How we try maintaining nature

Photo "Panorama Yosemite" courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

A chat with Prof. Jon Christensen–of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Department of History, and the Center for Digital Humanities–on what the data from $5.4 billion and 2,174 projects tells us about the progress and pitfalls of modern conservation.

Gridium:           Hello everyone, thank you for joining us and thank you Professor Christensen for joining me today and welcome. 

Jon:           Thank you, it’s a pleasure.

Gridium:          Right, and as an introduction, Jon Christensen is on the faculty at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Department of History, and the Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA. He’s also a partner and strategic advisor at Stamen Design, an interactive design studio specializing in mapping, data visualization and strategic communications. As for Gridium, buildings use our software to fine-tune operations, lowering their carbon footprint, reducing energy use, and saving on energy cost.

So, what we’re talking about today as we have it titled is “How we try maintaining nature” and what the data from of a little over 5 billion dollars and 2000 projects can tell us about the progress and pitfalls of modern conservation.

Before we get into Professor Christiansen’s really insightful work on Proposition 84, I wanted to start at the beginning and ask you Jon to tell us about the difference between history and heritage and how heritage is connected to legacy.

Jon:           Well, the history and the heritage and legacy are all very closely entwined but it’s very helpful to think of them as separately, as separate strands as well because they are different things and they entail different approaches and the way that many of us historians think about these things is well articulated by historian named David Lowenthal, who really kind of laid out the differences between heritage and history and emphasizing that it’s important to keep them in mind.

So, history is that critical discipline of creating an account of the past that is open to continuing revision and criticism and new insights from new sources that is always trying to get at the, if you will, truth of the past but also realizing that that is an ongoing process because you are always looking critically at different sources and again, that it’s open to revision, it’s open to criticism. And then it’s constructed, I would say, using the practices of objectivity, of being faithful to sources, not ignoring important arguments that emerge from the archives that might contradict you, of leaving a path that could be traced by other scholars.

Heritage, on the other hand, is more the stories that we tell about ourselves and our communities that make us feel part of a community, that make us feel good about our past and our history and who we are. And we often see this in different kinds of heritage organizations and in museums and that pay tribute to particular national or ethnic histories. And good heritage of work, of course has to be faithful to history or it wouldn’t have the power, and history as a discipline often has elements of that narrative and storytelling as well. So, again, they’re related but they’re very different approaches and it’s important to keep those differences in mind. I mean, in a sense, a historian like myself would always be kind of critically probing those heritage stories that we tell about ourselves in any particular time, and really looking critically at those narratives and the sources out of which they are constructed.

I think legacy is, if we say there’s like a legacy left to us by someone like John Muir and the early conservation and environmentalism in California, of that legacy is really the kind of inheritance of heritage often, of the stories that help us feel part of this community of California, of the environment, of conservation. Legacies could certainly be probed by historians but a legacy is not often the kind of critical open history that we practice as historians.

Gridium:          I understand as well that some of your work connects the history and the heritage of environmentalism in California. Can you talk a little bit about how you see both of those in the state?

Jon:           Well let’s take John Muir as an example: he is on the state quarter, he’s a celebrated origin, at the origins of conservation in California and rightly so, protecting Yosemite, and in many people’s eyes, John Muir is a kind of patron saint of environmentalism and conservation in California, and again I’d say, rightly so, that is an important part of history.

If we look at John Muir as a historian, we would look at him, we see a very complicated figure, from the late 19th century into the early 20th century who was, in addition to being a celebrated writer and conservationist, the founder of the Sierra Club, was also a farmer and orchardist and rancher in Northern California and a businessman who wanted to have trains stop at his ranch so that he could get his products more easily to market, and use pesticides and a rodent-killing poison and all kinds of other things. So, he was very modern, contradictory person in all of his complexity. But the heritage that we’ve gotten is a much more simple version of the man, the saint who would go into the cathedrals of the wilderness with nothing more than a crust of bread and tie himself on the top of the tree as it swayed in the storm to feel the power of nature and of God in the wilderness.

