs by Brad Temkin

February 9 – May 6, 2017

Opening reception and talk by Brad Temkin
Thursday, February 9th, 5-7 p.m.

Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery
18 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL
(312) 341-6458

Statement from the Artist

“Rooftop: Second Nature draws poetic attention to an important new movement to counter the heat island effect caused by city life. Green roofs reduce our carbon footprint and improve storm water control, but they do far more. They reflect the conflict of our existence, symbolizing the allure of nature in the face of our continuing urban sprawl.

“My images do more than merely document rooftop gardens. By securely situating the gardens within the steel, stone, and glass rectangularity of urban downtowns, I ask viewers to revel in their far more open patterns, colors, and connection to the sky. In this break, I see not merely beauty and dichotomy, but the framework for positive change.”

— Brad Temkin

On Urban Ecology, Green Rooftops, and the Sustainability of Cities
Exhibit Essay for Rooftop: Second Nature, Roosevelt University, Spring 2017

What does a sustainable city look like? Solar panel arrays, bike lanes along busy thoroughfares, and urban farms converted from vacant lots all come to mind; but the iconic symbol of the contemporary green metropolis is the green rooftop. Though mostly invisible to us at ground level, these living surfaces embody key chacteristics of the urban ecosystem even as they serve as sustainability badges of honor for environmentally-minded civic leaders.

The science of urban ecology demonstrates that cities are not mere technological constructions, distinct from and diametrically opposed to nature, but complex ecosystems constituted by energy flows and waste sinks, evolving communities of organisms, and habitats both natural and designed. The green rooftops that increasingly dot the skylines of 21st-century cities are engineered to serve specific ecological, economic, and/or aesthetic functions for the buildings they crown and the people who inhabit them. Such spaces are simultaneously technological and natural: well-ordered assemblages of soil, plants, and micro-organisms that soften the surfaces and round the edges of the rectilinear built environment.

Said rooftops also are prime examples of green infrastructure, a critically important element of the urban fabric. Parklands and nature preserves, wetlands and riparian zones, bioswales and rain gardens, farm lots and backyard gardens, and green rooftops — all comprise a city’s green infrastructure. These diverse physical spaces provide a myriad of ecosystem services: they conserve freshwater resources, reduce energy consumption, mitigate air and water pollution, create wildlife habitat, and enable our own physical contact with nature.

The dramatic images in Rooftop: Second Nature are striking visual compositions that reveal the city from a different and unfamiliar angle, as well as information-rich object lessons in how green infrastructure enhances urban sustainability. Within one roof’s environs, a diverse riot of native prairie plants is juxtaposed with the boxy lines of air conditioning units, while other images expand the frame beyond the rooftop’s edge to portray its larger context, such as Chicago’s street grid bisected by its namesake river.

Such visual elements evoke the entanglement of ecological cycles in which the roof participates. These living surfaces provide superior building insulation, thus reducing heating and cooling costs and, in turn, decreasing carbon emissions. Plants evapotranspire water, which cools the micro-climate of the building’s exterior, thus mitigating the urban heat island effect. Precipitation falling on these rooftops is not wasted as runoff to an energy-intensive sewer and wastewater treatment system; rather, it is captured in place, absorbed by the resident plant community, and returned to the atmosphere in a silent yet eloquent demonstration of the water cycle.

Brad Temkin’s photographs are densely layered with meaning and invite inquiry from the viewer: From what vantage point was that shot taken? What are beehives doing on a skyscraper roof? How is this largely unseen rooftop relevant to the river flowing only two blocks away? Who has access to these spaces, and what psychological benefits might accrue from exploring them? Such questions suggest the dynamic interplay between art and science within our perceptions of the sustainable city.

— Michael A. Bryson

Posted in Arts, Events, Green design, Humanities, Photography, Roosevelt, Sustainability, Urban ecology, Urban nature | Comments Off on Photography, Sustainability, & Urban Design: “Rooftop: Second Nature” Opens 2/9 at RU’s Gage Gallery

We’re Composting Food Waste Here on AUD 8th Floor @RU

Composting Info for AUD 8th 2017JanComposting Definition 2017Jan

Posted in Education, Food, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability, Waste & Recycling | Comments Off on We’re Composting Food Waste Here on AUD 8th Floor @RU

All I Want for the Holidays is a MAP Grant

illinois_state_capitol-wikipediaTo the Roosevelt University Community: please help pressure our Illinois legislators to fund MAP grants for our students!

