Behind the main campus of Butler University, down a steep set of stairs and over a bridge spanning the canal, the university's past and future lie side by side. To the left is what appears to be an overgrown field, although the golden flowers and grasses now in abundance suggest something sweeter than abandonment: It's the Butler University Prairie, proclaimed by a sturdy wooden sign to have been established in 1987 by the Holcomb Research Institute and the university.
As the sign states, the prairie was intended to serve "as an outdoor laboratory for Butler ecology courses, as a public educational resource, and as a natural area for birds and wildlife."
That research institute, once considered world-class, went the way of so many dandelions under the spray of Roundup: over the years it faded away into a sort of oblivion for retired Butler University science professors to ponder wistfully as a casualty of the university's shift in direction.
But just like dandelions, the roots of that early mission have come alive again, in this case after lying dormant for some years. Evidence of that new growth can be viewed simply by turning around. Just across a gravel drive is another ecological experiment: The Center for Urban Ecology's farm, a decidedly different sort of landscape, but one that shares an underlying goal of connecting nature to people.
(Beyond that, speaking to more continuous Butler traditions, are the Butler University soccer fields, brilliant green and dandelion-free after recent rains - possibly with the help of a little fertilizer and weed killer. But none of that - no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides - is sprayed on the farm itself, except what the wind carries)
The farm's neatly laid out rows are largely brown on this spring day in late April, although there's evidence of early plantings. This spring's bumper crop of dandelions is already robust. They crowd the corners of the fenced-in acreage, sneaking in beneath the chicken wire attached to the slatted wooden fence. Last year's sun-bleached mulch still holds the other so-called weeds at bay - at least for now.
With a radio tower nearby alongside a super-sized satellite dish, this could be the middle of nowhere, but with a link to everywhere. What did this landscape look like a hundred years ago? 500? The way it looks today is testament to the fact that no purity really exists when it comes to land itself and what springs from it, unless you count human species as natural.
This may be exactly what Timothy (Tim) Carter, director of Butler's Center for Urban Ecology (CUE), would have you recognize: that humans are part of the landscape, and although largely destructive, we are also inherently creative, and therefore have the capability to come up with brilliant solutions to the problems we have created, often unwittingly.
So what can we do, Carter and the CUE seem to ask, to celebrate and cultivate our natural/built spaces to make our lives comfortable and yet harmonious with the landscape and all it offers?
From ideal to reality
The goal of urban ecology, Carter says, is to "actually improve conditions for humans and non-humans in these places we call cities." And while he's speaking of cities generally, his vision is for Indianapolis to be a great big laboratory for some of the ideas he, the university, and community collaborators come up with together. The goal is putting ideas in place that can be replicated elsewhere, but tailored to the needs of individual communities.
As an organization operating within the university, but bankrolling its projects through external fundraising efforts and an extensive web of community partnerships, CUE is the hub of a wheel that continues to grow larger. It radiates outward into the larger community of Indianapolis, looking for meaningful ways to bring everyone to the ecological table.
But the farm itself is just one spoke on that wheel. Other CUE initiatives include the Make Change water program in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, the Indy Food Fund and Indy Food Council, the Reconnecting to our Waterways project, a school partnership program between CUE and three Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS Montessori 91, Shortridge Law and Public Policy Magnet, and the Butler University Laboratory School) to incorporate sustainable agriculture into existing educational goals, and the reflective piece, the "we are city" cultural collaboration with Indiana Humanities and IUPUI.
These initiatives are in addition to research emanating from the university and an extensive cross-disciplinary internship program on campus that includes a biodiesel program and an overall commitment to reducing net carbon emissions on campus.
All of this falls under the umbrella of "urban ecology" - a concept that isn't new, as the Holcomb Institute prairie attests. But it may be groundbreaking in terms of how Carter and CUE envision it manifesting in the city and beyond.
CUE started out as an academic umbrella for the work of research biologists at Butler who were concerned about the impact of the urban environment on its non-human inhabitants (including flora). At that point, CUE was an organization in name only - it had yet to hire any staff, and didn't have a budget.
The faculty includes Travis Ryan, a herpetologist (known around CUE as the turtle guy); Rebecca Dolan, who directs the Friesner Herbarium; and Carmen Salsbury, biology department chair, who studies the behavioral ecology of mammals. "They kind of informally created this thing called the center for urban ecology," Carter says. "And all they really did was they decided to start doing research, literally out our backyard."
Fast forward to 2008, when they received a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to hire a staff person - Marjorie Hennessy - and could budget for an intern program, which Hennessy ran. "As a result of that grant and this program manager being here, the university decided, hey, let's not only leverage that investment in her position, but let's create a director position," recalls Carter. "So that's how I got here, in 2009." (Hennessy left CUE last January to take a job in Sitka, Alaska, working for a wilderness conservation society - a connection she made through Niccolas Mink, Urban Sustainable Foods Fellow for CUE, who also co-owns a salmon fishery operation in Sitka.)
"So the history of the CUE has been very much biological. It was these biologists doing biological research that happened to be in a city," Carter says. "And I think it's an important distinction to make. That that's how urban ecology as a discipline has emerged; ecologists who happened to be interested or living near a city started to do their work in the city. And so they would look at the ways that the city impacted whatever critter or organism they were interested in, whether it's squirrels or turtles or plants."
Salsbury, one of the Butler biologists who helped start CUE, has researched the habitats of squirrels in the city. What she found, Carter says, is that assessed property value was the best predictor of the density of squirrel nests: " So what's going on? It's not that squirrels like rich people; it's like, what are the resources that are at places that have higher assessed value? There's probably more birdfeeders; there's more feed for those squirrels to live on."
As with all backyard critters that prefer the urban lifestyle but then wreak havoc on our property or invade our homes, as Carter puts it, "we pretend they shouldn't live here; but where else are they going to live?"
From the animals' perspective, "It's super easy food. They're thinking, 'I don't have any predators that can mess with me, I can avoid these humans anyway.' Basically you're king of the castle. And so when we think about urban wildlife, we have to think about, not just why are they there. ... What then do we do about it, and how do we talk to people about it in a way that's meaningful and interesting?"
Take weeds. "We call a lot of things weeds. Weeds are really just plants that you don't want. That doesn't mean that they're inherently flawed or something [think dandelions, or the South's kudzu], which seems to be by definition what a weed is. But really it's just because maybe we want a monoculture of turf grass. ... So what you're creating there is a system that has to be maintained. You have to eliminate things. But ecology doesn't want to be maintained that way. If you would stop fertilizing and cutting your lawn, it would look radically different. ... And so that's an educational thing for people.
"And people still might say, well, I really value that; and then you can maybe work with them on, what impact does that have outside of your lawn? How are you impacting the rest of society because of runoff? You have to not just be dismissive of human preference and culture. ... You have to be really thoughtful about that."
So while CUE is embedded in biology, it extends far beyond. That's where the idea becomes an ideal: the notion that scientific research can be translated into things like designer ecosystems - green roofs, rain gardens, permeable surfaces for storm water drainage - things that, while they may happen on a small scale, they're benefiting those who implement them, while doing good things for the environment.
In other words, they're offering more sustainable ways of living in an urban setting, in contrast to those green lawns Carter talked about. As Carter says, "You can't take humans out of it. Or you can't just view them as negative. You have to understand them as part of this system."