Biodiversity and the City 4: What Edward Norton Should Know for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit

Diplomats from around the world are gathering this week in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week. While much discussion focuses on climate change, there is additional pressure during this International Year of Biodiversity to build consensus for the upcoming Biodiversity Summit (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan. A “High level meeting on Biodiversity” takes place at the UN this Wednesday, September 22.

The actor Edward Norton, who was named Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, recently penned an op-ed calling for greater action on biodiversity by world governments, especially the Obama administration in the United States.

In anticipation of the Biodiversity Summit, Marielle Anzelone wrote the excellent piece below for the Huffington Post over the summer. The global loss of biodiversity, which has been compared to rivets popping out of an airplane wing, needs greater public attention.

Anzelone, formerly the plant ecologist for NYC Parks’ Natural Resources Group, is leading tours of New York City’s tremendous biodiversity this week for the visiting diplomats.

I think this is a vital aspect of deliberations. Though undoubtedly informed by solid scientific input, the Biodiversity Summit will ultimately aim for high-level agreements and commitments about valuing and protecting habitat. I expect that virtually all of the diplomats from around the world live in cities and are more accustomed to engaging politicians than to understanding nature where they live.

Biodiversity, like climate change, is a broad concept that invokes somewhat amorphous global systems. But biodiversity is also about plants and animals that live in, or inhabit, places. This wildlife thrives or declines alongside — to varying degrees — human communities. Conservation, therefore, cannot succeed without buy-in and regular participation from local residents. Local biodiversity conservation also supports climate change mitigation and adaptation and human security.

Conservation efforts will have to expand in and around urbanizing areas (a challenging negotiation). There will be a concurrent session in Nagoya called the City Biodiversity Summit. Nonetheless, helping diplomats to recognize the ongoing interplay of wildlife amidst large human populations, like in New York City, is vitally important.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….

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Actor Edward Norton is unhappy. He is miffed because although he had starred as The Hulk in an earlier movie, he was not cast as the great green hero in a follow-up film. Cheer up, Ed! You’ve landed an even greener role: United Nations’ Biodiversity Ambassador. As the former botanist for New York City, I know first-hand the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I’ll be hosting international diplomats on a tour of New York’s nature this fall for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit. Since we’re going to be colleagues, I’d like to help you prepare for your new role. Here are some things you should know.

Urban nature exists. Most people embrace Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Big Apple as a “Skyscraper National Park”. While accurate at 51st Street and 7th Avenue, it obscures the fact that there is bona fide nature in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. New York City has more open space than Los Angeles and Chicago combined. These 53,000 acres include towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows. The world looks increasingly like New York, with more people now living in urban settings than rural areas. The city’s 8 million residents are drafting a blueprint for biodiversity from which global lessons can be learned.

Clean air isn’t free. Local biodiversity provides us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. Humans benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is clearly a price to be paid for their loss. Purifying contaminated water costs money. Recently a study commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that natural ecosystems provided benefits worth $18 billion per year, equal to the state’s construction industry. Continue reading

Biodiversity and the City 3: The consuming city

The last post focused on the surprising lack of conservation research on cities and biodiversity, given the rapid urbanization of mankind. Beyond direct habitat fragmentation, the other significant way in which cities impact biodiversity is through consumption.

The global footprint of cities is growing.

This is partly a function of sheer numbers: most people on the planet now live in urban areas. Three out of four Americans (United States) reside in cities and suburbs; two thirds of Latin American residents live in urban areas. By 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with a million or more inhabitants.

According to a Nature Conservancy study in 2008, urban growth around the world threatens biodiversity.

“While the effects of urbanization are very localized, cumulatively it is a big threat to biodiversity,” says [Robert] McDonald, the lead-author of the study. “Our urban footprint covers much of the globe and is coming closer to stomping out many endangered species and posing new risks to protected areas and parks.”

But it’s not simply population that creates the footprint.

Welcome to the Overshoot

Last Saturday was Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day), which marks when the humanity’s consumption of the world’s resources surpasses the annual productive capacity of the planet. Or as RP Siegel writes:

In a way, it’s a bit like finding out on August 21st that you’re not going to get another paycheck until next New Year’s Day. How would you deal with that?

Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, applies this concern to the state of the planet.

The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Overshoot Day is a useful concept to explain the impact of human society. The fact that “it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year” is pretty sobering. It’s also important to remember that the ecological debt is cumulative: the planet’s resources do not reset every year. Furthermore, the burdens created by the well-off tend to fall on more vulnerable communities elsewhere.

Finally, the rate of consumption is accelerating: this year the human footprint has reached “overshoot” a month faster than the previous year.

What drives the Overshoot?

So does population or overconsumption have the greater influence? It’s not necessarily a simple question. A couple recent items by David Biello (here) and Jonathan Foley (here) thoughtfully address the issues.

What is clear, however, is that cities have a key role in this relationship between humanity and the Earth’s resources.

Consumption driven by cities deepens the pressure on global systems. City dwellers tend to have higher incomes (and greater income disparities) and inhabit new social relationships. This combination fosters new markets and encourages consumerism — a kind of hyper-consumption stoked by advertising.

Supply chains radiate like tentacles from urban areas (themselves sprawling) to the farthest reaches of the planet. Food mile calculations start in distant landscapes and terminate in urban supermarkets and restaurants.

While large cities are notably energy efficient, the gains of urban density can be quickly outweighed by the increase in total embodied energy of goods consumed. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP),

One third of the average US household’s carbon footprint is due to emissions caused abroad producing goods imported into the US market.

Urban dwellers in the US, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations have a much larger footprint that city folk in other countries. Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that

a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land—an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island, Canada—to meet domestic needs alone without even including the environmental demands of industry. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres.

The UNEP study suggested that agriculture and energy are the primary forces of environmental change.

“How the world is fed and fueled will in large part define development in the 21st century as one that is increasingly sustainable or a dead end for billions of people.

“Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.

And it is an urban penchant for consumption that continues to drive resource extraction, manufacturing, and their related impacts around the globe.

A recent study (also here) found that the primary forces driving deforestation are the rise of big cities and international trade. Increasing urban demand for agricultural products and biofuels greatly impact land use.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

This vast shift is now happening primarily in the global South.

But the demand itself is not solely from developed nations. While cities in the developed world have a larger footprint, this pattern is being mirrored in the developing world, as more people funnel into urban areas. The food demands of cities in the emerging economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), in particular, will push agricultural expansion.

Agricultural output in the Bric nations will grow three times as fast as in the major developed countries, the joint United Nations-OECD study said.

And rising incomes and urbanisation in developing states will drive growth.

“Developing countries will provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade,” the report said.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods that will favour livestock and dairy products.

“For virtually all commodities, the projected growth in imports and exports of developing economies [over the next decade] exceeds that of the OECD area,” said the report.

The vast demand encourages agribusiness-driven exploitation. Where the main causes of deforestation were once the cumulative impacts of individual actions, now large-scale land grabs and conversion to agriculture have become a primary concern. Opportunistic agribusiness tends to exploit nations with weak governance structures. So this is not simply an issue of urban-driven demand, but also one of land tenure in the Global South, distribution, and a global food system.

Not just mega-cities

It’s uncertain (at least to me) whether the hyperconsuming mega-cities or the small to medium-sized cities — where most of global population growth during the next few decades will occur — will have a greater collective footprint.

The carbon footprint — and impact on land use and deforestation — of the megacities may be larger given the consumption levels. The sheer number and distribution of smaller cities, however, may end up disrupting more habitat and contributing more to biodiversity loss.

The rapid expansion of cities will test the capacity of urban governance (i.e., haphazard systems, untrained managers, corruption).  Small to medium-sized cities may face the “double whammy” of rapid, unplanned expansion and a “brain drain” of more talented or educated individuals to larger cities. The urban response will determine the scale of social and environmental impacts.

In any case, the future of humanity will be found in cities. As Robert McDonald from the Nature Conservancy concludes:

“Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

Biodiversity and the City 2: In an urban world, where are the ecologists?

What happens to biodiversity in areas that become more urban? The short answer, not surprisingly, is that urbanization decreases biodiversity.

In a review article published in Science a couple years ago, Nancy Grimm and colleagues wrote that urban land use tends to

reduce both species richness and evenness for most biotic communities, despite increases in abundance and biomass of birds and arthropods. Because the urban footprint extends far beyond municipal boundaries, urbanization may also reduce native species diversity at regional and global scales.

