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Landscape architect seeks to preserve streambeds, woodlands

The Baltimore Sun

As a Towson elementary school student, Keith Bowers took a field trip to Columbia during the 1960s to watch the town being built and to walk on one of the trails that wind beneath an overpass.

Decades later, the 48-year-old landscape architect, founder and president of Biohabitats Inc., is looking at ways to protect, conserve and restore Columbia's land, streambeds and woodlands as downtown becomes more populated.

Bowers, whose ecological restoration design, planning and assessment business is part of the downtown design team that General Growth Properties Inc. has put together, led a public forum Wednesday to introduce his company.

"Success to me is that the community becomes really invested in restoring the landscape and the ecological process," Bowers said in an interview last week. "The biggest challenge is how do you implement something like this and get people to care about this and be stewards of it and carry it forward."

With a broad background in restoration ecology and ecological planning, Bowers says he hopes to bring green walls -- on which plants and flowers grow -- to the interiors and exteriors of buildings to harvest rainwater, create roof gardens and increase the diversity of plants and trees.

Columbia has a head start on many areas of the country when it comes to green space, pathways and waterways, Bowers said, but it is still very car-oriented.

"The whole vision and legacy that Rouse left was pretty visionary in the '60s and '70s," he said of Columbia founder James W. Rouse. "But also, Columbia was developed before people started looking at storm-water management. The foundation is there, but there's a lot of room for improvement."

It wasn't until the 1970s, a decade after Columbia was built, that people started paying attention to storm-water management, Bowers said.

Because Columbia's lakes are not natural, they present additional environmental challenges, he said. Creating a lake in the middle of the stream system interrupts the natural ecological, hydrological and sediment processes, he said. More sediment than usual is deposited in the lakes, and more erosion occurs downstream in streambeds, he said.

There are ways to counter the damage and restore the environment, he said.

"People seem to be more and more disconnected with how their actions affect the environment and more and more enamored with the mall," he said. "If we can take the pressure off the suburbs and increase density in the downtown areas, and do it in a way that regenerates ecological processes, then you begin to achieve the balance of livability while restoring the environment."

Bowers said he doesn't think any community is doing everything right yet, but he points to Noisette in North Charleston, S.C., as one that has suffered economically and is taking a holistic approach to its redevelopment.

He sees a lack of that kind of integrated approach in Columbia. Various entities take responsibility for different elements of the environmental puzzle, but there isn't any overall, comprehensive strategy, he says.

Bowers is confident that he has a ready audience in Columbia, where he lived for about four years during the 1980s. And he recognizes that the community loves to let its stakeholders impel change.

"There are a lot of people in Columbia who are really devoted to everything I'm talking about," he said. "It's demonstrating to people that their quality of life can be maintained and incorporate these things. We can talk all we want, but I'm not sure it's going to convince folks. We have to show them. Part of it is having it built and having them experience it."

The convergence of the conservation movement with environmental restoration, and the notion of sustaining those efforts over time, is only three to five years old, Bowers said.

"It's not just regeneration of ecological components. It's about regenerating human spirit, how we live in harmony with each other and nature," he said. "It's about maximizing our evolutionary potential. Right now, we're degrading that potential."

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