Reframing our Relationship with Nature: The Case of Urban Rewilding

Words by Simone van Nieuwkoop and art by Holly Brown

In cities around the world, the nature of life has largely been shaped around human convenience. From busy highways to towering skyscrapers, cities tend to be viewed as human creations that have overpowered nature. This idea that cities are just human habitations, however, has come at a huge environmental cost. Rising air pollution, increased waste, traffic noise, urban overheating, and poor water quality are just a few issues that have been born out of poor urban design. With around 70% of the global population predicted to live in cities by 2050, it is crucial we shift away from the concept of ‘human-centered’ cities and find ways to reintegrate the natural world within our urban landscapes.

For most city dwellers, nature has largely been externalized: it is something we can choose to engage with rather than succumb to throughout our daily lives. While much research has stressed the importance of spending time in nature, green spaces are typically hard to come by in urban settings. With the rise of urban rewilding, however, some cities are beginning to reintroduce nature back in. Working to restore the fundamental balance between humans and wildlife, urban rewilding projects can range from building small bat boxes and insect hotels to constructing massive urban forests. No matter how small or wide-scaled a project is, though, rewilding can transform our cities into cleaner, greener, and healthier environments for people, plants, and animals alike.

From an ecological perspective, rewilding offers a multitude of benefits. In Milan, for instance, the Bosco Verticale, or “Vertical Forest”, has served as a “home for trees that also houses humans and birds” since 2014. Comprised of two towers, this urban forest currently holds 800 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 15,000 perennial and covering plants. The design of the towers, characterized by their large, overhanging balconies, allows the trees to grow without hindrance – with some extending over three floors of the building. Particularly given the ‘urban heat island’ effect, extra greenery provides much-needed shading and cooling in the area. With plants thriving in this Vertical Forest, it also comes as no surprise that the amount of wildlife in the city has since increased, with about 1,600 species of birds and butterflies now inhabiting the area. A clear success, the Vertical Forest has expanded beyond Milan’s borders, with the project’s lead architect Stefano Boeri working on similar projects in Antwerp, Belgium, as well as Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Outside Europe, Singapore has displayed incredible rewilding success. Through strong government support, the city’s Green Plan has laid out steps needed to achieve greater sustainability by 2030. Among its many objectives, the plan crucially aims to set aside 50% more land – around 200 hectares – for natural space, with the goal of positioning every household within a 10-minute walk of a park. On top of this, the government plans to double the city’s annual tree planting rate, planting 1 million more trees across the island which will, in turn, absorb an estimated 78,000 tonnes of CO2. And it doesn’t stop there: the city’s iconic “Supertrees” contain over 150,000 diverse plants and are able to filter rainwater, generate solar power, and provide shade. The city has also incorporated 150-kilometers of “Nature Ways”, which act as green corridors allowing animals to move with relative ease across the city. Through this interconnected green space, consequently, native wildlife – from otters, hornbills, and mousedeers – have steadily begun to return to the city. To avoid potential future conflict with these species, the government has even devised plans to work alongside communities and NGOs to develop programmes aimed at fostering harmonious relationships between humans and newly-integrated wildlife.

Aside from boosting biodiversity and sequestering carbon, urban rewilding has the potential to mitigate natural disaster impacts as well by restoring natural processes. Extreme precipitation patterns, for instance, have subjected many cities to more intense and/or frequent flooding. One of the many consequences of climate change, abnormal floods not only threaten city infrastructure but its inhabitants as well. As many city stormwater systems are not built with the capacity to manage the amount of rain experienced nowadays, “stormwater parks” are steadily popping up across the globe. To mimic the natural processes of managing rainwater, several flood-prone cities, such as Harbin City in China, are beginning to use different soils and plants to hold and filter stormwater before it reaches waterways. In acting as a natural sponge, these urban parks essentially reduce runoff whilst preventing severe flood damage.

As if the environmental benefits of urban rewilding are not enough, the positive effects directly extend to humans as well. In fact, a study carried out in 2019 found that spending more than two hours a week in green urban spaces was associated with better overall health and well-being. Specifically, the studied populations were found to have lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and mortality. In children, furthermore, better cognitive development was discovered to be closely linked with greater quantities of urban nature. In addition to the physical health advantages, urban rewilding presents a range of mental health benefits as well. According to several studies, exposure to natural spaces or greenery has been shown to stimulate calmness and enhance mood. Particularly amidst the current pandemic, simple access to nature can ease much of the mental distress brought on by ongoing restrictions – something which many of us can attest to.  

Despite the benefits, however, obstacles to urban rewilding remain. While some parts of the world have experienced enormous success, urban rewilding is still a fairly new concept, and efforts from policymakers are generally lacking. This is in large part due to continued development pressure fueled by companies whose interests tend to prioritize the commercial value of land, as opposed to the environmental value.  This is especially the case across the Global South, where rapid population growth is fueling relentless urban expansion.

Considering the challenges, it is therefore vital that we as a collective drive the urban rewilding movement forward. While many modern examples of urban rewilding tend to showcase large, complex projects, such as that in Singapore, support from the individual level must not be overlooked. Perhaps most simply, people can help reintroduce wildlife into cities by growing pollinator-friendly plants in back gardens, front yards, or really any available green space. To attract and accommodate specific urban animals, moreover, individuals can help by constructing bird boxes, frog houses, and insect hotels. To take it a step even further, a range of different species can be housed through the development of mini-meadows, hedgerows, or window boxes. Just here in St Andrews, for instance, the Urban Meadows for Pollinators Project has plans to transform lawns into biodiverse meadows, making the university campus a more pollinator-friendly environment for insects, birds, hedgehogs, and bats. 

Of course, while individual action is certainly crucial in the urban rewilding movement, it is ultimately up to policymakers to implement the long-lasting changes needed to permanently bring nature back into our cities. Whether that be through educating the public about the benefits of rewilding, or forcing businesses to align with rewilding goals, action at the policy-level is critical to achieving sustainable change. 

Although adapting our cities is a small part of the wider rewilding movement, urban environments are certainly a key area of focus nowadays. With urban sprawl only continuing to rise amidst rapid population growth, urban rewilding presents itself as a viable solution to make our cities more resilient, particularly in the face of climate change. Over the long-term, moreover, continued rewilding efforts will bridge the gap between humans and wildlife, helping ease the current biodiversity crisis and fostering a greater appreciation for nature. While noticeable steps are being taken to cultivate ecologically rich urban environments, it will likely take some time to shift out of the mindset of needing to completely manage nature in cities. In the meantime, however, it is crucial that urban rewilding goals are supported on a government and individual level so that we can transition to having cleaner, wilder, and truly sustainable cities. 

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