Posted on Jun 01, 2022
For our Zoom meeting on June 1, Dr. Charles Nilon joined us from the University of Missouri to talk with us about “Conserving Urban Wildlife, Connecting People with Nature, and Environmental Justice”.  Del Benson introduced Dr. Nilon by highlighting his interest in the interface between wildlife and people and pointing out that Dr. Nilon has worked with some 150 cities around the world in this area. Dr. Nilon grew up in Boulder, CO, where he developed his interest in wildlife and the natural environment. 
The presentation centered on Dr. Nilon’s involvement with the Urban Ecology & Vitality Project in St. Louis, MO.  This project has a wide-ranging set of goals including assessing and improving personal access to nature in neighborhoods and alleviating storm-water flooding in the city.  The storm-water flooding aspect includes efforts to reduce impervious surfaces in the area as well as general storm-water management.  The access to nature aspect includes the relationship between vacant lots and biodiversity. 
In focusing on vacant lots in two neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of population change (evolution from white to black) and decrease (loss of up to 80% of the population), resulting in widespread presence of vacant lots in various degrees of care, the project has focused on both the benefits (wildlife habitat, mental health and exercise for residents) and detriments (disease vectors, increased crime, neighborhood decline, threat of gentrification) from those vacant lots in community health.  The vacant lots typically result when a house is abandoned, then stripped, then taken over by vagrants and drugs, and finally torn down and taken over by the city.  Much of the context of these two neighborhoods, including unequal costs and benefits due to race and gender (including restrictions on where blacks could live in the years following World War I, placing that population far from city parks), white flight followed by black flight in the second half of the 20th century, leading to economic decline, and the return of individuals who grew up when the neighborhoods were healthy but are now in serious decline can be folded into the concept of “environmental justice”.  Is the environment in which people are living conducive to the formation and retention of a healthy, dynamic, economically strong community? 
The plan for the two neighborhoods was to look at the vacant lots as green spaces to be used by both people and wildlife – making them attractive to people rather than blots on the communities – making them places of everyday nature within one mile of home or work.  They wanted the physical environment to be linked to the preferences of the community.  They recognized that the process shaping everyday nature would come bottom-up (from the residents’ legacy, their identity as a community, and their perception of value) as well as top-down (local government and community leaders, planning and zoning restrictions, the aspects of the segregated population).  The study looked at local bird populations (bird census efforts in 2017 & 2018) as a window into nearby nature. They found that the bird populations varied with the percentage of vacant lots (area per hectare) as well as the nature of the ground cover (e.g., trees/shrubs vs. meadows).  The people tended to focus on elite vs. popular aspects of parks, enjoyment of day-to-day content (including birds and squirrels), the social aspects of nature (picnics, exercise), and reject the dark side of nature (animal risks, personal safety, drugs, dumping).  One aspect that the project had to contend with was the widespread perception that the city didn’t care – feelings of loss, abandonment, and neglect – as well as the widespread fear of gentrification driving out the local population. 
How do affordable housing and potential urban sprawl fit into this picture?  Avoiding gentrification is a real challenge in this kind of environment. 
Are there any improvements in air pollution expected from this greening of space?  Although there is no data specifically addressing this, there will probably be a tie in. 
Does water use come into this plan – specifically what about xeriscaping?  Is this likely to encourage useful insects?  Dr. Nilon recognized these as valid questions but has no answers.  He did point out that, in parts of the arid SW where xeriscaping has been encouraged, the lot owners have been found to water the new plants. 
How valid and widespread is the fear of gentrification – is it real or imagined?  Although Dr. Nilon didn’t answer this question directly, he did point out that the City of St. Louis (as separate governmental entity) has lost population from around 800,000 to about 300,000 over the last 50 years, indicating that there is a real potential for people to be moving back into the city area, potentially driving out the long-time low-income residents.