Edge Walking on the Urban Fringe

By Kevin Krajick

Illustration ©Guy Billout

One recent January day, Michael Klemens was touring the grounds of Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital, about 100 km north of New York City. Closed and largely abandoned since 1994, the 340-ha site spanning a small valley flanked by wooded hills is slated for redevelopment into private housing and stores. Klemens, a biologist, has been hired to catalog its biodiversity — which at first glance looks unpromising.

The valley bottom is bisected by busy State Route 22 and the Metro-North commuter railroad. Along these sit dozens of big, decaying brick buildings — old dorms, offices, the power plant — many with barred windows. Uphill is what Klemens calls the “bad karma house,” where metal chairs with leather straps — shock treatment devices — have somehow ended up on the lawn. Nearby is the morgue, where many patients ended their journey. This monument to human misery is in sprawl country: a few miles south on Route 22, new Blockbusters, Burger Kings, and townhouses are closing in fast.

But Klemens is used to finding life where others perceive only wasteland. Here in the floodplain of the Swamp River, parallel to the railroad, he has mapped out extensive tracts of red-maple swamp; at our feet today in the snow, he points out tracks of mink, maybe bobcat. A nearby employees’ golf course is dotted with limestone knolls hosting unusual plant communities; its lowlands provide habitat for the state-endangered bog turtle. Up steep forested slopes, timber rattlers live among the rocks and rare Jefferson’s salamanders breed in vernal pools. “It’s actually pretty damn wild,” says Klemens. “The developers could do some really good things here. Or they could really screw it up.”

On the Fringe

Head of the Rye, New York-based Metropolitan Conservation Alliance (MCA), the 53-year-old Klemens has carved out an unlikely niche: protecting the often surprising biodiversity of suburbia and exurbia. Many of his colleagues write off the urban fringe as sacrificed and focus on wilder lands beyond. What sets Klemens apart is his passion to make his stand here, where more than 10 million people dwell and where more development is inevitable. “A lot of people in conservation tend to think of land as either protected or totally destroyed,” he says. “But there’s a large range of opportunities in between. We need to think more about how development and conservation can coexist.”

Klemens’s views are on the edge, but he is making converts. “He has convinced me that we can’t just keep giving up stuff on the margins. If we do, we will end up with Yellowstone preserved and everything else as dead space,” says Bill Weber, director of North America programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), of which MCA is a part.

Klemens, who lives in the exurbs himself (a Japanese-style house on a landscaped acre in Ridgefield, Connecticut) chronically runs on too much coffee and too little sleep. His perpetually wrinkled brow shows that he has a lot to deal with; his job at MCA dovetails into a sideline as a private consultant, and in both capacities, he is bucking powerful trends. Since his birth in 1951, the U.S. population has doubled. But population alone is only half the reason for booming development: the average American is taking up more space, not just in airline seats. Between 1982 and 1997, per capita land use — the area used by each citizen for housing, employment, transport and other basics — increased by 16 percent, about the same amount that population went up during the same time. Put another way, half of all development was not the result of more people but of increasingly inefficient land use, characterized by large-lot McMansions, bigger malls, and wider highways.

The New York metro area is Exhibit A. Here, population growth is slow or stagnant in many areas, yet land development in some towns is outrunning population growth eight times over.

Overpopulation, overhunting, overfarming, and overgrazing are threats worldwide. But in North America, says Klemens, our wealth itself is the threat; it enables us to gobble endless land for infrastructure. Complex regulations, a fixation on profit, and ever-spiraling land prices all make it tough to put the brakes on sprawl.

Thus he has come to see places like affluent Westchester County, New York, as a far greater conservation challenge than the Third World. And he is no armchair conservationist. In addition to writing Amphibians and Reptiles of Connecticut and Adjacent Regions — the bible for this part of the world — in the 1990s, he worked in Africa for New York’s American Museum of Natural History and WCS. He braved war-ravaged Chad to discover a new frog species in spring-fed Saharan oases. He did the first definitive studies of Tanzania’s endangered pancake tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri) and helped outlaw their collection for the pet trade. In places like this, he says, conservation initiatives can work because a few authoritarian government ministers can order changes and because poor rural people are in touch with nature enough to understand they have an impact on it — even if they sometimes ignore that knowledge. Yet, “[in the U.S.], we have so many more dollars and cars and houses and individual rights, we imagine conservation doesn’t apply to us.”

Disconnections

We used to think that if we just got the right federal or state laws passed, everything would be all right, Klemens says. But really, most land-use decisions are made by part-time officials or citizen volunteers in small towns, an acre here, 10 acres there. To him, those are the building blocks of disaster.

It is a disaster born not just of the predictable culprits — greed and ignorance — but of entrenched mindsets among both local planning boards and biologists themselves. Rural and semirural communities, says Klemens, typically believe that security depends on “home rule.” This often entails excluding the views of “outsiders” — such as scientists. Then there is the biologist’s version of trickle-down economics: once the science is published, it will somehow find its way into local hands and have the correct effect.

