A Human Ecology Of Urban Ravine Restoration: A New Zealand Example
by Mairi Jay1 and Ottilie Stolte2
1Department of Geography, Tourism and Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand
2Department of Psychology, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand
This study reports the results of a survey of owners of properties that are part of a system of ravines networking the city of Hamilton, New Zealand. It explores attitudes, knowledge, and ravine management by urban residents who seem well placed to undertake protection or restoration of indigenous flora and fauna.
The results highlight the diverse attitudes and objectives of property owners and some of the barriers they face when undertaking management of their ravine. Most ravine improvers were motivated by a “gardening ethic” rather than an “ecology ethic”; that is, their primary objectives were recreational enjoyment of gardening, practical concerns such as erosion control, or aesthetic goals such as tidiness or beauty. Even the minority whose primary aim was environmental (“bring back native birds” or “restore native vegetation”) tempered their decisions with aesthetic considerations such as retaining views or avoiding shade.
Perceptions of the ravine varied from those who considered it a problem to those who regarded it as a source of peace and tranquility, beauty, or privacy. Owners who viewed their ravine negatively felt overwhelmed by an “uncontrollable jungle of weeds”; conversely, people who viewed their property in a positive light had either exerted sufficient order to feel in control of the invasive vegetation, or viewed the jungle of mixed native and exotic species as valuable for qualities beyond the domain of domestic control, such as “wilderness,” “adventure,” “habitat for birds,” or “beauty.”
Keywords: urban, gardening, ecological restoration, New Zealand.
More than half the world’s population live in cities, so the ecological health of urban areas is important for human welfare and the long-term sustainability of both human habitat and global biodiversity (Rees 1999; McDonald et al. 2008). Cities in many parts of the world are located in areas that are or were ecologically rich, and some retain habitat remnants that are important for the survival of rare and endangered species (Garden et al. 2006; McDonnell 2007; Rudd et al. 2002).
Personal experience of nature can significantly predispose individuals toward greater understanding and sympathy for nature (Dunn et al. 2006; Dwyer et al. 1994; Miller 2005; Pyle 2003). Conversely, lack of exposure to nature can result in hostile or indifferent attitudes and in favoring development over conservation (Kong et al. 1999; Pyle 2003). Urban residents the world over are key participants in and deciders of national policy; thus, it is important that they learn about and understand the significance of ecological processes and the needs of healthy ecosystems in the areas where they live (Dunn et al. 2006). A number of studies have also suggested that privately owned gardens are important for retaining urban biodiversity or even, where cities occupy critical habitat areas such as estuaries and deltas, regional or national biodiversity (Head and Muir 2006; Rudd et al. 2002). For all these reasons and more, ecological restoration in urban areas has become increasingly widespread (Miller 2008).
In response to growing public interest in restoration of urban ravines (also called “gulches” or “gullies”) and a strong demand for information, the city of Hamilton, New Zealand, initiated programs in 2000 to encourage restoration and re-creation of native habitat within city limits. These included a habitat restoration program that encouraged owners of properties which fall within one of Hamilton’s ravine systems to plant ecologically appropriate native species. In the summer of 2006–07, a survey of ravine owners was conducted to assess the value of the restoration program for social learning and practical restoration.
Hamilton, a city of 130,000 residents, is located in a region that has been almost totally transformed since settlement by Europeans 160 years ago, from a landscape of wetland and forest to one of farms and peri-urban settlement. Native vegetation has been reduced to 18% in the region’s fertile lowlands and only 6% in the former lowland and coastal forest (Leathwick et al. 1995). Less than 1% remains of the original wetland vegetation (Leathwick et al. 1995, 2).
The city’s ravines are a significant natural feature and offer potential for reintroduction of native habitat. Most are privately owned. Almost all of the city’s original native vegetation was removed by early European settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries and was replaced by urban and suburban development. The predominant vegetation is now exotic gardens.
