perception-of-nature-cities-copyright J Micklewright

Welcoming wild things – our perception of nature

by Julia Micklewright – 13.09.23

When you think of nature in cities, you probably think of a lush green park and romantic tree sitting graciously in the center. This postcard perfect nature is now what we consider natural but it is actually a very curated and designed landscape. The long tradition of English landscaping has strongly influenced what we expect of green spaces. Or maybe you think of the wild dense forests where you like to walk your dogs on the weekend? That’s again a very romanticized vision of wilderness (which is by the way also maintained by rangers) and it is seen as a leisure or sport location. It is a place we drive to and spend our free time but it stays very distinct from our living environment.

GABRIELE MÜNTER, Sommertag, Ca. 1903.

This idealized vision of nature, which can be seen in art for centuries, is actually now slowing us down in our urban green transformation. But why would beautiful nature be an issue? Let’s explore together:

1. Non-conventional nature is ignored

If we all expect beautiful grass and lovely ponds, then everything outside this vision doesn’t need to be preserved! This is a huge issue for all forgotten spaces, brownfields and left-over corners where wilderness has taken over and a multitude of living creatures have found refuge. In our cities where the pressure on land is rapidly rising, those abandoned places suffer from increased pressure to be developed in housing projects. This challenge is shown beautifully in the documentary “Natura Urbana” (see below) where brownfields of Berlin are explored and experts and  inhabitants explain how they have learned to love those wild corners, where informal uses go along with an unexpected richness of species. Disappearing species of plants and animals live among old train tracks in a harmonious way. Those spaces are although threatened to become building plots and even if some greenery will be preserved, it will be landscaped and become a leisure destination which will limit living spaces for wild species. Luckily some positive examples such as the Schönberg park, preserve some non-accessible patches to leave animals alone! 

INSPIRING CASE:

The Baumkirchen park in Munich used to be a rail storing location and has become now, with minimum transformation, a protected natural area and park open to all. The pathways were lifted on platforms to make sure that people kept on the path and did not venture elsewhere where the wildlife is protected, but other than that, most of the industrial elements which used to be there were left in place. The very industrial look of this park has the benefit to challenge our expectation of protected urban nature.

Baumkirchen Park, Munich ©J.Micklewright

2. Sustainable maintenance is seen as neglect

How we ended up thinking that impeccable golfing-like green laws are beautiful is a long story ( spoiler: it has to do with western culture and status symbols ), but what is easy to understand is that mono-species overly-maintained laws don’t provide the same habitat and feeding possibilities to insects and animals. Moreover green lawns are most of the time not endemic to the regions where they are grown so they require a lot of watering and maintenance. The mentalities are slowly changing and some municipalities started campaigns to promote wildflower meadows. These meadows challenge our vision of public green but they also represent a financial advantage for cities as they require less mowing (about twice per year) and are composed of more resistant local species. So one could wonder, why don’t we see them everywhere then? 

INTERESTING EXAMPLE:

The case of Vilnius in Lituania could give us a hint. The city has recently started sustainable mowing routines by mowing only twice per year to preserve flowering meadows on street and road verges and green spaces far from residential areas. During the summer of 2022 there have been numerous newspaper articles which underline the conflict with locals’ perception of this new policy. Many complaints were raised about the spreading of ticks, allergies to pollen, lower visibility for car drivers and, unsurprisingly, the floppy look this gave the city . The municipality of Vilnius took this in account and communicated about their strategy to control and monitor those issues while making sure that surfaces near intensive human usage were cut short as well as 1m along roads to give a neat look. In one online article of their website they conclude “Sustainable meadow – where no people are walking” – So nature yes, but still preferably not too close to us.

© S. Žiūra, vilnius.lt
1st_community_garden_c_BoweryBoys
©Žolė Vilniuje, www.lrt.lt, link

3. Animals are not welcome in cities

If you are scared of spiders then imagine leopards living close to your neighborhood! This might sound impossible but it is a reality in Mumbai which is surrounded by the Sanjay Gandhi National Park serving as habitat for a large population of leopards. These large cats’ territories overlap with densely populated urban regions  of about 20,925 people per sq. km (2011). Although this has not been always without conflicts, as in 2003-2004, a large number of accidents happened, those casualties were then limited by the halt of trapping and relocating the animals who were by this practice set under a great stress and woke up in a territory which was not theirs thus making them more aggressive. Now that this practice has been stopped, accidents are much lower and though the local population is still wary of his spotted neighbor, other examples such as in Akole, in a rural area in Maharashtra, in the same state as Mumbai, have shown that Leopards can live along humans with no accidents happening. 

