When Green Is Brown

LONDON. CAIRO. AUSTIN. Three great cities that offer world-class birdwatching — at the municipal sewage lagoons. But the facility at Hornsby Bend in Austin is more than a birding site. In 1987 the city developed the first program in Texas to compost sewage sludge and yard waste, saving over $600,000 a year in landfill costs while creating a useful product. And to Kevin Anderson, it smelled like home.

Raised on a small farm in Pennsylvania, Anderson was accustomed to earthy sights and smells. As a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Texas, he discovered Hornsby Bend and eventually was hired by the city to coordinate education programs there. Orion spoke with him from his office at the Center for Environmental Research.

What was going on at Hornsby Bend when you got involved?

KEVIN ANDERSON: In 1996 there was a controversy between the local Audubon Society, whose members had been coming to these sewage ponds since 1959, and the Austin Water Utility that managed the facility, because the utility was planning to close down the lagoon with the best shorebird habitat at the site.

So what happened?

I was put on this stakeholder committee — I represented people from the University of Texas who enjoyed Hornsby. The birders saw this as an issue about birds and the utility people saw this as an issue about their treatment plant. I was the person in the middle who said, I think this is about community. We all like Hornsby Bend, so what can we do as a community for this place? The project we came up with was a feasibility study for putting in a trail system that would educate birdwatchers about the treatment ponds, safety issues, and why this place was important to Austin.

Did that change the lagoon debate?

It did help the utility to think more holistically. We rechristened the stakeholder committee the Hornsby Bend Partnership, and a large part of it was building relationships. The utility changed the way the lagoon was managed, and within a few years we were building trails on Saturdays with at-risk high school kids from the Austin Youth River Watch program, plus some birders and folks from the utility. We just kept that community notion central. We weren’t going to pay someone else to build the trails. We wanted to do this ourselves. We’ve always done projects with as little money as possible. The more money you get, the more complications.

And there are quite a few projects!

There’s the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, Austin to Bastrop River Corridor Partnership, Texas Riparian Association, plus the Austin Biodiversity Project, EcoHouses Project, and TreeFolks, an urban tree-planting group. We have been doing this ten years and it seems like every year new groups get involved.

Strategically, I just try to form partnerships, get people talking. So often, people launch out on projects that could benefit from involving someone just down the road, but they never think of it, or are too busy.

What makes the center unique?

We are unique because we do composting, we have treatment lagoons, a farm, and a research and education center, all on 3.5 miles of the Colorado River coming out of Austin. And of course there’s the wonderful irony that this is all at the sewage farm.

We always explain to people that we are microbe farmers. Those odors are bacteria communicating to you. To get a group of birdwatchers, Audubon folks, to clue in to the world’s microfauna is really important. The most biologically diverse ecosystem on Earth is soil, not the rainforest, and we should love that. When people ask me about being green, my response is, I don’t know what that is. I’m brown.

How important is volunteer power to your programs?

I’m the only staff here so almost everything we do is based on volunteers. I don’t have a volunteer coordinator and little caps and the things that sustain other volunteer programs, but what I do have is this really special place where folks can learn about local ecology — riparian ecology, soil ecology, avian ecology — and share that knowledge. There’s a core group of people who love walking around Hornsby Bend with groups of fourth and fifth graders. And for eight years now people show up at 6:30 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month for our bird survey. We also do a hawk watch — the only one north of the coast in Texas. The other resource we have is students, of course. Austin has a lot of undergraduates who come here to get field experience. The only thing I require in exchange is that they mentor younger students.

How did the center get started?

When the city built the composting facility they included a research and education center — it has offices and labs and an auditorium — but it had never been used. After we’d been doing projects here on a volunteer basis, the city asked if I’d be interested in running this thing. In January 2000 I became coordinator and redefined the mission as research and education about urban ecology and sustainability — which of course is so broad that we could do whatever we wanted!

What is urban ecology?

If we think about a city as a mammal colony, it gives us a perspective on how the city could function sustainably. We’re colonial nesting mammals and we call our colonies cities. We have to start to understand what the nutrient cycles of the city are and how its hydrological cycle works, as you would with any ecosystem, and then begin to adjust those cycles to make them more functional.

Most people see the city as being the opposite of nature.

The city is always defined as being artificial — that which is not nature. Given that kind of framing, you immediately devalue what’s happening in cities. In cities I’ve lived in, I’ve always been drawn not to parks and preserves, but to what’s right outside my own door. As a poor graduate student that meant alleyways and railroad tracks — what in England they call unofficial countryside. I call it marginal nature. Typically these places aren’t managed with nature in mind, yet nature thrives there. The assemblage of organisms you find is cosmopolitan, like a city. It’s nonnative species, the foreigners, who have moved in there, and that to me is just so interesting. Restoration ecologists want to go in to these places and kill things. But if you look at them just as they are, it produces a whole series of questions about our notion of ourselves, of nature, of cities, of what is native.

So you’re still a philosopher?

Actually, I jumped out of philosophy. Now I am finishing up a dissertation in geography — it’s on this notion of marginal nature.

What part of your work do you find the most personally satisfying?

A diverse group of high school students — white, black, and Hispanic — came out to visit today. They never knew these sewage ponds existed. They got off the bus and screamed about the smell. And then they saw that the finished compost was going to the farm here at Hornsby, and that’s a place where the city gets its food. They made the connection. Two hours later they were saying, this is kind of cool. It stinks, but it’s cool.