Rewilding the Post-Covid City
EURA Conversations Post #27 – 21 June 2021
Siân Moxon, Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies, School of Art Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University
COVID-19 stems from our mistreatment of wildlife, but wildlife could ultimately profit, if the pandemic prompts us to rethink our relationship with nature and plan a green recovery. This is especially true in cities, where urban rewilding is critical to rebuilding healthy, resilient communities.
Earlier contributions to the EURA Conversation series have highlighted the importance of improving public spaces in the city – for example, EURA Conversation 6 by Marichela Sepe, EURA Conversation 22 by Dannielle Sinnett [link] and EURA Conversation 25 by Evangelia Athanassiou [link]. Here, the spotlight is on rewilding such city streets and urban spaces.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) attributes the COVID-19 outbreak to an animal host. Certainly, human exploitation of nature, through habitat destruction and the wildlife trade, puts us at risk of pandemics. Nevertheless, the ‘anthropause’ necessitated by the virus has enabled a resurgence of urban wildlife – and wildlife appreciation – that we should retain.
With repeated lockdowns worldwide reducing noise, pollution and activity levels, urban wildlife has thrived. In parks, more timid species, such as hedgehogs, have prospered alongside dominant urban stalwarts like grey squirrels. Wildflowers appear, as municipal authorities neglect public spaces. Seasoned urban residents, including foxes and racoons, roam the streets with less risk of traffic collisions. Quieter roads, waterways and railways entice less-common visitors, comprising deer, coyotes and wild boar, into the suburbs.
Further, our enforced break from modern life is helping us rediscover the importance of nature in our lives. Confined to their homes and localities, people have found a renewed connection with wildlife, with UK animal sightings up 54%. Moreover, a 60% reduction in urban noise has made birdsong more noticeable. Outside our windows, the second spring of the pandemic has brought the sights of birds nesting, trees blossoming, and bees and butterflies emerging. As we experience this, we should feel the proven benefits of contact with nature on our health and wellbeing – and an optimism that we could live better lives in harmony with nature.
Sightings of goats, beavers and wild turkeys exploring the locked-down urban landscape offer a utopian vision of how our cities could be reimagined after the pandemic, as wilder places that nurture humans alongside other species. This could be a reality if we take this opportunity to reshape our cities to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, and facilitate the homeworking, sustainable travel and connection with nature we have rediscovered in lockdown.
London’s National Park City Charter provides a suitable framework, which should be adopted by all cities with urgency as we emerge from this crisis. The forthcoming (due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021) COP26 climate-change summit’s themes of nature and cities are a wake-up call.
The author’s Rewild My Street campaign helps residents reimagine how cities could be adapted for wildlife, using vision drawings of rewilded urban spaces to inspire community action. It sees disused shops and offices in city centres repurposed as ‘pocket parks’; residential streets becoming ‘play streets’ without car parking; green belts surrounding cities rebranded ‘wild belts’ for reintroduced keystone species; and these rewilded spaces connected by ‘greenways’ for cyclists and pedestrians.
If we do not want future pandemics to control our overcrowding of the planet, we must reconsider our environmentally damaging way of life. This requires action across all habitats: starting with our own urban habitat could engender the respect for nature this effort will require. After all, our disregard for nature is proving suicidal.
In the next EURA Conversation Robin Hambleton looks at the impact of COVID-19 on Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.