On Wednesday, Dec. 14, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the Winter Brunch, please stop by and sign the “All I Want for the Holidays is a MAP Grant” banner. Take a selfie and post to social media with #MAPMatters. We will share images of this signed banner with our state representatives and senators.

Thank you for your advocacy efforts!

For more information, contact Jennifer Tani, Assistant Vice President, Community Engagement (

Posted in Education, Politics, Roosevelt, Students | Comments Off on All I Want for the Holidays is a MAP Grant

Register @RooseveltU for Spring & Summer 2017 Classes

SUST students visit the North Park Village Nature Center, Fall 2012 (M. Bryson)

SUST students explore a wetland at the North Park Village Nature Center, Chicago IL, Fall 2012 (photo: M. Bryson)

Advising and registration are now ongoing (since Nov 1st) for the Spring & Summer 2017 semesters here at @RooseveltU. Undergraduate students, please look over the Spring 2017 schedule using this coursefinder, check remaining course requirements on your curriculum checksheet, and email or call your assigned academic advisor with your planned schedule and any questions you have about your upcoming classes. Your advisor will provide you with an RU Access registration code so you can register.

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Spring 2017:

ACP 110 Primary Texts (MW 11am-12:15pm, Bryson)*
SUST 210 Sustainable Future (14-week online, Pickren)
SUST 220 Water (8-week online, 1/17-3/10, Bryson)§
SUST 230 Food (M 2-4:30pm)
SUST 240 Waste (14-week online, Pickren)
SUST/ACP 250 The Sustainable University (W 2-4:30pm, Bryson)◊
SUST 310 Energy & Climate Change (8-week online, 3/20-5/12)§
SUST 320 Sprawl, Transportation, & Planning (Th 2-4:30pm, Pickren)
SUST 340 Policy, Law, & Ethics (14-week online)
SUST 395 Sustainability Studies Internship (by arrangement)

* First Year Seminars are open to new full-time undergrads with 12 or fewer hours in transfer credit.
§ These 8-week accelerated online courses are open to all students and synced with the Flex-Track adult degree calendar. They may be taken back-to-back.
◊ Students may register for either ACP 250 (Grounds for Change credit) or SUST 250 (Sustainability Studies credit).

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Summer 2017:

SUST 210 Sustainable Future (12-week online, 5/30-8/8, Pickren)
SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature (1-week intensive, 5/22-26, Bryson)

November is a super busy time of the academic year, but be sure to make a little time to get in touch with your advisor to sign up for the classes you need. For additional useful info, see this Advising Resources page on this website.


Posted in Classes, Faculty, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off on Register @RooseveltU for Spring & Summer 2017 Classes

Part-time Student Sustainability Position Available in RU’s Physical Resources, Chicago Campus

RU Campus STARS logoThe RU Physical Resources Department is offering a paid student internship/work-study position for the 2016-17 academic year. This job is an outstanding professional development opportunity and involves working directly with the RU Physical Resources Team under the direction of Paul Matthews, Assistant VP for Campus Planning/Operations. The internship is based primarily at the Chicago Campus, Applications are being accepted ASAP (see details below) until the position is filled.

Duties and responsibilities include:

