Leaving a Downstream Legacy

"Upstream is where you grew up, where you came from. Downstream is what you leave behind, your legacy."

-- Carol Armstrong, Los Angeles Mayor's office

Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas with limited opportunities to experience nature. The restoration of our urban rivers and watersheds provides an opportunity to leave behind a downstream legacy that provides ways for people to connect with nature while cleaning our waters.

This week, Sierra Club joined forces with twenty-seven other non-governmental organizations, including several members of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, to pledge support for the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Together, the NGO community signed the following statement of support:

We commend the work that is making a visible difference in communities across the country by engaging urban populations in restoring their rivers and surrounding neighborhoods, improving access for water recreation and helping create a network of parks and greenspaces connecting downtown cores with suburban and rural areas. We believe the Partnership provides a powerful means for federal agencies to better connect with our metropolitan areas and engage all residents -- especially youth -- in conservation and stewardship of nature where they live, work and play.

The pledge was made during a national meeting of the Urban Waters Federal Partnership where leaders from across the country gathered to share best practices around protecting, restoring and connecting communities with urban rivers and watersheds. The Partnership grew out of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative and is now a collaborative effort of fourteen federal agencies working with local governments, non-governmental organizations and community groups in 19 cities across the country.

Sierra Club recognizes that a 21st-century environmental movement depends on getting kids and communities unplugged and outside. For most people, experiencing nature depends on their ability to access public spaces close to home, nearby nature. That's why as Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune noted, "we're proud to be a part of this community-driven partnership to restore and protect urban waterways. Together we will help open the door for more families to explore and enjoy the outdoors."

Sierra Club has a long legacy of connecting people with nature and empowering them to defend the places they love. Over one hundred years ago, our founder John Muir led outings into the high Sierras. Our Inspiring Connections Outdoors program was established in the 1970s to ensure youth, primarily from urban communities of color, had quality opportunities to explore and enjoy nature. Now, our ICO program is operating in over fifty cities and towns across the country, breaking down barriers to getting outdoors.

We're also working in several cities to turn that love for the outdoors into action to protect and restore urban waters and watersheds. Here are a few examples:

  • In Albuquerque, volunteer networks are educating the public through outings and presentations about the importance of protecting the "Bosque," Spanish for "forest," one of the only intact riparian areas in the entire United States that lies within a city. The Middle Rio Grande River runs through the "Bosque," and Sierra Club volunteers provide educational outdoor opportunities for kids and families in the forest.
  • In Baltimore, Sierra Club is organizing city residents to support a five-year dramatic expansion of green practices designed to reduce polluted runoff, which will include tree plantings, rain gardens and other greening initiatives. At the same time, our Baltimore Inspiring Connections Outdoors program is connecting youth from Baltimore City with the outdoors.
  • In Detroit, Sierra Club is increasing green infrastructure, such as native plants, rain gardens, wetlands, trees, green roofs and bioswales, to reduce the number and volume of sewage overflows and extend the life of the city's wastewater system. Community leaders provide training in rain barrel installation and lead bicycle outings to educate people about successful green infrastructure projects throughout the city.
  • Sierra Club, along with our partners in the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition, has successfully connected communities with the Angeles National Forest in the backyard of Los Angeles. Our team of organizers spent years getting to know the community and working to empower residents to help determine the future of the San Gabriel Mountains. The partnership includes over one hundred city, business, faith, health, conservation and community groups and leaders working together to improve access and protections for the San Gabriel Mountains and waters. Their hard work led to the establishment of the San Gabriel Mountains as a National Monument and continues as the community helps shape the how the new monument will be used and managed.
  • In Louisiana, the Sierra Club has been working with the communities of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East for over ten years. New Orleans is highly vulnerable to hurricanes and floods. The Sierra Club is working with the Vietnamese community and others to clean up and restore Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Sauvage, which provide both recreational opportunities and critical buffering against storms.

In collaboration with the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, Sierra Club is happy to support and grow community-driven conservation efforts. We will connect more people with opportunities to explore, enjoy and protect nearby nature, leaving a downstream legacy that includes healthy communities, clean waters and lifelong constituents for conservation.