Unlike many of my colleagues working in nature conservation, I didn’t grow up with a strong connection to the outdoors. Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, I’ve never lived anywhere that I couldn’t walk to buy a gallon of milk. A former supervisor observed that my background “exuded urbanity,” as if to imply that my city-girl persona and my job in conservation were incompatible.
The presumed “cities vs. nature” dichotomy isn’t just about whether I spent my childhood weekends playing in empty lots or camping in the woods. Many people presume that cities — with dirty industries, choking traffic, little open space, few trees, and minimal wildlife (apart from pigeons and squirrels) — are the antithesis of “green.”
Conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy have long focused on preserving lands and waters far away from urban centers. But, with over the half of the world’s population now living in cities, and more than 70% projected to be urban by 2050, the habits of city-dwellers will have a profound impact on our planet.
At the same time — owing to smaller housing and high use of public transport — the carbon footprint of city dwellers is often much lower than their suburban counterparts, and cities are making other strides to “green” the way of life for those who live and work within them.
Attempts to improve the quality of city life aren’t new. In Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson asserts that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with its investments in modern transit, clean water, expansive parks, and gleaming white-washed buildings, helped transform a pre-fair image and reality of American cities as industrial centers full of squalor to a notion of cities as places of beauty.
Frederick Olmstead, the Fair’s landscape designer, was father of New York’s Central Park — one of the greatest steps towards “greening” any city in the world. The quality-of-life value of that land has long been recognized, and Central Park now anchors the city’s commitment to put a park within a 10-minute walk of every New Yorker. This effort, along with converting the taxi fleet to lower-carbon vehicles and eliminating the dirtiest heating oil from buildings, is part of the GreenNYC blueprint to make New York a cleaner, more attractive place to live and work. And that’s good for business, the environment and residents.
But this transformation has been slower in some cities, like Philadelphia, whose evolution I have gotten to witness personally. Although I’ve always been a “city girl,” I undertook my move to Philly 15 years ago with some trepidation. The workload I faced at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business was intimidating. And the city got a bad rap from the urban centers to the north (New York) and the south (Washington, D.C.) that I’d called home. Well-meaning friends warned me about the auto theft rate and others joked about the town’s nickname: ‘Filth-a-delphia.’