But how much control does any one local planning council have if a neighboring town puts an industrial park next to their wetland? And how many plumbers on local planning boards are reading ecological studies? “We must create a market for our information,” says Klemens.

To bring the two camps into alignment, Klemens is changing what he calls “the conversation” between the interests of conservation and those of development. He is giving developers and local communities easy access to science as well as to a larger vision of intelligent development, which means paying attention to small details and working beyond local borders.

Under Klemens’s tutelage, five Hudson River Valley towns are in the process of banding together in the so-called Croton-to-Highlands Biodiversity Plan, under which they are to work toward a master plan for conserving the habitats mapped by MCA since 2002. This series of maps shows where each of the towns has sensitive habitats. For instance, MCA has documented forest and wetland tracts holding thriving populations of regionally rare dusky salamanders (genus Desmognathus), northern black racers (Coluber constrictor constrictor), sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus), and hooded warblers (Wilsonia citrine).

The towns are to steer development by mutually agreeing to upgrade local environmental laws in concert with one another and pass uniform zoning regulations. In December 2004, another group of three towns near the New York-Connecticut border formed a similar coalition, the 9,000-ha Eastern Westchester Biotic Corridor, where species of concern include river otters, wood turtles, and deep-forest neotropical migrant birds.

The agreements are still in initial stages, but Klemens has definite ideas about what the towns should have in their “conservation toolboxes.” “Scientists are very good at saying, ‘Don’t do that.’ They’re not good at saying, ‘Here’s how to do it,’” he says. For starters, he recommends doing away with large-lot zoning — the suburbs’ traditional way of limiting population and retaining their upscale aura. “Large lots limit density, but putting a driveway into every five acres kills with a thousand cuts. Sprawl is still sprawl, whether it’s in one-acre sprawl or 20-acre sprawl.” His studies suggest 400 ha (1,000 acres) as minimal for many rarer creatures’ survival, so he is encouraging towns to cluster new building in areas already developed, leaving the rest alone as much as possible; old-time urban cores with apartments and retail stores in walking distance are his ideal.

He wants each town or coalition to adopt its own local rare, threatened, and endangered species list. Zoning, he says, should go beyond the minimums required by the state. State wetland laws are particularly deficient in the face of growing evidence that traditional 10-30 meter wide buffers don’t help amphibians, which may actually need a radius of 300 m of upland habitat. Vernal pools, tiny wetlands that appear and disappear seasonally, are a special concern for him; vital for amphibian breeding, they are often too inconspicuous to even appear on maps. He recommends conservation easements and outright purchases of open space by government or nonprofits as one method — but only one, because land here goes for US$100,000 per hectare and up. “There isn’t enough money in the U.S. to buy Westchester County,” he says. “In the end, we can do this only by careful planning.”

Wildlife-friendly Curbs

This appears to be just the start for Klemens. By whizzing from meeting to meeting, he now has a half-dozen other nascent town coalitions in the works in an arc from northern New Jersey to southeastern Connecticut. He also consults on dozens of individual projects such as the erstwhile Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital. Sometimes he is hired by a town, sometimes by a developer. In either case, he aims to shape plans down to the smallest details so that they fit around a site’s biology.

Currently he is working with Robinson & Cole, a powerful Connecticut law firm that helps big developers navigate their way through permitting processes. They are working on The Preserve, a 400-ha housing development in Old Saybrook. Originally the developers wanted hundreds of half-acre plots with houses spread all over. He has convinced them to reconfigure the homes into two tight clusters, saving space by building some as duplexes and leaving 60 percent of the site open.

On a smaller scale, he has shown how mundane engineering features cause holocausts for amphibians. For an inch-long migrating salamander, a four-inch concrete street curb is like the Great Wall of China. So many salamanders get trapped against the curbs and get swept down storm drains on rainy days that they form a sort of sludge at water-treatment facilities. So at his urging, the developers are taking out curbing in places where amphibians are likely to migrate and are handling water drainage with grassy, graded swales, not plunging drains. “Some of these things don’t even cost any more,” says Dwight Merriam, a Robinson & Cole partner. “It’s just that a developer needs someone to tell them to do it.”

A City in the Woods
When developers bought the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital site in 2003, forward-looking officials of the town of Dover negotiated with them to set up a fund to bring in Klemens as neutral consultant for both sides — unusual, given that developers’ biologists often end up battling a town’s biologists. Klemens combed through the plans for 1,450 housing units, retail space, and roads and brought in colleagues to study the site thoroughly. Now, as he parked his truck along the Swamp River to point out the animal tracks in the snow, he was preparing for a community meeting that evening at the local high school where the developer was to roll out his plan.

Klemens sees this as the perfect site for redevelopment. The hospital buildings are neatly clustered on about 60 ha of flatland. The rest of the site has been fortuitously preserved by 70-some years of state ownership, and a Metro North train station is right in the middle of it. He envisions reusing the big, funky, brick buildings — the sort of structures regularly turned into fancy condos and boutiques in more urban areas — as a ready-made urban core. New structures would be nestled in the expansive lawns between them so residents could walk to the train station and shopping. The nine-hole golf course would stay, although he would like to see part of it shifted to avoid some potential bog turtle habitat. This plan — basically, a city in the woods — would leave most of the wild land untouched, even with the arrival of thousands of new residents.

