Indianapolis as living laboratory 

click to enlarge Director of Butler’s Center for urban ecology, Tim Carter (second from left), crouches in the dirt of Butler’s Campus Farm with center volunteers Sam Erdman, Kari Maxwell and 
Jordan Burt (left to right).

Director of Butler’s Center for urban ecology, Tim Carter (second from left), crouches in the dirt of Butler’s Campus Farm with center volunteers Sam Erdman, Kari Maxwell and Jordan Burt (left to right).

It looked as if blood were going to be drawn in a battle of corporate expediency versus turtle habitat. Veolia, managing company of the city's water, announced a plan to brick up the Central Canal banks to help ease the flow into its filtration system. Environmental advocates and Broad Ripple residents fired back, demanding that Veolia first study the environmental impacts.

Enter the Butler University Center for Urban Ecology (CUE).

"We hosted a community forum about Veolia's plan," says Tim Carter, CUE director. "[Butler biology professor] Travis Ryan presented the data about turtle nesting on the canal banks. Advocates spoke, as did Matt Klein [of the Indianapolis Department of Waterworks]. As a result, the designs changed."

Instead of ignoring the turtles' habitat, the new design actually highlighted it, Carter says.

Welcome to the world of urban ecology: part science experiment, part public intervention.

"Environmental and social restoration—that's what we mean by urban ecology," Carter says. "It's ecology in the city and for the city, the whole ecosystem. How do people benefit from the non-human [plants, animals, water] and vice versa?"

Carter is a pro at asking questions that gently move the meter on the health of our urban ecosystem. His first year at the helm of the Center for Urban Ecology has yielded $315,000 in grant funding for multiple environmental projects and collaborations – from its citywide rain barrel and cistern project to a study monitoring bird deaths associated with building windows.

Carter arrived in Indianapolis last year with a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia, after a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust enabled Butler to hire the center's first paid staffer. Not only did he find he needed a thicker coat, he was also struck by Indiana's flat topography and its fertile ground – both literally and figuratively.

Rebecca Dolan, biology professor and director of Butler's Friesner Herbarium, was one of the many fellow scientists who laid some of the groundwork before Carter arrived at the center.

"A few colleagues and I got interested in starting the center after we realized several of us were doing ecological studies in the city," Dolan said. She and her students recently posted species inventory lists for 14 parks and other natural areas (www.butler.edu/herbarium); they'll be comparing the data with historical vegetation records from a century ago.

Dolan says the kind of work done by the center is more poignant today than ever before. "Now that more than half of the world's population lives in urban settings, there is a growing interest in learning about nature in cities."

Smart apps and dim lights

If the world's population is becoming more urban, it's also becoming more plugged-in by the day. To that end, Carter and company are testing a tool called Indianapps (see the beta site at http://indianapps.butler.edu/#): mobile apps that allow users to register their rain barrels, find local produce, and monitor backyard wildlife.

"Today the processing capacity of an iPhone is more powerful than the computers used in the Apollo missions," says Carter. "If we can go to the moon with that level of power, imagine what we can know about our immediate environments."

Indianapps also allows citizen-scientists to track water flow with a GPS-like function. It's an apt tool for CUE's collaboration with New York-based artist Mary Miss, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and other partners. Miss proposed a site-specific installation called "FLOW (Can You See the River?)", for which she will carefully place mirrors along a six-mile stretch of the White River. FLOW launches in September 2011.

"What exciting for us about FLOW is that it's bringing together the scientific and artistic community," Carter says. "There's really not a lot of precedent for this."

Yet another CUE project involves work with an initiative called Lights Out Indy and the Amos W. Butler Audubon Society to analyze how to reduce bird deaths caused by collisions with glassy, lit-up high-rises. Using 2008 data collected by Butler faculty, CUE Program Director Marjorie Hennessy is teaching a semester-long practicum focused on addressing window strikes. (See the class blog atwww.butlerpracticum2010.wordpress.com.)

The students are learning the science, the politics and the messaging needed to raise awareness among building managers and architects about the multiple benefits of cutting the lights.

"We want to challenge the students, but also have a project focus that is manageable for one semester," says Hennessy. "One of the challenges for the students is to see how mobile technology can play a role in the Lights Out Indy initiative."

Whether it's the politics of private building management or the fate of a public resource like the canal, CUE projects can't help but hit a few hot buttons. Carter insists that's not the end game in itself.

"We're not interested in advocating just to have a position," Carter says. "A lot of it has to do with communicating science in a way that the public can digest. That is not necessarily activism. But we need to show why people should care about urban ecology."

A community resource

Just south of the intramural softball fields on the Butler campus, a half-acre garden is bursting with zeppelin delicata squashes. A year ago, the site was over-mowed and doused with herbicides. But this past summer, interns sold bushels of produce from the Butler Campus Farm (butlercampusfarm.com) to Napolese, a nearby pizza bar, to Aramark, a food service management company, and directly to students and neighborhood residents.

Butler's executive chef, Scott Tope, stands ready to tuck these tomatoes into cafeteria tacos. "Why would you want to have produce trucked in from 2,000 miles when you can get them from your own backyard?" he asks.

For next year's plantings, Tope requests more herbs and "a large harvest of black stone cherry tomatoes." He's planning to dehydrate them and develop Butler brand sun-dried tomatoes.

The garden was born last winter when the Butler Earth Charter student group approached the university with the concept. Like most Center for Urban Ecology projects, the campus garden is more than what it appears to be.

"The question is, how do we think about urban agriculture in Indianapolis?" says Tim Carter. "How can urban farm hubs be a resource for schools and community members?"

The garden is expanding. The farm team is toying with a beekeeping experiment. One student has launched a composting business. There's even an RSS feed to keep people up to speed on new developments.

Meanwhile, that "what can we learn?" attitude expressed by Carter keeps CUE's dance card full.

"Just yesterday I met with two students interested in developing a bio-diesel operation on campus using the used cafeteria fry oil," he said. "We discussed how the CUE could help them in that effort using our connections around Indy to get that project off the ground."

I ask Carter what keeps an urban ecologist up at night. "You want to see big things happen, but you only get to that with smaller things," he says. "It's a matter of listening to what the community is saying and matching that with the mission of our center."

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