The world’s population is growing rapidly; there are seven billion people on the planet today, and by 2060 that number is expected to balloon to more than nine billion. This growth has led to significant pressures on our planet’s natural resources and nowhere is this more apparent than in cities. Currently, about 82 percent of all Americans live in urban areas and the United Nations projects a 72 percent increase in global urban living by 2050.
Our Urban Strategies Initiative recognizes two key facts: first, that increasingly crowded urban environments will require, above all else, reliable sources of food, water and energy; and secondly, that the health and viability of those areas will depend on a strong connection to, and understanding of, natural resource management both inside and outside of cities.
Lakes, rivers and forests provide fresh water and clean air, while healthy, intact wetlands buffer our shorelines against rising sea levels and storm surge, and help minimize erosion and control floods. These functions are critical to thriving urban areas, so in 2013 we began work on a science-based natural infrastructure assessment tool to help cities understand and evaluate the many ways in which natural infrastructure contributes to sustainability and resilience. The assessments will be conducted initially in these four cities:
The Conservancy’s urban strategies are designed to support cities as they integrate natural infrastructure into planning and development in ways that safeguard people from natural hazards, reduce vulnerability to climate change, and enhance the resilience of diverse urban communities. Our focus is on five distinct areas:
According to the 2011 Census, 52 percent of the United States population lives in a coastal watershed. Mounting evidence suggests that climate change will have a profound effect on these coastal populations; rising sea levels and intense storm surges will put those communities at risk for inundation, storm damage, and saltwater intrusion of agricultural lands and drinking water supplies. The Conservancy’s coastal restoration and protection strategy aims to preserve and enhance the natural systems that deliver critical protection for our coastal cities.
Cities need water to survive, but urban water supplies face significant risks from rising demand, aging infrastructure and a myriad of natural hazards. As populations grow and consumption increases, cities will have to fundamentally change how they acquire and use water. The Conservancy has developed science-based tools and practical incentives for funding conservation programs that protect groundwater resources and the forests and wetland areas that filter our fresh water.
Trees and forests are essential to urban residents in many ways—they capture rainfall and help control urban stormwater runoff, provide shade and reduce excessive temperatures, and remove dust and pollutants from the air. A healthy urban tree canopy can remove as much as 42,000 tons of carbon from the air each year. Trees also provide a number of intangible benefits to people, such as reduced stress and a greater sense of safety. The Conservancy’s urban forest strategy calls for educating cities on the benefits of trees in urban areas and collaborating with business to incorporate the value of nature into business decisions.
With more than 95 million people, the Millennial generation (born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) is the largest and most diverse in American history. Since formative experiences with nature have proven to be key to a lifelong interest in conservation, on-the-ground conservation projects that happen within cities and/or benefit urban populations are critical as we engage a broader, more diverse constituency. Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) is an established Conservancy program developed to provide real world conservation work experiences to urban youth and support the next generation of conservation leaders.