  • Assist in implementing the newly adopted Sustainability Strategic Plan, approved in Spring 2015
  • Help maintain and update of the RU Green Campus website, Green Campus Blog, and associated social media pages to provide other information which may benefit and educate the RU community about environmental sustainability
  • Help manage the Chicago Campus Rooftop Garden
  • Assist in maintaining contact with associations and government sponsored agencies that support the Physical Resources Environmental Sustainability Initiatives, including: Association for the Advancement for Sustainability within Higher Education (AASHE), United States Green Building Council, Second Nature, World Wildlife Federation, EPA Green Power Partnership Program, and the Illinois Governor’s Campus Sustainability Compact
  • Participate in DCEO Recycling Grant Reporting; Recycling Project for AUD, Field House, and Wabash (with 50% diversion goal); and university Compost Agreement, which provides materials for Schaumburg Garden Plots
  • Help prepare PowerPoint presentations on select ES topics to present to the RU Community when necessary.
  • Attend RU-based meetings that deal with the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership thru Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification Program for the Wabash Vertical Campus, Field House, and other major construction projects. Assist in tracking the LEED credits for certification and green building construction, and in achieving USGBC LEED Silver level for Field House.
  • Work on Physical Resource plans or initiatives that center around green technologies, landscapes, hardscapes, alternate methods of transportation, and renewable energy sources.

To Indicate Interest and Get More Information: Contact Paul Matthews, Assistant VP of Operations/Planning, Department of Physical Resources, Roosevelt University, at 312-341-3600 (office) or (email). This position does not require federal work-study status, but may qualify as a work-study position for those with that designation. See the Career Resources page on RU’s website to apply.

Posted in Education, Green jobs, Internships, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off on Part-time Student Sustainability Position Available in RU’s Physical Resources, Chicago Campus

Roosevelt University’s “American Dream Reconsidered” Conference Planned for Sept. 12-15

Students, colleagues, and friends — please attend and participate in this major conference at Roosevelt next month, which should be a galvanizing week on our campus. The theme couldn’t be more timely, considering the tensions, rancor, and controversies of the current election season. In particular, I’m looking forward to speaking on a faculty panel addressing the presidential election (Wed 9/14, 4:15pm) and participating in Service Day on 9/15. The following text is from Roosevelt’s official announcement of the conference. Be sure to register soon!

RU Chicago and US flagWhat does the American Dream mean today? That’s the topic of a major conference Roosevelt University will be hosting Sept. 12-15 in Chicago.

At more than a dozen lectures and discussions, leading American scholars, activists and entrepreneurs will analyze the American Dream and how it affects millennials, education, health care, real estate, immigration, politics and more.

PrezAli at RU“The American Dream is about every individual who aspires to achieve more in life,” said Ali Malekzadeh, president of Roosevelt University and a native of Iran. “Understanding our national ethos of democracy and equality has never more urgent. At the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, we will present many viewpoints on what it means to be an American in these challenging times.”

The conference, sponsored by BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, McDonald’s Corporation and other organizations, also celebrates Malekzadeh’s first year in office. It is being held in lieu of formal and expensive presidential installation ceremonies commonly held on university campuses.  Instead, President Malekzadeh has led an effort to discuss the future of the American Dream and initiate a new scholarship program for six outstanding Roosevelt students. Among the highlights of the first annual American Dream Reconsidered Conference are:

• A conversation with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel on “The American Dream — Globalization, Technology and Progress.” (Sept. 13, 12:30-1:45 p.m.)

•  A lecture by Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of Education at UCLA, on “The Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement of Every Student.” (Sept. 12 , 6:00-7:30 p.m., Roosevelt’s Goodman Center)

•  A panel discussion on “The Current State of the American Dream” featuring John W. Rogers Jr., founder and CEO of Ariel Investments; Melissa Bean, Midwest chair of JP Morgan Chase and former member of the U.S. Congress; Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University and Ali Malekzadeh, Roosevelt president. (Sept. 14, 9:30 to 10:45 a.m.)

Jelani Cobb

Jelani Cobb, professor at Univ of CN

• “A Conversation on Justice, Race and the American Dream” with Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and Jelani Cobb, professor of journalism at Columbia University and staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. (3:30 to 5 p.m., Sept. 13)

• “A Conversation on Community Leadership and Social Justice,” moderated by Samuel Betances, and including Tom Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications; Gloria Castillo, president and CEO of Chicago United; Father Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina’s Church; Dana Suskind, University of Chicago Medicine and founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative and Omar Yamini, activist and author. (Sept. 12, 1:30 to 3 p.m.)

