When we think of green spaces in urban areas, we generally have in mind parks, forest remnants, and water bodies like wetlands and lakes in and around the city. Depending on their size, habitat heterogeneity and expanse, these ecosystems are believed to conserve urban biodiversity in varying capacities. If given an opportunity to add to the list of green spaces in the urban, what could be some of the other options which would add similar value to the natural environment of the city? Amongst the few options are, no matter how absurd it may sound, ‘urban cemeteries’. Cemeteries are regarded as sacred places all over the world and possess a unique quality of having natural and cultural values.
A Cemetery in Berlin
In Scandinavian cities, urban cemeteries are green spaces where vegetation in the form of mosses and large trees add to the species richness of the environment (Nordh & Evensen, 2018). They are also seen as contributing to the conservation of natural habitats that contain rare species. In a scenario of rapid urbanization, the sizable area and habitat heterogeneity provided by cemeteries have increasingly made them important places for conserving biodiversity. In addition to this, they also provide important ecosystem services that are of similar value to those provided by parks and forests. A lot of municipal cemeteries are located in the middle of the city, and many of them are much older and larger than municipal parks. In the context of rapid urbanization, these cemeteries can play a significant role in contributing to the overall area under urban green space, and provide a wide range of ecosystem services (Clayden et al., 2018). Some of these ecosystem services include regulating services and cultural ecosystem services.
Some of the common characteristics that exist between urban parks and cemeteries is that, like urban parks, cemeteries also serve as a habitat for flora and fauna. Since a lot of these benefits and biodiversity functions are not known, there is a need to study and explore parameters that shape biodiversity patterns in spaces such as cemeteries. In addition to this, studies based on responses of multiple groups of taxa to different environmental conditions within cemeteries could also be conducted. Research carried out so far has focused on the contamination of soil and water, and/or social conflicts related to the creation and planning of new cemeteries. Research focusing on cemeteries as an urban public green space is limited (Nordh & Evensen, 2018).
However, in places like Berlin and other Scandinavian countries, there has been research on habitat functions of cemeteries including the support they provide to different native flora and fauna. Some of the results of the studies conducted in Berlin, Germany indicate that cemeteries function as a habitat for almost 604 species of flora and fauna. In addition to this, the old wooded cemeteries provide habitat functions for native forest species which are otherwise negatively affected due to habitat loss and fragmentation of forest in an urban landscape (Kowarik et al., 2016). With the important benefits provided by cemeteries, it is important to include them as an alternate but important urban green infrastructure. Urban cemeteries have been found to be an active contributor to regulative and cultural ecosystem services. With rapid habitat loss in urban areas, the urban planning body must consider the management of urban green spaces that make the city more resilient.
A few months ago, I had visited a city forest maintained by a formal organization and noticed that a part of the forest boundary was overlapping with the boundary of a cemetery. The management team of the forest were constructing a wall so that people do not expand the area of the cemetery. The construction of the wall was perhaps in response to forest management viewing the cemetery as a nuisance detrimental to the forest habitat. What I witnessed was quite contrary to the above-discussed studies which emphasize the inclusion of cemeteries as vital contributors to the urban green space. With new challenges of managing green spaces in urban areas and preventing habitat loss, the inclusion of new spaces such as cemeteries might add to the overall area and quality of urban green spaces in the city.
- Clayden, A., Green, T., Hockey, J., & Powell, M. (2018). Cutting the lawn− Natural burial and its contribution to the delivery of ecosystem services in urban cemeteries. Urban forestry & urban greening, 33, 99-106.
- Kowarik, I., Buchholz, S., von der Lippe, M., & Seitz, B. (2016). Biodiversity functions of urban cemeteries: Evidence from one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Urban forestry & urban greening, 19, 68-78.
- Nordh, H., & Evensen, K. H. (2018). Qualities and functions ascribed to urban cemeteries across the capital cities of Scandinavia. Urban forestry & urban greening, 33, 80-91.