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It’s important to make space for wildlife in our growing cities

April 10, 2018

By Blake Jackson

Incorporating wildlife habitats within urban development and infrastructure is the right thing to do and it aids humans too

Half the global population lives in urban areas. By all projections, this migration will only continue. Mankind has always expressed dominion over the landscape, and the imbalance at which we tread has increased exponentially since the Industrial Revolution to the point at which—particularly in the first world—it’s hard to discern if truly wild places still exist.

As the schism between the developed world and nature grows, society must consider the unintended consequences on wildlife as we urbanize. Can humankind and nature coexist? We need to answer these questions:

  • Is it “right” to destroy natural habitat, replacing it with our own without room for “them”?
  • As a species who “owns” land, do we also “own” the wildlife existing on that land. Furthermore, to what do we “owe” them, and can this be translated into “value”?
  • Can (and should) the built environment accommodate space where nature and man can thrive symbiotically, rather than our current approach of conservation, which is typically “away” from development?

Mexico City is the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere at over 20 million inhabitants. Migration into our cities is expected to continue.

A moment of epiphany

I was inspired to write this piece on a recent walk home. I live in Boston’s Seaport, an up-and-coming neighborhood rising on former industrial land within an active seaport. A decade ago, it was an expanse of asphalt littered with industrial buildings. Now, it’s booming with new mixed-use commercial, residential, and institutional buildings close to both downtown and Boston Harbor.

As I crossed the partially landscaped D Street Bridge, to my surprise, I found a family of rabbits living there. I paused to notice them, and—careful to not scare them away—I wondered how anything could survive such a brutal environment, made no less inviting on a frigid sub-zero evening? How did they get here, surrounded by highways with no obvious pathway? As they played, I gained respect for these resilient creatures and see it as my own bit of stewardship in highlighting their plight to make sure they stay in the Seaport and are not displaced—or worse—by development.

Two of the Boston Seaport rabbits, respectfully “Farnsworth” (left) and “Hopkins,” surviving on a leftover parcel in the city.

How to restore natural balance?

Despite great odds, nature seeks balance relentlessly. It thrives in the oddest places. This realization and my stewardship of the Seaport rabbits made me question their survival in the face of impending development. I want to find a way to keep them there and thriving, not at the expense of development, but by using development as the mechanism by which man and wildlife can coexist in harmony.

There are already many efforts underway across the globe to return biodiversity in urban areas. Below are a few ideas which could inform habitat-sensitive development:

As the schism between the developed world and nature grows, society must consider the unintended consequences on wildlife as we urbanize.
  • Bird collisions: As cities grow, so does the demand for glass—modernity’s “status symbol.” Unfortunately, this poses a challenge to wildlife as reflective glass is virtually invisible to birds. Since our most populous cities align with migratory paths, glass architecture causes millions of bird collisions and deaths annually. Some cities, however, are looking to reverse this trend. In 2011, San Francisco was the first city to require “bird-safe” buildings. Strategies such as limiting glazing proportions and technologies with embedded patterns invisible to us but visible to birds have reduced collisions.
  • Bird habitats: The swift population in the United Kingdom once had a symbiotic relationship with cities when all buildings had functional chimneys, providing nesting habitats during summers when not in use. However, since chimneys have gone out of fashion, the swift population has diminished. There are growing efforts across the UK to introduce faux-chimneys, nest boxes, and even buildings with specially designed nesting bricks to support swift habitats.
  • Bat habitats: While broadly losing habitat, some cities embrace bat culture. The bat population in Austin, Texas, is as famous as the 6th Street music scene. The Congress Avenue Bridge houses over 2 million bats, as its design is (unintentionally) perfect for these nocturnal creatures, providing cool, dark conditions. One of Austin’s major sunset attractions is to watch them leaving in a constant stream to begin their night’s forage. More infrastructure and buildings can be built to foster such symbiotic relationships.
  • Beekeeping: Bee populations are declining, and an alarming number of hives are subject to vandalism for unfathomable reasons. The Boston Seaport Hotel, steps from the rabbits, houses a rooftop beehive where honey produced is used in the restaurant. Urban beekeeping has been a growing trend around the country, providing a safe space for the bees, a benefit to humans, and a crucial element in the health of adjacent parks/green roofs.
  • Furry friends: Landscaping/green roofs offer habitat for myriad creatures; however, a problem arises due to the lack of connectivity between these amenities. Often, these habitats are too small to flourish, and non-winged animals can’t get between amenities without encountering automobiles. Creating “bridges” between these spaces could result in a new architectural aesthetic, offering larger habitats where greater populations can thrive. Imagine sitting at your cubicle watching a raccoon clambering up a bridge connecting the landscaping to the green roof?
  • Animals on the move: Our transportation network is responsible for countless animal fatalities. As connectivity increases, the space for wildlife diminishes. The Montana Department of Transportation worked with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on a highway widening project through their lands to create 41 fish and wildlife underpasses and overpasses. These connections establish spatial continuity for native animals, which has also proven to benefit humans by helping to avoid loss of life and property damage from animal collisions.

Example of integration of multiple strategies into the built environment for indoor and outdoor benefits and biophilia.

Reflections and projections

You may have guessed by now that I am an animal enthusiast. I’ve had the pleasure of living in many areas—rural, suburban, and urban—each existing within a spectrum of natural balance. From these diverse experiences, I’ve concluded that cities can do much more for wildlife to increase biodiversity, which reintroduces natural cycles, lowers urban temperatures, decreases runoff, cleans air, and benefits mankind psychologically. We also increase resiliency by making use of space at grade and along rooftops, providing food and insulation, among other benefits to all living things.

As we urbanize, it’s important to realize we too are part of nature. It’s our duty to take a stance. The ingenuity exists—we must be brave enough to use it.

  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
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