Final Report: Enhancing Urban Sustainability through the Application of Permaculture Principles

EPA Grant Number: SU834337
Title: Enhancing Urban Sustainability through the Application of Permaculture Principles
Investigators: Reyes, Manuel , Alvarez, Carlos Montoya , Carter, Scott , Hayes, Randall , Higgs, Kori , Young, Carmen
Institution: North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2009 through August 14, 2010
Project Amount: $10,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2009) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Agriculture , P3 Challenge Area - Water , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability

Objective:

(People): The western bias of an ideal landscape generally consists of a manicured lawn with exotic vegetation. The manicured lawn encourages heavy water use, energy, labor, fertilizer consumption (Bloch, 2007) and habitat loss for endemic wildlife (Moorman and Christopher, 2006). Changes made through permaculture will not be in line with this current bias. Permaculture upholds the use of endemic vegetation and a tiered natural landscaping of several layers identified as the canopy, low tree layer (dwarf fruit trees), shrubs, herbaceous rhizosphere (root crops), soil surface (cover crops), vertical layer (climbers, vines), and mycosphere (fungi). Plants grow at different heights allowing a diverse community of life to grow in a relatively small space. Plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year providing habitat and food for wildlife (NAPI, 2005). Our team intends to reorient the bias of manicured turf lawns to a well rounded permaculture landscape with endemic, fruiting plant species

(Planet): In urban environments, impervious surfaces such as parking lots, sidewalks, and roofing increases runoff from rainfall events and prevents infiltration of rainwater into soils. The runoff on campus can contain pollutants like gasoline, antifreeze, oil, and rubber, from impervious surfaces, and fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from lawns (NCDWQ, 1999). The current lawn system is a poor filter for runoff before it enters the city storm water sewer systems (MSSC, 2008). To increase infiltration and filter out environmental pollutants, we intend to use a rain garden (Dietz and Clausen, 2006) and native vegetation in a permaculture system (Barten, 2001). Over time, organic residue will build-up, causing an expected increase in the earth worm population (Kladivko, 1993) which will further improve the soil’s infiltration capacity (Zachman et al., 1987) causing more contaminants to be filtered out, resulting in cleaner groundwater

(Prosperity): Is permaculture economical? Our team is confident that we can demonstrate that permaculture system will be more cost effective than conventional turf lawn landscaping systems. Permaculture will:

Save energy by eliminating the need for continual use of lawnmowers, weed eaters, aerators, and edge trimmers;

Save on municipal water use for irrigation through rain-water harvesting, the use of endemic and drought-resistant plant species (Barten, 2001), and the use of a renewable organic residue cover to retain soil moisture from evaporation, allowing more plant available water;

Save on pesticide use because a planting a diverse variety of endemic plant species. Endemic plants will attract beneficial insects which keep pests in check (Eigenbrode, 1994);

Save on mulching and fertilizing costs because the plant residues from the endemic plants will be left in the rain garden. Over time these residues will decompose and the nutrients will recycle back into the soils (Wagger et al., 1998);

Save on labor costs due to the reduction in mowing, fertilization, mulching and other intensive maintenance requirements which are required in the conventional monoculture turf lawns, and because this is taking place at our university, students will provide mandatory volunteered labor to maintain the permaculture site, because community service learning is required at NC A&T to graduate.

By changing the designs of our landscaping from manicured turf lawns to permaculture we are not only improving the quality of the environment we live in but also improving our fresh water surface and ground supplies. The permaculture design helps to naturally filter rainfall runoff water before it seeps into the ground water, directed into the local rivers and streams through storm water sewer systems, or sent to water treatment plants. Our design an inexpensive and cost effective model that has benefits that far out way the challenges of switching from manicured turf lawns or impervious landscaping at all to permaculture.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

In our Phase I grant proposal we stated our first course of action was to establish a base line of the current conditions around Sockwell Hall. The base line measurement has provided us the knowledge of how the traditional lawn works on a biological, hydrological, social, pedological and ecological level. With this knowledge established and understood, we are able to selectively change various aspects of the Sockwell Hall lawn area at NCA&T campus to the permaculture principles we have developed.

First, the hydrological cycle around Sockwell, during a rain fall event, we can reduce the runoff from the roof of Sockwell Hall from 100% to 0% runoff volume, by diverting all the runoff water from running directly into storm water sewers into a rainwater collection system with rain barrel. When the rain barrels fill up, the excess will flow directly into the rain garden/bioretention cell. The garden/cell is strategically place in at the lowest elevation of the Sockwell lawn, allowing runoff from nearby sidewalks and lawns to flow into the garden. Our current estimates will reduce the overall rainfall runoff from the Sockwell Hall area by 64.2%. The excess runoff that escapes the garden will be filter through the bioretention media, pulling out possible contaminants before it flows into the storm sewers and into local rivers and streams. By placing an under drain system at the very bottom of the excavated bioretention cell, rainwater must seep through four feet of porous media that will separate nitrogen, phosphorous, heavy metals and organic contaminates from the runoff that enters the cell, resulting in clean water, percolating into the ground water or flowing into storm sewers.

