Urbanization could actually help improve Lansing’s natural environment

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Image from Fenner Nature center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Image from Fenner Nature center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Image of prairie grass from Fenner Nature Center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Image of prairie grass from Fenner Nature Center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Spring is coming. It may not feel like it today, it may not feel like it tomorrow and it may not even feel like it in the middle of May. Nevertheless, it is coming. Soon, the smell of freshly-cut grass on a neighbor’s lawn or the fragrance of a beautiful young wildflower will remind us something we often forget in the winter. There is nature around us and it is worth protecting.

It is no secret that forests are shrinking and areas that were once suitable for nature have been tainted by man. But this does not mean that there is not an ongoing effort to preserve the wildlife that still remains. One may think that Lansing, being an urban area, has very little areas such as these. But Theresa Lark, an official from the Mid Michigan Environmental Action Council, believes that a major key to protect the environment in Lansing actually comes from urbanization.

Image from Fenner Nature center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Image from Fenner Nature center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

“Our goal is to help and preserve dense urban communities that will preserve green spaces that protects habitats,” said Lark. “Those activities include … access to multimodal transportation, encouraging people to use non-motorized transport such as biking and walking when they can. And they can do that when they’re in a dense urban environment where grocery [stores], food and work is nearby … it keeps people in the urban core.”

Lark also said that the Mid Michigan Environmental Action Council supports creating green spaces in Lansing, where applicable.

“We are strongly in favor… of green infrastructure,” said Lark. “There are opportunities within the urban landscape to put in rain gardens, bio soils, other sorts of green infrastructure that manages storm water but also serves a habitat.”

Nathan Moore, a geology professor at Michigan State University, agrees that these ideas help and support environmental growth. But he also acknowledges that protecting nature is not as simple as this. For starters, many businesses in Lansing are expanding out of the urban core, forcing Lansing citizens to use motorized transportation to get there. In fact, Moore points out that the environment and the economy are often fighting against each other.

“People who live downtown and work downtown tend to consume less … It’s not just as simple, though, as encouraging people to move to downtown areas,” said Moore. “You also have to make it so their work is there, and our current tax structure tends to push businesses outside to peripheral areas. If you look at cities in the United States, our Wall Marts are at the edges of town. We have have these big bucks stores way, way from the urban cores.”

Moore also believes that it is possible to have the environment and the economy work together. People want to live in places that are clean and have a high quality of life. It will cost more, but Moore believes that many people will be willing to pay the extra money.

“If you’re going to build a nice apartment complex, make it environmentally friendly… those investments to make it LEED-certified … to have that extra environmental impact is going to cost you another 15 to 20 percent of your budget. And the question is are people going to pay extra for that environmental thing, and I think in a lot of cases, they will.”

In some ways, Lansing citizens have proven Moore to be correct. For example, the Fenner Nature Center on Mt. Hope Avenue is a large green space in Lansing that has over four miles of trails throughout the park. It gets very little funding from the city and relies heavily on donations. But amazingly, this has kept the park running for over 60 years.

Jenny Mensch, the program manager and volunteer coordinator for Fenner Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that managers Fenner Nature Center, works everyday to ensure that despite its urban makeup, green spaces find their way in the Lansing community.

Image of a robin sitting on a tree bracnh at Fenner Nature Center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

Image of a robin sitting on a tree bracnh at Fenner Nature Center. Photo taken by Andy Chmura

“Now, we’re more of a nature park,” said Mensch. “So we try to highlight some of the different habitats and ecosystems that you’d find here in Michigan and we have our native prairie, short grass, tall grass and oak savanna. We have pine stands, we have a hardwood forest and we have a few ponds as well… Our mission to is to connect people with nature through conservation, education and stewardship.”

As Moore pointed out, saving the environment is not as easy as flipping on a switch. It requires careful consideration among many different people to try to meet everyone’s needs. It also requires cross-communication from people all over the country. Lansing had clean water issues in the past, but in many cases, these problems are hardly connected to Lansing at all.

“Most of the pollution that goes into Lansing actually comes from upstream,” said Moore. “One of the big problems with the Red Cedar [River] is that it has high levels of fecal matter in it because of septic tanks upstream that are not built properly or have just aged out… But that’s not Lansing’s problem. That’s their watershed area, and governing a large watershed—that’s complicated.”

Nevertheless, there are groups city of Lansing dedicated to preserving the environment that still exists and making changes that lead to less human consumption and minimizing Lansing’s ecological footprint.

“There have been some issues [with the environment],” said Lark. “There have been groundwater contamination issues, back before we knew what we know today. It’s improving… There are some improvements, and there are improvements on the horizon.”

Map of location of Fenner Nature Center. Image from google maps

Map of location of Fenner Nature Center. Image from google maps