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Saving Urban Nature from Extinction

April 10, 2013 By Natalie Izzo, Macalester College

It's time again for Minnesota 2020's series of environmental policy op-eds from Macalester College students. In the coming weeks, we'll feature articles that explore issues from food labeling to northern Minnesota mining. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

For many people, the word “biodiversity” conjures up images of remote areas that have an abundance of unique or endangered species. Such images could include the Amazon rainforest in South America, where species such as the jaguar and the poison dart frog reside, or perhaps the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, with its fragile coral reefs and colorful marine life.

There is a problem with these images.

By associating biodiversity with these places, we perpetrate the idea that plants and animals worth our attention exist only in fragile areas we will probably never visit. We create a world in which humans and nature rarely coexist, and pour money into organizations that promise to preserve these far-off areas of biodiversity. We wear “save the polar bears/whales/orangutans!” stickers and buy products sponsored by environmental organizations with the hope that somehow, in some way, our contribution will save plant and animal species in some remote corner of the world.



But by focusing our attention on biodiversity abroad, not only are we ignoring plants and animals in and around urban areas, we are actively destroying them. According to the US Forest Service, urban areas across the United States lose 4 million trees each year, and the Environmental Protection Agency states that cities generate over five times more runoff than wooded areas of the same size. It is therefore not enough to focus solely on nature in remote areas. We need to reshape our definition of biodiversity to incorporate not only unique wilderness areas, but also cities.

Minneapolis and St. Paul may seem to be devoid of any wildlife, but at a closer glance, these cities support many types of plants and animals. The Twin Cities are home to a wide range of species – according to the Audubon Society, Minneapolis has over sixty different species of trees, and the Twin Cities metro area hosts 268 types of birds. We are also lucky to be in such close proximity to the Mississippi River, one of the most complex ecosystems in the nation. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is home to animals such as bald eagles, river otters, muskrats, and 48 different types of freshwater mussels. Yet pollutants such as mercury and invasive species such as Asian carp constantly threaten the wellbeing of the river and its unique life.

If we continue to practice habits that harm our urban wildlife, then the Twin Cities may soon lack any of these species. We do not want a future Minneapolis and St. Paul with a toxic Mississippi River and without a tree canopy. To prevent this, we must take action to save the cities’ urban wildlife from extinction.

Luckily, there are many ways for us to increase biodiversity around our homes. Planting trees is one example – although the St. Paul city government states that trees currently cover 32% of the city, an additional 25% of city land can support trees. Instead of choosing to cover our yards with manicured lawns that require heavy chemicals, we can plant a garden of native Minnesotan plants. Organizations such as Great River Greening host work days for volunteers to remove invasive species and seed wildflowers. Even just making the effort to learn the names of the trees near our homes can increase our appreciation of the complex ecosystem that we are a part of in the Twin Cities.

These actions will, in turn, benefit humans in the long run. Based on a 2009 study performed in Amsterdam, humans who lived within a mile of a green space suffered significantly less from mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Green roofs not only support various types of insects and native plants, but also decrease runoff, improve air quality, and have the potential to cool cities by as much as nine degrees. By improving our cities’ wildlife, we improve humans’ quality of life.

Perhaps the word “biodiversity” will never spark images of skyscrapers topped with wildflower gardens or apartment complexes surrounded by dense forests. But by taking action to save the abundant nature around us in the Twin Cities, we will save the cities themselves from extinction, because our cities truly cannot exist without biodiversity.

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  • Joe Spero says:

    April 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Excellent summation of the ‘problem’of an urban mindset - ie cities are concrete jungles without flora or fauna. Thankfully, there are trends in thinking and policy that are slowly adressing this issue.  Chicago, New York & Washington,DC are but a few of the cities that have embraced your ideas.  Hopefully, with education, committment & funding - your vision can be realized by our children, grandchildren & future generations.