How Cities and Wildlife Can Be Friends Instead of Enemies
We generally think of cities as devoid of nature. These crowded, homogenized, noisy environments seem to be the exact opposite of natural, and we’re correct in surmising that their creation is detrimental to wild species. “We paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” as the song goes.
But recent research suggests that while it may not be her first choice, Mother Nature’s adaptation skills make it possible for cities and wildlife to coexist, and even flourish.
Charles Nilon, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri, recently published a study which found that while urbanization is hurting overall biodiversity, certain birds and plants thrive in cities. The results of this study suggest that paying more attention to the way we design and develop our urban areas could encourage a more symbiotic relationship between humans and the flora and fauna.
In the study, investigators from the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia examined the birds in 54 cities and plants in 110 cities worldwide. Cities studied included Baltimore, Berlin, Jalisco (Mexico), New York City, Phoenix, Potchefstroom (South Africa) and Stockholm. Nilon said the researchers found four types of birds that actually prefer concrete jungles – pigeons, waterfowl, raptors and house sparrows.
Pigeons and house sparrows have lived among humans for so long, it’s hard to say exactly when they became comfortable being our neighbors. While we don’t know when, we do know why: urban buildings provide plentiful roosting places and tasty food, like popcorn, that people throw away.
Similar matters of convenience are what attract the other two urban birds, waterfowl and raptors. “Waterfowl find cities desirable because urban parks and lakes contain few of their natural predators. Raptors can find ready food sources in a centralized location in urban areas and have fewer competitors,” explains Nilon.
Although cities are often thought of as gray wastelands, devoid of the greenness of their suburban counterparts, the study found that city plants often fare better than animals. “One-fourth of plants in the larger region are found in urban areas,” the study found. “In fact, cities can be more biodiverse as people bring non-native plants into their gardens and backyards.”
Which leads us to the moral of the story: how can we ensure that cities, plants and animals get along even better in the future? With more than 50 percent of humanity now living in cities (and 60 percent of the land projected to become urban by 2030 has yet to be built), it’s unrealistic to suggest that we stop building them. So we have to build them differently.
Nilon’s research suggests that urban planners should create new habitats to strengthen these city-dwelling bird and plant populations and attract new species. “The greatest loss in plant and animal density occurs in older cities that have a lack of plant cover,” he explained. So setting standards for the preservation and restoration of green spaces, with special focus on native plant species, is essential. The success of green roofing and urban agriculture initiatives in some of the world’s biggest cities proves that this can be done in a way that’s beneficial to both humans and wildlife.
There has also been a rise in the number of eco-sensitive architects and landscapers who are eager to design built environments that live in harmony with the plants and animals that already inhabit the area. This means not only thinking of the materials used in the building itself, but also seeking out ways to minimize a building’s disruption of the surrounding habitat.
In this way, cities can become havens where wildlife and plants are equally important residents, and perhaps the urban areas of tomorrow will be healthier, more pleasant places to be. For all of us.
Lead image via Thinkstock