National Wildlife Refuge System

Restoring Nature to City Living

Philadelphia school students take a lesson in bird watching at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, located within Philadelphia city limits. With four-fifths of Americans living in cities, urban refuges are filling a greater need.
Credit: USFWS

May 29, 2014 - Think you have to travel to the hinterlands to see nature in the wild? Think again. Residents of Boston, New York, San Diego and other U.S. cities are discovering great wildlife viewing surprisingly close by at urban national wildlife refuges.

The label might appear an oxymoron. But urban refuges protect wildlife habitat just like their country cousins. And with four-fifths of Americans now living in cities, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, these urban green zones are finding new audiences and gaining a higher profile in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Urban wildlife refuges aren’t new. Since at least the 1930s, some refuges – such as Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, near Atlantic City, N.J., and Patuxent Research Refuge, outside Washington, D.C.  – have been established near big cities to provide feeding and resting habitat for migratory birds and other creatures.

But these days, urban refuges are filling a greater human need, says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Refuge System. “People are hungry for connections with more than their smartphones,” he says. “They are starting to realize that living in cities needn’t mean leaving nature behind.”

More than 100 of the country’s 562 national wildlife refuges qualify as urban: located within 25 miles of a population center of at least 250,000 people. Some refuges, such as Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge and Great Meadows Refuge, near Boston, serve denser areas, with populations in the millions. Refuge visitor numbers (800,000+ a year for Don Edwards; 400,000+ for Great Meadows) reflect that proximity.

Some new visitors – particularly people who haven’t grown up near woods and creeks – approach refuges with apprehension. “They don’t know what to do at first, because [visiting a refuge] is a new experience for them,” says Sandy Perchetti, volunteer coordinator at Edwin B. Forsythe Refuge. Staff and volunteers don’t rush them. When youngsters and their families show up for campfire sing-alongs in spring and fall – added to refuge event offerings to appeal to urban audiences – refuge volunteers lead them on guided mini-hikes. “If hike leaders see a toad, they pick it up and let children hold it if they want. Then the kids start realizing it’s not scary. It’s fun.”

Many urban refuges offer a busy calendar of free or low-cost public events to introduce adults and kids to nature.  On a recent Saturday, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge hosted a bird hike, advertised on an online meet-up site. Among participants were some refuge newcomers. “Fantastic,” wrote Lori. “One of the best birdiest spots I’ve ever seen.” Agreed Darren, “Wonderful to discover so many different species together, hidden just behind a business park.”

The increased emphasis on urban refuges – known within the Refuge System as the Urban Refuge Initiative – is part of the agency’s vision for the next decade. In line with this initiative, the Refuge System has drafted Standards of Excellence to help staff better engage urban visitors. 

The Refuge System has also established Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships with community groups in Baltimore, New Haven, Los Angeles and other cities where few nearby national wildlife refuges exist. The newest two such alliances are the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership and a partnership in Lake Sammamish, outside Seattle, announced this spring. Through these partnerships, the Refuge System aims to bring nature to the city while drawing nontraditional audiences into the conservation fold.

How will urban refuges measure success? In return visits, for one thing. Less measurable – but no less valued – are anecdotal accounts about igniting sparks of wonder.

“At our last campfire sing-along,” recalls Perchetti, “a volunteer pointed out a bald eagle flying around. And it wasn’t just an eagle. There was also an osprey that was upset that the eagle was getting too close to its nest. Oh, my gosh! It was better than a TV show, and it was happening right in front of all these fourth graders. They were staring with their mouths open.”

Last updated: May 29, 2014