At the Conservancy, we’re helping cities take the natural solutions approach by championing the development of green rooftops, parks and permeable parking lots. For instance, in Bridgeport, Connecticut—which was hammered by Superstorm Sandy—we are helping the city create natural areas along its shoreline to buffer it from storm surges and develop swales—marshy ditches that use native plants to slow down and filter stormwater before it flows into Long Island Sound.
Of all the ways that nature gives back to people in cities, clean air may be the most valuable. In some parts of the world, it can be deadly just to breathe. Smog, soot and other outdoor pollutants—released by a host of human activities, including the burning of wood and fossil fuels, construction, agriculture and mining—cause an estimated 3.7 million premature deaths every year. Yet numerous studies have shown that trees and other types of vegetation are natural air filters, with the ability to reduce particulate-matter concentrations in locations just downwind by 20 to 50 percent.
The Conservancy recently released its first urban air-quality report for 245 cities around the world. It gives urban leaders a blueprint of places where they can green their cities to potentially achieve the greatest reductions in airborne pollution. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Conservancy—together with the University of Louisville, Hyphae Design Laboratory and the Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil—is launching a long-term clinical trial to test whether adding trees and other vegetation to a neighborhood improves residents’ health.
Finally, we are working alongside the people who will make our cities thrive. We’re learning how nature is relevant to the lives of all people, and we’re finding new partners who connect conservation with social justice and public health initiatives. Globally, cities are growing younger, and the Conservancy is looking to the future by working with urban youth, offering summer internships to high school students in dozens of cities and online environmental curricula to 3 million middle school students—and counting. This generation is more likely to live in cities, and they have the power to build communities where people and nature live in balance.
In Philadelphia, I recently had the pleasure of meeting Howard Neukrug, who has led his city in developing an innovative system that uses nature to manage the stormwater that was polluting the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers—the sources of the city’s drinking water. “We build one rain garden,” he said, “add a few street trees, and then … something wonderful happens: The street comes to life. Children play in the new green spaces. Elderly people sit under the trees on hot days. Nature helps a neighborhood rediscover its community.”
The Conservancy is perfectly positioned to help transform the relationship between nature and people so that both can thrive. So, what are we doing in cities? A lot.