For people and nature alike, towns and cities can be places of opportunity – or wastelands. Many people find urban living exciting and positive, while others find it overwhelming or depressing. And urban environments can be hostile to wildlife too, as light pollution confuses species as different as moths and migrating birds, street trees may be felled, and concrete dominates. But towns and cities can also be a habitat. Stag beetles for one have become a highly urban species, mainly found across south London and suburbia in the UK. And as farming has intensified, the countryside has become far less viable for wildlife, so that urban habitats have become more important in turn.
Nature’s impact on our own wellbeing is proven. Hearing that, you might picture walking in a wood or forest, or by a remote lake. But now that far more people live in towns and cities, connecting with urban nature (where it may be found) is more important than ever before. This is highlighted now as lockdown has forced people to stay at or close to home, in what may be very urban, concrete environments.
Parks and green spaces may be a refuge in the midst of a town or city, somewhere to walk, run or cycle and to breathe cleaner air. They help combat air pollution, which is causing high rates of asthma and other lung diseases and may make Covid-19 more severe. And they may boost emotional and mental wellbeing. But the sad everyday reality is that too many are unsafe, intimidating places to be avoided where possible. This further divides people and nature.
Sometimes a chance encounter with nature might help. Seeing a plant straggling through the pavement, a murmuration of starlings over a city skyline, or even species which might be seen as pests, like the feral or town pigeon, can all brighten mood and create a new perspective.
Species which not only survive but thrive in the most urban environments have become known by scientists as “edge” species, because they live on the edge where urbanisation and wildness co-exist, maybe on disused land. These might be birds like house sparrows, rooks or gulls, or plants like buddleja. Seeing how they find a niche for themselves in these unlikely habitats confirms nature’s flexibility, and might be a sign of hope for us too.
Creating some space for nature in a town can in itself boost wellbeing, as knowing that you are making a difference has a positive impact on mental health. We can all feel powerless and disillusioned as we see how biodiversity is declining, but simple ways of helping, like growing plants on a balcony or taking part in a community garden, can be active and empowering. And as well as creating opportunities for nature, you could make a difference to your local area for yourself and other people. Wildlife organisations also have more focus all the time on urban nature. Bristol is just one city where the local Wildlife Trust has created detailed street-level maps demonstrating how biodiversity could be improved.
Maybe making space for urban nature could also make mental space for people living far away from the great outdoors.