And it’s that legacy or that heritage of conservation of environmentalism, of that image of it being about the lone white man in the wilderness in relation to nature that is not really useful to us in a much more diverse, complicated California with lots of different cultures and languages and people around the world that have many different ways of thinking about it relating to nature and valuing it.

Gridium:          In reading your piece The Ecological Urbanism for the 21 Century”, I was struck by the thoughtful work that you and your co-authors have done here to look at the environment within the city. Can you talk a little bit more about how you see where conservation came in the state, what its relationship to cities has been and how that’s changed overtime?

Jon:          Well, let’s go back to John Muir again who really kind of set up a vision of California that is still very much with us today, and this vision of California is also one that people have about nature in many ways, around the world, particularly in Anglo-American traditions, but also in other traditions because the modern conservation movement and ideology has been so powerful and it speaks to us in many important ways. I mean, John Muir saw California in many ways as three distinct kinds of…

Gridium:          Zones, yeah.

Jon:           …places in the state. You know, one is the cities where people live, where there’s the hubbub of commerce and of culture and the economy and business and trading. And the other, the next is the productive landscapes beyond the cities, where nature has been transformed to produce things for people on ranches and orchards and farms and mines. And the third California is the wilderness cathedrals beyond where what we can come into contact with wild, pure nature and in many ways, come into contact with God’s creation and with God.

And what were, that vision of this kind of tripartite landscape of the cities, the productive landscapes beyond, and then wild lands beyond is one that we still really live in in many ways, but it’s changing dramatically so that now we think about nature existing across that whole spectrum. From things like ecosystem services that are provided by agricultural landscapes and rangelands to the ecosystems in cities and the important role that having access to an experience of nature is important for people’s mental health and physical health.

Research across the board is showing this. And we’re also seeing that culture exists and is important in interesting ways across that landscape: from the cities that are course through agriculture and horticulture and the productive landscape; but even in our ideas about wilderness, these are cultural creations. They’re supported by law and by management. Wilderness is also a co-creation of people and of legislation and laws and nature. And so, I think we’re seeing the complications of nature and culture across that spectrum and that kind of division is maybe not as useful anymore.

Gridium:          I know that you have pointed out the benefit to people and to inhabitants of cities that nature is there, that the environment is present and thriving, and that we maintain open spaces and green spaces and watersheds within the cities. Is there a way to reverse that? Do you think cities are somehow, in what ways, if at all, are cities good for the environment?

Jon:           Well, cities are good for the environment in many ways. I mean, one is that with people living closer together more densely use less energy and in some cases, less water; but less energy is really important in an era where we are to get to the goals that the world has set for itself: stemming, stopping, stabilizing climate change. We’re going to get to carbon neutrality sometime by mid-century and so, cities are going to be an important part of that solution.

More than half the people on the planet live in cities now. Effectively all the population growth that is going to occur on the planet in the next 30, 40, 50 years is going to happen in cities; that means that the built environment of cities is going to double, as that urban population on the planet doubles. How that happens, how those cities are built, and many of them are not going to be charismatic big, megacities that exists now, those are not growing as fast as cities right now between 500 thousand and a million people and dozens and dozens of these cities around the world. That’s where the real change is going to happen and how that happens is really going to fundamentally shape how people live with nature, as well as with each other.

And I think that the jury’s still very much out and that’s the big challenge that we face in this century, is that is where people are going to work out a lot of these relationships and there’s all kind of experiments happening all over the world. So, it’s good that people do… there are many, many benefits of people concentrating in cities, some of them are environmental. There are a lot of challenges too, one benefit is that by people concentrating, it does leave larger landscapes open.

