Category: Urban Conservation

New Report: What Will the Urban Century Mean for Nature?

Can biodiversity thrive in an increasingly urban world — or are the predictions of disasters destined to be correct? A new UN report co-authored by TNC’s Rob McDonald has some surprising answers.

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Citizen Science: Survey Katydids in Your Neighborhood

That night music you hear coming from the trees? At least in part, that’s coming from katydids. Despite their ubiquity, very little is known about these charismatic critters. But you can help. Grab your smart phone and head into your neighborhood for a katydid census! Blogger Jon Fisher gets you started.

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Conservation Future: Announcing the 2013 NatureNet Fellows

Nine young scientists — with specialties ranging from energy infrastructure to urban ecology, Kenyan pastoral techniques to nanotechnology — inaugurate a program designed to help kick-start conservation toward addressing the challenges facing people and nature in the 21st century.

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Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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Kareiva: Vanishing Soils, the World’s Dirty Secret

We talk a lot about the biodiversity crisis, the energy crisis, the water crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, deforestation and so on. But what about the soil crisis?

Today, around the world the mean rate of soil loss is roughly ten times the rate at which soil is replenished. In some countries such as China, the rate of soil loss can be as high as 50 times greater than replenishment.

It is hard to imagine a better indicator of our failure to achieve sustainability. What could be more fundamental than the soil that grows the plants from which 99% of humankind’s calorie intake is derived?

From a biodiversity and conservation perspective, this soil loss also impinges on many of our more traditional concerns. It represents nutrient and sediment flow into our rivers and estuaries, to the detriment of fisheries.

Conservation has many narratives of profligate humanity soiling their nest and creating some sort of eco-catastrophe. Often those narratives are overstated and excessive.

But in the case of soil, the doom-and-gloom has some merit. Some historians have examined the arc of human history as a series of civilizations bankrupting their soils.

And it is not just data and science. If you have gardened and felt the comfort and seduction of warm, fertile soil in your hands, you know how primal is the link between people and soil. When someone back in the recesses of time coined the term “Mother Earth,” I have to believe she or he was thinking of warm soil.

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Jon Christensen: Why Nature’s on the Margins in U.S. Cities–and That Could Be a Good Thing

City Nature Milwaukee

Screenshot of Milwaukee’s “greenness” measures vs. average home value by neighborhood. Source: City Nature

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy.

The evidence keeps sprouting up like daffodils: Experiencing nature is good for us — physically, emotionally, cognitively. (Check out this new study on how a walk in the park can reduce brain fatigue.) But as the world becomes ever more urbanized, which urbanites have enough access to nature to reap these benefits…and how can we make that access more equitable?

Enter City Nature — a new project from Stanford University that maps the “greenness” and “paved-ness” of more than 2,500 neighborhoods in 34 U.S. cities (as determined by the shade of remotely sensed pixels) and then lays over that demographic data such as ethnic diversity and average home value as well as access to parks to produce portraits of American urban nature — who lacks it, who has it in abundance, and how those disparities match up with individual city plans and visions.

Those disparities are wide, according to Jon Christensen, an environmental historian who is one of City Nature’s two principal investigators and who teaches in UCLA’s History Department and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The hope, says Christensen, is that urban planners and activists can use City Nature’s data to eventually pinpoint the neighborhoods that have the greatest “nature need” — and take action.

But City Nature’s data also holds surprises — including how much urban nature in the United States has happened in spite of central planning, and how little impact great landscape architects such as Frederick Olmsted have had on that development. I caught up with Christensen to learn more:

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City Nature has a project called “Naturehoods” that measures neighborhood proximity to parks as well as neighborhood levels of “greenness” — which includes plants in backyards, parkways, street tree canopies. What disparities are you finding between parks and greenness across the United States? And does having a park nearby always mean you have “access” to greenness?

JON CHRISTENSEN: Parks don’t seem to be distributed in U.S. cities in a way that is biased towards any particular class. That’s partly a historical artifact of the way the cities have developed and the flight to the suburbs — there are lots of parks throughout cities.

But greenness or unpaved spaces tend to not be evenly distributed. There is a tendency — although it’s not uniform — that greener parts of cities tend to be wealthier neighborhoods with higher per-capita income and higher percentages of owner-occupied homes. That doesn’t mean that wealthy people live only in green parts of town — they can choose to live wherever they want, so they are often found in a lot of different neighborhoods and increasingly, we know, back in dense downtowns where there is often less green space.

But the greenest parts of cities often seem to be areas where people have big lots, backyards, lots of trees, nearby open space, and expensive homes. An economist might say these homeowners have made a trade-off. As one person I talked to here in L.A. told me, she doesn’t need a park, she has a big backyard. She’s only been to the local park once in decades. By contrast, the least green parts of town often seem to be home to people with lower incomes and less valuable property. They might have parks, but those parks may be more neglected, run down, more paved over to make maintenance easier for cash-strapped city park agencies, and there are fewer trees and smaller backyards, if any, and less open space around.

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Forest Dilemmas

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the 21st century. Join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

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