The Fallacy of Biological Deserts

“Urban areas … have long been deemed to be devoid of biodiversity, especially by Americans, who glorify wilderness and believe that nature can flourish only where cities do not exist… This is called ‘the biological deserts fallacy’”

                                                ~ Janet Marinelli

There are coyotes in Los Angeles and photos of rats stealing old pizza in Manhattan, not to mention the fabled blind alligators in the sewers. Falcons haunt the window ledges of downtown skyscrapers.

Our neighborhood in our small town on the edge of the Denver metro area has had rabbits, snakes, squirrels, skunks, wood rats, raccoons, bats and probably many other creatures we never saw. We’ve had elk, deer, foxes and even a moose wander through our yard. A hawk works the skies above us and we can hear his raucous screech — it might be the same one that nested in one of the street trees a few years back. A bear ambled down the alley a few years ago and was finally treed at the elementary school, darted by animal control, and returned to the foothills. Bees, butterflies and other insects make their homes here, as do a large variety of birds, including seasonal migrants like hummingbirds.

For the most part, we all live comfortably with each other and stay out of each other’s way. I enjoy watching them and my wife even (occasionally) feeds the squirrels (please, don’t tell the neighbors).  But, as much as I like them around, I wonder if that’s good for the critters. Journalist Janet Marinelli reports, “… cities contribute more than we think to regional biodiversity. In fact, a raft of recent studies has found that long before the pandemic, the planet’s cities were important refuges for an array of plants and animals, in some cases even threatened and endangered species.”

She notes, “While the value of urban areas to wildlife conservation remains contentious, there is a growing recognition that cities are key to the future of conservation as the human footprint expands relentlessly around the globe … Meanwhile, more than half of the world’s human population lives in urban areas, and this is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2050. A striking 60 percent of the additional land projected to become urban in the next decade is yet to be built on.”

“Conservation is not just about biodiversity but about the human relationship with that biodiversity,” conservation scientist Eric W. Sanderson said in a recent interview. “The healthier nature is in cities, where people live, the better that relationship will be, and the more people will care about preserving biodiversity everywhere, he said.”

If you needed convincing that humans are also a part of nature, note that we, too, seek out the green spaces for rest and leisure. Suburban yards and city parks attract us with their trees and planters and gardens of various kinds. We relax in a hammock in the back yard or on the porch overlooking our tree-lined street. We seek out parks and ponds or lakes for our recreation. Most places that are good for us are also good for the other critters of nature.

“While urbanization continues to pose a substantial threat to species and ecosystems, cities abound with a ‘wonderfully diverse’ array of unconventional habitats ‘that can provide important habitat or resources for native biodiversity,’ according to a University of Melbourne paper. These range from remnants of native ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and grasslands, to traditional urban green spaces like parks, backyards and cemeteries, as well as golf courses, urban farms and community gardens. In addition, as cities invest in green infrastructure to ameliorate environmental harm, wildlife is increasingly occupying novel niches including green roofs and constructed wetlands and colonizing former brownfields and vacant lots.”

A little less asphalt and a little more greenery is beneficial to us and to the other species that we share this earth with. We need to do our part to keep our homes green.

It’s only natural.

Additional information:

Janet Marinelli, Urban Refuge: How Cities Can Help Solve the Biodiversity Crisis, Yale Environment 360, July 1, 2021

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