Gridium:         As I understand, the United Nations projects 6 billion people will be living in cities around mid-century and I know that you have looked into the relationship that the new generation of people occupying these cities has with nature and the environment. What’s been different about how modern urban-dwellers view conservation and the environment from the original batch of environmentalists and conservationists?

Jon:           Yeah, there’s an interesting pattern that you can see, particularly in American cities historically, that also holds true largely for other cities, but of course variations. But to kind of sketch out this pattern, if we think about the environment and cities: the first thing that urban-dwellers, urban leaders, city builders are concerned about is a clean water supply. So, that often means protecting the watersheds around cities that supply their water, so some of those first moves are to preserve forests around the sources of water to keep sources of water clean.

The next thing that really happens in many cities is that you see the commons within cities. So, common pastures and forests and streams being enclosed and protected and often that agricultural use being moved off those pastures. And that is often to create a pleasuring grounds or parks in cities so that they are no longer being economically use, or animals in them. The animals are moved out to the periphery of the cities, along with getting rid of their waste. So, these things happen. You see these patterns happening, sometimes much earlier but particularly in the late 19th century, the early 20th century. The creation of the sanitary city, I mean really kind of segregating different segments of the city to create clean, sanitary conditions and to diminish the risk of diseases.

The next thing that we see is what is called “the City Beautiful movement”, which is to create celebratory landscapes that celebrate the city and the people and democracy and they are often very aesthetic and sometimes quite kind of classical in their portions. But in parallel with this is a move that it’s important to create parts for the working-class people in cities. And it’s about, this is about creating recreational opportunities, but also creating the opportunities to create good citizens. So, often we see this mixed up, these ideas about nature in the city are often also about the kinds of people we want to create, the kinds of democracy we want to create, the kind of society we want to create.

Kind of moving forward quickly through the 20th century and into the 21st century, we see efforts to protect the scenery with landscapes, view sheds if you will around cities. The San Francisco Bay area is a great example of this, of protecting their ridge lines and protecting their open spaces and stopping sprawl and development for aesthetic reasons. 

Very quickly in the 60’s and the 70’s as these movements emerge, we also see the rise of concern about these spaces as habitat for species and protecting biodiversity. Then in the late 20th century, now in the 21st century, we also understand these spaces are important to provide ecosystems services for clean water, for habitat for pollinators, even for the services that are provided to people in terms of the opportunities for recreation for mental and physical health. So, in many ways we see the return to the beginning where we were protecting watersheds for water, clean water which is an ecosystem service. So, if we look at that as a whole sort of range of tools if you will, conceptual tools as well as actual tools for thinking about nature in and around cities, we have a lot of the basic elements of understanding why nature is important in cities and metropolitan areas, and different tools that can be used to protect nature: that it’s important for people, but also for other living beings.

Gridium:          Right. When you think about and have studied the relationship between the newest generation of folks beginning to care about the environment starting to wonder are we maintaining the natural environment, do you think that if a tree falls in the woods, does someone in the city care about it?

Jon:           Yeah, I mean, I do think that we see that particularly strongly in California where I’ve done most of my research and know it best, but I think there are similar patterns around the world. I mean if you go back to the example of water and watersheds, I mean there’s programs throughout Latin America now where the cities are paying to protect the forests in their upper watersheds that provide clean water as a more effective way of protecting those clean water sources than building a treatment plan. So, in a very very direct way, the city-dwellers do care if that tree falls down because it means it’s putting their water supply at risk.

This is, if we look back historically, cities are also the breeding grounds for conservation and environmentalism. The Sierra Club started in the Bay area, it started in the city. It has been that concern of urban dwellers that has really fueled the conservation environmental movement and reform in the United States and I think in many ways, around the world. We see that in polls and in voting too, here in California, urban dwellers, and low-income residents and people of color are the staunchest supporters of environmental legislation, environmental spending, bond measures above and beyond older white voters. So, this shifting demographic that we see in California is actually one that is deeply concerned about and willing to pay to protect the environment.

