“Wild Things in the Great City”

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Asst., Urban Initiative

In A Natural History of New York (1959), John Kieran wrote, “Let the population of the area increase and multiply as it may, let men build and pave to their heart’s content, there will always be many kinds and untold numbers of wild things in the great city.” Sometimes they drop in by accident, like the eight-inch brook trout that Kieran reports was found “swimming in the gutter on 58th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenue when a break in a water main flooded that street.” More commonly, wildlife seeks to make its peace with us, and to quietly adapt to our way of life, even as we continue to encroach upon and alter natural landscapes.

In the late 1990s, when I designed the interpretive signage for Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, the largest panel that I developed was titled “What Happens When Humans and Animals Want the Same Space?” One thing that happened, after the Zoo opened to the public, was that we often received phone calls from early-morning park joggers and dog-walkers, informing us that a deer or a fox or a flock of turkeys had escaped from the Zoo and was, even at that moment, ambling down the zoo entranceway toward Hawthorn Street. In truth, these creatures were not escapees; they were bona fide residents of the city of New Bedford, going about their business of looking for breakfast in the woodlot adjacent to the Zoo.

By design or by default, humans pick winners and losers among the wildlife that we tolerate in our immediate environs. There are more deer in Massachusetts today than when the first European settlers arrived, due to humans creating more edge habitat and eliminating large predators like wolves and Eastern cougars. There are more Canada geese too, although their increase in numbers does not necessarily, in my opinion, make them “winners.” Increased population has come at a cost, as so many geese have traded the freedom of soaring along the migratory flyways of North America for a sedentary existence in public parks, where they subsist upon illegal, non-nutritive handouts from well-meaning visitors. Concentrated flocks of geese quickly foul park waters, as each goose daily contributes a pound of waste to ponds and along shorelines. Federal policy calls for nearly halving the population of Canada geese in seventeen Atlantic states, from 1.1 million to 650,000. The plan gained urgency after geese flew into the engines of US Airways Flight 1549, which in 2009 crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River. Less well remembered, but more tragic, was the 1995 crash of an Air Force plane which collided with Canada geese; 24 people were killed.

Deer are wildlife winners in most people’s minds, but snakes are definitely losers. It is a shame that so many people exhibit an inordinate distaste for reptiles. Not long ago, as I walked with my dog toward Clasky Park, I came upon a DeKay’s snake sunning itself on a public sidewalk. Also known simply as the Brown snake, DeKay’s is a very small creature, even as an adult rarely reaching a foot in length. It is cryptic and unobtrusive; with a dark brown or tan body and two rows of darker spots along its back, it blends into urban detritus and is hard to spot; even the dog missed it. DeKay’s snakes seek out slugs, worms, and soft-bodied insects for their food, as well as snails; apparently they have specialized teeth that allow them to easily extract a snail from its shell. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a couple of tiny, unassuming snakes on patrol in my patio garden than a bunch of slugs and snails raiding my vegetables. While not as charismatic as some other species of urban wildlife, DeKay’s snakes are perhaps the best natural neighbors we could hope for as city dwellers; quiet and inoffensive at all times, and even helpful in their own small way.

DeKay’s Snake tries to stay out of sight, as it hunts for slugs and bugs in the backyards of New Bedford.

Environmental education grants

Here are a two grant opportunities we recently came across that look like promising opportunities for many of our readers and community partners:

1) National Environmental Education Foundation Announces America’s Great Outdoors: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors Grant Program

Through this new program, NEEF and its partners seek to catalyze efforts to increase the number of pre-K-12 youth, particularly urban and/or underserved youth, who build a connection with public lands as places for recreating, learning and volunteering. Proposed projects should maximize hands-on outdoor engagement opportunities on public lands, focused on the areas of 1) education; 2) recreation ; and 3) environmental stewardship.

To be eligible, applicants must be a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management unit or a nonprofit organization, academic institution, or tribal group that partners with these agencies. Applicants must have been in existence for at least two years. The proposed youth engagement events must be held on a Forest Service or BLM site, or show that the project clearly benefits these agencies.

Approximately $243,000 in funding is available to support awards in the range of $2,500 to $20,000. There is a minimum one-to-one non-federal match required for this grant, though larger match ratios are encouraged.

