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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

London is rewilding and the natives are coming back


The black redstart is one of Britain’s rarest birds. Few see them these days. And yet, in the very heart of London, sightings are on the up, reports Alasdair Lane.

“To hear and then see a black redstart singing in the heart of London always gives me a buzz,” says Dusty Gedge, an ornithologist who’s spent his life recording the species’ metropolitan comeback. “So far this year, I’ve spotted six.”

The little bird’s resurgence reflects a sweeping change underway in London, where developers are embracing the concept of “rewilding” — returning indigenous flora and fauna to urban cores. Biologists say such efforts are critical to maintaining these areas’ biodiversity as cities grow and suburbs sprawl into natural habitats. Rewilding brings those habitats back, integrating them into cities so animals and humans can coexist.

London’s Wild West End project is a prime example. Launched in 2015, the scheme set out to turn the city’s fragmented natural landscape into a place where native species could thrive, weaving pockets of greenery across rooftops, at street level and along the sides of buildings. The goal was simple: to create pathways of natural habitat along which wildlife can travel and flourish, unfettered by human activity.

With seven of London’s largest property developers on board, progress has been swift. Now, more than 2,500 square metres of green space stretches across the cityscape, encompassing dozens of green roofs, flower walls, foliage patches, planters, beehives and boxes inhabited by bats, birds and butterflies.

For Emily Woodason, senior landscape architect at Arup, an urban design firm that helped bring London’s Wild West End to life, the scheme’s success is clear to see.

“We’ve witnessed a significant increase in wildlife in the city centre,” she says. “We’ve had some fantastic sightings, including types of bats rarely seen in central London, woodpeckers, and, of course, the black redstart, which had been in decline.”

To keep abreast of the project’s progress, Woodason and her colleagues conduct green space audits every two years. On the most recent audit in 2018, four bat species were recorded, including one, the serotine, that hadn’t appeared in the prior surveys. Observers also recorded great spotted woodpeckers, great tits and blackbirds, in addition to four sightings of the black redstart, which wasn’t seen at all in 2016.

These sightings speak to how restoring habitats can help heal ecological systems. Scientists recently tested the bioscores — a measure of ecosystem complexity and resilience — of green spaces around the city of Aarhus, Denmark, finding a “positive relationship between urban wildness and biodiversity.” In Washington, DC, pipes and drainage ditches have been turned into streams, and the city is planting 11,000 trees per year to cover 40 percent of the city in tree canopy by 2032. Early results are encouraging: shad are rebounding in the Potomac River, and native eagles and ravens are nesting in the city in increasing numbers.

“Rewilding will often enhance a variety of ecosystem services, including the supply of freshwater, reduction in soil erosion, flood prevention and the removal of air pollutants,” writes Richard T. Corlett, a scholar of worldwide rewilding schemes based in China.

America’s monarch butterfly population is a case in point. An important pollinator and bellwether of environmental health, the monarch has been in decline of late — a trend that could be reversed by introducing milkweed plants across urban areas in the Midwest, researchers say.

The return of wild habitats is also a boon to local residents. London’s Soho Parish Primary School in the heart of the city’s West End was an early beneficiary of the scheme, receiving allotment planters, soft landscaping, bee and bird boxes, and a ‘wormery’ fed with kitchen waste. The effect on student welfare has been marked, the school says, with increased opportunities for youngsters to explore nature, keep fit and play outside. Survey data from people visiting the Wild West End Garden, another of the project’s installations, paints a similar picture. Among those who spent time at the site, an oasis of greenery just off London’s bustling Oxford Street, two-thirds reported an increase in feelings of wellbeing, with 29 percent spending more time in the area than usual.

The findings are consistent elsewhere. For the past five years, local authorities in Dublin have been encouraging the return of native wildflowers and invertebrates long since absent in the Irish capital. Though the public response wasn’t uniformly positive early on — a tradition of well-manicured lawns had to be overcome, explains the city’s biodiversity officer Lorraine Bull — Dubliners are now all for the natural approach.

“If I’m ever doing a talk on biodiversity, I always say: ‘Look, the fundamentals of biodiversity give us our clean air, our clean water, and our food’,” Bull says. “So it’s really, really important in an urban context, as well as a rural context, to preserve as much biodiversity as possible. Over the past few years, there’s been much more public buy-in for that.”

This growing appreciation of the benefits is well-founded. Recent research from the University of Adelaide, for instance, concluded that children exposed to wild environments are at a reduced risk of non-communicable diseases in later life, and experience less stress and anxiety. A related investigation by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) reached similar conclusions. “Studies have highlighted how people can cope better with major life issues, reduce their mental fatigue as well as improve attention capacity simply by being able to look at trees and plants from the windows of their apartment buildings,” says RMIT researcher Cecily Maller.

And while challenges remain, particularly due to a paucity of space and a changing climate, Wild West End’s Woodason says she remains optimistic. That’s good news not only for London’s little black redstart, but for its human neighbours, too.

ABOVE TOP Wild West End garden, London

PHOTO New West End Company

ABOVE BOTTOM Sky Garden allotment, London

PHOTO The Crown Estate

Though the public response to rewilding wasn’t uniformly positive initially — a tradition of well-manicured lawns had to be overcome — Dubliners are now all for the natural approach.

‘Micro-forest’ of endangered species takes over city laneway

A micro-forest of 30 species of critically-endangered banksia scrub — including 11 banksia trees, kangaroo apple shrubs, along with beehives for sugarbag stingless native bees — has been installed near Sydney’s Central Station on a plot 8 x 13 metres in the middle of a dead-end street. The banksias are threatened by land clearing, overdevelopment and the popularity of ornamental gardens across Australia’s east coast. The Barlow Street Forest, a project of the Dirt Witches collective, borrows from Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who founded a movement when he discovered dense copses (small groups of trees) bursting with biodiversity could transform small patches of urban wasteland. In the few days since it was established, project coordinator Vivienne Webb told the Sydney Morning Herald, the forest had brought the local community together, with neighbours offering water access.

ABOVE Caroline Rothwell with Vivienne Webb (right) and Floria Tosca (left) of the Dirt Witch collective.

PHOTO Steven Siewert

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