Gridium:          And your look at Proposition 84, I guess what you are describing is why Prop 84 passed?

Jon:           Well, yeah, yes. Many of the votes on environmental bond measures as well as climate change legislation and other statewide measures in California, that vote of particularly the younger Latino vote has been decisive. And so now what’s happening, and it has been happening for going on a couple of decades now and it’s very strongly being embedded into law and policy in California, is that those constituencies are saying, “We want to see the results in our communities.” and that’s a call then for equity in the ways in which environmental benefits are distributed in California and beyond from the state level to city parks and county parks measures in Los Angeles and Bay area, and in other places. And so, people are saying that, this language is being now embedded in all kinds of environmental legislation, that equity is important. The areas of the communities that have not historically benefited need to be a priority for environmental benefit.

Gridium:          And I think that’s what you and the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability were looking for, that was one of the questions you were asking when you analyzed the impact from Prop 84. Can you describe some of the data that you looked at?

Jon:           Yeah, so Prop 84 was a bond measure that authorized 5.4 billion dollars in spending on environmental projects, parks, natural resource protection, water quality, safety and supply. It passed in 2006 and most of that money has now been spent. And so, for the first time, we are able to look at where what it spent? What communities benefited?

And we did this by analyzing a subset of that spending where we could identify local impact projects. And so that was 2 billion dollars spent on 2,174 projects around the state. So, we wanted to look at these areas where if you live in that community, you would notice that benefit, it would have an impact on you. There are other spending that is on big regional and statewide projects where it is much more difficult to analyze that impact, so we didn’t look at those. But we looked at subsets of projects that we can really identify local impact and what we found was is on the subsections of the propositions–so these proposition is often divided into several chapters dealing with different things like, parks, traditional natural resource, conservation, water projects–that in different chapters, in chapters where the priorities were very clearly spelled out that providing environmental benefits, parks in particular, to urban park-poor neighborhoods where people don’t have a park within walking distance of them, where that where it was clearly-stated priority and there were guidelines and implementation that were geared to accomplishing those goals, it worked.

It worked very, very well.

Gridium:          That’s great.

Jon:           In chapters in which the equity or providing benefits to disadvantaged communities or urban park-poor areas was just one of a laundry list of priorities, it didn’t work so well and the spending could of as well have been randomly distributed. And then, in some areas, other actually areas that were higher income, that had more parks, benefited more. So, the lesson here is really, if these priorities are important and the voters voted on them and particularly voters from those more disadvantaged communities voted on these priorities, we need to really clearly spell them out in order to get the outcomes that the voters want.

Gridium:          As it relates to nature, and perhaps less than to the direct outcomes that were voted on, as part of your analysis did you look at whether or not spending this money on maintaining nature, if that does serve to actually maintain the environment?

Jon:           We were looking at data that could answer the question of where was this money spent and which communities benefited.

So, what were the demographic characteristics of those communities around these projects? Household income, ethnicity, age, those kinds of things. So, we assumed in this case that the projects actually accomplished the goals that they were meant to accomplish, in terms of the environment and maintaining or improving the environment. I do think that in the bigger picture that these kinds of bonds as well as tax measures that have been passed around the state in recent years to support environmental conservation and restoration in the Bay area, in Los Angeles, in other places, those are crucial for maintaining the environment, providing environmental benefits to the people of the state and our cities and providing benefits to communities that have not historically benefited from them.

And all of that, and people seeing those results and then continuing to support these measures is crucial for sustaining the legacy of the John Muir and the many many great conservationists, environmentalists, advocates who followed him, that really gave us the state that we live in today. So, this is as much of historical creation of care for the environment and that being sure that the new generation of people are able to see those benefits or able to experience them is going to be crucial in maintaining that legacy into the future.

Gridium:          Are you optimistic our efforts to maintain nature will work?

