Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Gridlock: The problem with mass utlities


You’re driving down the road.  Or better yet, you’re driving sown a 6 lane Interstate.   After driving for hours through nothing but cornfields and powerlines, you come to an area with even larger powerlines.  Only in this area you don’t have any cornfields.   Instead you have cheaply constructed houses, gigantic strip malls with chain stores all lit up at 2am even though they’re closed.  Billboards, some with flashing electronic screens, tower above run down buildings and shipyards with overgrown weeds.  A rusty fenceline with barbed wire wrapped around it encompasses a landfill while a storm drain pipe leaks out green-ish water into a nearby channeled ditch.

To some, this may sound like a nightmare.  In fact, in reality this is becoming a very common site across the United States.  In this blog post, I’d like to reintroduce you to an aspect of our cities, towns, and everywhere in between that we frequently don’t even notice.  I’d like to present you a different view that may stand in contrast to what you hear in the news and from what you see on your utility bill.   I’ll then take you on a journey through the imaginations and dreams of future urban planners and land management professionals (such as myself).  Finally, I’ll propose some solutions and remedies that you can use starting NOW.


Have you ever noticed that neighborhoods that have lots of trees, parks, and historic buildings often have higher land values and are in communities that have a better economy (see Photo A) than those that have powerlines, billboards, or a busy interstate with ample light and noise pollution (see Photo B)?  Unless you  have been living in a cave, you probably have.

Photo A: Communities that have lots of trees and few visual obstructions often have higher land values and a more affluent community, like this neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA show here.

Photo B: Underdevelopment and lack of planning in may parts of the U.S. create an often bleak skyline. It also decreases land values and makes the environment harsher to live in.

But large and intrusive utilities don’t just create problems for quality of life for people; they create barriers to native plants and animals.  Large freeways, gas lines, sewage pipes, and other ‘grid utilities’ create a near ‘dead zone’ for natural ecosystems.  And yes, we rely on healthy ecosystems to keep our towns and lives running, even if we don’t think we do.

But how exactly do these utility lines affect the environment on a larger scale?  Take a look at Figure 1, which shows a hypothetical yet perhaps a common example of a natural ecosystem in the Northeastern United States.

Figure 1: A common scenario across the North American landscape. (A) A nature preserve surrounded by an intact natural ecosystem. Species diversity is normal. (B) Agricultural fields, a road, and the creation of a pond create a temporary increase in species diversity as the result of a more diverse landscape. (C) Species diversity starts declining as habitat is lost and remaining habitat becomes too small but for all of the most hardy plants and animals. (D) Development finally surrounded the entire nature preserve, and the nature preserve itself is no longer ecologically valuable. Species diversity is minimal or is dominated by urbanized life.

 At first, our protected nature preserve is surrounded by a continuous forest, with a small clearing that contains native prairie and meadow flowers and grasses that may have been created by Native Americans (Figure 1A).  A farmer decides then to buy some land in the area and he clears some trees to grow crops and creates a farm pond to catch runoff and for recreation (Figure 1B).  This actually adds to species diversity for some time.  Why?  Because the farmer introduced new habitats to the region that did not exist before which include a large open field and a pond.  However, growing competition in the agricultural world compels the farmer to add more crop land and to be compensated by the government by leasing is land for a new interstate highway (Figure 1C).  Species diversity begins declining rapidly, and plants and animals that do survive take refuge in the nature preserve.  But the nature preserve itself is only so large enough that it, too, begins a species diversity wipeout as development and all other remaining naturalized lands are converted to other uses (Figure 1D)

Guess what?  This sort of situation also adversely affects people.  Development often happens quickly with the idea of “fast cash.”  As a result, urban planning projects are often minimally funded and in some cases at all.  A clear-cut example is that most major roads and highways are not designed in a way that accommodates non-motorized traffic, forcing everyone to drive in their car to get to places, even places that are close by (Photo C).

Photo C: Most of our country's roads and highways are exclusive to cars and trucks, created large areas of land that are not safe or pleasant for people or wildlife such as this narrow and fast paced highway in Western Pennsylvania. Photo by Andrii Cherniak.

