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

Some thoughts on cities and nature while perusing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Green City, Flickr CC photo by alykat (Alyson Hurt)

This morning I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, not two blocks from home, looking at a stack of books by Annie Dillard, whose works I have not read.

I opened up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which won Dillard a Pulitzer Prize) and landed on this passage:

The general rule in nature is that live things are soft within and rigid without. We vertebrates are living dangerously, and we vertebrates are positively piteous, like so many peeled trees.

This oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed as by Pliny, who writes of nature, “To all the rest, given she hath sufficient to clad them everyone according to their kind: as namely shells, cods, hard hides, pricks, shags, bristles, hair, down feathers, quills, scales, and fleeces of wool. The very trunks and stems of trees and plants, she hath defended with bark and rind, yea and the same sometimes double, against the injuries both of heat and cold: man alone, poor wretch, she hath laid all naked upon the bare earth, even on his birthday, to cry and wraule presently from the very first hour that he is born into the world.”

I am sitting under a sycamore tree: I am soft-shell and peeled to the least puff of wind or smack of grit.

Humans are a dynamic, weedy, and increasingly urban species.

Soft-shelled, we armor ourselves with technology. We build humancities, our correlate to anthills and beehives. As a social species, like ants and bees, our well-being depends upon mutual aid, social networks, and cultural adaptations — of which technology is a manifestation.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted aphorism applies here: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization celebrated its annual World Health Day. This year’s theme was “Urbanization and health: urban health matters.” Continue reading

Spring Brings Citizen Scientists Together

Spring buds, Flickr CC-2.0 image by Eugenijus Radlinskas

Last week, my almost-three-year-old daughter glanced out the window and cheerfully shouted, “Look, the tree is making leaves!

The first buds on the branch or leaves in the garden, the first purple martin or monarch butterfly or hummingbird…these little changes in our natural surroundings grab our attention and herald the arrival of spring.

Each first sighting triggers a kind of awakening. “Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment,” wrote Ellis Peters.

In order to take in spring’s sweep across the land (and seas), however, you often need a higher vantage point — perhaps a hilltop or an aerial photo.

Or sometimes, with just a few shared observations by Citizen Scientists, a map, and a little imagination, you can begin to appreciate spring’s steady march.

Here are a couple of sites reporting the first sighting of birds migrating northwards:

Purple martin sightings (as of 4/1/2010)

Purple Martin scout map

Hummingbirds (as of 4/1/2010)

Hummingbird first sightings as of April 1, 2010

Several migration sites, including one for hummingbirds, can be found at Journey North, a wonderful educational resource.

For the flora-minded, Project Budburst collects observations of “phenophases” of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses.

Some Citizen Science projects I find intriguing are the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds and a study of American eels in the Hudson River.

Also, check out the the USA National Phenology Network for more about phenology (“nature’s calendar”) and climate change.

Monarchs resting on rocks, Flickr CC image by Pendens Proditor

Monarch butterflies

Of special note this spring is the monarch butterfly. The monarchs have begun their journeys along several migration corridors and can travel thousands of miles. But according to several news articles (here, here, and here), the monarch population faces a dire situation.

This year may be one of the worst for the monarch butterfly, experts are reporting. Severe hailstorms in Mexico (one of the monarch’s winter home) followed by fifteen inches of rain has left the population decimated by up to 50 percent this year. Add to that the ongoing issue of habitat destruction, and the future of the monarch begins to look a little shaky.

If you’re interested, check out Monarch Watch and participate in the Monarch Waystation Program (also here) to create, conserve and protect monarch habitats.

Citizen Science works

The convergence of backyard naturalists, academics, and the internet is fueling the growth of Citizen Science, which involves the participation of nonscientists in research, including the crowdsourcing of observations of nature.

From the News and Observer:

Nonscientists like Bragg [Benton Bragg, who is helping out with a barred owl study] throughout North Carolina and the nation are participating in a smorgasbord of projects, studying birds, amphibians, plants, mammals, chemistry, dinosaurs, climate change, light pollution, the galaxy – the list goes on.

Citizen science involves nonscientist volunteers gathering and reporting data for scientific studies. Less often, they help analyze it. Participating is a two-way street. It not only funnels data to scientists faster than they could accumulate it using only trained researchers, it also gives citizens a window to science.

An article in BioScience magazine (March 2008) asks “Citizen Scientists, Can Volunteers Do Real Research?

In the end, what have citizen scientists achieved? Has their labor actually helped advance scientific knowledge? Yes, says Bonney [Rick Bonney of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology], pointing, for example, to complete and accurate maps of the breeding ranges of every North American bird. And with the help of volunteers in gathering data, researchers have been able to track the progress of conjunctivitis in house finches, the first time scientists have ever followed a disease in a wild animal. Citizen scientists have also collected data that helped scientists develop guidelines for land managers to preserve habitat.

Treehugger also published a nice piece on Citizen Science last year:

Where Big Science works by putting a few very highly trained people with a lot of money at their disposal in charge of rare and expensive machines, Citizen Science works by sending nearly anyone you can grab into the field with a simple task, simple equipment to do it, and a willingness on the scientists’ part to sort through the results. It’s messy, at times, but it works.

Beyond supporting research, Citizen Science projects promote scientific literacy and conservation efforts. Citizen Science encourages individuals, families, and schools to engage with local nature; it can reveal the ways in which nature’s networks connect communities across the continent. In this era of both global environmental change and “nature deficit disorder,” Citizen Science offers a way for folks to take steps forward together.

Happy spring!

Other projects

Birders World lists over 100 projects for birders interested in participating in citizen science.

National Projects (a sidebar to the News & Observer article):

Firefly Watch: Project based at Boston Museum of Science.
Frog Watch USA:
Learn about wetlands and help conserve amphibians by reporting the calls of local frogs and toads.
Project BudBurst:
Track the first leafing, first flower and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses in your area.
Open Dinosaur Project:
Help create an online database of dinosaur limb bone measurements used to investigate questions of dinosaur evolution.
Great Backyard Birdcount:
Annual program to identify and count birds where they live over four days in mid-February.
Project FeederWatch:
Put up a bird feeder, watch the birds that use it and report your sightings online.
Report bird sightings to help create an online globally accessible database showing bird distribution and abundance.
Galaxy Zoo:
Global program for armchair astronomers to sort and classify a million different images of galaxies according to shape.

More projects: or

[Note: The examples listed leaned heavily to the Eastern United States. Any suggestions for projects or migration maps from other parts of the Americas (or the Earth) are welcomed!]