Other panel discussions during the week focus on: immigration (Sept. 14, 2 to 3:15); the Affordable Care Act (Sept. 13, 9:30 to 11 a.m.); the 2016 presidential election (Sept. 14, 4:15 to 5:45 p.m.); real estate (Sept. 13, 9:30 to 11 a.m.); and corporate America (Sept. 14, 4:15 to 5:45 p.m.). There is also a film on millennials created by undergraduate students.

On the last day of the conference, Thursday, Sept. 15, Roosevelt will award BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois American Dream Scholarships to outstanding Roosevelt students.  The University community will also participate in the American Dream Service Day, when students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University will volunteer at 30 nonprofit organizations throughout the Chicago area.

Eleanor Roosevelt with RU students in 1945

Eleanor Roosevelt with RU students in 1945

Roosevelt University, home of the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, was founded in 1945 to protest discriminatory racial and religious college admission quotas, and remains dedicated to providing access to higher education for all qualified students.

“Education is the key to achieving the American Dream,” President Malekzadeh said.  “That’s why Roosevelt is hosting this conference.”

The American Dream Reconsidered Conference is free and open to the public, however reservations are requested. For more details and to register, visit: The conference will be centered at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, with additional events at RU’s campus in Schaumburg, IL.

Posted in Community, Conferences, Education, Events, Humanities, Politics, Roosevelt, Social justice | Comments Off on Roosevelt University’s “American Dream Reconsidered” Conference Planned for Sept. 12-15

SUST Program Student Associate Position Available for 2016-17

For the first time, the SUST Program at RU has a student associate (work-study) position available for the 2016-17 academic year, starting 29 Aug 2016 and ending 8 May 2017. This position is for 12 hours/week at the Chicago Campus and earns $10.50/hour. Undergraduate students must be enrolled in 6 credit hours (F16) and graduate student 3 credit hours to be eligible. The position is open to all RU students, but SUST majors will receive priority consideration.

Position Description

This student associate position for the Sustainability Studies Program within the College of Arts & Sciences reports directly to Dr. Mike Bryson, SUST professor and director. Primary duties include but are not limited to:

  • outreach to current students and alumni on behalf of the SUST program
  • social media research, writing, and editing (SUST at RU blog, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn)
  • contribution to campus sustainability projects in coordination with the RUSLab, Operations & Planning within the Department of Physical Resources, and the RU Green student organization
  • event planning and coordination, including the SUST Student Symposium in fall and spring, and Earth Month campus activities in April 2017
  • completion of other tasks to advance RU’s Strategic Sustainability Plan and support the SUST Program’s mission

The student associate will acquire and polish multiple professional skills as well as gain valuable experience in sustainability education, outreach, planning, communication, and collaboration. Applicants will be assessed according to their academic record, relevant work experience, writing/communication skills, and ability to work both independently as well as collaboratively. Office space provided in AUD 829, with additional access to the Roosevelt Urban Sustainability Lab in AUD 526. Hours are flexible and can be negotiated with the SUST director.

To Apply

Go to the Student Employment at Roosevelt webpage and click on Career Central. Follow the instructions to register as a student user if you have not already done so. Search for the position by typing in SUST in the search box, then follow the instructions for submitting your application. In addition to filling out the online application form, three supporting documents are required:

  • a cover letter expressing your interest in and qualifications for the position
  • a résumé summarizing your education and employment history, as well as your relevant skills/experience
  • a writing sample that exemplifies your writing at its best (this can be something new or a paper you wrote for an RU class)

Application Deadline: applications will be reviewed starting immediately and continue through 24 August 2016. Position begins on 29 August or soon thereafter. All applications must come through the RU Student Employment website linked above.

Questions? Email Prof. Bryson ( to discuss your interest in the position or to ask any questions about the application process.


