The Butterfly Highway Connecting people and nature

Angelique Hjarding is director of Pollinator and Wildlife Habitat Programs for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. Her areas of research include endangered species conservation, citizen science, urban biodiversity conservation and community and conservation planning. The Butterfly Highway was created as a socio-environmental intervention as a part of her dissertation research with the Charlotte Action Research Project at UNC Charlotte.

More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In developed countries, that number rises to 70 percent to 80 percent. Cities and urban centers are traditionally built by scraping away the native natural landscape and replacing it with a landscape made of concrete, steel and asphalt. Urbanization has been identified as one of three primary drivers for species endangerment in the United States; the other two are non-native invasive species and agriculture. Urbanization creates new habitats that are most often not suitable for native species and that deplete resources these species rely on for survival. Recently there has been a trend toward “re-greening” our cities as a way to improve biodiversity and natural spaces. What are the environmental benefits of re-greening and who benefits from these improvements to the urban infrastructure?

When residents of an area experience below-average native species biodiversity, they are said to be living in biological poverty and it is believed that most of the world’s urban residents are experiencing this phenomenon. Wildlife also face increasing challenges in urban areas, as habitats have been reduced to forest patches, utility rights of way, parks and residential gardens. In particular, pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies have experienced a dramatic reduction in habitat, as former meadows have been transformed into buildings and parking lots.

Walk into most neighborhood association meetings and you will likely hear a discussion about neighborhood beautification. Many even have beautification committees that organize projects such as flowers at neighborhood entrances and “yard of the month” programs. While this is something most neighborhoods want, it is not something all have equal capacity for. This is the case for many of the lower income, minority neighborhoods in Charlotte. If you attend one of their meetings (in, for example, the North End corridor, where I have attended meetings), you might hear a discussion around the desire to “beautify” their neighborhood or how they should apply for a “Neighborhood Matching Grant” from the city. However, rarely do these things get accomplished. It is not because these residents lack the motivation to address neighborhood beautification; it is more often lack of access to resources.

The Butterfly Highway is an urban pollinator habitat conservation project designed to be an intervention for both people and wildlife in urban spaces. It is designed to help neighborhoods gain access to resources for beautification, reduce barriers to participation in conservation initiatives and create new opportunities for communities that are increasingly becoming disconnected from nature. Additionally, the project increases available habitat for pollinators in these neighborhoods.

Through a partnership with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, the Butterfly Highway has grown from 50 residential gardens in Charlotte to more than 1,400 across North Carolina. Since we planted the first garden in April 2015, the Butterfly Highway has transformed into a statewide community-based initiative, with the aim of restoring native pollinator habitats to areas feeling the impact of urbanization across North Carolina. From backyard “pollinator pit stops” to large-scale roadside habitat restoration, the project is creating a network of native flowering plants to support butterflies, bees, birds and other pollen and nectar-dependent wildlife.

Want to join us? You can also help protect pollinators and beautify your own neighborhood by becoming a part of the Butterfly Highway. Visit