The Collective Work of Urban Conservation

I’ve learned to take wildness wherever I can get it. In Oakland, California, where I lived until recently, I found it on the paved shores of Lake Merritt, where black-crowned night herons hunt their varied prey in the ambient light of office towers and luxury condos. A medium-sized shorebird with a hunched posture, red eyes, and a beak like a pickaxe, the black-crowned night heron is a vaguely sinister yet commonplace presence along Lake Merritt’s busy pedestrian paths. On nighttime walks around the lake, I observed these masters of restraint as they stared into its black waters, not stalking their prey like their great blue relatives but waiting like rattlesnakes for the optimal moment to strike. Inured to the sounds of the city—the traffic, the music, the conversation of friends—they ignore all but the most intrusive passersby in their nightly quest for a meal.

A medium-sized bird with a white belly and dark feathers on its back and head perches atop a rock in front of water
Black-crowned night heron in San Francisco. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2019.

In Anchorage, Alaska, where I now live and work as a public interest environmental attorney, wildness of a more dramatic variety sprawls in all directions from wherever one happens to be standing. Relative to the iconic mammals one encounters even within the city limits, a medium-sized shorebird catching crustaceans in an urban lagoon seems comparatively tame—too passive, too familiar, too comfortable in its artificial environment. The black-crowned night heron, simply put, is seen as something less than wild.

And yet even in Alaska, where public lands are vast and bears and moose routinely visit residential backyards, it is in the little municipal parks and refuges—protected lakes, marshes, and other landing places for resident and migrating birds—that I am most often reminded that the world remains fundamentally a habitat for wild creatures. In places like Potter Marsh, which despite its proximity to a busy highway draws waterfowl from across the continent, ducks and geese go about their days with purpose, cautiously indifferent to the human beings whose profound impacts they can only faintly perceive.

The simple and perhaps disappointing fact is that countless species now rely on whatever small pockets of habitat have been allowed to remain—either by design or neglect—within America’s ever-growing cities, suburbs, and exurbs, where the majority of human interactions with wildlife occur. In such settings, a bird that has learned to coexist with people might appear to have lost some essential part of its nature, but its will to survive burns no less intensely than that of the black bear or the wolf. It has simply adapted to its altered environment.

Ducks and geese swim on a peaceful lake surrounded by green trees and tall green grass, an example of urban conservation
Anchorage’s Taku Lake provides a summer refuge for breeding and migrating waterfowl. Photo by author, 2021.

Of course, acknowledging that so many wild creatures successfully inhabit urban environments does not imply that city parks are a substitute for the sprawling forests and wetlands they replaced. Rather, populations of many species have shrunk in accordance with their habitat, much of which has been turned into farmland or fragmented by development. There are, for instance, fewer places for the whooping crane to live, so there are fewer cranes. To reverse such declines, urban stakeholders must do more than protect those places that are left—wherever possible, they should create more of them.

I can appreciate just how difficult a task this is. Although my career in public lands management is in its early stages, I have already observed that seemingly simple actions can require years of negotiation (and, often, litigation). Even in a state as immense as Alaska, land is precious, and consensus over its use is rare. Regardless of the jurisdiction, many legal and economic forces inherently favor development over conservation. While local governments possess substantial authority to act in the public interest, many are reluctant to use that power to its fullest extent in the conservation context.

The world remains fundamentally a habitat for wild creatures.

A primary reason for this is the substantial financial resources of developers, who tend to view lawsuits challenging unfavorable agency decisions as basic costs of doing business. The private property rights engrained in American law—and expanded by the judiciary—provide developers and other property owners with substantial leverage in any such challenge. Courts have determined that seemingly reasonable conservation regulations—for instance, banning development along a vulnerable coastline—can constitute a violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees compensation for any government “taking” of private property for public use. Local governments, typically cash-strapped and risk-averse, conclude that many preservation measures simply aren’t worth a lawsuit. And while municipal leaders tout the economic benefits of development projects, depending on them as sources of revenue, parks and green space are often seen as a net negative on the tax ledger. Combine these factors with America’s addiction to single-family detached housing, and you end up with sprawling development projects in precious marshland. Given this preeminence of development interests and private property rights, the balance of power does not typically favor marshes, birds, or the people who admire them.

But there are certain places that give reason for hope.

On the northern edge of California’s San Pablo Bay, tide meets shore along a stretch of muddy marsh that would not qualify as scenic to many observers. While it may be overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor, San Pablo is clearly superior to San Francisco Bay in at least one respect—the length of its undeveloped shore. Twenty square miles of this estuary are subject to the moderate protection of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in which hunting and limited agricultural production are allowed but residential and commercial development are permanently barred. From most parts of the Refuge, one can hear the highway and see suburban sprawl, and on certain days a furious snarl of horsepower—racecars at the nearby Sears Point Raceway—is inescapable. Nonetheless, in part because of the federal land designation and its protections, myriad wildlife indeed find refuge here.

