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

City of (Lost) Streams

Where there is life, there is water. Water finds its way across a terrain. It shapes the land and connects places within a landscape. Human settlements inevitably begin around water: oceans, rivers, streams, springs, wells, aqueducts.

Where there are people, the landscape changes in unique ways.  As cities grow — and as urbanization spreads — cities begin to replace water’s imprint with a human touch: graded and paved surfaces, channeled and covered streams, filled marshes and wetlands.

Water, of course, doesn’t disappear. It still courses beneath the urbanized landscape. Broken sewers, basement seepage, and the occasional sinkhole serve as reminders. Stormwater management traditionally approached water as a problem — which it can be; paradoxically, the problems often get worse when settlements are engineered with the belief that nature can be tamed.

As city administrators increasingly recognize the value of natural amenities and ecological functions, such as flood control, and begin to reincorporate nature’s infrastructure into urban planning, there is a growing effort to “daylight” once-covered streams. The technology called the city continues to evolve. Even recognizing the presence of streams and knowing the history of a place can change one’s perceptions about a city.

Here are some examples of work that document and/or recover urban streams:

I’ll take Mannahatta

Mannahatta image from The New Yorker/The Mannahatta Project

New York City, the first megacity, is well-known for the grid of streets overlayed on Manhattan Island. Inspired by a British surveyor’s detailed map of the island in 1782, Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society merged landscape ecology, computer modeling, and historic accounts to reconstruct — block by block — an image of the island Henry Hudson would have encountered in 1609. This combination of art and science became The Mannahatta Project, after the Lenape name for the island. Through his work, Sanderson has located 89 of the 300 original streams documented by the British Headquarters map. This vision of what New York once was offers a great framework for imagining the ecological future of New York.

More about Mannahatta here. Also check out Sanderson’s talk at TED.

Interesting sidebar: In 1924 traffic administrators proposed the draining and filing of New York City’s East River (actually a tidal strait) to accommodate development. (from a post in the fascinating blog, Landscape and Urbanism. Also check out this related item on “The Blue Road.”)


Urban landscapes embody a combination of factors, including topography, population, and history. Adam Levine, a consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department, presents a fascinating glimpse of the city’s hydrological history on his website, Philly H2O. Levine illustrates the changes to the topography of the urban watershed with some remarkable maps.

Philly H2O -- Historic StreamsPhilly H2O -- Modern Streams 2
The first map shows the streams that once ran on the surface in Philadelphia. The second map shows the few streams that still run on the surface — and the sewer pipes that now run the other streams once flowed.

Levine writes:

As in many urban areas, most of Philadelphia’s surface streams, encompassing many square miles of watershed, were systematically obliterated over the course of the city’s development. Diverted into pipes — their valleys leveled with millions of yards of fill and overlaid with a grid of streets — these streams now flow in some of the largest sewers in the city’s 3,000-mile drainage system. In most cases, these projects were designed as combined sewers, carrying raw sewage along with the stream flow and stormwater runoff. For this reason alone (and there are many others), it would be prohibitively expensive to “daylight” such streams (that is, uncover the streams and restore them to something akin to a natural state), since it would mean building a completely separate system of pipes to carry the sewage.

Levine points out that this pattern of converting streams was standard practice during the 19th and 20th centuries. The early era of sanitary engineering significantly improved public health by helping to control epidemics, such as typhoid fever, among the burdgeoning urban population. The result, however, is that “The modern map of the city’s surface streams is now disturbingly blank.”

Los Angeles

Flickr/CC image by Ron Reiring

Growing up in Los Angeles, I often saw the concrete Los Angeles River from the window of a car; it seemed a rather broad interpretation of the word “river.” I was also fascinated by the Tujunga Wash, a rectilinear channel running through the San Fernando Valley that carried away the seasonal rains. Think the trench on the Death Star in Star Wars. History classes taught us about roads that followed Native American trails or El Camino Real, the 19th-century road connecting Spanish missions. But school told us virtually nothing about the natural history of the streams and rivers, of the land beneath our feet.

Now that I live in Brooklyn, I’ve recently come across a couple of wonderful blogs about water in L.A.. Journalist Emily Green writes about water and politics in Los Angeles and the West at Chance of Rain, as well as for the L.A. Times. And Jessica Hall and Joe Linton’s blog, L.A. Creek Freak, explores the waterways and ways of water in an arid urban environment. These blogs have offered a new perspective of the city. This quote by Jessica Hall from an interview in LA Weekly captures the value for revealing the ecology of the land:

“When I was growing up here, the idea that there was any nature at all around me wasn’t even on my mind,” says Hall. “My father is from a rural part of Kentucky, so my childhood experience of nature was from there, or from New Mexico, where my mom was from. I had no experience of nature in Hawthorne, or even Los Angeles. It wasn’t part of my consciousness. How can you ask people to be good stewards of the environment when they have no concept of what’s around them?”

A significant movement to revitalize the Los Angeles River is taking shape. These blogs also introduce community efforts to restore Ballona Creek and the Arroyo Seco watershed. A media capital, key port city, and gateway to the Pacific, Los Angeles is also situated within the California Floristic Province, considered one of the global diversity hotspots by Conservation International.

Other points West

Concern about urban streams have brought together community members in other cities across the West. In Vancouver,  an estimated 700 kilometers of streams flow through storm sewers. Groups have worked to restore Brewery Creek and Guichon Creek. Local groups in Berkeley, California, have daylighted parts of Strawberry Creek, which runs through the city, as part of rebuilding community. High Country News reported on urban watershed restoration in the industrial East Bay (San Francisco Bay), where a coalition has come together to address urban sustainability and environmental justice in North Richmond. Community activists and water management specialists have developed an “eyes on the creek” mentality, to borrow from Jane Jacobs,  understanding that upstream and downstream communities are tied together by the health of Wildcat Stream. Phil Stevens, executive director of the Urban Creeks Council, “This is basically “Creeks 2.0.’ The idea is that we’re not just doing a single restoration project and moving on, but looking at an integrated management model that could make the watershed an asset for the entire county.”

Seoul, Korea

Flickr/CC image by Kyle Nishioka

One of the largest and most successful daylighting projects has converted a capped stream running through the heart of Seoul, Korea into a centerpiece of urban revitalization. The Cheonggyecheon or “clean stream” project “peeled back the pavement” to create a green corridor through the city of 10 million inhabitants. Benefits have included decreased air pollution, lower summer temperatures in the vicinity, and an inviting area for active (running) and passive (sitting by the stream) recreation. Even local wildlife has responded, with significant increases in the number of fish, bird, and insect species reported.

According to Lee In-Keun, the assistant mayor for infrastructure, “We’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.” Cheonggyecheon has become an inspiration for other cities, including Los Angeles (L.A. Creek Freak), looking to recapture the vitality of streams and improve the livability of downtowns.


In developing awareness of local and regional ecosystems, human communities can better plan for resilience in the face of uncertain conditions (climate destabilization, constrained resources) and understand how their specific landscapes are tied into the “network of networks” that comprise the ecosphere. Recognizing human and natural histories of place allow us to grow roots, even in an mobile, information-driven culture. Residents of cities and suburbs everywhere can embrace their “hidden streams.”