Saturday, April 14, 2007
As a conservation biologist who has always lived in urban and suburban settings, I have long been fascinated by urban forest patches and open spaces. For me, there is something particularly spectacular and rewarding about seeing a spotted salamander swimming under the ice in an urban vernal pool, even though this species can be readily observed in more rural settings. The same can be said for a great-horned owl, red squirrel, or short-tailed shrew (all still found in Newton).
Seeing these species begs the questions why are they still here while other species have disappeared, and how long will these species persist here? Due to their sometimes extreme isolation and small size, urban wilds provide research opportunities for scientists interested in understanding the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation. For example, Richard Primack, a life-long Newton resident, conducted a study in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, documenting a dramatic loss of native flora.
Most importantly, urban wilds provide a vital opportunity for city-dwellers to connect to the natural world. Increasingly, human populations are concentrated in cities. Our future depends, in large part, on these city-dwellers advocating for protection and sound stewardship of land, open space, and natural resources. The challenge is that this environmental ethic comes most readily from direct experience with the natural world. Organizations such as the Newton-based Urban Ecology Institute have recognized that urban open spaces provide a key link between city-dwellers and the natural world. In a recent paper on this topic, Mark Schwartz suggests that Conservation Biologists need to help develop "social capital" for biodiversity by engaging urban dwellers in scientific inquiry and stewardship of urban habitats. According to Schwartz,
"Social capital for biodiversity begins with embracing a personal
responsibility for protecting the diversity of life on Earth.
The task of personalizing nature for humanity is large, yet
critical to long-term success."
Here in Newton, the Newton Conservators, Newton Community Farm, Parks & Recreation Department, Conservation Commission, the Public Schools, and others provide opportunities for residents to connect with nature and develop that personal relationship that Schwartz discusses. However, there is real cause for concern about a growing disconnect between our residents and the natural world-- particularly our youth.
I hope that you will join me in enjoying and appreciating Newton's open spaces, in exchanging information about what's out there, and in finding new and exciting ways to engage more Newton residents in nature discovery, research, and stewardship of Newton's open spaces. (This is the first of two articles describing the purpose of this website)