A bird with a long beak, long lecks, and speckled markings on its feathers walks along a muddy surface
The long-billed curlew in California. Photo by Len Blumin, 2005.

Walking along Tolay Creek, which winds its way along the edge of the refuge, through mudflats and into the bay, I have seen as many as two dozen species, numbering hundreds of individual birds, in the space of a few minutes. Among them are the long-billed curlew, boring deep into the muck as though drilling for oil, and the ubiquitous plover, whose sudden sprints across the sand give an impression of unease. Each species—willet and avocet, hawk and harrier, great and snowy egret—occupies its own place in the ecological and visual landscape of the estuary. The resulting scene is a mosaic of unusual-looking creatures and their equally distinctive habits, a miniature Serengeti in which the all-important (and evidently plentiful) prey remain largely invisible, hidden to the human observer by a combination of tide, sediment, and distance. To the birdwatcher, this scene might appear unaltered by humans, but that perception is illusory: the marsh was drained and diked to death at the start of last century, then resurrected many decades later at taxpayer expense.

The Tolay Creek, Tubbs Island, and Sears Point restoration projects, which together revived this swath of marshland in the western portion of the Refuge, consisted largely of removing artificial barriers to tidal flow, previously erected to establish and maintain agricultural operations. Despite longtime private ownership, these lands had never succumbed to the urban and suburban development that transformed most wetlands along the West Coast. The changes wrought by agriculture were dramatic but not quite irrevocable; it would be possible, as certain people recognized, to return the waterways and tidelands to something resembling their former condition.

Bringing this vision to fruition was a collective undertaking. The effort to restore the estuary of San Pablo Bay, which began more than two decades ago, continues to serve as a template for successful urban conservation. Local land trusts, adept at working with landowners, spearheaded the conversion of private property into public land. Government agencies delivered the substantial legal, technical, and financial resources needed to design and implement the projects. NGOs and members of the public provided input and elbow grease, volunteering to remove invasive plants like pepperweed. Coordinating among these disparate parties must have been complicated, to say the least. While I had no personal involvement in these interrelated projects, my professional experience gives me some sense of the mind-numbing volume of meetings, conference calls, and document reviews that had to take place just to revive the normal functioning of this small corner of the bay. Gazing across the resulting landscape, I am not only grateful to but inspired by the many people who played a role in its restoration.

Urban stakeholders must do more to protect those places that are left—wherever possible, they should create more of them.

The lesson of San Pablo Bay is at once an invitation and a warning. The places where people live, once hospitable to nonhuman life, can become so again. Each of the familiar eyesores of civilization, invariably home to certain species already—the vacant lots, slivers of trash-strewn woods, fallowed fields, weedy ditches, polluted ponds, and culverted creeks—is a future refuge, if given the chance. Let’s protect them today so they can be restored tomorrow.

Though I routinely confront the complexities of land management as part of my day job, I speak not as an attorney but as a member of an urban community when I say there is incalculable value in protecting and restoring small pieces of green space (keeping in mind the need to fully consider potential social impacts). These fragments of habitat provide ecological benefits greatly disproportionate to their physical size, promoting biodiversity and connecting species across large, otherwise insurmountable distances. When it comes to people, research has demonstrated a clear link between access to green space and mental health; research has also shown that far too many communities lack such access. One need only observe a child at Lake Merritt, awestruck by a winter gathering of Canada geese, to know that these urban refuges are crucial to the well-being of people and wildlife alike.

The joy found in such places cannot be measured, but it must be paid for. While securing public funds for restoration is no easy feat, it is far from impossible. The challenge lies in justifying an investment whose returns cannot be easily quantified to decision-makers who too often prioritize economic benefits above all else. But there are other, more easily quantified numbers—namely, votes—that can make such projects attractive to otherwise disinterested politicians. Moreover, public agencies are obligated by law to seek, and meaningfully consider, public input on an array of land management decisions. Residents of American cities thus possess, individually and collectively, a more powerful voice than most of them know. Given the current threats to wild creatures, now would be a good time to use it.

Featured image: Canada geese spend winters on Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, California. Photo by author, 2020.

Nicholas Moore is a public interest environmental attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, where he is involved in a variety of issues concerning management of public lands. His writing has previously appeared in the environmental journal Environs, the Daily Journal, and the Daily Californian. Contact.