Ecosystem services are things that the environment gives to us for free. The Half-Pint Urban Prairie is in a busy area of UT, right next to the Student Service Building. Hundreds of people walk past it every day, and while they may not realize it, it is having an impact on our campus. Here is a list of just a few of the things it offers.

Improve Well-Being

Studies show that contact with nature during work reduces stress and health complaints.1 Exposure to green spaces is also linked to higher quality of life2, 3 and improved social cohesion.3 The Half-Pint Urban Prairie is located on campus next to the Student Services Building. Part of the reason we put it in such a well-trafficked area is to maximize the number of people who come into contact with it. We expect the prairie to help build a positive campus climate and make life better for all students at UT.

Sustainable Landscaping

Lawns are the single largest irrigated crop in the United States. They cover three times more area than the next largest one and consume as much fertilizer per acre. In most of the United States, landscaping accounts for one half to three quarters of all home water use.4 As our population continues to grow and climate change makes rainfall more unpredictable, we will have to take greater measures to conserve water. One way is to grow native plants. Pocket prairies, for example, require no irrigation and and minimal fertilizer once established. They also provide habitat for pollinators and other native species. Half-Pint is our campus’s first pocket prairie, and it serves as an environmentally conscious and low-maintenance landscaping model for others to follow.

Support Pollinators

Many of our native insects, especially butterflies and moths, are “specialists,” meaning that they can only get food from a few species of plants.5 A well-known example is the monarch butterfly; its caterpillars can only eat milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). Still, there are many other lesser-known specialists who all depend on their own unique host plant. At least 25 different species of native plants will reside on our prairie once it is completed. It will serve as a refuge for many specialists whose hosts have been displaced by urbanization and landscaping.

Reduce the Urban Heat Island

Impervious surfaces, such as concrete and blacktop, absorb more heat than natural surfaces. As a result, the interior of many cities is often much hotter than its surroundings. This is known as the urban heat island effect.6 The urban heat island in Austin is so severe that by 2050, even without considering the effects of climate change, development alone could raise the temperature of downtown by up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. The City of Austin, however, has plans to combat the heat island. One of its main strategies is to create more green spaces.7 Green spaces both reduce the extent of impervious cover and provide a cooling effect due to evapotranspiration.8 Although small, the Half-Pint Urban Prairie is in a heavily developed area of campus with few large trees. We hope it provides a welcome relief from a sea of hot asphalt during the warm months.

References

1Bjørnstad, S., Patil, G. G., & Raanaas, R. K. (2016). Nature contact and organizational support during office working hours: Benefits relating to stress reduction, subjective health complaints, and sick leave. Work, 53(1), 9–20. https://doi.org/10.3233/WOR-152211

2McFarland, A. L., Waliczek, T. M., & Zajicek, J. M. (2008). The Relationship Between Student Use of Campus Green Spaces and Perceptions of Quality of Life. American Society for Horticultural Science.

3Netta Weinstein, Andrew Balmford, Cody R. DeHaan, Valerie Gladwell, Richard B. Bradbury, & Tatsuya Amano. (2015). Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, 65(12), 1141–1153. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biv151

4C. Milesi, C. D. Elvidge, J. B. Dietz, B. T. Tuttle, R. R. Nemani, and S. W. Running. (2005). A STRATEGY FOR MAPPING AND MODELING THE ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF US LAWNS, ISRPS.

5HOSTS – a Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

6What is an urban heat island? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://climatekids.nasa.gov/heat-islands/

7Freezing the Urban Heat Island Effect. (2015, August 6). Retrieved from http://www.sws.ci.austin.tx.us/blog/freezing-urban-heat-island-effect

8Zhang, G., He, B., Zhu, Z., & Dewancker, B. J. (2019). Impact of Morphological Characteristics of Green Roofs on Pedestrian Cooling in Subtropical Climates. Impact of Morphological Characteristics of Green Roofs on Pedestrian Cooling in Subtropical Climates, 16(2). doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f