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The Frontier of Urban Wilderness

Liz Clift

Wil·der·ness (n): an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region; a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town

Wild·ness (n): a quality of being wild or untamed

I know a lot of people who like to “get away” to the mountains on the weekends. The mountains, if you listen to these folks, is where nature happens. Mountains—along with the upper reaches of the United States—are places we’ve been culturally led to believe are relatively untouched by people, and we idealize this.

Of course, to say this is to erase the ways people have been sculpting the landscape for generations upon generations. It is to ignore that the wild spaces in our built environments are not so different from idealized “wilderness,” something environmental historian William Cronon addresses in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.”

The reality is this: we can find wildness, and wonder, within our urban centers. We can find red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons in most major cities. Coyotes, raccoons, and foxes prowl cemeteries and stream beds. Depending on what part of the country we’re in, we might find narrow-leafed yucca and roadrunners in our yards, or see bryophytes growing in the cracks of sidewalks alongside dandelions. Maybe we take children to a large city park to catch crawfish that are similar to the ones we caught growing up in the same city, or somewhere more rural.

I did this last one a few summers ago, while teaching freshwater ecology to youth in 1st through 6th grade. We, for the most part, stayed in our city. We caught frogs and tadpoles on the banks of a reservoir. We waded in a creek at one of the most popular parks in the city, hunting crawfish. We scooped baby catfish out of a nutrient-impaired lake in the neighborhood most of those youth live in. We looked at sand and silt and algae under microscopes.

In other words, we looked for wildness—and by extension, wonder—in the places that we saw every day. And we managed to find it.

There are a lot of critiques that can be offered up to this argument that we can find urban wildernesses. Certainly, the way we live our lives directly impacts environments; perhaps more so because we don’t take the time to see the wildness in our built space. We don’t always act as stewards of the land in cities and towns the way we do when we take a trek into some place remote. We don’t apply Leave No Trace to the places we actually live.

Shelley McEuen, of Yes! magazine addressed the idea of investing in the places we live earlier this month in “Celebrate the Urban Wilderness Right Where You Live,” by writing: ““As long as wilderness is an ideal that exists someplace else, residents may feel absolved of responsibility to steward the wild spaces within their own communities.”

A variety of municipalities, including some Great Ecology works with, are making efforts to restore or enhance urban wilderness along waterways, canyons, parks, urban trails, and other public spaces. In part, this can be attributed to re-vitalization efforts and to prepare for more extreme weather. These changes can come as part of a transit plan or a tourism plan or superfund restoration plan. They can make very real differences in the ways we—and the next generation—look at the places we live.

This is an exciting time, because we are on the frontier of efforts to create and enhance urban wilderness.

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