Take Time To Stop and Smell the Bok Choi

by Wesley Sexton

Farm Interns 2014This Summer I had the unique opportunity to intern at the CUE Farm, and as part of my job I was charged with a few of the meticulous and labor-intensive responsibilities involved in growing fresh food. On the CUE Farm I learned very quickly that cultivating healthful food takes a lot of time and a lot of attention. My work this summer forced me to slow down and devote my contemplative energies toward the foods that we eat.

Of course, as a result, I have been able to learn about urban agriculture; but I also found myself confronted with questions that had lain unformed in my brain before this experience. Questions like: “Where does my food come from?” and “Does quantity trump quality in the food world?” suddenly wriggled themselves into my mind.

I have by no means been able to find comprehensive answers to these questions or many of the others that formed during my time on the CUE Farm. But the fact that these questions found their way into my mind certainly exhibits a depth of awareness that I did not previously possess before this summer. I now find myself becoming skeptical of foods at the grocery store – peppers shipped from Mexico or raspberries fallen to mold during the long ride over from California.

Amidst the vague questions still floating around in my mind, two things about urban agriculture seem quite clear:

  1. Locally grown produce will inevitably be fresher and healthier than produce shipped halfway across the country; and
  2. Considering the number of people currently living in cities or other places where fresh produce is somewhat unavailable, innovative approaches to growing fresh food must be sought out.

And perhaps with the right social environment, urban farming can help people gain access to locally grown, quality produce.

Although the CUE Farm and other urban farms like it often operate on a very small scale, the argument may be made that cultivating a smaller yield in a responsible way is preferable to the opposite approach. Personally, I believe that fresh, organic produce is an investment that is well worth the extra time spent. If more time and attention are paid to the substances with which we choose to energize our lives, I do not think that time and energy will have been misplaced.

Wesley Sexton is an English and Music major at Butler University, Class of 2016. 

It’s a Collaborative Day in the Neighborhood

collaborationby Molly Trueblood

Sharing is a necessary practice for human beings. Imagine what would happen if major roads were private; if all the coffee in the world stayed where it was produced (the horror!); if art and music were never performed for a crowd.

Sharing is critical to the beauty of life and to the success of the human race.

Yet this skill can still be a challenge to master, as any 3-year-old can serve as evidence. Understanding the perspective, desires, and values of another being or group of people isn’t easy. We seem to be hard-wired to prioritize what makes our own life easier.

So, how in the world does anything that requires a team get done?

Working closely with neighborhoods gives me a unique perspective on the priorities, challenges and values of many neighborhoods in Indianapolis. I love learning about what’s important to different neighborhoods. Yet, what I find fascinating is the number of issues and priorities that neighborhoods share. Here are a few examples:

Communities value the children and young people that live in their neighborhoods. They want children to feel included, considered, and valued. They want things for their kids to do and opportunities to keep them out of trouble.

Communities want better communication with city entities. They want investment in their neighborhood; but too often, it feels like they are the last to know about improvement plans for their neighborhood.

Community members recognize that context and a good understanding of their neighborhood’s history is essential to creating value. Character, respect for history, and people who have dedicated years of effort help make neighborhoods special.

Important issues require a great deal of collaboration (and time) to properly address the roots of the problem. What I would like to encourage is more cross-neighborhood collaboration, to increase the ideas, resources, passion, and voices that are working toward a solution, something better for the common good.

My hope is that the NSF project can be a catalyst for this approach and encourage others to think city-wide on how neighborhoods can come together to face their community’s challenges.

Molly Truebood is community organizer with the Center for Urban Ecology working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Volunteer in Service to America

by Kelly Harris

IMG_0146For the past two years I have been a Volunteer in Service to America (a.k.a., a VISTA) through Americorp. Creating in 1965, the VISTA program was the brainchild of John F. Kennedy to be the domestic counterpart of the Peace Corps.

The VISTA program’s mission is to bring individuals and communities out of poverty. To accomplish this, VISTA has focused on building the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development, and otherwise assist low-income communities (more on that here).

For my VISTA fellowship I was placed at the Center For Urban Ecology (CUE) at Butler University to work on the Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) collective impact initiative. This might seem like an odd site for a VISTA since there is no obvious connection to poverty — actually, it is. My placement, the first for CUE, was novel for the Indiana’s VISTA program and it was its first time to have a VISTA focus on environmental stewardship.

My charge as a VISTA has been to “contribute to improvement of economically disadvantaged communities and at-risk ecosystems in proximity to Indianapolis’ six major waterways by…developing new community engagement initiatives, and communicating the importance of the waterways.” I have accomplished this by helping build the organizational and administrative capacity of the ROW initiative.

