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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Sustainable farming, no longer a luxury

WSU landscape design students learn to offer long-term solutions

Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013 12:00 am

By William L. Spence of the Lewiston Tribune | Reprinted with permission from the Lewiston TribuneĀ 

Sustainable practices weren’t much of a concern when Steve Austin studied landscape architecture 30 years ago, but students today don’t have that luxury.

Whether it’s population growth or climate change or water and resource depletion, they’ll confront a variety of challenges during their professional careers – and Austin, a faculty member at Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, wants them prepared to offer solutions.

“It’s vital that they understand the issues we’re facing,” he said.

On Thursday, several students in Austin’s landscape design class presented their ideas for enhancing the long-term sustainability of the Palouse region, which covers about 1.2 million acres in Washington and Idaho.

Although the Palouse is one of the most prolific wheat-producing areas in the world, WSU senior A.J. Babauta of Kirkland, Wash., noted that only about 1 percent of the food consumed here is produced locally. The rest is trucked in, typically from long distances, which adds to the cost and leaves communities vulnerable to supply interruptions.

A more sustainable approach, Babauta said, would be to move toward self-reliant “city-states” that produce the food they need in the surrounding agricultural fields. Alternatively, homeowners could grow most of their own food by replacing lawns with gardens.

It takes a little over an acre to produce enough food for the average consumer, he said. Add in some water recycling options and renewable solar or wind energy, and a family or community could be almost entirely self-reliant.

“Urban agriculture is something I’d like to take into my professional career,” Babauta said. “It’s a growing movement, but it’s mostly a silent movement.”

John Dingman, a senior from Spokane, focused on rail transportation in his presentation. It’s more fuel-efficient than cars or trucks, and can haul produce and people. It isn’t particularly popular today, but as oil supplies are depleted and the price of gasoline increases, it may be a better long-term solution for the region.

“The path we’re on now isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “This is an example of something we could do to make a dent and change the trend line (of resource depletion).”

Other student presentations focused on things like water recycling and recharging the Grande Ronde aquifer, which supplies drinking water for most of the Palouse region, as well as energy consumption and the land-use benefits of shopping at small, local businesses rather than big-box stores and other national chains.

Austin said students had lengthy debates about whether these ideas are utopian fantasies. But given the problems associated with increasing populations and increasing demand for resources, they said they could be realistic opportunities.

“This isn’t about making things perfect,” he said. “It’s about the things that are happening and finding solutions. We’re trying to base our ideas in reality and create a positive response. Some of this stuff sounds scary, because it’s so different from what we’re used to, but we have three days of food available in our stores. If the trucks suddenly stop, we’re vulnerable. That’s not a good way to be.”