The Natural Neighbors project aims to introduce greatly increased numbers of people to the natural and cultural heritage of the regions where they live.
It does this by promoting metropolitan and regional alliances of conservation and historic preservation agencies, museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, and their allies. Each of these organizations has its particular responsibilities and priorities, but many things can be done more effectively when they work on them together.
Connecting people to natural areas and historic sites where they live is critically important because:
Natural Neighbors was inspired by a successful metropolitan conservation alliance called Chicago Wilderness, as well as a growing movement to integrate efforts to preserve and interpret nature and culture. This movement is centered in UNESCO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the U.S. National Park Service.
The basic purposes of Natural Neighbors are to encourage:
COMMON MESSAGES FOR VISITORS
In our initial meetings and workshops, the agencies, museums, and other regional actors told us the first thing they wanted to do cooperatively was to agree on common messages for their visitors. In particular, exhibits and lectures that relate local trends to global climate change and loss of biodiversity need to be based on the latest consensus among scientists as well as current public policy. This can be a challenge in these fast-moving fields. A cooperative effort to agree on common messages and keep them up to date will ensure that visitors are given accurate information.
Accuracy is essential, but messages to visitors need to go beyond the science and convey the gravity and urgency of our situation. Members of regional Natural Neighbors alliances shouldn't hesitate to use strong language such as the G7 group of governments used in a May 2021 communiqué: "We acknowledge with grave concern that the unprecedented and interdependent crises of climate change and biodiversity loss pose an existential threat to nature, people, prosperity, and security. We recognize that some of the key drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate change are the same as those that increase the risk of zoonoses, which can lead to pandemics. . . . We recognize that climate change and the health of the natural environment are intrinsically linked and will ensure that the actions we take maximize the opportunities to solve these crises in parallel."
GOING BEYOND THE BASICS: BEACONS OF HOPE
We decided to go beyond the basics and introduce a concept we call Beacons of Hope that came out of several strands of thought and practice:
Beacons of Hope involves identifying and publicizing places that symbolize the imagination, exploration, and moral behavior needed to move the world toward greater justice and sustainability. The idea is that putting a spotlight on them will help change minds and inspire action. Stories about real places and what has happened in them are powerful communication tools. Tangible symbols are needed even more these days in a world of “cyber-existence” and “virtual reality.”
We started to organize an ambitious international project, Global Beacons of Hope, but then the COVID pandemic happened. Although we plan to return to the global project, we realized that the concept could be just as useful at other levels of geography. We are including Beacons of Hope, along with the "basics" described above, in continuing to organize Natural Neighbors projects in California. See California Beacons of Hope.
Those planning Natural Neighbors projects elsewhere may choose to start out with just the basics and add Beacons of Hope later.
PROGRESS TO DATE
The precursor to Natural Neighbors was a study published in 2017 based on visits to 80 museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, science centers, and protected areas in and around 14 cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart (Tasmania).
The study found a general lack of systematic cooperation among these organizations as well as (a) a failure by most museums and similar institutions to show visitors where to go to experience nature where they live; (b) a lack of exhibits about local nature; and (c) a failure in many such institutions to sell books about nature in their regions or local history. There were notable exceptions that showed what can be done.
In Los Angeles, separate meetings and a workshop were held involving 20 agencies and institutions (see the photo caption above). Meetings have also been held in Chicago and New York City, and there have been preliminary discussions in Brazil, Israel, and Jamaica. In addition, Natural Neighbors was discussed at George Wright Society conferences in 2015 and 2017, and in a workshop held at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawai'i.
So far, Natural Neighbors has been an evolving concept and a means of exchanging information and ideas, rather than a formal program. We expect to move beyond that in 2021.
Natural Neighbors is an initiative of InterEnvironment Institute, in cooperation with two components of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature: the World Commission on Protected Areas and the Species Survival Commission. It originated in a project initiated and carried out by the Institute and sponsored by IUCN, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (part of the California Natural Resources Agency), the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and others.
Natural Neighbors is a registered service mark of InterEnvironment Institute. This is to discourage misuse of the term, as is explained under "Natural Neighbors" on the Copyright, trademarks, caveats page.
A workshop in Los Angeles held in 2016 to explore the idea of organizing a Natural Neighbors project in Southern California.
Those present were representatives of some 20 United States, California state, and local government agencies; natural history and science museums; botanic gardens; a zoo; universities; and a publisher of books on California history and natural history.
Mark Bouman from Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History (center front) shared the experience of Chicago Wilderness, regarded as a model for metropolitan conservation alliances.
The workshop was hosted by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy at its Los Angeles River Center and Gardens near the center of the city. The Conservancy, a California state agency, has been a leading sponsor of Natural Neighbors.