City Girl: A Natural Conservationist?

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.’

Joking aside, I loved living in Philly. And, as an adopted daughter of the city, I am proud to see the steps taken by the city and my alma mater to beautify and green the town. I’ve followed two of these partnerships particularly closely:

  • Green 2015” is a plan to add 500 acres of green space to Philadelphia. This isn’t about one large park. It’s about turning Philly’s abundance of vacant lots and buildings into often tiny green spaces (community gardens, picnic areas, playgrounds). A Wharton team quantified the benefits of these spaces, from higher property values (and, therefore, real estate taxes), to millions of dollars in averted emergency calls, to $5 million worth of locally-grown produce and the prevention of 20 cases of asthma. Such green areas also reduce the strain on the city’s sewers, by replacing impervious asphalt or roofs with rain-absorbing grass and trees, saving potentially $35 million in storm-water management costs.
  • At 14 acres, Penn Park is a relatively large blob in the Green 2015 plan for Philly that shows how these benefits come to life. When I was a student at Penn, the land along the Schuylkill River near 30th Street Station was an unsightly and dangerous wasteland of asphalt and broken glass. Through sheer determination and creative financing, the University bought the land from the U.S. Postal Service and turned it into a beautiful, safe space for students, athletes, and those seeking solace amongst trees and grass. High-tech lighting and a system of cisterns that capture and re-use rainwater for irrigation mean a low energy and water footprint, too.

Many of Philly’s fellow urban centers are making strides to clean up their acts:  from groundbreaking sustainability and climate preparedness programs, to increased investments in parks, bike shares, farmers’ markets and green roofs. You might say cities are leading the way in conservation by showing that urban dwellers can reduce their impact on the earth, and help protect the land, water and air on which we all depend.

And whether you live in the city, or the country, you can do your part. To learn about small actions you can take, visit The Nature Conservancy’s All Hands on Earth campaign and pitch in!

[Image credit: Flickr user marusula via Creative Commons.]

Sarene Marshall is the managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and an MA in International Studies from University of Pennsylvania, and is fluent in Spanish. Sarene, a mother of two, enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking.

By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy


Laura M.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thank you! This is such good stuff.

Michael Kirkby
.5 years ago

One of the reasons I love Toronto with all of its warts - lots of trees and plants; newest ideas being incorporated into newer buildings; although I'm really not sure about all these new condos which may or not be up to Canadian building specs in some aspects.
Of course it would help if we could find the money and the will to upgrade our TTC system. I like the idea of building the new lines underground.

Talya Honor
Talya H5 years ago

Thanks for the share!

Joan Mcallister
5 years ago

We can all be Conservationists regardless of where we live. Thanks for sharing

Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago


John B.
John B5 years ago

We must do what we can. Thanks for sharing.

rene davis
irene davis5 years ago


Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider5 years ago

Anyone can do anything :-) great info thanks

Dave C.
David C5 years ago

thanks...we all have to do what we can to be green wherever we are.....being green isn't always easy to pseudo-quote a famous green.....

Lisa S.
Lisa Shaffmaster5 years ago

Great article, But I find it odd that you skipped any mention of Fairmount Park. This park system dwarfs Central Park many times over. In the 19th century the city of Philadelphia made a profound commitment to protect the riparian lands within the city limits. Fairmount Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the world, including both the wild Wissahickon gorge, as well as refined Olmstead designed landscapes. The article gives the impression that Philadelphia has only recently committed to green space by cobbling together ad hoc vacant lots, pocket parks, and community gardens in an otherwise unrelieved urban landscape. I know you must be aware of this. The omission of this information is puzzling.