• Nature and the City

    What Good Is Urban Conservation?

    Nature and the City

    What Good Is Urban Conservation?

    Moderator: Bill Ulfelder (The Nature Conservancy)
    Speakers: Marielle Anzelone (NYC Wildflower Week), Jon Christensen (Stanford University), Susannah Drake (dlandstudio pllc), Rob McDonald (The Nature Conservancy), and Phil Stevens (Urban Creeks Council)
    Presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy
    Reported by Kelly Lombardo | Posted May 17, 2012


    By the end of the 21st century, the global population is expected reach 9 billion people, 7 billion of whom are predicted to live in modernized cities. This rapid transition to a more urbanized world introduces new challenges to the environmental conservation movement. While city residents rely on nature for clean air and water to survive, cities also serve as homes to vibrant ecosystems and biodiversity. Currently, New York City has more plant and animal species per acre than Yellowstone National Park. As modern cities expand and as new cities develop, conservationists are faced with the challenge of preserving this nature in the evolving landscape, as well as of evaluating the worth of their efforts. These environmental issues set the stage for the symposium Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences on April 16, 2012. The discussion was the third installment of the four-part series Discourses on Nature and Society, presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy.

    Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's New York Program and moderator of the discussion, speculated that the environmental conservation movement might be experiencing a paradigm shift. Though previous conservation efforts have focused on preserving pristine landscapes, solutions to future environmental challenges may be found within urbanized areas. Building on this belief, each panel member presented his or her view of the current state of urban conservation as well as ideas for its success in the future.

    Rob McDonald, senior scientist for Sustainable Land-Use at The Nature Conservancy, echoed the importance of nature to the billions of city dwellers across the world. In addition to providing essential elements to sustain life, nature provides a more desirable and pleasant lifestyle to those living within a city. For example, trees provide shade along city streets, and parks offer a place for recreational activities. While McDonald feels that the conservation movement has an obligation to provide these fundamental advantages of nature to urban residents, he explained that this preservation will become more challenging in the next several decades. Together, all current urban construction across the globe builds a city equivalent to the size of Washington, D.C. every three days. Given this rapid urban expansion, it is crucial that green technologies are incorporated into the blueprint of developing cities. McDonald described the world as in a desperate race for urban sustainability. Therefore, a principal objective of the conservation movement is to make cities greener more rapidly than they can expand. Inspiring city residents to become concerned about urban conservation is crucial to the success of the conservation movement, according to McDonald.

    Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, described the historical progression of the thrust behind environmental conservation efforts within the United States. As a city's population grows, the amount of infrastructure installed, the volume of water consumed, and even the creative output of its people increase linearly. Conversely, no correlation exists between the amount of nature successfully conserved within a city and its size. Christensen explained that the amount of nature conserved in cities varies widely across the U.S. because conservation has been a direct function of human choices, which have evolved throughout history. Conservation was originally driven by the desire for clean water, and thus the protection of local watersheds was of primary importance. Around the same time, common areas, such as Boston Commons, were enclosed and turned into parks. By the early 20th century, urban residents began viewing parks as fundamental to the creation of good citizens. During the post-war era, nature was preserved for aesthetic reasons, such as pleasant views and attractive neighborhoods. By the 1960s and 1970s, the goals of biodiversity and habitat protection powered the environmental conservation movement. Within the last decade, conservation has come full circle with "ecosystem services," the functions nature performs for us, as the movement's principal impetus. Christensen believes that the historical evolution of conservation efforts is a tremendous resource, providing a diverse set of conservation techniques. These tools can be adapted to serve a wide variety of social, political, and cultural situations. According to Christensen, it is imperative that these ideas are communicated to developing cities globally, to ensure a thriving coexistence between humans and nature in the future.

