Artificionaturality: why build parks when you can build ecosystems?
The other day an acquaintance was asking whether we had spotted some green parrots in the city he had never seen before. As he was enthusiastically describing the little birds he had seen, I realized I had seen those plenty of times in Barcelona long time ago.
These parrots, called Monk parakeets, come originally from South America but can be now found pretty much anywhere in Southern Europe and in the US (if you’ve seen them, let me know in the comments below). These are feral animals i.e. wildlife animals that descend from once domesticated specimens. He obviously did not know this, and when I told him, to my surprise, his reaction was: “Well, it’s good to see animals in the cities” and that got me thinking…
While introduced species are generally regarded as invasive and harmful for the existing ecosystem, this might not the case for urban areas. After all, what ecosystem is there to disrupt in a city? Instead, why not taking advantage of this serendipitous wildlife adaption to try to bring back nature into the urban habitat? It is now well known that natural environments improve cognitive performance and help reduce levels of stress and anxiety, among other benefits [1,2,3], so by bridging the gap between urban and natural habitats, we might make our cities a more comfortable place to live in.
Yet when trying to bring back nature into our cities, we tend to think about planting some trees or building a soulless park, where grass is cut short to keep insects at bay. But what if we could change entirely the way we think about reintroducing nature in our cities? What if instead of parks, that merely focus on reintroducing vegetation, we could build entire self-sustained ecosystems within the city? What if we could engineer nature, to design perfectly balanced ecosystems, much like the EcoSphere licensed by NASA? Imagine the feeling of entering a city park and seeing all sorts of animals roaming around you. This concept of creating pockets of nature-like environments inside cities is what I call artificionaturality.
In this regard, one city I find particularly extraordinary where wildlife adaption has occurred both spontaneously and artificially, is Amsterdam, where one can find animals such as swans and grey herons adapted to the city lifestyle. Much of this is thanks to the variety of natural elements present throughout the city, such as the canals, and the reduced number of cars in circulation as a result of the bike-friendly city planning.
But perhaps more astonishing is the biodiversity explosion one can find in the Oosterpark. Ponds and canals fuse with all sort of trees that are host to a plethora of birds such as white storks, starlings, ducks, robins, coots and others. One can see them eating grass, bathing, mating and being territorial, much like in the wild. Surprisingly, one can also find non-indigenous species such as Egyptian geese and funnily enough, rose-ringed parakeets (yes, African and South Asian species introduced in 1980).
Another example, perhaps much closer to the concept of artificionaturality, can be found in the city of Nara in Japan. Nara is home to 1200 wild sika deer that roam around freely in the city and in the Nara park. Natural and urban elements blend perfectly to allow these deer and humans to cohabit in a healthy balance. Deer will eat varieties of plants and grass but one can also buy some sika senbei or “deer crackers” to feed them, produced by the Foundation for the Protection of Deer to ensure that their ingredients are actually good for them. The nearly constant presence of wildlife makes visiting Nara feel more like a walk in the woods, rather than a city sightseeing.
So this begs the question, what if the future lies precisely in purposely introducing species that adapt to the new artificial environment that has been created in a city? According to the UN, 66% of the population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, and with the increasing pace at which rain-forest are disappearing, experiencing pristine ecosystems could become a rare opportunity. By effectively recreating these ecosystems in our cities, we can offer easy access to natural environments, creating anxiety-reducing artificionatural pockets where to escape the lifeless and stressing urban habitat, improving the quality of life of our cities. And for this, urban planning should aim to bridge the gap between cities and natural habitats by smartly reintroducing what was removed in the first place: nature.
(For all biologists out there, please don’t bash me in the comments section)