More than 25,000 species have been introduced into New Zealand since European settlement, the vast majority for horticultural, agricultural, and ornamental purposes (PCE 2000). Many of the introductions have naturalized and made their way into the ravines. In these sheltered conditions, invasive species such as blackberry (Rubus fruticosus), climbing asparagus (Asparagus scandens), privet (Ligustrum spp.), wattle (Acacia elata), woolly nightstade (Solanum mauritianum), jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), crack willow (Salix fragilis), and wandering willy (Tradescantia fluminensis) grow vigorously and smother or displace natives. They may be difficult to remove and replace with natives, especially where, as for most homeowners, there are neighbors who leave the invasives to flourish. Some ravines are very steep, and some are subject to flooding or to erosion and subsidence. In short, most of the ravine areas in the city are “wild” in the sense that they contrast with the controlled tidiness of the average suburban garden. They are likely to support a wealth of biomass, most of it “weeds” in the eyes of citizens and “invasives” in the eyes of ecological scientists. But because they are below normal surface level and are full of vegetation, they also provide a sense of space, a retreat from the noise and dust of the city, and a potentially rich habitat for native birds.
For Hamilton’s ravine restoration program, the city distributed to owners of ravine properties a booklet (Wall and Clarkson 2001) explaining the distinctive ecological features of ravines and illustrating native plants suitable for different conditions (wet, dry, shaded, and so on). In addition, the city offered workshops on plant propagation, plant identification, and weed control, bus tours of ravine systems, a newsletter, a website, and a “plants for ravines” scheme. Hamilton keeps a register of about 850 people (out of some 2,000 residents with ravine properties) who have asked to receive information about ravine restoration. In 2001, this included information about “eco-sourcing,” or encouraging the propagation of plants from parent stock native to the ecological region.
Attitudes And Ravine Management By Property Owners
In 2007, a survey was undertaken to determine how owners regarded their ravine, how they managed the ravine, and what effect the city’s restoration program had had. The survey consisted of a written questionnaire (see Appendix) mailed to 21 residents randomly selected from the register of people who had asked to be on the information distribution list, followed by a telephone interview. The same questionnaire was also mailed to 200 residents not on the register, their selection weighted to reflect the number of properties on each of the five main ravine systems.
In total, 81 responses were collected, including the 21 people interviewed by telephone. Of these, 71 responses were from people who were (or had been) doing something with their ravine, here termed “ravine improvers.” The results are indicative rather than definitive because of the nature of the survey (telephone and self-completed mail-in questionnaires) and because it was not possible to get a fully random or representative sample of all ravine property owners. However, the responses illustrate the diversity of motives of ravine improvers and some potentially significant social barriers to urban ecological restoration of native species.
Owners’ perceptions and enjoyment of their ravine
Figure 2 summarizes the responses of all survey respondents to a question asking for their perceptions of their ravine (see Appendix, question 5). A majority (79%) considered the ravine an asset to their property. The same proportion also considered their ravine a source of pleasure. Even the small number of respondents (10) who were not working to improve their ravine indicated that they considered the area an asset to the property. Only 11% considered their ravine a problem they would rather not have; these respondents were all either elderly or very busy.
Many commented on the peacefulness and privacy of the ravine and how much they enjoyed looking at the trees, hearing the birds, and experiencing nature. For some, the ravine was an oasis of peace amid the stresses of city life. One respondent claimed that he heard no traffic noise when he was in his ravine. Another noted that, “It’s a place of beauty, a wonderful spot to read a book or eat lunch at the weekends.” A significant number expressed enthusiasm about the potential of the ravines to provide an urban space for nature and wildlife.
Figure 3 lists the reasons that ravine improvers gave for working on their ravine. For three quarters, “enjoyment of gardening and planting” was a reason. However, more than half were motivated by the practical concern of ensuring the stability of the bank. In addition, 44% wanted to increase privacy; 38% got a sense of achievement and satisfaction; 37% and 34% gave an environmental reason (revegetation and a desire to “bring back” native birds); 34% were working against the tide of weeds; 31% enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of their ravine, and 17% wanted to maintain the area for the enjoyment of their children or grandchildren.
Many of those who worked actively on their ravine commented on what they had learned from the experience. For most, the learning was multidimensional; it included cognitive, practical, and aesthetic or spiritual dimensions. Some mentioned specific knowledge or skills such as pest control, weed spraying, weed identification, and “what grows well in shaded or wet.” Some people commented that they had learned about plant identification, suitable plant selection, and the identification of native species.
