Questions on Anti-Urban Biases in Environmentalist Thinking

July 30, 2010 § 37 Comments

Can urban density be good for urban rivers?

There’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, that I’ve recently run into from a few sources, so I figure I would explore the idea here at L.A. Creek Freak, though I don’t know all the answers yet. (Warning: long meandering post ahead) 

I’ve been thinking about cities and how our environmental movements value or don’t value nature in them, and how environmentalists’ anti-urban biases can impact overall movements toward sustainability. 

This week, I was reminded of these questions – during an interview with a graduate student. She asked me about the sort of folks who are interested in and supportive of the L.A. River, with a comment to the effect that folks who are environmentalists and birders would likely be the core support. I responded that the river is actually somewhat overlooked by more stereotypical environmentalists, meaning folks who do a lot of bird-watching, who join the Sierra Club, who drive Priuses. Those folks tend to have the means to get to the wilder parts of Southern California: more remote locations in the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains. 


Much of the core interest in the L.A. River (beyond folks who actually live along it) tends to be architects, landscape architects and urban planners. These urban re-envisioners tend to treat the river as a blank canvas, ready for transformation into well-designed urban nature. Though I don’t have any of those professional credentials, I do consider myself one of those urban re-envisioners. 

The grad student responded that when she tells people that she’s studying the Los Angeles River, folks expect that she’s studying one of those urban design professions, and not environmental science. 

I told the grad student this story: A few years back, I led a Los Angeles River walking tour for a college freshman class, including a couple of professors. One of the professors, I think was an Urban Planner. He and the students thought that the river was an enjoyable place, surprising natural for its proximity to the heart of the city. They marveled at the carp being caught by the fishermen. The other professor was a biologist; I think he studied coral reefs. He was unimpressed. What he saw was a highly degraded, low biodiversity man-made channel. He saw the carp as an invasive species – “the cockroaches of the fish world.” (I confess that I’ve actually conflated a couple of tours into this re-telling.) 

During my tenure with Friends of the Los Angeles River, I had tried to involve some college chemistry and biology professors in projects on the river. For the most part, they declined. In many ways, the chemistry and the biology of the L.A. River seem to fairly predictable. Fish species didn’t vary all that much between studies in 1993 and in 2007. Water quality monitoring, to the extent that I understand the myriad data being collected by agencies and non-profits, shows a predictable dilute mix of pretty typical urban pollutants. The local biology professors head for the desert to study animals inhabiting less common niches; the chemists experiment in their laboratories. 

There’s no shortage of urbanists ready to draw, though – and plenty of Creek Freaks like me like to gobble up those images. The images are popular posts here. They’re fun and they help us envision possible futures. 

Then I think about why many of those bird-watching environmentalists are not enamored with the river. To an extent, I conflate this with an anti-urban bias in environmentalist thinking. The line of thinking is something like this: cities are people places; wild places are where the environment happens and the two don’t overlap. 

I think that these sorts of distinctions are becoming rather dangerous. The way we live, mostly in “urbanized areas” (cities and suburbs), really impacts the overall environment. The ways that each of us lives has massive cumulative environmental impacts – stuff including global warming, massive oil spills, bio-accumulation of toxins, plastic litter in our seas, depletion of resources, and more. 

Thinking about how I could personally live ecologically got me bicycling, gardening, and living at the Los Angeles Eco-Village.    

Green Metropolis by David Owen, Riverhead Books, 2009

I recently read a book which I highly recommend. It’s David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. Let me first say that there are quite a few things I don’t quite agree with in the book, but I found it very thought-provoking. It helped me to crystallize some thinking on how urbanism and density can be really important for solving environmental problems, and how we environmentalists can overlook those solutions. Owen’s basic premise is that dense, walkable cities in general (and New York City in specific) are really good for the environment. 

(Creek Freaks might want to check out my earlier post at CicLAvia about one part of this book. To sample some of Owen’s main themes, read his earlier New Yorker article Green Manhattan which he expanded into the later book.) 

At this point, I’m going to quote pretty extensively from the first chapter of Owen’s book, where he explores some of the roots of these sorts of urban environmental biases.  Owen states: 

The hostility of many environmentalists toward densely populated cities is a manifestation of a much broader phenomenon, a deep antipathy to urban life which has been the heart of American environmentalism since the beginning. Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, between 1845 and 1847, established an image, still potent today, of the sensitive nature lover living simply, and in harmony with the environment, beyond the edge of civilization. Thoreau wasn’t actually much of an outdoorsman, and his cabin was closer to the center of Concord than to any true wilderness, but for many Americans he remains the archetype – the natural philosopher guiltlessly living off the grid.

