We need science to sustain urban landscapes

Kate:  A series of talks where the public could interact with international experts in ecology was a highlight of this years Science week celebrations in Brisbane.  I attended a public talk on the Science of Sustaining Urban Landscapes involving scientists attending the 10th International Congress in Ecology (INTECOL) that coincided with science week.

Understanding the ecology of urban landscapes is important. Most people on the planet now live in cities and cities often cover areas with high biological diversity. Cliff Dorse presented experience from Cape Town which contains half of South Africa’s biological diversity and 20% of Africa’s plant species. People in cities depend on ecological services (like clean air and water) that natural areas within city landscapes provide. Reserves and wildlife in cities are where most of us are exposed to ‘nature’. So urban sprawl results in both loss of biological diversity and our opportunity to experience natural areas. Darryl Jones (Centre for Innovation in Conservation Strategies, Griffith University) spoke of an ‘extinction of experience’ that is occurring with increased urban density.

It may not surprise you that city planning has mostly not been informed by good ecological science. City shapers (mostly developers and engineers) have usually not had much training or interest in biology. However, it may surprise you to learn that there isn’t enough knowledge about urban biology because ecologists have until recently not been interested in studying it. Mark McDonnell (Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology) described ecologists as being mostly “nerdy types” who want to learn about nature in ‘natural areas’. Urban landscapes have at times been deemed too degraded, and interactions between people and wildlife in cities too ‘unnatural’, to warrant attention.

Dr McDonnell reports that the situation is changing however with studies of the field of urban ecology undergoing a rapid expansion. Cliff Dorse described experience from Cape Town where good ecological science is informing city planning. Extensive mapping of vegetation types within the city has been used to set conservation targets based on research. This is being aligned with the city planning process to shape the city growth around a conservation network.  Interestingly the map based planning tools used were developed in Australia but have yet to be used to plan biodiversity conservation in cities here. We need both to encourage more ecologists to study our urban landscapes and to insist that our city planning is shaped by ecological science.

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