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Almost April

March 29, 2015
Amsterday, (c) MMD 2014

Amsterday, (c) MMD 2014

We’re nearing the very end of March, but the past few days have been quite cold (we even have a hypothermia alert in DC today!). One of our local weathermen said a couple of days ago that it was a beautiful January day. Even though I love winter, I always reach a tipping point right about now, when we’ve been teased with some warm weather and plants and trees are attempting to green up. So I thought I’d share some greenery with you today, from a trip to Amsterdam last year! I love the way people had potted plants in front of their houses throughout the city — a touch of nature even with no front yards.

Biophilic DC

March 8, 2015
Council of the District of Columbia, (c) MMD

Council of the District of Columbia, (c) MMD

Some exciting news from Washington, DC! A group of colleagues and I have started an initiative to have DC join the Biophilic Cities Network, a coalition started by Tim Beatley and his colleagues (Tim, as I’ve mentioned before, wrote the excellent introduction to the biophilic cities concept, aptly named Biophilic Cities. He more recently wrote about coasts and waterways in cities in Blue Urbanism).

Our first order of business was to ask the Council of the District of Columbia to pass a Sense of the Council Resolution, declaring that:

the District of Columbia supports the principles of the Biophilic Cities Network and commits to promoting, learning about, and sharing biophilic programs and projects with other participating municipalities, to supporting urban biodiversity, and to creating opportunities for all District residents to connect with nature. 

The resolution goes on to discuss the important link between human health and well-being and regular access to nature, the important role cities can play in biodiversity conservation, and that all residents across the city deserve direct experiences with nature. It defines a biophilic city as:

a city of abundant nature, where residents, young and old, have rich daily contact with the natural environment no matter where they reside; where larger natural areas and deeper natural experiences are an easy walk, bike, or transit ride away; and where the urban environment allows for and fosters connections with diverse flora and fauna. In biophilic cities, residents recognize, respect, are curious about, and actively care for the nature around them, and they spend extensive time outside learning about, enjoying, and participating in the natural world.

In biophilic cities, leaders and elected officials give nature and natural capital a central place in their decision making, and evaluate their planning and development decisions by the extent to which nature is restored and protected, and connections with the natural environment enhanced. Leaders and residents of biophilic cities recognize that proximity to nature makes for more desirable communities and provides numerous benefits to all.

A biophilic city recognizes the important role cities play in protecting and increasing biodiversity in a world where biodiversity is greatly threatened.

Thanks especially to the excellent work of Chris Weiss at the DC Environmental Network and Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office, all eleven of the current sitting councilmembers co-introduced the resolution, which, although non-binding, will give us a strong foundation to build on over time. The resolution will be voted on in early April.

In related news, a few weeks back the Biophilic Cities Project asked me and Stella Tarnay to give a webinar on DC and our efforts (scroll down a bit for our contribution). I also highly recommend the entire webinar series — they cover lots of interesting and relevant topics with great speakers.

Stella is my co-organizer in our initial working group as we’re exploring what to do next, and she works with Dumbarton Oaks Park and the Sustainable Landscape Design Program at George Washington University. Other members of our group include representatives from DCEN, City Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the United States. We’re excited to move forward and make DC more nature-rich for all of our residents, human and non-human alike!



Snow 2015

March 5, 2015
Snow 2015 (c) MMD

Snow 2015 (c) MMD

And here’s my obligatory snow picture for 2015!

Storm Drain in Austin, Texas

February 25, 2015
Storm Drain, Austin, TX (c) MMD

Storm Drain, Austin, TX (c) MMD

Spotted in Austin, Texas. A nice little biophilic feature, which reminded me a bit of some storm drains I saw in Japan! What a great way to incorporate a bit of nature into a city sidewalk.

Bats and Bridges in Austin

February 20, 2015
Bat Statue, Austin TX (c) MMD

Bat Statue, Austin TX (c) MMD


Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin TX (c) MMD

Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin TX (c) MMD

I was in Austin, Texas last weekend and stayed at a hotel just across from the Congress Avenue Bridge. In urban wildlife circles, this bridge is famous for its summer inhabitants — a large (1.5 million bats!) maternity colony of Mexican free-tailed bats.

Although the bats weren’t in residence, we walked down to the bat viewing area one afternoon to take a look. Surprisingly, the bridge was still an attraction, even without the bats! People were standing around peering up at the bridge, hanging out in the information area, and reading all about these amazing animals. It was great to see.

Although the bats are now a big tourist attraction in Austin, there was a time when they were feared and despised. After a bridge renovation in 1980 led to a growth in their population (the new bridge made for perfect bat roosting sites), many in the city became concerned about their presence. Bat Conservation International’s founder Merlin Tuttle moved to Austin, seeing this as a great opportunity for education and outreach on the importance of bats to a healthy ecosystem. In the end, the city embraced the bats, even naming their (now defunct) minor league hockey team the “Ice Bats.” Bats show up repeatedly throughout the city, in art, in tourist souvenirs, and in local restaurants. It’s quite the PR turn-around!