John Muir, who was born twenty years after Thoreau and founded the Sierra Club in 1892, viewed city living as toxic to both body and soul. The National Park Service, established by congress in 1916, was conceived as an increasingly necessary corrective to urban life, and national parks were treated in large measure as sanctuaries from urban depravity. 

To me the early National Park Service goals Owen references sound similar to the City Beautiful movement, which was taking place around the same time. The monumental historic bridges over the L.A. River grew out of this movement to uplift the lives of downtrodden urban dwellers living in squalor. 

Owen continues:  

The modern environmental movement arose, in the 1960s and 1970s, when a growing sense of ecological crisis, first inspired nationwide by Rachel Carson’s extraordinarily influential book Silent Spring, combined with other social forces, including the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the power of OPEC, to create a sense among large numbers of mainly young people that just about everything wrong with the United States was urban in essence, and could be combated only by establishing, or reestablishing, a direct connection to “the land.” 

 Owen then quotes Daniel Lazare, author of America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Out Cities and How We Can Stop It

“Green ideology is a rural, agrarian ideology. It seeks to integrate man into nature in a very kind of direct simplistic way – scattering the people among the squirrels and the trees and the deer. To me that seems mistaken, and it doesn’t really understand the proper relationship between man and nature.

Cities are much more efficient economically, and also much more benign environmentally, because when you concentrate human activities in confined spaces you reduce the human footprint, as it were. That is why the disruption of nature is much less in Manhattan than it is in the suburbs. […]

Manhattan seems to be a supremely unnatural place because of all the concrete and glass and steel, but the paradox is that it’s actually more harmonious and more benign, in terms of nature, than ostensibly greener human environments, which depend on huge energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels. In order to surround ourselves with nature, we get in cars and drive long distances, and then build silly pseudo-green houses in the middle of the woods – which are actually extremely disruptive, and very, very wasteful.” 

Further on, David Owen continues: 

… barring a massive reduction in the earth’s population, dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills, including climate change. To borrow a term from the jargon of computer systems, dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs and isolated straw-bale eco-redoubts are not.

Anti-urban naturalists like Thoreau and Muir make poor guides for anyone struggling with the increasingly urgent problems of how to support billions of mobile, acquisitive, hungry human beings without triggering disasters that can’t be contained.

The environmental problems we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make our teeming cities more like the countryside. The problem we face is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents currently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with. 

Owen’s book is full of bold challenges to Things Environmentalists Like – from LEED to locavorism to straw-bales to Muir and Thoreau. Some of it can be abrasive, but I think he’s right on in terms of looking at the forest, and not just the trees. Environmental sustainability is in the overall system and not just the individual component. Owen’s description of this: 

The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a “sustainable” house, office building, or household appliance […]  

Every house, office building, and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it’s the network, not the individual constituents, on which the future depends. Sustainability is context, not a gadget or technology. 

To tie all these environmental heresies back into urban creeks, I want to bring in one more voice. Here’s a talk, which I briefly shared with Creek Freaks earlier, but want to return to. It’s Ellen Dunham-Jones talk entitled Retrofitting suburbia and well worth watching.  

I think that Dunham-Jones speaks almost directly back to David Owen’s statement that “dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs … are not.” Turns out that suburbs are! and I would consider much of Los Angeles to be unsustainably density-lacking suburbs. 

And Dunham-Jones plans that restoring the local ecology, including daylighting creeks – in tandem with urban density – can be a key solution to retrofitting. 

At this point, I need to acknowledge that my fellow Creek Freak blogger Jessica Hall was way ahead of the curve on this one. In her 2001 thesis Seeking Streams: A landscape framework for the upper Ballona Creek Watershed, she introduced me to these ideas. She proposed conservation/restoration buffer easements along daylighted creeks accompanied by increased density elsewhere – all in the neighborhood where I live… which seems somewhat difficult for me to imagine. Perhaps it says something about my biases that I can lean more heavily on Dunham-Jones Atlanta-based ideas than I can on Hall’s L.A.-based ones. (It’s difficult for me to imagine the local political will necessary for all this.) 

