Urban Nature Reserves

By Keith Tomlinson

Many of the parks that readers of PRB operate are nestled within busy urban centers. Highways, side streets, and shopping centers hem us in. It’s this very setting that illuminates the value of open space and parkland. Sure, pools, batting cages, waterfronts, and golf courses are critical to earned income, as is obvious when patrons arrive with their wallets in hand. Add food concessions and rental fees to user fees, and things look pretty good in the annual budget report. But what about the nature reserve? It makes no money—but is highly prized by the public.

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Islands In An Urban Sea
The urban nature reserve can be more important to the public than a distant national park. It’s accessible, offering local green space. A true reserve will have minimal development with the exception of a nature center and signage; otherwise, it typically includes trails, benches, creeks, lakes, and the wild. But the industry of human activity is never far away. Yet these natural “islands” are a vital part of park systems and of profound importance to the public.

Managing these spaces requires special attention to detail if a nature reserve is to survive biologically, spatially, and culturally. The days of acquiring land as a reserve and simply announcing the newest holding are over. With the advent of invasive species, these reserves require active management from trained natural-resource professionals. Would you purchase a new convertible and let it sit in the driveway for several years? The tires would flatten, paint would fade, and the roof would rot. An urban nature reserve can undergo similar degradation over time. Weeds take over, native plants decline, specimen trees need pruning, and trails need maintenance. But there’s no direct source of income. Many park agencies struggle with this situation and urban reserves may drift into ecological decline—ultimately becoming less attractive, less biologically diverse, and less user friendly.

Planning For The Future
It’s relatively easy to look at operational facilities and know what needs upgrading—a sagging pool-house roof, a crumbling parking lot, an old picnic pavilion, or run-down campground facilities. But planning for an urban nature reserve will require keen assessment of nature itself. This is the realm of natural-resource expertise. The notion that trees, creeks, lakes, and trails are a commodity is very real. Both ecological and cultural capital needs defining in to actively conserve an urban nature reserve. Many forces are at work outside the reserve as well. Water flow and pollution, invading plants, wandering deer, and user impact all play a role in the condition of such spaces. A well-managed nature reserve is revered by the public. That visceral attraction to local, well-maintained nature is often an underused marketing tool. The public wants to help conserve these areas and will provide time if asked. Natural-resource planning and effective branding are closely associated when managing urban natural areas. The public expects us to be skilled stewards of these resources, and it’s incumbent on us to meet that expectation.

Setting The Standard
Operationally, we can look to a few agencies that set a high bar for managing urban nature reserves. The city of Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., has a long-term, detail-oriented program. A vibrant, densely populated city, Alexandria has a finite amount of open space, so the city pays close attention to the ecological quality and function of its natural areas. Not only is vegetation thoroughly documented but invasive species are removed and specific criteria are in place for the introduction of any new plants. Furthermore, the city staff has documented underlying geology and soil types important to the health forest in highly urbanized settings. This holistic approach achieves outstanding results for public use, conservation, and interpretation.  Metroparks Toledo in Northwest Ohio also has a clear conservation mission connected to the Maumee River basin and its various ecosystems. Rare-plant monitoring, deer management, insect-diversity surveys, and freshwater-ecosystem management increase the capacity to effectively oversee urban nature reserves for biodiversity conservation and public enrichment.

The Holistic Approach
An urban nature reserve is often a window into a region’s unique natural history. To understand a reserve’s potential and management, we need to know the underlying ecology. Geology, soil types, site hydrology, and vegetation will need a complete analysis in order to effectively conserve the space for public access and environmental integrity. Then add the dynamic pressures of an urban setting. It’s a complex task that requires expertise and commitment. But it takes funding. Many park systems secure such funding through tax revenue devoted exclusively to natural-resource management. This use of tax money is increasingly popular with local residents. Earned income can also contribute, but these funds are most often applied directly to active recreation-facility maintenance.

Alternative funding is also available in the form of grants, gifts, and endowments. Often we associate these with larger international organizations focused on biodiversity conservation, such as the World Wildlife Fund. Park systems willing to pursue potential donors for urban conservation can realize similar success over the long term. Emphasizing conservation and educational priorities is always a winning combination with donors. If a natural area is donated to a park system for the express purpose of conservation, a fundraising program for maintenance should be launched at the first opportunity. Branding, agency mission, and strategic planning will be paramount for success.

A park system’s ability to maintain urban nature reserves is bound by many programmatic priorities and staff-skill endowments. Success is measured by the commitment to authentic management in service to environmental health for the public and ecological integrity for parks. If you’re driving in rush hour this evening, maybe it’s time to take a break and visit a local nature reserve. It’s sure to replenish the spirit and celebrate the enduring magnitude of urban nature in parks.

Keith Tomlinson has worked in environmental education and natural resource conservation for more than 30 years; he’s a Biology Fellow at the Washington, D.C. Academy of Science and Manager of Meadowlark Botanical Gardens with NOVA Parks in Northern Virginian.