Cities are the next frontier for biodiversity conservation

Cities are the next frontier for
biodiversity conservation

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Cities are the next frontier for biodiversity conservation

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Nina-Marie E. Lister, Graduate Program Director & Associate Professor, Director, Ecological Design Lab,
School of Urban + Regional Planning, Ryerson University

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 2.4

(Re) position conservation as an urban initiative and challenge. Develop communication, language and strategic collaborations and partnerships as well as policies focused on the urban population for support, engagement, education and ultimately valuing and protecting biodiversity.

Humans are an urban species. For the first time in our history, more than half the world’s almost 8 billion humans now live in urban settlements. We have become the single dominant species shaping the planet, from its surface lands and waters to its climate, and by extension, to the future of all other species on earth. As the primary agents of change in the Anthropocene epoch, humans—and our settlement patterns—will decide the future of the planet. This is a critical time for decisions, as most of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are on a direct collision course with urban growth and the worlds’ largest cities (see e.g. Richard Weller’s Atlas for the End of the World). As such, the urban landscape may be the only landscape our children will ever know.

Paris animal mural by Ruben Carrasco
Paris mural by Ruben Carrasco. Photo by Nina-Marie E. Lister.

How will our urban children understand, appreciate and protect the nature that sustains us?

The urban generation poses a new frontier for biodiversity conservation, which has historically been focused on ideas of pristine nature in wild landscapes. The conservation movement, from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is still largely synonymous with ideas of wilderness and the protection of nature as apart from humans, although that too, is changing with a better understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of humans and nature. We now know that humans have always been a part of nature and must be included for any plan for its effective protection, conservation and a sustainable future for the planet—and this is especially important given the rapid and related pace of urbanization and biodiversity loss. North American organisations such as Yellowstone to Yukon for example, have built extensive partnerships across states, provinces and countries to build community-based collaborative approaches to the conservation of whole ecosystems and associated human activities.

But cities are the next frontier for conservation. Policies and targets for biodiversity protection vary widely, from the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity goal of 17% by 2020 to ecologist E.O. Wilson’s ambitious “Half-Nature” movement to protect 50% of the world’s natural landscapes from development. But these targets are blunt instruments; they will not succeed unless brought into our urban areas with the full participation of city dwellers. As the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report reveals the extent of biodiversity loss and outlines a dire forecast for the next decade, we must find ways to reveal, encourage and protect urban nature. Both the United Nations and the IUCN have recently recognized the importance of urban biodiversity on an urbanizing planet: the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) Cities Biodiversity Project and the IUCN Urban Nature Alliance are working to connect cities around the world with conservation support through science and strategies for communications, education and local action. The Nature Conservancy also has a specific program targeted to private-public partnerships to protect biodiversity in cities.

Coyote pups at Toronto Golf Course
Coyote pups at Toronto golf course. Image by Matthew Lister.

What can cities do to encourage and support urban biodiversity?

Ryerson green roof
Andrew and Valerie Pringle Environmental Green Roof at Ryerson University in Toronto. Photo by Nina-Marie E. Lister

We need to make nature legible, meaningful and valued if we are to be successful in conservation, care and stewardship. Novel and hybrid ecosystems, and new relationships with nature will inevitably emerge from our urbanizing landscapes—through urban gardens and rooftops, to food forests and naturalized waterfronts and ravines. Parks will become active infrastructural investments: performative landscapes for stormwater infiltration and food production, co-mingled places for respite and recreation, food and foraging, pollination pathways and shade gardens for heat reduction. Cities around the world are undertaking these and other greenspace planning and design strategies for biodiversity in urban areas.

The Biophilic Cities Network features many of these, advocating and sharing green infrastructure projects to advance nature-based solutions. For example, the City of Toronto’s Green Roof By-Law was the first in North America to require mandatory green roofs on commercial and institutional buildings. This was a first-step in providing specific urban planning and design guidelines that foster, support and require green infrastructure or nature-based urban investments for biodiversity. This innovation led the way for others: Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Design Guidelines, the Pollinator Strategy, and now, the Biodiversity Strategy go further in providing biodiversity-supportive urban design strategies and interventions.

What’s next? Scaling up initiatives and connecting our landscapes

From the local to the global, we need strategies to connect our wild places into and through our cities, to engage the public imagination and to empower action. From restoration sites to rewilding initiatives, from greenways to green infrastructure, we must engage in nothing less than a planetary strategy of landscape connectivity and collaboration. Designing and re-making connections between remnant wild fragments will become paramount, from the “mongrel places”† of the in-between, to novel and hybrid ecosystems, to agricultural working lands, to reserves for hunting and harvesting, and even derelict places of urban decay: together these landscapes will form the mosaic for the next wave of conservation.

Two men standing outside of Evergreen Brickworks
"Watershed Consciousness", by Ferruccio Sardella, a living art-map of the watersheds of Toronto at Evergreen Brick Works, photo by Nina-Marie E. Lister

In the Anthropocene, there is no way to which we retreat, no pristine place unaffected by human hands. Rather, we need nature-based solutions through green infrastructure in all our city planning and design for the full spectrum of landscapes from urban to sub-urban to rural to wilderness. Our wilderness may be left in fragments, but nature can still be found, nurtured and protected in the refuges and the in-between places of our cities. Investing in biodiversity through a connected system of parks and greenspace—green infrastructure—is critical to planning and designing resilient cities and a sustainable future.

† Richard Weller’s term, elaborated in “World Park”, LA+ WILD Vol. 1(1:10-19), 2014.

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for bi-weekly posts exploring each action.

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