Study Records Biodiversity in Cities

ENVIRONMENT

A new study has found that cities supported far fewer species of birds and plants compared with similar areas of undeveloped land. However, it also showed the vast majority of flora and fauna in a city reflected an area’s “unique biotic heritage.” (BBC)

Use our resources to better understand biodiversity.

Although urban biodiversity is much, much lower than biodiversity in undeveloped areas, "green spaces" have been successful in conserving habitat for indigenous species. Here, a gorgeous hawk perches at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photograph by Derik Pinsonneault, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although urban biodiversity is much, much lower than biodiversity in undeveloped areas, “green spaces” have been successful in conserving habitat for indigenous species. Here, a gorgeous hawk perches at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in the great big urban area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Derik Pinsonneault, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Discussion Ideas

  • This fascinating new study has a “good news/bad news” quality. What is the surprising “good news” from the study? What is the not-so-surprising “bad news”?
    • Good News: Urban areas retain a surprising amount of indigenous bird and plant species. In fact, two cities in the study reported no exotic species in their bird inventory: Brussels, Belgium and Kolkota, India. (And the bird inventory in Kolkota cataloged 269 birds! India just has awesome wildlife.)
    • Bad News: Urban development destroys native habitat, and biodiversity is much, much lower in cities than undeveloped areas. According to the BBC article, “cities retained about just 8% of bird species and 25% of plant species of comparable undeveloped land.”
  • “Conserving green spaces, restoring natural plant species and adding biodiversity-friendly habitats within urban landscapes could . . . support more bird and plant species,” says one urban ecologist interviewed in the BBC article. Skim our article on urban planning. If you were an urban planner, where would you put a “green space” in your town? What if your town was a crowded, booming metropolis like Singapore (one of the cities studied in the BBC article)? What if your town was part of the American “Rust Belt,” where abandoned buildings and vacant lots dot the landscape?
    • According to our article, many urban planners are focusing on integrating different aspects of urban geography—making streets more friendly to bikes and pedestrians; planning mixed-use communities with residential, commercial, and office facilities; and allowing the development of urban agriculture in downtown areas. Parks, green spaces, and wildlife corridors might also be included in these mixed-use areas—a bike trail could cut through a bird habitat, for instance, or part of a community garden might be designated for native plant species.
    • Singapore: Well, Singapore just announced its new National Parks Board CEO, so it’s a good time to think about biodiversity and urban planning. “Let’s Make Singapore Our Garden” has been the motto of the organization for years, and the city has retained its biodiversity through careful planning of gardens at the individual, community, and regional level. Instead of one big park, Singapore’s urban planners have developed a series of smaller, more diverse, interconnected green spaces. Elevated corridors connect different parks, and green spaces (parks and gardens) have been incorporated in Singapore’s hilltop, seaside, and riparian (freshwater) habitats.
      • For a great example of someone taking a species inventory of an urban space similar to Singapore—a major urban area in tropical Asia—check out Young Explorer Laurel Chor’s work in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has protected 40% of its open space, and Chor’s Hong Kong Explorers Initiative “aims to create an online database of Hong Kong’s plants and animals, with a particular focus on endemic species, through crowd-sourcing.” Check out (and contribute!) to this great initiative at http://www.hkexplorers.org.
    • Rust Belt: Detroit, Michigan, has become the signature city for green urban planning in the Rust Belt. As one community group says, “Detroit has more vacant land than probably any other city in the United States. This gives us the opportunity to make Detroit a greener, healthier urban center.” “[R]educing stormwater runoff, cleaning toxic soil, and improving air quality” will help sustain more indigenous species, as well as improve real-estate values for Detroit residents. Detroit’s outline for green space may be the opposite of Singapore’s. Instead of a network of small parks and gardens, “A 140-Acre Forest Is About to Materialize in the Middle of Detroit.”

 

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