Support The World's Smartest Network

Help the New York Academy of Sciences bring late-breaking scientific information about the COVID-19 pandemic to global audiences. Please make a tax-deductible gift today.

This site uses cookies.
Learn more.


This website uses cookies. Some of the cookies we use are essential for parts of the website to operate while others offer you a better browsing experience. You give us your permission to use cookies, by continuing to use our website after you have received the cookie notification. To find out more about cookies on this website and how to change your cookie settings, see our Privacy policy and Terms of Use.

We encourage you to learn more about cookies on our site in our Privacy policy and Terms of Use.


Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?

Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?
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

Nature and the City — Panel Discussion, Part 1

Moderator: Bill Ulfelder (The Nature Conservancy)

Nature and the City — Panel Discussion, Part 2

Moderator: Bill Ulfelder (The Nature Conservancy)


The Nature Conservancy is a charitable organization that works to preserve Earth's natural resources and beauty.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University is dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America.

NYC Wildflower Week aims to reconnect New Yorkers with the nature in their city.

The Urban Creeks Council aims to preserve, protect, and restore urban streams and their riparian habitats.

dlandstudio is a landscape architecture firm that uses a systems-based approach that also values a strong intuitive expression that is culturally relevant, ecologically productive, and logically constructed.

Journal Articles

Rob McDonald

Manes F, Incerti G, Salvatori E, et al. Urban ecosystem services: tree diversity and stability of tropospheric ozone removal. Ecol. Appl. 2012 Jan;22(1):349-60.

Agudelo-Vera CM, Mels AR, Keesman KJ, et al. Resource management as a key factor for sustainable urban planning. J. Environ. Manage. 2011 Oct;92(10):2295-303. Epub 2011 Jun 8.

Nelson E, Sander H, Hawthorne P, et al. Projecting global land-use change and its effect on ecosystem service provision and biodiversity with simple models. PLoS One 2010 Dec 15;5(12):e14327.

Loram A, Warren P, Thompson K, et al. Urban domestic gardens: the effects of human interventions on garden composition. Environ. Manage. 2011 Oct;48(4):808-24.

Jon Christensen

Daoud-Bouattour A, Muller SD, Jamaa HF, et al. Conservation of Mediterranean wetlands: interest of historical approach. C. R. Biol. 2011 Oct;334(10):742-56.

Retzlaff RC. The Illinois Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 and the emergence of metropolitan park system planning in the USA. Plan. Perspect. 2010;25(4):433-55.

Renberg I, Bigler C, Bindler R, et al. Environmental history: a piece in the puzzle for establishing plans for environmental management. J. Environ. Manage. 2009 Jun;90(8):2794-800. Epub 2009 Apr 22.

Marielle Anzelone

Searle SY, Turnbull MH, Boelman NT, et al. Urban environment of New York City promotes growth in northern red oak seedlings. Tree Physiol. 2012 Apr 5.

Xu S, Chen W, Huang Y, et al. Responses of growth, photosynthesis and VOC emissions of Pinus tabulaeformis Carr. Exposure to elevated CO2 and/or elevated O3 in an urban area. Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 2012 Mar;88(3):443-8.

Lerman SB, Warren PS. The conservation value of residential yards: linking birds and people. Ecol. Appl. 2011 Jun;21(4):1327-39.

Susannah Drake

Jenerette GD, Harlan SL, Stefanov WL, et al. Ecosystem services and urban heat riskscape moderation: water, green spaces, and social inequality in Phoenix, USA. Ecol. Appl. 2011 Oct;21(7):2637-51.

Wania A, Bruse M, Blond N, et al. Analysing the influence of different street vegetation on traffic-induced particle dispersion using microscale simulations. J. Environ. Manage. 2012 Feb;94(1):91-101.

Susca T, Gaffin SR, Dell'osso GR. Positive effects of vegetation: urban heat island and green roofs. Environ. Pollut. 2011 Aug-Sep;159(8-9):2119-26.

Xu X, Duan X, Sun H, et al. Green space changes and planning in the capital region of China. Environ. Manage. 2011 Mar;47(3):456-67.

Phil Stevens

Goldstein JH, Caldarone G, Duarte TK, et al. Integrating ecosystem-service tradeoffs into land-use decisions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2012 Apr 23.

White C, Halpern BS, Kappel CV. Ecosystem service tradeoff analysis reveals the value of marine spatial planning for multiple ocean uses. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2012 Mar 20;109(12):4696-701.

Menzie CA, Deardorff T, Booth P, et al. Refocusing on nature: Holistic assessment of ecosystem services. Integr. Environ. Assess. Manag. 2012 Jan 3.