At about minute 16:00, Dunham-Jones overviews a study she did looking at the future of growth for Atlanta for the next 100 years. Her projections proceed from three assumptions. From the talk transcript

… we chose to try to reverse sprawl through three simple moves — expensive, but simple. One, in a hundred years, transit on all major rail and road corridors. Two, in a hundred years, a thousand foot buffers on all stream corridors. It’s a little extreme, but we’ve got a little water problem. In a hundred years, subdivisions that simply end up too close to water or too far from transit, won’t be viable. And so we’ve created the eco acre transfer to transfer development rights to the transit corridors and allow the re-greening of those former subdivisions… 

This is a lot easier to do in theory than in practice. It’s politically nearly impossible to displace single-family homes in Los Angeles… but it could be viable incrementally over a time frame like 100 years – especially if isolated single-family homes gradually become less desireable in a future where gas prices skyrocket. 

What do you think intrepid creek freak readers who’ve gotten this far? Can Los Angeles environmentalists embrace density? (Is that important or necessary?) Can we welcome and restore nature as part of densification? or are my suburban environmentalist biases clouding my vision for the future of Los Angeles?


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§ 37 Responses to Questions on Anti-Urban Biases in Environmentalist Thinking

  • I think people need to embrace the scalability of nature, and especially water, and then they will appreciate urban nature more fully. The world in a grain of sand, as such.

    The environmental movement has done a good job of ‘programming’ people to care about certain layers of the landscape – mostly that of plants and animals. People just don’t know that they can, or should, preserve native or at least self-organizing hydrology as well.

    On a side note I remember long ago meeting two cute girls at a party in LA when I was single. They told me they were working on the LA river. I made some comment about “what, that huge concrete ditch? why!?”. Neither one ever called me of course, but I got what I deserved.

  • Kathleen Smith says:

    Those of us in the public health world struggle with this as well. Density brings its own health issues related to carrying capacity and the sheer logistics of providing waste treatment, trash disposal, potable water, etc. when people concentrate themselves in one place. Yet, health wise, people do better when they have strong robust social connections and lots of opportunities to interact with other human beings in a meaningful way…an argument for the benefits of density. Bottom line, we need to pay attention to the environment around human beings because…more than health care, more than any other factor, it is the physical and social environment around people that largely determines whether they are healthy or not and whether they will die prematurely. Google Unnatural Causes and see the videos. What they protray is mind altering.

  • Bert Green says:

    I have always felt that the anti-urban environmentalists were in fact the very root of suburbanism; the idea that urban people could have the intellectual benefits of the city with the surroundings of the country. Suburbanism shares these fundamental assumptions.

    Personally I think people should live only in cities, dense or otherwise, and leave the rest of the land alone, except for transportation, farming and specific recreational needs.

  • webmaster says:

    There’s a similar issue with a wonderful eucalyptus forest, over a century old, in San Francisco — Mount Sutro Forest. Its “Stewardship” is now in the hands of Native Plant advocates, who want to destroy its essential character as a wild Cloud Forest, and make it into something more “park-like.” Neighbors are trying to save the forest… The website is at

  • skr says:

    I think that a lot could be said about this topic. The anti-urban bias could be an outgrowth of the anti-human undercurrents in some environmentalism strains. There is also the history of the National Parks service that had a part in this. Back during the Depression, the Landscape Architecture profession almost ceased to exist having been centralized around estate design. They all moved over to the NPS where the indoctrination against design and for wilderness began. Now, even within the landscape architecture profession you can still feel the effect of this with all the talk of regeneration. This is the major motivating force behind the movement against the eucalypts that webmaster mentions. Anything that is “unnatural” is bad even if it has carved out a biological niche. It is also difficult to get some people to accept designs of large urban park space that allow people to enjoy the space. Everything has to be about the wildlife which is in direct opposition to the original views of seminal figures such as Olmstead. You see this in the opposition to a great idea for chair lifts in Griffith Park which would have reduced the foot traffic impaction and erosion harms and allowed more access to the more remote areas of the park. But those that frequent those remote areas became apoplectic at the idea of more people enjoying their part of the park even if it would have been better for the park environment.