Yet my primary role with ROW has been as metric manager, overseeing the development and implementation of a shared measurement system that tracks common outcomes indicators across the initiative. The results are then used to inform learning and continuous improvement. This role has provided me with many opportunities and experience over the last two years, from wading through Indianapolis’ waterways to presenting at regional workshops.

Currently, I am working on developing ROW’s Citizen Scientist Team to enable local residents to get involved and to assist with data collection on how ROW is impacting the local waterways and surrounding communities. This team of volunteers will have a variety of activities such as conducting stream assessments, walkability surveys, and observational surveys of how ROW’s destination locations are being put to use. You can fill out this interest form if you are interested in being a ROW Citizen Scientist!

My position as a VISTA Fellow with the CUE is coming to a close at the beginning of August. It is bittersweet to see this formative chapter of my life close but it has led me to an exciting new chapter in my life. While the fellowship is ending my relationship with the CUE and ROW is simply evolving. I have been will continue working with ROW as its metric manager and waterway coordinator. And with the CUE as a pivotal ROW partner, I will maintain a strong connection with the center and its wonderful staff!

Kelly Harris, MSES/ MPA, is an Americorps SPEA-VISTA Fellow at the Center for Urban Ecology.

Gathering Baseline Data for National Science Foundation Project

Debbie Nichols and Katie Waskom are part of the team gathering baseline data for the NSF project.

Debbie Nichols and Katie Waskom are part of the team gathering baseline data for the NSF project.

by Molly Trueblood

In case you haven’t heard, Butler CUE received a grant from the National Science Foundation last fall to create an outdoor science museum exhibit about Indianapolis’ waterways. This innovative project will use interactive art forms to convey science topics to museum visitors.

We’re well on our way to designing and implementing the first installations and performances next summer, and one component of our project includes “gathering baseline data” on what communities already know about the science of the waterways.

To gather this information, we’re conducting surveys at each site, having conversations with neighbors about places in their neighborhoods, and executing a long-term focus study with families. Though different from your typical university science study, it has been a great way to learn more about how social sciences study human behavior and change.

I’ve been lucky this summer to work with four interns on this portion of the project. David Ediger, Katie Waskom, Julia Wilson and Kevin Rex have all gone above and beyond in helping to administer and manage the survey process. I’m also pleased that they’ve been able to get out in the community, learn more about social science research, and help with the data crunching.

We have some great partners in this research as well – Johnny Fraser from New Knowledge Organization is our coach and champion.  Debbie Nichols, Jessica Murphy and Gabe Filippelli from IUPUI are also integral to our efforts. They organize our times out in the field, and analyze the data we gather. We are also becoming fast friends, as four hours together lends to many interesting conversations. I’m really proud to be part of a university partnership such as this.

One of the parts I most enjoy about this project is getting out to visit with neighborhood folks. Even when administering surveys, neighbors share their experiences, values and priorities of their communities. We get to learn about the places where we live and work, in partnership with neighbors. It’s a pretty rewarding part of the job, if you ask me.

Stay tuned for some exciting developments about this project in the coming months!

Molly Truebood is community organizer with the Center for Urban Ecology working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Reduce First, then Reuse, and Finally Recycle

by McKenzie Beverage

Consume lessThere is a lot of talk about recycling in Indianapolis right now. I have a love/hate relationship with recycling. While I love the fact that recycling keeps items out of a landfill (or incinerator in our case), I hate that it has the potential to help drive consumption of one-time-use products.

A friend of mine recently moved to Switzerland. When she first arrived she was provided with her city’s official recycling guide.* Here is a translated excerpt:

Cans of Food: Try to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables instead.

Household appliances: Before throwing it away: is that necessary?

Cars: Are you sure that your old car is no longer serviceable? Or do you just want a new model?

Paper towels: Often overused–try returning to the good old-fashioned dishcloth.

Disposable diapers: Here is another case where avoiding the use of something is better than disposing of it.  The routine use of disposable diapers on most babies today is one of the major causes of the growing refuse problem. Cloth diapers, while intensive in terms of human energy, are still cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Copying: Copy machines are paper eaters!  Do you really need a copy?

It is interesting to note that the guide had almost NO information on how to actually recycle. In a country that has one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive list of requirements for dog ownership, you would think that they would be more explicit about how to actually recycle.

