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Ask the Conservationist: January 2013

Can City-Dwellers Be Conservationists?

Does living in a city mean you're less connected to the natural world? Our scientist tackles one reader’s complex question.

Does living in the city mean you can't be one with nature? One reader wants to know: can city-dwellers be conservationists?

Read below for the answer and don’t forget to send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)


Randy Jones of Oak Park, IL writes: With more and more people living in cities now than ever before, it seems like our connection to nature might suffer. Is there evidence of this? And how can conservationists convince city-dwellers that nature is vital to their lives?

Rob McDonald, the Conservancy's senior scientist for sustainable land use, answers:

That’s a good question, and a complex one. First, are urban dwellers really less connected to nature? Certainly we interact less deeply with nature than people in rural areas. Someone in a city often has a lot less direct knowledge of how a forest works than a logger does, and often has only a vague sense of where their food came from. So in that sense, urban dwellers are less connected.

Interestingly, though, urban dwellers have throughout history been generally more supportive of the protection of the environment. Pick a major victory for the environmental movement — the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Montreal Protocol — they all were advocated for primarily by urban dwellers. Indeed, the growth of the environmental movement in the United States and Europe coincided with the mass growth of cities. So urban dwellers are often the advocates for protecting nature.

At the same time cities, as centers of humanity’s economic activity, often put enormous strain on the natural world. Indeed, cities need nature to thrive — they depend on functional natural ecosystems for clean air and clean water and a host of other benefits nature provides. These benefits are often forgotten by urban dwellers, since they are common or public goods supplied for free by natural systems. One of the tasks of conservationists is to make these natural benefits apparent to urban dwellers, to motivate them to better protect their own interests and those of the natural world.

There is some evidence that people in the developed world are spending less and less of their leisure time in the outdoors. This is a trend regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas, and it is a function of us spending more and more time looking at screens, from TVs to computers to smartphones. Since having significant experiences in nature is correlated with caring for the environment, this is a worrisome trend for the conservation movement.

The key is making sure that every child has at least some formative experience in nature. This can be in a small patch of forest near a city, or in a wilderness area many miles away. Even if it is a short experience, it can cause a lifelong interest in conservation.

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