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….

- – -

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


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.

Nature in the City: promoting community-based ecological stewardship

With its focus on regional stewardship and “re-inhabiting the land,” the following item from Peter Brastow resonated with me.

Brastow directs Nature in the City, a project of the Earth Island Institute that focuses on local ecology and stewardship in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nature in the City recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Last week I experienced an acute episode of realizing that our message of community-based ecological stewardship is missing still, not only in the public-at-large, but also even within the environmental activist community. This realization repeats itself over and over again and in fact, was largely the justification for the Nature in the City Symposium at World Environment Day 2005.

Peter Berg of Planet Drum expresses eloquently that real sustainability must be grounded in a bioregionalist perspective whereby people are aware of and living in harmony with the natural systems of which we are all a part. But the broader environmental community seems to continue to limit the definition of sustainability to green buildings & technologies, recycling and clean energy.

The lack of attention to protecting and connecting with our city’s ecology is a function of our larger society’s fundamental and wholesale disconnection from nature. We have culturally evolved as a species to become totally separate, physically and psychologically, from the rest of nature. Most humans nowadays pretty much operate in the modern human realm as sort of a layer on top of the rest of nature, uncaringly and/or unknowingly exploiting the rest of the biosphere. We go about our daily lives without the slightest understanding of the nature and biodiversity all around us; including while performing all of the critical “green” tasks of installing solar panels, achieving zero waste, and closing the “ecological” loop, as it were.

“Green” and “ecological” are in quotes because well-meaning folks use the terms without any understanding of our local ecology, of the native plants, animals, and habitats that characterize San Francisco’s natural heritage. Inspired by the philosophy of bioregionalism, we at Nature in the City aim to demonstrate the way to break down the nature-culture dichotomy by physically, materially connecting people and nature where we live, everywhere.

When we physically re-inhabit the land, we derive mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being and a deepened sense of place and meaning in our lives, learning more intimately how we are interconnected with all other living things; we restore a more positive relationship of mutuality whereby local nature also benefits from our careful stewardship by becoming healthier and more abundant. Two weeks ago, we learned that the Green Hairstreak butterfly found its way to one of our brand new stewardship sites at 14th and Pacheco along the corridor between its two remaining populations in the Hawk Hill and Rocky Outcrop natural areas. We photographed an individual on a coast buckwheat – one of the two host plant species for the butterfly – that we planted between the streets!!

Re-creating healthy, positive relationships with nature is revolutionary, because it means rethinking how we live on the planet, globally, and in our own communities, neighborhoods and backyards. Evolving a new culture of community ecological stewardship is ecological sustainability. If we are to survive on this planet amidst natural beauty and abundance, we must learn how to recreate an actual physical, sustainable relationship with the rest of nature by taking care of the land and healing our ancient human-nature relationship, becoming, literally, part of the natural history of San Francisco.

[links and highlights are from the original note]

Next, I’ll post some thoughts inspired by this letter.

An urban nature lesson from Philadelphia

Where does environmental stewardship begin?

I came across this wonderful video of second graders in North Philadelphia learning and playing outdoors.

Source: Philly Eco-City

Opportunities to play outdoors and experience nature build upon a child’s innate curiosity. Getting to know a place can lead to a sense of ownership. And this, in turn, becomes the base for further learning about nature and about broader environmental issues and supporting active stewardship of the environment.

As one of the teachers says:

“It starts small, right? It starts with them playing and being outside and appreciating the space. …When they become attached to a space, they feel more responsible for it….”