Credit: Siobhan Mullally

Most of us do things every day that are not entirely in favour of the natural environment, whether it’s buying a to-go coffee in a plastic cup, taking an extra long shower after a hard day, or choosing not to buy local produce when it’s the more expensive option. Virtually everything we do as humans leaves a mark on the environment in some way, and many of these marks tend to be harmful ones. If any of those examples resonated with you, you may feel guilt, deflation, or defensiveness, but I do not outline these common choices to call anyone out. Even if you want to live an entirely sustainable life, sometimes poor environmental choices still cannot be avoided, and that is normal! The question I want to focus on in this article is what can we do to repair our relationship with nature despite all those not-so-environmentally friendly day-to-day decisions we make? How can we right those inevitable wrongs?

...including ways we can right our environmental wrongs and help nature thrive..."

I do not believe that humans are inherently bad for nature. In history, humans lived harmoniously with nature for generations, living as an intertwined part of nature rather than separate from or in control of it. In fact, even today, in many places in the world, healthy ecosystems actually depend on human intervention and stewardship to thrive.

Does that mean the problem is that humans aren’t living in harmony with nature anymore, as we should be? Well, that may be a piece of it; however, in addition to being better environmental stewards by taking measures to protect the environment, I also believe that we should be taking reactive measures to fix the problems we have already caused. This is where ecological restoration comes into play. There are plenty of things individuals can do to help the environment, including ways we can right our environmental wrongs and help nature thrive in places it used to. Ecological restoration is just that - righting the wrongs, repairing the relationship.

 

WHAT? - Defining Ecological Restoration

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) is the leading organization in ecological restoration across the globe. SER defines ecological restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed”[1]. In other words, ecological restoration involves looking at spaces that used to be natural areas that have been ruined in some way as a result of human activities and disturbances, and then taking measures to turn those areas back into functional ecosystems.

The process of ecosystem restoration // SOURCE: Medium

An example of this process in a community could be transforming a damaged, unused parking lot space into a city park where native vegetation can be planted. A larger scale project might look like reverting a decommissioned, highly polluted mine site back into a thriving natural ecosystem. But, wait. Isn’t this supposed to be about how individuals can practice ecological restoration? Absolutely! Ecological restoration does include large scale projects, research, and experiments, since restoration ecology is an academic field of study. But the concept of restoring natural spaces can also be scaled down to the local, household level. So let’s get into what ecological restoration has to do with YOU.

 

WHY? - The Benefits

Before we discuss the how, we should discuss the why. Why should you care about ecological restoration? Because it benefits you!

Restoring natural areas can do wonders for human health and wellbeing by making our communities healthier and more desirable places to live. For example, transforming degraded areas into functional, natural spaces may improve air and water quality. Ecological restoration projects could also combat climate change, since plant life takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and cools our environment.

Natural areas also directly benefit human mental health and wellbeing by providing recreational outdoor space, and making urban and suburban areas more aesthetically pleasing. Several studies, including one conducted by the NASA Earth Observatory, have shown the link between positive mental health and both the accessibility and proximity to green spaces. Green spaces are valued by many for enjoyment, boosting their mood, and inspiring deeper connections with nature. To break it down: Ecological restoration = more parks and gardens = more outdoor fun and good-looking cities = happier people.

Ecological restoration projects also usually provide increased and improved habitat spaces for wildlife. Now, I know this article is focused on why ecological restoration is relevant to people, and you are probably not a butterfly or toad looking for habitat, but hear me out. Some very important species are at risk of extinction since their habitat needs are becoming harder to meet in this era of urbanization and climate change. Many natural areas have been reduced or destroyed, and the animals who need to live in those spaces are struggling to survive in many cases. The karner blue butterfly is just one of many examples of a pollinator species that has gone locally extinct in Ontario.

The Karner Blue Butterfly // SOURCE: Nature Canada

Pollinators are especially valuable species for the health of the entire planet, so we really can’t afford to lose any more of them. It is estimated that up to 95% of flowering plants depend on pollination[2]. In terms of plants that humans eat, that means roughly one out of every three bites of food that you take exists because of pollinators. So if pollinators can’t find habitats and continue to decline, our entire global food system could be at stake. Now that is a scary thought. Allow me to bring back the optimism. It is truly amazing that we have the capability to stop those environmental dooms from happening, and a key method to do so is ecological restoration!

