The transformation of our cities from concrete jungles to viable wildlife habitat starts on your front doorstep.
When any kind of native wild animal is spotted in the city, we often describe it as being lost or confused. There’s a separation mentality – we assume it’s there by mistake, when actually it’s probably been living there the whole time. A lot of people simply aren’t aware how much incredible native biodiversity is already on our doorsteps and in our park lands.
What I noticed during the COVID lockdowns was people turning to the environment around them and having a much closer look at the plants and animals that share their cities. For some, this has been a real eye-opener to appreciate all the wonderful birds and plants and animals around them, and to realise how great their neighbourhood is.
Meanwhile, a lot of other people realised that if they don’t have access to local nature in their 5km radius, they didn’t have nature at all. And that’s led to a demand for more greening programs from councils, and more activities to actively care for and promote the nature in our cities.
I want to blur the boundaries between nature and our cities. People shouldn’t have to go on a family holiday to Kakadu just to see Australia’s amazing native plants and animals, and engage with the incredible ecosystems that this country has to offer. I’m passionate about making sure that everybody can get access – and it would be nice if they didn’t have to travel too far.
I’ve learned there are lots of ways that we can encourage nature in our cities. And we don’t have to sacrifice the things that make us feel safe in order to do that.
It starts with education and appreciation.
Read more: How much water does the environment need?
Our research has shown that there’s more than 350 threatened species that live in Australia’s cities and towns, including some of our most critically endangered wildflowers and orchids. Some of them only live in an Australian city or town. There’s nowhere else in the entire world that one stunning orchid can be found except in Frankston, for example. These are species that are so unique, yet now absolutely depend on us being able to share our urban environments with them.
There are a few underground success stories. The rakali, the native water rat, should be considered a hero species. It’s a mammal that’s done so well to survive and thrive in urban environments all up and down the east coast of Australia – including right in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD. And yet hardly anyone has heard of it, or knows that it’s there – just an incredible, secretive species going about its day.
Microbats are another under-appreciated marvel – there’s upwards of a dozen different types of these tiny little bats that live in Melbourne, and they’re quite vigorous across cities in Australia. You wouldn’t know they’re there because they’re nocturnal and they don’t make any noise – there’s only one species that you can actually hear called the white-striped freetail bat, and it makes this beautiful little beeping sound. But they’re out there filling our night skies clearing mosquitoes out of the way, doing such a fantastic service and just living their lives without us even knowing that they’re around.
You don’t have to put up with possums chewing on your wires and weeing all over your ceiling – nobody’s asking anyone to live like that. But hopefully we can get rid of those extreme views that say we have to be clean and neat and completely devoid of nature. There’s a way to walk the middle line here.
Read more: Southern Australia’s koala comeback: what they can tell us about helping their threatened northern counterparts
Possums are actually a victim of their own success. And once something becomes common, we tend to forget how amazing it is that they’ve adapted to this completely new, strange environment to live alongside us. Instead, we tend to turn it into a battle when it really doesn’t have to be. I make sure all the holes in my roof are plugged and that I’ve got some possum repellent on my favourite rosebush. Sometimes you’ve got to put up with a little bit of noise on occasion, but that’s part of living in any community, right? You’re going to have neighbours who start their lawn mower a bit too early on a Saturday.
In fact, there’s research lately suggesting that urban environments are one of the only environments left where possums are doing well, because outside of the cities in the more rural areas, there are so few trees left, and so many foxes, and we’re now worried that possums are declining.
We’ve done some research over the last couple of years, talking to councils and community groups and organisations that work in cities making them better places for nature. And we asked them what kinds of things they’re actually doing on the ground. The answers they gave were completely mind-blowing – so creative and proactive.
There are groups installing floating raft islands in their urban ponds so that turtles can nest and stay safe from feral predators like the cats and the foxes. There are beautiful native wildflower plantings in these incredibly crowded, concrete streetscapes that attract pollinators and provide beautiful habitat for our bees and butterflies. There are grasshoppers, previously lost from Melbourne, being reintroduced into a park. People are going to extraordinary lengths and some of them are quite simple ideas.
One of the reasons we’ve overlooked some ideas in the past is because they seem too simple, or we assumed they could never possibly make a big enough impact. But the key is to just make one impact at a time. They all add up, and we create cities and spaces that support more and more nature. Rope bridges above and tunnels under roads are examples – a really major improvement that have actually become quite common now across Australia helping animals get from one side of a road to the other.
When I first started working on nature in cities, I realised that a huge part of my job was convincing people that this kind of work was worthwhile. This even included some scientists – there’s still the idea that conservation only happens in the wild in the big reserves.
I spent a lot of my time trying to convince people that this was not just important but doable – this is not a blue-sky dream, but something that we can we can achieve. We just need to make the changes.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.
Dr Kylie Soanes is Research Fellow in Urban Biodiversity at the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She studies the ecology of cities and towns and is always looking for new ways to help nature thrive in urban environments.