Ten ways to change our cities now, and lead a happier, healthier life

Cities are ecosystems. They have been for at least four thousand years. They are the ecosystem we inhabit but neglect… the ones where our children are raised. Maybe you live in the country. I used to, but life in the country is increasingly the global minority. We have moved to the city and now we must make it, ecologically speaking, a reasonable place to live. I have spent the last five months moving across Europe from one city after another, sometimes delighted, other times angry. As someone who studies the species in cities, the wild and wonderful species, and has spent the last three years immersed in the stories of these species and how they benefit or cost us (whether in being present or absent), I have a few thoughts, notes to myself for when I go home on what, from the perspective of our health and well being and that of other species, we might need to do. Maybe you will also find them useful.

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  1. Remember to re-green what can be re-greened, which is everything. Very little grows in most cities, including many parts of my city. We grow things in other places and bring them to cities to be eating or to decay. Grow things. Grow them up the walls. Grow more in the backyard. Grow them anywhere they will grow and eat what fruits, or let the neighbors eat it. Greener cities are less hot, less polluted and, well, more green. You can eat a green city. You can’t eat cement, though if you could you would thrive in a city. Mental note, check for species that eat cement. Big, fancy ideas about how to re-green cities have been recently suggested, but re-greening doesn’t need to be big and fancy. Everywhere the sun falls, let something, once again, bloom.

  2. Re-green with the species adapted to cities (not what used to be in cities)—Cities are not the ecosystems they used to be. New York City is not a degraded forest, it is a city. Raleigh is a city. We need to plant cities with species that do well in the habitats that cities are, which seem to most closely resemble cliff sides or tree canopies. I like the idea of thinking of buildings of cliff-like habitats on which we could establish the species that are rare on cliffs. We could do conservation on my house!  Better if the species are native, though it isn’t clear in many cases what it means to be native to a city, an entirely new ecosystem, a newly created and colonized world.

  3. Tolerate a modest inconvenience—Sometimes nature is inconvenient. It builds a nest in your light fixture. It digs holes in your lawn. It might even poop on you, or die in the walls of your house. Tolerate it. Or better yet, celebrate the species that take care of these inconveniences on our behalves. The Egyptians thought of those decomposers, species like the dung beetles, as gods. Follow their lead. Remember to celebrate the organisms everywhere busy during death and decay into life—dung beetles, carp, houseflies, more. You wish you could be so cool.

  4. Clean up the air rather than avoiding the dirt—Every time someone advocates planting fruit trees or gardens in cities, someone else announces that cities are too polluted to allow such fruits to be consumed. The answer, in this case, is to clean up our cities, not to ignore our gardens. If pollution falls on my tomatoes, the problem is not my tomatoes. In the meantime, I need to do more to reduce my contribution to local, urban, pollution. Walk. Walk. Walk. Ride a bike. Walk some more. Avoid pesticides and herbicides unless the food I’m protecting is for my survival. Let the herbivores have their share. Many of them turn into butterflies and moths if not killed. Herbivory is like feces, it happens, let it.

  5. Imagine what a city could be—We take it for granted that urban streams and rivers are polluted and devoid of interesting fish, otters, snakes, turtles, frogs, and insects. Don’t take this as a forgone conclusion. The Hudson River, even, is beginning to come back. It isn’t drinkable, no, but it its better. Find a place in the river for children to skip rocks and fall in without worry. Make a place along the river where fast-growing trees can be turned into instruments, tools, and whatever else the kids can dream up to make out of what grows and falls. Everything is made of something, leave children the substance out of which to make something to catch fish and rivers wild enough that, when they dip in their hook, there is something unimaginably wild left to catch. Imagine sea monsters.

  6. Know thy neighbor—Study more of the species around you. Know them. A relatively small number of species dominate cities. You see them again and again. Start to know their names. Some are poisonous. Some are delicious. Some were planted by the ancient Greeks only later having made their way to your city. Get in the habit of eating from at least a few wild and common plants a week. Make the time to stuff your face with wild berries, then make a little more time.

  7. Turn your city in an observatory—We don’t know our cities and their species. Work to figure out how to watch them. Recruit schools. Recruit more neighbors. Figure out what is changing around us. Figure out what has gone missed by everyone else and get others watching.  Remember the story of Doug Levy who just figured out mockingbirds can learn individual human faces. How many mockingbirds have you seen? You could have figured that out, you just weren’t paying attention. The mockingbirds were.

  8. Remember that the species around you are wild and unknown and potentially making you healthier (or sicker). No matter what you do, other species are affecting your well-being. In no moment, is there a choice to be alone, “clean” of other species. We exist only thanks to our interactions with other species. Without them, we don’t eat, we don’t breath, our cells do not.  Be conscious of how your actions are affecting other species.

  9. Get children to observe nature. Children watch wild things naturally. It comes to them like play until we discourage it. Do everything you can to make it easy for children to observe the wildness around them. They will see things you miss. They are shorter, but also less biased.

  10. Abandon the idea that the goal of medicine (at least in the context of other species) should be to kill germs. We need to think of health and wellness as a function of removing bad species (the germs), but also in terms of enriching our lives with beneficial species and biological diversity. Should we all be trying to get worms? Maybe. Depends on the worm. Should we all be trying to get good bacteria? Definitely, we just need to figure out which ones they are and how to get them. We need to think of the cities in which we live as ecosystems we manage for their and our health. No matter who you are, the wild species in your city affect you whether by their presence or their absence. Our default response to the species around us tends to be to kill what we don’t understand and, in doing so, to favor what survives. This has given us rats, resistant roaches and bedbugs and resistant bacteria. Imagine a garden, or better yet, plant one, wherever one will grow, but also watch the rats and roaches, they are interesting. They are smarter than your cat.

Let us tend to the species around us with the carrot, not just the stick. Let us live lives in which, after each step we take, in our wake, something out of our footprint, grows. Let our lives be, once again, as I’ve said before, where the wild things are, at least some of the wild things. Not malaria, but definitely olive trees. I would love me some olive trees, if anyone out there has some.

By |2016-11-22T13:47:40-05:00April 17th, 2012|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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