Science & Tech

Florida: The far side of paradise

8 min read

Students explore a Florida off the beaten track, help a town plan its future

It was near midnight. Gnarly oak trees and sandy pines draped with Spanish moss encroached upon the narrow road. Warm air sweetened by the scent of orange blossoms wafted through the windows as the van lurched to a stop. The headlights illuminated a metal sign pinned to a gate that read “Archbold Research Station.” We had arrived.

Most of us had fallen asleep during the two-hour drive down from Orlando, and when we woke, gone was the Florida of brilliantly illuminated palms, sleek buildings, smooth tram rides, shops filled with colorful souvenirs, and swarms of children with Mickey Mouse caps. Ahead of us were encounters with tortoises, armadillos, alligators, and wild boars, and explorations of mucky swamps and desertlike scrublands. Through this gate we were to discover an entirely different wilderness — and an entirely new way to consider the land.

For one week during spring break, a band of eight Harvard students in the “Ecology and Land-Use Planning” seminar descended upon the quiet, rural Florida town of Lake Placid. While there, we rapidly assimilated all that we could about the area’s ecosystem, and then, with newfound appreciation for the natural ecology, we began to consider how to redesign the community in an environmentally minded manner. Harvard Graduate School of Design Professor Richard T. Forman, often touted as the father of landscape ecology, has led this seminar and trip to central Florida for 14 years now. The seminar, offered through the Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP) Department, is designed to allow students to actually experience how human necessities such as housing, commercial areas, agriculture, industry, water supply, and natural resources affect the natural ecosystem. We are then challenged to design our own creative land-use solutions that integrate ecological sensitivity with human necessities, and we produce real plans for the future of Lake Placid that aim to minimize impacts on the environment.

The inland town of Lake Placid was chosen for the course’s first field study because of its unique ecological situation: It lies on the Lake Wales Ridge. Around 3 million years ago, when the sea level was much higher, this ridge down the center of the Florida panhandle existed as a series of sandy islands disconnected from the rest of what is now North America; the rest of Florida was submerged. Because of its isolation, unique vegetation evolved and was preserved, making what is now called “the Florida scrublands” home to an exclusive and biodiverse population; some species, such as the famous Florida scrub jay, survive nowhere else on Earth. Additionally, dozens of lakes speckle the landscape in and around Lake Placid, making the region an ideal location to examine water-quality issues. But, as tourism and industry inundate the entire peninsula, Lake Placid’s ecosystem is becoming increasingly threatened by development; the population of the greater Lake Placid area is 26,000 and growing. The area is therefore an ideal spot to study how land-use may be planned with respect to preserving the natural environment.

Near Lake Placid, the seminar participants lodged and studied at the Archbold Biological Research Station, a nature preserve perfectly suited to saturating us with all the ecology we could absorb before we turned our attention to community planning. University of Florida Professors Michael Binford and Mark Brenner joined Forman. Together, this trio of experts introduced us to a side of Florida that we don’t see in commercials. “It’s an intensive course, on the field trip,” explained Forman. “That is, we work usually until about 11 o’clock at night.” The days started before the morning rays graced the Sunshine State, and the daily itinerary was packed with eco-adventures.

One of the first stops was the fire tower high above the reservation. Looking down on the forest canopy, a few students felt their stomachs swim as the tower swayed slightly in the wind. But the view from the top was worth the climb; we could survey for miles around and spot the lakes and forests, orange groves, cattle fields, highways, and developments that we would explore more thoroughly in the following 72 hours. And, our challenge was set out before us: We would have to consider all these various land-uses — these competing land-uses — for our own planning projects that we would commence in just a few days.

From the heights of the tower, we dove down into the thick of the wilderness. The first three days of this trip were dedicated to getting down and dirty in this ecological haven. We crawled along hot sand, tracking armadillos, bobcats, coyotes, and deer in order to understand how animals move through the landscape. We waded through muddy waters picking out interesting and odd specimens from water spiders to the mysterious “jelly.” We inadvertently covered ourselves with soot in a recently burned palmetto grove in order to understand how essential periodic fires are to the ecosystem. We dug soil pits in order to see a soil profile and to confirm that, yes, even during this time of drought, there is still a water table!

And I believe it safe to say that this is the only course that included a midnight chorus of Harvard students and instructors that could be heard for miles around howling for wolves. Through all of these interactive and immersive experiences, we came to understand what factors help and harm biodiversity in both land and lake.

“It is a very nontraditional … way of learning; it allows students to actually see and apply what they learn,” said Rachel Mak ’10, one of the students in this year’s seminar.

But, as Forman explained, “This isn’t a general ecology course where we talk ecology only. We are extracting things that are particularly useful.”

After our ecology crash course, we surveyed how a host of different human land-uses affect the natural system. We visited the wide-open lands of cattle ranches, where excess nutrients swamp the riparian system. We visited the strictly regimented citrus groves where, as one local claimed, “you’d be shot if you touched an orange.” We compared this with the wildly organic orange groves on a Seminole Indian reservation, where we tasted freshly plucked fruit and succulent sugarcane. Beyond agriculture, we examined housing, trailer park, town, and highway strip developments.

The culmination of the trip was the 48-hour planning session, during which students were challenged to design their own plans for the town and surrounding areas. The assignment was to make plans for the future of Lake Placid that would consider three environmental objectives (for example, improving water quality or protecting endangered species) and three human objectives (for example, improving transportation or fostering a sense of community). Students could gather whatever information they’d like about the town of Lake Placid and surrounding lands. “They are creating their destiny … they’re determining the information they need for their plans, and we just facilitate that,” explained Forman.

The instructor and his teaching fellow served as “taxi driver” to help us collect any information we wanted. Some students interviewed the director of the chamber of commerce, some contacted citrus and flower growers, some surveyed the downtown, some surveyed lakes and shorelines. In the end, each plan reflected exclusive information that the students gathered on their own initiative.

Forman observed, “When [the students] do their presentations, they’re really proud of what they’ve done. They’ve worked hard and it is absolutely unique. And so while the area that they’re using — the spatial area — is the same for every team, the solutions are really different.” Several of us designed new parks, nature reserves, and biking paths. One group set forth a plan to revitalize the downtown in order to foster a better sense of community. Another group aimed to enhance fellowship through planting community gardens. My group planned for the planting of an organic orange grove where tourists and townspeople alike can actually pick oranges (without being shot) and no longer feel alienated by the industry that defines their home state.

This work is not simply an exercise. After the intense two-day planning period, a real-world jury is assembled. In past years, this has included real estate developers, the county planner, the press, and any other interested members of the community. It is they who judge the plans, and it is they who keep the plans. Forman explained, “The conceptual planning projects presented by the student teams simply burst with creative ideas. … Often [the county head planner] mentions how these ideas penetrate his plans, and the multitude of maps he’s provided elegantly show this.” Since this seminar started visiting Lake Placid, new bikeways, parks, nature corridors, and other ecologically sound land-uses have begun to permeate the county’s plans.

By working together and integrating our unique perspectives, we students learned how to apply classroom theories. But, as Forman was quick to remind us, this is only the midpoint of the course. On our return to Cambridge, our eyes have been newly opened, and our education in “Ecology and Land-Use Planning” has just begun. “The building blocks are now in place for the next, more challenging, phase,” said Forman.  “Now we face regional issues across a dozen towns in suburban Sudbury Valley near Boston. … The next 2 billion people on Earth will be urban. We better plan land use ecologically for that!”