L.A.'s Natural History Museum launches urban nature center

A new undertaking to study the city's biodiversity

L.A.'s Natural History Museum launches urban nature center

It is the 46th anniversary of Earth Day today, with cities, universities, and colleges around the United States taking part. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 featured rallies and protests over oil spills, toxic dumps, and many other environmental issues of the time. It was chaired by Denis Hayes who is the president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. The Foundation is partly housed in the Bullitt Center—a living office building in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Major environmental issues this year are hydraulic fracking, global warming, genetically modified foods, alternative energy, federally-owned national parks, and more. But one piece that seems to get cut out of the environmental conversation in cities is urban biodiversity. What are our cities and our designers doing to protect and promote urban wildlife? (For example, here are some chilling stats on bird collisions with buildings, wind towers, and turbines, in the United States. Glass is by far the most dangerous. 2006 estimates say 1 billion birds died from glass collisions in the U.S.)

In Los Angeles last week, the Natural History Museum (NHM) launched the Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC), a scientific initiative to use diverse strategies to study biodiversity in L.A. Among those strategies is the SuperProject, a community-based effort to survey and gather data at over 200 sites around L.A. that range from backyards to beaches. It is reportedly the largest scale urban biodiversity undertaking yet. The SuperProject is targeting different species of insects, spiders, squirrels, reptiles, among others.

“It’s a new approach to science: using the expansive and diverse Los Angeles landscape as a field site to look at things in a less compartmentalized way, and conducting research in the urban matrix—with the help of the public,” said NHM President and Director, Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga in a statement.

New projects are expected to bring more green to L.A. There is the Sixth Street Viaduct project designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, replacing a bridge built in 1932 and adding an urban park by Hargreaves Associates. The new bridge and park are expected to open in 2019. And then there is the L.A. River project, a master plan for the 51-mile river.

“Public green space projects are very important for L.A. urban biodiversity and local wildlife,” NHM Citizen Science Manager, Lila Higgins said. “We are in a biodiversity hotspot. One of only 35 in the world, it’s called the California Floristic Province. There are plants and animals that live here and nowhere else on the planet. These hotspots are under threat, with 70% of their original vegetation lost. Anything we can do to bolster green spaces with the plants that were historically in the area is good.”

The museum is gathering citizen science data with over 48,000 observations and recordings in the L.A. area from outside City Hall to DTLA.

“The more we plant wildlife appropriate plants in parks, backyards, medians, window boxes, school yards, etc., the more wildlife we can expect to see,” said Higgins. “It can literally be as easy as selecting a few native plants and putting them in a large pot on your front porch! If you have a yard, you can do even more and make it a haven for wildlife.”

We hear about the numerous studies on the positive benefits of nature for humans. But sometimes urban spaces are at odds with local fauna. “When we think about public green space projects we have to balance the needs of humans with wildlife. Too often green spaces are designed that work for people, but don’t work for wildlife. This has to change, and we CAN [Higgin’s emphasis] do both. Both Pershing Square and Civic Park in DTLA could be havens for wildlife and humans alike.”