Many bat species make use of bridges and other man-made structures, as their natural roosting sites have given way to human development. Because of this, efforts like those in Austin to both protect bats and work with humans to increase the chances of coexistence are vital, especially as many species face new threats such as white-nose syndrome.

People looking at the Congress Avenue Bridge, (c) MMD

People looking at the Congress Avenue Bridge, (c) MMD


Bat viewing site, (c) MMD

Bat viewing site, (c) MMD

Black-Crowned Night Herons

August 3, 2014

A group of black-crowned night herons has long chosen DC’s National Zoo as a breeding grounds (they’ve been visiting for about one hundred years!). They set up shop in tall trees around the birdhouse, stay for a while, and then take off. This year, researchers at the zoo tagged them with radio transmitters to see where they go each year once they leave the zoo. The Post had a short article about it today. Enjoy!

Leopards in Mumbai

July 11, 2014
Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Last summer I had the pleasure of traveling to India to meet some conservation scientists who work with leopards in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a huge greenspace in Mumbai, one of the largest urban areas in the world. At about 40 square miles, it’s one of the (if not the) largest urban parks anywhere (technically, like Washington D.C’s Rock Creek Park, it only shares a border with Mumbai on three sides; the fourth side borders the suburbs). I wrote a blog post for Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability about the trip, which I’m re-printing below.


On a high floor of an apartment building in northern Mumbai, India, Sanjay Ghandi National Park (SGNP) was laid out in front of us. My fellow-CLiGS colleague, Courtney Kimmel, and I were being shown around the area by Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher in Mumbai who is affiliated with Mumbaikars for SGNP, a group of organizations and individuals who work to protect SGNP and its resident flora and fauna. Sunetro brought us to this building to meet a couple who were actively involved with the group, and also to show us the view from their apartment. Not only could we see the verdant greenness of the park’s vegetation during the rainy season, but also several informal houses and shacks built into the park itself. In fact, even the high-rise building we were standing in was built (illegally) on parkland. That case, and others like it, has been settled in the courts, but is a great illustration of one of the major challenges the park’s management faces: encroachment.

But really we were there to talk about another, closely related issue. SGNP has a resident leopard population, and there are also leopards who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. In a city with such a high density of human residents, it’s hard to imagine that there’s room for these large cats, but these intelligent, adaptable animals are full of surprises.

While driving and walking through the park earlier that day, we glimpsed some of the ways that people use the park – everything from grabbing a bit of solitude to hanging out with friends, to providing a community for local indigenous groups, and of course as a provider of ecosystem services for Mumbai (including large reservoirs that supply some of the city’s water). Managing a park for all of these (and more) uses is hard enough, but the needs of the non-human residents and users needs to be taken into account as well.

Although by and large the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans (most of the time people don’t even know they’re there), at times conflict has ensued, either because people simply see a leopard and grow concerned, or in some cases because a leopard attacked a person. The group is engaging both the community and the government to develop best practices to prevent such incidences. For example, when people see a leopard, a crowd often gathers, which can upset the leopard and make him feel threatened. He might then strike out against a person in an attempt to get away. At other times, people have been mistaken for prey animals (especially at night). At the end of the day, the best way people can prevent negative interactions with leopards is by modifying their own behavior and landscape (cleaning up garbage, which attracts feral dogs — a favorite prey item, playing music and/or staying with another person when you’re outside at night, etc.). That’s of course a hard sell – and something that I’ve seen with my own work with coyotes in urban and suburban parts of the US. Oftentimes people are quick to call on the government to “fix” the problem, usually by removing the animals in question (with coyotes, often through lethal control, and with leopards, often by trapping and relocating them). This, however, can actually increase conflict because of the complex ecology and behavior of these species. Behavior change, then, is key to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. I believe that one of the main challenges conservation biologists working in these urban system face is getting people to accept that nature really is a part of cities – including sometimes predators! Once people understand this, it’s much easier to make the case that these neighborhoods and parks belong to non-human animals as well, and that we need to take their needs into consideration and learn what we can do to coexist with them. In our modern world, however, many are resistant to this – people have become accustomed to believing that the world can be divided into places where humans dominate (the “built environment”) and places where wildlife dominates (“nature”). This so-called “nature/culture divide” is a false dichotomy – nature exists everywhere, even in dense urban areas, and humans have an impact on even the most remote wildernesses.

Groups like Mumbaikars for SGNP are working hard to break through this binary way of seeing the world, which serves both a practical (lessening leopard-human conflict) and (perhaps secondarily) a philosophical purpose. It was exciting to see their work in action and to be able to compare it to efforts made in the US with coyotes.


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