It is a compelling vision but a hard sell. Spreading out a map of the developers’ plans and orienting it to the landscape, Klemens points to a pristine wooded hillside slated for 400 houses, well out of walking distance to the train station. The developers have also bought an adjoining 33-ha farm with an expansive fen and other rare habitat, and they want to carpet that with townhouses. The developers were ignoring his suggestion to add wetland buffer to the golf course and were putting off plans for centralized shopping. To add insult to injury, they wanted to destroy most of the old buildings. “This whole thing is too spread out. It’s just too much. This is a bad development,” he said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of some 150 Dover residents, one citizen after another got up to laud all that the project would do for the community: new jobs, tax revenues, shopping. A few locals voiced concerns — but rarely about biology. Some wanted to know what impact new families would have on local schools. They wanted to know whether the developer could bring them a movie theater. Was there a chance he could expand the golf course to 18 holes?

Keeping his mouth shut for the time being, Klemens girded himself for the next meeting, where he would have to confront the developer. Later on, he said: “The problem is, people think they have to accept anything. They don’t realize they have the power to demand that it be done better.” His mission, he says, is to “give locals the courage to ask the hard questions.”

This can be a blood sport. At a wetlands commission meeting in Woodbridge, Connecticut, the week before, he had shredded an application to build six homes on a 6-ha plot loaded with vernal pools. He pointed out that the applicant’s biologist had conducted amphibian breeding surveys in June in an area where most species breed in March or April — apparently an old developer’s trick for declaring an area biota-free. The young biologist sat stiffly while Klemens recommended she read one of his books to get up to speed. Then he advised that the application be turned down. A paunchy, red-faced family member got up and, looking dangerously close to a heart attack, sputtered at Klemens about “salamander puddles and vernal-whatever-nonsense-you-propose.” Klemens just wrinkled his brow a little harder and stared the man down.

For more information on the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, visit the Wildlife Conservation Society website at www.wcs.org

UPZONING: THE ILLUSION OF GREEN

In the tri-state New York City area, one of the first responses of communities to growth at the suburban-rural interface is to upzone. I’ve seen it many times. They amend their municipal zoning ordinances to require larger house lots, often increasing minimum single family residential lots by 100 percent or even more. On the surface, the idea makes sense — fewer houses, more trees, lower density. But in reality, the green is an illusion, a well-intentioned ecological disaster.

Upzoning converts whole stretches of intact forests and grasslands into edge habitat populated with the attendant guild of disturbance-tolerant species. But apart from habitat loss and fragmentation, dispersed developments have many other ecological and financial costs. Dispersed developments are difficult to manage in terms of environmental infrastructure. Because the costs of centralized sewage treatment and municipal water systems are often too high to effectively link widely separated residences, septic systems and wells are the methods of choice. Yet, failing septic systems are a major source of wetland pollution, and too many wells can alter wetland hydrological cycles. Centralized sewage treatment facilities and water supplies enable developments to be closely clustered, which reduces sprawl and conserves biodiversity. The capital outlay and maintenance costs for roads and utilities are much reduced in compact developments.

The environmental and fiscal justifications for compact, more intense development are numerous; yet, not only do communities try to limit growth by upzoning, they also try to lower the density by other techniques. Too often their efforts focus not on the quality of the development but solely on its density. And yet compact developments can provide more environmental protection, reduced costs, intact ecosystems, and better human habitats. Many compact developments based on traditional neighborhood design provide a mixture of housing types for a broad diversity of people including singles, young couples, families, and empty nesters. In short, they re-create the old neighborhoods of yesterday where people are less auto-dependent and have a greater connection to where they live — a sense of place and being. Compact developments can provide the types of built environments in which human flourish while leaving intact much larger areas of natural habitat where native plants and animals also flourish. Dare I say, a win-win proposition?

Michael W. Klemens, Senior Conservationist

Wildlife Conservation Society

VERNAL POOLS

Not only are wetlands inextricably linked to surrrounding upland habitat, but small disjunct wetlands also have ecological connections to one another and to larger wetland systems. This presents a major conservation challenge in fast-developing suburban areas. Calhoun and Klemens (1) have created an assessment tool to rank vernal pools on both their landscape integrity and biological productivity. They recommend that vernal pools have a radius of at least 300 m of upland habitat surrounding them to conserve their rich amphibian fauna.

1. Calhoun, A.J.K. and M.W. Klemens. 2002. Best development practices: Conserving pool-breeding amphibians in residential and commercial developments in the Northeastern United States. MCA Technical Paper No.5, Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, New York.

About the Author:
Kevin Krajick is a New York City-based author and journalist who specializes in writing about science. Author of more than 250 magazine and newspaper articles, he has written for The New Yorker, Newsweek, National Geographic, Science, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and other publications.

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