Lauren Bailey – Society for Conservation Biology
Three years ago I moved with my family to Arlington, Virginia, minutes outside of the nation’s capital. I can see Reagan National Airport from my front yard, the Washington Monument looms in the not-too-far distance, and a major boulevard is only a block from my house. And yet, within days of moving in, neighbors excitedly started telling us to keep a watch out for the neighborhood foxes…and eagles…and ospreys. Every May we welcome the spring migration of songbirds—some species I’ve only ever seen in the rural forests of northern Michigan—and reluctantly endure the spring infestation of Lone Star and dog ticks. Last year my next-door neighbor found an American coot hunkered down under a canoe in his yard, and last month he photographed a doe and her fawn strolling carefully through the sparsely wooded hill that extends behind our backyards. Raccoons and opossums are frequent visitors, and owls and bats have been known to fly by. In our urban metropolis, it feels like we’re in the midst of a biodiversity hotspot.
You’ve probably heard the recent news pieces on urban wildlife encounters, like the coyote found walking on the roof of a New York City bar; the owl attacking residents on a Salem, Oregon, park trail; and the brawling black bears in a New Jersey suburb. Many wildlife species are adapting to and flourishing in urban and suburban areas, the result of a combination of factors: the extirpation of native predators, decreasing levels of hunting, and human encroachment on native habitat. Depending on the species in question, some residents are fearful or intolerant of wildlife entering their communities, while others (like me) are overjoyed to bring a little bit of “the country” to their urban experience. But having the best of both worlds can come at a price: every year, deer-vehicle collisions cost the United States $4 billion in vehicle damage, and over 200 people lose their lives. Added to that, wildlife encounters (including bears, alligators, and moose, to name a few) in residential neighborhoods are increasing, sometimes with tragic consequences. On the other hand, there are obvious benefits to community residents having increased exposure to wildlife, including a greater appreciation for and decreased apprehension of the natural world; community cohesiveness stemming from a shared experience (see my “neighborhood foxes” anecdote above); and potentially, a stronger sense of stewardship toward one’s surroundings to maintain habitat for these wildlife residents.
So, as cities and suburban areas continue to incorporate more green space (pocket parks, community gardens, rain gardens, to name a few) into their strategic designs, another, perhaps equally important, question arises: does everyone have equal access to the benefits of the boom in urban biodiversity? I admittedly live in a relatively upper-middle income neighborhood where government resources are spent to maintain the local parklands, street trees and rain gardens. Just the other day, I drove past the county-maintained river trail and noticed a large crew of workers carefully removing dead brush from the tree-lined walkway, and feeding the woody refuse into a chipper to make mulch. My neighborhood is not surrounded by brownfields, landfills, empty lots or neglected parks. My well-to-do, well-connected neighbors have the necessary influence to stop a bus depot from being built down the street, and to ensure that the local water treatment facility doesn’t smell like, well, a water treatment facility.
Not every urbanite lives with these luxuries. As poorer neighborhoods with fewer political connections and less sway try unsuccessfully to keep undesirable fixtures out of their communities, one could argue this takes a toll on their health and well-being. Asthma rates in poor, minority, urban residents have been shown in several studies to be significantly higher than in their wealthier white counterparts, suggesting there are environmental factors (such as air pollution) poor minority populations are exposed to that wealthier white communities are not. So are these patterns similar when we speak not of pollution and disease, but of healthy habitat and access? And should we care?
I was first exposed to the idea that biodiversity levels in neighborhoods could vary depending on the socioeconomic status of those areas while attending a seminar by Dr. Charles Nilon (University of Missouri, Columbia) that highlighted his work with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. That talk changed the way I thought about nature, and my role in studying it. Since then, as I have become more interested in urban wildlife ecology, I have come across study after study in which the findings mirror those of Dr. Nilon. Essentially, the higher the neighborhood income, the more likely species richness and diversity is high, since these areas are more often found close to parks, rivers and forests that provide habitat. Such ecological fixtures are often not present in less affluent neighborhoods. . So the urban wildlife oasis I experience in my upper-middle class backyard is probably not the reality of poorer residents in neighboring communities. Similarly, they likely don’t see county landscaping crews methodically pruning trees and weeding along trails.
Perhaps you’re asking why we should care. So not everyone gets to see the full range of songbirds during the spring migration; aren’t there bigger issues to worry about? Perhaps, but my argument for environmental justice, and a policy initiative to implement it, is two-fold. From a human perspective, why would we (especially those of us with conservation backgrounds) ever feel satisfied knowing that there are people—children—in our country who aren’t exposed to the best of nature that’s possible? We came into this field for a reason, perhaps because there was one pivotal moment or a series of little encounters where we explored our surrounding nature and knew that we wanted to do this work for the rest of our lives. I want that eye-opening experience to be possible for every kid, no matter where they live or how poor they are. Everyone should have the opportunity for peace and reflection that one only gets when seeing a butterfly alit on a native flower, or when hearing the dawn chorus of a community of songbirds. We need poor, minority, urban kids in the conservation field just as much as we need farming kids from Iowa or hunting kids from Pennsylvania. In a time when everyone is talking about diversifying their base and reaching out to non-traditional communities, creating living spaces for people to become interested in, and stewards for nature is more imperative now than ever.
Many years ago, I worked as an Urban Park Ranger for the New York City Parks Department, and one of my duties was to conduct nature tours for school groups throughout city parklands. My first question was always, “What types of animals do you think you’ll see here?” Many of my guests had never stepped foot in a park before that day, because their neighborhoods were too far away (and there was no public transportation nearby) for them to visit. Inevitably, the kids would answer, wide-eyed and nervous, “Tigers? Lions? Cheetahs?” Meanwhile, traffic from the highway surrounding the park could be heard buzzing in the background. Because of a lack of access, the kids had no idea what was in their own backyards. But once we were inside the park and I helped them identify bird songs, wildflowers, animal scat (that was always popular) and tracks, these kids were in love. We have to remember that the dissociation with natural areas has nothing to do with disinterest, and everything to do with a lack of access.
So there’s the human perspective for why we should care. What about the ecological factor? We are living in desperate times for wildlife conservation. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are experiencing population declines that we worry they might not ever rebound from. Bats are contracting White Nose Syndrome in over half of all U.S. states. Songbird and raptor species across the country are declining due to habitat fragmentation, increased competition for diminishing resources and factors related to climate change. Our inland aquatic communities are challenged by pollutants, invasive species, climate change and demands for water. Why would we not ensure that every imaginable landscape available is managed in a way to encourage wildlife habitation? Native treescapes, rain gardens, community gardens, and forested trails don’t have to be luxuries maintained only for the wealthy. Yes, they take money to implement, but even more they take initiative, will, and advocacy.
I’ll go home this evening, and as I pull up to my house, I’ll look at the tall dead tree on the hill in my backyard and likely see the neighborhood osprey eating a just-caught fish from the tributary that flows a quarter mile away. The neighbor might regale me with stories of interesting wildlife he caught on his camera. My six-year old will excitedly point out the American robin walking along the rain-drenched yard, searching for worms. And as we pull out our binoculars and head to the yard to explore what nature abounds, I’ll be wishing that another mother and six-year old in a poorer neighborhood nearby could be doing the same.
Lauren Bailey, staff at the Society for Conservation Biology.