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Our Zoopolitan Future: Making Cities Safe for Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2014

After a major cleanup effort, beavers have returned to the Bronx River. (Photo: Robert McGouey/Getty Images)

After a major cleanup effort, beavers have returned to the Bronx River. (Photo: Robert McGouey/Getty Images)

My latest column for Takepart, the website of the movie company Participant Media:

When conservationists worry about the prospect of a world without wildlife, they often focus on two related developments: the sprawling growth of crowded cities and suburbs, and the push to farm more land, and farm it more intensively, to feed those cities. Together, these two forces have worn the natural world down to tattered remnants.

So it may seem contradictory to suggest that cities can also be part of the solution. But conservationists, who used to focus on protecting landscapes that were pristine and full of wildlife, now often work instead to improve the margins—to make roadsides, backyards, idle fields, and working waterfronts wildlife-friendly. They argue that with a little effort, cities can provide habitat for birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other creatures great and small. According to this line of thinking, re-wilding the cities will be better not just for wildlife but for the cities. The idea is that the metropolis is a far richer place to live—more magical even—to the extent that it is also a zoopolis.

It’s a grassroots movement—or maybe, an anti-grassroots movement, with urban landowners planting habitat in place of lawns. But it’s official too. At its 2010 meeting in Nagoya, Japan, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity set targets to reduce the loss of habitat and to restore degraded natural areas. The plan includes a City Biodiversity Index, now being tested by 50 cities around the world as a tool for measuring and improving urban ecosystems.

So which cities are leading the movement to a zoopolitan future? What lessons are they learning that other cities can apply?

1. Over the past 30 years, Singapore has increased its natural cover—trees, parks, and green roofs—to almost half its land area, even while doubling its population to 5 million people. The original intent was commercial, because carefully maintained street trees and parks are signs to outside investors of a stable, prosperous community. That way of thinking is still evident, for instance, in the weirdly futuristic World’s Fair appeal of the 250-acre Gardens by the Bay project, a hugely popular park recently developed on reclaimed land.

But it’s not just self-interest: Singapore has also successfully reintroduced Oriental pied hornbills, and officials there have plans to boost populations of other species, including its critically endangered banded leaf monkey. Authorities have declared their intentions to make Singapore “a city in the garden,” and they seem to recognize that a garden is an empty stage if there are no birds or other creatures chattering in the trees.

2. In 2003, officials in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, wanted to drain the 1,300-acre Nakivubo Swamp and convert the land to industrial development and housing. Then a study pointed out that the wetlands provide essential treatment of sewage and other wastewater from the urban area. Over and above the cost of construction, operating a treatment plant to replace what the swamp was doing for free would have cost the city $2 million a year. The wetlands are now a protected area.

3. The 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats inhabiting the nooks and crannies of the Congress Avenue Bridge once seemed like a nuisance to planners in Austin, Texas. But a campaign by Bat Conservation International has turned the bats’ nightly emergence into a major attraction. Evenings in August, picnicking families assemble on grassy areas nearby, and tour boats jostle on the river below, waiting for the moment the bats take wing. The result is an ecotourism business worth an estimated $10 million a year. The city has taken the bats to its heart, and it now has a hockey team named the Austin Ice Bats. The Texas Highway Department, not otherwise known for progressive environmental thinking, has also recognized a good thing and is working to make other bridges in the state bat-friendly.

4. Sao Paulo is the third-largest city in the world, with 11 million people. Yet 21 percent of its land area is still covered with dense Atlantic rainforest including the Green Belt Biosphere Reserve. As a result, the city is home to cougars, capybaras, howler monkeys, and more than 430 other animal species.

5. Cape Town represents just two-tenths of a percent of South Africa’s total land area but it supports half of South Africa’s critically endangered vegetation types and 3000 plant species, many of them found nowhere else in the world. The city’s Strandfontein Sewage Works may not sound like such an appealing destination, but birders can spot a hundred species in a good morning there. The city is home to blue cranes, penguins, malachite kingfishers, and many other species. Nearby waters harbor a colony of Cape fur seals, with their attendant great white sharks.

6. My favorite case study is New York City’s Bronx River, for very personal reasons. My father grew up on the banks of the river in the 1920s, and the stories he told were all about going out on the water with his Italian immigrant grandfather to gather botanicals and to hunt. It was still a wild river then. In the magical stories my father passed down to his children and grandchildren, it was inhabited not just by a variety of wildlife, but also by a menagerie of imaginary creatures, led by a walking, talking green melon ball named The Growly.

For much of the rest of the twentieth-century, the Bronx River became a ruin of rusting bedsprings and junked cars, along with sewage and industrial pollution. But an extensive cleanup effort by the Bronx River Alliance and other groups has now restored the eight-mile-long lower river, with turtles, alewives, glass eels, great blue herons, and other species back at home there. Beavers returned in 2007—after an absence of several hundred years. City programs now focus on making the river a source of green pleasure for neighboring residents, many of them, like my great-grandfather, immigrants.

The restored river is providing habitat for wildlife—but it’s no doubt also producing new stories to entertain children, and to be passed down for generations into the future. And that makes the city a much richer and more magical place for everyone.

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7 Responses to “Our Zoopolitan Future: Making Cities Safe for Wildlife”

  1. rboschen3 said

    Reblogged this on rboschen3 and commented:
    Great read by Richard Conniff-

  2. From Staffen Widstrand at Rewilding Europe: “Berlin is a great city-rewilding site too.
    4000 wild boar live in the city! 10 pairs of White-tailed egale too, Peregrine falcons breed at the Alexanderplatz square…”

  3. Nice example from The Society for Ecological Restoration International:
    Restoring the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea

    The story starts with a river in the middle of Seoul that had become little more than a sewer by the l970’s. Finally it was turned into a road, with a 6 lane highway above. In 2002 the mayor made a brave and visionary decision: he pledged to tear down the highway, restore the river and create a 5 mile long park along its banks. What made this idea even more audacious was that it meant relocating 160,000 cars a day off of a main arterial road. Opposition came from planners, traders and drivers. The surprise was that “the tearing down of the motorway has had both intended and unexpected effects. As soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving.”

    Bus services were improved and the effect on the environment was instantly noticeable. According to a professor involved from the start of the project: “We found that surface temperatures in summer along the restored river were an average 3.6C lower than 400 metres away. The river is now a natural air-conditioner, cooling the capital during its long hot summers. Average wind speeds in June this year were 50% higher than the same period last year.” Citizens flock to the water’s edge–there are waterfalls, play spaces, running tracks and sitting areas. Birds, fish, plants and a variety of wildlife have also returned and increased. Shanghai and Los Angeles are looking at the results because Cheonggyecheon Park has become a model for other large cities seeking to link regeneration and environmental progress.

    Check out the photos here: http://www.globalrestorationnetwork.org/restoration/

  4. Clean up for the beavers, and get ready for the beavers to improve your creek, We allowed some beavers to remain in our urban creek by installing a flow device to control flooding and now we regularly see otter, steelhead, wood duck and even mink! Plus our creek that used to dry up every summer now keeps water year round.

    Heidi Perryman, Ph.D.
    Worth A Dam
    http://www.martinezbeavers.org

  5. […] Beavers back in the Bronx River. What will the zoopolitan future look like? (Strange Behaviors) […]

  6. […] Beavers back in the Bronx River. What will the zoopolitan future look like? (Strange Behaviors) […]

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