Solving Cities

To stay relevant, conservationists embrace cities

Posting in Cities

Environmentalists have not always embraced cities as sustainable enclaves. But one traditional environmental group is starting to warm up to the idea of conservation in the city.

Environmentalists have not always embraced cities as sustainable enclaves.

It's easy to see why. An idyllic natural setting isn't exactly the first thing you think of when you walk through a city. And to build modern day Manhattan, for example, a forest was essentially clear-cut.

But environmentalists are beginning to warm to the idea of the city. The notion that many people can live more efficiently on a relatively small tract of land is appealing. But even if environmentalists are hesitant to declare cities as bastions of sustainability, our world is rapidly urbanizing with or without their support.

So to stay relevant to the realities of most people in the world, the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, is shifting from looking just at preserving large swaths of open space -- the idyllic forms of nature -- to also focusing more on natural habitats in cities.

At least that's the direction that some employees hope the massive environmental organization will go, Greg Hanscom reports at Grist. Hanscom points to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, co-authored by one of the Conservancy’s senior scientists, Robert McDonald, who says the Nature Conservancy should focus on conserving places that have a more direct impact on people:

“Conservation is facing a crisis of irrelevance — it is an enterprise that is not urgent to most people,” the Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, recently warned its members. “If conservation is to build the support it needs, it must energize young urban dwellers, who now make up most of the world. The best way to get city people to care about conservation is to do conservation where they live, so that nature is seen as relevant and connected to modern life.”

...

“Traditionally, we have approached what we’ve done as a land trust: You give us your money, and we protect the last and best biodiversity out there,” McDonald says. “There’s more and more focus on how to do projects that are protecting biodiversity that are also good for people.”

But it's too soon to tell if the organization will make a dramatic shift in how they approach cities, Hanscom explains:

So far, reaction from within the organization has been mixed, [Bill] Ulfelder, [executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York] says. “The New York City folks are totally fired up — they’re saying, ‘What took us so long?’ Then there’s a group out there saying, ‘This is insane. Our resources are too limited.’” The largest group, he says, falls somewhere in between these two extremes, waiting to see whether the organization can find a niche in the urban environment.

If the organization did take a more cities-focused approach, what would that look like? Based on the organization's previous ventures with urban conservation, the organization would continue to stick to their roots by helping cities conserve open-space, improve biodiversity, and create and protect natural habitats.

I, for one, would be happy to see the Nature Conservancy and other traditional environmental organizations use their expertise in conservation to focus more on cities. It would not only be good for natural urban environments but also create healthy and beautiful places where people live their daily lives. After all, cities and nature are not mutually exclusive.

Urban outfitters: The Nature Conservancy goes to the city [Grist]

Photo: andrew c mace/Flickr

Share this

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure