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 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.