Cities have a huge impact through local habitat loss and fragmentation. More broadly, urban consumption helps to drive global environmental change.

The longer answer, however, is that we don’t know enough about urban biodiversity and how to protect ecological systems amidst urban growth.

This is significant, because the Earth is more and more an urban planet. The Population Institute recently forecast that the human population will grow to nearly 9.5 billion by 2050. Between natural increase and migration, most of the population growth will occur in cities in developing nations. By 2030, two thirds of humans will live in urban areas.

Climate change/destabilization, biodiversity loss, and agricultural land grabs (stemming in part from food demand from urban areas) may drive much of the urban migration in the developing world.

“Ecologists shun the urban jungle”

While tools like wildlife corridors and habitat conservation plans can help to preserve ecosystems facing rapid urban growth, several recent items highlight the vast challenge of supporting biodiversity in an urbanizing world.

First, conservation research is simply not looking at urban areas.

An item in Nature News suggests that only one in six papers on conservation addressed regions used by humans and only 4% studied urban or suburban areas.

The world’s top ecologists are failing to study the landscapes that most need work, and they risk delaying conservation efforts and making their subject irrelevant.

That is the stark message from US researchers who have quantified the extent to which ecologists devote themselves to pristine wilderness at the expense of inhabited regions. The bias is a major problem for both the field and the environment, they say, because it is areas used by humans — which take up most of the Earth’s land-mass — that are in most need of conservation.

The piece discusses work presented this past week at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). According to Terry Chapin, the new president of the ESA:

It is really important that ecologists do research on areas populated by people. I would hate to go so far as to say studies of pristine areas are not important, but we clearly need to know much more about the direct ways in which we are affecting the biosphere.

There are undoubtedly ecologists whose research focuses on the urban landscape, but this still appears to be an emerging field of study. This article mentions five research “nodes” addressing urban environments as social-ecological systems (including the previously quoted Nancy Grimm):

Marina Alberti’s at the University of Washington, Nancy Grimm at Arizona State University, Stewart Pickett and colleagues at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, Mark McDonnell at the Australian Research Center for Urban Ecology, and Herbert Sukopp in Germany.

Second, as a post on Conservation Bytes suggests, conservation studies rarely lead to actual conservation, in part because of the siloed approach of researchers whose communication primarily echoes within the academic arena. The presentation cited was specific to tropical forest research, but the post also discussed considerations for all researchers.

These tidbits reflect the recent state of biodiversity research, which may in turn highlight the traditional bent of academia and its funding sources, as well as the difficulties of studying complex urban-ecosystem interactions. They also say little about the efforts of ecologists working for nonprofit organizations, such as Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy or especially local conservation groups, or for local or state departments of natural resources/environment/parks.

But the two realizations above may contribute to a significant third item: While there has been an increase in the number of protected areas around the globe, little progress has been made towards the goals set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (2002).

On a positive note, 2010 and the International Year of Biodiversity have brought relative successes on the biodiversity front, even as climate change’s roller coaster year continues (Copenhagen, Climategate, climate bill in the US Congress, etc.). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study brought attention to the economic benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services. A June conference in Busan, Korea, has led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — basically an IPCC for biodiversity. IPBES promises to bring greater coherence to fragmented conservation efforts.

Given the growing human impact on living systems across the globe, more foresight, research, and action is needed to ensure that governments (and individuals) protect urbanizing landscapes for biodiversity as well as climate change resilience.

Part I focused on a wonderful video promoting the Biodiversity Campaign from the European Commission on the Environment.

Biodiversity and the City

Part I

On Worldchanging, Amanda Reed posted this remarkable video from the Biodiversity Campaign that the European Commission on the Environment launched earlier this year.

It’s a lovely piece that I hope reaches a large audience. What is surprising is the explicit focus on connecting urbanization and biodiversity loss. The ad seeks to shift the ways in which city dwellers envision the world.

This is brilliant. Now that more than four billion human beings — half of the human population — live in urban settlements, fostering a deeper understanding of connections between humans and nature and our intertwined futures has become increasingly difficult. Yet this remains a central challenge for our civilization, as it continues to press alarmingly against planetary boundaries.