Posted in Education, Green jobs, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off on SUST Program Student Associate Position Available for 2016-17

Water Stories: Narrative, Urban Sustainability, and the Fluid Future of the Otakaro-Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand

Atop Observation Hill near McMurdo Station, Antarctica (Oct 1991)

Twenty-five years ago, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antarctica as part of a scientific research expedition from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Taking a semester’s leave from my graduate studies at SUNY Stony Brook, I worked for two months as a field technician and writer-in-residence on a team researching the biogeochemistry of Lake Fryxell, a permanently frozen-over lake in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. This extraordinary experience was memorable in many ways, including a brief three-day stopover in New Zealand, where we made our final preparations at the US Antarctic Program’s headquarters in Christchurch before flying to McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf.

new-zealand-mapNow as a mid-career academic seeking new challenges and opportunities beyond my Midwestern home at the southern rim of the Great Lakes — and having traveled outside the US (to Canada) only twice during this time — I decided to apply for a Fulbright Scholar fellowship to explore a distant locale that has always resonated powerfully in my memory. But this time, instead of a mere fleeting taste of Christchurch and a brief fly-over of the North and South Islands, I hope to spend several months in 2018 researching, writing, and living in New Zealand, based at Lincoln University a few kilometers outside of Christchurch, in order to enrich my understanding of urban river ecosystems as well as gain a much-needed global perspective on my scholarship and teaching.

Objectives and Methodology: My proposed project focuses on the Otakaro-Avon River that flows through Christchurch, NZ, as a natural and human ecosystem undergoing stress and change. The Otakaro-Avon is an important focal point of urban sustainability planning and ecological restoration. Using the qualitative research framework of the environmental humanities, which blends insights and analytic methods from literary studies, environmental history, ecology, and other disciplines, I plan to undertake an ecocritical study of this urban river’s history, present condition, and future prospects in the context of urban redevelopment underway after the 2011 earthquake that devastated Christchurch and many of its suburbs. This place- and observation-based perspective on the Otakaro-Avon watershed merges humanistic scholarship with physical exploration of the river as a highly modified, impaired, yet still biologically rich ecosystem with great sociocultural significance.

Otakaro-Avon River, Christchurch NZ (photo: Ian McGregor, The Press, 15 July 2016)

Otakaro-Avon River, Christchurch NZ (photo: Ian McGregor, The Press, 15 July 2016)

I will examine a wide range of “water stories” focused on the river — from historical documents to scientific analyses to technical reports — as well as current representations of the river in post-earthquake planning documents and journalistic accounts; conservationist, community-based, and indigenous discourse; plans for memorials and sustainable redevelopment along the river; and works of literature, film, and online media. This research will influence the crafting of my own stories of the Otakaro-Avon River and its fluid future, based on my in-the-field observations and experiences, in both narrative forms suitable for general readers as well as in scholarly prose for academic audiences — much as I have done in my recent work on the Chicago River‘s history, ecology, and future sustainability.

Key questions to be addressed in this project include but are not limited to:

  • How has the Otakaro-Avon River been utilized, modified, polluted, exploited, abused, defended, etc. over time? How does the history, quality, and character of the river inform people’s relationship to its present state and future prospects?
  • In what ways is the river important, economically and culturally, to the Maori indigenous people (as mahinga kai, a food-gathering place) as well as New Zealanders of European descent? How do people in Otakaro-Avon River’s watershed connect to the waterway? What kinds of activities do they undertake in terms of recreation, industry, and conservation?
  • What role do the river’s conservation and restoration have in the ongoing redevelopment of Christchurch’s Red Zone and within the city’s future sustainability?
  • How do the above issues intersect with questions of environmental justice, especially with respect to toxic pollution, public access to water resources and open space, and iwi (indigenous people) living with the Otakaro-Avon River watershed?

As an interdisciplinary-minded scholar within the environmental humanities, I employ a qualitative research approach. Using the analytic tools of ecocriticism, I emphasize the close reading and analysis of individual texts, their relationships with one another, and their place in the broad contexts of scientific discourse, nature writing, environmental history, and sustainability. At root, my work starts from the premises that the urban environment (both built and natural) is a worthy object of study; that natural resources are imperiled and therefore in need of protection and conservation; and that humanistic inquiry about the myriad relationships between humanity and nature in cities can foster, in the long run, ecological awareness and environmental progress.