2) New England Environmental Education Alliance accepting proposals for EPA sub-grants

In partnership with the six state-based professional environmental education associations that comprise the alliance, NEEEA is soliciting proposals and will award sub-grants to organizations for projects that contribute to regional goals for environmental literacy and education in New England, while supporting the EPA’s educational and environmental priorities. In order to achieve the longest lasting and greatest systemic impact, NEEEA will place higher priority on funding proposals that help strengthen statewide or regional capacity to deliver effective environmental education programs.

Proposals may be submitted by any school, nature center, museum, learning center, or community group; local education agency, college, or university; state education or environmental agency; or non-commercial educational broadcasting entity as defined and licensed by the FCC. Applicant organizations must be based in New England and the majority of their activities must take place in New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

At least nineteen grants will be awarded, with a goal of three for each state, as well as at least one for a project that is implemented in multiple states. Grant requests from $500 to $5,000 will be considered. At least 33 percent of the grant amount must be matched by non-federal funds, including in-kind contributions.

Link to Complete RFP


FY2012, in numbers

The university’s fiscal year ended on July 30, after which point we’ve been compiling data that will inform both the university’s review of the Center for Policy Analysis (of which we are a part) and our own annual report, currently in development.

We thought this would be a great platform with which to share some of our numbers:

9: Number of distinct projects completed by the Urban Initiative

27: Number of distinct partners (including nonprofits, municipalities, agencies, and university centers) with which the Urban Initiative partnered

227: Number of staff hours (between January 1 and June 30, 2012) contributed pro bono to support organizations and efforts aimed at strengthening our partner cities. This translates to 9.5 hours per week.

35:  Number of UMass Dartmouth students who worked with the Urban Initiative during the 2011-12 school year (7 graduate students in the Master of Public Policy program and 28 undergraduates; five were paid staff, while 30 worked with us through service-learning projects)

6: Number of cities in which the Urban Initiative worked (Fall River, New Bedford, North Adams, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Taunton)


Death of a Urban Tree

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Asst., Urban Initiative

The trees that were planted years ago along my street in New Bedford are Norway maples. Some of the maples are green now – their leaves will turn bright yellow in the fall – but most of the maples on my block are reddish-leaved Norway cultivars.

The green maple on the corner is large, healthy, and multi-limbed, probably because it has sent thick roots deep into the storm drain at its base. Seventy feet away a red maple, although it has reached its full height of nearly fifty feet, looks spindly and weak. It’s positioned badly; not only can its roots find little nourishment, but it is so close to the roadway that it has been frequently sideswiped by cars barreling up the hill toward County Street. Half of the trunk has been gouged away at a height of three feet. The exposed, damaged heart of the tree is crumbling away, riddled with holes made by boring beetles or other pests. The tree is dying. A severe windstorm or a heavy load of winter snow could cause it to fall into the street.

I called New Bedford’s Department of Public Facilities, and inquired about tree removal. The very pleasant person who answered the phone told me that I need to file a “Tree Hearing Request” to explain why I feel that cutting and removal of the tree should be authorized. A date and time for a hearing will then be scheduled, to determine the fate of the tree.

I’m glad that the City didn’t immediately send a couple of workers to cut down the tree simply because I asked for its removal. Urban trees are valuable in many ways. The psychological and aesthetic values of urban trees may be difficult at first for society to interpret, but the US Forest Service points out that quantifiable data is beginning to emerge. For example, USFS cites a study in which surgical patients who could see a grove of deciduous trees from their hospital room windows recuperated faster and required less pain medication than similar patients who could only stare at a brick wall. We “know” that experiencing the natural world rejuvenates us, but people are finding ways to express with data what was once only understood in vague generalities.

Some of the utilitarian value of urban trees came into clear focus during the days of drought in July. The urban landscape is a “heat island,” but trees help to moderate that effect, keeping air temperatures cooler and also blocking solar radiation. Three well-placed trees near a house can cut air conditioning costs by ten to fifteen percent. Trees also play a role in reducing air pollution, removing both solid and gaseous particulates by 9 to 13 percent. Thick belts of trees planted in appropriate sites can help reduce noise pollution. The presence of healthy trees close to our dwellings increases real estate values; the USFS says that a number of studies have shown that real estate agents and home buyers assign between 10 and 23 percent of the value of a residence to the trees on the property.

I doubt that the City will replace the damaged maple near my home with a new tree planted at the same spot. A new tree placed at that location is likely to suffer the same sad fate as the old tree. Perhaps the City no longer even plants the Norway maple, which is increasingly criticized as a non-native, invasive species. But maybe a better location can be found, and possibly even a better tree, to benefit all of us who may watch its form grow and its colors change with the seasons, or who might walk beneath its branches.