UC students in environmental studies tackle local green issues

Local topics include green space, invasive species and wildlife habitat

If all politics is local, perhaps all environmental issues are as well.

Birds in a nearby park, public perceptions on green space or goats as landscapers: University of Cincinnati students in environmental studies tackled all those issues and more for a writing project.

“We had a strong desire to incorporate an advanced writing class in an environmental studies program,” said Bob Hyland, associate professor educator in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

As a result of that final writing project, UC students uncovered some interesting and even controversial issues in Cincinnati relating to pollution, invasive species and wildlife habitat.

The students presented their findings to UC faculty and members of the public, including some Cincinnati officials who attended.

Here are a few of their projects that touched on local environmental issues:

A sparrow perches on a railing on UC's uptown campus.

UC environmental studies students compared habitat provided in an urban landscape to a wooded one by conducting a daily birding survey on UC's uptown campus and on a trail in Burnet Woods. Photo/UC Creative + Brand

Where the birds are

Several groups focused on issues relating to Burnet Woods, a 90-acre Cincinnati park adjacent to UC’s Uptown campus. One compared the urban landscape of UC’s campus to the mature oak forest, which is considered an important bird area by the National Audubon Society because of its value as a spring and fall oasis for migrating birds that rest and feed there.

Students collected their own data by simply going birding over a series of mornings on designated routes in the park and on campus and recorded what birds they heard or saw each day. Surprisingly, the students initially found more birds on campus than on the upland trail they picked in the park, possibly because the birds were much harder to observe in the tall canopy of mature forest. But eventually, the park’s numbers surpassed those found on campus.

“I’ve lived in Cincinnati for five or six years and Burnet Woods has been my local park. I’ve hiked those trails hundreds of times. It becomes personal to me,” UC environmental studies student Lauren Williams said.

My team worked great together. It’s been an awesome experience.

Bree Lyons, Environmental studies student

The park has been the occasional target of development, most recently when the Clifton Cultural Arts Center proposed building an arts center there. The plan was rejected in 2018 after opponents argued against destroying valuable wildlife habitat.

“If you look at the history of Burnet Woods, it’s just been getting smaller and smaller,” Williams said. “Still, people want to develop what little is left.”

UC student Bree Lyons said she learned new skills relating to geographic information systems and earned a deeper appreciation for nature.

“My team worked great together. It’s been an awesome experience,” she said.

A goat.

UC environmental studies students examined the efficacy of using domesticated goats to eradicate invasive species. Photo/Anna Farbror/Wikimedia Commons

Eating the competition

Another project examined a novel way to address invasive species such as English ivy, multiflora rose and Amur honeysuckle, which can outcompete native plants. Eradicating nonnative plants or noxious plants like poison ivy by hand or using heavy equipment can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. And some herbicides can be toxic to beneficial plants.

UC students looked at whether using domestic goats could address the problem one bite at a time.

“Goat landscaping seems like an out-there solution,” UC student Nicholas Ferraro said. “But every single remediation solution has its own issues.”

The students conducted a literature review to see what, if any, research had been done on the topic.

“We found a lot of research about herbicides and using heavy equipment, but there isn’t a lot of literature on goats being used for invasive species control,” UC environmental studies student Lauren Pasion said. 

UC student Taylor Ross spent the summer working with a farming contractor that deploys goats for landscaping in areas that are difficult for heavy equipment to reach without causing widescale damage.

A suburb of Cincinnati introduced 16 goats from the contractor to a public park. The goats received supplemental food and water, but they were free to eat the ground cover to their heart’s content in a wide forested area circled with temporary goat fencing.

Students found that the goats successfully browsed down the unwelcome vegetation in the local park. But using goats was more expensive than other eradication methods. And depending on the time of year, the goats often eat native plants as well.

Pasion said goat landscaping might be most effective in the fall when many native plants are dormant but invasive species such as English ivy and Amur honeysuckle are still green — and apparently delicious.

Students wearing face masks stand in front of their poster in a UC lecture hall.

UC environmental studies students surveyed residents in Cincinnati about green space in their neighborhood. They found most people though there were not enough parks and playgrounds for children. Photo/Michael Miller

Green space and public health

UC students surveyed residents of Lincoln Heights to learn more about public perceptions of parks, playgrounds and other open spaces in this suburban village outside Cincinnati.

Having ready access to green spaces has been linked to good mental and physical health. UC students wanted to learn more about how residents felt about the village’s offerings. They created and circulated a 17-question survey about public attitudes toward green space within the framework of a community needs assessment.

The survey found that 40% of respondents said their community had poor public health. Another 60% said they don’t take advantage of the village’s available parks or green spaces and an equal percentage said they spend less than one hour per week engaged in outdoor physical activity.

But nobody surveyed thought the village had a sufficient amount of parks, playgrounds or public open space. Residents said the top needs were more playgrounds, picnic areas and ballfields.

Hand-drawn UC signs at a park say free food and games and UC community health survey.

UC environmental studies students hosted a picnic to kick off a public health survey about green space in Lincoln Heights. Photo/Provided

Attitudes toward pollution

For another project, students surveyed residents in a suburb of Cincinnati to collect public perceptions about a nearby steel mill that has been the subject of pollution complaints and lawsuits by neighbors.

The AK Steel plant is one of Cincinnati’s biggest emitters of pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory.

“We tried to quantify what residents said to see if there was a difference in how much people agreed or disagreed that pollution was affecting their lives based on where they lived in relation to the plant,” UC student Sydney St. Rose-Finear said.

The students hosted a public picnic at a park north of Cincinnati that attracted dozens of residents to kick off their project. And they circulated a 17-question survey.

“They all know they live near the steel plant. They get soot on their cars,” St. Rose-Finear said. “You can hear the steel plant operate. It’s intense. To live with that every day, it’s a lot.”

While people who lived closest to the plant had the strongest perceived health risk to living near it, students found that a resident’s proximity to the plant wasn’t particularly significant.

Despite so many looming environmental crises around the world, the UC students said they remained optimistic they could help find solutions and improve people’s lives.

“I’ll be the optimist,” Ferraro said. “Sometimes I wonder how we’ll solve global problems individually. But big changes will come. Until then, you focus on the little things you can do to help.”

Featured image at top: UC's uptown campus at dawn. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

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