According to the description of the video:

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth including ecosystems, species and genes. We are part of biodiversity and our lives depend on it. And this life supporting biodiversity is disappearing from our cities at an alarming rate. Today it is the sparrow, but tomorrow it could be us.

Amanda Reed writes in the Worldchanging article:

While the video above is more about a problem than a solution, I think it is a compelling way to communicate the issue of biodiversity and interconnectedness to a large audience, which in turn can perhaps spur greater action and interest in solutions. The trick though, is to grasp the large scope of the issue, and spur action at the right scale and speed.

Reed goes on to suggest that the actions for change recommended by the Biodiversity Campaign are overly limited to the individual scale and, hence, insufficient to address the “large-scale systems of industry” that drive global biodiversity loss. Indeed, the problems are in large part systemic, making change necessary at many levels.

Business decisions make sense from a narrowly economic perspective optimizing the path from source to market. New reports connecting business and biodiversity — such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) — will help to educate the business community and policy makers, expand consideration of ecosystem services, and tip businesses towards less harmful options.

Campaigns that reframe our relationship with nature – specifically as an urban species – serve as an important complement.

Mexico City awaits

source (Creative Commons):

source (Creative Commons):

This past weekend, world leaders publicly wrote off hope for a climate accord at the upcoming global summit in Copenhagen. The goalposts may shift to a possible second climate conference to be held next year in Mexico City.

Home to 19 million inhabitants, Mexico City is the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere (and second largest in the world). Every year, more than 300,000 people (think Toledo, Ohio, or Riverside, California) are added to this sprawling and fragmented city.

Some 60% of the population — over 11 million people — lives in “popular” or informal or squatter settlements surrounding the Distrito Federal, contributing to the vast environmental and governance challenges across the region. “Mexico City is now taking place outside the city,” according to José Castillo, architect and professor at Universidad Iberoamericana.

Yet even here, there are successes to build upon….

Sustainable transit and ecological parks

Last week, Harvard University’s JFK School of Government awarded the 2009 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership to EMBARQ for Metrobus, the bus rapid transit (BRT) project it developed with the Mexico City government. Metrobus brings sustainable transit to one of the world’s most congested cities; it will help to stitch together some of the farflung reaches of the sprawling metropolis, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and take polluting minibuses off the road. Already, more than 450,000 residents ride Metrobus each day. Building upon the success of Metrobus, the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico is supporting BRT projects in cities across Mexico. Guadalajara launched its own Macrobus system last spring.

And amidst Mexico City’s sprawl, there are efforts towards preserving and restoring the natural landscape and establishing a “cultura ambiental” (environmental culture) among the residents of the city.

On her blog, “Roads Less Traveled,” Tracy Barnett recounts her visit to the Parque Ecologico de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City Ecological Park), which was developed over the past two decades with the help of the Mexican environmental organization, Pronatura. According to the Pronatura website for the Central-West region (in Spanish–and translated into English with Google Translate), the park in Ajusco is a critical area for groundwater recharge as well as local biodiversity. Located up the road from the city’s beltway and Six Flags Mexico City, the park’s oak, pine, and scrub oak ecosystems are home to 611 species of plants, 134 species of birds, and 127 species of butterflies. Some of the environmental educators led Tracy on a tour of the park, which overlooks the city:

The leafy canopy opens here onto a startling view: a yellow-grey cloud smothers the landscape, a clutter of urban sprawl stretching for miles below, barely visible through the smog that envelopes it.

“We use this station to explain to people why the lungs of the forest are so important to protect,” Guadalupe said. “If the government had not stepped in to reclaim this land, all of Ajusco would have looked like that.”

After the devastating earthquake of 1985, thousands fled to the outskirts of the city to rebuild and start new lives, many of them building on land they claimed for themselves. This unauthorized activity occurred everywhere and for the most part was unchallenged.

In Ajusco, however, the government took a stand. The area is not only an important recharge zone, but also is situated along the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, a conservation initiative stretching from the northern Sierra Madre to Morelos in the south.

Here in the forests of Ajusco, “the place where water is born” in ancient Nahuatl, it’s easy to forget the proximity of what is, by some estimates, the world’s second-largest metropolis.