By measuring the current conditions of the soils around Sockwell Hall we understand how rain water infiltrates into the soils and how well the soils filter out contaminates. The current conditions are in a poor state, with highly compacted clay soils, very little rainwater infiltrates the ground, a low hydraulic conductivity, meaning water that infiltrates does not percolates down very fast, and large amounts of fertilizers are need for a lush lawn. By excavating a 700 ft2 area to a depth of 4 ft and replacing the clay loam soils with a highly porous, recycled aggregate from Stalite Aggregates, and organic compost we have increase the infiltration rates for the bioretention area by 68%. The Stalite aggregates are environmentally neutral and inert with a high permeability. This will separate contaminates mentioned above and hold them in place until microorganisms can use them up. The aggregates possess high By measuring the current conditions of the soils around Sockwell Hall we understand how rain water infiltrates into the soils and how well the soils filter out contaminates. The current conditions are in a poor state, with highly compacted clay soils, very little rainwater infiltrates the ground, a low hydraulic conductivity, meaning water that infiltrates does not percolates down very fast, and large amounts of fertilizers are need for a lush lawn. By excavating a 700 ft2 area to a depth of 4 ft and replacing the clay loam soils with a highly porous, recycled aggregate from Stalite Aggregates, and organic compost we have increase the infiltration rates for the bioretention area by 68%. The Stalite aggregates are environmentally neutral and inert with a high permeability. This will separate contaminates mentioned above and hold them in place until microorganisms can use them up. The aggregates possess high

The biological and ecological characteristics of the tradition lawn system go hand in hand. We conducted earthworm counts and are awaiting the results from microorganisms’ counts, and found a lone number of earth worms, roughly 2-3 per ft2. Although we must wait to recount earth worms and microorganisms we have theorized that by planting a diverse range of endemic plants those numbers will increase drastically. Earthworms will provide nutrients to plants, replacing the need for fertilizers and worms and microbes will decompose and consume dead organic matter, such as leaf litter from the seasonal growth cycles of perennials, shrubs and trees. By keeping that organic matter in the rain garden those nutrients will be recycled at the source, reducing the need for fertilizers to 0%. As for larger animals, it is very apparent that the traditional lawn does not provide a habitat for small mammals, birds or insects. The planting of diverse endemic plant species we will create a suitable habitat with a renewable food source for local birds to return to campus. Small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels will be encouraged to visit Sockwell to feed on various berries and seeds. And beneficial insect populations will increase and discourage the populations of pests.

Lastly, the social aspects of the rain garden will be monitored over a three year period, as students cycle through the university we will take regular surveys of the aesthetic opinions of our permaculture area, compared to the traditional lawn system and a brick landscaping area close by. Currently the surveys we have collected show no opinion either way towards like or dislike of the traditional lawns system. We believe everyone has grown up with a traditional lawn, and it is considered standard, practice. Once our rain garden is complete and the fruiting plants are established and productive that opinion will change towards an acceptance of permaculture and eventually using permaculture to develop an aesthetically pleasing landscape will become the norm.

The current condition tests are mandatory in effectively determining if the permaculture landscape practices are more beneficial than those being used now. However, an extended period of time must elapse before future tests can be preformed, when the permaculture has been implemented and given time to equilibrate we will then be able to tell if our goals and objectives from Phase I have been met.

Conclusions:

We have reached the conclusion that in the long run our permaculture design will benefit the people, the planet and provide prosperity for all. Once the endemic fruiting plants have established themselves in our rain garden the people will benefit from the production of a renewable food source grown locally for all students to pick from, as well as providing a nice place to relax when the stress of school becomes overwhelming. The planet will benefit because we are cleaning pollutants human activities in the area that are collected by rainfall runoff. We will help replenish the ground water tables and send clean water into our local rivers and streams. Also we are providing a suitable habitat for wildlife to return to the campus. And prosperity for the university by cutting labor, energy, water, and fertilizer cost, providing a sustainable habitat for others to learn from and a model to spread around to the local community and other universities within the North Carolina School System.

We cannot provide conclusive evidence that this project has succeeded at this point in time, however the students and faculty are confidence that we are succeeding and we will provide the data to the university and EPA in the future when our system has reached a point of equilibrium and growth. Future students will be required to maintain our permaculture design and promote a sustainable growth of the permaculture principles to spread over the NC A&T campus, the local and international community by creating partnerships that will expand our knowledge base and promote collaborations between school systems and countries.

This project has included many parts and people. At least 40 people from five different organizations such as the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers, the Horticulture department, the Natural Resource Department, and the NCA&T Accounting and Facilities. We have coordinated and cooperated in working conjunctively to make this project a reality, without external funding. We have only used the funding provided by the EPA in Phase I of the P3 Grant. The different disciplines and departments that contributed to the overall permaculture design each pulled their own individual weight in the knowledge base that each was suited best in. When questions were raised in one area, cooperation between the different knowledge bases was created to constructively create a positive and sustainable solution to promote our ideas of permaculture are best we could.

Supplemental Keywords:

sustainability, ecosystem services, soil quality

Relevant Websites:

School of Agriculture – NCA&T – ‘On the Move' (PDF) Exit

P3 Phase II:

Enhancing Urban Sustainability through the Application of Permaculture Principles  | 2011 Progress Report