Finding Natural Wonders in Urban Areas

Nature in the City

“Cities can be the most flourishing habitats because there are so many hands to take care of them.” —Ildiko Polony, Larner Seeds, Bolinas, CA

Although you may not think it possible, residents of San Francisco – one of the most densely populated cities in the US – can scramble up sandy paths amid native dune plants, wade in bay shore wetlands, and glimpse coyotes on the hunt. They can find hundreds of wildflowers among perennial bunch grasses – the “old growth at our feet” – in patches of coastal prairie. They can learn to whistle the white-crowned sparrow call, asserting a song of place, as they play beside daylighted and restored creeks in all corners of the city. They can scale serpentine outcrops and warm themselves next to butterflies in the morning sun.

It is true, though, that such experiences are often rare in urban areas. The loss of an intimate connection with wild nature is, as Robert Michael Pyle describes it, “the extinction of experience.” Pyle writes:

The loss of neighborhood species endangers our experience of nature. If a species becomes extinct within our own radius of reach (a smaller radius for the very old, very young, disabled, and poor), it might as well be gone altogether, in one important sense. To those whose access suffers by it, local extinction has much the same result as global eradication.

Earth Island-sponsored project Nature in the City works to reverse that extinction of experience by encouraging people to find and then steward the hidden patches of wild nature in our built environment. We cultivate awareness and appreciation of the nature we see around us everyday and, in the process, encourage an understanding of global environmental sustainability.

San Francisco, surrounded by ocean and bay, fed by creeks sourced from 44 hills, could well become the “City of Biodiversity.” Thousands of nature-focused events and habitat-restoration projects already take place in the city every year, exemplifying an ethic of stewardship, place-based learning, and outdoor recreation. Nature in the City and partner organizations guide walks, facilitate discussions, host eco-literacy trainings, and build bee boxes and backyard frog ponds. We are learning to tend these urban ecosystems as we would tend our gardens.

One of our keystone projects is the “Green Hairstreak Corridor,” a butterfly habitat restoration project situated in the inner Sunset District. The iridescent green, nickel-sized green hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys viridis) was once common throughout the area. It was often seen with the now-extinct Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces), the first butterfly in the US said to go extinct due to urbanization. But today, the green hairstreak survives only in small and isolated populations. Because this butterfly can only fly a few hundred feet from its original habitat, the species might vanish unless we intervene to save it.

photo of a butterfly on a plantphoto Michael L. Baird

To help the butterfly, in 2006 local lepidopterist Liam O’Brien launched this wildlife habitat corridor project, which aims to connect two isolated green hairstreak butterfly populations via strategically placed “Street Parks” full of host plants and nectar sources.

It’s working. With the help of a handful of paid staff and volunteers, Nature in the City is recreating more of the upland dune habitat on which these butterflies depend. In spring 2011, the first green hairstreak butterfly was seen in a restored plot, and in spring 2013, dozens were witnessed darting between plants or perched in the sun. We have successfully connected the two isolated breeding populations and, for the time being, secured this threatened butterfly’s survival.

Earlier this year, the Green Hairstreak Corridor received the 2013 Activation Award from San Francisco Beautiful, an organization that has been promoting beauty and historic preservation in San Francisco for 90 years. Nature in the City is now working with San Francisco State University students to establish protocols to measure the success of the project.

More of us are living in cities than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we must lose access to wild nature. Our lives are saturated with technology and information, requiring us to filter out as much as possible to focus our attention. Nature in the City invites you to do the opposite: Take in as much detail as possible, ask questions, and delight with others in discovery, vulnerability, and love in the largest sense. Join us, get connected, start a stewardship project, and learn about the nature around you – wherever you live.

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