Biophilic Cities

I live on the edge of a metropolitan area. To the east are a couple of undeveloped mesas, some agricultural lands, and suburbs stretching the twenty miles or so into urban Denver. West, the mountains rise abruptly over two thousand feet in a couple of stages.

The mountain face (Front Range) is mostly open, but near the top begins to be forested. The creek that breaks from the mountains runs through town and is mostly lined with riparian vegetation, except where it has been channelized on its way towards Denver. The mountain areas are dotted with homes and a few ranches.

Our small town has, over time, become more and more urban, growing suburbs to the north and south. While we still get the stray deer, elk or juvenile moose wandering through town, the frequency has dropped markedly over the last twenty years. We still see the occasional fox hunting around our compost pile, and the raccoons are a constant visitor on summer evenings. The last mountain lion sighting on the nearby mesas was decades ago.

We’re not unusual. Worldwide, growth is impeding nature. While people and nature can co-exist, it’s harder to combine human and animal habitats. Noise, traffic, fences, feral and domestic cats, cleared or farmed land — all interrupt the lives of the local fauna. Many species have learned to adapt to us. Some birds, like geese, actually thrive in suburbs, as do raccoons, foxes, squirrels and other species.

However, many species cannot survive the human environment.

Writer Rob Mcdonald notes, “The bad news is that the potential impact of urban growth on endemic species will be greater than we thought — 13 percent of all endemics will be in ecoregions where there will be significant loss of natural habitat due to urban growth, a far larger impact than the mere area of cities would suggest … This disproportionate impact occurs because cities are on coasts and islands and river floodplains, places of above average importance for biodiversity and endemism.“

He continues, “This century will be the urban century, and we will witness the greatest migration in human history. By 2050, there will be 2.4 billion more people in cities. Humanity is doing the equivalent of building an urban area the size of New York City every 9 weeks, over and over again … Cities could therefore be seen as quintessentially human, an expression of our deep need for social interaction.”

“Thus, in this sense, the urban environment can be shockingly inhumane, by not being in accord with our organism’s design and capacities … interacting with nature has health benefits … There are a growing number of studies that show a psychological benefit of interaction with nature … the important first step is to recognize that nature in cities is not a mere amenity, a ‘nice to have’ thing on par with other urban amenities. Rather, nature in cities is a way to counteract the inevitable psychological downside of increased interaction in cities. Nature in cities is a way to have our cake and eat it too, to have the benefits of an urban world while still having a more humane, more natural life. Nature for urban dwellers then seems more like an essential feature of a successful urban century.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Cara Cannon Byington is hopeful and quotes Yale’s Karen Seto, “Cities are actually part of the solution. We can build cities differently than we have in the past. They can be good for the planet; they can save species; they can be biodiversity hubs and save land for nature. The majority of these places have yet to be built. Science-driven policies that guide how the cities of tomorrow get built will have a tremendous effect.”

Change is all around us. We just need to get with the program and do our bit. Maybe I can’t control what happens across the whole Metro area, but I can do my best in my yard and my neighborhood. So can you.

Plant a tree, put up a bird feeder and start a compost pile.

Additional information:

Cara Cannon Byington, To Protect Nature, Cities Matter in the Urban Century, March 14, 2022, Cool Green Science

Rob Mcdonald, Biophilic Cities for an Urban Century, October 27, 2020, Cool Green Science

Rob Mcdonald, How Can We Protect Endemic Species in the Face of Urban Growth?, June 22, 2018, Cool Green Science

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