ECOS 38 (4)

With the demands of a growing 21st century population and the cramped conditions of our island home, what future does the United Kingdom’s urban wildlife have? Looking at overseas examples of city greening may provide inspiration, but will our industrial history, heritage, public attitudes and government inertia act to stifle progress?

Just a human habitat?

With limited space, nature must be integrated into our urban landscape. In the city of Bristol, a combination of history and architecture has allowed the formation of the largest urban gull colony due to historic docks, flat roofed buildings and increasing food outlets. But the gulls are viewed by many as pests and a danger to children, adults and domestic pets alike. There have been calls for major deterrents to be used. Could this reaction ring alarm bells for the potential public uproar that could follow some of the current proposals for species re-introductions?  These urban sanctuaries are saving a total herring gull population which is now at its lowest level since monitoring began in 1969-70 due to declining rural populations. Perhaps attitudes should change, with more tolerance of  nature, with all its wonders and its imperfections, in our own human habitat.

Plans for Changi Airport, dailymail.co.uk

Singapore Sling’s into the futuristic, breakneck speed

A pioneering example of how to actively encourage urban wildlife is the vibrant Singapore, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Voted the world’s best, Singapore Changi Airport’s green credentials are expanding with the planning of a 14,000 sq-foot Canopy Park including gardens, trails and a jaw-dropping indoor waterfall .1 Inside the city, Singapore’s Tree House Condominium is the largest vertical garden – a type of architecture that is pushing the conventions of ‘green space’. Opened in 2012 the most iconic innovation is the Super trees2, 50m high metal structures supporting tropical climbing flowers, ferns and orchids. More than just a botanical display, it supports a micro-ecosystem of insects, pollinators and birds.  Sustainable energy and water technologies are integral to the cooling of the two conservatories at this site named Garden by the Bay. The architect of this marvel is notably British, leaving us to ponder that it may be the lack of funding, space, or more scarily political will power, rather than absence of innovation, that is holding the UK back in urban landscaping. Within this futuristic landscape the city remarkably manages to retain its history and depth, steeped in Peranakan culture.

Supertrees, visualnews.com

The key is in the corridor

Singapore also has traditional National Parks, just like the UK’s, showing this conventional  conservation measure still holds value in such a forward-facing landscape.  Within Singapore these National Parks cover 13.6% of the land area3, nearly half of which are nature reserves including areas as diverse as swamp forests, mangroves and coastal hill forests. A limitation of UK nature reserves is their isolation, acting as an oasis in a concrete jungle, such habitat fragmentation can threaten the genetic viability and vigour of isolated populations. Singapore’s Park Connect Network created natural wildlife corridors vital for increasing the colonisation rates of species that have been lost from sectors. Part of this has seen roadsides scattered with fragile forest-edge species like horsfield’s baron butterfly and common gliding lizards truly unconventional in this location.4 The connector at the Ulu Pandan Canal hosts 60 bird species including those native to Singapore’s traditional rainforest such as the greater racket-tailed Drongo and banded woodpecker.4 A much newer park, by comparison, is home to only 37 bird species highlighting the value time plays in conservation. Is it therefore too late for the UK to adopt this strategy?

Park Connect Network planned for 2030, ura.gov.sg

Living underneath the skyline of the future

How all this has been achieved while promoting a rich global centre for business and booming economy can be baffling. It has always been the vision that a green city would attract foreign investment and a global workforce. Beyond this, a sustainable city brings an influx of tourism which has specifically funded the installation of green roofs and walls to temper air quality and insulate apartments of high-rise buildings. An alternative housing design in the UK for a social housing scheme in Norfolk is termed ‘earth-sheltered’ where the north, west and east walls are covered in mounds of earth which dramatically reduces heating costs and provides a home for nature too. But construction of these communities greatly disturbs the original habitat. Where does this leave the UK when there is little free land to build new eco-homes and common Victorian style properties are a real challenge to adapt to support nature?

