Principal Urban Designer, City of Minneapolis, MN
“Nature for its own sake doesn’t sell. What gets policy-makers’ attention is climate resilience, green infrastructure, positive health outcomes, and making sure streets are safe. I use all these other ways of bringing nature’s benefits into the conversation without saying ‘nature.'”
You were the director of Green Infrastructure for the New York Department of Transportation when Superstorm Sandy hit. How did that affect NYC’s planning?
It was after Superstorm Sandy that policy-makers began to understand the role nature can play in protecting people and places. One of my roles was to plan and manage climate mitigation strategies after the storm, which caused billions in damage to the city’s transportation infrastructure. One strategy we pursued — to reduce the likelihood of stormwater flooding streets in the future — was building bioswales. These were essentially, mini-natural ecosystems built into the sidewalk, that also provide other benefits.
What other benefits does urban nature give?
Adding nature back into cities can help solve many urban problems. In addition to helping to manage stormwater, greenery provides shade, and reduces ‘heat islands’ (cement-driven hotspots common in cities). Walking down a green street also enhances mental health and overall feelings of well-being. In my current job in Minneapolis, I’m examining how all sorts of greening strategies like raingardens, stormwater tree pits, and pocket parks support urban health, well-being, and livability.
Some cities are so packed and so loud, bringing nature back seems impossible.
You can experience nature in the smallest moment – in the sound of a bird, the wind on your cheek, a branch of a street tree brushing your head as you pass beneath it on a busy sidewalk. We can provide these moments through urban design and we should.
But I don’t talk about nature when I’m in my public meetings, because nature for its own sake doesn’t sell. What gets policy-makers’ attention is climate resilience, green infrastructure, positive health outcomes, and making sure streets are safe. I use all these other ways of bringing in these nature benefits without saying “nature.”
You’re advising NatCap as we work to create an “Urban InVEST” software package, which will help urban planners figure out the most efficient places to add nature to achieve specific goals. How would that tool be helpful to you and others in similar jobs?
A tool like Urban InVEST, that shows how investments in urban greening will help achieve the broader goals we’re trying to reach, is going to be hugely beneficial. It’s a way of moving greening up on the list of priorities from the bottom to nearer the top.