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What would a truly nature-friendly city be like?

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
6 min read
What would a truly nature-friendly city be like?
One of the Bosco Verticale towers in Milan. Credit: © Boeri Studio.

In the city of Milan, Italy, two tower blocks garlanded with greenery rise from their surroundings. The firm that designed these buildings, Boeri Studio, christened them the Bosco Verticale, or “vertical forest” – a demonstration of how urban structures could be much greener than we might expect.

Crammed onto the towers’ balconies are 800 trees, 15,000 perennial plants and 5,000 shrubs, which provide habitats for insects and birds. The vegetation even helps to regulate the climate around the residential dwellings, Boeri Studio says.

Ever since it opened in 2014, the Bosco Verticale has represented an alternative vision for high-rises of the future.

Instead of clearing greenery away so that concrete and steel can take over, the urban landscape could instead be married to nature. In principle, I love this idea because it suggests we might totally rejig our understanding of what a city is like. What a city even is.

The fantasy is thus: human settlements need not be diametrically opposed to nature. Just imagine plants and animals surrounding you, even in the heart of a bustling metropolis.

Urban planners are thinking about how to bring green space into cities. Utrecht, in The Netherlands, for example, is soon to become home to its own version of the Bosco Verticale. City authorities are also planning to cap rooftops with mosses and plants, after successfully bringing flora to the canopies of more than 300 bus shelters.

But do interventions like this actually help wildlife? Can a few extra shrubs really tilt the balance in the battle for biodiversity or do they just make urban environments look more nature-friendly?

That’s what I want to find out.

Purple flowers grow on a university roof building, with tower blocks visible in the distance.
A roof garden at Ohio State University. Credit: Dan Keck.

In Berlin, authorities have installed multiple urban meadows around the city at a cost of €1.5m. Bees now flock to these sites, apparently. The planners, somewhat ingeniously, relied on “Akzeptanzpflanzen” (plants that people like or accept) including poppies, to endear the meadows to locals.

These wildlife gardens may be artificially sculpted, and come replete with a PR campaign, but anything that benefits bees is arguably worthwhile right now.

The thing is, the meadows alone don’t solve the bigger problem facing pollinators, as The Guardian reported this weekend:

“Christian Schmid-Egger, who coordinates Berlin’s wildflower meadows on behalf of the German Wildlife Foundation, said any conservation effort would ultimate [sic] require broader changes in agricultural practices.”

And, as researchers have noted, some classic “green” spaces in cities are not actually very biodiverse. Park lawns, for example gobble up water and are notoriously “species-poor”, especially when mowed frequently. Even those green roofs, which currently seem all the rage, might not always benefit wildlife as much as hoped.

A 2017 study that examined the issue of urban green space and biodiversity argued that, because "living roofs" are potentially exposed to high levels of solar radiation, and can be hard for animals to reach, they "may result in the creation of urban green space devoid of biodiversity, or worse, [function] as ecological traps attracting local taxa to a difficult environment".

A kestrel pictured perched on a wooden post at Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. Buildings in the distance.
A not-very-sharp picture I took of a kestrel at Berlin's Tempelhofer Feld in 2019. Credit: Chris Baraniuk

The smallest green spaces might be little more than tokenistic. Another study, from 2016, assessed the biodiversity of various parks in the city of Xalapa-Enríquez, Mexico. The authors found the richest collection of species in the largest park, while the smallest park had the lowest richness.

But there's another way to look at all this. It's a basic truth that metropolitan greenery can sometimes have surprising benefits for wildlife, says Marcus Collier at Trinity College Dublin, who is currently studying how humans relate to urban green spaces. "Unmanaged urban spaces may be as valuable as wildlife reserves for some species," he says.

And some places re-greened via interventions such as living rooftops could still become “repositories” for biodiversity, he adds.

In the end, it may all come down to the appropriateness of each specific green space and how easy it is for wildlife to colonise it. Urban nature islands, or islets, should probably not be thought of as like-for-like substitutes for nature outside the city, but rather something more like lifeboats, where wildlife can cling on while we – hopefully – save the rest of the planet.

In the case of the Bosco Verticale, Boeri Studio says there have been measurable benefits for local species: “A few years after its construction, the Vertical Forest has given birth to a habitat colonised by numerous animal species (including about 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies), establishing an outpost of spontaneous flora and fauna recolonisation in the city.”

That's a good word for these projects, actually: "outpost".

For another example, look no further than the story that broke last week about the rare orchid found growing in the rooftop garden of a Japanese investment bank in London. The flower has not turned up in the UK since 1989 and the ecologist who manages the garden told the BBC that it might have reached the top of the 11-storey building after its seeds blew across the English Channel on the wind.

Suburban homes are viewed directly from above, showing their roofs and gardens.
Credit: Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.

The orchid story might not develop beyond an anecdote, but it is a powerful one. It could even help to change people’s perceptions of cities. They’re not necessarily just impositions on nature, they’re places that are ripe for bringing nature back, at least in part.

At a fundamental level, cities will always place huge pressure on wildlife. As will human civilisation, given the size and demands of our global population. But since we are here, and so are cities, the best we can do for now, perhaps, is to think about how we might better weave our settlements together with wildlife.

Maybe you have even more radical ideas for how to establish a "city of nature". What are they? Get in touch and tell me!

By prioritising biodiversity as we go, we’ll hopefully avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing and come up with parks, gardens, tower blocks, rooftops and reserves that soften cities, invigorate people, and welcome nature back to places where it, not us, was once in charge.

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A thing I’m planning to cover in this newsletter soon is how human language is full of rich references to nature – including our many different formal and informal names for living things and outdoor places. I heartily recommend this article in The Conversation by Andrew Gosler, at the University of Oxford, on the thousands of words for birds you might hear in various corners of the UK and Ireland.

“In the English language alone, more than 7,000 names have been recorded for some 150 bird species in the British Isles, with yet more in Scottish Gàidhlig, Irish Gaeilge, Welsh Cymraeg and Cornish Kernewek.”

It reminds me of this great piece published by Hakai Magazine back in March, about the multitudinous Irish words associated with the sea. The article features comments from the writer Manchán Magan, whose book, by the way, is titled, Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape.

An outdoor installation by Edmund de Waal of stone benches in a garden, with trees to the rear.
Credit: © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy: New Art Centre, Wiltshire.

The Financial Times ran a very interesting feature last week on outdoor art installations, which fascinated me. The piece mentioned various examples, including the (pictured) work of Edmund de Waal at the New Art Centre in Wiltshire.

But should nature be admired alongside human-made objects or landscaping? As Miles Richardson of Derby University told the newspaper, outdoor art could help to engage people in nature:

“It acts as a provocation or a prompt. It makes you pause. You notice, and appreciate.”

Perhaps that will be one consequence of the carved tree stumps by Shropshire-based artist Joffrey Watson (known as "The Chainsaw Bloke"), who was featured in the Shropshire Star this week.

Finally, you simply must read this piece from Inkcap Journal about the hillwalking group for Black men in Sheffield that inspired the play Black Men Walking. It’s a challenge to the racism that ethnic minorities face in the English countryside today, and an exploration of how Black people have, in fact, walked through that very same land for centuries.


Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.