The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.

(Editor’s note: Phil Stevens is executive director of Urban Creeks Council, which has been working to protect and restore urban streams in the San Francisco Bay area since 1982. Phil was a member of the Conservancy’s philanthropy team — first in California, later Alaska — from 2000 to 2007.)

As more and more of the world’s population lives in cities, the divide between people and nature is increasing — to the detriment of both.

Urban conservation may hold the key to bridging that divide. Many of us already working in cities have seen first-hand the astonishing biodiversity to be found in urban areas, and would be happy to see organizations such as The Nature Conservancy join us as we work to protect and restore it.

But in the city the rules are different, and the targets aren’t the last great places. Urban conservation is about more than biodiversity — it’s about re-integrating human and natural communities into a fabric that can benefit both. No one really knows yet how to do it right, particularly given the uncertainties inherent in global change. But we who work in urban conservation have begun to understand a few of the rules so far:

  • Put people first. Since people are the dominant species in urban areas, conservationists have to be willing to engage deeply and sincerely with the problems and concerns of urban people. If you’re working in a community where jobs are scarce, you need to find a way to make conservation create jobs if you want a seat at the table.
The good news? While most urban dwellers may not be able to tell you what biodiversity is, a surprising number know there’s something they want that they can’t get from soccer fields and manicured city parks. And there are increasing opportunities for collaboration between environmental justice activists, public health advocates and conservationists to restore habitats in urban areas to provide urban-dwellers with opportunities to engage with nature (or something like it) first-hand.
  • Human impacts are extreme, pervasive and inevitable. Be okay with that. Resist the urge to “museumify” your restoration sites. People are going to beat them up. They’ll trample your plants and even steal them. They’ll harass wildlife and tag your beautiful new interpretive signs. If you let them, they’ll also show up in droves to help replant, clean up trash or explain to a group of children how a lungless salamander can breathe. The net result is positive, for nature and for the community.
  • Cities are artificial environments. Be okay with that, too. Don’t get hung up on what used to be here. Even leaving aside global change, there’s no way we could bring back what has disappeared. This can be liberating rather than constraining. Cities are already manifesting a host of novel species assemblages, and we can experiment more freely with those in urban areas than we might be inclined to do in less disturbed environments.
  • Restoration is an ongoing process. Once you engage, plan to be there indefinitely. Because of the incessant human impacts, assume that you’ll be continually replanting your sites to mitigate for losses. On the upside, your volunteers can become a force for long-term monitoring and adaptive management, so you can begin to accumulate substantial data on what’s working and what’s not, both for people and for other living things.
  • Connectivity is a distant dream. Take what you can get. While it’s pleasant to imagine urban areas crisscrossed by green corridors, in most cases urban conservationists will have to be satisfied with an archipelago of parks, streams and vacant lots with which to begin. The theory of island biogeography tells us that such small patches can only support a relatively few species, and that the small populations they support are inherently more prone to extinction. If we can figure out how to stitch those places into functioning ecological networks, though, we might be getting somewhere.
  • In cities, people are the ecosystem process. In the case of revegetation projects or controlled burning of landscapes, conservationists are already substituting human effort for ecosystem processes that cannot be restored. In urban areas, other tactics are likely to be necessary as well. Planned species reintroduction may be able to substitute for natural dispersal, and help restore connectivity between islands of habitat. In the absence of browsing elk, interns with loppers can keep willows in check to preserve sight lines. And many cavity-nesting birds are content with bird boxes on lamp poles.
How could big conservation organizations such as the Conservancy begin to engage in urban areas? An obvious first step would be to identify local partners doing important work. Look for the ones who aren’t the best funded, but who have the best ideas, strong partnerships with local governmental agencies, and deep roots in communities. Look for places where local capacity is weak, and find ways to bring the Conservancy’s clout to bear.

In my own world of urban stream and riparian restoration in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, the Conservancy’s strengths in fundraising, conservation planning and public education could help transform a ragtag movement into a far more effective force for conservation. If the Conservancy wants to help build the urban conservation movement, consider devoting some internal resources to building the capacity of partners already doing that work.

True engagement in urban conservation might require that the Conservancy reexamine some of its most deeply held assumptions and priorities. It would require building partnerships with organizations whose missions place a far greater emphasis on human benefits than does the Conservancy’s. But it may be the only way to assure the continued success of the Conservancy’s work beyond the urban zone. 

— Text by Phil StevensCool Green Science Blog