    Suburbia is founded on a love for the pastoral. Specifically, the Picturesque landscapes of England. The earliest devlopments organized their roads so that they would wind around small hills and feel like some idealized countryside. This is one of the main reasons for front yard setbacks, to preserve the expanse of rolling green lawn like in the paintings of the Picturesque movement. So not only are there anti-urban forces at work but the much more powerful force of nostaligia for a fictitous former utopia.

  • Mike Letteriello says:

    This discussion is right up my alley, and since I’ve been retired I do a lot of thinking about how we can simulate wilderness even in the densest of urban environments. I currently am working on creating native plant environments on school campuses, and on one campus we have a virtual nature center replete with critters right across the street from tended front lawns and manicured houses, etc. (Our neighbors can hear tree frogs at night and they like it.)

    I may have “drifted” into it, but the idea of creating pocket wildernesses has become my specialty. I’m also assisting in restoring a small remnant saltwater wetlands in Long Beach (Colorado Lagoon) that is smack dab in the middle of a busy suburban environment. Anti-urban bias? Not me.

  • A few thoughts…

    Anyone who thinks the intellectual advantages of cities extend to suburbs has obviously never grown up in one.

    I honestly like the Vermont model – even the small towns have a pretty dense urban center.

    The eucalyptus issue is complicated. but please understand that there is no such thing as a eucalyptus cloud forest in California. Eucalyptus kills everything under it so where you would normally have hundreds of species of plant you have two (eucalyptus and poison oak). It is also a terrible fire danger. it isn’t about what is native, it’s about what dominates its environment overwhelmingly to the detriment of all other life, and also is a hazard to human health. If people decide to keep eucalyptus groves because they ‘like the trees’ so be it – but let’s not pretend it is anything other than an artificial plantation with little to no biodiversity. I’d rather see eucalyptus trees than a turfgrass park (except near homes due to fire) but that isn’t being proposed. I see a lot of fallacies in that website – ‘old growth forest’ has a very specific definition that does not include planted eucalyptus trees in Californjia (or much of the beautiful forest in Vermont for that matter, for other reasons. The site probably used to be a redwood or oak forest and why anyone would rather have a eucalyptus plantation i can not imagine…

    • webmaster says:

      Hi Charlie, if you’re referring to Sutro Cloud Forest in San Francisco, it was not planted instead of redwood or oak (it’s too windy for redwoods or oak trees over most of it). It was planted 125 years ago on a grassy hill. (There are photographs.)

      There’s no record now of what grasses, but given that it was part of a ranch, some of which was used for grazing/ dairy-farming, it may well have been non-native grasses. There are 93 species of plants there, and allelopathy doesn’t seem to have killed them. It has a dense understory; though dominated by blackberry, it also includes ferns, elderberry, and a whole bunch of plants both native and naturalized. It’s used by about 40 species of birds, and Great Horned Owls are known to nest there. It’s not silent at all; it’s full of birdsong, especially on warm days.

      The reason Sutro Forest isn’t a fire hazard is that it *functions* as a cloud forest, drawing moisture from the fog. (It lies within the fog belt.) as a result it’s perpetually damp. Right now, in summer, it was dripping wet in the forest (I mean, wet as in ‘wear a raincoat.’) It hardly ever dries out except where it’s been opened up, with the removal of the understory and a thinning of the trees.

    • skr says:

      Eucalyptus kills everything under it so where you would normally have hundreds of species of plant you have two (eucalyptus and poison oak).

      Sorry, but that simply isn’t true. The eucalypt forests in australia have plenty of biodiversity, and that can be incorporated here in CA. Also, if you look at the freeways you will see more than poison oak as understory plants with eucalypts. I do know the potency of their phytochemicals and the difficulty planting under them but it is not impossible.

  • also, if the trees are mature they are not fixing carbon anymore as the website claims. Mature forests are at a carbon balance. Honestly the best thing to do as far as carbon sequestration goes would be to cut down and bury the trees (or use them for something) and allow new ones to grow. As for fire danger – the article on that website compares eucalyptus fires to grass fires but these grass fires are almost certainly fed by invasive grasses as well, not native grasses or wildflowers (that have a much lower fuel load).

    Everything comes down to values, I guess. If the community wants eucalyptus, so be it. I’ve been in these eucalyptus groves and they do have a stark, silent beauty to them… the individual trees ARE magnificent. They probably aren’t spreading to other areas and displacing native plants – the damage has already been done. I just don’t like seeing a website giving out misinformation like that.

    Sorry, rant over!

