Urban Wildlife (part two)

Last post I introduced the theme of what will be a series exploring urban wildlife. While “urban wildlife” may seem like a contradictory phrase, human behaviors attract flora and fauna, intentionally and unintentionally, to our cities. When we invite more open and green spaces into our concrete jungle, more species can thrive alongside us, and we reap the numerous benefits nature provides us. I continue to draw from Menno Schilthuizen’s Darwin Comes to Town, Nathanael Johnson’s Unseen City: the majesty of pigeons, the discreet charm of snails, and other wonders of the urban wilderness, and Gavin Van Horn’s The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds but will bring in additional texts that dive deeper into subtopics.

Ecosystem Engineers

Though cities may seem sterile and unwelcoming, plants and animals have found their niches. This is in part due to our role as ecosystem engineers. As Schilthuizen explains, “…ecosystem engineers are like a magnet to other species. With such concentrations of food and resources, other species evolve to cohabit with them – for shelter and protection, to steal and pilfer from their hosts, or to trick them into giving them their scraps.” Pigeons and peregrine falcons nest from the high ledges of buildings, insects pollinate patio plants, and racoons rummage through overflowing garbage bins. Everywhere we turn humans have created food or shelter other creatures capitalize on. But these are the margins and only a few species are hardy enough to persist. 

A slimy snail scurries across the sidewalk on a rainy day in San Diego, CA
photo credit: Patrick Stone

We can make space for other species to inhabit our cities, with a little more planning, if we acknowledge the wildlife already here. Part of the problem is, these are often the species humans find gross or a nuisance like ants, pigeons, crows, snails, or unattractive weeds. As ambassadors go, they don’t do other species any favors in making humans eager to invite in more. These creatures are far from declining in population and though we try to control their numbers, they propagate anyway, wasting time and resources. Johnson argues pigeons are such prolific breeders that we’ll never be able to control their populations unless we’re willing to kill the majority of birds in a city each year.

The Monarch Butterfly, however, is an example of a creature that demonstrates how inviting humans are willing to make an environment, when it wins our hearts and minds. I once received milkweed seeds (the preferred food of Monarchs) while volunteering at a park, which I then gave away to a couple so eager to plant them for their yard, we arranged to have them drive over to my building so I could bring them down. From the small scale of their one yard to the front entrance to the Field Museum (Chicago’s natural history museum), pollinator gardens are quite in vogue and Monarchs, bees, and other insects have champions clamoring to make space for them. When we make room for a particular species, we must understand we are also creating habitat for others we may not find as charming.

What nature can do for you

Investing time and resources into creating habitat for wildlife is not an exclusively altruistic endeavor. Access to nature is itself beneficial to our health and it serves as infrastructure just as roads and bridges do. Cities themselves can be harmful to our health, so nature can also offset some of these harms.

As we become a more urban species, there has been more research devoted to nature’s impacts on our wellbeing, something that was taken for granted a few generations ago. Florence Williams concisely summarizes the findings of numerous studies in The Nature Fix: “…natural environments…make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other.” Yet Williams notes that surprisingly little planning has gone into incorporating natural spaces into our urban environment to reap these benefits. Richard Louv (who, upon moving to San Diego, discovered one of the most human-populated bioregions also included the most biodiversity of any county in the US) makes a similar observation from a study he references in Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of your Family & Community: “‘Politicians and stakeholders in urban planning must become more aware about the effects of natural environments on human health…People are not moving in masses back to the countryside but elements of country life should be moved to cities.’” Fortunately, incorporating nature into the urban setting also happens to be great for a city’s bottom line. Nature is infrastructure and helps mitigate and adapt to climate change by filtering and absorbing stormwater runoff, cleaning pollutants out of and cooling the air, and storing carbon. All of these services translate to cost savings for treating water to improve water quality, property damages from flooding, and health costs from urban heat island effect and air quality. These are ideal talking points to make to the many politicians, city planners, developers, and others who might otherwise view open spaces as wasted spaces.

Just crossing the street in any downtown urban center, such as Chicago’s Loop, requires a pedestrian to watch for speeding cars, divvy bikes, CTA buses, and delivery trucks, all the while taking in wailing sirens, a cacophony of car horns, people talking, and lights from buildings, street lights, and cars. Both Charles Montgomery in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (which has a chapter devoted to nature in cities) and Williams note that nature can be an antidote to the stresses of our urban environment. A 2019 study found that spending at least 120 minutes in nature a week is beneficial. Green (and blue) spaces trigger “soft fascination,” where our minds are engaged but not taxingly so (as it is when we cross a busy street). We’re activating the default network when viewing nature, instead of the executive (intellectual, task-focused) and spatial network (orienting) networks we rely on to navigate the urban jungle (Williams). Green spaces also provide a venue for social interactions, getting to know your neighbors and making friends, which is good for us psychologically. There’s a lot of anonymity that comes with city living; it can be hard to get to know your neighbors. Montgomery cites a study of natural open spaces within a Chicago housing project that found reductions in violence, attributed in part to the fact that these spaces allowed neighbors to get to know and look out for one another and feel part of a community. Louv similarly notes, “some research shows that, given the right conditions, greening neighborhoods may help reduce violence in the home and beyond.” Nature calms us and promotes community.

Graphic by Tim Beatley, professor at the University of Virginia. Beatley launched Biophilic Cities, which “partners with cities, scholars and advocates from across the globe to build an understanding of the value and contribution of nature in cities to the lives of urban residents.” Williams references his Nature Pyramid, modeled after the food pyramid, for recommendations on the frequency and types of nature settings we should try to get.

A few things to consider

  • To reap the benefits of nature, quantity is less important than getting daily exposure.
  • Some studies have found there is a small percentage of urbanites who just won’t enjoy being in nature. This could be especially true for those of us in the densest parts of the city. The less familiarity with nature (and the sometimes grossness of it), the less it will feel relaxing or enjoyable. Not to mention that there are justifiable concerns about feeling welcomed or safe in nature.
  • We need to be mindful of gentrification when providing green spaces, as these tend to raise property values and attract enterprising developers and higher income folks. If cities work to distribute it equitably, maybe this no longer becomes an issue.
  • Until all residents of a city can walk to a natural space, it’s important to have affordable transit to get there.

There was too much to consider in my readings about urban wildlife to do them justice in one blog post. Over the next few months I will cover topics such as how wildlife is adapting to the urban environment and whether or not invasive species are as dangerous as conservationists think they are.

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