Into the wild

Rewilding efforts could transform biodiversity conservation across the world. Chris Seekings talks to Cecily Maller, Laura Mumaw and Benjamin Cooke, scientists at Australia’s RMIT University, to find out more

With their vast concrete structures rising through a haze of toxic smoke, artificial noise and beaming fluorescent lights, many of the world’s cities have become totally disconnected from nature. Some inhabitants will know nothing else, entirely oblivious to the fact that their homes were once teeming with an abundance of plant and animal life. However, this could be about to change, with a transformative approach to biodiversity conservation promising to restore concrete jungles back to their former glory.

Although controversial, the practice of ‘rewilding’ is beginning to gain momentum, and could bring with it numerous environmental, health and social benefits.


Nurturing nature

The idea involves restoring an area of land back to its natural state by reintroducing wildlife that has been driven out by humans. This might include providing a habitat for native animal, plant or insect species to return to, or removing unwanted constructs that are preventing life from flourishing. “Momentum is building to encourage and protect species in cities, and to think of urban environments as valued forms of habitat,” Dr Cecily Maller tells me. “The London National Park movement is one current example.”

This initiative was announced last year by mayor Sadiq Khan, and aims to make more than half of London green by incorporating green roofs and walls, plants, grass, trees and rain gardens into new developments. “In the past, cities have been considered impoverished forms of nature compared to places such as national parks, but this is changing,” Maller says. This shift is expected to impact a large number of people, with the UN predicting that close to two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. 

“Cities provide important habitats for a wide range of species”

‘Wildlife gardening’ is another example of rewilding; it involves removing cosmopolitan weeds that choke native plants, installing water features, retaining trees, adding nest hollows for animal life and planting native species. This can create ‘safe spots’ for wildlife to thrive across landscapes. In Brisbane, Australia, brush turkeys have returned to the city since the early 1970s thanks to local households planting subtropical rainforest plants in their gardens.

“Research has shown that cities provide important habitats for a wide range of species, including those that might be endangered or under threat,” Maller explains. “We undervalue the richness of nature in urban areas by positioning nature and humanity as inherently separate.”


Surprising benefits

When most people consider the health benefits associated with plant life, it is likely they think about reduced pollution and cleaner air. But Maller explains that there are a numerous other mental and physical advantages. “Cognitive and psychological benefits include stress reduction and increased capacity for attention to detailed tasks,” she says. “Physical health benefits include improved immune function and increased physical activity.” There are also the obvious advantages associated with improved air quality, such as reduced cardiovascular disease, along with others that are less obvious. A recent study found that young people living in high levels of air pollution are 70% more likely to have psychotic experiences. Further research has uncovered a link between improved pregnancy outcomes and increased contact with nature.

As for social benefits, it is thought that rewilding could address the ‘nature deficit disorder’ and ‘ecological boredom’ that author Richard Louv believes characterises much of modern life. A person’s emotional health and life satisfaction could also be improved, according to Dr Benjamin Cooke. “We know that our sense of belonging to a place and a general sense of wellbeing can be enhanced, with different benefits depending on how active or passive our rewilding activities might be,” he says. “Efforts that are collaborative can provide opportunities for engaging with neighbours, and can increase a sense of local community.”

Cooke also explains how rewilding could help settler-colonial nations such as Canada and Australia bring about closer ties between indigenous people and the newer population. “A carefully considered engagement might offer cultural benefits, creating opportunities for First Nations to care for and control their traditional lands, contributing to social inclusion and community capacity building. Rewilding that promotes conservation without people in the landscape has been rightly criticised for ignoring the role of indigenous peoples in shaping and caring for those landscapes for thousands of years.”


Courting controversy

Some criticise rewilding for ignoring the negative impacts that could arise from bringing people into contact with non-human species – from minor inconveniences, such as leaves clogging drains, bird droppings on washing, or bites and stings, to more serious dangers posed by snakes or pollen allergies.

“It is important to be aware of any increased risk and consider that in how we plan and design rewilding activities,” Cooke says. “These potential impacts are part of adjusting how we see cities, as places for animals and plants, and not just for humans.” He says that many of these challenges may be overcome through acceptance, or small behavioural changes, such as hanging washing out in different locations.

There are also fears that conservationists may damage the plant and animal life that already exists in an area. “Cities are already full of unstructured spaces that may be home to ‘wildness’, so we must also be attentive to existing wildness, and not just the idea of creating or recreating it,” Cooke says. “Rewilding cannot be about the return to a past ecological benchmark that ignores the many and variable environmental change factors like climate change that make such aspirations problematic.”


Partners in planning

While government agencies can help identify potential priorities for rewilding efforts through mapping tree canopy or finding areas vulnerable to heat, Dr Laura Mumaw says that local people must play a central role in deciding what form this takes. 

Asking residents for their opinions and providing them with hands-on opportunities to help ensure their landscapes are not diminished are examples of including local communities in the process. “Harnessing the active or latent relationships people have with nature can expand the breadth of support for, and active contributions to, rewilding initiatives,” Mumaw says.

She argues that these efforts must target areas that have traditionally been neglected or under-represented, in full knowledge that rewilding could instigate gentrification in the neighbourhoods they seek to improve. “Rewilding needs to consider the relationships that individuals and communities have with the nature of their place – be they emotional, physical, spiritual or cultural – and how these help create the fabric of a community and contribute to its wellbeing,” she explains. “Even trees have important meanings for people, from viewing them from a hospital bed to playing under them, or seeking their shade – people may not even know how much they value the nature around them until it is taken away.” 


Cecily Maller, Laura Mumaw and Benjamin Cooke are contributors to a new book, Rewilding (Cambridge University Press), which brings together experts from around the world to discuss how rewilding can foster human coexistence with wildlife


Image credit | iStock
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