Wild for the city

Increasingly, that is exactly how city planners are looking at wildlife. They are also taking steps to increase its numbers rather than working to suppress it.

Consider Toronto’s Humber Bay shores. After the recent demolition of a rundown motel strip, the area on Toronto’s western waterfront is in the midst of rapid development.

Directly south of high-speed Lakeshore Avenue and the higher-speed Gardiner Expressway has risen a brand-new residential community of glass-and-steel condominium towers. And at the foot of those towers, on the shore of Lake Ontario, is another development, where the sound of bird calls and insect chirps competes with the passing traffic.

Humber Bay Park is home to a variety of ecological initiatives, including stormwater retention ponds, which ducks and swans inhabit, and, most notably, a butterfly habitat.

Since 1999, local volunteers working with the city and the environmental organization Evergreen have been removing invasive plant species from the sculpted garden and replacing them with shrubs, grasses, trees and flowers designed to support five species of butterfly throughout their life cycles. In late summer, the park is an urban oasis, with hairy willow-herb and New York ironweed in bloom and butterflies flitting about. Visitors can even learn how to create butterfly habitats in their home gardens.

This type of initiative, rather than directly encouraging coyote growth, is the common face of urban ecology and wildlife restoration in Ontario cities. Humber Bay Park is one of more than 2,400 community-greening projects that Evergreen has been involved in across Canada. At the flagship Brick Works venture in Toronto, the organization is in the midst of turning a massive former industrial site into, among other things, a giant plant and tree nursery. Already in place, in a former quarry, is a habitat supporting dozens of bird species. Wildflowers and native grasses grow alongside a wetland pond network and a restored Carolinian forest of mostly deciduous trees.

“A lot of what we do with urban greening, creating healthier cities, is directly related to habitats for bugs and birds and wildlife,” says Evergreen spokesperson Nate Habermeyer. “Our stewardship activities restore native flora, which is directly related to encouraging fauna.” He points out that it is impossible to separate wildlife programs from biodiversity programs in general – that conserving or restoring natural landscapes in cities starts with ridding areas of invasive plant species and cultivating instead a mix of indigenous plants, which attract insects, which attract birds and, somewhere down the chain, mammals.

Similar projects are popping up across Ontario. In Sudbury, 200 volunteers have worked with Evergreen to restore a bird habitat on Junction Creek by cleaning up the shoreline and introducing native shrubs, trees and wildflowers. They have also reintroduced brook trout into the cleaned-up creek.

The approach is by no means limited to Evergreen-supported projects. The City of Windsor’s Spring Garden Natural Area preserves endangered snakes, butterflies and woodpeckers. In Oshawa, the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve on the shore of Lake Ontario set aside and developed by General Motors is now home to thousands of trees and shrubs, while bird-nesting boxes surround a revitalized marsh. Visitors to the reserve can find 290 species of birds, 57 species of fish and 32 species of mammals.

The provincial government is trying to promote the diversity of urban wildlife. In a 2005 document titled Protecting What Sustains Us: Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy, the Ministry of Natural Resources laid out a plan that features many familiar elements – containing urban sprawl, encouraging sustainable agriculture – but which also supports stewardship activities such as habitat restoration and preservation.

As we welcome wildlife back into urban areas, however, inevitably not all encounters will be happy ones. And more often than not, the animals suffer, not us. For example, a 2008 interim report on the progress of Ontario’s biodiversity strategy highlights the “turn out the lights” program in Toronto high-rises aimed at saving some of the estimated 10,000 birds that die each year because, disoriented by lights, they collide with buildings.

City dwellers are by now used to adapting to what we consider nuisance wildlife, such as raccoons, pigeons and skunks. And, as we encourage more animals to live among us, we will have to respond with more adaptation. In Ottawa, for example, municipal officials offer programs that educate drivers in preventing collisions with deer, and these kinds of initiatives are now province wide. Often, however, ecology itself enforces limits. We don’t want grizzly bears and wolves wandering cities, but the very structure of urban centres helps to keep them out. Strauss points out that the food sources for such large predators are scarce in cities and that the urban environment is disruptive to their way of living.

Unlike wolves, coyotes generally adjust well to urban living, but, notes Strauss, “coyotes in general are very low risk [in respect] to people. Most people live with coyotes and don’t even know it, because the successful coyotes in urban areas have shifted the timing of their activities to avoid humans.” Those that fail to adapt, like Neville, get hunted and trapped. Occasionally, even in the healthiest ecosystem, some animals will display atypical behaviour that makes them dangerous to humans (and their pets), and in those cases they have to be removed. Which is exactly what we have done for decades with rabid domestic dogs and overeager raccoons.

Such adjustments are a small price to pay, say environmentalists, for the benefits that flow from connecting human, animal and environmental welfare. And, as much as a green city is inseparable from a biologically diverse city, so are both increasingly inseparable from our idea of a livable city. The fundamentals of a wildlife-friendly urban community – starting with many parks and other green spaces containing a variety of native plants, which support diverse insect and bird populations and thriving aquatic watersheds, then progress to a dense tree canopy and a network of green roofs and naturalized lawns while fostering walking in place of driving – are synonymous not only with environmentally friendly cities, but with the ideal picture of urban living.

Green cities are not just better for animals; they are measurably better for people in ways that go beyond absorbing pollution and cutting carbon emissions. Studies have shown that contact with nature offers human health benefits such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, enhanced survival after a heart attack and lower stress. Add recreational benefits, and the rare instances of coyotes attacking house pets seem a small price to pay. When we remove one coyote, the balance of the local ecology will dictate that another coyote, probably possessing more typical behaviour patterns, will take its place. And for that, urban ecologists say, we should be thankful.

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Edward Keenan lives in Toronto, where he works as the senior editor of EYE WEEKLY and as a blogger for the Walrus.

1 Comment

  1. August 20, 2012    

    Hi Ed:

    What is of interest to me, is that your name, Ed Keenan, shows up on the internet and so does mine, and we both happen to be deeply centered on nature and write about it.

    As an introduction, please allow me to send you a copy of my recently published book.

    Warmest regards,
    Ed Keenan

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