Combining Art and Science to Protect Urban Mangrove Forests
NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Fernando Bretos, Director of the Reclamation Project at Miami Science Museum.
Have you ever heard of a plant that can live in salt water? Mangroves defy common wisdom and thrive in saline, muddy and oxygen-poor environments. This makes them particularly important in coastal areas where they protect our coastlines from hurricanes and erosion, cleanse our air and water, and provide nutrients for associated plants and animals. Most importantly, through their long stilt-like roots, they provide shelter not only for fish, reptiles, mammals, birds and insects, but for underwater organisms as well. What other plant can provide food and shelter for such a wide spectrum of wildlife?
Located throughout the world in mostly tropical areas, mangroves aren’t very common in the United States. In fact, Red mangroves, the most salt tolerant of the three main mangrove species in the Western Hemisphere, grow only in southern Florida in the absence of prolonged cold snaps. In places like Miami, they thrive even in the most urbanized cityscapes. But what happens when we substitute these coastal habitats and the service they provide with asphalt and condominiums? In the hundred years since its founding, Greater Miami has developed faster than almost any other metropolitan area in the United States. As a result, South Florida’s canopy cover averages 10%, which is well below the national urban average of 30%.
Fortunately, as slow growing as they are, mangroves respond well to restoration efforts. However, effective restoration requires a large scale of volunteers to plant seedlings. From there, nature takes care of the rest. But how do you engage a transient metropolis with a multilingual and multicultural population, as well as millions of tourists to get involved in restoring these delicate habitats?
The Reclamation Project based at Miami Science Museum is a community based, participatory eco-art project that engages South Floridians to “reclaim” urban ecosystems through the universal appeal of art. The Project is the brainchild of local artist Xavier Cortada, who first painted mangrove seedlings along the columns of highway overpasses in 2004 as a metaphorical reclaiming of Miami by the mangrove seedlings that once thrived there. In 2006, a new iteration of this iconic art piece was born. Red mangrove propagules are collected by volunteers during their fruiting season every September. They are then exhibited inside clear plastic cups with tap water along a modernist grid on walls and windows of museums, retail stores and schools throughout South Florida. These conspicuous art installations help Miami residents imagine what the city looked like before the concrete was poured and inspire them to take action.
The art installations double as nurseries where the seedlings germinate just long enough to be replanted by volunteers. Once seedlings have been exhibited for a year, volunteers replant them in the summer rainy season at public lands cleared of invasive plants. This cycle constitutes a participatory “reclamation” of native habitats by volunteers. To date, 13,000 mangrove seedlings representing over eight acres of coastal habitat have been restored.
Since 2006, the program has touched the lives of thousands of Miami-Dade residents and tourists. Miami Science Museum, which hosts a 1,100 seedling exhibit, is the Project’s home. Thirty-five local schools have adopted installations and over 150 retail stores have exhibited mangrove seedlings on their storefronts. These installations engage and educate participants about South Florida’s unique urban ecosystems.
In 2010, the Reclamation Project received support from Audubon and Toyota’s TogetherGreen initiative, enabling the project to engage a greater number of volunteers in the plantings. Audubon and Toyota launched the TogetherGreen initiative to fund conservation projects, train environmental leaders, and offer volunteer and individual action opportunities that significantly benefit the environment. The Reclamation Project was then able to leverage the TogetherGreen funding to secure two federal grants totaling over $75,000 to restore other types of urban habitat in 2012, including a tropical hardwood hammock in northeast Miami-Dade County and the headwaters of the historic Oleta River.
Art is a powerful engagement tool that transcends language, culture or politics in ways that inspire and engage thousands of residents and tourists to create permanent change. Through participatory eco-art activities, these volunteers can stand up for nature and lend their effort to restoring the coastal habitats that serve us every day.
Mr. Bretos, a marine biologist, environmental educator and TogetherGreen Fellow, is the director of The Reclamation Project at Miami Science Museum. A community based participatory eco-art project, the Project empowers South Florida residents to restore urban coastal ecosystems, one seedling at a time.
Photo courtesy of TogetherGreen.