Colonial chains

Singapore’s history has been plagued with resource exploitation and cash crop plantations, particularly of gambir, which reduced original forest cover to only 7% by the 1880s.5 Singapore provides us with hope that historical neglect and exploitation can be reverted. Come the turn of independence from the British Colony in the 1960s policies began to consider the value of environmental and social sustainability. Today a dramatic recovery now sees 1,454 of an original 2,053 vascular native plants thriving.6 During this time of change obstacles occurred such as in 1986 when a concrete highway was built across two major reserves, however in 2009 after much public pressure a green bridge was constructed to re-link the two habitats.6 This gives the UK hope for a slow return of our own native gems which have struggled in the expansion of large scale agriculture, monoculture, and cultivated gardening.

Jaime Lerner’s city vision

Turn to Curitiba to see a mastermind of urban planning, less concerned with having a sexy sleek image and more with efficient functioning and social sustainability.  The UK’s transport industry has always caused debate from train delays, journey prices, congestion and poor air quality. Perhaps we should adopt in our own cities the pedestrian focused ethos of Curitiba. Alongside this the city has a revolutionary bus system used by 70% of the city’s population which depart as frequently as every 90 seconds, successfully taking countless polluting cars off the roads. 7 A striking part of the system is the street side boarding tunnels which have shown huge improvements in the efficiency of this service.

Boarding tunnels, thenewtropic.com

What’s that coming over the hill?

As for agriculture insight, the city takes an unusual approach. Candy cotton white sheep speckle the green carpet of the city’s parks, this grazing solution reduces green spaces segregated off for animal grazing. This allows wildflower meadows and rural wildlife to rule the countryside while reducing the costs of management with machinery in recreational parks. The decline of rural invertebrates, birds and small mammals is a trend worryingly too common in the UK. Cleveland adopted this strategy in 2012 using a flock of 12 sheep to graze alongside North Marginal Road, tended to by high school students who have now become engaged in conservation.

Environmental and social benefits

BedZed in Sutton is a sustainable housing project but a review seven years on showed the average resident's carbon footprint as 9.9 tonnes, with the UK average at 11.2 tonnes a year. This is far from the radical reduction that BedZed set out to achieve in its model of sustainable and low carbon living.8 Looking to successes across the globe and learning from the UK’s own experiments could bring about the change needed, but at the heart of such a reform must be a strong push from government and rigorous policy making. This brief exploration of green spaces comes from just a couple of the many visionary cities from around the world. But this new-wave of living and designing is still far from being adopted on the scale that our planet needs. Cities such as Singapore and Curitiba have put environmental issues at the forefront of policy making. Unfortunately, the green revolution is stuttering in the UK. Green Belts in the UK are shrinking by the year with development proposals and government housing drives often devaluing and eroding the Green Belt.

“Parks and public spaces are also important to a democratic society because they are the only places where people meet as equal”  Enrique Peñalosa

BedZed Housing Project, bioregional.com

References

  1. Julie Delahaye; Singapore Changi Airport is getting its own amusement park - complete with a rainbow waterfall and maze!; Daily Mirror; 2017; http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/travel/usa-long-haul/singapore-changi-airport-getting-amusement-10633065
  2. Lauren Said-Moorhouse; Solar-powered 'supertrees' breathe life into Singapore's urban oasis; CNN; 2015; http://edition.cnn.com/2012/06/08/world/asia/singapore-supertrees-gardens-bay/index.html
  3. Singapore Government; https://www.nparks.gov.sg/
  4. Clive Briffett, Navjot Sodhi, Belinda Yuen, Lily Kon; Green corridors and the quality of urban life in Singapore; 2004; https://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/adjunct/snr0704/snr07041g.pdf
  5. Botanic Gardens Conservation International;https://wwbgci.org/resources/article/0585/
  6. Grace Chua; How Singapore makes biodiversity an important part of urban life; Citiscope; 2015; http://citiscope.org/story/2015/how-singapore-makes-biodiversity-important-part-urban-life
  7. Joseph Goodman, Melissa Laube, and Judith Schwenk; Curitiba Bus System is Model for Rapid Transit; Reimagine; 2007; http://www.reimaginerpe.org/node/344
  8. http://www.hkip.org.hk/plcc/download/UK.pdf

ALIX ZELLY

The author is currently studying MSCi Zoology at the University of Exeter. She has a fascination for animal behaviour, nature’s oddities, and the beauty of both the natural and man-made world.

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