Others mentioned more expressive qualities such as self-knowledge or self-awareness, “learning to pace yourself” and “just enjoy it for what it is at the moment; don’t let it become an albatross around the neck.” At least a quarter had gained an appreciation of the value of the ravine system in terms of aesthetics, privacy enjoyment, doing something positive for the environment, and having “wild areas” to retreat to. The importance of working with natural processes was mentioned by almost a quarter. Examples included: “what the soil consists of,” “Understand weeds, identify what they need to grow and then limit their growth by doing the opposite,” “working with it not against it [nature].”
In short, for the majority of survey respondents, their ravine was a source of personal enrichment. It provided a variety of positive rewards including practical and utilitarian features (property asset, privacy) and psychological rewards (aesthetic appreciation of peace and beauty, sense of achievement).
Management by ravine improvers
Ravine restorers were asked about the kinds of plants they had planted, the reasons for their choice of plants, and whether they had planted any natives. Figure 4 highlights the diversity of considerations experienced by ravine owners. While two thirds (65%) claimed to have planted native species, it was clear from their responses that the selection of plants was based on a variety of factors, including practical or utilitarian issues such as bank stability, weed control, and “plants that don’t grow too tall,” as well as aesthetic (decorative or flowering plants) and environmental (“trees to attract birds”) concerns. A majority of those who favored native species also favored plants for other purposes, such as attracting birds, bank stabilization, weed control, cost, or adding color. Even the those who confined themselves to native plantings also had non-ecological considerations, such as retaining views over the ravine or avoiding too much shading.
Inferences about the level of knowledge of ravine restorers can be drawn from the types of native plants they planted. Of those who planted natives, half said that they did not know the names of the plants, or failed to list them. Others planted plants which are widely known as native species but were not necessarily the most appropriate for the location. These included planting the sun-loving native flaxes (Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum) and cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) in shade, or planting trees such as pohutukawa (Metrosideros excels), which are not native to this region.
The most frequently mentioned plants were native flax (Phormium tenax), ti tree (Leptospermum scoparium), cabbage tree (Cordyline australis), Pittosporum species (karo and kohuhu), five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus), karamu (Coprosma robusta), lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius), yellow-flowering kowhai (Sophora microphylla), lacebark (Hoheria species), ferns, and ornamental native grasses. Ferns are iconic New Zealand species, especially if they include the large tree ferns, Cyathea dealbata (silver fern) and Cyathea medullaris (mamaku or black ponga). All the foregoing are commonly available in native plant sections at garden centers. In addition, flax, ti tree, cabbage tree, and lacebarks are cheap or easy to acquire and easy to grow in ravine conditions.
In contrast to the people who knew little about the native species they had planted, 10% of ravine improvers stated that they had a preference for “eco-sourced” plants. These responses indicate a considerable level of ecological knowledge, since for the public at large, the concept of “eco-sourced plants” is relatively recent and this information is not available at most commercial nurseries.
A number of respondents also mentioned species that are lesser known or more difficult to grow, such as putaputaweta (Carpodetus serratus), ribbonwood (Plagianthus betulinus), nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida), kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum), miro (Podocarpus ferrugineus), and pigeonwood (Hedycarya arborea). These lesser known but ecologically appropriate species suggest a high level of knowledge by some ravine owners.
Click images to enlarge
Figure 5: Sources of information about native plants, by percent of ravine improvers.
Ravine improvers were asked where they obtained their information about native plants, and it is interesting to note from Figure 5 that written publications (library books and the city’s printed ravine guide) were the most important sources of information for 21% and 26%, respectively. This suggests that a significant proportion of those undertaking native planting are relatively self-motivated and have above average levels of education.
Barriers and discouragements faced by ravine improvers
There were a number of common impediments for ravine improvers, which varied in significance according to their age and stage in the family cycle and their ravine’s characteristics, such as steepness, the nature and density of exotic invasives already present, and the management of adjoining properties (which in some situations provided an endless source of invasive encroachment). Figure 6 summarizes the more common barriers and discouragements that ravine improvers experienced.