Of course when we say that our cities should be more biodiverse, we don’t mean that we should have wild cats in every city but it is interesting to ask ourselves which kind of animals are accepted in our direct environment. The results of a survey in a study by Jakoby, C et al. (2019) for example showed in a german context that butterflies and birds are well accepted in residential areas but foxes and pigeons rather not. Some species have better reputations than others and the topics of illnesses spreading and damages caused by animals often recur, whatever the size of the wild animals. 

BEST PRACTICES:

What about if we built homes for animals and humans alike? This might seem wild (sorry this pun was tempting) but city researchers and planners have started to embrace the idea and explored the possibilities of such a paradigma change such as Prof. C. Küffer in the article Cities as Ecosystems and Buildings as Living Organisms (2020) or the project Cohabitation of the architectural journal Arch+ (2021). The project Animal-aided Design is particularly interesting in the German context as it has tested the concept of cohabitation in real life designs by combining human and animal habitats in a residential building development. The project is fully monitored to evaluate potential conflicts and challenges such as the maintenance of these installations. This is a first step which was only possible thanks to the intensive work of multiple stakeholders from academia, the social housing sector and the city but it shows the path to a future where hedgehogs and other creatures will joyfully be our neighbors.  

©Nayan Khanolkar, scientific american

4. Nature is seen as a commodity, a service

Finally an ethical debate has risen along with the field of research on ecosystem services provided by nature. We have indeed discovered that nature in cities has many advantages for our health by limiting heat stress and purifying air for example (discover more advantages of nature in cities in our previous articles). Although if we only see nature as a commodity which is useful to us and as providing economically quantifiable benefits, then anything which has no direct proven benefit to us will be disregarded. This vision is still very antropo-centered and places the needs of humans before anything else. This complex debate is difficult to sum up in a few lines but even the European Environmental agency has called to shift our vision to consider humans as deeply interconnected with other life forms and ecosystems and not separate from this “nature”. Its recent  publication argues that this is necessary to achieve a real sustainable transformation and reach goals such as those set by the European Green Deal. 

It lies in our own hands to invent the next era after the anthropocene, one where our cities would be healthy homes to all living creatures and where wild nature and built environments intertwine to create beautiful landscapes.

Key takeaways

  • Post-industrial sites can be home to great biodiversity
  • Less is more: Wild meadows mean less maintenance costs and home for insects and other species, we just need to accept it
  • It is possible to combine human density and leopards or hedgehogs if we respect one another
  • We are not separate from nature so we should start to care about it like our own selves.

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?:

Podcast:

A courgar living in LA: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/cougar-town/     

Documentaries:

Animals at night in our cities: Night on earth, Sleepless Cities, Netflix

Botanic diversity in unconventional urban spaces: Natura Urbana, The brachen of Berlin, Matthew Gandy, 2017

Other sources:

Atiqul Haq, S. Md., Islam, M. N., Siddhanta, A., Ahmed, K. J., & Chowdhury, M. T. A. (2021). Public Perceptions of Urban Green Spaces: Convergences and Divergences. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, 3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsc.2021.755313 

Beate Apfelbeck , Robbert P.H. Snep , Thomas E. Hauck , Joanna Ferguson , Mona Holy , Christine Jakoby , J. Scott MacIvor , Lukas Schär , Morgan Taylor , Wolfgang W. Weisser , Designing wildlife-inclusive cities that support human-animal co-existence.

Küffer, C. (2020). Cities as Ecosystems and Buildings as Living Organisms. In I. Ruby & A. Ruby (Eds.), The Materials Book. Ruby Press.

Roman, L. A., Conway, T. M., Eisenman, T. S., Koeser, A. K., Ordóñez Barona, C., Locke, D. H., Jenerette, G. D., Östberg, J., & Vogt, J. (2021). Beyond ‘trees are good’: Disservices, management costs, and tradeoffs in urban forestry. Ambio, 50(3), 615–630. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-020-01396-8