St. Louis – A City That Helps People By Helping Butterflies

April 2017

The City of St. Louis aspired to become a partner city with the Biophilic Cities Network as an extension of a citywide effort to promote eco-literacy and advance urban vitality & ecologythroughout the city in ways that maximize social impact and economic benefits.  Under the leadership of former Mayor Francis G. Slay and Sustainability Director Catherine Werner, the City of St. Louis has made urban ecology a priority through expanded greenspaces, higher quality natural areas and opportunities to better connect people with urban natural resources.  At the heart of the city’s approach is the belief that people need nature, and nature needs people. The St. Louis model seeks to cultivate mutually beneficial outcomes for people and nature, both.  Within the last few years, the city has instituted a broad commitment to biophilic urbanism as a component of its overarching Sustainability Plan.  This has included the adoption of a series of innovative programs that assert a triple bottom line in approach; balancing social, economic and environmental considerations.

“For St. Louis, this is more than just greening the city for ecological purposes, as we know there are numerous social and economic reasons why it makes sense. With enhanced green spaces, we anticipate that people in St. Louis will enjoy improvements in their health and well-being.  Children are likely to experience better educational outcomes with access to natural spaces and environmental learning.  And the city stands to benefit economically, such as by using green infrastructure to address stormwater concerns and urban trees to help achieve climate resilience,” said Catherine Werner, Sustainability Director.

Biophilic Cities Executive Director, Tim Beatley, joined Mayor Slay and Catherine Werner recently in St. Louis for a full day of events and meetings to celebrate the city’s successful sustainability programs.  The urban ecology celebration at the Missouri Botanical Garden featured the city’s new status as a Network partner city, and remarks by both Beatley and Dr. Peter Raven, who presented a compelling case for taking action to address global biodiversity and climate considerations.


Because enhancement and expansion of the quality of natural resources within the city requires residents understanding and experiencing the value of the resources, St. Louis embarked on an eco-literacy campaign as an element of Mayor Slay’s five-yearSustainability Action Agenda.  Specifically, one sustainability goal for the city is to double the current eco-literacy rate during the period of 2013 to 2018 through a program that fosters an enhanced connection between people and urban natural resources.  The eco-literacy program is viewed by the city as a critical step in supporting its larger Sustainability Plan; identifying that informed and engaged residents are at the heart of a sustainable future for the city.

As part of this effort, the city has partnered with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo to develop a tool to measure eco-literacy.  The eco-literacy survey was administered in 2014 by neighborhood improvement specialists across the city to develop a baseline assessment of eco-literacy that can be used to benchmark the impact of the city’s urban ecology programs.



One component of the eco-literacy survey measured what people knew about monarch butterfly conservation.  In an attempt to make eco-literacy tangible, and recognizing the vital pollination role that butterflies play, in 2014, Mayor Slay launched Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project with an initial goal of creating 250 monarch gardens to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the city.  To lead by example, the city created 50 butterfly gardens in public spaces across the city, and developed a program to support city residents with resources and technical assistance to plant an additional 200 monarch gardens.  The program was so popular that the city not only met but soared past its goal, as indicated by an online map showing 369 current registered monarch gardens.

Building on the initial success of small monarch gardens in public areas and private spaces, the city won grant funds to create a pollinator pathway along the Mississippi Riverfront: the St. Louis Riverfront Butterfly Byway.  Additional grant funds were used to conduct urban monarch conservation research, and also to partner with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo to create monarch gardens in 50 urban schools.  As an aid to other educators interested in creating urban monarch gardens, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden have developed a Monarch Gardens for Schools Educator Guide, which was made available to all schools in the city. The array of gardens and the connections in between contribute to a butterfly migration corridor across the city and local residents’ understanding and interaction with these important pollinator species.


Another piece of the city’s effort to promote biophilic urbanism is compiling the tools and resources necessary to inventory urban biodiversity, so that the city is able to make informed decisions and take strategic urban conservation actions.

To foster consistency in approach for both the collection of data and measurement of urban biodiversity, the City of St. Louis partnered with the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco in a grant-funded effort to develop a model and process for inventorying biodiversity.  The result was the development of an Urban Biodiversity Inventory Framework that can be used by cities to establish biodiversity baselines and measure the success of conservation efforts over time.  An online database accompanies the framework and allows cities to view, store and standardize their biodiversity data. The Biophilic Cities Project has agreed to host and maintain this online platform going forward.


St. Louis sits just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers –the largest watershed in North America — making it both a historical and present-day crossroads for the migration of people and nature.  Known as the Gateway to the West and for its central role in North to South river commerce, the St. Louis area has also served as significant migratory routes for both birds and butterflies.  The city has established itself as an emerging leader in biophilic urbanism and design, with a diverse array of innovative urban ecology and conservation programs.

The Biophilic Cities Project welcomes St. Louis to its ever-growing network of cities. Within the past year, six new partner cities have joined this expanding movement. At its heart, the Network is facilitating city-to-city partnerships and the exchange of best practices and policies that promote planning for abundant and accessible nature in cities. With its established leadership, St. Louis will be a valuable contributor to the Network.