Bringing nature back to the city

Almost three-quarters of southern Ontario wetlands are developed and home to many species at risk


Published:

Have you ever thought about the grass that grows in sidewalk cracks? These hardy plants are routinely trampled, savaged by extreme summer heat, washed out by rainfall and buried by winter snow. To survive these conditions is a testament to the plant’s resilience, but it rarely gets attention.

That’s why I’m intrigued with the work of Nova Scotia researcher Jeremy Lundholm and his team at Saint Mary’s University. Their research demonstrates something simple and surprising: hardy species found in these environments are similar to those occupying nature’s own inhospitable spaces — steep cliffs and barren rock slopes.

While the connection between pavement and cliff face isn’t immediately obvious, it makes sense. Plant species that succeed in sidewalk cracks have similar qualities to ones that have adapted to inhabit crevices in exposed, rocky, windswept places.

As Lundholm says, this sort of research demonstrates that rather than seeing our communities as entirely human-created, unnatural environments, we should recognize that urban spaces are in many ways “structurally and functionally equivalent” to natural ecosystems.

In a recent article for the Nature of Cities, ecologist Eric W. Sanderson suggests we try to “conceive of cities in their entirety as ecological spaces.” This vision includes all streets, buildings and parking lots interacting with soil, water, air and “everyone and everything that participates in the great congress of life on Earth.”

Within this ecosystem, species are constantly adapting. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center found their subjects often adapt to human environments. Some songbirds have learned to survive in noisy urban landscapes by changing melodies they use to communicate. They sing higher notes to trump ambient city noise, and deeper notes in areas with many buildings and hard surfaces. Nesting on the ledges of high-rises rather than cliff faces has even helped peregrine falcons adjust to city life and assisted their post-DDT comeback.

Yet, the speed and scale of urbanization in Canada has pushed many native species to the brink of extinction.

Ducks Unlimited found that over 72 per cent of the original wetlands in southern Ontario have been developed, and the region is now home to about one-third of the province’s species at risk.

While we need to show some love to the current occupants of nooks and crannies, we must also redouble our efforts to bring nature back to the city and enhance what assets remain.

Efforts like the Rona Urban Reforestation program are on the right track. The hardware retailer is helping to green urban spaces with its support for planting thousands of trees in Canada’s cities. This past summer it also started a pilot program aimed at promoting native shrubs and trees through in-store nurseries. Planting native species in our gardens and communities is increasingly important, because indigenous insects, birds and wildlife rely on them. Over thousands of years they have co-evolved to live in local climate and soil conditions.

Ultimately we need to recognize that while humans continue to build urban landscapes, we share these spaces with other species. 

David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology.

Join the conversation and have your say by commenting below. Our comment system uses a Facebook plugin. Please note that you'll have to turn off some ad-blockers in order to see the comments.

Edit Module

Follow us on Twitter @PostCity for more on what to eat, where to shop and what to do in Toronto.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

You may also like...

Bone fragments found in Thornhill construction site identified as non-human

Bone fragments found in Thornhill construction site identified as non-human

Fears that bone fragments discovered on Oct. 9 of last year, on the site of Thornhill Golf and Country Club (TGCC) were human have been quelled, as the remains have now been determined to be non-human.
Posted 3 days ago
Real estate buyer's guide to Toronto's Wanless Park neighbourhood

Real estate buyer's guide to Toronto's Wanless Park neighbourhood

Leafy Wanless Park and surrounding areas prove there is still small town-style living available in the city, albeit at a price
Posted 4 days ago
Time to ditch the no-new-tax mantra

Time to ditch the no-new-tax mantra

The day of reckoning is the way a mild-mannered friend refers to the coming decisions about how Toronto City Council will, or will not, find the money to meet city expenditures in 2017 and thereafter.
Posted 4 days ago
Home on the Hill co-founder creates new affordable housing model in Richmond Hill

Home on the Hill co-founder creates new affordable housing model in Richmond Hill

Home on the Hill is moving away from the old unaffordable housing model for adults struggling with mental health issues and is working to mould its very own housing strategy.
Posted 5 days ago
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module