IPO Logo Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

The Megafauna:
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

People of the Urban Ecosystem

by Jack Petit and Deborah Gangloff

Our modem urban ecosystem presents an enormous environmental challenge. Millions of people live together, commuting to work, using energy, creating waste, expanding development. These actions represent basic needs. They also directly impact land, water, air, trees, and wildlife. Such an impact necessitates that all the human "players" strive to minimise damage and improve the environment whenever possible.

Natural cycles exist not only in rural areas, but in communities and urban areas as well, and traditional man-made infrastructure and policies often "short-circuit" these natural cycles. While nature has a built-in system to efficiently cycle rainwater, most urban methods for handling runoff create a host of problems: pollution, failure to recharge groundwater, and the loss of adjacent land, waterways, and wildlife.

Improving the urban ecosystem involves more than just recycling, tree planting, and litter cleanups. Real improvement cannot and will not happen without the input of a broad spectrum of community residents. Recycling and tree planting make a positive impact but do not address cities' broader failure to successfully make use of natural cycles.

The everyday workings of these natural cycles are hidden from most urban residents. In the traditional urban water cycle, water is hidden in pipes below the street; drinking-water reservoirs can be miles from urban areas; sewage often is pumped into rivers, which move it out of sight via tides or downstream currents. As a result, most citizens are unsure where their drinking water comes from, where their sewage goes, whether their water supply is slowly being exhausted, or whether their wastes are destroying a nearby waterway.

Since storm runoff disappears when it reaches the hole under the street, and sewage disappears with a quick flush, traditional urban systems appear successful at managing natural cycles. So the average citizen, pressed by other needs, has little apparent incentive to get involved in environmental decision-making for the community. This type of apathy leads to environmental decision-making just as surely as action does.

Communication and Education:
Essentials for Involvement

To participate in community decisions, people need to be engaged in the debate—they must be made to feel welcome. All members of the community should be informed about the issues, invited to attend or speak at public meetings, and urged to get involved.

It is critical for urban forestry information and resources to be available and understandable to everyone. This is not always the case; open space and recreational facilities are concentrated in affluent neighbors in two-thirds of the cities surveyed in a 1993 Trust for Public Land study. Most government-supported grants for parks and open space went to middle or upper-income areas, leaving low-income, inner-city communities with inadequate and severely overcrowded parklands in 16 out of 23 cities surveyed. This confirms a 1992 Carnegie report that showed more and better services available in suburban areas than in less affluent rural and urban areas.

These statistics belie the proven connection between lack of recreation and crime. While crime has surpassed unemployment and the economy as the primary concern of Americans, the debate over the federal crime bill trivialized what was referred to as "midnight basketball." Yet evidence from the Trust for Public Land's "Green Cities Initiative" shows that crime drops, often dramatically, when recreational opportunities are available for local youth. For the same money that would put one new police officer on the street, Newark, New Jersey mayor Sharpe James says in the initiative, the city could hire three recreation leaders who would have a much greater impact on keeping kids out of trouble and reducing crime.

38 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995

Congressman Bruce Vento (D-MN) agrees. As quoted in the initiative, he says, "Urban recreation and sports programs are a proven, common-sense, and cost-effective means of preventing crime and delinquency." As this debate proves, all politics are local; so too are all environmental issues. Even global environmental issues can be brought down to the individual/neighborhood level, and urban forests are, by their very definition, local. While the urban forest resource has global environmental and social benefits, the resource itself is quite literally just outside our doors. And urban forestry can help communities address a variety of social and economic needs.

In New York City, the Greening of Harlem—a coalition coordinated by the city parks department—depends on community residents to design urban greening projects that address community needs. One supporter. Dr. Barbara Barlow, chief of pediatric survey at Harlem Hospital, thought urban greening could address a major problem she faces every day.

Barlow had spent 15 years patching up children injured while playing in abandoned lots or hit by cars while playing in the street. With the Greening of Harlem, she launched an injury-prevention program, establishing green playgrounds for local children. In the five years since. Barlow has seen the number of serious injuries she treats plummet by 42 percent.

On Native American reservations, urban forestry projects address social needs—cultural and community pride, employment, health, and visual enhancement of residential areas. The Menominee have created a landscape design for their Wisconsin reservation that brings the surrounding forest into their community, while teaching young people about careers in landscape architecture, arboriculture, and forestry.

These career skills, along with the possibility of raising trees for sale to residents—an interest expressed by Navajo and Pueblo at a recent New Mexico state workshop sponsored by the New Mexico Urban Forest Council—can provide a jumpstart to the local economy. With unemployment among Native Americans well above the national average, local economic development is an important goal for Native American urban forestry.

Community projects must entail more than just city government arriving with trees and a plan, asking residents to volunteer their labor. Those residents must be involved in the planning, the design, even the idea of the project.

Your message of inclusion could be lost in a community that speaks different languages or holds diverse beliefs. The City Forest in San Jose, California, hurdled the linguistic barrier by translating its brochure into different languages, thus ensuring residents the widest possible access to its information. But overcoming linguistic differences is just the beginning. Clifford Janoff, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco, says cultural, religious, and philosophical beliefs must play a role in urban forestry planning.