Lack of time was the most common obstacle. Ravine owners who had the most time tended to be affected by other barriers, such as age, health impairments, or a lack of financial resources. Those with the least time were generally people with young families, demanding work schedules, or work that required considerable commuting or travel.
Expense was a concern for 39% of respondents. This can include the cost of retaining walls and steps or footpaths for access, as well as the considerable cost of plants. To survive in the weedy conditions of most ravines, plants need to be well grown before they are planted; they also need to be planted densely in order to establish a weed-inhibiting canopy quickly. Hence, the cost of plants can be a major deterrent unless individuals can grow their own or obtain them from friends.
Many commented on the enormous effort required to control invasive weeds. For example, one commented, “I get fed up with the constant battle to keep weeds under control;” another noted despairingly, “I can’t keep on top of it.” Most of the people working on their ravine felt that it was feasible for them to remove weeds from their own property, but stated that their biggest concern was weed invasion from surrounding properties. From the point of view of ravine owners, the job of weed management is often too big for individuals alone. At least a dozen ravine restorers had made coordinated efforts at the neighborhood level by assisting owners on adjacent properties and had even removed noxious weeds for them.
For a third of ravine improvers, the steepness of the ravines was a significant barrier. Some respondents said their ravine was so steep that they needed to be able to abseil (rappel). The concerns about steepness were also frequently linked to the issue of physical capacity, as respondents felt the steepness restricted the extent of the work they could do within their physical limits (i.e., strength, fitness, and especially age or disability).
The preponderance of positive attitudes shown by the survey is unsurprising. First, questionnaire returns were clearly weighted in favor of people who were motivated enough to work on their ravine; only 10 of the 71 mailed returns came from people who did no work on their ravine. Second, at the time of purchase, most owners would have faced a choice of properties, including ones without significant landscape features. Their choice of a property with a ravine may well have reflected a prior disposal toward the extra green space offered by the ravine, despite whatever counteracting management considerations there may have been. So it seems likely that the survey results are skewed toward people who are more than usually motivated to work on their ravine. This suggests that the barriers and limitations faced are likely to be as great or greater for less motivated individuals, and that the attitudes and concerns of less motivated people will be as heterogeneous as those of the ravine restorers.
Improvers’ motives for ravine management and their concerns about it are diverse and multidimensional. For some, their ravine was primarily a property asset which gave them more space or privacy. For others, it held a utilitarian value as a place for children to play or for growing vegetables or orchard trees. Yet others experienced their ravine as a “place of beauty” or “refuge from the City” where they could retreat from noise and the worries of the day. And for some, it was a wilderness, an uncontrollable jungle, or “a problem I would rather not have,” often because they were too busy and did not have the time, or were too old and did not have the physical capacity, to control the plants they saw as “weeds.” Almost all the improvers viewed their property as both an asset and a source of enjoyment or satisfaction. Figure 7 illustrates the point that the same space can be viewed in many different ways by different people.
The diversity of motives of ravine restorers accords well with psychological research on the meanings of gardens and gardening. Environmental psychologists Gross and Lane (2007) suggest that gardening can be regarded as “a very personal act steeped in emotion, family history and self-identity.” (Bhatti 1999, 184, as cited by Gross and Lane 2007, 225). Their qualitative, in-depth study of gardeners found that the meaning of a garden varied for participants depending on their age. They note, “Throughout the progression of the lifespan, outdoor escapism which is manifest in childhood as physical and locational escapism becomes increasingly experienced or sought out as a mental release” (Gross and Lane 2007, 234). For retired adults, gardening may become a form of enjoyment as well as a source of livelihood.
Gross and Lane (2007) noted that in addition to affording an escape from the stresses of working life, gardens and gardening could represent forms of ownership and identity. The garden offered respondents the opportunity to express their interests and personality by reflecting qualities they valued, such as practicality, various forms of beauty, adventure, and the like. For some, the garden was an opportunity for creative expression that deepened their enjoyment and appreciation of nature. Aesthetic concerns may be an important motivation for many. McDonald (2003) has suggested that there is more than a little in common between restoration practice and art. Gardening, no less than painting or writing, can be an act of creative effort and imagination.
