Friday, March 27, 2009

A.E.: Artificial Ecosystems

By Jocelyn Perez

Just over the Atlantic, the region of Terracina, Italy has been the site of serious ecological debate. It has been devastated by large quantities of pollutants and has been left in abandonment for decades. This area used to be home to the Pontine Marshlands, which were drained under Mussolini’s instructions after being blamed for the malaria epidemics of the 1930’s. Six pumps were used to drain the marsh, leaving behind enough fertile soil for the farmers, and dry land to use as the foundation of the city Latina. The canal that runs through the area has been collecting the city’s garbage, chemicals from the pharmaceutical factories, and fertilizer run-off from neighboring farms.

The water that comes from the mountains is, relatively pure, but as it makes its way downhill it becomes heavily contaminated. Farmers use these waters to irrigate their crops, and many fishermen have made a living by placing nets along the banks. The pumps are still in place to prevent overflow and drain the water directly into the Mediterranean, not too far from where tourists are known to splash around regularly. (The beachgoers might as well be jumping into a septic tank.) This poses various health risks for both visitors and residents. The wildlife has vacated the region, and as the New York Times put it, “the only animals that can survive are giant rats.”

Unfortunately for the rats, plans are underway to clean up the site. There is only one problem: the people who propose the solution want to remove the people and businesses from the location for the sake of the environment, whereas the other side argues that the area should be used by the people who reside there upon completion of the overhaul because the site meets the needs of the people as well as function as its own ecosystem.

The World Wildlife Fund prefers to section off affected regions in order to create nature preserves to regulate the amount of human contact. Industrial sites and farms would be shut down. Civilians may be relocated, which would ensure the protection of the area. Then, the litter would be removed, sewage-eating bacteria may be added to the water to aid in purification, and eventually, the canal would return an adequate grade of purity. Another option would include turning off the six pumps, which would restore the land back into a marsh in a little over a week. This would probably be more suitable to the surrounding wildlife, but the mosquito population would have to be regulated.

By contrast, why not do some innovative landscaping instead? This is what M.I.T. graduate Alan Berger believes. As a landscape designer/architect, he sees a certain potential for progress. He argues that it would take extreme measures to tackle such an extremely polluted piece of land. Consequently, he believes that by restructuring the hills around the canal, adding rivers stones to act as filters, and replacing the existing plant life with those that can recycle harmful pollutants, the environment would ultimately be able to replenish itself. It would be an artificial way of achieving a natural balance. The factories would not have to close and the townspeople could remain in their homes. Therefore, there will not be a negative impact on the economy; if anything, the implementation of this proposal might lure more tourists, although regulations would still have to be put in place to guard against waste disposal in the water and the government would have to section off about 500 acres of land for months of renovation.

I can see the advantages of Berger’s proposal because he is working with nature and the people in the vicinity to reach a solution that works for both environmentalists and the people who reside in the area. Therefore, Berger’s idea gets my vote.
The idea of an artificial ecosystem is not at all new. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the master architects behind Prospect Park in the Bronx and Central Park in New York City, both had the a similar idea in mind. They laid out the plans to create a fully-functioning hardwood forest, which is now the only one left in the Bronx, complete with artificial waterfalls and streams.

Thankfully, over a century later, humans and wildlife can co-exist alongside each other, if Berger’s idea comes to fruition. Berger suggests that Terracina could also double as a park for recreational purposes, and I think that once the locals see the area become stabilize, they would want to keep it that way. Yet, many people are arguing that Berger has no right to “desecrate nature.” But “aren’t” the townspeople already “desecrating” it by dumping tons of trash into the water?

Fortunately, the Italian government is able to see the benefits of working with Berger. And hopefully, a contract will be worked out soon and life will return to Terracina.

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