The LA River in 2010 (photo by Mark Boster of the LA Times)

The LA River in 2010 (photo by Mark Boster of the LA Times)

Academic and Professional Context: Urban rivers are many things simultaneously: corridors of biodiversity, green infrastructure for storm water retention, transportation arteries for commerce, waste sinks, places of human recreation, and sites of environmental restoration. This partial list illustrates their dual nature: waterways in cities are all too often heavily polluted, modified, and abused ecosystems that bear scant resemblance to their former selves. They function as receptacles of waste and servants of commerce/industry, at the expense of water quality and biodiversity; and in many cases, city dwellers are physically as well as culturally cut off from access to waterways.

RU students paddle the North Branch of the Chicago River, Fall 2013 (M. Bryson)

Yet urban rivers also harbor tremendous renrenga ropi (biodiversity) and exhibit a capacity to connect citizens to the natural world that exists cheek-by-jowl with the built environment as well as to their cities’ natural and cultural histories. In this sense, damaged urban water systems are pathways of connection that can foster a sense of place vital to building an environmental ethic of care among city dwellers.

Geographers, urban ecologists, environmental scientists, and sustainability scholars are assessing waterways as a critical component of urban ecosystems. Given that cities consume energy and resources from far beyond their geographic boundaries and produce high levels of waste as well as greenhouse gases, their future sustainability depends upon large-scale actions such as repairing water/wastewater infrastructure, conserving energy, improving transportation access and efficiency, enhancing biodiversity, and reducing material waste.

RNZAF aerial survey of damage, showing flooding due to soil liquefaction in Christchurch NZ (Royal NZ Defence Force)

RNZAF aerial survey of damage, showing flooding due to soil liquefaction in Christchurch NZ (Royal NZ Defence Force)

Such goals are complicated and made urgent by the destructiveness of natural disasters. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake provides a monumental challenge as well as golden opportunity for inclusive and socially just urban planning that embraces environmental sustainability as a central goal. Unsurprisingly, the Otakaro-Avon River is prominent within this planning and rebuilding process (and illustrative of its many challenges).

More broadly, urban rivers provide a specific context for assessing the impacts of global urbanization on human relationships to nature. As of 2015, over 50% of the world’s population is urban; in the US and NZ, that figure is 82% and 86%, respectively, according to the World Bank. A consequence of this is a pervasive (though hardly universal) alienation from the natural world of urban citizens. River systems constitute important natural resources where people can have direct and meaningful contact with nature close to where they live.

The stories we tell about cities and rivers are a means of grappling with the ideas and questions noted above. While the natural and social sciences generate vital empirical data on urban rivers, the role of the arts and humanities is uniquely critical to understanding urban waterways and our relationships to them. Our “water stories” are both a means of representing our values and history as well as a method of critique. The fundamental power of storytelling within human experience points to the impact of artistic expression and humanistic analysis on understanding the importance of waterways within urban ecosystems and human communities.

Significance of Study: Understanding the role of water in urban ecosystems is vital to improving the resilience of cities (e.g., protecting people and property from floods and other environmental disasters) and making them more sustainable (e.g., improving water retention and quality through expansion of green infrastructure). Cities are where most people in the world now live, a trend that will continue in coming decades as we grapple with the impacts of climate change, water quality degradation, toxic pollution, and environmental injustice. As a vital resource for all human communities, water is an important node of inquiry within environmental science and, more broadly, sustainability studies.

Urban rivers (and their watersheds, which include tributaries, wetlands, and estuaries) are ideal barometers of the ecological and socio-cultural health of our cities as well as our attitudes about and connections to the natural world. The Otakaro-Avon River is one of New Zealand’s most polluted waterways and, at the same time, one of its most important — both ecologically and symbolically — given the high number of people who live and work within its watershed and its centrality within the city’s earthquake recovery process.

Enhancing our knowledge, awareness, and appreciation of the river’s status and value is vital to its remediation and restoration as a living ecosystem that is not just an integral part of Christchurch’s green infrastructure, but also a significant thread within the city’s historical and cultural fabric. My research will explore how stories have defined the Otakaro-Avon River thus far, and how new ones might shape its sustainable future.

Why New Zealand? As an island country distinguished by highly diverse ecosystems, small and large cities, a vibrant indigenous culture, famously productive agricultural lands, longstanding conservation values, and threatened ecosystems and natural resources, New Zealand is a remarkable laboratory for exploring questions of environmental sustainability in the early 21st century.

