An interesting discussion has been developing regarding the City Arch River Competition: is “birding” realistic as program? Alex Ihnen at Urban STL has criticized the MVVA proposal’s Avian Research Center as, “unlikely to draw casual tourists despite the relatively large number of birding hobbyists”, citing a number of popular birding sites already in the area. Daron at STL / Elsewhere, emphasizing the importance of the Mississippi Flyway, argues that birding sites don’t compete with one another; “A diversity of habitats doesn’t just mean a diversity of birds, but healthier birds that can handle the long migration.”
While I wouldn’t characterize either writer’s position as extreme, this debate does illustrate one of the value judgments that will have to be made in assessing any proposal for the Gateway Arch (or Pruitt-Igoe) site: how should ecological services and human uses be prioritized? Both can be accommodated on site, and needn’t necessarily be directly oppositional. But on some level, decisions must be made: should all site program support the goal of attracting visitors, or is there also value in improving habitat (even if ultimately less popular)?
STL / Elsewhere cites the Great River Birding Trail in the case for birding programming at the Gateway Arch site. Based on this map, there are few birding sites in the St. Louis area. I’m curious as to how these birding sites are identified: based on their popularity with human birdwatchers? Or with birds? I bring this up because, in my mind, it brings up the same set of issues: are sites where humans can watch birds more valuable than sites with good habitat that are inaccessible to humans? The only birding sites GRBT identifies in St. Louis are Tower Grove Park and Forest Park. Both are open to the public, and both are designed landscapes. Are other types of landscapes, such as vacant lots like Pruitt-Igoe, being devalued?
Some habitat restoration has been undertaken in the Kennedy Woods at Forest Park. At 50 acres in size, these woods are comparable with the 57 acre Pruitt-Igoe site. But even a restoration project is designed; and native plants from a nursery can be of a different genotype than those found naturally occurring in the area. Contrast that with the Pruitt-Igoe site, which has undergone “habitat restoration” through neglect. Succession has created the urban forest that exists today.
At this point, I’m not prepared to claim that Pruitt-Igoe could be a better birding site than Forest Park, Tower Grove, or potential habitat restoration at the Arch. After all, it’s not a competition: more habitat means more birds; ultimately all sites are better off. I just wonder about the value judgments involved in determining the future of the Arch grounds, and in assessing the existing stock.