December 16, 2015

Conservation in an urban world

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Since the first homo sapiens stood up and surveyed its surroundings, we have modified our habitats to fit our needs.

We have done this with such efficiency that the resulting habitat for nearly half of all humans is largely synthetic landscapes; cities. The banishment of “natural” systems in these urban environments, however, contributes to a variety of negative impacts, ranging from polluted water and urban heat islands to poor physical and mental health.

Conservation of Stewardship

Recently, Dr. Robert McDonald, Senior Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, spoke on rediscovering and re-instituting the natural world in urban environments at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Anthropocene: Life in the Age of Humans series. Dr. McDonald’s talk, “Conservation for Cities,” drew on examples from four cities – Quito, Washington, D.C., Paris, and New York – to demonstrate the importance and role of incorporating planning for ecosystem services into urban environments. His argument is compelling. Yet, more importantly, conservation in cities adds further shades of gray to the delineation between natural and human constructed environments. It suggests that modern conservation is developing a new view of nature and its relationship with human civilization.

The Case for Urban Conservation

During much of the 20th Century, urban planning placed significant emphasis on engineering and technology to resolve development dilemmas. The quintessential example of this is the channeling of the Los Angeles River. However, planning practice is increasingly turning to incorporating ecosystem services into city planning as a more cost-effective alternative to artificially engineered solutions. The practice is not necessarily new, cities such as Curitiba, Brazil have been incorporating environmental services since the 1970s. More recently, though, increasing numbers of cities are following suit and expanding the practice.

Highlighting and promoting this movement, Dr. McDonald pointed to four cases demonstrating the importance of environmental conservation within cities. The first is in Quito, Ecuador. Facing declining water quality, Quito implemented a payment for ecosystem services program in 2000 to conserve neighboring rural land and promote sustainable land practices that contribute to cleaner water. Similarly, the second example in the talk pointed to Washington, D.C., among other cities, which is adopting land use plans to maintain wetlands for storm water retention. Third, Paris, France has adopted tree planting programs to increase urban shade in response the deadly 2003 heat wave that killed approximately 70,000 people across Europe. Finally, Dr. McDonald’s last example provided a cautionary tale from New York, the epitome of the modern city. Aside from Central Park, New York is largely disconnected from natural environments. Fast paced urban conditions are increasingly connected to deleterious health effects, ranging from hypertension and heart disease to elevated anxiety. A promising solution comes from the periodic introduction of natural landscapes into cities, which can reduce these health consequences of urban life. These cases, and many more like them, make a strong case for urban conservation. Yet, they also add to a growing movement away from what might be termed “traditional” conservation.

A bio-swale in Seattle, Washington, slows and filters water running off the street during Seattle's frequent rains, reducing pressure on the city's sewer system, and providing attractive green spaces.

A bio-swale in Seattle, Washington, USA slows and filters water running off the street during the city’s frequent rains, reducing pressure on the city’s sewer system and providing attractive and calming green space.

From Conserving land to conserving Practices

The conservation movement of 19th and 20th Centuries – spurred by such notable characters as John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau – placed a fundamental emphasis on protecting land from people. The origins of this movement arose from a European worldview that made a biblical delineation between human civilization and the natural world, and an associated reverence for environmental spectacles. While this movement gave rise to national parks, it did so at the expense of many indigenous communities and failed to recognize the intrinsic role of human stewardship in landscapes, which contributed to poor outcomes. Increasingly, scientific literature and planning practice are coming to realize what most indigenous communities have known for generations; humans are not separate from the natural world.

Healthy ecosystems on which we depend also require our active care. Preserving the environment, thus, is not about isolation and protection, but incorporation and stewardship. This is the foundation of a new conservation movement, one founded on the maintenance of resilient, working landscapes in which humans are active participants and caretakers, not mere bystanders. The movement to incorporate ecosystem services as part of urban planning is a significant step in this direction. It is time to put to rest the colonial view of conservation. It is time to recognize, for better or worse, the role that humans play in the landscape and to turn to the conservation, not of space, but of stewardship practices.

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