Citizen Critter

by Alanna Mitchell

photography by Chris Robinson

When Tracy Timmins looks at the carpet-like lawns and tidily spaced trees near York University’s busy subway stop, she sees what few others do: potential prime real estate for wildlife. 

Yes, it’s flat and empty, custom-made for a human gathering spot. But it’s also great habitat for the likes of squirrels, sparrows and Canada geese. 

“It can support lots of animals,” Timmins says, pointing to the Harry W. Arthurs Common as she takes me on a wildlife tour of the Keele Campus. “We’ve created habitat they really like.”

Timmins, a doctoral candidate in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, is part of a new and growing scientific discipline of studying urban wildlife and its interactions with humans. And not just in gardens or parks, but throughout cities. Her specialty: the eastern grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. 

That also means she is part of a new global movement promoting the idea that wild animals have just as much right to be in urban spaces as people. Citizens, if you will, rather than interlopers. 

“If people paid attention, they could learn to negotiate the use of the space with animals,” she says.

One of the movement’s high priests is Tim Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. He founded Biophilic Cities, a global network of cities, in 2013. It already has 16 members, including Singapore, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Wellington in New Zealand. Edmonton is the only Canadian city on the list so far, although both Montreal and Toronto have explored the idea. 

Beatley expects that 50 cities will be designated by 2020. The larger goal is to help cities deliberately make room for wildlife through innovative urban planning and building practices, whether they’re members or not. 

And then there’s the online service Building for Birds, based at the University of Florida. Landscape architects can plug the details of various plans into the program and see which ones are best suited for birds, explains Mark Hostetler, a professor of urban ecology who helped design the program along with some graduate students. It saves them the time of ploughing through scientific literature and assessing each design.

In the past half-year since it’s been running, more than 100 emails have come in asking for help, including some from Vancouver, Hostetler says.

Why is the movement growing now? Beatley says urban planners have started to realize that humans need nature, even in their cities. That was the idea behind the movement’s de facto bible Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species, published in 1984 by the fabled Harvard University bug scientist and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson defines biophilia as our innate affinity and longing for other living creatures. Nature, he wrote, is not optional. 

Researchers have discovered that we’re healthier when we have contact with nature. For example, some hospitals in the United Kingdom play bird songs to calm patients, Beatley says.

Urban planners have started to take note. Cities were once envisioned as refuges from wildlife. Environment happened elsewhere. Now, some city designers are reimagining urban landscapes as friendly to both people and animals. 

“It’s less about building a sea wall and more about thinking about a living shoreline,” Beatley says.

Timmins has taken me east from the subway stop to the Danby and Boynton woodlots, two large wooded areas straddling York Boulevard at the campus’ main gates off Keele Street. Sure, there’s the big road dividing the forested landscape in two, and cars and buses are zipping past. That roadway, and the others that surround this patch of urban forest, are hazardous for wildlife because animals are exposed not just to vehicles and pollution, but also to their predators. 

But on either side of the boulevard, Timmins points to rich habitat for non-human life. 

There’s a lot more plant cover than near the subway. More volume and more species. And it’s more natural and by default messier. Instead of the flat, tidy expanses of lawns in the centre of campus, plants here take up more vertical space. The mown grassy areas lead into untended, longer grasses and shrubs and then to the interconnected tree canopy of the forest. In the world of animals, messy means complex, which means more places to hide and nest, more insects, more food. And that means a better chance for survival.

The overall trend is that urban people are valuing animals of all kinds
a lot more

By leaving the forest alone, instead of manicuring it, the Keele Campus also fosters great habitat for animal life. Insects and small mammals thrive in the rotting leaf cover. Timmins has spotted loads of different caterpillars here. Birds love the bugs and birds of prey – such as red-tailed hawks – like smaller, warm-blooded creatures. Raccoons hang out here and so do coyotes and probably deer.

But mixing cities and wildlife can be a complicated enterprise. The people who share spaces with animals often have conflicting feelings about creatures, Timmins has noticed. 

On one hand, they admire wild animals, seeing them as naughty, rebellious, enviably free. They will spend large amounts of money for the pleasure of attracting birds and butterflies to their gardens. 