The restoration projects include plant nurseries, reforestation with native species, and bird monitoring. Educational programs begin with opportunities for preschool children to discover the natural world and also introduce birdwatching, butterflies, and acorns to older visitors. At the mariposario, staff collect eggs of butterflies, allow them to hatch and grow, and later release some into the wild and save the rest for a butterfly house, where children can experience the butterflies up close.

source (Creative Commons):

source (Creative Commons):

The park’s history highlights the difficult choices that arise when population and environment collide. In order to reclaim the land for the park in 1989, the government evicted thousands of people and bulldozed hundreds of homes that were built after the 1985 earthquake. Poor residents had little recourse but to move on, probably to another informal settlement. With urbanization swallowing up the surrounding landscape at a rapid pace, ecological parks like this one may seem but tiny islands. While “nature” may sometimes seem a luxury, these areas are vital to protect or restore wildlife habitat and support the ecosystem services that sustain the city and its residents. The parks also preserve opportunities for urban dwellers to interact with nature that may lead, one day, to a “cultura ambiental.”

From here to there…and back again

The United States National Park Service had a hand in the development of the Parque Ecologico. The Service’s Park Flight Program provided support for educational programs. Why the National Park Service? As the Park Flight brochure notes:

The U.S. National Park System provides habitat critical to many species of migratory birds, from raptors and shorebirds to songbirds. Continental and local declines in these bird populations have led to a concern for their future. Because these species use parks on a seasonal basis, their protection cannot be assured without conservation efforts occurring in the habitats the birds use throughout the year. This requires cooperative and coordinated efforts between the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, such as the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program, to protect breeding, migration, and wintering habitats, as well as a proactive approach to migratory bird conservation within the National Park Service (NPS).

The brochure offers a quote by Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Hemispheric solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”

Vancouver, Part 1

“Every week humans create the equivalent of a city the size of Vancouver.”

This week, all roads seemed to lead to Vancouver.

First, I came across these lovely photos of a beautiful autumn day in Vancouver, Canada.

Stanley Park‘s 1,000 acres (400 hectares) make it the third largest urban park in North America.

This past week, Mother Nature Network listed Vancouver as its “Destination of the Week,” proclaiming that: “The city proves that, with a little planning and ingenuity, environmentalism and modernization do not need to be mutually exclusive.”

Then I read this blog post that cited a recent study by Robert MacDonald and Peter Kareiva from the Nature Conservancy. More than half of the six billion people in the world now live in urban areas. By 2030, the figure will be closer to 60 percent.

MacDonald and Kareiva examined the growing urban footprint and its potential impact on biodiversity, and this is what they found:

Ecoregions most affected by urban growth contain some of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world — these places tend to be small, but significant.

Eight percent of the vertebrate species of the IUCN Red List of endangered species are there largely because of urban development. And that number may continue to rise with new urban expansion and growth.

Around 25 percent of the world’s protected areas will be within a day’s walk or half-hour drive of urban areas by 2030. Such proximity will increase the pressures on natural resources and intensify the threats to these protected places.

Kareiva emphasizes that urbanization and conservation must be considered together:

“We can set up all the reserves we want, but if we do not take care in where we place our cities, how we grow our cities, and how we live in our cities, then we will fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.”

The explosion of cities across the developing world — including  megacities and the small to medium-sized cities where most of the population growth will take place — presents significant challenges to governments lacking financial and administrative resources. Robert MacDonald says, “Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

Which brings us back to Vancouver. As the Conservancy report suggests, the rate of urbanization worldwide is like adding a city the size of Vancouver every week.

Last month, practitioners and policy makers gathered in Vancouver to discuss ecological governance and sustainable urban systems at the Gaining Ground Summit on “Resilient Cities: Urban Strategies for Transition Times.” At the Summit, Mayor Gregor Robertson introduced Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future, a strategy to make Vancouver the Greenest City. In doing so, Vancouver joined New York, Chicago, and other cities that have adopted climate action plans or sustainable development strategies. Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams also spoke about his city’s strategic planning efforts towards being the “most sustainable city.” (Portland released its climate action plan for 2050 last week.) Some interesting coverage of the Summit can be found here, here, and here.

Also of note: the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver will feature carbon offsets for the 118,000 tons of CO2 expected to be released by all activities related to the Games.