Biophilic Cities Must Also Become Communities for a Half-Earth Future – Part 2

A two-part series exploring how biophilic cities can advance the goal of Half-Earth, both within and beyond their boundaries.

Part Two: Thinking Beyond a City’s Boundaries

By Tim Beatley, Founder & Executive Director of Biophilic Cities; Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, University of Virginia

Biophilic Cities–or cities that love nature–must (and can) begin to acknowledge the value and importance of nature beyond their borders as well. The foci of this work can be regional and global with significant potential to advance the Half-Earth vision. Cities can and should look beyond their borders to better understand and protect the ecological hinterlands on which they depend. New York, for instance, has taken steps to protect the Catskills watershed that serves as the primary source of drinking water for the city. It makes good economic sense to do this but has the additional important benefit of the conservation of a million acres of farmland and forests that make up the source watersheds from which the city’s water supply is derived.[1]

Biophilic Cities logos

While the ability to set aside large amounts of natural land within the boundaries of a dense city may be limited, Biophilic Cities can and should work with other cities to protect conservation lands at the regional or bioregional scale. Many of the cities we partner with have large regional parks and greenbelt systems that protect larger biologically important lands. Financial and political support for such systems will be key and Biophilic Cities can and should work to expand and extend these systems.

For coastal cities and cities perched on the edge of our oceans there will be opportunities to extend their conservation influence into those marine realms. Cities can champion the establishment of new near-to-city marine parks and protected areas and there are great emerging examples of this idea.[2] The vision of Half-Earth (on the Blue Planet) necessarily includes protecting half the area of our oceans at least, and there is new work that suggests that new marine protected areas may ultimately be more useful and protective if they are located closer to where human pressures are greatest.[3]  Coastal cities pursuing a vision of biophilic urbanism have the chance to reach beyond their traditional terrestrial borders and to help to create (along with state and national partners) a network of connected marine parks that at once control and reduce ocean sprawl and the other impacts of cities and urbanization, and also acknowledge the inherent beauty and ecological importance of these seascapes (that are too often viewed as empty or worthless). 

We believe that the vision and philosophy of Biophilic Cities can guide and spur on conservation actions at yet an even more global level. A city that purports to “love nature” must acknowledge and love distant nature as much as the local nature enjoyed by its residents. Partly this is a matter of equity and fairness, as cities today have large ecological footprints needed to support and sustain local populations–water, energy, food, and materials–often extracted and transported from far away with serious negative impacts on global biodiversity. Cities that care for and love all of the planet’s nature can take steps to moderate and reduce the immense negative impacts associated with these resource flows, for instance by limiting the purchasing of tropical hardwoods that contribute to global deforestation.

Reforming a city’s metabolism from one that is biodiversity-destructive to one that is biodiversity-restorative is not simple or easy. Some cities, for instance Vancouver, BC, have set targets for reducing their ecological footprints, but few other cities have done this. The mechanisms for effecting change in a city’s metabolism (and ensuring this lower footprint translates into fewer impacts) are more limited than they should be. Municipal procurement is one device–limiting a city’s purchase of products that are ecologically destructive, for instance tropical hardwoods, when there is a sustainable local alternative source of wood. But the larger impacts come from myriad individual consumer choices and decisions in those cities. Cities can encourage residents to purchase FSC-certified wood, for example, or locally harvested fish, but whether this will meaningfully contribute to the Half-Earth goal is unclear.

Cities can certainly help to foster and support more local or regional consumer options, for instance facilitating, and perhaps financially underwriting, community-supported agriculture (CSA’s), as well as community-supported fisheries and forests that work under a similar model.

A flower in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh, PA, USA (JD Brown, Biophilic Cities)

But Half-Earth cities can and must do more. Affluent cities of the Global North especially have the resources and the political and economic power to advocate for and actively work on behalf of global conservation. There are many specific tools by which this might happen: city-to-city agreements, even treaties, as more cities understand the need to step into global diplomacy.[4] Sister city relationships can be a start in this direction and of course advocating for new parks and protected areas, helping to pay for them and assisting (in whatever ways needed) in their long-term management. Many cities are connected by migratory birds (and other animals) presenting opportunities for multiple cities to work together to jointly expand and restore habitat for such species.[5]  

Acknowledging and working to achieve the targets of the Paris Accord (something our Partner City Pittsburgh famously declared it would do when the US announced plans to pull out of the agreement), and divestment from fossil fuels, as cities like New York have chosen to do will also help. Decisions about how New York City’s multi-billion dollar pension fund will be invested (away from fossil fuel but in the direction of efforts to protect and conserve global biodiversity) could have a potentially huge positive effect in advancing the Half-Earth agenda.    

Cities can work together with other cities through networks like ours (and through initiatives such as the Compact of Mayors), to make sure their voices are heard when it comes to global nature. To achieve the Half-Earth vision will require the good work of cities, and the urban populations living in them. If the ethos and ethics of Biophilic Cities can be extended–and we believe it can–to embrace (more far-away) global nature, cities pulling together around the Half-Earth goal can be a powerful force indeed.

Read Part 1: Abundant Biodiversity within the City

[1] Winnie Hu, “A Billion Dollar Investment in New York City’s Water,” The New York Times, January 18, 2018, found here:
[2] These include the newly designated national marine park in Plymouth, UK, and the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, near Auckland, New Zealand, among others.
[3]See Jones and Santo, “Viewpoint – Is the race for remote, very large marine protected areas (VLMPAs) taking us down the wrong track?,” Marine Policy, November 2016, found here: 
[4] E.g. see “The growing role of cities in international diplomacy,” November 24, 2019, found here:
[5] This is an idea I explore in the forthcoming book The Bird-Friendly City, Island Press, fall 2020, see

Compare ×
Compare National Report Cards Continue Reviewing


[pmpro_signup submit_button="Register" level="1" login="1" redirect="referrer"]