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How Cities and Wildlife Can Be Friends Instead of Enemies

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.

Nilon, CharlesImage via MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

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.

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Lead image via Thinkstock

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195 comments

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3:13AM PDT on May 14, 2014

We live in a fairly large city and we saw a fox walking down the sidewalk the other day! It's pretty sad when they have to come in the city to scavenge for food.

8:53AM PDT on Apr 10, 2014

Really? That may work for plants and birds but what about the larger animals that we have displaced? The other problem is that mankind likes to kill things. We refer to animals as nuisance problems when we are the nuisance. At my condo we pay to have dogs chase geese away even when they can not fly. The money would be better spent on cleaning up after the geese. But that will not work because they get in our way when we want to speed around. Mankind is too intolerance of other species for much of this to work.

5:21AM PDT on Apr 9, 2014

It's good to know that more and more people are aware of how important it is to preserve the world we live in since WE ONLY GET ONE! This needs to be taught in schools and publicized for even more people to catch on! ...thanks for the great article!

5:21AM PDT on Apr 9, 2014

It's good to know that more and more people are aware of how important it is to preserve the world we live in since WE ONLY GET ONE! This needs to be taught in schools and publicized for even more people to catch on! ...thanks for the great article!

10:58PM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

Yes!! I'm glad to see research being done on this (not that I did vigorous research this, for all I know this my have been heavily researched), but I hope more work like this is publicized and encouraged, I'd love for ideas like this to become an accessible, affordable reality for all! Thank you for the article.

12:31PM PDT on Mar 11, 2014

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-08/23/urban-animals-evolution

2:52PM PDT on Mar 10, 2014

The population of the US will increase to over 800 million by 2100. Even with "eco" urban planning, the amount of urban area that will need to be created will at least double during this period. The non-humans tat reside in this country will suffer dearly, many will have to cease to exist altogether bto make room for the thousands and thousands of playscapes and soccerfields alone. So while a feel good article like this may give some minor sense of optimism, only addressing the root cause, human population growth (in the US), will have any meaningful impact.

8:28AM PST on Mar 7, 2014

Well, if humans hadn't taken their land and destroyed their habitats, the animals would not come to the cities. They come looking for food, just like we would do if we had to. Stop killing them and relocate them. It is not the right of humans to take the lives of any other living creature or stop building and use existing structures so there would be no need to take any more of their land. And, humans, being the nasty litterbugs that they are, and localities not cleaning up their cities are just inviting the animals to come and scavenge for food. So, whose at fault here??? Human beings, that's who, and now they don't know how to clean up their own mess that they've created. Their answer to every similar situation is KILL, KILL, KILL!! That does not have to be. I think CO-EXISTENCE is the key. Live and let live.

12:32PM PST on Mar 6, 2014

Basically laudable writing, however the presence of greed and corruption residing in any city planning project was not addressed. While I realize coping with these 2 ttaditions , endemic in constructing anything, the desired effect may not occur, or if it does it will be so shot with cost overruns, it may never see completion. Let us face up to the fact that to the average politician "wildlife" is located in strip clubs.

4:04PM PST on Mar 5, 2014

Actually, coyotes, being the smart animals they are, can also do well in cities. The solution is to stop concreting and asphalting every square inch of what is build. If every city had connected greenbelts running throughout it, with a certain percentage set aside for large enough parks, wildlife could still traverse and find places to inhabit despite the "sprawl."

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