Possessing a uniquely complex postcolonial mix of people from indigenous Maori (tangata whenua), European, and trans-Pacific Island cultures, New Zealand is progressive in its formal and structural recognition of indigenous rights, which has important implications for urban sustainable development and environmental conservation. More locally, Christchurch is a vitally important urban center: not only is it the biggest city on the South Island (pop. ~366,000), but its ongoing efforts to recover from the devastating earthquake in 2011 make it a test case for how cities can respond to natural disasters and seize opportunities to improve the sustainability of urban infrastructure, revitalize waterways, increase open space, enhance biodiversity, and involve the citizenry within the ongoing planning and reconstruction process.

Lincoln University: An incredible wealth of people and resources exist in and around Christchurch that would be invaluable to me as a scholar and writer. The Faculty of Environment, Society, and Design and its Department of Environmental Management at Lincoln University — a land-based institution located near Christchurch with a phenomenal array of environmental academic programs and research centres — offer an interdisciplinary community of scholars and teachers dedicated to environmental research and sustainability education.

LU’s Centre of Land, Environment, and People (LEaP), which is closely affiliated with the aforementioned Faculty, provides an intellectual home for research and collaboration with scholars and students from diverse disciplines spanning the natural/social sciences, the humanities, and various technical fields. Additionally, the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, a research collaboration between LU and the University of Canterbury, has published a wealth of technical reports on water resources throughout the Christchurch metro area and the Canterbury region, and would be an invaluable resource for advice and collaboration.

Posted in Biodiversity, Faculty, Humanities, Research, Rivers, Science, Sustainability, Urban ecology, Urban nature, Water | Comments Off on Water Stories: Narrative, Urban Sustainability, and the Fluid Future of the Otakaro-Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand

Journal of Sustainability Studies

Just found out about this relatively new interdisciplinary journal, the University of North Alabama’s Journal of Sustainability Studies. The Call for Submissions for Issue 1.2 (Dec 2016) is focused on sustainability policy.

About JSS

The Journal of Sustainability Studies, an interdisciplinary, international, multi-modal, web-based journal hosted by the UNA Center for Sustainability, invites submissions for publication. Submissions are reviewed year-round, with publication in June and December.

Call for Submissions: Sustainability Policy

The upcoming 2016 United States Presidential election will be a critical one for sustainability. The Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Green nominees all hold different positions on sustainability, from dismissing it as a non-issue to making it a central theme that cuts across the platform. In addition, the balance of power in the United States Senate, and the ongoing challenge over Supreme Court Justice appointments, could spell either years of setbacks or present a critical opportunity to take a significant leap forward on issues of sustainability – not just in the U.S., but globally as well, as American policy and position is, for better or worse, accounted for by nations around the globe.

Yet sustainability policy is not limited to the American political arena. Around the globe, corporations, public and private institutions, and community organizations all have economic, environmental, and social policies and agendas that relate in some way to sustainability. Even in the home, families make practical decisions about how to live that are effectively policy positions, whether that means recycling, composting, and using LED lights, or just chucking the trash in one shot; whether that means walking or riding a bicycle, using mass transit, or driving an automobile; whether that means planting a container garden or buying in the marketplace.

Therefore, for the next issue we invite you to explore any of several critical questions: What are viable policies on sustainability (social, environmental, economic, etc.) that can be enacted in a specific chosen context, and what are the anticipated benefits and costs? If a policy has been enacted, what have been the results, both positive and negative? What challenges and opportunities have been presented in setting policy in a given professional, civic, or personal context? How can or have those challenges be addressed? What risks and rewards can or have those opportunities created?

For this issue of the Journal of Sustainability Studies, we invite manuscripts, multimedia documents, art, and creative works that explore ideas and concerns regarding sustainability policy – on any scale and in any context. The journal serves a mixed audience of academics and the general public. Please follow the guidelines on the Theme & Submissions page of our website. Please note that the deadline for submissions is September 30th, 2016, for a December 15th publication date.


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