Urban ecology – beyond the realms of science

It is difficult to imagine getting half way through your PhD and only then realising that a substantial amount of research and literature exists on your field of expertise that you were clueless about. If I was to offer mitigating circumstances it would be that I suspect a large portion of you would also fall into the same trap. When you think of ‘urban ecology’ you think of scientific ecological research carried out in cities or towns. However what sets urban ecology apart from ‘traditional’ ecology is that humans come along and mess it all up (or make it more interesting depending on your viewpoint!).   Recently I was lucky enough to travel to Stockholm (my wallet wasn’t so lucky – £7 for a cider!) to attend a weeklong workshop on ‘Urban Ecology – Science, Culture, and Power’. As the title suggests, science must be supplemented by cultural, political, and historical studies to fully understand the dynamics of the urban ecosystem.

Spending a week in the company of social scientists and humanities students was a novel and interesting experience – a career spent within science can make it difficult to perceive how your subject is viewed by others. Students included Claudia Fonseca who is planning to analyse case studies of social movements in Latin America that have sought to demand more ‘rights to the city’ including better environmental conditions. Whilst Simon West is studying how Cape Town biodiversity corridors are created not only for biological reasons but for political processes as a way of legitimizing nature protection in a highly contested environment. All the topics discussed at the workshop have urban nature as their focal point however their approach to the subject was very different from mine.

The course organiser, Henrik Ernstson, has done some fantastic work looking at contested public spaces in the urban landscape. Details of his work can be found at: http://www.rhizomia.net/ however one particular case study was used which clearly highlighted how urban green spaces require more than just a study of their ecological benefits. As Ernstson (2011) describes:

“Princess Vlei is a wetland and a public open space lying south of Cape Town’s historical centre. It brings multidimensional benefits to the people living in this area of the Cape Flats, but also to Cape Town as a whole. In parallel it is a place of intense meaning, collective remembering, and a site that can potentially heal wrongdoings of the past by allowing those marginalized during apartheid to gain space to articulate, celebrate and reflect upon their cultural history. As a wetland it generates a row of ecosystem services, not the least that of retaining water in times of flooding, but it also functions as a space for supporting animals and plants and forms part of the corridors of the Cape Town Biodiversity Network. As a public open space it has become an intense part of collective memory, being one of the most cherished open spaces accessible to those classified as “Coloureds” during the apartheid era, as told by many that visited the Princess Vlei during the objection letter day in October 2010.”

Tree planting at Princess Vlei (Photo credit: www.princessvlei.org)

Tree planting at Princess Vlei (Photo credit: http://www.princessvlei.org)

The Princess Vlei, however, was threatened by the proposal of a shopping centre which led to conflict between local residents and civic associations against developers and the City of Cape Town. What happened next shows the power of local community action and how as biologists we cannot consider urban green space purely from an ecological perspective when judging if an area ‘deserves’ to be conserved.  As Ernstson continues:

“In August-September 2008 the project called “Dressing of the Princess” started, initiated by local champion Kelvin Cochrane of Cape Flats Wetland Forum who became its voluntary-based project manager. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Cape Flats Wetland Forum, City Parks, the Biodiversity Management Branch, and SANBI to rehabilitate the biological condition of this crucial wetland, and restore its public open space functions(MOU 2008). In less than two years, local champions, communities and schools had taken the lead, together with workers of the Working for Wetlands, and shown that biological habitat could come to recover faster than what many suspected. It should here be recognized that instead of trying to follow standard scientific recipes of biological conservation, which experts claim to require larger areas and for which the project was never funded, the emergent Dressing of the Princess partnership accomplished something different: a truly innovative practice of weaving the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ together in a city that so desperately seeks an urban agenda that can address both marginalization, poverty, and the protection of high levels of biodiversity.”

Efforts to save Princess Vlei (Photo credit: Cape Argus)

Efforts to save Princess Vlei (Photo credit: Cape Argus)

As an (urban) ecologist it is therefore imperative that I recognise that urban green space cannot be studied or managed in isolation but that humans are an essential component of their existence and so include this aspect within my studies. In the summer of 2012 I spent the field season kayaking urban waterways (more details in a future blog) and got depressed by the environmental destruction I encountered as I paddled past a seemingly endless number of shopping trolleys and discarded furniture. However, it could be argued that I need to view this pollution within an urban context rather than viewing it as a normal ecologist would. As Evans (2007) writes “it is difficult to see what the removal of car shells will do to enhance the ecological worth of the river – indeed they can enhance the biodiversity of the river by breaking up flow and providing microhabitats”. Should I therefore be treating the discarded wheelie bins I found in a Glasgow woodland as inherently urban and treat them differently to pollution found in non-urban landscapes? After all, the wheelie bin is increasing habitat heterogeneity, can provide useful shelter from high winds for invertebrates or can act as valuable cover for prey species. It is these dynamics which seem to make urban ecology a discipline in its own right.

Urban rubbish - not always a bad thing? (Photo credit: Lorna Blackmore)

Urban rubbish – not always a bad thing? (Photo credit: Lorna Blackmore)

Studying the impact of species to highly modified landscapes is becoming ever more important as humans continue to exert ever more pressure on the natural world. However what sets urban ecology apart from alternative landscapes such as intensively managed agriculture or plantation woodlands is the complexity of the interaction between humans, wildlife and nature. It is only now that I realise that whilst studying the science of urban nature, it is essential to consider the historical, cultural and political aspects of the urban landscape. Whether these insights have just made my PhD much more complex and difficult to write remains to be seen!

There are times when out conducting fieldwork that you wish humans weren't such an important part of urban ecology! (Photo credit: Lorna Blackmore)

There are times when out conducting fieldwork that you wish humans weren’t such an important part of urban ecology…(Photo credit: Lorna Blackmore)


Ernstson, H. (2011) Making capetonian urban nature public: Recognizing the ecological rehabilitation project ‘The Dressing of the Princess’ beyond its immediate locality. Published at http://www.rhizomia.net/, 2011-03-02.

Evans, J.P. 2007. Wildlife Corridors: An Urban Political Ecology. Local Environment, 12 (2), 129-152

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s