Nature-based Cities

Riverdale park, Toronto, Ontario
© James Thomas / Unsplash

We may be sitting on the sweet cusp of summer, but the ongoing COVID crisis means it won’t be anything like we’ve experienced since the 1918 flu spread around the world a century ago. After a spring spent largely sheltering in place, everyone’s been eager to get outdoors for their physical and mental well-being .

But many of the 80 per cent of Canadians who live in urban centres have been confronted by green spaces packed with people. Sure, major metropolises are colloquially called concrete jungles, but this isn’t necessarily true — our cities contain parks, rivers, ravines, waterfronts and wetlands that form a network of nature for urban dwellers and native species alike. But if we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that we need much more of it — and so does wildlife.

Urban biodiversity doesn’t just mean the raccoons, squirrels and skunks that wander our yards and alleyways. It’s the total variety of living organisms — or biological diversity — that we find in urban environments. In other words, it’s also the birds, butterflies, coyotes, trees, berry bushes, mosses and every other plant and animal species that have been able to adapt to conditions and survive in heavily populated places. (And unlike wild species that many of us will never see — like polar bears or narwhal — these are species that urban dwellers are connected to daily.)

But this survival is becoming increasingly difficult as green and blue spaces are developed and urban sprawl spreads ever outward. Hopefully, things are changing. Citizens are more and more engaged in their own neighbourhoods, science is showing the role and importance of urban nature, and municipalities are starting to take more actions like investing in green infrastructure.

Montreal, for example, is home to nearly 360 species of birds, 80 species of fish and more than 180 species of bees — many of which are either threatened, vulnerable or likely to become at risk. But Montreal will also soon be home to Grand parc de l’Ouest, a 3,000-hectare park that could potentially become Canada’s largest, as well as a new 60-hectare park in the Saint-Jacques escarpment containing woods, wetlands and grasslands, as well as a newly protected forest habitat along Pinel stream in the city’s east end. Toronto, too, is taking action on its 8,000 hectares of green space through a biodiversity strategy and pollinator protection strategy.

Increased restoration and conservation in cities is certainly good news for residents who want to access nature, and for the species who live there. But there are other benefits too, known as “ecosystem services.” For example, urban biodiversity increases a city’s resilience to climate impacts and pollution by absorbing rainwater to reduce flooding, purifying the air we breathe, and even cooling down cities during heat waves.

And improving nature doesn’t just involve major municipal works. You can play your part in creating viable habitat in your backyard (or on your balcony). Our In the Zone program, which aims to grow Canada’s biggest wildlife garden in the Carolinian Zone, has already registered almost 4,000 native-plant gardens. Neighbourhood gardens are already physically connected, but when they’re filled with native plants that benefit wildlife, they can create a corridor to a larger green space, providing urban wildlife with stopover points where they can feed and rest. And our Montreal-based Biopolis, which connects residents with scientists, decision-makers and urban biodiversity organizations to share knowledge, projects and best-practices, is also going national to further spread inspiration coming from all citizens and communities.

So why is urban biodiversity so important right now? Canadian cities have doubled in size over the past century, destroying forests, draining wetlands, burying rivers and streams, and fragmenting habitats to make room for, well, all of us. And this isn’t ancient history — 216,000 square kilometers of intact forest have been lost between 2000 and 2013 alone.

But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. We have both the knowledge and the collective will to restore nature in our cities, making them more resilient and more livable for wildlife and people. And you can help.