Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where the wild things are: the importance of urban nature

Cities represent our ultimate domination over nature. They are landscapes that are completely modified to meet all of our needs and desires. In cities we drastically change the vegetation, reroute rivers, seal the Earth’s surface in impermeable cement, and often change the chemical composition of the air around us. For most people, this unnatural state of affairs seems completely natural. Its how we grow up.

What we don’t notice is all that is missing. The trees, the birds, and the mammals are largely absent from big cities. But not all cities are equal in this missingness. For those of us that live in cities like Toronto, Nashville, or Sydney, seeing birds and mammals is part of our normal life. In my back yard in Toronto, I am likely to see racoons, skunks, possums, red squirrels, eastern grey squirrels, chipmunks, deer mice, and a plethora of birds, and just down the road, foxes, coyotes, and deer are not uncommon. One morning I heard a ‘thud’ come from our sunroom window, and outside was a stunned red-tailed hawk (he was fine in the end). These cities are evidence that nature can persist and coexist with urban development.

However, there are other cities where nature is almost completely absent. While living in Guangzhou, China I saw just cats, dogs and rats, and barely any birds –shockingly no pigeons. Recently in while in Montpellier, France, it became obvious to Caroline and I (the two EEB & Flow contributors) that besides a small lizard species, pigeons and a few sparrows, we were not going to see any wildlife in the city. Guangzhou and Montpellier are very different cities in terms of size (16 million vs. 300 thousand), density, building height, pollution levels, etc.  But one way they are similar is that they are old. People have living and changing the landscapes in these regions for thousands of years. Of course the same could technically be said of North America and Australia, but the magnitude and intensity of human modification has no parallel in North America and Australia. Long-term intensive human activity removes other species in the long run. Is this the natural endpoint for our younger cities?

Cambridge, England. While quite beautiful, it is a typical old european city with a lot of stone.

Why we should celebrate raccoons

Toronto has a war against the raccoon. To most Torontonians, the raccoon is a plague –vermin that get into garbage cans and pull shingles off of roofs. Their density in Toronto is about 10 times higher than in wild habitats and many people in Toronto support removing them all together.

I have a different stance. We should be celebrating the raccoon. Yes raccoons cause problems; yes they carry disease; yes they damage property; yes their density is unnaturally high. But the same can be said of people (I don’t think I ever caught a flu from a raccoon). If raccoons were to recede to distant wilds and disappear from Toronto altogether, we would be no different than all those other cities where nature has completely lost. Raccoons give hope –hope that nature can flourish under the repressive and cruel dominion of urban centres. Raccoons remind us that nature has a place and can thrive in cities, and that we can share this world. They give me hope that Toronto’s destiny is not prescribed and we are not bound to the same fate as so many other cities.

I have a couple of new Chinese scientists visit my lab each year, and the differences between Toronto and say Beijing or Shanghai could not be more stark for them. To see deer, squirrels and raccoons in the city is a marvel. Every time one of these visitors comments on the wildlife in our city, I am reminded that we are really fortunate and have something that should be cherished.

Raccoon family –not an uncommon sight in Toronto (CCBYgaryjwood

Need to rethink urban nature

The problem is that Toronto, and most other cities, is continuing to grow and become more densely packed, making it more difficult for nature to endure. We need to rethink how cities grow and develop, and we need to keep a place for nature. There is no reason why new developments can't accommodate natural elements and green space –this often does not happen in most cities. Singapore is unique in this sense, new public infrastructure projects explicitly incorporate novel green space and infrastructure. I toured green sites there recently and saw a new hospital where it was impossible to tell where the park space ended and the hospital started (see picture below). There I saw patients tending gardens on the roof, nearby residents strolling through the forested courtyards, and turtles, wading birds and a large river monitor in the neighbouring pond. Also, Singapore's new large pump house infrastructure that reduces flooding in the city has a full sloping lawn on the top that is used by picnickers. In most North American cities this type of building would be grey industrial cement with little other function than to house pumps.

Singpore's Khoo Teck Puat hospital -the world's greenest hospital? 

Large old cities devoid of wildlife need not be the natural endpoint for a city.  Smart development and accommodating nature needs to be woven into the tapestry of cities. Toronto’s raccoons are great, and I wouldn’t want to live in a Toronto without them.

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