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Turn TNC Inside Out: Focus It on Cities

Denning, Carrie; Christensen, Jon 4/22/2011

Should The Nature Conservancy turn itself inside out to focus on cities, or can the Conservancy simply add cities to its list of growing concerns and hope to fulfill its mission?

In our last piece for Chronicles, we argued that the hidden history of conservation in cities revealed significant tools for the future of conservation and also represented a wealth of potential synergies between TNC and urban dwellers. Now we want to focus on the nuts and bolts of how this idea would fit into the Conservancy’s actual operations and emphasize something else: simply adding urban conservation to a growing list of Conservancy initiatives will not be enough, and it does not make strategic sense.

Merely adding a new category of conservation within TNC, along with dedicated policymakers, scientists and development officers, will dilute attention from traditional TNC areas of expertise, instead of pooling enough resources into cities to change the course of the future. This would be a lose/lose scenario for the Conservancy and its global conservation efforts.

Instead, to take strategic advantage of what Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls “the triumph of the city” in the 21st century, TNC must turn itself inside out (Glaeser 2011). This does not mean that the Conservancy has to abandon its core mission in the process, as there are a wealth of productive and successful projects that are a direct result of the organization’s approach to conservation. Rather, we suggest the Conservancy undertake a fundamental shift in how it observes the world — by starting from the viewpoint of the city dweller and looking outwards.

Instead of placing the Conservancy’s focus primarily on intact, wild nature, far from the environs of human habitation, TNC can make a bigger impact by starting with the urbanite and moving in concentric circles outwards. Wild nature will still be there, in the heart and soul of the organization, but it will be found everywhere the organization works, from the city, to the suburbs, to farms and ranches, grasslands and woodlands, and the wilderness beyond. In doing so, the city — the vibrant engine of human development and ingenuity in our modern era as well the historical nerve center of vigorous conservation and environmental movements — will become an engine for conservation in the 21st century, too.

Why? First, because cities already are the engines of environmental change in the 21st century, for better or worse. By working from the city outwards, the Conservancy puts itself in a much better position to carry out its global strategies. Think it can’t be done? Read our previous Chronicles piece, which recounted the hidden history of urban conservation in the San Francisco Bay Area as a triumph of diverse ideas and approaches. This history has left us with a very useful toolbox that protects the environment and provides space for human habitation, reconciling people and conservation in a mix of nature and urbanity.

Second, cities are a battleground of ideas and economic forces — many not particularly friendly to conservation’s goals. By choosing not to work in cities, the Conservancy and other conservation and environmental organizations would abandon the most important driver of environmental change to those (such as Glaeser) who are hostile to conservation, viewing it as an unhealthy restriction on unfettered urban growth.

We can’t let that happen.

Where should the Conservancy start? We believe that, after carefully studying how to reframe its mission to focus on cities, TNC could have a huge impact simply by announcing this strategic shift. But reframing will, of course, have to be followed by results. And while we don’t expect the Conservancy to change on a dime, we suggest that it start with the big picture, by initiating pilots in a dozen cities, on six continents, around the world.

Toward a New Concentric Strategy
Starting in the inner circle of the city, TNC should begin by looking at municipal policies. This means advocating and supporting sustainable storm water management, green roofs, urban farming, the “day lighting” of lost rivers and the reinvention of former industrial facilities, such as Gas Works Park in Seattle or Emscher Park in the Rurh Valley.

As several of these initiatives — such as urban farming — overlap with the principles of ecosystem services, any urban effort the Conservancy supports should also include a targeted investigation into ecosystem services in an urban setting. Initiatives like these can leverage TNC’s scientific expertise and land stewardship experience to help create metropolitan areas that are livable habitats for people while simultaneously studying and shaping these environments to sustain biodiversity.

Moving one concentric circle outwards from the urban dweller, the Conservancy can provide vision and expertise for regional land-use planning through support for acquisitions and easements to help shape sustainable regional development. Edward Glaeser and company are right when they point out that local land-use decisions don’t exist in a vacuum — they affect development elsewhere. “The environmentalists of coastal California may have made their own region more pleasant,” Glaeser correctly argues, “but they are harming the environment by pushing new building away from the Berkeley suburbs, which have a temperate climate and ready access to public transportation, to suburban Las Vegas, which is all about cars and air-conditioning.”

Thinking about land management at a regional scale is an area where TNC can flourish — and already does. The Conservancy already has talented staff engaged in regional planning for conservation, be it the protection of migrating species or protection for sensitive lands from encroaching housing developments and fragmentation. The organization can apply many of these same skills to regional land-use challenges, helping guide metropolitan development in ways that do not funnel sprawl elsewhere. And TNC’s engagement in regional land-use planning and policy could be especially critical for the developing world. With increasing disposable income and rising GDPs, China and India are already beginning to adopt America’s car culture and low density development patterns, substantially harming their regional environment (Pucher et al. 2007). As a globally preeminent organization, the Conservancy’s potential impact on development questions could be decisive.

Moving farther out, cities rely on rivers and reservoirs, farms, ranches, mines, power plants, transmission lines, landfills and sewage treatment facilities. By engaging deeply with cities, TNC can focus attention on the full lifecycle of metropolitan ecosystem processes — such as water, power and food production — to help shape policies, guide development, and design and protect ecosystems so that cities can function with the surrounding landscape and the rural residents and other species that share it.

Again, there is a strong overlap here with ecosystem services, and projects like China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program and Ecuador’s Quito Water Fund that are already linking human-centric needs — such as farming or municipal water usage — with the ecological systems that fulfill them (Tallis 2008). TNC is already using ecosystem services analysis as well as other strategies to bridge the gap between the resources that cities need and protection that our environment requires. But these projects need to become the Conservancy’s DNA.

What about the wildest areas beyond the edges of the cities? These remain essential, too; protected open spaces are an integral part of our urbanizing world, both for our own inspiration and renewal, but also as habitat for wildlife. Like so many others, we deeply value all that TNC has done to help protect such habitat, and it needs to continue. But the Conservancy can’t do it all. Priorities for this important work will have to be set by looking outward from cities to determine where conservation projects best synergize with new city-centric strategies. And we believe there is substantial overlap with many of the Conservancy’s existing land conservation strategies.

Ultimately, work in non-urban landscapes can today no longer be the Conservancy’s predominant focus. The growth of cities is accelerating worldwide, and their demands on natural resources will only intensify. If the Conservancy is to remain relevant, it must not look at growing cities as a problem, but rather as our greatest opportunity for conservation at a scale that will make our planet sustainable for people and nature.


Editor’s note: Carrie Denning is currently a consultant in Washington, D.C and is 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.

Glaeser, E. 2011. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. Macmillan. London.

Pucher, J., Peng, Z.R., Mittal, N., Zhu, Y. and N. Korrattyswaroopam. 2007. Urban Transport Trends and Policies in China and India: Impacts of Rapid Economic Growth. Transport Reviews 27: 379-410.

Tallis, H., Karieva, P., M. Marvier., and A. Chang. 2008. An ecosystem services framework to support both practical conservation and economic development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 9457-9464.