Top navigation


Can Cities Rise to the Challenge?

by Jennifer Chesworth

Urban landscapes are going green to fill an important role in food production, habitat provision, and conservation of wildlife. Can the built environment, with its vast impervious surface areas, treacherous roadways, and neighborhood “nuisance” ordinances adapt to create a truly green future?

The answer to that question is a conditional yes; It depends, and it requires careful and coordinated planning on the part of property owners and city governments. It also requires the will of not just a few, but a majority of urban people.

Urban farming, city gardens and urban forestry are moving into the forefront of city planning, proving to be cutting-edge solutions that inspire hope for the future. Green roofs, raingardens, community orchard projects, botanical gardens, composting, and greywater recycling are just a few ways that individuals and urban district governments can “go green.” But with the greening of our cities comes new responsibilities, obstacles, and real dangers for both wildlife and city dwellers. Biodiversity in the urban landscape is a wonderful thing; it also includes and even attracts common “nuisance” species like rats and mice, bats, raccoons, opossums, deer, fox, termites and other pests. A hawk that most urban people might not even notice, or might welcome in the skyline, is another person’s nuisance complaint because it hunts and kills the songbirds. We all have our preferences. But the need for more green spaces and more sustainable environmental services in our cities is becoming critical in many people’s minds. City dwellers, as well as the urban landscape, are going to have to adapt to accommodate the changes needed for greener cities.

These issues are being raised across the nation, making headlines just this month in cities like Philadelphia and Washington DC. As in most policy issues, the question of “who pays?” is central to both the protection of biodiversity and the removal of unwanted wildlife that may carry diseases or ticks and fleas, damage property, bite or scratch children and household pets, interfere with road safety or die in traffic. Trees, parks, community gardens, or backyard composting on one property can draw wildlife and pests across roads and onto neighboring properties. When trapping animals, fumigating for pests, or weed removal can cost hundreds of dollars and may be required under city ordinance, the costs and benefits of greening the city need to be carefully weighed and understood by city dwellers. Policy has a long way to go, but at least these issues are being brought to light and put forward in public debate.

Valuing nature requires contact with nature, and education about why we need to live in better balance with the environment. City zoos are important oases in urban landscapes where research, conservation, children’s petting zoos and other public education promote the value of nature for city people. The antithesis of “wild” and in some ways, a sad response to the need for wildlife protection, zoos provide a controlled environment for public interaction with the natural world and often house important conservation initiatives and botanical sanctuaries.

But the concept of “green cities” is more inclusive than that. Urban landowners and landscaping professionals have exciting opportunities, and unique responsibilities, whether the goal is to beautify or to provide functional services or both. We know that green spaces lift people’s hearts and are an essential part of human life in the city. The challenge is to make life in the city good for nature as well.

Jennifer Chesworth is a freelance writer and is editor of ELA’s online news