The emphasis on using less seems like it does make an impact though. For example, Switzerland disposed of roughly 5.5 million tons of waste and recyclables in 2009. New York (a city of with a comparable population) disposed of 14 million tons. I realize this isn’t a completely fair comparison. New York is a densely populated city, Switzerland is a small country, and well, it’s Europe. But it’s difficult not to think that a single municipality would have an easier time with waste management and education than an entire country.

Even Switzerland’s recycling rate is higher. Their rates exceed 50 percent, while New York doesn’t even reach 20 percent. Nationally, the U.S. can only claim 34 percent, and Indianapolis is barely maintaining a 10 percent rate. So what’s the catch? Is “reduce and reuse” an ethos that is just embedded into Swiss culture? Feiock and Kalan would argue that higher recycling and lower trash rates in Switzerland are a result of the country’s higher income and education levels, not program design and environmentalism. Semenza et al would not disagree, but they would add that income and education differences are not an impediment to change with the appropriate policies in place and effective leadership.

Regardless, both Switzerland and New York (and the U.S. for that matter) still produce waste at a rate that is 32 times higher than developing countries. We live in an era of (perceived) plenty. We are a consumptive culture with a trash problem. As much as I love recycling, talking about recycling, advocating for recycling, I wish we didn’t have to recycle at all. I know that recycling is an industry and that industry creates jobs, and all of that contributes to our economy. I just wish it didn’t result in things like this. And I wish that our consumerism wasn’t based on a system that results in things like this.

Repeat it with me: Reduce first, then reuse, and finally recycle.

McKenzie Beverage is the sustainability coordinator for Butler University.

Invasion of the Lonicera maacckii!

by Kelly Harris

Little green men are not invading Indy, but a more covert green invader has infiltrated the city… Lonicera maacckii. With a name like that it might as well be from another planet.  Lonicera maacckii is the scientific name, but it’s also known as Amur or bush honeysuckle. Yes, honeysuckle, the sweet-smelling flowering bush has invaded Indy and many other cities across the eastern United States.

Ivy Tech View Before

View of Ivy Tech before removal of bush honeysuckle in 2012.

But this invasion shouldn’t be taken lightly. This aggressive, exotic plant causes ecological, economic and social impacts to the area it inhabits.

Bush honeysuckle is an exotic species because it’s native to central and northeastern China. It was first brought to the United States by a horticulturalist in 1896 and quickly became a popular ornamental plant due to its high flower and fruit production.

The eastern U.S. and China have a similar climate, which has enabled bush honeysuckle to naturalize (i.e., successfully reproduce in the wild of its non-native range) and spread. While the U.S. has the climate to allow bush honeysuckle to thrive, it does not have the same pest, diseases or predators to keep honeysuckle in check, thus, it has become invasive. Bush honeysuckle is especially pervasive in cities like Indianapolis for the bush honeysuckle prefers edge and disturbed habitats; this makes urban areas an ideal habitat.

Like many other invasive species, bush honeysuckle significantly impairs the health and integrity of the ecosystem it invades. In disturbed forest such as a floodplain or urban woodlot, bush honeysuckle will take over the understory by displacing the native shrubs, saplings and seedlings. It out-competes native plants because it leafs out earlier in the spring and retains them long in the fall. Bush honeysuckle also reduces the trees’ productivity and ability to regenerate by inhibiting seedling growth.

In addition, bush honeysuckle impacts wildlife by reducing the variety and quality habitat and food. Bush honeysuckle does produces an abundance of berries in autumn, but they are a poor food source for wildlife such as birds because they are high in carbohydrates but low in fat thus not providing the high-energy food source birds need to prepare for migration. This would be like eating a bunch of chips before you run a marathon!

After bush honeysuckle removal

View of Ivy Tech before after of bush honeysuckle in 2012.

In Indianapolis, bush honeysuckle is pervasive, especially along our waterways. It acts as a green wall usually hiding the waterway completely from view. In fall of 2012, this issue was put in the spotlight when the Reconnecting to Our Waterways initiative (in conjunction with Lilly Day of Service) executed a large-scale honeysuckle removal along Fall Creek.

The transformation was incredible. Not only did it improve the ecology of the area, but it also improved the aesthetics, provided an educational opportunity, connected people to the area and make them feel safer too.

Since then I have seen honeysuckle removal become top priority for communities and it has become something for people to rally around.

Kelly Harris, MSES/ MPA, is an Americorps SPEA-VISTA Fellow at the Center for Urban Ecology.


Five Rides in One

by Tim Carter

Summer Intern Bike Ride 2014Each summer, one of the first activities we do with all of the CUE interns is to take a bike ride from Butler to downtown Indianapolis and back to campus. What always amazes me is that even though it’s one ride, we encounter five distinct biking experiences.

