What Qualifies as Urban Habitat?
By: Megan Draheim
Most of the world’s human citizens now live in cities, and the percentage of people who do (as well as the percentage of urbanized land) is only going to grow. An awareness of urban biodiversity helps to dispel the myth that “nature” only happens away from the human-built environment. By that telling, humans are not part of nature, and this perspective has led to some of the most damaging environmental issues we’re currently facing. Understanding that humans are a part of the urban ecosystem, and that we affect the ecosystem just as it affects us, is an important step towards dismantling and replacing this mythology.
A Daily Dose of Nature
Cities are often thought of as a negative for the environment, but I actually think they’re a positive: cities allow people to live in less space per capita, use less energy and other resources, and have the potential to make more land available for wild spaces. I don’t mean to imply that cities are devoid of nature, however. In fact, many urban areas are brimming with biodiversity and nature-filled spaces. This is important not only because they can provide a safe haven for many species (yes, including some endangered species), protecting them from exurban sprawl and monoculture agriculture landscapes, but also because urban nature improves city dwellers’ quality of life.
Numerous studies have shown that access to nature is important for human health and well-being, and this is especially true in underserved communities, where access to nature is an environmental justice issue. Having greenspaces allows urban residents to learn about and appreciate the every-day nature around them, which is vital if we are to make larger environmental issues relevant to this growing segment of the population. Also, as much research has shown, people prefer to live in green areas, so if we’re going to encourage people to live more densely in cities we had better figure out ways to give them their daily dose of nature.
Apples and Oranges?
At the end of July, I travelled to Cartagena, Colombia, for the biennial International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB). This conference began in 1989, in the early years of the discipline, and is hosted by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), the global professional association for conservation biologists. I always enjoy attending this fun, informative, and useful conference, but this year was even better than usual. About a year and a half ago a small group of urban conservation professionals started the Urban Ecology Working Group (UEWG) within SCB. The ICCB was our first major event, and we had planned a busy week for ourselves.
The UEWG organized two symposia on urban conservation, along with social events, and a knowledge café where interested participants joined us to discuss urban conservation research needs. We had many stimulating conversations with colleagues from all over the world that added to everyone’s shared understanding of the state of urban conservation. We were able to make connections with other groups within SCB who have allied goals (for example, the new Participatory and Citizen Science Working Group), and we were able to share our own research to a global audience as well.
One of the presentations I co-authored with Lauren Bailey, MS asked a fairly basic question: How do we understand or define “urban” in the context of conservation research? This might seem like a no-brainer but it has been asked repeatedly and never fully answered or addressed. For example, what qualifies as urban? Mid-town Manhattan? Lower-density urban/suburban metropolitan areas like Austin, Texas? Large urban greenspaces (think Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.), or smaller “pocket” parks?
The answer, perhaps, is all of the above. But that response creates challenges from a research and practitioner perspective. What happens when you try to compare one study site with another when researchers are using different definitions of urban? How can we apply the lessons learned from research when study sites may be quite different from one another and still qualify as urban? Without mutual understanding of where reported work is taking place, we might not fully capture all important data, and there will be a disconnect between the science and practice of urban conservation, making an accurate translation of science into policy quite difficult. Finally, the lack of a broadly accepted definition of urban habitat also causes environmental justice issues, leaving some stakeholders out of the conversation
Lauren and I are our SCB colleagues are attempting to advance progress on this important issue by articulating a series of variables that could be used to describe any site, making comparisons between locations easier. We hope to get around the thorny question of “what qualifies as urban” by leaving it up to the researchers and practitioners to decide while still providing enough information to allow those reading their work to know whether those findings apply to their own sites (and if not, in what ways their sites might differ).
Urban Ecology Education
I grew up in large cities, watching and learning about our local wildlife, and I’ve spent most of my professional career on urban wildlife issues. That’s why I’m excited to continue collaborating with the UEWG to improve urban conservation research methods.
I’m also excited to be teaching a course on Urban Wildlife for Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources (MNR) Degree Program, based in the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). There aren’t many courses like this available, and the fact that it’s taught virtually makes it accessible to environmental professionals regardless of where they live and work. I see it as a unique opportunity to help the next generation of conservation and natural resource professionals learn about this important aspect of the field.
Dr. Megan Draheim is a faculty member in CLiGS’ MNR Degree Program, where she teaches Conservation Ecology, Urban Wildlife, and Human-Wildlife Conflict. She conducts research on urban wildlife and human-wildlife interactions, and is also a science communicator, frequently writing and finding other ways to reach the public about her subject areas. She blogs at Our Urban Jungle, you can follow her on Twitter @megandraheim, and you can learn more about her at MeganDraheim.com.