Bill Ulfelder

The Nature Conservancy
e-mail | website

Bill Ulfelder, a life-long conservationist, is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy's New York program. Over the course of his 17-year career at the Conservancy, Ulfelder has directed the Conservancy's Peru, Northern Arizona, Eastern Colorado, and Central Caribbean programs. Since becoming executive director of the The Nature Conservancy in New York, he has led the permanent conservation of more than 100,000 acres and has successfully completed the largest private philanthropy campaign in New York's history. Currently, Ulfelder is leading the launch of the Conservancy's first-ever urban conservation initiative, a comprehensive program that will tackle sustainability issues in New York City. Though he has traveled the globe on behalf of The Nature Conservancy, he finds himself most at home in New York City, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


Marielle Anzelone

NYC Wildflower Week
e-mail | website

Marielle Anzelone's work connects people to nature, with a focus on urban ecological issues. She is the founder and Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, an organization that produces public cultural and educational programming to engage New Yorkers with the wilds of the Big Apple via institutional partnerships. In May 2012 she is expanding this model to launch National Urban Biodiversity Week in cities across the country. She also advises stakeholders on biodiversity policies, designs sustainable landscapes, and teaches at The New School. Her experience centers on people's daily connections with nearby nature and on the role that design and government can play in fostering these relationships. Anzelone is a regular contributor to The New York Times, among other publications. For nearly seven years she conserved, managed and restored the city's native flora as Botanist with NYC Parks. Except for 15 months she spent in Texas, she has lived among the plants of the New Jersey–New York metro area all of her life.

Jon Christensen, PhD

Stanford University
e-mail | website

Jon Christensen is executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, an interdisciplinary center for research, teaching, and public engagement at Stanford University. Christensen has been an environmental journalist and science writer for 30 years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Nature, Conservation, High Country News, and many other newspapers, magazines, journals, and radio and television shows. Christensen came to Stanford on a Knight Journalism Fellowship in 2002, and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University in 2003 – 2004, before returning to Stanford to work on a PhD in American history, the history of the American West, environmental history, and the history of science. For more than a decade his research as a journalist and scholar has focused on measuring conservation and on understanding how we can know whether we are achieving the results we hope in our efforts to conserve nature. Christensen is currently completing a book titled Critical Habitat: A History of Thinking with Things in Nature. His current research focuses on "ecological urbanism," the rich history of efforts to conserve nature in metropolitan regions in the United States and around the world, and what we can learn from those efforts for life on an increasingly urban planet in the 21st century.

Susannah Drake

dlandstudio pllc
e-mail | website

Susannah Drake, AIA, ASLA, is the Principal of dlandstudio pllc, an award-winning, multidisciplinary design firm that includes landscape architects, urban designers, sculptors, scientists, and architects. dlandstudio's recent public projects include "A New Urban Ground" designed in collaboration with Architectural Research Office for the Museum of Modern Art's Rising Currents Exhibit, the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, a public open space system designed to absorb and remediate urban storm water, the Brooklyn Bridge Pop-up Park, a temporary waterfront open space that attracted almost 200 thousand visitors over 6 weeks of operation in 2008, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in Lilongwe Africa, and the security for the New York City Police Department headquarters in lower Manhattan. dlandstudio is a State and City certified WBE.

Drake received a BA from Dartmouth College and MArch and MLA degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is the recipient of grants from the Graham Foundation, The James Marston Fitch Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts for research on campus landscapes and large scale urban infrastructure projects. Drake is the trustee and Past-President of the New York ASLA, is on the board of the Van Alen Institute, serves on the campus design advisory board at Dartmouth College, and is a former director of the Fine Arts Federation and member of the Directors Council of New Yorkers for Parks. In addition to her professional practice, she is an adjunct professor of design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and at City College of New York. She is a registered landscape architect and a registered architect.

Rob McDonald, PhD

The Nature Conservancy
e-mail | website

Robert McDonald is Senior Scientist for Sustainable Land Use, The Nature Conservancy. McDonald researches the impact and dependences of cities on the natural world, and coordinates the Conservancy's urban conservation work. He has recently led a NCEAS Working Group into how global urban growth and climate change will affect urban water availability and air quality. He also researches the effect of U.S. energy policy on natural habitat and water use. Prior to joining the Conservancy, he was a Smith Conservation Biology Fellow at Harvard University, studying the impact global urban growth will have on biodiversity and conservation. McDonald has also taught landscape ecology at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, helping architects and planners incorporate ecological principles into their projects. He earned his PhD in Ecology from Duke University.

Phil Stevens

Urban Creeks Council
e-mail | website

As executive director of the Urban Creeks Council, Phil Stevens has worked for the past five years to pioneer new methods and approaches to urban habitat restoration and management. Prior to that he spent several years working on the other end of the conservation spectrum, helping The Nature Conservancy's California and Alaska chapters protect much less affected landscapes. Stevens also helped lay the groundwork for TNC's emerging range-wide Pacific salmon conservation strategy. He holds a master's degree in education and has been at various times a high school history teacher, car mechanic, and horticulturist. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Kelly Lombardo, PhD

Kelly Lombardo is a postdoctoral research associate at Stony Brook University, examining the impact of climate change on eastern U.S. coastal winter cyclones. She received her PhD in atmospheric science from Stony Brook University, studying the modification of organized severe convective systems by the Atlantic coastal waters. Lombardo earned her MS in atmospheric science from the University at Albany, SUNY, where she analyzed observed convectively-coupled equatorial Rossby waves and explored their relationship to tropical cyclogenesis.


Presented by

  • New York Academy of Sciences
  • The Nature Conservancy