The diversity of motives and attitudes of Hamilton’s ravine restorers mirrors the diversity among conventional gardeners, with an additional dimension of concern with “the native.” The conceptual/symbolic distinction of native versus exotic is significant for many New Zealanders (Jay 2004; 2005). Appreciation of New Zealand’s unique native fauna and flora was certainly a motive for many ravine restorers. But the appreciation is ambivalent and complex. In her analysis of New Zealand attitudes toward “wild gardens” during the 20th century, Leach (2002) notes two paradoxes: first, that the native plants proudly displayed in many gardens do not look at all like those in wild habitats, and second, that created “native” gardens are usually enclosed “behind fences, hedges, or other forms of barrier that exclude the external environment” (Leach 2002, 214). Leach notes that in the first half of the 20th century, native plants were viewed in a negative light as “common” and “aggressive,” while northern hemisphere plants from Britain and North America were valued as rare and out-of-the-ordinary. It was not until the latter half of the 20th century that native plants became widely fashionable, in parallel with New Zealand’s growing identity as an Australasian-Pacific nation, separate from Britain as the former colonial power (Jay 2002). While the majority of Hamilton ravine restorers were enthusiastic about growing native trees and shrubs, their choices reflected a garden aesthetic, with choices based on a plant’s color or height, more than ecological understanding. Most included other objectives, such as convenience, privacy, or practicality, alongside their interest in native restoration. Only a minority were committed to actively restoring or recreating native habitat according to ecological principles.
The distinction between native and exotic is also significant for Australians, who, like New Zealanders, have fundamentally transformed the landscape in those parts of Australia where most people live from native to exotic. There too, gardening with native plants has grown in popularity as Australians have developed an independent national identity and as native biodiversity has become increasingly lost or threatened by environmental change. Interestingly, Head and Muir (2006) have linked perceptions of “native” to a domestic/nature binary. They found that within the Sydney basin bioregion, homeowners who lived adjacent to native bushland held objectives for managing their back gardens which ranged from “bringing nature into backyard,” through “separation of domestic and natural spaces,” to “extension of domestic.”
Zagorski et al. (2004) analyzed attitudes toward native and exotic in terms of a gradation between practical/utilitarian and romantic attitudes. On the outskirts of Hobart, adjacent to native bush, they noted four different types of garden which coincided with different garden objectives by the owners: the species-poor shrub garden; the local native garden dominated by native trees and shrubs; the woodland garden, comprising a mix of natives and exotics; and the gardenesque, composed entirely of exotic species. The owners of the shrub gardens were primarily motivated by practical considerations; owners of the native garden were “distinguished by their attachment to romance, sentimentality, privacy and space” (Zagorski et al. 2004, 211). The woodland garden owners were committed to habitat preservation, while the gardenesque owners wanted the garden to look after itself (Zagorski et al. 2004).
Clayton (2007, 222) has noted for gardeners in the United States that “control over the appearance of the yard was rated as an important benefit,” and she quotes Jenkins (Jenkins 1994, 185) as describing front lawns as “a symbol of man’s control of, or superiority over, his environment.” It seems possible that similar attitudes influence the actions of at least some ravine improvers in Hamilton, particularly in relation to the perception of weeds. For the most part, weeds (as defined by the Hamilton restorers) are not garden plants, although almost all were originally introduced as such. While oxalis, daisy, buttercup, and the like may be considered garden weeds, they are of no significance as ravine weeds. Instead, the plants considered to be weeds in the ravines are large, vigorous, and difficult to control. They are vines that overtop and smother shrubs and trees, trees (such as gray and crack willow or privet) that crowd out other trees, and lilies or tubers that grow in large patches and monopolize areas of habitat (such as seeps or fertile pockets). In short, they are non-native plants which contest the orderly arrangements of the typical urban garden. It is significant that many owners of ravine property felt themselves to be involved in a major struggle to manage their ravine.
The element of control may be linked to notions of aesthetic. The concern with “tidiness” has been noted before (Nassauer 1995) as an aesthetic dimension, just as the desire to “beautify the place” and to “make it look attractive” are aesthetic. Even those who did no work in their ravine voiced concern at the way their property was overgrown with a “jungle of weeds.”
