Los Angeles and the rise of urban ecology

Urban ecology is on the rise. That's probably no surprise to many Angelenos. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, among others, has been making a big noise with urban nature lately, from its nature lab at the museum, to backyard bug surveys across the city, and the discovery of new species, right here in LA!

But there's a new opportunity not to be missed here in Los Angeles. First some context.

Cities have often been thought of as the opposite of nature. At the 100th anniversary meeting of the Ecological Society of America last month in Baltimore, the rise of urban ecology--the science of nature in cities--was big news. The scientific journal Nature ran a story headlined "Ecologists embrace their urban side." There were 450 presentations, posters, and events on urban ecology during the weeklong conference, the journal reported, and more than a few were standing room only.

"Standing room only for urban ecology?" commented Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at Cal State Fresno. "When does that happen?"

mcdonald cover.jpgUrban ecology has arrived. And while there is still a lot to learn and debate, one thing was clear in Baltimore. The city is no longer "the other," the negative example contrasted with pristine nature. Urban ecologists talked about moving from ecology in cities (in which nature is seen as remnant patches in urban areas), to the ecology of cities (in which cities are studied as ecosystems), to ecology for cities, or with cities, or even as part of the creative shaping process in cities.

As I marveled at the sight of hundreds of hardcore scientific ecologists embracing urban nature, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with my colleague Roger Sherman in UCLA's cityLAB and now a senior project director at Gensler, the big global architecture, design, planning, and consulting firm. When I told Roger about my interest in urban nature, he remarked that nature is often seen as a set-aside to be extracted from projects as a concession or mitigation for development. And too often that results in natural spaces that don't have a real relationship with the development itself, the neighborhood, the community. The vitality of nature, in these cases, isn't contributing to the vitality of the urban.

Roger isn't the first person to make this observation. Jane Jacobs said the same thing in a different way when she wrote about parks in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Some parks and open spaces contribute to the life of their communities. Others are dead or even dangerous spaces, which aren't integrated into a community and can't be easily watched over by the benevolent eyes of a neighborhood.

I've been gnawing on Roger's question ever since. What if we turned the way we tend to see urban nature on its head? Instead of asking what can the city do for nature, what if we asked, what can nature do for the city? That is, how can nature in the city contribute to what makes cities great and why people live in them: to make connections, build relationships, exchange ideas and goods, make meaning, art, lives in the city? If we can figure that out, then nature won't just be seen as a set-aside, it will be seen as integral to the life of the city.

This is the approach taken by Robert McDonald in his new book Conservation for Cities: How to Plan and Build Natural Infrastructure. (Full disclosure: Rob is a friend and we have done research and written together on urban nature.) Rob's book is a state-of-the-art manual for creating and protecting "green infrastructure" for "ecosystem services"--drinking water protection, stormwater and flood management, coastal protection, shade, air purification, aesthetic values, recreation, and the physical and mental health benefits that nature provides for people.

As I read his book, I realized it could provide a useful framework for a report card on how Los Angeles is doing.

So how are we doing?

Pretty well, I think. Like most cities, we have huge room for improvement. There is lots of work to be done. But LA's sustainability plan--too cutely named "pLAn" when it was released last year--has many of the right elements. If the city sticks to the plan and goals, it all adds up to a good, coherent vision for the future. Not perfect, mind you, but pragmatic, with concrete steps in the right directions for better management of water, cleaner beaches, more parks and cooling shade trees in all of our communities, and an ambitious plan for revitalizing the LA River along its full length. Grass-root groups such as the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which creates small parks in neighborhoods most in need of nature, have been doing the good hard work to make this vision real from the bottom up, long before there was even a "pLAn" actually.

Which raises a note of caution note, in my mind. The LA River is an important part of this vision for nature in our city. But it's not the whole vision. And we can't afford to confuse the part for the whole.

We've got a great opportunity to get this new urban ecology right in LA.

I think of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for many years, as the old urban ecology. The Bay Area is truly remarkable for the many ways in which people have protected nature in a great metropolitan area. You are never far from a wilderness experience if you want one.

In LA we have a different opportunity--to figure out urban ecology for and with the city, even shaping the city to come.

LA missed the new economy, which the Bay Area grabbed by the horns, in part because LA's leaders didn't focus on the right stuff. (I'll have more to say about that in my next column.)

Let's not miss the new urban ecology.

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