Thriving 'Urban Nature' in Three American Cities

Daniel Hautzinger
A nesting osprey shares the sky with planes from New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport. (Don Riepe / American Littoral Society)
A nesting osprey shares the sky with planes from New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport. (Don Riepe / American Littoral Society)

Many people think of Chicago as a highly segregated city. What they don’t know is that squirrels in the city separate themselves, too: grey squirrels tend to live in wealthier city neighborhoods, while fox squirrels opt for less pricey areas. Why? WTTW’s new web series Urban Nature explores this and other surprising stories of wildlife thriving in three American cities.

Fox squirrels in Chicago prefer more affordable neighborhoods than grey squirrels. (Toadberry / Wikicommons)Fox squirrels in Chicago prefer more affordable neighborhoods than grey squirrels. (Toadberry / Wikicommons) “Everywhere you look, there are ecosystems,” says series producer and writer Dan Protess.  They may be severely impacted by human development, but they’re all around us.”

Take a vacant lot. “You look at it and you see a lot where a house used to be,” Protess explains. “You’re focused on the absence of something, rather than what’s actually there. But when you peel back the layers and start to look carefully, the biodiversity that you find is amazing, and it has not been managed by any human being. It’s just the result of seeds blowing in the wind and squirrels carrying seeds. The ecosystem is the result of happenstance.”

Urban Nature takes a look at both unmediated ecosystems and places where humans are stepping in to save nature that is threatened by urban development. Host Marcus Kronforst catches a glimpse of San Francisco as it appeared before human settlement by venturing into a redwood forest in Oakland and by hiking through the Presidio, where a rocky outcropping shelters a shrub that’s the last of its kind in the wild. He encounters endangered birds in the salt marshes of Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay, and canoes down the Bronx River to spot eels, herons, and beavers.

An abandoned building on the deserted North Brother Island, which used to hold a typhoid hospital. (Dan Protess)An abandoned building on the deserted North Brother Island, which used to hold a typhoid hospital. (Dan Protess) “The deserted island story was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Protess says about visiting North Brother Island, the site of an abandoned typhoid hospital now being reclaimed by wildlife. “We got to visit this island that’s less than a mile from Manhattan, but when you’re on it, you’re in the middle of a forest with these buildings crumbling all around you.”

But while nature thrives in the absence of humans on North Brother Island, urban wildlife in more inhabited areas can also be imperiled by the domineering presence of civilization. The monarch butterfly’s migration path has been destroyed by urbanization and agriculture, but some residents of cities are trying to provide hospitality by planting milkweed, the host plant for the magnificent insects. Kronforst also meets with volunteers and architects who are trying to save the thousands of migrating birds killed by Chicago’s glass skyscrapers.

Stories like these, involving restoration ecology and scientific research, make up the bulk of Urban Nature. “I mostly looked for ongoing scientific studies, so that there’s some interesting information we are in the process of discovering right now – partially because it’s hosted by a scientist,” Protess explains. Kronforst is a professor at the University of Chicago studying evolution through butterflies.

“Science itself is about solving mysteries, and any time you have a mystery and people trying to solve it, you have a good story,” he continues. “And it happens that there are a lot of researchers out there who are interested in nature in cities. The world is rapidly urbanizing, causing more and more of our land to be taken up by cities, so if plants and animals are going to survive, we’re going to need to find a home for them in cities.”

A map of San Francisco’s 115-mile Green Connections Network includes 24 routes designed to provide habitat for plant and wildlife species. (Green Connections)A map of San Francisco’s 115-mile Green Connections Network includes 24 routes designed to provide habitat for plant and wildlife species. (Green Connections) San Francisco has a plan to help its local wildlife flourish and survive in the dangerous territory of cars and concrete. The city’s Green Connections Plan proposes the creation of wildlife corridors along city streets, such as a “pollinator boulevard” of medians filled with diverse flowering plants. “San Francisco is doing some incredible out-of-the-box thinking about how we can accommodate nature in cities,” Protess says. “I’m glad that I can help publicize it, because I think it’s something that more cities should be considering.”

Saturday, March 25 at 3:00 pm, The Field Museum hosts a screening and discussion of Urban Nature with Protess, Kronforst, and The Field Museum’s Abigail Derby Lewis. Tickets are free, but reservations are required.
Urban Nature
Nature