Faced with threats to flora and fauna, they ask to “rewild” cities

In a busy metropolitan area of ​​4.3 million people, Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris ventures into isolated bushland to study Detroit’s most elusive denizens: coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and more. .

Over the past five years, Harris and his colleagues have placed tracking video cameras in wooded areas of 25 city parks. They have recorded thousands of images of animals that come out mostly at night to explore and search for food, revealing a wild side that many residents are unaware of.

“We are increasingly exposed to wildlife in urban settings,” Harris said recently while reviewing several of the devices attached to trees with steel cables and close to the ground. “As we change their habitats, as we expand our urbanization footprint…we will be in more and more contact with them.”

Animal and plant species are dying at an alarming rate, with up to 1 million threatened with extinction, according to a 2019 United Nations report. Their plight is prompting calls to “rewild” the places where they thrived until driven out. by urban development, pollution and climate change.

Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded places, sometimes with a helping hand. That could mean removing prey, tunneling to reconnect migration routes cut off by roads, or reintroducing predators like wolves to help balance ecosystems. After the initial assists, there is little human intervention.

The idea might seem more suitable for remote areas where nature is freer to heal without interference, but rewilding is also happening in some of the world’s largest urban centers, as people find mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature. .

The US Forest Service estimates that 6,000 acres (2,430 hectares) of open space are lost daily as cities and suburbs expand. More than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, says the UN.

“Climate change is coming, and we are facing an equally significant biodiversity crisis,” warned Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL, for its acronym in English). “There is no better place to engage people in these issues than in cities.”

In a September report, the ZSL highlighted rewilding in metropolises like Singapore, where a 2.7-kilometre (1.7-mile) stretch of the Kallang River was converted from a concrete channel into a winding channel lined with plants, rocks and other natural materials and flanked by green areas.

Treating urban rivers as natural waters rather than drainage ditches can boost fish numbers and allow adjacent land to absorb flooding as global warming brings more extreme weather, the report added.

The German cities of Hannover, Frankfurt, and Dessau-Rosslau designated vacant lots, parks, grassy areas, and urban waterways as places where nature could take its course. As the native wildflowers bloomed, they attracted birds, butterflies, bees, and even hedgehogs.

Describing the UK as “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced last year a plan to fund 45 urban rewilding projects to improve stag beetle habitat, aquatic voles and birds such as swifts and sparrows.

In the north London district of Enfield, two beavers were released in March, 400 years after the species was hunted to extinction in Britain, in the hope that their dams would prevent flash floods. One of the beavers died, but it will be replaced.

The Chicago Shedd Aquarium and the nonprofit Urban Rivers are installing “floating wetlands” on part of the Chicago River to provide fish breeding grounds, bird and pollinator habitats, and root systems that clean the water. contaminated.

Urban regrowth cannot and does not try to return landscapes to times before human settlement, said Marie Law Adams, an associate professor of architecture at Northeastern University.

Instead, their goal is to encourage natural processes that benefit both people and wildlife, by increasing the canopy on trees to ease the summer heat, store carbon, and house more animals. Or install surface channels called “bio-swales” (bio-dumps) that filter stormwater that collects parking lots instead of letting it pollute streams.

“We need to learn from the mistakes of the mid-20th century: paving over everything, designing everything with gray infrastructure,” like dams and pipelines, Adams added.

The growing Detroit metropolitan area illustrates how human actions can drive rewilding, intentionally or not.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and other structures were abandoned as the city’s beleaguered population fell by more than 60% from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s. Many buildings were razed, leaving vacant land that has reoccupied plants and animals. Several nonprofit groups have planted trees, created community gardens, and planted pollinator-friendly shrubs.

Conservation projects reintroduced ospreys and peregrine falcons. Bald eagles found their way back when bans on DDT and other pesticides helped expand their range across the United States. Anti-pollution laws and government-funded cleanup efforts have made nearby rivers more hospitable to sturgeon, whitefish, beavers and native plants such as wild celery.

“Detroit is a stellar example of urban rewilding,” says John Hartig, a lake scientist at the nearby University of Windsor and former head of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “It has been more organic than strategic. We created the conditions, things improved environmentally, and native species returned.”

The refuge, a half-hour’s drive from the city center, consists of 30 parcels totaling 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres), including islands, wetlands and former industrial sites. It is home to 300 species of birds and a popular stopover for ducks, birds of prey and others during their migration, manager Dan Kennedy explained.

For Harris, the biologist at Yale School of the Environment and formerly at the University of Michigan, Detroit offers a unique backdrop for studying wildlife in urban settings.

Unlike most large cities, Detroit’s human population is declining, though its streets, buildings, and infrastructure remain largely intact. And there’s a diverse habitat: from large lakes and rivers to neighborhoods, some busy, some largely deserted, and parks so quiet “you don’t even know you’re in the city,” Harris said as he changed the camera’s batteries and shot notes in a wooded section of O’Hair Park.

His team’s photographic observations have produced published studies of how mammals react to each other and to people in urban settings.

The project connects them with local residents, some intrigued by the presence of coyotes and raccoons in the neighborhood, others fearful that they will spread disease or harm their pets.

It’s an educational opportunity, Harris says, on issues like proper garbage disposal, resisting the temptation to feed wildlife and the value of healthy and diverse ecosystems.

“Before, you had to go to some remote place to be in nature,” added Harris, a Philadelphia native who reacted excitedly as a child to the occasional sight of a squirrel or deer. “Now that is not the case. Like it or not, rewilding will occur. The question is, how can we prepare communities, environments and societies to anticipate the presence of more and more wildlife?

Rewilding can be a hard sell to people who prefer their lawns well-cut and who think ecologically rich systems look overgrown or unkempt and should be used to build homes.

But rewilding advocates say it’s not just about animals and plants. Studies show that the time people spend in natural spaces improves their physical and mental health.

“Many city people have lost their tolerance for living with wildlife,” says Pettorelli, from the ZSL. “There is a lot to relearn. To truly address the biodiversity crisis, people need to get involved.”


John Flesher is on Twitter as: @JohnFlesher


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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