 

HOW? - The Actions

The individual’s role in ecological restoration is simple: transform your areas with little to no diversity into biodiverse paradises, and take part in local community projects.

One great starting point for figuring out where you should do ecological restoration is identifying areas outdoors that have little to nothing growing there. The average North American lawn is a great example of this. What comes to mind when you think of a lawn? Probably an expanse of short, uniform grass. Let me explain why lawns are one of the areas with the most potential for ecological restoration at the household level.

Lawns are very common green spaces in urban and suburban areas, yet they have no ecological value. Many lawns actually do more harm than good for the environment because they require lots of water and can even release more greenhouse gases than they absorb. It is nonsensical that these precious areas of green space are being wasted on lawn grass!

The key to remember here is simply - restore your green spaces so they are welcoming to a diversity of species in order to create functional ecosystems and promote sustainability.

Instead of having a boring, homogenous lawn, you can transform that space into something more beautiful and ecologically-beneficial! Alternative lawns may look different depending on where you live and what kind of space you have available, but planting a diversity of native plants is a good start. Using a diversity of plants, meaning plants of different species, is important to create habitats. The more diverse your space is, the more types of pollinators and other species it will accommodate, and the more functional the ecosystem will be! If you take pride in the beauty of your yard, then now is the time to let your creativity shine! Check out Credit Valley Conservation’s tips and resources on how to “ecologically landscape” your lawn.

SOURCE: Hamilton Pollinator Paradise

If you don’t have the resources to completely change your lawn right away, don’t worry. You can also just let your grass grow longer instead of regularly cutting it, which can lower the lawn’s water requirements and still foster a space for pollinators. Even simply taking a break from raking leaves in the fall is a strategy to make your spaces more ecologically beneficial because leaf piles are actually super important spaces for small critters to live and hide, like butterfly larvae, salamanders, and shrews!

The key to remember here is simply - restore your green spaces so they are welcoming to a diversity of species in order to create functional ecosystems and promote sustainability.

 For those who don’t have a lawn and don’t have any areas where you can create habitats and gardens, there are still things you can do - just get involved. There are so many local ecological restoration community projects, practically across the whole globe. Finding a project near you that you can help with is just a few clicks away! Just research ecological restoration projects near you. You can also go to the project database on SER’s website to find some larger scale projects in your area if you’re interested in learning more! Many ecological restoration projects welcome volunteers with open arms. You could spend a day in nature by joining a team pulling invasive species in a natural area, or donate to a local initiative trying to turn an old landfill site into a park in your city, or even take a field trip to a conservation area! For example, the Ontario branch of SER hosts several field trips each year in order to introduce the public to restoration efforts near them. Even during the pandemic, they are hosting virtual field trips and webinars.

I study at the University of Waterloo and I like to go for walks on my study breaks. Recently, I took a walk in Filsinger Park, in Kitchener, and I found out that the Filsinger Park stream had been a restoration project. The city replaced the concrete stream channels with native vegetation to create a naturalized, functional stream ecosystem, and it is now a beautiful place to take a walk and appreciate nature! My point is, simply going for a walk and discovering ecological restoration in your city could be the first step in making your mark on the environment a positive one. Ecological restoration is relevant to you. We can all contribute to restoring natural spaces in our own backyards and communities. And by making these contributions, we can restore our relationship with nature, one step at a time. 

 

 

 

[1] Society for Ecological Restoration, “International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration: Second Edition” (accessed January 7, 2021) <https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.ser.org/resource/resmgr/docs/ser_international_standards_.pdf>[2] Ollerton J, Winfree R, and Tarrant S, “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?” (accessed January 7, 2021) <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0706.2010.18644.x>


[2] Ollerton J, Winfree R, and Tarrant S, “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?” (accessed January 7, 2021) <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0706.2010.18644.x>

Siobhan Mullally is majoring in Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo while also minoring in English. As both a budding ecologist and aspiring writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections of environment and communication. Since January 2021, Siobhan is taking on the role of editorial coordinator for Alternatives Journal (A\J).

Siobhan Mullally is majoring in Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo while also minoring in English. As both a budding ecologist and aspiring writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections of environment and communication. Since January 2021, Siobhan is taking on the role of editorial coordinator for Alternatives Journal (A\J).

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