    • webmaster says:

      The trees are *sequestering* carbon. If they are felled, chipped and mulched (as is planned for thousands of them) they will start to release that carbon. Lower fuel load also implies lower bio-mass… and less carbon sequestered.

      If you bury the trees, they decay, and release their carbon. Using them for something like furniture or building would help sequester carbon, but that’s not what’s planned for Sutro Forest. It was planted as a forest, not a crop. So what’s afforestation, and what’s a plantation?

  • Jonathan says:

    I am a strong advocate in favor of cutting down those eucalyptus forests and replanting them with native vegetation. Native vegetation supports native wildlife far better than introduced vegetation does – which is the obvious result of them evolving together for millions of years. Whatever the “cloud forest” is supporting, it’s not the natural balance of wildlife. And the San Francisco area in particular needs more natural spaces for its wildlife.

    I’m not sure why pointing out that there were nonnative grasses there 100 years ago supports your case – clearly there were native plants there at one point, and the fact that the eucalyptus trees weren’t the first thing to damage the native environment doesn’t mean they should be left up.

    • skr says:

      Whatever the “cloud forest” is supporting, it’s not the natural balance of wildlife. And the San Francisco area in particular needs more natural spaces for its wildlife.

      Why does every piece of parkland have to have wilderness and wildlife as its main focus? What exactly is a natural balance? The forest has been there over a hundred years and has an abundance of animal life that is in balance with that particular area. Natural balance is a meaningless catch phrase. The area is natural just not native and I have yet to hear a good reason why every bit of parkland has to be purely native as opposed to having some native and some not native for a bit of diversity in experience for the people that live in SF.

      I’m not sure why pointing out that there were nonnative grasses there 100 years ago supports your case – clearly there were native plants there at one point, and the fact that the eucalyptus trees weren’t the first thing to damage the native environment doesn’t mean they should be left up.

      It’s an interesting thing about non-native grasses. The American settlers never saw the prairies of the mid-west in their native condition. The imported grass seeds of Europe made their way across the continent much faster than the people did. Yet the fauna adapted quite well. Flora and fauna adapt quite well to almost every exotic species that is introduced. The devastating invasives are the rare exception. Cutting down the trees of the cloud forest would damage the environment for the wildlife that currently calls it home as well as costing a ton of money to eradicate non-natives. And all this for some botanical equivalent of the noble savage myth.

      • Jonathan says:

        “Why does every piece of parkland have to have wilderness and wildlife as its main focus?”

        Because there is so little wilderness and wildlife left in those urban-dominated areas. Just in the San Francisco area, you have the California Red-legged frog, the California Tiger Salamander, the Alameda Whipsnake, and the San Francisco Garter snake – half of the Federally Endangered/Threatened reptiles and amphibians in California. The San Francisco Bay area is right in the middle of the remaining range for all four of those species, and that range has rapidly twindled in recent years for several of them. How many of those herps are doing well in that artificial “cloud forest”? And just because it contains trees doesn’t make it any less artificial than someone’s backyard.

        Plenty of other species in the San Francisco area (Foothill Yellow-legged Frog, Western Pond Turtle, Coast Horned Lizard, Legless Lizard) are also species of special concern in California, which means that they are being watched because they may become Endangered/Threatened species in the near future. How many of them are forced out of one more potential pocket of habitat by these artificial forests? Why should the same invasive species predominate in every urban environment, while the native species that actually lived there before people messed it up are wiped out?

        I just listed the reptiles and amphibians because that’s my speciality. I’m sure the same principles apply for other living things – especially plants and invertebrates, two groups that have far more Federally Listed species and often are restricted to extremely small ranges.

        The artificial environments you are trumpeting are no more “natural” than your backyard or a zoo. “Natural balance” is not a catchphrase and I’m wondering what your background with or actual concern for wildlife really is if you believe something like that. If all you want in our cities are little manmade environs that make the local city-dwellers happy, then that’s all you’ll get. But you’re not doing a favor to the wildlife by keeping those eucalyptus trees up.

      • skr says:

        Yes, I do believe that urban green space should be for the occupants of the city. If there were more green space, more people might concentrate in cities and not in suburbs. This would allow for increased reforestation as increased efficiency in agriculture has increased the amount of forrested land in the US. In my opinion this would be far more beneficial for more species than trying to save a reptile or two in heavily impacted urban areas.

