The recent dousings of rain in Los Angeles make it easy to forget that the entire state is still in the grips of a historic drought. But our dwindling water supply is only one of many formidable ecological and social challenges facing California in general and the L.A. region specifically, with its booming population, rising sea levels and ever-hotter temperatures caused by global warming.
So how will L.A. continue to thrive for generations to come?
That's the big question fueling the Center for Urban Resilience (a.k.a. CURes) at Loyola Marymount University. CURes is dedicated to spreading the word about urban ecology, an emerging field of science that studies how complex communities can creatively adapt to intertwined ecological and social challenges. For CURes, cities are indispensable laboratories of innovation and learning, generating their own solutions.
The center teams with research organizations, civic groups and local citizens to learn about urban ecology and tackle specific eco-issues in the L.A. region. CURes also educates teachers and students and sends them out into the public and private sectors to help prevent L.A. from becoming a resource-starved urban wasteland.
Eric Strauss is President's Professor of Biology at LMU and the founding executive director of CURes. Citing data that shows Southern California getting hotter and drier, he said that to survive in this climate as city dwellers, we must think beyond popular modern solutions and move towards rethinking entire systems.
"Of course, we need to do all we can to limit carbon emissions that contribute to climate change," Strauss said. "But we're also at a point where we need to find ways to adapt to these changes as they happen in population-dense areas. The good news is that this can be done by letting nature provide some key ecological services and by empowering our local residents to engage resilient solutions."
CURes supports adaptations for L.A. that include managing urban wildlife, teaching people about local habitat and greenspace transformations and helping residents understand their local resources.
One such project takes place at Venice Beach, where CURes is working to protect the eggs of endangered California least tern birds from being eaten by crows. While the endeavor is rooted in helping one particular species of bird, it's also more than that: By involving community members in tasks such as monitoring the tern colony, the center helps build a connection between Angelenos and their environment.
"People who live in that area, in Marina del Rey and Venice, were coming out of the woodwork to ask about the research," said CURes programs manager Laurel Hunt. "People walking their dogs would say, 'Oh, how are the terns?' It's a great way to involve the community in their own environment, as opposed to research that occurs in an isolated part of a state park or a laboratory."
There's also a CURes program called Urban EcoLab that connects students to their local environments through hands-on science research. Urban Ecolab, which is centered on a yearlong interdisciplinary environmental science course, provides curricula, teacher professional development and schoolyard research projects to underserved communities in L.A.
At CURes, urban ecology means more than just looking to nature for the answer.
The center's Restorative Justice Program provides school communities with resources to help promote safety and health. As part of this goal, the program seeks to engage youth in underserved communities to think critically about the the social and environmental issues they face in their everyday lives.
"Many of the young people that the center works with say that they don't have access to safe spaces to play," said Jason Douglas, CURes' director of restorative justice. Neighborhood parks can have high levels of crime. "These places created for recreation and positive youth development have become spaces of violence and criminal activity," he said.
In response, the Restorative Justice Program teaches young people to build relationships with one another and to think and talk about urban ecology as a solution. The program also involves the youth in active, student-led research. With its socially and environmentally aware training and involvement, CURes can help the students it works with become more engaged and better-behaved in school.
The idea of neighborhood solutions can also be international in scope. CURes looks to the wider world as a partner in addressing L.A.'s ecological issues. The center is in charge of the Mediterranean City Climate Change Consortium (MC-4), a global team of urban centers with similar population and climate challenges, such as Athens and Barcelona. Participants in MC-4 hold conferences, share ideas and make plans for real-world urban ecology solutions to climate change.
"It's a way to broaden perspectives and look at how other countries and cultures are adapting to these challenges," Strauss said.
CURes houses a broad range of programs ranging from the local and regional to international, but "in the end, it's all about having people love where they live," Strauss said. "When people love their communities, they stay there and are committed to finding solutions."