On the Nature of Cities — and the Future of Conservation

Urban environmentalism has caused considerable soul-searching among conservationists — but it may also herald a new chapter in the relationship between human beings and the natural systems that sustain us.

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By Robert McDonald

More than 25 years ago, author and activist Bill McKibben famously declared the end of nature. Defining “nature” as wild places essentially untouched by people, McKibben argued that our collective environmental impact — especially our alteration of the planet’s climate — has left nothing on Earth in pristine condition.

By this definition, McKibben was right: Nature is dead. And, in the last quarter-century, our domination and destruction of the Earth has only grown. The climate change McKibben warned about is unfolding around us. We have crossed other boundaries that have fundamentally altered the chemistry and function of the planet. And we are farther from nature than ever, as more than half of humanity now lives in cities.

The cities we call home are, in many ways, the opposite of McKibben’s vision of nature. They are almost entirely human-made spaces, designed to suit our needs and desires. Yet those cities have launched a new wave of environmental activism. Urban environmentalism has caused considerable soul-searching among conservationists — but it may also herald a new chapter in the relationship between human beings and the natural systems that sustain us.

Today, cities are embracing nature — albeit an engineered version of it. New York City, for all its famous skyscrapers, has generated buzz about a pop-up forest in Times Square and its High Line park, built on a repurposed railroad spur. Meanwhile, ecologists and economists have quantified the value of nature in cities, showing its contributions to everything from stormwater management to air quality to improved health.

And, while the international fight against climate change seems moribund, hundreds of cities are taking significant actions to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, working together in groups such as C40 and ICLEI.

As part of this surge of activism, many environmental and conservation groups are launching new programs in urban areas. My own organization, The Nature Conservancy, just started such a program. The World Wide Fund for Nature is focusing on the urban environment, as is the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Major philanthropic organizations in the U.S., including The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, have launched programs to make cities more resilient in the face of climate change and other shocks.

Some urban environmental programs focus on restoring “natural infrastructure.” Others promote the idea that islands of urban nature — even just street trees–can make city dwellers happier, healthier and more productive.

Hard to argue with, right? And yet there is a deep and bitter debate within the conservation movement about whether these urban programs are really about protecting nature at all. Is it protecting nature if we save a forest that surrounds a drinking-water reservoir? Most conservationists would say yes, even if that forest has been logged or otherwise altered by people. But what about an artificial wetland, or some stubbly grasses growing on a green roof? Many conservationists feel there is nothing at all natural about these novel assemblages of plants that humans have thrown together for our own purposes.

This raises larger questions. Is conservation just about protecting nature from people–by safeguarding biodiversity and the few remaining mostly wild places? Or is it also about maintaining nature for people, by saving — or even creating — natural spaces? Old-school conservationists view the idea of nature for people as offensive, a sell-out of Mother Earth. As legendary naturalist E.O. Wilson said to author Emma Marris a few years back, “Where do you plant that white flag you’re carrying?”

The problem with the old-school vision of conservation is this: If we believe that we are now 25 years past the end of nature, then conservation itself is now at an end. By 2050, two thirds of humanity will live in cities. If conservation has nothing to offer them, then it is largely irrelevant. On the other hand, if conservation is, at least in part, about people, then making our urban world more green and humane is an essential part of a conservationist’s job.

The latter view points to a new kind of relationship with the Earth. The microbiologist Rene Dubos once wrote about the “wooing of the Earth.” Rather than living as masters of the Earth, bending it to our will, Dubos envisioned human beings as lovers of the Earth, making decisions about nature with love and respect in our heart. Nature is not something apart from humanity, but something that we should love and interact with, something that we will change as it changes us.

In our ever more urbanized world, we could mourn the death of nature as McKibben once defined it. Or we could broaden our view of nature and to include beautiful, green, humane cities. That is not the end of nature, but a new beginning.

Dr. Robert McDonald is Senior Scientist for Sustainable Land Use at The Nature Conservancy and author of Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

Originally published June 22, 2015 in E-Magazine.