        Natural balance is an interesting phrase. Nature will either be in balance or flux, and just because it is in balance doesn’t mean that that particular balance is the ideal form. It seems that the eucalypt forest is in a state of balance supporting a wide range of animal life. That is of course unless natural balance is really just a signifier for the state in which nature would exist in the absence of humans. This is very common usage of that phrase and it belies the anti-human bias you have so aptly demonstrated. It also sets up what is in my opinion a dangerous dualism between humans and nature. This dualism is a very common religious belief. On one hand you have some that set man apart from nature and have man created in the image of God. This led to a belief that man could dominate nature and the resulting negative effects continue to haunt us. On the other hand is the belief that man is evil and therefore must be eliminated for the good of nature. This has not caused damage to wilderness but has limited the betterment of the urban environment that could have stifled the growth of the suburbs and the environmental degradation that caused. Last time I checked humans were just animals of the species Homo sapien. Our cities are our ant hills. Maybe if more people saw themselves as a part of nature, they would live more naturally.

      • Jonathan says:

        Anti-human bias? No – my entire career is devoted to helping humans live better. The environmental/herpetological work is just a productive side project that happened to align well with my education. But when ecosystems and individual species are imperiled as much as they are in the San Fran area, I’m going to work to change people’s mindsets about what’s out there rather than just giving in to the status quo. I don’t think that having ivy-and-blackberry infested eucalyptus forests is encouraging people to move to the city. But I do believe that replacing as many manmade scars as possible with the native wildlife will bring help bring Californians more in touch with the environment they live in. Here in LA, walking in native plant-landscaped yards and campuses (my alma mater has really transitioned in this sense) has brought a great deal more awareness of nature and our own history to the average person than the previous landscapes of grass, ivy, and palm trees. Your position strikes me as a strange form of NIMBYism – sure, protect the environment, but not where I have to see it! Perhaps you would benefit from learning about California’s original ecosystems and the fascinating animals that live in it as much as the average unaware city dweller. Does it really do anything for environmental awareness and education for city residents to believe that the same plant communities and animal species are present no matter what city’s park they happen to be in?

      • skr says:

        Lastly, since I think that humans are a part of nature, I don’t think that the design of urban green space exists as a zero sum game. It should be possible to design those space so that they benefit the people and the wildlife. The wildlife is part of the natural experience and should be encouraged, but that should be balanced with other uses.

      • skr says:

        You call this a man-made scar ( ) and you can’t detect an anti-human bias in the language used? Also, this is a unique patch of land in relation to the green spaces of SF. It is not as you claim the same plant and animal communities as all the city parks. And I am not saying protect the environment just not where I see it. I am saying leave well enough alone with that particular piece of land that the community supports and loves and not destroy the habitat of the existing wildlife for the cause of nativephilia. There are many good arguments for maintaining the stand of trees on the sutro forest website.

  • Jonathan says:

    “Yet, health wise, people do better when they have strong robust social connections and lots of opportunities to interact with other human beings in a meaningful way…an argument for the benefits of density.”

    No its not. Robust social connections aren’t any more frequent in dense cites than they are in small rural towns. I would say that small-town folk have more robust social connections than most city folk, precisely because they see far fewer people (and thus get to know them better) on any given day. I’m a pro-city person, but that’s despite the difficulty in developing robust connections, not because of it.

  • RE: the Eucalyptus, there is now a dialog about it here:

    lest I bury this very relevant post about urban nature with my eucalyptus rantings.

    One thing though: i have to say that I don’t think there is any basis for ” Flora and fauna adapt quite well to almost every exotic species that is introduced.”

    • skr says:

      I think that the fact that Cal-IPC only lists around 40 severe harm exotics out of the thousands and thousands of exotics that have been introduced illustrates pretty clearly that most don’t cause problems. Also, the fact that the prairies had been supplanted by european varieties without mass fauna extinctions also lends basis to that claim.

      • Jonathan says:

        Do you believe that every one of those thousands of exotics has been well-studied enough to know how harmful it is to the native populations? Many species have been dwindling rapidly in recent decades, and we’re still trying to understand why. In many cases it could be due to invasive species whose effects we are still learning about. I’m a little surprised that the fact that 40 species have already been recognized to be “severe harm exotics” causes you think think that exotics aren’t a problem. There will be more exotics to come, and several of the exotics we already have are likely to turn out to have much more detrimental effects than we already know. The Cal-IPC website that you draw our attention to makes an argument that sounds like the polar opposite of your calculated spin.

