Visions of the urban future tend to revolve around mile-tall skyscrapers, flying cars, and high-tech solutions to sustainability challenges.
But there is another vision that envisions a return to the wilderness on which cities were once built, with forests and wildlife that were lost long ago. This vision is beginning to materialize in major cities around the world in the form of the urban rewilding movement.
Botanist Akira Miyawaki is among the ancestors of this fledgling effort, having made an important discovery while researching Japanese vegetation in the 1970s. He noticed that ancient native forest ecosystems survived and thrived on untended lands such as temples and cemeteries, whereas they had long since disappeared from cultivated plots.
Miyawaki has started a program to restore Japan’s natural forestry at small sites across the country, using native soils and plants. In many cases, the results have been dramatic: rapid growth of dense and diverse ecosystems.
The “Miyawaki method” has since grown into a global movement, with miniature forests guided by botanist principles flourishing in the United States, Europe and Asia. They are also rooted in urban settings from Beirut to Bordeaux, and play a leading role in a movement to bring wilderness to the heart of cities.
One of Miyawaki’s biggest projects is run by the non-profit Institute for Environmental Education (IVN) in the Netherlands. Its Tiny Forest program has established more than 250 tennis-court-sized plots in urban areas such as roadsides, business parks and schools.
“First of all it starts with site selection 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,” says Daan Bleichrodt, responsible for planting trees at IVN. . “You can do this by looking into the past to see what was once growing.”
There is minimal interference once the plants and trees have been 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 “that arose on their own in the forests,” says Bleichrodt.
Forests serve as small carbon sinks, each capturing an average of 127.5 kilograms of CO2 per year, according to the same study – the equivalent of the emissions of an average car traveling more than 300 miles – which could double as the forest matures.
They also provide a cooling effect. The researchers found that the ground temperature was up to 20 degrees Celsius lower than that of the surrounding streets.
The concept of rewilding – broadly the restoration of native, natural ecosystems and processes – has flourished in rural areas, from the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park to ancient forestry in the Carpathian Mountains. Ecologists believe that the same principles can be applied to urban spaces.
Urban rewilding is an “approach that aims to increase the ecological complexity of urban ecosystems with minimal or no long-term management intervention,” says Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and lead author of her recent report Rewilding Our Cities.
The report outlines a range of options for action, from allowing wildlife to reclaim golf courses and develop around rail infrastructure, to boosting private vegetation and ending park management to leave free rein to natural processes. The measures “could also include active replanting and recovery efforts of targeted species”.
The potential benefits of restoring urban ecosystems could include building resilience to climate change, reducing pollution, reversing biodiversity loss and healthier resident populations, Pettorelli says.
Urban rewilding is a “relatively new” movement, she says, pointing out that a handful of cities are taking bold steps in this direction. Singapore has installed ‘Supertrees’ and green corridors that host wild ecosystems, while three German cities are participating in a program to allocate space for wild habitats to grow freely.
A radical proposal to regenerate the English city of Nottingham would have seen a run-down shopping center in the center transformed into an urban oasis surrounded by woodland and wild meadows. The local council is moving forward with an adapted vision, with acclaimed designer Thomas Heatherwick, for the town to be reoriented around a vast ‘green heart’ which will allow the shopping center to be overrun with flora.
London is also taking ambitious action 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, grown new forests and created habitats for butterflies.
The next phase could include the conversion of managed grasslands to wild grasslands, miles of green highways to benefit bees, butterflies and wildflowers, and the reintroduction of large herds of grazing animals to shape the ecosystems of the outside of London. But the vision is both bottom-up and top-down.
“As well as large scale (projects) that require large spaces, we also want to take smaller scale actions across London, on people’s doorsteps,” says Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor for the Environment. These include initiatives to record wildlife levels in local neighborhoods and identify species that should be prioritized for conservation.
Such plans are not an indulgence but make sense for a global city to pursue on multiple levels, Rodrigues says. “We know that reseeding can restore ecosystems and increase the range and abundance of different species in an area, but it also has a much broader role in making cities greener, healthier and more resilient to the impacts of change. climate, as well as improving the health and well-being of Londoners,” she says.
ZSL has identified recurring challenges faced by urban rewilding projects. Larger initiatives will require public funding which is scarce in these difficult times. Leaving wild plots unattended risks introducing invasive species and negatively impacting ecosystems.
Projects must have the buy-in of local people to thrive and avoid “green gentrification” that displaces people from targeted areas. Harmful practices such as the use of pesticides and artificial lawns must be resisted to give reseeding a chance. “We need stronger legislation to thwart the spread of activities that undermine urban nature restoration efforts,” says Pettorelli.
But the movement is gaining momentum. Bleichrodt lists complementary programs that work 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 established 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 like I’m part of a larger movement trying to restore ecosystems,” says Bleichrodt. “A regeneration movement of rewilding.”
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