Section 1: The Central Canal Towpath

The crushed limestone surface along the towpath reflects the character of the “natural” surroundings as you move south from Butler past the Indianapolis Museum of Art and through neighborhoods down to 30th Street. It’s like a glorified mountain trail without the mountains…clearly there is care taken to maintain it, but there are some potholes (“Hole!!” we yell back to the 13 riders with us that day) and elements of risk (don’t stare to long at the turtles or you’ll find yourself down a steep slope). This year we noted how the bridges across the canal stop after the IMA. Why is that? Why aren’t those neighborhoods connected like all the northern ones?

Section 2: The White River Trail

We transfer over to the White River trail at the south end of the towpath. The transition at 30th Street has been greatly improved since our first ride three years ago. At the Naval Armory, we now have our own isolated path that weaves up to the crossing. It’s not quite complete, but prior to this you risked your life to make this crossing.

Once you are south of the interchange it’s pretty smooth sailing until 16th street. The character of the White River trail feels like the embodiment of the post-industrial, Midwestern city. Kind of tired, a bit neglected, lots of space and potential, but with emerging signs of life (e.g., Stadium Loft apartments are the highlight). This stretch ends with a dramatic entrance into the core of the city as you cross Fall Creek, encounter the shiny new Eskenazi Health complex, and roll into White River State Park.

Section 3: The Cultural Trail

So much has already been written about the Cultural Trail and it’s all true – it’s an iconic, important and significant piece of Indy’s infrastructure. It functions very differently than the first two sections of our ride. This isn’t a transportation corridor; it’s a sense-fest with lot to see, smell, and hear. You’re in the heart of the city and you can feel its pulse. At every stop, there is a new feature to point out…there’s one of the rain gardens, here’s the electric car share station, here’s the Pacers bikeshare, that’s where the new transit center is going. The Cultural Trail connects in a way totally distinct from any other riding experience.

***intersession*** We lunch at City Market and take a quick tour of Big City Farms as a great example of how urban space can be shared efficiently. Surplus parking lot space = vegetable growing.

Section 4: The Monon Trail

We’re now headed home and the return loop has us on the north-south interstate of Indy bike paths, the Monon Trail. The Monon has the well-worn feel of your favorite pair of shoes. It’s comfortable, operating simply but effectively, and getting better use with age. We stop at the north crossing of Fall Creek and visualize how sweet it will be when the new section of Fall Creek trail connects with the southwest crossing we made during Section 2.

Section 5: City streets

If all riding were like this, we wouldn’t do the ride. Negotiating with cars, upsetting commuters, hitting stoplights. The contrast between this experience and the other sections couldn’t be greater. We’re operating in a foreign land and we’re not wanted. Our saving grace is the critical mass that we collectively form that makes us impossible to ignore. The width of 46th Street west of Meridian Street provides a welcome respite completing the loop back to Butler.

As we’ve written about before, experiencing the city on bike is a process of rediscovery. If you haven’t done it, do it. You’ll find that the place where you live is filled with special spots you’re overlooking every day.

Tim Carter is director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University.

Yes, But Can I Walk There?

by Molly Trueblood

WalkingMenHaving recently adopted a dog, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of taking lots of long walks around my neighborhood. I’ve never been that into walking, but it’s been a good change for me. I really enjoy getting to know the place around me, and the intimacy I’ve developed with my surroundings has made a big difference in the way I feel and care about the place.

Many places are walkable – cities are often filled with walkers, doing major moves with transit, then walking or biking to their destinations. Walkable environments are shown to be healthier, safer, and economically strong. Walking is our most human form of transportation – in fact, this form of transportation is one reason we evolved to be two-legged, big-brained animals. Walking on two legs helps us get around and see what’s going on (above the prairie grass, over the fence, up the tree over there).

Not that many people are walking these days, though. Walking a dog is one thing, but when was the last time you walked to work? Or to the store? To your parents house for Sunday dinner? Walking is a lost art – walking not just to get someplace, but to enjoy and to observe. Walking gives you opportunity to participate in your environment, to be present in your community. And, it just happens to be exercise (that we all could use a little more of).

If you’re wondering how far it is feasible for you to walk, check your walk score. Things like commuting time and access to resources determine your walk score. Then think about other places you go, and check their walk score – your place of worship, the grocery, the bank, etc. Consider different parts of town, like the Far Eastside, Haughville, Midtown. Think about what it would like to live there, and whether you could get around on foot, or – heaven forbid – without a car.

Now, go take a walk.

Molly Truebood is community organizer with the Center for Urban Ecology working on the the Indianapolis/City as a Living Laboratory (I/CaLL) project.