      • skr says:

        I think you misunderstood me regarding exotics. I plant natives whenever I can convince a client to plant natives. I share the belief of Cal-IPC that when possible you should plant natives instead of exotics. This is because there is very little risk associated with the natives. Of course Cal-IPC would take the position of native only. They are tryiing to counter an entrenched culture of planting exotics and have to stay on message. I disagree with the native plant activists that argue that you should never plant exotics an that exotics need to be actively eliminated (I do realize that some eradication efforts are necessary because of extreme harm but those seem to be an exception not a rule). The odds of an exotic will escape and cause problems is very low. I don’t see how a risk of below one percent justifies the vehemence with which native plant advocates fight against exotics. When this battle happens in an already hugely impacted urban environment, it makes even less sense to me. In this case, I think it is hugely misguided to alter a mature non-native ecosystem at great expense instead of using those same funds to increase the amount of green space in the city. It would be perfectly logical to plant the new green space with native plants to encourage native wildlife. But in that case, I would also like to see the needs of the urban apes taken into consideration as well as I believe that can ultimately lead to a better environment for rural locales.

      • Charlie says:

        I just wanted to point out that CAL-IPC is simply an organization that advocates for control of INVASIVE plants. There is no CAL-IPC agenda that I am aware of that calls for ‘planting only natives’. The CNPS is the main advocate organization for California native plants and to my knowledge they do not try to stop people from planting non-invasive exotics either. Such people simply don’t exist, the ‘native nazi’ is a ridiculous myth created tfor reasons I can’t comprehend.

      • skr says:

        Oh really? Their non-existance must be the reason we now have the NELA hillside ordinance that requires new work to be accompanied by a landscape architect designed native planting plan that must be approved by building and safety. Those same non-existant people must not be the ones that are trying to expand that same onerous ordinance citywide.

  • Shelley Luce says:

    Creekfreak, your posting really resonated with my own feelings on this topic. I love many things about my urban lifestyle, and in some ways I want it to be more urban – more public transit, more services within walking distance of my home and work, better bike lanes – yet I crave greenery and “soft surfaces”, i.e. areas that are not paved. I absolutely believe we can have both. I am hopeful that a consensus has been reached among city government agencies, planners and environmentalists that we need to bring nature into our cities and let it do its work of cleaning our air and water, recharging our aquifers, and nourishing our bodies and brains. This is showing up in my world in the push to use low-impact development techniques to infiltrate rainwater and keep it out of stormdrains. Though I am frustrated that things move slowly, I also try to take the 100-year view and understand that an LID ordinance today means a lot of new LID features in place as the city redevelops, parcel-by-parcel, decades from now.

    I also want to mention that Jessica Hall, in addition to inspiring us all to understand and restore urban streams, has conceived a plan for LA to become locally water sustainable – she presented it a few years ago to an environmental science course I teach. It also involves moving people out of floodplains and concentrating development to allow unpaving large portions of the watershed. A radical idea that sounds like it may just be catching on.

    Maybe we should have a kind of mini-TED locally, focused on urban nature. Could be fun!

  • Jonathan says:

    Here is some fascinating information regarding endangered butterflies that I’m copying over (with change of voice) from the other discussion:

    The Mission Blue Butterfly, federally listed as an endangered species, only has 6 remaining spots where it still exists. One of these is Twin Peaks, which makes it reasonably certain that they used to exist on Mt. Sutro as well. I would put a lot of value in giving it a 7th spot to hold onto.

    Mt. Sutro could possibly also become habitat for the federally endangered Myrtle’s Silverspot Butterfly, which is now completely gone from the San Francisco peninsula where it once existed, instead only hanging on in 4 localities in Marin/Sonoma County. Again, their grassland, dune, and scrub habitats have been almost completely wiped out in their range by development and the planting of invasive plants.

    It could possibly also support the San Bruno Elfin Butterfly, another federally endangered San Francisco native which is now left with only a few remaining populations.

    Then there’s the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly, a federally threatened grassland species formally native to San Francisco, but which has since been wiped out there and now is only found in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

    And then there’s the Callippe Silverspot Butterfly, yet ANOTHER federally endangered butterfly species that used to live in the San Francisco grasslands, but now can be found in only two localities. You could have a drought year or a couple fires wipe out those populations, and the species would be extinct.

