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The Importance of Urban Biodiversity

August 4, 2010

Marielle Anzelone, the co-founder and executive director of NYC Wildflower Week, wrote a nice open letter to Edward Norton (who has recently been appointed as the UN Biodiversity Ambassador, making him even cooler than I thought he was) on the importance of urban biodiversity, and what he should know. Her main points?

Nature actually exists in the city: This is a big one for me. You’d be amazed how little people notice the amazing wildlife that lives around them. I taught an urban wildlife field class to a group of undergraduate students once, and it was really eye-opening for me. Most of them had never really noticed or considered most local wildlife before, even squirrels. We need to get out there and open people’s eyes!

Even urban ecosystems provide valuable ecosystem services: We get clean air, water, protection from floods, pollination, and so on from nature — and as just discussed above, nature includes what we find in cities and suburbs.

Charismatic megafauna can be a good way to hook people on urban wildlife: Pretty much anyone who has ever taken a class that I’ve taught knows that “charismatic megafauna” is one of my favorite terms of all time. Her point is well taken — people tend to be attracted to large, visible wildlife, and it can be a good way to suck people in, or to get them to consider the importance of protecting open spaces (think of all of the NGOs that use charismatic megafauna for their logos). Her example was Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who, along with his mate, nested on a building across from Central Park and was at the center of a maelstrom of controversy when the building removed the nest (the story has a happy ending, as the nest was restored). However, (as Anzelone¬†also points out) our attention shouldn’t exclusively focus on these flashier animals — the little guys matter, too.

People know less about plants than they do about animals: I’m guilty on this one. I love plants, but can only identify a handful (if that), and know even less about their conservation. This is something I need to work on!

Extinction is quiet: We humans are more likely to react to big, dramatic events (earthquakes, forest fires), and more apt to ignore quieter processes, like development or the introduction of an invasive species of plant.

Nature is good for people: From a purely anthropocentric point of view, nature is good for people, both mentally and physically. There are a lot of studies that have demonstrated this phenomenon, but it also just makes sense. Do you feel better after a hard day when you’re sitting under a tree? We should return the favor.

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