Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Los Angeles County Natural and Urban Ecosystems Symposium

March 5, 2019

The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge (SLA GC) hosted its fourth symposium on February 25, 2019, spotlighting research, management, and community engagement projects aimed at enhancing Los Angeles’ natural and urban ecosystems.

The symposium represented the first effort to bring together UCLA faculty, researchers, government officials, practitioners, community members, students, and thought leaders to discuss the research needs and policy recommendations necessary to solve some of our most pressing regional ecosystem issues. Over 100 participants joined 21 panelists in conversations about project goals and progress, and how researchers and practitioners can work together to improve biodiversity while providing equitable access to parks and open space for all.

Panel presentations for each topic area were followed by a 30-minute discussion that challenged researchers to apply their results and expertise towards solving existing management issues. In addition, managers were asked how they could make better use of existing research and help direct future research projects that aim to fill specific data gaps that are currently limiting their capacity to implement effective management strategies.

Highlights from topics discussed included:

 – Biodiversity Monitoring – Wildlife use small patches of habitat throughout the urban space as they move through the urban core. Native plants and trees enhance the habitat value of the urban landscape and promote greater wildlife diversity. However, urban tree canopy management does not adequately consider wildlife habitat, especially in critical ecological areas such as riparian habitats, natural areas, habitat corridors and at the urban/wildland interface. For a more integrative approach, the region needs improved biodiversity monitoring and understanding of current biodiversity. One approach is to leverage the knowledge from managers that work on the ground to get a better assessment of currents trends. Interviews and surveys should also be conducted to quantify the baseline knowledge within city and county departments.

 – Conservation Genomics – Mapping the genetic diversity of plants and animals inhabiting the L.A. Basin will help us better understand the critical habitats that species use and the barriers to movement and breeding that prevent genetic mixing. These studies can be applied to ecosystems across the State as the field of genomics evolves. Collaboration between geneticists, conservation biologists, landscape experts, and climate scientists would address long-standing conservation questions in California ecosystems and provide novel conservation strategies. Newer genetic technologies such as environmental DNA is expanding the potential for how genetic material can be sampled and opens the door to creating large community science driven data sets.

 – Critical Ecosystems and Land-use Assessments – Technology is developing rapidly to allow for real-time satellite imagery of land topographies that can determine tree canopy cover, tree species distribution, land type conversions, change in greenness, land temperatures, and much more. This data can be used in models to fill current data gaps and predict future climate scenarios. This critical data should be used to set baselines and monitor progress towards land use and ecosystem goals in real time. Spatial data like this can also be useful in assessing environmental equity issues throughout the region, such as heat and drought impacts.

 – Biodiversity Management – Although biodiversity monitoring and management is done really well in protected lands in the region, a much better understanding of biodiversity in the urban space is needed to create science driven policy to protect these natural resources, and create a place where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. To understand species distribution and movement in the urban landscape, coordination between departments, agencies and research institutions is necessary. Pilot studies present a unique opportunity to trial regulations that could help support the use of the urban space by wildlife. Monitoring the impacts of such regulations are needed to assess their efficacy. Frameworks, such as the biodiversity index, are one such tool that local governments can use for monitoring biodiversity over time.

 – Community Health and Wellbeing – Integrating the latest technologies into park design results in multi-benefit projects that support a variety of sustainability goals. However, to ensure biodiversity is supported throughout the urban landscape it is critical to incorporate ecological principles and native habitat design into community spaces to maximize human health benefits and provide a space where both humans and wildlife can thrive. Greenspaces provide specific health benefits that purely recreational facilities do not. Therefore, to ensure equitable access to ecosystem benefits, including mental health benefits, it is critical to incorporate ecological design into parks and open space.

 – Community Access, Outreach and Cultural Connections – Engaging the local community in biodiversity data collection should be prioritized because of its potential to expand the amount of data collected, and also because of the educational potential for the community, practitioners, and researchers. This helps communities understand the importance of science driven management and provides them with an opportunity for direct engagement and influence. This also helps practitioners and researchers to better understand needs and desires as they relate to biodiversity in their communities. Targeted outreach in communities that lack access to biodiversity education and exposure may encourage support for policies that protect natural resources and improve environmental literacy in the region.

The goal of the symposium was to encourage collaborations among the attendees and their networks. This ensures that managers utilize best practices supported by science and that researchers are conducting research that is relevant and useable by managers. It was acknowledged that working with local communities was imperative, and that much more research needs to be done to better understand people’s perceptions of biodiversity and relationships to parks and open space. The SLA GC aims to foster these collaborations further to identify what questions should be asked and what data should be collected in order to enhance the region’s ecosystems in a way that is beneficial to overall biodiversity and the region’s people.

This symposium builds off of the momentum of many exciting and novel projects happening throughout regional research institutions, government, and non-governmental organizations. The passing of the Biodiversity Motion put forth by Councilmember Paul Koretz by Los Angeles City Council in May 2017 helped set the baseline for local policies and plans to begin to address biodiversity and ecosystem enhancement as a critical goal for the region. Such efforts will be reflected in the City of Los Angeles’ Sustainability pLAn update and the Los Angeles County’s Sustainability Plan that will be released in 2019.

This symposium is the fourth in a series of Sustainable LA Grand Challenge symposia designed to connect UCLA faculty, researchers, government officials, practitioners, community members, students, and thought leaders. Previous symposia have focused on renewable energy and water research, as well as, overall sustainablity research.

The next symposium will focus on research and regional progress on achieving water independence for L.A. County.

For more information about the ecosystems symposium, and presentations from that day, please visit the event page.