    Which is exactly what happened to the Xerces Blue butterfly, a former Mt. Sutro resident (almost certainly, due to confirmed 19th century descriptions from the western slope of Twin Peaks) that is now extinct. The Sthenele Satyr and Pheres Blue are both former San Francisco residents that are now extinct as well.

    Wouldn’t the preservation of at least a couple of these myriad species of critically endangered butterflies be reason enough to convert Mt. Sutro back to the habitat that used to support them?

  • Jonathan says:

    Interestingly, this situation mirrors the situation of two other endangered species in my area – the Palos Verdes Blue and the El Segundo Blue. The Palos Verdes Blue was thought to have gone extinct in the 1980′s until a single population was found 12 years later, which is still the only one known. The El Segundo Blue is limited to three remaining populations, one of which is barely viable. Both were driven this close to extinction by development and the replacement of native plants with non-native species. There are currently efforts underway for both species that would rehabilitate habitat by removing invasives and planting natives. I’ve been lucky enough to watch one of these uprooting/planting operations in progress, though I haven’t participated. Besides helping the butterflies, it makes the coastline more wild and beautiful, replacing the iceplant monoculture with a diverse array of natives.

    • skr says:

      I haven’t denied that natives can be beneficial or that invasives can cause damage. My argument still is that the vast majority of exotics are not invasive and therefore the vehemence of the nativists is unfounded. I do however think it is a little disingenuous to equate an ice plant monoculture that really supported nothing but a slope to Sutro that has a thriving animal population simply because both could exist in areas that support butterflies.
      As to the comment that it makes the coastline more beautiful, that is a subject for passionate debate among those living near the beaches. Some are very upset about what they consider raggedy weeds that catch windblown trash and long for a return of the ice plant. I just wanted to point out that your opinion as to the beauty of the new planting is not universally held. Personally, I think removing the ice plant was a good idea.

      • Jonathan says:

        That’s awesome that we can find agreement on that. What do you think about the potential for butterflies on Mount Sutro though?

        San Francisco used to have 56 species of butterflies. It is now down to 36, and many of those 36 can only be found in 1-3 remaining spots and are in danger of disappearing as well. Of the 20 species that have already disappeared, 3 are extinct forever and another half-dozen are critically endangered.

        If the environment is really our concern, why not encourage the native flora and fauna that would support these butterflies, amphibians, and reptiles that we’re in danger of losing forever, instead of the eucalyptus that just supports the same stuff you can find in almost any city?

  • Charlie says:

    Can we please stop using the term ‘nativist’, usually used to describe racists and xenophobes, when talking about people who plant native plants? I understand it probably isn’t going to stop being used that way on the Sutro blog but it would be nice to keep that sort of insulting language isolated there, at least.

  • Joe ~

    I happened upon this amazing dialogue your initial writing inspired. Worth reading several times to “get” the various distinctions people are offering for consideration.

    One thing you may have missed in your posting are those of us who neither see urban areas as wildlife-only refuges, nor a “blank slate.” My growing concern is those planners who do see the remnant parts of nature as a “blank slate.” Some of us birdwatchers DO see the amazing wildlife that our urban areas supports and we want to preserve that heritage….that “other” part of the Earth we humans share this space with.

    The “blank slate” approach of many landscape architects and planners ignores the incredible diversity of native insects, mammals, frogs, lizards and more that amazingly still exist here in LA. The problem is often a lack of ecological literacy.

    If we are to preserve that ecological diversity we have remaining, we can’t just take a pencil to map and try to re-draw what WE think might be best.

    My bias is to respect the needs of nature that still thrives here, whether it is a Barn Owl living in a nonnative Palm Tree or a thousand Monarch Butterflies traveling to Los Angeles to live for the winter in a Eucalyptus grove. Or the imported muddy “fill” that now makes up rare plant and wetland habitat that is home and foraging ground for many species of birds.

    Once those needs are identified and respected, THEN a potential for sensitive, non-mechanized, community-involved restoration makes sense ~ so humans and nature come together for the best possible result.

    Unfortunately, this is not the way most government and quasi-government agencies are participating with “nature restoration.”

    And – for this third generation southern californian, I think we are already dense enough. Put enough rats in a confined box, and aberrant behavior increases. same for humans.

    We all need Nature Nearby.

    ~ Marcia

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