Conservation for Cities: A Scientist's View

My colleague Rob McDonald, senior scientist for sustainability at The Nature Conservancy, joins me today to share his thoughts on the green city of the future. Rob will speak this Thursday, Dec 3, at 6:30 pm at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, presenting stories of cities around the world where city planners, economists and ecologists have overcome challenges, highlighting the new science that is providing hope for cities.

The twenty-first century will be the fastest period of urban growth in human history. Rapidly urbanizing regions like Asia and Africa will add billions of people to their cities. Globally, the twenty-first century will require massive urban infrastructure development, in roads and pipes and power lines and schools.

Ecologists, urban planners, economists, and landscape architects are increasingly asked to consider the role that natural infrastructure - the natural habitat or constructed natural spaces that supply crucial benefits to urban residents - can play in meeting these challenges.

Whether it is the role of upstream forests in maintaining water quality in reservoirs, how shade trees keep cities cool during heat waves, or the way parks can contribute to the quality of life and financial success of a city, natural infrastructure is all the rage. Yet for all the excitement about natural infrastructure, guidance on how to plan and implement projects is often hard to come by.

Cities need nature to survive and thrive. And yet the traditional viewpoint of environmentalists concerned with "nature" has been that cities are the enemy. It is true that as cities have expanded, they have affected a lot of biodiversity

Nature needs cities. Cities provide numerous economies of scale, reducing per-capita use of some resources. Many in the environmental community view our species' current massive urbanization with sadness, as part of what Bill McKibben terms "the end of nature." McKibben argued that we have reached the point where every square meter of land, every ecosystem process, has been altered by humans, and thus there is no real nature left. Cities, from this perspective are the endpoint, the death of nature, in the sense that they are wholly created spaces that we have designed for ourselves.

I argue that while wild nature is increasingly rare, nature and natural processes still deeply matter for cities. Rather than viewing the twenty-first century as the end of something, I prefer to see it as a beginning. We are creating a new world, an urban world.

This urban world could be a dystopia, if we let it. We will move toward this dystopian world if we continue to treat the landscape as just an incidental, disposable thing. I believe, though, that there is an alternative way to view our relationship with the landscape. Rather than completely bending nature to our will, we could bend our will to match nature, at least a little bit. It is my belief that the science of ecosystem services gives us some of the crucial tools to follow these other pathways.

We have become an urban species, whether Homo sapiens are ready or not for this transformation. If we choose to ignore nature's pathways, if we treat the landscape as a disposable thing, then we can have our dystopia.

If we choose to create our urban world thoughtfully, we can have another more beautiful and human world. In a sense, we will choose the urban world we create, and we will get the urban world we deserve.

Far from being an end, our new urban world of the twenty-first century can be the beginning of something beautiful, if we choose right.

RSVP to attend Rob's talk at the Smithsonian
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The above is excerpted from Conservation for Cities by Robert I. McDonald, with permission from Island Press, 2015.