Urban rewilding brings wildlife to the heart of cities


Visions of the urban future often revolve around mile-high skyscrapers, flying cars and high-tech solutions for sustainability challenges.

But there is another vision that envisions a return to the wilderness upon which cities were once built, complete with forests and wildlife long lost. That vision is beginning to be realized in major cities around the world in the form of the urban rewilding movement.

Botanist Akira Miyawaki is one of the forefathers of this burgeoning effort, having made an important discovery in the 1970s while researching Japanese vegetation. He noted that ancient native forest ecosystems survived and thrived on unkempt lands such as temples and cemeteries, while they had long since disappeared from cultivated plots.

Miyawaki initiated a program to restore Japan’s natural forestry in small sites across the country, using native soil and plants. In many cases, the results have been spectacular: rapid growth of dense and diverse ecosystems.

The “Miyawaki Method” has since become a global movement, with miniature forests guided by the botanist’s principles thriving in the US, Europe and Asia. They are also taking root in urban environments, from Beirut to Bordeaux, playing a leading role in a movement to bring wild nature into the heart of cities.

One of the largest Miyawaki projects is led by the non-profit Institute for Environmental Education (IVN) in the Netherlands. The Tiny Forest scheme has created more than 250 tennis court-sized parcels in urban locations such as roadsides, business parks and schools.

“First of all, it starts with selecting the site and trying to see what type of soil we are dealing with, what is the water level, what is the potential natural vegetation on the site,” said Daan Bleichrodt, chief tree planting officer at IVN. “You can do that by looking into the past to see what used to grow.”

There is minimal interference once the plants and trees are seeded. Over time, ecosystems develop that take on a life of their own. A study of 11 forests found more than 600 animal species and nearly 300 plant species “popping up naturally in the forests,” says Bleichrodt.

The forests serve as tiny carbon sinks, each capturing an average of 127.5 kilograms of CO2 per year, according to the same study — equivalent to the emissions from an average car driving more than 300 miles — which could double as the forest ages.

They also provide a cooling effect. Researchers found that soil temperatures were up to 20 degrees Celsius lower than nearby streets.

The concept of rewilding — broadly speaking, the restoration of native, natural ecosystems and processes — has flourished in rural areas, from reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone Park to ancient forestry in the Carpathians. Environmentalists believe the same principles can be applied to urban spaces.

Urban rewilding is an “approach that aims to increase ecological complexity in urban ecosystems with minimal to no long-term management intervention,” said Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and lead author of the recent report Rewilding Our Cities.

The report outlines a range of intervention options, from allowing wildlife to reclaim and develop golf courses around rail infrastructure, to boosting private vegetation and stopping park management to allow natural processes to run wild. Measures “could also include active replanting and targeted species restoration efforts.”

Potential benefits of restoring urban ecosystems include strengthening resilience to climate change, reducing pollution, reversing biodiversity loss and healthier residents, Pettorelli says.

Urban rewilding is a “relatively new” movement, she says, pointing to a handful of cities taking bold steps in this direction. Singapore has created “Supertrees” and green corridors that accommodate wild ecosystems, while three German cities are participating in a plan to allocate space for wild habitats to grow freely.

A radical proposal for the regeneration of the English city of Nottingham would have transformed a derelict shopping center in the center into an urban oasis surrounded by forests and wild meadows. The City Council is moving ahead with a modified vision, with acclaimed architect Thomas Heatherwick, to refocus the city around a huge “green heart” that will allow the mall to become overgrown with flora.

Thomas Heatherwick created designs for the city of Nottingham, England, as can be seen in this rendering.

London is also taking ambitious steps through the Mayor’s London Rewilding Task Force, which supports dozens of separate but complementary schemes. Local authorities and activists have reintroduced beavers to the city for the first time in centuries, developing new forests and creating habitats for butterflies.

The next phase could include the conversion of managed grasslands into wild pastures, miles of greenways to benefit bees, butterflies and wildflowers, and the reintroduction of large herds of grazing animals to shape the ecosystems of London’s suburbs . But the vision is both bottom-up and top-down.

“In addition to large-scale (projects) requiring large spaces, we also want to encourage more small-scale actions across London on people’s doorsteps,” said Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor for the Environment. These include initiatives to record the number of wildlife in local neighborhoods and identify species for which conservation should be prioritized.

Such plans are not indulgence, but make sense for a global city to pursue on multiple levels, says Rodrigues. “We know that reforestation can restore ecosystems and increase the range and abundance of different species in an area, but it also plays a much broader role in making cities greener, healthier and more resilient to the impacts of climate change, as well as helping improving the health and well-being of Londoners,” she says.

Urban greenery around the

The ZSL identified recurring challenges facing urban rewilding projects. Larger initiatives will require public funding, which is scarce in difficult times. If wild lands are left unmanaged, there is a risk of introducing invasive species and negatively impacting ecosystems.

Projects must be supported by the local population to thrive, and prevent “green gentrification” that drives people out of target areas. Harmful practices such as the use of pesticides and artificial turf must be addressed to allow rewilding to take place. “We need stricter legislation to curb the proliferation of activities that undermine efforts to restore urban nature,” says Pettorelli.

But the movement is gaining momentum. Bleichrodt lists additional programs working alongside the Tiny Forest project, such as greening initiatives in schools, growing food in public spaces and new experiments in sustainable water management. Tiny Forest has set up a network in 10 countries, from Curaçao to Pakistan, and focuses on raising awareness among new generations by working closely with local schools.

“I feel part of a larger movement that is trying to restore ecosystems,” says Bleichrodt. “A rewilding regeneration movement.”

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