talks,  urban

Learning to live in the multi-species city

We tend to think that cities, as human constructs, are the homes of humans. But they are much more than that. The modern city is actually filled with wild animal inhabitants. Squirrels, hedgehogs, pigeons, sparrows, frogs, and many more small critters live within the confines of European cities; it is their natural habitat. Livestock have also traditionally been city residents, with pigs and poultry as most common. Mice and rats receive the most frequent negative response, particularly when they take up residence inside of human houses. But in the 21st century many of the others are seen as desirable—indicators of an environmentally-friendly urban area. Our artificial structures are part of nature for these animals.

I was invited to talk at an event called “PLATSEN: bringing together key actors for sustainability” this week in Umeå. The event was targeted toward local and regional actors working on urban sustainable design, urban planning, and smart cities. The organisers asked me to give a talk about environmental history as a policy tool. I decided to tell four histories that reveal different approaches to our non-human co-inhabitants of cities. These were stories of Control, Care, Compromise, and Creativity.

The Control history used an incident in 1354 when the Norwich city government records recorded a complaint that:

divers persons and children have been hurt by boars, children killed and eaten, and others [when] buried exhumed, and others maimed, and many persons of the said city have received great injuries as wrecking of houses, destruction of gardens of divers persons by such kind of pigs upon which great complaint is often brought before the said Bailiffs and Community imploring them for remedy on the misfortunes, dangers and injuries which have been done to them. (Records of the City of Norwich, 205–6).

I talked about how the response to urban pigs was to control their actions through penning and herding, rather than banning the animals from town. There was a need to accommodate daily life and routines to the animals’ presence.

For the Care story, I used the burning badger babies incident I discussed previously on this blog. In this case, firefighters had rescued some badger kits from a burning building–revealing their care for the animals. But the kits ended up being euthanised because an appropriate rehabilitation facility could not be found–which we can also read as an act of care.

The story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio showed how Compromise works with urban animals. The residents of Gubbio had to be willing to give the wolf alternatives if they wanted to avoid predation on their sheep.

Watching the bats emerge from under Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, Texas. April 2016. Photo by D Jørgensen.
Watching the bats emerge from under Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, Texas. April 2016. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Finally, I told the story of the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas as an example of Creativity. The Congress Avenue Bridge has crossed the Colorado River in downtown Austin to connect the two sides of town since 1910, but when it was renovated in 1980, it became a perfect habitat for bats. Bats begin showing up to roost under the bridge in 1982 and now there are over 1 million bats that roost under bridge from March to November every year. While the initial reaction in the early 1980s to the bats was fear, the city has adopted the animals as as a tourist attraction and even symbol of the city. In 1990 the city parks and recreation department set up a large educational display along the river’s trail. The city approved the installation of artist Dale Whistler’s kinetic metal sculpture of a stylised bat in a triangular intersection island near the bridge in 1998. The annual Bat Fest, featuring live music, art and craft vendors, and bat-themed activities on the bridge including the nightly emergence, started in 2004. There are hundreds who come each night to see the bats emerge: See the bat flight I witnessed. This is creative co-inhabitation.

To make sustainable cities we need to learn to live in a multi-species city. We need to become welcoming to non-humans by adopting policies and approaches of Control, Care, Compromise, and Creativity depending on particular historical circumstances.

You can watch my full talk online. My part starts at minute 11:30 in the video feed.

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