By Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy
I was born and raised in the heart of the Lone Star State — Austin. And in my [redacted] number of years there, the city has morphed incredibly: The suburbs have stretched like vines of ivy into what was once undeveloped grassland and the downtown bulges with new hotels and high rise apartments. As it goes in Texas, so it goes across the country and around the world; there are currently seven billion people on this planet, and it is estimated that by 2060, that number will climb to nine billion. And more than 50 percent of those people currently live in urban areas.
But such rapid urbanization comes with a price: A growing population has led to unprecedented pressures on our natural resources. Water, in particular, has become the number-one natural resource concern of the 21st century. Nearly three billion people around the globe face severe water scarcity problems and that has serious implications for global food production, energy production, and human health and well-being. Moreover, people are becoming less and less connected to nature, which portends an increasingly unbalanced view of the natural world and its benefits.
Because of this shift, one of our most pressing global priorities is to connect our work more urgently to people and create scalable conservation projects that work in many types of environments, including urban areas.
There are examples of programs and projects all around The Nature Conservancy that we now think of as urban conservation. For instance:
- From California to Colombia, we have helped create and manage water protection funds that support the wholesale conservation of local freshwater resources.
- In Camden, New Jersey, we’ve installed an innovative rain garden (and laid the groundwork for another) to mitigate sewer overflows that negatively impact local land and water systems.
- Our Leadership in Environmental Action for the Future, or LEAF, program offers internships to urban high school students across the country with the goal of getting them out of the cities they live in and into nature.
Our first step is to look back at these programs and determine which of the Conservancy’s global solutions they address: whole system protection, sustainable use of natural resources, or building a constituency for conservation. Once we’ve done that, we’ll evaluate the quality of each program and its return on investment. This exercise will tell us what our existing best practices are—those things at which we excel and what should ultimately be replicated. This is an important first step: respectful of our past yet recognizing we are not starting from ground zero.
Part of furthering urban conservation strategies and programs involves listening to city leaders and decision-makers. We need to take our message to a wider audience to gain a broader perspective, and acknowledge that urban communities are focused on areas like energy, water quality and quantity, open space and appropriate infrastructure
Going forward, our vision is to lead in creating the next generation of urban policies and strategies that guarantee the protection of natural resources at the whole system scale. Our North American Urban Conservation Strategy is the most direct way we can protect and restore natural systems, use nature sustainably, and broaden the constituency for conservation. Achieving one or more of those goals will reestablish conservation not as a movement but as a necessary way of making sure natural resources remain available to future generations, in any type of environment.
Thriving urban communities depend on healthy natural systems: the ebb and flow of clean water, open spaces and clean air. And the Conservancy is in a truly unique position to link the world’s communities. We all want a better future—and to achieve that, we must demonstrate how a healthy world contributes to that.
Laura Huffman is the director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. A native of Austin, Huffman has a long and distinguished record of public service. She earned a master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in political science with a minor in history from Texas A&M University. She makes her home in Austin, with husband Kent and their four children.
[Image: A view of Tokyo's urban sprawl. Credit: Flickr user Mark McLaughlin via Creative Commons.]