Hidden along the congested streets of San Francisco are wildlife corridors where jackrabbits and rare butterflies make their homes. Wedged between a wall of high-rise condos and the lake in Chicago is a sliver of parkland where coyotes commute under the cover of night. Tucked away behind New York’s JFK airport is a critically important bird sanctuary where endangered osprey breed.
If you know where to look, you’ll find the most surprising slices of nature thriving amidst the urban jungle of America’s largest cities. In WTTW’s new 16-episode digital series URBAN NATURE, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Marcus Kronforst leads audiences on a tour of these overlooked ecosystems in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. He’ll hop on a bike, grab a kayak, or even take the subway, to seek out the unlikely habitats that are hidden among the skyscrapers. He’ll talk with the passionate conservationists who are ensuring that these urban oases survive despite the constant dangers posed by the surrounding city. And he’ll discover how these havens are essential to the health of our cities—and the future of our planet.
The series in its entirety will premiere on wttw.com/urbannature on Monday, March 20. Descriptions of the 16 webisodes, which vary in length from four to nine minutes, approximately, are as follows:
Building a Bird-Safe City
Chicago is a dangerous place…for migrating birds. But now scientists, architects, and dedicated volunteers are teaming up to make the city a leader in bird-friendly design and policy.
The Great Squirrel Mystery
There are two squirrel species in Chicago, and they are very particular about where they live. Gray squirrels tend to live in ritzy neighborhoods, while fox squirrels thrive in more affordable areas. A local biologist thinks he’s finally figured out why.
Can Cities Save the Monarch?
The monarch butterfly’s remarkable migration is in peril. Its habitat has been decimated by rapid urbanization and changing agricultural practices. Could cities come to the rescue?
A Wild Plan for San Francisco
In San Francisco they’re imagining a world in which cars share the road with birds, bees, butterflies, and bicyclists. We cycled a few of the wildlife corridors designated in the city’s Green Connections Plan.
We know that green roofs cool our buildings and absorb storm water. But could they also provide habitat for wildlife? To find out, we got special access to five private rooftops in New York and Chicago.
The Bronx River Bounces Back
It’s one of the most remarkable comeback stories in urban wildlife: New York’s Bronx River—once an open sewer—is now teeming with life. We discovered oysters, eels, herons, and even beavers, as we canoed through the poorest congressional district in America.
Oakland’s Redwood Forest
Redwood forests can be mysterious places, but this one raises all kinds of questions. What’s a redwood forest doing in Oakland? Why do the trees grow in concentric circles? And why is one redwood so much bigger than the rest? We have the answers.
A Coyote Comeback
Coyotes have made a remarkable comeback in Chicago. What are the secrets to their survival in a dense metropolis? We hunted for clues with noted biologist Stan Gehrt.
The Intricate Ecology…of Vacant Lots
They’re vacant, but not empty. We trekked through several vacant lots on Chicago’s south side, and found—amidst the discarded tires and construction debris—birds, bees, butterflies, and some very valuable plants.
New York's Deserted Island
Less than a mile from Manhattan in the middle of the East River is North Brother Island, the former home of a notorious typhoid hospital. Today the hospital lies in ruins, and nature is taking over.
The Streams Below Our Streets
Cities once converted streams into sewers to make room for development. But now there’s a growing movement to unearth these buried waterways.
Saving San Francisco’s Sea Lions
It’s been a busy few years at the Marine Mammal Center. This hospital for wild seals and sea lions has seen a record number of patients as a result of several environmental threats. We made the rounds with a veterinarian.
Central Park Plant Census
It’s a seemingly-impossible task: cataloguing every wild plant species in Central Park. But that’s exactly what two botanists are doing, and they’re making some surprising discoveries along the way.
If you take the ‘A’ train to the end of the line in Queens, you land at Jamaica Bay, where salt marshes support endangered birds and rare turtles. We patrolled these waters with an activist known as the Jamaica Bay Guardian.
If you want to know what Chicago looked like 200 years ago, head to the city’s southeast corner. Native wetlands, forests, and prairies all come together here, at a natural crossroads.
Hiking Through History, in the Presidio
What did San Francisco look like before Europeans got here? You’ll find the answer in the Presidio. This urban national park has dunes, marshes, a mountain lake, and a plant so rare we can’t disclose its exact location.
“This was such a fun, crazy project to work on,” said Protess. “Last summer, I chased coyotes on a railroad embankment, walked into a cage with a 200 pound sea lion, canoed the Bronx River, and sat through hours of squirrel videos.”
URBAN NATURE is produced and written by Dan Protess and hosted by Marcus Kronforst. Camera: Tim Boyd. Editor: Paul Thornton. Associate Producer: Sean Keenehan. Graphic Design: Reed Marvine. Art Director: Linda Fox. Original score by Steve Mullen. Website Design: Jenny Macchione. Website Development: Kevin Crowley, Justin Henderson, and Grant Smith. Intern: Nadia Vargas. Executive Producer: Anne Gleason.
URBAN NATURE was made possible, in part, by the support of a generous group of individual, corporate, and foundation funders.
About Marcus Kronforst (Host)
Marcus Kronforst is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago. He is a prominent researcher in the field of evolutionary biology, where his work focuses on wing pattern mimicry in butterflies. Dr. Kronforst has published his scientific research in an array of highly influential journals, including Nature, Science, Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences USA, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Genetics, and Genome Biology, among others. Prior to joining the University of Chicago, he held a five-year Bauer Fellowship at Harvard University’s FAS Center for Systems Biology.
About Dan Protess (Producer and Writer)
Dan Protess has been producing and writing critically-acclaimed programming at WTTW Chicago for 17 years. He was the Series Producer of the 2016 national PBS primetime series 10 that Changed America, and the Producer and Writer of the 2013 program 10 Buildings that Changed America. His other recent productions include the digital series FOODPHILES, as well as the feature-length architecture and history specials Chicago’s Loop: a New Walking Tour, Biking the Boulevards and Chicago’s Lakefront. He wrote and produced the Emmy-winning, James Beard-nominated The Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History. He has also produced candidate forums and feature stories for Chicago Tonight, the station’s nightly newsmagazine program, for which he has received the prestigious Peter Lisagor Award. He began his career at WTTW in 1999 as an associate producer of arts and architecture programming, and soon after served as the associate producer and writer of A Justice That Heals, a documentary about a teenage murderer and his young victim that was shown on ABC’s Nightline. He went on to produce and write numerous documentaries for Chicago Stories, an historical series, including Jewish Chicago, Chicago’s First Mexican Church, Chicago’s 1919 Race Riots, and numerous profiles of local luminaries such as Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, arts maven Lois Weisberg, and priest-turned-romance novelist Andrew Greeley. He began his career at public television station WHA-TV in Madison, Wisconsin.
WTTW is a premier public media organization committed to creating and presenting unique television and digital media content across four distinct television channels – WTTW11, WTTW Prime, WTTW Create/WTTW WORLD, and WTTW PBS Kids – and on wttw.com. Recognized for award-winning local and national productions such as Chicago Tonight, Check, Please!, and MEXICO – One Plate at a Time, WTTW presents the very best in public affairs, arts and culture, nature and science, history and documentary, and children’s programming. Visitors to wttw.com can access a full library of local and national video content for kids and adults, immersive web-exclusive stories and features, event and membership opportunities, and more. Connect with WTTW on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.