A Better Vision:  Sustainable Community Development

As far as roads go, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends road layouts to use traffic circle roundabouts to make a smoother turn onto new road.  They also recommend sidewalks, crosswalks with long timers, and pedestrian bridges to help walkers and bikers move across busy roads.  Many cities are also starting to construct light rails and trains that reduce our energy consumption and cost by provided a mass transit option for many people at once (Photo D).   Also, many cities and rural areas alike are creating greenbelts that connect cities, suburbs, and remote areas with a corridor of green space that serve as recreational connections and more contiguous wildlife habitat (Photos E and F).

Photo D: Many cities are constructing light rails and trains to safely and cost-effectively move people about. This train station in Indiana provides a refreshing and cheaper alternative to getting to Chicago, IL without having to battle traffic on the adjacent Indiana Toll Road (I-90).

Photo E: Urban greenbelts, such as this bike trail near downtown Chicago, help reconnect cities with nature and provide a pleasant commuter experience in an urban area. This photo os of Chicago's Lakefront Trail, where the Chicago Park District has been restoring native prairies, savannas, and dunes along its urbanized waterfront.

Photo F: Many greenbelts now extend well into rural and remote areas, enhancing quality of life by creating scenic vistas along rivers and gorges and preserving valuable plant and wildlife habitat. This photo is of the Adena Recreation Trail along the North Fork of Paint Creek near Chillicothe, Ohio.

It should be noted that protected natural areas also help absorb and filter pollutants and slow the rush of water during storms and blizzards (Photo G).

Photo G: The grassy area in front of this building is a ditch filled with native flowers and grasses that help this office complex in Indianapolis, IN control runnoff and snowmelt, preserve water quality, and create urban wildlife habitat. Permeable (water absorbing) pavement lies in the foreground.

Conclusion:  What you can do

Remember, mass utilities, although necessary and intuitive in most of are minds, can cause environmental problems and can negatively affect human life.  However, there are things we can do to mitigate this inherent dilemma.   The list below can perhaps get you started, even if you are already on a tight schedule.

  • Roads, interstates, and highways.  Pros:  Creates an efficient means of transportation around town and around the country for long distances and extending even into remote areas with an intuitive layout.  Cons: Destroys wetlands and wildlife habitat.  Contributes to smog and global warming.  Creates noises and light that can disrupt REM sleep.  Roads in the United States are not often designed to accommodate pedestrians.  What you can do:  Drive less often or combine trips if possible.  Support politicians who favor using highway construction funds to help build bike lanes and recreation trails.  Pass levies and other voter approved issues to enhance or create public Transportation.  Join our encourage your city council members or township board to create sidewalks  or zone roads to have wide shoulders to make it safer for people and wildlife.  

Powerlines.  Pros:  Provides sufficient electricity cheaply and effectively to people in urban and rural areas alike.  Cons:  People cannot always afford to pay their utility bills.  Above ground powerlines are easily damaged and can become dangerous during severe weather or when tree limbs fall.  Creates an eye sore on the landscape.  Powerline corridors often disrupt natural ecosystems, and many weeds such as Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) can spread to neighboring forests and farmlands making it difficult to control (Photo H).  

Photo H: Myself mowing a near monoculture of Canada Thistle that has come to dominate some fields in a park. Photo by Dafna Reiner. National Park Service.

What you can do: Support politicians who favor renewable energy that can reduce the amount of powerlines we need.  Encourage local power companies to build underground powerlines.  If you have time on your hands and money, learn to generate your own power and being getting yourself “off the grid.”  Encourage friends and family members to turn off the lights and lower the heat so that energy demands to not become excessive.  Trim trees and other vegetation so that they do not damage power utilities.  Demand that power companies control exotic and invasive vegetation on their power line right-of-ways.

Gas lines:  Pros:  Provides sufficient electricity cheaply and effectively to people in urban and rural areas alike.  Cons:  Leaks can contaminate ground water and harm wildlife.  Risk of large-scale explosions possible.  People cannot always afford to pay for their utilities.  What you can do:  Support politicians who demand rigorous regulations for gas utility safety.  Encourage your gas companies to avoid building gas lines in sensitive natural areas.


2 responses to “Gridlock: The problem with mass utlities

  1. Dad August 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Lovely exposition–with a little editing it would be a nice “opinion” piece for the local paper. Why not?

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