[Editor’s Note: Molly also loves bikes!]

Anticipating Summer: An Update from the Farm

by Tim Dorsey

cuebarnAfter a long harsh winter and an unpredictable spring, the heart of the growing season is certainly upon us at the CUE Farm. A few early, cold-hardy crops have come and gone, but mostly we’re in that sweet spot of having many of the spring crops available and the summer crops on their way. Our CSA and Thursday afternoon farm stand begin this week (June 5), and I know many other area farms have just begun or will soon. The wait is over!

Over the last few years we’ve been finding ways to utilize more and more of our available space at the farm. For us that includes new infrastructure and new crops.

Last year, we had completed a shade structure built from reclaimed and recycled materials, including a fabric roof repurposed from the RCA Dome and re-milled barnwood roofing members. Just before winter, a team of architecture students from Ball State University completed their design and implementation of a repurposed shipping container, transforming it on site into a classroom and resource center space, complete with furniture, a creative shade canopy, a rain-catchment system and a solar-powered fan to exhaust warm air from inside.

On the biological side, we’ve also planted some new perennial fruiting shrubs this spring with hopes of reaping their bounty in the years to come. Some folks will be familiar with Gooseberries. Many may not be so familiar with Seaberries, aka Sea Buckthorn. Both of these shrubs are a bit thorny but known for delicious fruit. Sea Buckthorn has recently been finding its way into North America from countries such as Russia, Germany and Norway as folks are becoming acquainted with its highly nutritious orange berries. Just as important, the plant is a legume and a soil-builder capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere (through a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria) for its own use as well as other plants nearby. It’s also extremely cold-hardy, down to -40 or -50 degrees F, and without many pest problems. If we can figure out a way to efficiently harvest while negotiating the thorns, it should be one of the more nutritious hedges in town.

Tim Dorsey is the CUE Farm manager.

CUE Loves Bikes

by Ryan Puckett

The Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University (CUE) is an inspirational place and I’ve had the pleasure of working with CUE for the past year. CUE is all about how our urban lives interact with the natural environment and how our city is an ecosystem unto itself.

As humans, one thing we can do to tread lightly on our local ecosystem is ride our bikes more. I realize that’s easier said than done. I, for one, have a newborn, a 4-year-old in daycare and consulting job that takes me all over the city. Try taking care of all that on two wheels!

But occasionally, I like to ride. I recently signed up for a Pacers Bikeshare membership – it’s a great way for me to travel throughout downtown (and the bikes are fun to ride too). From time to time, I also make my way to Gallahue Hall on the Butler campus via my humble, low-budget commuter bike.

The CUE staff member who really takes the cake on biking is the indomitable Molly Trueblood, local redhead celebrity and community organizer for the Indianapolis/City as Living Laboratory (I/CaLL) project.

Recently, Indy-based storyteller Tim Taylor directed a video of Molly’s bike habits and her mission to save the planet, one bike ride at a time. The timing of the video of Molly is great as May is National Bike Month. Established in 1956, National Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling — and encourage more folks to give biking a try. Check it out!

Others at the CUE are also passionate about about their ride. You’ll frequently find CUE Director Tim Carter about Midtown on bike during the summer and I’ve seen Travis Ryan, chair of the department of biological sciences, (un)locking up on campus and at Hubbard & Cravens. McKenzie Beverage, Butler’s first sustainability coordinator, can frequently be seen on her trusty Masi Speciale CX she’s named “Root Beer”.

When I asked McKenzie about her bike habits, here’s what she shared,

“I have been a bike commuter since I was in college. It started out of necessity because I lived in a college town but I quickly fell in love with it. I have lived close enough to campus or work that I’ve always been a year-round bike commuter although I admittedly drove to work quite a bit over this nasty winter because the roads weren’t clear and the temperatures were so extreme. Before moving to Indy, I was able to take a bus to work so this is the first year since college that I’ve relied so much on a car.

I commute by bike for so many reasons. It saves on gas, I get exercise, and it’s better for the environment. There are some more subtle reasons I ride too. I get to smell the wonderful spring blooms, hear kids playing during recess, and observe tiny interactions between people as I pass.”

Keeping with the Bike Month theme, local bike advocacy superheroes IndyCog are challenging Indy residents to participate in the National Bike Challenge and collectively reach a goal of 1 Million Miles in May.

And if you’re heading to ‘The Race” on Sunday, IndyCog has the skinny on how to ride to the Indy 500.

Ryan Puckett is the principal of TWO21 LLC and a communication consultant for the Center for Urban Ecology.