The survey of Hamilton ravine restorers supports the literature which suggests that for private property owners, ecological restoration is rarely a primary objective; rather, it is rather, it is likely to be part of a complex set of motivations that includes convenience, physical capacity, practicality, cost, aesthetic considerations, and prevailing cultural attitudes or fashions, such as the cultural distinction between domestic and natural, and, in the case of Australia and New Zealand, symbolic linkages between native fauna and flora and national identity. Thus, from a scientific perspective, private landowners and gardeners may be a somewhat capricious and unreliable vehicle for urban ecological restoration.
From a biodiversity perspective, however, even a relatively small shift toward planting of native species can be valuable. The planting of natives by even a small proportion of private individuals may help to create a seed bank in which natives have more chance of establishing. Stewart et al. (2004) have noted that planting of natives by gardeners in Christchurch, New Zealand, has resulted in regeneration of native species across a broad range of urban habitat, from neglected gardens to pavement cracks to exotic plantations.
The cumulative efforts of private landowners across an urban field will not bring about pristine or re-created native ecosystems, but they can ensure that the proportion of native species that survive into the future is greater than would be the case without such enthusiasm. Ravines in Hamilton have become hybrid ecological communities where native and introduced flora and fauna are mixed (and continue to mix) in ways influenced by the social, economic, and value orientations of the people who manage (or ignore) them (Holland 2000). The gardeners working so hard to restore and maintain natives are preserving but also changing a biological heritage that has always been dynamic, although the timeframes for change are now vastly shortened. The work of the ravine restorers reinforces Hobbs’s observation (2000, 1) that “While we seem to be a long way from implementing effective solutions to many problems, the seeds of change are already apparent. Many people are managing ecosystems more effectively and the potential for ecosystem repair is immense. . . . A key element in change is hope.”
While the Hamilton ravine restoration program may be important from a biodiversity perspective, it is potentially more important from a human viewpoint. McDonnell (2007, 83–84), in the context of Australia, argues that with 92% of Australians living in cities, native biodiversity in cities is critically important for residents’ knowledge and understanding of Australia’s natural heritage. He suggests that restoration can help to counterbalance the prevailing Australian preference for tidy gardens, lawns, and parks by introducing a deeper understanding of the ecological virtues of “multiple layers of species, the presence of individuals of different ages, decaying leaf litter, dead or dying organisms and irregular surfaces.” Havinga (1999, 14) notes that “one of the greatest values of restoration lies in the learning, both conscious and unconscious, that is gained through the process.” Restoration can encourage people to learn local natural and cultural history, to connect with place, and to become more aware of the other life forms that share one’s space. Yet it can also reinforce an illusion that “business-as-usual is viable,” and that broken ecosystems can be easily fixed. She suggests that “even for restorationists, the central question is not about the value of individual ecosystems or species, or whether they can be replaced. It is about how to live in a way that will sustain the health of the earth and all its inhabitants” (Havinga 1999, 14). At the same time that they invoke scientific and technical knowledge, she argues, restoration initiatives and policies need to promote alternative values such as reverence for life and the interconnectedness of life, including the interdependence of the people—community groups, scientists, homeowners, school groups— involved in restoration.
Quantitative and qualitative data from a survey of urban property owners with ravine landforms in Hamilton, New Zealand, revealed that while a majority of those who cared for their ravine were in favor of planting native species, most had multiple motives, ranging from practical or utilitarian to recreational, aesthetic, and environmental. Individuals were also constrained or deterred from ravine restoration by personal and social circumstances such as lack of time, financial cost, and physical capacity.
The results add strength to the view that urban ecological restoration “is as much about social issues as it is about ecological issues” (Fitzhardinge 2006, 4). Even if policies to encourage ecological restoration by private landowners persuade only a minority to engage in native restoration, they can influence the composition of the urban seed rain and thereby encourage native regeneration throughout the urban habitat. More fundamentally, they are a means of encouraging a more informed and caring relationship between urban citizens and the natural environment.
The authors would like to acknowledge funding support from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) under contract UOWX0501, the assistance of the Hamilton City Council, the interest and enthusiasm of pilot and telephone interview respondents who gave their time so generously, and two anonymous reviewers for their shrewd and pertinent comments.