And people take pains to save urban species at risk. Public concern over the loss of bees and other pollinators is driving re-examinations of the science of neonicotinoid pesticides in Europe and Canada. Programs across North America to plant milkweed for dwindling populations of monarch butterflies have been robustly successful, Beatley says. The Fatal Light Awareness Program sends volunteers into Toronto’s streets to rescue birds that have flown into windows and injured themselves. 

But the more that people and animals inhabit the same urban space, the greater the potential for conflict, Timmins notes. And some animals, such as coyotes, can represent danger to urban dwellers or their pets. Raccoons and squirrels are notorious for the damage they can make in garages and attics. 

Finding solutions to these problems is one of the research topics in this emerging field of urban wildlife studies. 

“We’re trying to understand conflicts between people and wildlife in terms of things we can do with urban design and planning,” says Justin Podur, Timmins’ academic supervisor at York.

Despite some misgivings, though, people are now more and more apt to welcome wild creatures into cities. 

“The overall trend is that urban people are valuing animals of all kinds a lot more,” Timmins says. “It goes with the recognition that so many species are headed for extinction.”

It’s fitting that we’re taking this wildlife tour here at York. The movement to integrate nature and cities was practically invented here, although it was slow to take root. It emerged in 1995 in the seminal book Cities and Natural Process by Michael Hough. Before his death in 2013, Hough was a leading landscape architect (Ontario Place is one of his designs) and an adjunct professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. The book, now in its second edition, remains influential. 

Beatley calls it a “classic.” Podur concurs, adding that Hough, who died just as the Biophilic Cities network was being born, helped establish the idea among architects that the city itself is an ecosystem. 

But when it came out, Hough’s book was revolutionary. He took aim at the idea that, beginning after the Second World War, horticultural science, not ecological science, determined how a city’s open spaces looked. It meant cities all over the world had parks that were “ornamental and biologically sterile,” he wrote. They looked uniform, even pedigreed, and were expensive to maintain. Few featured native plants. Wild spaces were suppressed, disdained. 

It was all wrong, he wrote. Instead, urban planners needed to remember that human beings are biological creatures who are in vital ecological relationships with other life forms. The goal: bring urban and natural process together. The watchword: coexistence. 

The human benefit? We just get to contribute to keeping the planet whole

“Plants and other organisms will come if you let them,” Timmins says. “The human benefit? We just get to contribute to keeping the planet whole.” 

By now we are on the other side of campus, at the edge of Stong Pond near Black Creek. While a city highway runs north-south through the creek bed, the landscape here on its east side on campus is lush and largely untouched. It’s a wildlife wonderland. There are waterfowl, turtles, amphibians, swallows and butterflies. The pond glistens in the late-autumn sunshine, hinting at the riot of life in its depths.

This relatively untouched wilderness is rare in most cities. But in Edmonton, Canada’s only biophilic city, it is becoming more common. In 2009, the city put together a $20-million fund to buy wetlands and forests, says Grant Pearsell, the city’s director of urban analysis.

“We see ourselves as stewards,” he says, adding that Edmontonians are behind the project all the way. They cherish the time they can spend in urban wild spaces, he says. “People tell us they really need that.” 

Consequently, the city is now trying to connect wild patches so that animals can move more easily among them. So far, Edmonton has designed or constructed 32 such connectors, including the building of wildlife underpasses and more wildlife-friendly curbs. That’s in addition to the river and ravine that run through the city, mainly planted with native vegetation. 

Edmonton continues to map out places that could yet be linked together for animals to freely roam. 

Vancouver is another city that’s conscious of and willing to accommodate wildlife. Beatley points to the program in Stanley Park to make sure coyotes and humans can coexist. Toronto is not far behind. The city’s strategy to protect and restore its many ravines puts it among the leaders, Beatley says. 

But while wandering the open spaces at York, Timmins thinks that there’s still a long way to go before wild animals are accepted as belonging to cities, too. It starts with remembering that humans are dependent on the trillions of other non-human creatures on the planet. In an age of looming extinction, it’s in our own interest to support that biological diversity. 

“So far, we’ve been managing,” she says. “But how long can we keep going like this?”

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