The Scale of Sand

Landscape architects should not become fixated on large-scale solutions to large-scale problems; oftentimes the key to solving a very big problem lies in the infinitesimal.  One example of this idea is being played out along the eastern shore of New Jersey’s Delaware Bay, where efforts are currently being undertaken to restore migrating bird populations through remediation of beaches where horseshoe crabs breed and lay eggs.  The scale of this project spans continents and responds to a complex web of factors, including biological, geomorphological, and political, yet success or failure may ultimately be dictated by the designers’ sensitivity to individual grains of sand.

At Moore’s Beach, New Jersey, biologists Larry Niles and Amanda Dey are leading an effort to restore migratory bird populations through the remediation of beach habitat for horseshoe crabs.  Crab eggs, which have been historically abundant after the crabs’ breeding season, constitute a primary source of fat for birds as they complete flights spanning distances as far as South America to Canada.  Unfortunately, with the recent loss of beaches due to human development, climate change, and extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, the number of crabs breeding along Delaware Bay beaches has been greatly reduced.  Without the crab eggs to sustain their journeys, many migrating bird populations have been decimated to the brink of extinction.  Along with this tragic loss of biodiversity come the effects of an upset food web, with far-reaching consequences that may impact human civilization.  It is easy to imagine how insect populations will surge without birds to prey upon them, upheaving sensitive natural ecologies and ultimately leading to increased pestilence among human farms.  Afflicted farmers will likely respond by spraying food fields with excess amounts of pesticides, leading to health problems, further ecological damage, etc.

Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved

Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved Work by Thomas Grant MacDonald | 2013 | All rights reserved

The scale of this problem may at first seem to dictate a large-scale solution, such as dumping thousands of tons of sand back onto the beach to restore crab habitat.  However, this is not the direction that the project leaders are taking.  The research conducted by Larry and Amanda has recognized that it is not simply the presence of sand that provides nursing grounds for the horseshoe crab, but the unique qualities of the individual sand grains that make up areas such as Moore’s Beach.  The size, shape, and consistency of the grains influence the overall structure of the beach, holding it at a specific grade and preventing it from being washed away.  Within this environment the crab eggs are protected from disruption but not oversaturated or suffocated, allowing them to develop properly and encouraging pregnant crabs to utilize the beach as a nursery.  To properly restore the beaches, project leaders have gained the approval of political officials, government agencies and local residents to bring in highly-specific sands from nearby sand mining operations.  Although such beach restoration efforts do involve the movement of many tons of sand and the careful use of heavy machinery, operations are highly targeted and relatively small in scale as compared to other go-to beach replenishment solutions.

The important work of Larry Niles and Amanda Dey looks promising and should be both commended and supported, but beyond that their approach should be incorporated by those in the design fields.  Landscape architects and urban designers would do well to rethink the notion of “scale-for-scale” interventions, i.e. a large-scale problem does not necessarily warrant a large-scale solution (this type of thinking is more the purview of engineers and infamous city planners like Robert Moses.)  Good landscape architects and planners should be prepared to initiate sensitive, site-specific design investigations that first look towards the fruitful complexity of a problem’s constituent elements before attempting to apply a large-scale solution.