    Marielle Anzelone, founder and executive director of NYC Wildflower Week, discussed the current state of urban conservation in New York City. New York City is commonly perceived as devoid of nature, with the exception of weeds, pigeons, and rats, explained Anzelone. In reality, one-eighth of New York City is composed of forests, marshes, and meadows, with 40% of New York State's endangered plant species rooted in the 5 boroughs. Furthermore, Manhattan Island is the home to 200-year old tulip trees and rare beetles. Few policies have been designed to mitigate the destruction and degradation of this urban biodiversity. Consequently, the city has lost over 25% of its wetlands and nearly half of its flora. Anzelone believes a comprehensive management plan aimed at conserving biodiversity within the city needs to be developed and incorporated into both economic planning and public health initiatives. However, to obtain financial support for preservation projects, Anzelone emphasized the need to alter the common perception that nature is absent within New York City. To this end, Anzelone developed Wildflower Week as a means for New York City residents to connect with their local environment. Using this program as a model, Anzelone and others are trying to build ecological literacy within cities across the country to encourage the recognition of nature's existence in the urban landscape.

    Originally included in a New York Times op-ed composed by Marielle Anzelone, this image illustrates the diverse nature that can be found throughout the five boroughs of New York City. (Image courtesy of Marielle Anzelone)

    Phil Stevens, executive director of the Urban Creeks Council, provided a different perspective by introducing the inconsistencies that accompany some views of urban conservation. Presently, nature within our cities is viewed as benign, though throughout much of history nature has often been considered a threat to mankind. Cities were originally constructed to protect people from natural threats such as predators, explained Stevens. He feels it is worthwhile to acknowledge these hazards as we claim to welcome nature into our cities. Stevens gave the example of an adult mountain lion that was discovered walking through a highly populated residential area of Berkeley, California several summers ago. Due to the inaccessibility of a tranquilizer gun to sedate the wild cat, law enforcement officers shot and killed the animal to protect the residents. The killing prompted an outcry by some community members and demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining a balance between safety and the desire for a more natural habitat in urban environments. Incidents of this type highlight the general population's desire to be selective when preserving and reintroducing nature into their community. According to Stevens, people are less inclined to accept the unpleasant or potentially harmful aspects of nature, or "ecosystem disservices," though the details of what is acceptable or unacceptable remain up for debate. Furthermore, the physical boundary line separating the acceptance or rejection of specific ecosystem disservices is undefined, explained Stevens. For example, while it was clear that mountain lions were not welcome in the city center of Berkeley, they are free to roam the neighboring hillside communities. As urban conservation moves forward, Stevens explained, it is increasingly important that these uncertainties are addressed and clarified. If these questions are neglected, the urban population will either unnecessarily limit the beauty of nature within their cities or fall victim to the unpleasant consequences of its hazards.

    Susannah Drake, Principle of dlandstudio pllc, described the promise and the challenges associated with urban conservation projects within New York City, discussing the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park as an example. Located in Brooklyn, New York, the Gowanus Canal is continuously being polluted as storm water containing industrial toxins from surrounding businesses drains into the canal. In an effort to mitigate urban flooding and to limit degradation of the canal, Drake helped develop a comprehensive plan to manage local storm water runoff, called the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park. For this project to succeed, Drake explained, it will need 11 acres of permeable ground to absorb the surface water runoff before the water funnels into the canal and surrounding soil. Identifying 11 acres of useful land for the project was relatively straightforward. However, acquiring and utilizing the land for the project will be more challenging, since each portion of the canal is owned by a different agency. For example, the Department of Environmental Protection owns the water, the Army Corps of Engineers controls the sediment underneath the water, the Department of Environmental Conservation owns the first five feet of soil adjacent to the canal, and the Parks Department has control of the flora surrounding the canal. Each agency has different procurement policies regarding the acquisition of the land, with different rules and regulations regarding projects constructed on their property. In addition, all projects require the approval of the New York City Public Design Commission, the regulators of all public space within the city. Drake emphasized the complexity of successfully implementing urban conservation projects, but believes they are crucial to make better use of the established urban landscape in efforts to preserve undeveloped land within the city.

    Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

    Media available from panel discussion featuring:
    Marielle Anzelone (NYC Wildflower Week)
    Jon Christensen, PhD (Stanford University)
    Susannah Drake (dlandstudio pllc)
    Rob McDonald, PhD (The Nature Conservancy)
    Phil Stevens (Urban Creeks Council)
    Bill Ulfelder (The Nature Conservancy)

    Presented by

    • New York Academy of Sciences
    • The Nature Conservancy