One could argue that technology has allowed the human population to explode over the past 200 years. That exponential growth is taking its toll on the earth’s resources with resource depletion and environmental degradation. If we hope to sustain this huge population, there are questions to answer. How can we reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain our water supplies, protect ourselves from storms and hurricanes, and help our growing cities remain hospitable and affordable? The answer is nature.
When given the opportunity, nature is working on our behalf. Urban trees and forests reduce smog and keep rivers healthy by absorbing nutrients that contaminate water. Their root systems bind with soil to prevent erosion and minimize flooding. Large swaths of green space in urban areas also help mitigate storm water runoff; that’s a major problem for some East Coast cities, where outdated infrastructure is often inundated during heavy rainstorms. As a result, pipes overflow and untreated sewage runs into surrounding waterways.
As we contemplate problems like storm water management and pollution, we must realize that our success in solving them lies in our ability to think creatively. For example, most of us agree that smart urban growth involves a thoughtfulness about native wildlife and sensitive areas. But why not start working with what we already have? Let’s use existing vacant lots and rights of way to create urban green spaces and plant trees. More green space not only benefits air and water, but leads to a more diverse mix of wildlife, attractive cityscapes and a happier, less stressed population.
With the answer staring us right in the face, The Nature Conservancy has committed to working with leaders to help them integrate nature and its benefits into the fabric of their own cities. In San Antonio, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, the organization helped establish water funds that finance the protection of the local water supply. And along the Gulf Coast, we’re helping restore the Gulf of Mexico’s natural buffers (think oyster reefs, wetlands and seagrass) to blunt the impact of rising sea levels and storm surges.
Its efforts to work at a scale that makes a difference have also led to partnerships with Coca-Cola, to provide the science they need to ensure a zero water footprint, and Shell, to identify the impacts of development on natural resources. We count Dow Chemical among our partners, too—and given all we know about the power of nature, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Currently, Dow is investigating reforestation as a way to combat air pollution in Freeport, Texas, home of their largest manufacturing site in the state. Instead of building new smokestack scrubbers, executives are looking at planting thousands of trees to meet federal air quality guidelines.
Making sure our city and business leaders acknowledge and appreciate the value of our environment is the only way to achieve a vibrant natural world. It also ensures our cities can have the information they need to grow sustainably and that industry continues to make a positive contribution to our economy. We can make a tangible impact—we can protect our water supplies, reduce air pollution and keep our coastlines safe, but only if everyone is reading from the same playbook.