"Creating balance and harmony in your life by creating balance and harmony in nature, or 'feng shui,' is a big issue in San Francisco because of the large Asian population," he explains. "For example, you can't block the main entrance to a house, or you can't put a shadow on the entrance. It has been a problem, but we're dealing with it."

Orientals have strong beliefs about the flow of life forces, just as many Native American groups do. And the exact location of a tree in relation to the home's front door can be critical if that tree is seen as either directing or blocking the flow of life forces.

Once a project is planned, the community's residents can help physically, financially, or in some other way. When community residents know about an issue and understand why their participation is so important, they are empowered to take action. Trees New York's Young Citizen Pruner training, for example, helps disenfranchised inner-city young people contribute to the quality of life in the city.

The best of all possible worlds can be realized when community residents request assistance to plan a project. Local or statewide organizations are much more effective when their local representatives are a part of the community. Many national organizations also hire local "insiders" to do their community organizing. And as proven by statewide urban forestry groups, like Trees Forever in Iowa and Trees New Mexico, local projects are much more successful when community members take charge.

Keep It Local

When sharing information and educating residents, urban forestry advocates should remember the importance of stressing the local connection. A local connection will likely pique their interest more easily than a general or regional issue.

And trees are a local issue. Maintained and flourishing, they cut our power bills, improve our mental and physical health, and increase the value of our homes and businesses. Damaged or removed, our own urban forest fails to work its healing magic on air, water, soil, poor people, the sick, etc. It is usually only in situations or crisis that the appreciation for an urban ecosystem is already in place in a community.

In presenting the benefits urban trees and greenspace provide, be sure to first demonstrate the actual or potential impact on your community. Consider the broad impact trees and greenspace provide on taxes, jobs, recreational opportunities, business incomes, etc.

The Maryland Greenways Commission did this in presenting the economic statistics for Maryland's North Central Rail Trail. Examining the trail's broad spectrum of benefits, the Commission found that the trail provided 1993 tax revenues nearly 60 percent in excess of expenditures. The Trail supports 264 jobs statewide and generated 1993 sales of $3.4 million worth of goods. Trail use jumped from 10, 000 people annually to 450, 000 in nine years. Statistics like these would translate to strong bargaining power for any urban forestry group dealing with municipal or state agencies.

But while stressing local ties, project organizers need also to point out the wider environmental—and social—significance our actions have. To honor scientist/environmentalist Rene Dubos' credo, "think globally, act locally," we must be aware of how our actions affect the larger-scale environment.

Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995 • 39

Keep It Positive

Some people believe human nature dictates that we rarely change something unless driven to it by need. A crisis such as water contamination, the loss of a forest, or a sharp cut in an urban forestry budget motivates a community to consider collective action. And because of the negativity (at least on the surface) of crises, community action could have a negative tone toil

Rarely is it in the interest of a city to have one community united at the expense of antagonizing another. Witness, for example, the nature of many tree-ordinance battles; those concerned with a community's ecosystem all too often find themselves pitted against development and construction concerns. The rancor often lasts long after the adoption or rejection of the ordinance. And that can prevent the formation of useful partnerships in the future and can set a pattern that divides a community's resources.

In organizing a community, it is always helpful to have an "enemy," but the trick is to avoid casting people or organizations in that role. Organizing to fight tree loss—rather than a proposed shopping center or local development firm—targets the underlying problem while leaving the door open for all members of a community to participate. And it makes possible a broad base of support throughout all community levels. Initiatives fostered by such a diverse group have the greatest chance of being "win-win" situations for the community. On the other hand, when individuals or corporations are singled out for conflict, anyone with ties to those parties will be uncomfortable or downright hostile to the community group's cause or issue.

In a fight to stop tree loss, supporters can seek to involve the very people and organizations that traditionally have a strong impact on local trees. This includes developers, soon-to-arrive department-store managers, or local utility companies. With a nonthreatening initiative that—factually— has been presented as good for the community, these people and organizations should not only find little (if anything) to object to, they'll feel constrained to be part of the solution.

These partnerships can provide worthy nonprofit and neighborhood groups with volunteers, resources, and strength to better plan future efforts. The nonprofits and neighborhood groups, in turn, provide credibility, image enhancement, and a means for connecting corporations, agencies, and individuals with the community.

In the long run, enlisting the support of these non-traditional partners has another benefit—they draw insight from the partnerships and can learn a great deal about trees and the ecosystem. This knowledge and concern may lead to changes in the way they do business.

So how do we reconnect our natural world to our daily lives? There are many examples of city dwellers making this happen. Citizens built a marsh as a natural water-filtering system in Eureka, California. Others reclaimed an urban stream by releasing water from a culvert in a city park. Residents of Baltimore, Maryland, are protecting their drinking water by preserving the natural forest buffer around the city's watershed. And all over, people are breaking concrete to plant urban gardens in housing projects and neighbors are planting tress to shade their homes and conserve energy.

We all have a role to play in reconnecting the natural world's cycles of energy, air, water, and nutrients back into our daily lives. Protecting the ecosystem protects our physical and spiritual, economic, and environmental quality of life.

Jack Petit is a former urban forestry associate for American Forests. Deborah Gangloff is the organization's vice president for program services. This article was reprinted with permission from the December/January 1995 issues of Urban Forests.

40 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Parks & Recreation 1995|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library