Nature in a Dynamic World

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

Cities represent unique landscapes experiencing rapid and continuous transformation. Cities also represent the most domesticated landscapes on earth (Kareiva et. al., 2007) where every element of the environment has been tailored to suit man’s desires. As a matter of fact, many scientists have said that we now live in the era of the Anthropocene, where humans dominate, influence and manipulate almost everything on the planet. And as I write this sentence, I am almost instantly reminded of the story of the Middle East, where super-fast urbanism has given rise to ‘instant’ cities – cities that have not gone through the long process of evolution, but that which have developed and modernized in a very short span of time (Bagaeen, 2007). The creation of massive artificial islands, consisting of residential towers, luxury hotels, malls and other modern establishments, is testament to the rapid transformation taking place in the cities of the Middle East. Transformations such as these are the hallmark of urban landscapes, where the influence of man on nature is unprecedented.

Dubai’s Palm Island is a testament to the immense ability of human-beings to manipulate nature. Image by Jason Mrachina

Yet, along with these intended transformations that have made the city the epitome of development and modernity, there have also been other unintended results. Nature in the city has taken a whole new meaning in the 21st Century. As Peter Kareiva and his colleagues rightly point out, humans have domesticated not just a few animals, but have domesticated vast landscapes and entire ecosystems (Kareiva et al., 2007). Developmental activities associated with urbanization, along with the continuous influx of people in the city, have induced a whole new set of challenges that have transformed the character of ecosystems in the urban, shaping them into unique ecosystems unlike any other in the world.

Central Park in New York, USA is one of the best examples of an urban ecosystem situated in the midst of a world-class city. Image by Anthony Quintano

More than half of the world is already urban, and according to the United Nations, two-thirds (66 per cent) of the world is expected to be urban by 2050 (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014). What this then means is that, as urbanization increases, cities are going to become increasingly important for a variety of reasons. There is likely to be a huge change in the way resources are extracted, and benefits are distributed among the citizens of this new, highly urbanized world. Priorities will be channelled in such a way so as to ensure the larger good of all. For instance, by 2050, nearly 90 per cent of the increase in urban population will be concentrated in Asia and Africa – two continents where a majority of the countries are still on the road to development. It is expected that much of their focus will probably be on creating modern infrastructure, providing adequate housing, eradicating poverty, and ensuring that they catch up with western standards of living.

Interestingly, a vast number of conservation programmes are also situated in the developing countries of these two continents. Large swaths of land running into thousands of square kilometres have been fenced and set aside for conservation priorities, in particular, for the conservation of several species of endangered plants and animals. Biodiversity Hotspots, for instance, represent those areas having exceptional concentrations of endemic species and experiencing exceptional loss of habitat (Myers et. al., 2000). As can be seen in the map below, a majority of the Biodiversity Hotspots are situated in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Latin Americas.

Biodiversity Hotspots of the World. Map by Conservation International

In a world that is urbanising at such a rapid pace, what is the role and place of nature in the city? As stated previously, urban ecosystems are the new age ecosystems that have been largely shaped by human interventions, thereby setting them apart from the other, more natural ecosystems. Urban ecosystems are highly modified systems with novel combinations of ecological stresses, disturbances, structures and functions (Pickett et al., 1997). Yet, they continue to remain similar to their non-urban counterparts in that they provide essential ecosystem services such as air purification, regulation of ambient temperature, absorption of noise pollution, carbon sequestration, and so on. What is also interesting is that the modified character of urban ecosystems means that they support a variety of floral and faunal elements that have carved out unique niches for themselves and made the city their abode4.

While natural ecosystems may continue to exist, urban ecosystems are becoming increasingly relevant in recent times. Is it perhaps time for a shift in the way we look at nature, species and ecosystems? Should we begin to pay more attention to unique and novel ecosystems like the ones that exist in the city? Chief scientist and Vice President of The Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, has been seemingly bold in some of his writings, calling for a change in the mind-set of conservationists around the world. In the words of Peter Kareiva, “…conservation that is only about fences, limits, and faraway places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition.”  According to him, 21st Century conservationists must become more people-friendly and pay more attention to working landscapes. He uses the word “coldspots” to refer to those places that are outside the purview of Biodiversity Hotspots and calls for increased focus on these neglected regions.

Urban landscapes are perhaps the best coldspots in the world where the idea of people-friendly conservation can actually work. Urban ecosystems can provide tangible benefits to people by providing them with the scope of experiencing nature, while also ensuring sustained provisioning of a wide range of ecosystem services that are beneficial to man. Given these incentives, I am certain that the common man living in the city will play a huge role in ensuring that nature is protected, at least for his own sake. While Biodiversity Hotspots and other Protected Areas are absolutely necessary, there must be a conscious effort to broaden the focus of modern-day conservation so that areas outside protected areas, including urban landscapes, are also paid heed to.

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