Saturday, April 14, 2012

Access to Nature Enhances Livability of Cities

by Moderator M.J. Cody                              View Readers' Comments

First edition of Wild in the City
was published in 2000 

Wild in the City: Exploring The Intertwine and its predecessor, Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas, co-edited by Mike Houck and M.J. Cody, offer lively personal essays on a “sense of place,” natural history essays, and site guides that celebrate the city as a unique, vibrant ecosystem integrating nature with the built environment. Following is an anatomy of how and why these books came to be.


In livable cities is the preservation of the wild.

                        —Urban Greenspaces Institute motto

Inspired by a conviction that conservation must focus on cities if we want to protect the wild places beyond the urban fringe, our new mantra, "In livable cities is the preservation of the wild," is an urban corollary to Thoreau's aphorism, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." It will only be through the creation of humane, wildlife-rich cities—urban areas where people actually want to live—that we will stanch the flow of ever-increasing development across the rural landscape and wild lands.

Young Naturalist exploring Portland's
160-acre Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge,

Photo Mike Houck
When the Audubon Society of Portland launched its Urban Naturalist program in 1980 urban wildlife was considered an oxymoron by many. The assertion was that the region’s urban growth boundary was intended to focus on development inside and to protect nature “out there” beyond the boundary. But the Society, long before it was popular to do so, recognized that protecting urban wildlife in the Portland area was vital, and that, as Robert Michael Pyle so aptly writes in his book, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”  

Thirty years later access to nature in the city is a critical element of Portland’s modern urban planning and design. 

Wild in the City: How did it happen?

Urban Naturalist 1982
first edition of Audubon
Society of Portland's quarterly
urban natural history journal.
Every book has its own distinctive path to getting published. Wild in the City is a product of serendipity and hard work. Its genesis was in 1982 with the publication of the Audubon Society of Portland’s seasonal journal, “The Urban Naturalist” —a labor of love written, illustrated, and designed by a cadre of dedicated volunteers from across the metropolitan region. After more than a decade of quarterly deadlines, inertia ruled. The energy and motivation to continue, or even to create a book (always in the back of the Audubon crew’s minds), would have to come from elsewhere.

That’s when serendipity interceded from a totally unsuspected source: Mike Houck, part of the “Urban Naturalist” team, reconnected with his old high school chum, M. J. Cody, who had recently returned home to the Northwest from a television writing career in Hollywood.

For years, MJ had suggested to Mike that they collaborate on a book, perhaps a travelogue on Oregon’s special places. This time, on a sunny afternoon over beer at RiverPlace Marina, Mike posited the idea of a guide to Portland’s natural spaces. MJ jumped at the idea. Then, the flash of realization: the archived stacks of “The Urban Naturalist.” Would the old crew be willing to update the material? Would others join the cause? Would a publisher take on the project? They would. They did. Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas was published in 2000.

Mother and daughter enjoy wildflowers, 
Tanner Springs Park in Portland's Pearl District.
Photo: Mike Houck
That we have so many spectacular urban greenspaces to write about is due to a combination of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to protecting, restoring, and managing the region's natural resources, inside and outside our urban growth boundaries. In fact, many of the contributors to Wild in the City have been active at the local, county, and regional levels working to create and implement regulatory programs to protect fish and wildlife habitat, manage urban stormwater, and better integrate the natural and built environments throughout the region.

Since that first edition in 2000, our regional government, Metro, and local park providers (thanks to the passage of two regional bond measures totaling more than $360 million for land acquisition) have added more than 15,000 acres of natural areas into the public realm. Seventy miles of streamside habitat have been protected; and many miles of trails have been added to the Portland-Vancouver regional trail network.

It was time for another edition of Wild in the City

The original creative team assembled and the process of adding and eliminating sites and content began. This time around, more illustrators and writers, now familiar with the first edition, were eager to volunteer contributions. Thus, the new collection of essays, sites and rambles, along with narratives on efforts to better integrate the built and natural environments was born.

The Wild in the City books are not only indispensable guides to the Portland-Vancouver parks, trails, and natural areas. Thanks to the many talented writers, the books are also an expression of the philosophy that nature not only belongs in the city, but is essential to creating and sustaining our quality of life in this splendid place.

Your Wild in the City?

The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area is blessed with an abundance of creative writers, illustrators, naturalists and conservationists, as well as collaborative government agencies, all of whom stepped up to help with the project. Is our small corner of the Pacific Northwest exceptional? 

No, it isn't. 

Other areas throughout the country (and world) have their own special attributes, their own extraordinary people, and their own brilliance and sense of place.

In particular, David Goode's Wild in London inspired our work, as did New York City's Natural Resource Group and the East Bay Regional Park District. (These and other inspired conservation efforts will be discussed in the weeks to come).

