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Texas Trailblazers

Wild in the City


If you don’t connect the state’s largest city with prairies and wildscapes, you haven’t met Jaime González. Habitat Jaime — he supplies a silent-J phonetic cue lest you mistakenly call him the far-less-catchy “Habitat Jamie” — can’t see a patch of Houston’s concrete-and-asphalt without envisioning a wilder future for it.

“I’m pretty bullish that we can build a garden of a city that meets all our needs in a much better way,” says Jaime, program director of Houston Healthy Cities for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. “The power of nature, if we use it in cities and suburbs and in large tracts on the edge of the city, can really help us become healthier and more resilient.”

Until three years ago, Jaime worked to protect the Katy Prairie (just west of Houston). Busloads of schoolchildren came out from the city to see and learn. Now, Jaime works to bring nature to those kids where they live.

“There’s all the classic reasons to do this — the awe, the beauty, the wonder, the mental and physical well-being — but now they’re coupled with resiliency,” Jaime says. “If we’re going to get stronger, we have to get softer and we have to get greener.”

Jaime sees growing awareness in Houston. A revolutionary trail system along the bayous will be one of the largest in the U.S. Signature parks have been upgraded.

That’s not enough, though. Urban residents need wildness where they live.

“People want the magic of nature in their neighborhood just like anybody else,” Jaime says of the inequity of urban green space. “They say: ‘I want to see the stars. I want to see the fireflies. I want to hear the toads.’”

Nearly 80 percent of metro Houston residents under the age of 18 are youth of color. The future of conservation depends on engaging them in this journey, Jaime knows — he lost a connection to nature in childhood when his family moved from rural Texas to North Philadelphia, and he never forgot that impact.

“We have to focus on giving nature experiences to children as a way of having real authentic dialogue about what the health of the earth means for themselves and other Texans,” Jaime says.

How can we help?

“Learn about your neighbors, who’s living around you, human and wild,” he says. “Start small — small things can have very large outcomes. Plant one or two native species. Then notice how many things flock to those species.”

 Aaryn Silva

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