01 June 2005

Urban nature, or the lack thereof

An editorial, Nature in the Metropolis, by Peter Crane and Ann Kinzig in last week’s Science brings attention to an increasingly important issue: the protection of nature versus the seemingly endless growth of cities. But, first, what seems to be good news: “In some respects, cities are good for the environment. They concentrate half the world’s population on about 2% of Earth’s land surface”. I suppose it is indeed better to have one mega-city of, say, 10 million people than 1000 cities each with 10,000 people, provided that the mega-city takes up much less area than the combined areas of 1000 cities. If the city dwellers always remained in their cities, things would even be better. The problem is that we all want to go on vacation, which means that even if we could substitute one mega-city for 1000 small cities, we would still have to build somewhere else 1000 hotels, resorts and vacation villages for all those urbanites.

Another downside to letting cities grow very big is that not only do they grow vertically—which is fine—but also horizontally. And often, the land a city is swallowing may be the only remaining habitat of some unique, endemic wildlife. I have touched upon this subject in relation to the growth of the Turkish city of Istanbul, the population of which recently reached 10 million1, 2.

What ends up happening is that the city dwellers become alienated to nature: “A further subtle but important consequence of increased urbanization is that most of the world’s people will have much of their direct contact with nature in an urban rather than rural setting.” It’s worse than that: people will “experience” nature only through TV shows. This has actually been going on for quite some time.

How do we expect kids who have never set foot in a forest to grow up to be conservationists?

1. Örstan, A. 2004. Cemeteries as refuges for native land snails in Istanbul, Turkey. Tentacle, No. 12, pp. 11-12. pdf
2. Örstan, A. 2005. The status of Pomatias elegans in Istanbul, Turkey. Tentacle, No. 13, pp. 8-9.

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