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The unappreciated urban wilds

Stories abound of biodiversity in cities, vegetated infrastructure, the psychological benefits of greenery. But one aspect of urban nature remains underappreciated: wildness.
July 5, 2017

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In many parts of the world, urban nature is experiencing a renaissance. Stories abound of biodiversity in cities, vegetated infrastructure, the psychological benefits of greenery. But one aspect of urban nature remains underappreciated: wildness. Places where nobody is telling nature what to do. Where it’s not landscaped or improved or turned to human ends. “There is not a lot of awareness of these wild spaces in cities,” says Dave Kendal, an ecologist at the University of Melbourne, “so hopefully this paper will raise awareness a bit more.”

The paper to which Kendal refers, published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening and co-authored with fellow Melbourne ecologist Caragh Threlfall, is a review of the ecological and social roles played by wildness in cities. The researchers make a crucial distinction between wilderness, which is a function of scale and by definition absent from cities, and wildness, which is defined by “an absence of ongoing human intervention” and the freedom of organisms to behave naturally. Remnant vegetation, abandoned lots and so-called wastelands, railway verges and large old trees and derelict land, ranging in size from a median strip’s scraps to thousands of post-industrial acres. These are wild, say Kendal and Threlfall, and they are vital.

They create connections between recognized nature-rich spaces, preventing habitat patches from becoming isolated islands. They can serve as refuges, providing resources — such as early- and late-season flowers for pollinators — absent from developed or heavily-managed landscapes. Their ad-hoc provenance, shaped by a city’s ongoing history of construction, demolition and abandonment, produces a mosaic of vegetation. They’re structurally complex and biologically diverse, containing species and features and processes — such as invertebrates in leaf litter, holes in trees, decomposing wood and so-called weeds — typically lost to the tidiness of management.

There are human aspects to wildness, too. Often they’re a source of recreation and, in regions where ‘nice’ nature is mostly reserved for affluent people, “constitute a large part of the green space available in some disadvantaged areas,” write Kendal and Threlfall. Whereas the messiness of wildness was once considered aesthetically unappealing, tastes are changing: people often prefer spontaneity to the meticulously shaped. Wild spaces in cities offer a deeper connection to nature and a conceptual lesson, too, allowing “children to imagine a world that is not ordered by adults.” These spaces, the researchers write, “will perhaps play an increasingly important role in the lived experience of children.”

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To top it off, wildness is usually quite cost-effective. After all, it requires leaving things alone. Maybe not completely — nobody should argue that cleaning up trash or reducing herbicide pollution constitutes intervention in nature’s spontaneity — but at least mostly. Yet urban wildness goes largely ignored. Despite the benefits, it’s unacknowledged in official planning or seen as a blank space open for gardens or parks or new construction. “Threats mostly come from development, improvement or management,” says Kendal. “People not realizing that these wild spaces can be important.”

“Innovation is required to foster and protect wild spaces in cities,” he continues. And therein lies an apparent paradox: urban wildness will need to be planned in order to truly flourish. Some cities, especially in western Europe, have already started to do this, and it could become even more pronounced as people become more open-minded and mutualistic in their regard for nature. “This is as much a change in the way we think about nature as the way we manage cities,” Kendal says. “I see a future where we alow lots of places, including cities, to be wild.”

Source: Kendal, Dave and Caragh G. Threlfall. “The distinct ecological and social roles that wild spaces play in urban ecosystems.” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2017.
Image: Brandon Keim

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