Digging Deep

The sites include public green spaces and art installations in downtown Asheville, but the designers are still in school. Five UNC Asheville students who received the prestigious McCullough Fellowship spent the summer and fall of 2017 exploring many facets of sustainability, from urban gardening to managing stormwater and revitalizing areas of downtown Asheville. The McCullough Fellowship funded the students’ research, connecting them with faculty members and community partners and allowing them to engage in long-term, meaningful projects with real impact.

“This is a shining example of the relevancy of the liberal arts to what we do every day,” said Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo at the annual McCullough Fellows luncheon celebrating the fellows’ work. Urgo recognized community partners RiverLink, City of Asheville, American Chestnut Foundation, Villagers, Asheville Design Center, Asheville Greenworks, and UNC Asheville staff and faculty advisors.

“The students really get a lot of opportunity to share with the community and demonstrate their leadership and the incredible command they have of the subject area they’ve invested so much time in,” said Sonia Marcus, director of sustainability at UNC Asheville. The students were also able to work together and share with each other the projects they had been working on.

“This is sustainability teaching and learning the way it should really be done,” Marcus said.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Delandra Clark, an engineering major, focused on providing native plant gardening workshops to the community with her community partner, Villagers, an urban homestead supply store in West Asheville. Native plants provide a host of benefits to their environments, including good food supplies and habitat for native birds, bees and butterflies. Invasive plants—even beautiful ones commonly found in plant nurseries—can upset the balance of the local ecosystem by driving out Delandra Clarknative plants, without providing for the native fauna.

Clark started her research by seeking out native in plants in local nurseries. While she did find a few nurseries that carried local plants, she had to travel to multiple nurseries to find everything on her list. “If you’re a conscientious gardener, and a busy gardener, it can be pretty frustrating,” Clark said. Through her McCullough Fellowship, Clark helped introduce native plants into the inventory at Villagers, something customers there frequently asked about. She also organized two workshops on native gardening and pollinator-friendly gardening with local experts, and created a native and pollinator plant brochure.

The Art of Sustainability

Dale Wright, a new media major, worked with Asheville Design Center to develop a plan and design interactive art installations for Carolina Lane, on the northern edge of downtown Asheville. The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design—a UNC Asheville partner—plans to open a new maker space in the basement of their building on Broadway in downtown Asheville, which will open out into Carolina Lane—also known as “Chicken Alley.” Wright’s work centered on re-envisioning this alley to make it interactive, beautiful and safe. She focused on historical research and community engagement to ensure the project would be relevant and serviceable to the community as it moves forward.

Urban sustainability was especially interesting to Wright. “Urban areas kind of seem like the opposite of environmentalism as a concept, they’re the most human modulated, controlled environment that we have in the world,” Wright said. “But it’s actually one of the most efficient ways to live per capita.” As the world population continues to expand, Wright explained, it will become more and more important to have dense, livable and efficient cities in order to limit environmental damage.

After the Storm

Environmental studies major Alex Blue partnered with RiverLink to examine stormwater management on the Givens Estate campus in South Asheville. Urbanized environments with impermeable surfaces lead to increased runoff from stormwater, Blue explained, which ends up in the waterways. This is problematic, especially when the stormwater carries sediment with it into the rivers and streams. “Sediment is dangerous for a variety of reasons,” Blue said. “As it flows over Alex Blueimpervious surfaces it can pick up different pollutants like heavy metals, grease and car oil. And when those pollutants hit the rivers, it becomes detrimental to any recreational user of the river...but it’s also detrimental to the aquatic health of our animals.”

With grant funding from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Blue and RiverLink gathered data on stormwater runoff on Givens Estates, and then develop best management practices to help decrease that runoff and erosion. “This data can be used for water quality practitioners across the city and across Western North Carolina to optimize stormwater control measures for other watersheds similar to Asheville’s,” Blue said.

Saving the American Chestnut

Environmental studies major Sam Stanley partnered with the American Chestnut Foundation in their efforts to save the blighted tree species. Before the American chestnut was devastated by a blight introduced to the United States from Chinese chestnut nursery stock, humans, wildlife and livestock all benefited from the tree, Stanley said. Their decline reshaped the forests of Appalachia. Stanley worked with the American Chestnut Foundation to screen and breed chestnut trees for resistance to blight. They did this through a system called “backcross breeding.”

“With this approach, you start with simple hybridization, then you take those offspring, and you screen them for resistance to blight. So now you have a tree that is half American, and resistant to blight,” Stanley explained.” Cross it again with a pure American tree to weed out some of those extra genes, and take that hybrid, and screen it for blight again.” The process is repeated three times, until you have a tree that is seven-eights American chestnut, and resistant to the blight—and then you breed those offspring together.

It sounds simple. For Stanley, it meant physically pollinating the trees by removing “catkins,” or the male flowers on a chestnut tree before the female flowers are receptive to pollination. A few days later when the flowers were receptive to pollen, Stanley could pollinate them with the pollen from blight-resistant trees. It’s a difficult process. But the most physically challenging part of the project, Stanley said, was scouting the mountains for pollen and seeds—but also the most fun. “I got to hang out in the woods and meet some characters,” Stanley said.

A Growing Feast

Dylan Ryals-Hamilton, an environmental studies major, worked with the City of Asheville’s Office of Sustainability on landscaping the city’s edible parks. “I came to this project with a history of passion for this general topic,” said Ryals-Hamilton, whose professional background in ecological and edible landscaping, as well as permaculture design. Ryals-Hamilton’s goal was to draw people out into the landscape and interact with it. One way to interact with the landscape, he said, is to eat it.

Ryals-Hamilton’s research focused on two different projects happening within the City of Asheville: the new Edible Mile Greenway and the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park—the oldest public edible forest garden in the nation. The two projects allowed Ryals-Hamilton to both plan and strategize for best practices to make the Edible Mile Greenway a success, and to complete hands-on work with volunteers to revitalize and care for the existing Carver Edible Park. Getting the community involved was an important aspect of this work.

“I learned a lot about this community engagement piece,” he said. “It’s not just that people want to grow food. It’s that we want to grow food for our grandchildren. It’s that kids should be able to go out into the park and realize where food comes from.”

Ryals-Hamilton said the McCullough Fellowship allowed him to bring his passion for sustainability from the “fringes” of his work into the center of his academic focus. “This let me really dive in deep,” he said, “and get wet.”