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The Big Idea: Conservation in an Urban World

McDonald, Rob 2/22/2012

Many people within the Conservancy have now probably heard some talk about “urban conservation.” But what is urban conservation? Why is TNC, a conservation NGO, thinking about it?

What is Urban Conservation, Anyway?
Urban conservation actions by the Conservancy or our partners that either protect biodiversity within urban metropolitan areas (“conservation in cities”) or that maintain or enhance the well-being of urban residents (“conservation for cities”). But wait, some of you may be thinking, hasn’t TNC been doing lots of projects that fall under this broad definition? Yes, absolutely, we have many excellent urban conservation projects (and a hat tip to them all, since I won’t have space to list them here). But we will need to do many more in the next decades.
 
The Coming Global Urbanization
For the first time in the history of Homo sapiens, we are primarily an urban species — more than half of us live in cities or towns. In the United States and Europe, we reached that threshold decades ago, and more than 80% of people live in urban areas in the United States. Many cities continue to expand in the developed world, driven by population growth and a shift to lower-density living. The real dramatic growth in cities, however, will come as the rest of the world catches up with the United States and Europe. By 2050, the world’s urban population will swell by almost 3 billion, an unprecedented rate of urban construction that is the equivalent of building a city the size of Washington, DC every three days.
 
The fate of cities depends on nature. For physical reasons, because cities are dependent on a flow of ecosystem services from their hinterland: food, fiber, clean water, clean air, and a host of regulatory services that enable cities to thrive. And for psychological and spiritual reasons: a growing body of evidence suggests that having a little bit of nature inside cities, in the form of parks or street trees, reduces stress and obesity and improves residents’ happiness and mental well-being.
 
Moreover, the fate of nature and the conservation movement depends on what happens in cities. For physical reasons, because the economic and political decisions of those in cities will shape the surface of most of the world: the types of ecosystem services demanded by urban dwellers will affect how rural landowners use their land. And for pragmatic reasons: urbanites have historically been the main political and financial force behind the conservation movement. The remnant pieces of wild nature left on the globe, the last great places, will only continue to exist if millions of people in cities want them to. The dreams and desires of the city are made real in the countryside.
 
The Challenge for TNC’s Mission
The coming urbanization, given its size and scope, will pose a tremendous challenge to the conservation movement. How can the natural world sustain 3 billion people in cities while having space left to preserve the species and ecosystems that conservationists hold dear?
 
Sustainable cities: For there to be any space left for nature in an urbanized world with another 3 billion urbanites, cities must get more sustainable in their impact on and use of natural resources. Consider the impact of just the direct footprint of urban areas. Depending on patterns of urbanization, around 1.5 million more ha will be impacted by urban growth. Because cities are located preferentially in relatively high biodiversity areas like coasts and islands, they have already impacted 8 percent of terrestrial mammals and will likely impact another 5 percent. Similarly, depending on the technology and the per-capita rate of use, urban water use in 2050 may increase by a trillion liters of water per day, and these new urban withdrawals may strongly impact areas of high freshwater biodiversity like the Western Ghats. There are a broad and diverse set of other NGOs working to make cities more sustainable, and TNC must approach this work humbly with a dedication to not reinventing the wheel. However, we have certain skills to bring to bear that could be a valuable contribution. For instance, we have significant skills in spatial planning to preserve biodiversity and, increasingly, ecosystem services, but have only occasionally used those skills to inform urban planning decisions.
 
Protecting & restoring natural systems for cities: Many of the ecosystem services that cities depend on are undervalued or missing from the marketplace or statehouse, particularly those services that are common or public goods. Unless these links between city and countryside are properly valued in decision-making, they are likely to be further degraded. If TNC is serious about its new mission to protect important elements of nature on which all life depends, including human life, and most people live in cities, we will be by necessity engaging in urban conservation. The Conservancy has the potential to be the world leader in certain kinds of green infrastructure projects for cities, particularly those projects that aim to protect and restore freshwater and coastal ecosystem services.
 
Building an urban constituency for conservation: There is declining interest in conservation and the environment among many urban dwellers. For instance, fewer and fewer Americans are using their free time to visit national parks, and instead are spending more time with their computers and TV screens. Since formative experiences with nature have been shown to be key to a lifelong interest in conservation, this trend poses a threat to the Conservancy’s financial foundations. Moreover, it is unclear whether the billions of new urbanites in cities in Asia and Africa are interested and engaged with the conservation movement. Whether a new environmental ethic will emerge from the urban middle classes in places like China and India is of central importance to the future of conservation. Urban dwellers are unlikely to be engaged and passionate about conservation unless they see conservation improving their lives. The return on investment of urban conservation projects is not just the biodiversity benefits, but also the benefits in terms of motivating a new generation of urban dwellers to care about conservation.
 

What do you think? Please send your comments and questions to Rob McDonald and Bob Lalasz, editor of Science Chronicles.  

Image: Central Park, New York City, tonemapped from a single RAW file.  Image credit: Magnus Nordstrum/Flickr