The Urban Naturalist program and eventual production of Wild in the City, A Guide to Portland's Natural Areas was inspired by Dr. David Goode, then director of the Long Ecology Unit, and by the London Ecology Unit's urban conservation work in the twelve London boroughs.

What we all have in common is facing significant challenges to create livable, ecologically rich cities, while simultaneously saving our rural wild lands.  

Foreground: 160-acre Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge,
Portland's first official urban wildlife refuge, established in 1988.
Background: 350-acre Ross Island and downtown Portland.
Photo: Mike Houck
Our approach may not work for everyone, but we felt that producing a city guide that was more than a handbook to parks, trails, and natural spaces—a more literary tome full of personal stories and insights—would give readers a better understanding of the riches surrounding us and the importance of not only being aware, but experiencing the joys of preserving, restoring, and celebrating nature in this singular place we call home. 

What is going on with the wild in your city?  How does your city use its natural areas? 


Eliza said...

I am very interested in the human and natural interactions that take place in urban spaces! I think an awareness of wild in cities is especially important to raise amidst young people flocking to the cities to get jobs. As a college grad in a couple years, I will undoubtedly be living in an urban center and have less access to my beloved Appalachian mountains. Maps and guides to the wild places right under my feet will be so necessary, since city wild lands are maybe a little more hidden or less obvious than our classic picture of natural space.

I know that many of the students in my school are interested in urban and community gardening, which is a nice blend of rural and urban space usage. But a deliberate wild space that has been made, at least on my campus (though not in a large urban center, Middlebury and Addison County Vermont is actually marked in the census as a metropolitan area, go figure) is on the roof of one of our dining halls. The green roof has been planted with all native, wild plants and appears to be a little raised, floating prairie. The biology classes go up there to survey the plants and learn the wildflowers and grasses. It is now a little replica of a natural grassy ecosystem amidst the concrete and stone dorms and buildings.

I have also always wanted to figure out where peregrine falcons and other traveling hawks can be seen in big cities. I love that bird watching of that scale is possible in the middle of New York. The part of the world population living in urban areas is higher than the parts living in rural areas, and it is a testament to how much we all need to start thinking like urban naturalists and turn fresh eyes on places we wrote off as ruined. I've been to the northernmost slope of Alaska, to polar bear and whale and snowy owl territory, where there is only tundra, no roads or houses or people. But the wild spaces that exist in between the sidewalk bricks are just as important to think about.

mikehouck said...

Eliza, thanks for chiming in. As a matter of fact we have one of the world's most knowledgeable ecoroof experts right here in Portland----Tom Liptan. And, a challenge Tom and others here are taking on is moving beyond simply addressing stormwater attenuation with ecoroofs and providing some useable wildlife habitat, whether for invertebrate or birds. I'd love to see us bring Common Nighthawks back into NW Portland where they kept me awake in the last 1960s but are now absent from our urban landscape.

Bob Sallinger, another of our bloggers, has been climbing into and monitoring Peregrine Falcon nests here for years. Six-percent of all Peregrine nests in Oregon are on the bridges in and around Portland. The most productive nest in the state is on the Fremont Bridge in downtown Portland. Bob has worked with our local TV station KGW to insall an Osprey Cam on the Osprey nest at South Waterfront, Portland's newest development on the Willamette River (

Mike Houck

Anonymous said...

I reviewed this book in December on my Portland nature blog:

mikehouck said...

Michael Barton and his son Patrick have an engaging nature blog about nature experiences in the Portland region. Barton's "exploreportlandnature" blog is the epitome of what Richard Louv calls for in his most recent book, "the Nature Principle" and with the Children & Nature Network,

Mike Houck

Anne said...

Exploring Portland's Natural Areas Blog
Check it out!!!

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting topic. Nature has always been important to cities and part of cities but I think like most things people have taken it for granted and often are not even aware that nature is what makes a city pleasant or desirable to live in. I live in one of the most citified areas of Texas full of sprawling housing developments and highways and shopping malls where you have to drive anywhere you want to get to. And believe me traffic puts people in a real bad mood. But I have found a little haven right in the midst of all the sprawl and noise. It's the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and I can actually walk to it from my home, which I do whenever I get a chance. They are a wonderful asset to the community in so many ways. Right now they're promoting the Texas Nature Challenge to get people to go outside. I think people are are starting to notice and re-appreciate the nature that's fast disappearing around them.

mikehouck said...

Anonymous in Austin, In addition to offering a wonderful place to experience nature in your own neighborhood, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center was one of the lead organizations---with American Society of Landscape Architects and U. S. Botanical Garden---to build on the LEED building certification program to introduce ecosystem health and ecosystem services into the certification program across the U. S.

The "central message of the Sustainable Sites Initiative is that any landscape—whether the site of a large subdivision, a shopping mall, a park, an abandoned rail yard, or even one home—holds the potential both to improve and to regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their undeveloped state."

Sustainable Sites:

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