Urban Wildlife Refuges Highlight Nature That’s Closer Than You Think

Eight new partnerships across the country encourage urban communities to engage with natural spaces.

Even in the heart of a large city’s concrete buildings and rush of traffic, parks and green spaces provide high-quality habitat for amphibians, reptiles, fish, and especially birds. Michelle Frankel, center director of Audubon Greenwich, explains that cities are unrecognized havens for migrating birds. “As stopover habitat, places to rest and refuel, these small urban green spaces are very valuable,” Frankel says. Audubon Greenwich is one of several partners working in New Haven, Connecticut, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its new Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative.

The initiative, which has also recognized seven other projects across the United States, seeks to show city residents the wildlife living right on their block while improving urban wildlife spaces. The National Wildlife Refuge System, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) oversees, includes hundreds of refuges that are within short traveling distance of small cities; many are within 25 miles of major hubs such as Philadelphia and San Francisco. But many people don’t know how close these refuges are. “We’ve got 80 percent of Americans that are living in urban areas, and diversity is changing,” says Marcia Pradines, chief of the service’s visitor services and communications division. “We need to figure out a better way to increase our relevancy to [these] communities.”

The USFWS hopes that if city dwellers can be enticed into local refuges, they will then want to explore farther afield. “You might start with, in a very urban neighborhood, a pollinator garden. Then you make the connection to, let’s say, a park down the road a little further. And then you likewise make another connection to a larger wild area outside the city,” Pradines says.

In New Haven the funds and support from the initiative, along with funding from Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund and the Audubon-Toyota TogetherGreen program, will bring materials to improve habitat—benefiting migratory birds like wood thrush and Canada warblers—and schoolchildren out to the improved sites. There the kids will help create signs and participate in wildlife surveys. The sites include parks, schools, and front yards. “We’re focusing on front yards because [that’s] where the common space is. It’s not just people’s private, fenced-off backyards,” Frankel says. She adds that by partnering with local groups, such as the Urban Resources Initiative, based at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and with national organizations such as the USFWS, they can connect communities that would not often interact.

Another partnership through the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative is based in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. There Audubon Chicago Region is teaming up with the Eden Place Nature Center (run by Michael Howard, a former TogetherGreen employee). Judy Pollock, director of bird conservation for Audubon Chicago Region, explains the project is seeking to engage the community through the restoration of wetlands. “These areas are very, very degraded,” she says. “Our region has enormous problems with invasive plants.” But despite the damage, Pollock explains, these remain vital habitats. Indeed, the area of focus, Lake Calumet, is an Important Bird Area for black-crowned night herons, common moorhens, and willow flycatchers.

Pollock says they want to get people to discover nature near at hand. They also hope to get some people directly engaged in habitat restoration of the degraded areas.“We really find that engaging citizens in conservation is one of the best ways to get problems addressed,” she says. To accomplish that goal, they are using some of the funds to hire Audubon Outreach Fellows from the local community.

As part of their outreach, they are making a connection between the birds’ migration and the people’s migration. “I think there’s a lot of resonance,” Pollock says. “When we’ve been out with people from Mexico and Guatemala, where you can point to a bird that just arrived from Mexico or Guatemala . . . it really strikes a chord.”

In addition to Chicago and New Haven, the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative is working with groups in Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Providence, and Albuquerque. Ultimately, the USFWS believes, the project will connect a larger and more diverse audience to nature across the country.

“It’s somewhat easy to get the people who are already hooked on nature and wildlife; you don’t have to do a lot other than pour a little water on that seed, and it starts growing,” Pradines says. “It takes a little bit more creativity and, I’d say, persistence and open-mindedness to start reaching out to people who don’t have that seed planted yet.”

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