In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have abundant diversity in our natural landscapes, built environments, and cultural expression. It is arguably one of the most unique topographies on planet Earth. Thousands of people travel from all over the world to ponder the towering redwoods of Muir Woods, enjoy the marine wildlife of the San Francisco Bay, and wander the vineyards of Napa Valley. With this great diversity of plant, animal, and human life, however, comes the complexity of protecting and managing our available resources.
The natural lands of the Bay Area provide us with many benefits, also known as ecosystem services, and these benefits can differ in size and scope. Some benefits are directly in the form of products, such as grapes from Napa or oysters from Pt. Reyes, for example. Other benefits come in the form of nature’s innate functions, such as plants filtering pollution from our air and water, or tree roots holding soil in place to protect against erosion during a rainy season. We can also experience the direct benefits of nature on our wellbeing, with research showing that increased public access to green spaces improves the mental and physical health of our communities.
The importance of our connection to nature has only become clearer during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we depended and continue to depend on parks and natural habitats to provide us with safe gathering spaces for our communities. Having a place to spend time outside in nature is integral to our survival and community resilience, so we should make it our priority to protect and manage our green spaces.
Nature Based-Solutions to Climate Change
Our natural ecosystems also play a critical role in our fight against climate change. We know that we are currently experiencing and will continue to experience risks such as droughts, wildfires, floods, and sea-level rise due to the climate crisis. There is a multitude of ways that the natural and working lands of the Bay Area can help us improve our climate resilience: our ability to withstand climate hazards and recover from them.
One example of this is how riparian habitats—or lands connected to river systems—can help control flooding by absorbing extra water. A natural riparian area can serve as a “nature-based solution” to climate change impacts, in this case, extreme flooding. Nature-based solutions come in many forms but they can only work to help us combat climate hazards if they are properly functioning. Understanding how we can restore and protect key habitats in the Bay Area will allow us to harness the full potential of these ecosystems to improve our resilience in the long term.
The biggest challenge with protecting and utilizing these ecosystems comes from the way we think about nature itself. Traditionally, we have seen the natural world as an abundant resource to pull from in order to feed a continuously expanding economy, without truly understanding the consequences of these actions on our planet and our communities. This give-and-take relationship with nature completely ignores the interconnectedness of our social and ecological systems and has led us to where we are today with the climate crisis.
However, there is an alternate way to use the benefits of nature without causing more harm and the answer lies in the word ecology itself. According to the Ecological Society of America (ESA), “Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.”
If we understand our role in our ecosystems better, including how our land-use decisions—like where we grow our cities and what we protect as open space—alter the health of our natural environments, we can create ways to work in harmony with nature that benefits both us and the planet. All of our choices, personal and political, change the physical landscapes of our habitats. We must recognize that we are not in dominion over nature, we are simply a piece in a much larger puzzle.
Centering Equity in Future Planning
This sentiment, however, isn’t a new concept. Indigenous people around the world have co-existed in communion with their environments for thousands of years. That is why any work that is done to conserve and steward our natural and working lands must center indigenous voices and practices.
In addition, the creation and perpetuation of systems that uphold racism and classism in the US have devastated the ecological balance of many areas. An example is how many Californians lack access to a park within half a mile of their home. 16.6% of Californians, or nearly 6.6 million people, do not have a park nearby to cool off in or where to enjoy a family picnic (CDPR). This statistic is not a random occurrence, as decades-long racist lending practices such as redlining, and the expansion of huge freeway projects and sprawl development plans all have a hand in this lack of access to nature. A study done by Conservation Science Partners found that “the United States has fewer forests, streams, wetlands, and other natural places near where Black, Latino, and Asian American people live. Notably, families with children—especially families of color with children—have less access to nature nearby than the rest of the country,” (Center for American Progress).
Moving forward, any and all ecosystem conservation efforts, urban planning projects, and infrastructure spending bills, need to address the historic harm done by our current systems and embed equity into every aspect of each initiative. This means going above and beyond just talking about social justice issues to creating tangible ways that define equity and roadmaps to achieving equity in practice. We need measurable goals, accountability mechanisms, and transparent timelines of how work will be done to reimagine our social and economic systems.
At Greenbelt Alliance, we are embarking on our Bay Area Resilience Hotspots project, a comprehensive analysis of the lands that are at the highest risk of sprawl development and climate hazards and are adjacent to frontline communities. By determining these locations for action, we can prescribe land-use policies that are effective at bolstering the resilience of the most vulnerable. We seek to come up with solutions that reject the dichotomy of people vs nature and uplift the needs of both our communities and our larger ecosystem. Check out more about why Greenbelt Alliance is undertaking this effort.
The interconnectivity of our natural landscapes and our climate resilience is the foundation of our work and we hope to encourage more people to take on a holistic approach to conservation and climate change adaptation, so that we create a greener future for all beings in our ecosystem, from the earth we walk on, to the people we walk with.
This blog is part of a broader series called Bay Area Resilience Hotspots, which seeks to illuminate some of the challenges and opportunities in preparing the region for the climate crisis. Sign-up to receive the latest updates about the work we’re doing to create a climate-resilient Bay Area today