Our world is changing—there is no doubt about it. There are seven billion people on our planet right now and over the next 60 years that number will jump to roughly nine billion. More than half of those nine billion will be living in a city. Meanwhile, the population of the United States currently sits around 315 million people—about 250 million of them live in or around an urban area. That means more than three-quarters of us share a paltry three percent of land area.
If those numbers don’t worry you, you’re not paying attention. As our society grows larger and more crowded, there are questions we must answer. How can we reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain our water supplies, protect ourselves from storms and hurricanes, and help our growing cities remain hospitable and affordable?
The answer is simple: nature.
Everywhere we look, nature is working on our behalf. Consider this: Urban trees and forests reduce smog and keep rivers healthy by absorbing nutrients that spoil water quality. Their root systems bind with soil to prevent erosion and minimize flooding. Large swaths of green space in urban areas also help mitigate stormwater runoff; that’s a major problem for some East Coast cities, where outdated infrastructure is often inundated during heavy rainstorms. As a result, pipes overflow and untreated sewage runs into surrounding waterways.
As we contemplate problems like stormwater management and pollution, we must realize that our success in solving them lies in our ability to think creatively. For example, most of us agree that smart urban growth involves a thoughtfulness about native wildlife and sensitive areas. But why not start working with what we already have? Let’s use existing vacant lots and rights of way to create urban green spaces and plant trees. More green space not only benefits air and water, but leads to a more diverse mix of wildlife, prettier cityscapes and a happier, less stressed population.
With the answer staring us right in the face, The Nature Conservancy has committed to working with leaders to help them integrate nature and its benefits into the fabric of their own cities. In San Antonio, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, we’ve helped establish water funds that finance the protection of the local water supply. And along the Gulf Coast, we’re helping restore the Gulf of Mexico’s natural buffers (think oyster reefs, wetlands and seagrass) to blunt the impact of rising sea levels and storm surges.
Our efforts to work at a scale that makes a difference have also led to partnerships with Coca-Cola, to provide the science they need to ensure a zero water footprint, and Shell, to identify the impacts of development on natural resources. We count Dow Chemical among our partners, too—and given all we know about the power of nature, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Currently, Dow is investigating reforestation as a way to combat air pollution in Freeport, Texas, home of their largest manufacturing site in the state. Instead of building new smokestack scrubbers, executives are looking at planting thousands of trees to meet federal air quality guidelines. A new thousand-acre forest would remove more than 200 tons of nitrous oxide from the air over the next 30 years, all at a lower cost than more traditional methods. And that dense canopy of trees would create new migration corridors for area wildlife, provide shade and help reduce temperatures, and improve water quality in the surrounding area. It’s a win all the way around.
Making sure our city and business leaders acknowledge and appreciate the value of our environment is the only way to achieve a vibrant natural world. It also ensures our cities can have the information they need to grow sustainably and that industry continues to make a positive contribution to our economy. We can make a tangible impact—we can protect our water supplies, reduce air pollution and keep our coastlines safe, but only if everyone is reading from the same playbook.
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.
[Vegetation thrives between abandoned train tracks on New York's High Line. Photo credit: Flickr user Def.X via Creative Commons]
by Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy