The latest post in our blog series to celebrate the release of the latest Ecological Reviews, Rewilding, is from Lead Editor of People and Nature, Cecily Maller and her co-authors Laura Mumaw and Benjamin Cooke. Here they explore the pros and cons of urban rewilding and how this can be managed in our cities and environments.
As ‘rewilding’ initiatives take hold around the world, we are seeing a renewed focus on the health and social benefits of interactions with nature. Despite what the name might imply, rewilding is not only happening in places that are traditionally considered to be ‘wilderness’ areas: rewilding is happening everywhere, even in cities.
Urban rewilding includes any initiative or program that seeks to encourage biodiversity, ecosystem function, and the persistence of native species in a range of urban settings, including on private and public land. Importantly, we argue, it encompasses the occupation of urban environments by native species, as well as the presence of ecologies that have resulted from human modification through urbanisation.
Amongst other benefits, ‘rewilding’ has been promoted as a means of reconnecting people with nature, addressing the ‘nature-deficit disorder’ and ecological boredom of living in cities. When rewilding is performed as a socially participatory exercise, social wellbeing benefits are also an outcome. For example, residents in a municipal program in Melbourne, Australia who maintain their own gardens to support the local government’s fostering of native species on public land, report strengthened connections with place and community as well as nature, and report experiencing motivation and hope because of community involvement.
With urban rewilding and related projects growing in popularity, there is a need to understand underlying human-nature relations in more detail, and how outcomes such as health and wellbeing may differ by culture, geographic region, or demographic group.
We suggest that progressing an urban rewilding agenda that is both beneficial and equitable means an honest engagement with the potential social and environmental harms that can be generated. It is therefore essential that the human and social dimensions of urban rewilding share equal billing with biodiversity and ecological imperatives.
Common assumptions that rewilding is beneficial for humans must be closely examined if rewilding is to deliver positive outcomes to urban communities more broadly. For example, rewilded ecologies can have potentially negative impacts on urban residents. Allergies caused by pollen, tree roots as trip hazards, falling branches that can kill or injure, leaves that accumulate and clog drains, bird droppings on washing and bites and stings are just some examples of ‘ecosystem disservices’. Conceptions of urban rewilding cannot ignore these challenges but make the case for urban coexistence in light of them.
We also suggest that to live with, and in, urban rewilding in ways that are attentive to benefits and harms necessitates an emphasis on the democratic processes and experimental practices of environmental management. This raises political questions such as ‘Who decides on local objectives for urban rewilding?’ And ‘For whom and how are health and social benefits from rewilding distributed in urban communities?’
Borrowing from wider discussion about conservation in the Anthropocene, we suggest that urban rewilding is best performed as a collaborative experiment, where interested and affected urban residents have the opportunity to play a role in realising the health and social benefits that might emerge from rewilding efforts.
Transformative environmental outcomes can be achieved in municipal areas, through governance that links active citizens with networks and local authorities that jointly respond to local social-ecological context. With the dynamic and evolving socioecology of the Anthropocene city, collaborative and experimental rewilding is a clear avenue for bringing people into the remaking of urban ecologies.
As we argue in our contribution to a forthcoming collection on rewilding, collaborative rewilding could invoke more informal, messy and creative spaces that allow for a wider trajectory of ecological flourishing, where the potential for ecosystem disservices can be more clearly and transparently addressed, and where more diverse forms of human-environment interaction can take root.
Embracing ‘informal’ and ‘wild’ spaces also helps us to see, preserve and build on the myriad wild and unruly places in cities that already exist, and are home to diverse ecological assemblages and human-environment interactions.
Drawing diverse perspectives and voices into rewilding through collective pathways not only reframes how nature is viewed and experienced in urban environments; it also expands the possibilities for more equitable distribution of health and social benefits.
Read more in our rewilding series:
Getting everyone on board with rewilding by Nathalie Pettorelli
Trophic rewilding: restoring top-down food web processes to promote self-managing ecosystems by Jens-Christian Svenning
Decolonising Rewilding by Kim Ward