Making urban ecology count

One day in 2008, somebody, somewhere, packed their bags to move from the countryside to the city, and we became a majority urban world. With 54% of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities have become the site of most people’s daily interactions with plants, animals and ecosystems, and as such the science of urban ecology, and its application, is assuming ever-more relevance to people’s lives.

In the recent Ecological Reviews volume on the topic, Kevin Gaston argues that urban ecology has “come of age” at the start of the 21st century, as ecologists and others have moved away from the assumption of cities as ecological wastelands, towards a deeper understanding of the richness of urban ecosystems, their unique properties, and the benefits they deliver for people.  Urban ecology has a vital role to play in tackling the ‘wicked problem’ of urban environmental management, demanding an interdisciplinary approach to understanding combined socio-ecological systems.

“Making London Nature Smart”

There are few places where the challenge and potential of delivering urban spaces that work for both people and wildlife is more apparent than in London. The largest city in Western Europe, with a growing population of over 8.3 million, London is also 47% green space, home to over 13,000 recorded species and 1574 sites of nature conservation interest. Could London be a world leader in urban nature conservation?

That was the topic for discussion at the recent Making London Nature Smart symposium, hosted by the Zoological Society of London, and in many ways, the day’s discussions demonstrated that the city is already leading the way. Pioneering organisations such as the London Wildlife Trust have long spearheaded efforts to protect the city’s green spaces and engage its diverse communities, and new technologies for monitoring biodiversity whilst involving citizens in the process are perfectly suited to a global city with an educated populace, access to technology and ample opportunities for collaboration. Presentations throughout the day showcased impressive examples of urban ecology in action, from innovative corporate partnerships delivering biodiversity positive developments, to new methodologies for effectively monitoring invasive species.

While the range of initiatives taking place across London – led by researchers, NGOs, volunteers, businesses and government – was demonstrably impressive, one key message from the symposium was that joining up these projects into a strategic, coherent whole represented an ongoing challenge. One compelling vision for how this might be achieved was presented at the symposium in the form of the Greater London National Park City. Presented by Daniel Raven-Ellison, the vision of the National Park City campaign is to apply the principles of the UK’s national parks – conserving and enhancing natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, whilst promoting the enjoyment of the park’s special qualities by the public – to London. The proposal, which does not suggest additional planning powers, but would provide a focal point and organising principle for activity across the city, has already received support from mayoral candidates Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan ahead of next year’s election.

Thinking local

When we talk about interactions between science and policy, we tend to think first of the national or international scale: Westminster, Whitehall, Holyrood, Brussels. Yet when it comes to urban ecology, the majority of decisions that determine vital issues such as spatial planning, site protection and green infrastructure, are taken at the city, or in the case of London, the borough, scale. However, a recent report commissioned by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts found that many local authorities in England lack a coherent approach to biodiversity within their local planning strategies. As the Association of Local Government Ecologists has reported, approximately two-thirds of local authorities do not have in-house ecological expertise, and against a backdrop of continuing budget cuts, this capacity will continue to be squeezed.

At the Making London Nature Smart symposium, it was noted that few local government officials were in attendance; there appears to be a clear need to build better connections between ecological scientists and policy-makers at this scale. As urban ecology continues to mature, these links will be vital if this growing knowledge base is to make a real difference to all city inhabitants – human or otherwise.