Jon:           I am optimistic and I think here in California that the demographic changes that we’re living through are a cause for a great hope. I mean, when we see that Latino voters are more concerned about the environment, more willing to support public efforts, including by spending and taxes to maintain and improve the environment, that gives me great hope. The face of conservation, the look of conservation has changed from the lone white man in the wilderness to a much more diverse and inclusive vision, and I think there’s great hope in that, that that is actually going to be very powerful for maintaining and improving the environment, not just in terms of approving funding for water projects and parks and conservation, but also for aggressive efforts to deal with climate change.

Gridium:          So, Jon do you envision a world like Kim Stanley Robinson does in his book of Aurora, where we won’t be spending money on actually maintaining beaches, but rather totally reconstructing them?

Jon:           Well, we’re doing that now and we have been doing that for the last century at least.

And Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of the great visionaries of taking the historical reality that California is a terraformed landscape, the great water projects that made agriculture possible, that made our cities possible. As one example, the great highways and cities and suburbs that California built in the 20th century that I think, brilliant form Kim Stanley Robinson’s vision of terraforming other planets to make them habitable and having that conversation between future visions and our present gives us the picture where we can look outside at science fiction and recognize ourselves.

We’ve created a hybrid state, a hybrid landscape that is a human and cultural creation as well as a natural creation. It’s this co-creation of the landscape that we live in and that’s true on the coast, as well. I mean, the beaches off of Santa Monica, other parts of LA… they’ve been engineered to capture more sand so that these wide sandy beaches that we experience now and feel like they have been there forever, because there’s such a beautiful place to go and relax and enjoy the scenery and play in the waves and have a place where your kids can play… those are as much creation of people as they are of these great forces of waves and tides that we have on the planet.

Gridium:          Has this informed your recent work on coastal access?

Jon:           Well, what we found in surveys of beachgoers in Southern California, as well as the statewide poll is that the coast and ocean are central to our identity as Californians.

90% of Californians say that the condition of the coast and ocean is important to them personally. Three quarters visit at least once a year, many more often. But what we also found was that the big barrier to visiting the coast now is cost and that for the average Californian, so therefore for anyone who is average household income or below, the cost of visiting the coast now either for a day trip or overnight trips is really at a tipping point where it’s tough to make that decision. And may people may be deciding not to take that trip to the coast, and that’s really concerning, because Californians care so much about the coast, because it’s so important to our identity.

And if we want to sustain that into the future it’s going to be important that people have access to the coast. And so, it’s much more complicated than worrying about billionaires blocking access to the last 100 feet or 100 yards to a beach on the coast… that’s important, and the California Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy are working through, trying to address those kinds of challenges. But this new generation of challenges, of adequate public transportation to the beach, available affordable parking, available affordable lower-cost accommodations on the coast… these are the kinds of complications that can’t be solved by the Coastal Commission or the Coastal Conservancy alone, that will take all kinds of governments, and agencies, and leaders, and constituents, advocates, philanthropies, nonprofits working together, including providing first time experiences for people who live in the cities in LA, or the Bay area who may live only 5 miles, 10 miles from the ocean but have never been there and have not felt like they see themselves there, or that they’re welcome there.

There’s groups like Brown Girls Surf in the Bay area that’s taking girls from Oakland out to experience the ocean, experience the beach, and to feel that it’s theirs, that the coast and the ocean are theirs as well. And all of these are super important for maintaining that strong ethos of love for this beautiful coast and protection of the coast.

Gridium:          Well, that’s great and I have found this to be very interesting Jon, so thank you. And thank you to our audience for their attention.

Jon:           Right, well you’re welcome and it was a great pleasure talking with you.

Gridium:          For further reading, check out Professor Christensen’s piece on Prop 84 at the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability, as well as his co-authored piece on in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Ecological Urbanism. There’s a collection of related entries on Gridium’s blog as well. If you have questions, please email Professor Christensen or contact us at, thanks!

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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