September 28, 2015|By Will Allen

When I started my career at The Conservation Fund about 20 years ago, cities and nature were usually seen as two separate things. Many strategic conservation planning efforts focused on finding the best places to protect nature from people. But as Dr. David Maddox, the founder of Nature in Cities accurately proclaims, “Cities are ecosystems of people, nature, and infrastructure.” Thankfully that reality is now being acknowledged and an exciting and expanding movement is emerging to connect people to nature and to invest in green infrastructure that helps make cities sustainable, resilient, and livable.

One strategy to link people and nature is through protection of nature next to cities—creating defined edges or transition zones between developed areas and their surrounding natural areas and working landscapes. Another strategy to link people and nature is through integration of nature into cities—purposefully protecting and restoring green infrastructure inside urban areas, including the reuse of vacant and underutilized lands. 

TheLurieGardenThe Lurie Garden in Millennium Park is an 5-acre urban oasis enjoyed by Chicago residents and visitors. Photographer: Carolyn Torma.These urban and green design strategies go hand in hand. Why is there more interest in this now? I see many factors at play, including but not limited to, the desire for healthier and resilient communities, the uncertainty of how to adapt to climate change, and the urgency to secure adequate supplies of clean water.

One emerging initiative dedicated to promoting these urban and green design strategies is the Ecological Places in Cities (EPiC) network. The mission of this initiative is “to provide people living in cities with resources to harmonize people, wildlife, natural and working landscapes and to cultivate the love of life and living systems.” Founded in April 2014, EPiC is focused on establishing a common framework for connecting nature and people in cities and to the broader landscape through education, research, wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, green infrastructure planning, and community revitalization.

Chicago Bert Kaufmann flickr 390x260Chicago has an abundance of opportunities for protecting land through conservation and green infrastructure. Photographer Bert Kaufmann.EPiC is a network of professionals that can help both managers and the scientific community address issues of urban conservation. The purpose of the EPIC network is to harness the capacities, expertise, and abilities of all partners in support of common conservation outcomes for connectivity within and between cities in the Midwest. For example, EPiC could help implement green infrastructure by providing city planners in one city a direct line of contact to other cities in an effort to fully understand implementation of projects such as stormwater management. It will also create a system for the scientific community to share research and talk about scientific needs in regards to advancing urban conservation.

I am currently serving on the EPiC “Core Team” that is in the midst of refining the initiative’s targeted goals and objectives as well as crafting a strategic plan. While work on EPiC is just beginning, it has embraced a green infrastructure framework to promote urban and green design at regional, community, and site scales.

While EPiC is currently focused on the Midwest US, it has the potential and ambition to scale to a nationwide network in the future. This ambition is well illustrated by one of EPiC’s initial focus projects, “Milkweeds for Monarchs”: a multi-city landscape conservation design to protect and restore Monarch butterfly habitat and migratory corridors. By promoting planting gardens that support and attract monarchs in backyards and municipal sites around cities, this project hopes to both increase the dwindling monarch butterfly population and to revitalize communities through reconnecting people with nature in urban areas.

Monarch butterfliesPlanting milkweed in a St. Louis garden as part of Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project. Photo courtesy of Kristin Shaw. The pilot program has launched in St. Louis, MO where the city is tracking newly created gardens on a map, which shows more than 160 registered monarch gardens as of August 2015. In time, the hope is that this initial project in St. Louis will be one piece of a larger initiative along the monarch’s migration route.

With projects like this, EPiC is helping realize their vision of “an interconnected network of cities and landscapes where people live in harmony with nature.” That’s pretty epic if you ask me!