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Having Nature and Protecting It, Too

May 07, 2000|Stephanie Pincetl | Stephanie Pincetl, a research associate professor of geography and coordinatorof the Sustainable Cities Program at USC, is the author of "Transforming California: a Political History of Land Use and Development."

Southern Californians seem to be of two minds about the environment. Major efforts are underway to preserve and protect such sensitive ecosystems as the Orange County coast. But once preserved, the ecosystems become part of the public domain, leaving them vulnerable to the destructive effects of visitors. Can we have our nature and protect it, too?

In Dana Point, visitors grab shells that hermit crabs use for homes and pluck starfish from pools. Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, refuge of the coastal sage scrub, employs volunteers to keep hikers on paths on the two days a month the park is open to the public. The California spotted owl, which lives in the national forests surrounding Los Angeles, is suffering from contact with millions of visitors. Although a friendly bird, its numbers are dwindling because people either throw rocks or shoot at it. Increased traffic and smog associated with visitors have fouled its migratory areas, and the bird's water supply is diminishing.

Part of the problem is that we define nature as only existing at the urban fringe, in the national forests and in specially designated zones, but not in the city. In the city, nature is paved over, seen as a vacant lot, a concrete flood-control channel or a weed-choked alley. As a result, it is not valued, nurtured or protected. This bias against experiencing nature in the city compels us to escape to the fringe to be in nature, thus putting tremendous pressure on vestigial ecosystems nearby.

There is no magic solution to preserving biodiversity and reducing people's effects on the region's ecosystems. It makes no sense to cordon off the environmentally sensitive places we have. That would simply alienate people and provide them no alternatives. The only real solution is to rethink the way we build and landscape cities, rethink the way we treat our backyards, next door, down the street and under the street. Cities can become places of ecological vitality if natural processes are accorded a role in city planning and building.

Frederick Law Olmsted understood this more than a century ago. When he designed open spaces and parks, he used man-made expanses to enhance biological processes. His Boston Back Bay design transformed a filthy marsh and mudflats into a salt marsh that accepted the daily and seasonal flux of tides and floods, filtered and cleaned the water, reduced noxious odors and provided habitats and an aesthetic experience.

A similar approach can be applied to Southern California's hundreds of thousands of abandoned or vacant lots. The city and county of Los Angeles, for example, could create a "scattered jewels" effect of small, interlinked community parks designed to enhance native fauna and flora and create recreation spaces. Portions of city streets could be reclaimed and transformed into planted surfaces. Local governments could clear more areas for storm water to percolate back into the soil instead of channeling runoff to the ocean.

While a great deal of energy, money, study and effort has been expended to preserve biodiversity in nature at the urban fringe, our own ecosystem, the city, has been neglected. But if cities are transformed into healthier places to live, their effects on their surrounding environment would be more benign.

Fortuitously, Proposition 12, the urban parks initiative, can make this happen. Keeping the human animal in mind, the proposition's nearly $1 billion in money for urban parks can begin to fund the creation of a network of small and large open spaces. Local governments can begin to convert the plethora of existing vacant lots, depressing alleyways and bleak parking lots into places where nature and people can again thrive.

Such places are already blossoming. A series of pocket parks dot the Los Angeles River from Los Feliz to the Elysian Valley. A former Department of Water and Power storage yard southeast of downtown is becoming an eight-acre nature park.

This approach to the urban fabric will do a great deal to combat sprawl at the urban fringe and help reduce pressure on our fragile and disappearing environmentally sensitive areas. We will have created a habitable urban environment for ourselves and revived the living natural systems our current urbanization has done so much to obliterate. *

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