Welcome to Conservation Gateway

The Gateway is for the conservation practitioner, scientist and decision-maker. Here we share the best and most up-to-date information we use to inform our work at The Nature Conservancy.

Remembering Nature and the City: A Hidden History

Denning, Carrie; Christensen, Jon 2/26/2011

Today, great conservation success has often been associated with saving large tracts of rural land and wilderness devoid of human development — places with uninterrupted natural vistas and thriving wildlife. Yet in the United States there is a hidden history of conservation rooted in cities and towns, a history that has driven significant change over the past century for what “conservation” means in this country as a set of ideas and practices. As we contemplate the challenges of an increasingly urbanized world, understanding and shaping the city’s changing role in conservation will be crucial if we are to create and manage habitats that can sustain our growing population without destroying our planet’s biodiversity.

Our own research in the San Francisco Bay area has attempted to tease out the complicated interplay between urban development and open space conservation over time in order to understand the changing motivations and consequences of conservation in a metropolitan setting. Initially, conservationists in the Bay Area were concerned with protecting valuable drinking water reservoirs and watersheds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But by the early 20th century, the “City Beautiful” movement was in full swing, championing parks as a way to preserve human vitality and bucolic peacefulness amidst urban chaos (Walker 2007). Golden Gate Park was a result of this “City Beautiful” outpouring, and it was inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for Central Park in New York City. Olmsted’s philosophical case for parks was based on three moral imperatives: improving public health by planting trees and creating clean spaces free of air and water pollution, providing a place of recreation for the urban poor, and democratizing open spaces for all. This mission is not far from countless conservancies today, though the method of “creating” the open space of Golden Gate Park — converting miles of sand dunes into manicured lawn, for instance — is alien to us today.

Following World War II, development in the Bay Area boomed, spurring another wave of conservation efforts. Smaller cities like Oakland and San Jose rapidly grew, and small towns steadily sprawled into an interconnected suburban and urban matrix throughout the nine-county Bay Area (Dowall 1984). This development was spurred by a robust highway system and cheap land, enabling businesses and housing developments to leapfrog out from the area’s historical urban centers (Reilly et al. 2009). Urban and suburban parks became essential elements throughout this matrix, providing a natural respite from the expanding concrete maze.

Though much of this suburbanization was a reaction against crowded, “unhealthy cities,” its rapid growth shocked suburban residents. They lamented the loss of orchards, ranchlands, and mountain and bay vistas, and their complaints eventually sparked an “open space” movement in the Bay Area (Wheeler 1998). Like the City Beautiful activists decades earlier, these new crusaders’ arguments were couched in a basic human need for outdoor experiences and aesthetic beauty, as well as a revulsion against excessive, crowded development. It was during this time that many communities in the Bay Area enacted urban growth limits and zoning restrictions as a way to protect communities from additional development and exploding populations (Dowall 1984). By the 1980’s, the open space movement began incorporating new arguments about biodiversity and habitat preservation. And while this shift is often criticized as a move to separate humanity from nature for the sake of preserving nature, ultimately these policies are driven by people’s deep human need for a connection with the environment around them.

To be sure, the history of conservation in the Bay Area is very much a product of the region’s politics and environment. Yet, we do not believe this history is exceptional. While the histories of all cities and regions are contingent on many factors — including geography; their historical period of development; regional, national, and global forces; and culture — the urban foundations of conservation and its changing meanings have been important throughout the United States.

Conservationists and policymakers around the world need to better understand the historical range of desires behind conservation — from protecting resources essential to human health, to valuing parks for recreation and fitness, to valuing open space for its aesthetic value and habitat for species (Denning et al. 2010). This variety of human needs for nature provides us with a toolkit to help shape rapidly developing cities of the 21st century into solutions for conservation rather than problems.

Today’s environmental stewards cannot turn their backs on cities. The world’s cities are gaining around 70 million people per year — more than a million a week (UNPFA 2007). This explosive growth threatens ecosystems, water supplies, and human health and prosperity. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in the country, and in the United States, 3/4 of our population lives in metropolitan areas (Sanderson 2009). Cities are the biggest environmental challenge of this century, and we think it is helpful to pause a moment and remember that environmental policy and urban policy are not only one in the same, but they have been one in the same for quite some time (Seto and O’Mara 2008).

While the problems that these burgeoning cities and megalopolises pose for people and the planet are daunting, we have the resources and experience to confront these challenges. As the history of conservation in the Bay Area reveals, cities are hotbeds of innovation in conservation and environmental management. While conservation has changed appearances several times since Olmsted designed Central Park, urbanites have played pivotal roles in shaping, developing and conserving environments for people and other living beings. The first campaigns for clean air, water, and parks arose in urban environments, ultimately spreading outwards to link distant nature preserves and wilderness areas to urban dwellers (Walker 2007).

There are new challenges, to be sure — rising sea levels, for example. But there are also new opportunities for urban conservation, like green roofs and urban farming. To meet these needs, conservationists must develop new partnerships and find new ways to engage urban dwellers to creatively shape urban environments and the surrounding landscape. Whether by “daylighting” hidden rivers (such as the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul) or by creating brand new parks where none existed before (such as the High Line in Manhattan) conservationists can foster partnerships to create successful urban renewal projects with environmental benefits — and, more importantly, remind urban dwellers of the natural world in which we live. By doing so, conservationists can spark our imaginations about the possibilities of reconnecting with nature even in today’s rapidly urbanizing world.


By Carrie Denning and Jon Christensen at The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

Editor’s note: Carrie Denning is currently a consultant in Washington, D.C and on the Advisory Council for the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. She received her BA in History in 2008 and her MA in Sociology in 2009, both from Stanford University. Jon Christensen is Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. With Rob McDonald of The Nature Conservancy, they are co-authors of “Did land protection in Silicon Valley reduce the housing stock?” Biological Conservation 143 (2010): 1087-1093.

Denning, C.A., R. McDonald, and J. Christensen. 2010. Did land protection in Silicon Valley reduce the housing stock? Biological Conservation 143: 1087-1093.

Dowall, D.E., 1984. The suburban squeeze: Land conservation and regulation in the San Francisco Bay Area. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Reilly, M., O’Mara, M., and K. Seto. 2009. From Bangalore to the Bay Area: comparing transportation and activity accessibility as drivers of urban growth. Landscape and Urban Planning 92: 24-33.

Sanderson, E.W. 2009. Manahattan: A natural history of New York City. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

Seto, K. and M. O’Mara. 2008. Sustainable urban growth as environmental policy. Presentation at Stanford University.

UNFPA. 2007. World urbanization prospects: The 2007 revision population database. New York: UNFPA. http://esa.un.org/unup/p2k0data.asp.

Walker, R., 2007. The country in the city. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Wheeler, S. 2003. Planning sustainable and living cities. In LeGates, R.T., and F. Stout (eds.), The City Reader: 487-96. Routledge, London and New York.