Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Biodiversity in European cities: a historical perspective

Is biodiversity in cities a futuristic idea?

I had the feeling that people were more used to living with biodiversity in cities in the pre-modern period. What kinds of coexistence did medieval urban residents have with non-human creatures? While thinking about this I came across a book called Animaltown: Beasts in Medieval Urban Space. 2017. Eds. Alice M. Choyke, Gerhard Jaritz. Bar International Series 2858. Consulting it also gave me an opportunity to visit the beautiful National Institute of Art History library in Paris. Here is a brief summary of what I learned from this book.

Throughout Eastern and Western Europe, urban residents coexisted with many animals in their cities, especially farm animals. It is interesting to note that these forms of coexistence were responses to changing land-use and access rights and urban regulations— the existence of such restrictions, and the conflicts caused and resolved by them, is not a modern phenomenon! Restrictions on farming in the countryside in the early medieval period led people to raise pigs, chickens, sheep and cows, geese, ducks, horses and donkeys in urban streets and courtyards. This practice was forbidden from time to time in various cities due to the problems it caused, such as traffic blockages, dung in the streets, the mess and potential contamination from slaughter, and so on. We should note that due to these annoyances, coexistence with flies would also have been common! In Dalmatia, pigs could only be raised in town between Michaelmas and Christmas.
But since hunting was usually illegal for common people, city-raised farm animals were an important solution for urban food provision.

There were also plenty of non-domestic animals in medieval towns. In York, in the UK, research suggests that various animals, such as jackdaws, were frequently tamed and ketp as pets. Interestingly, the currently ubiquitous urban pigeon was rare. Urban-dwelling pigeons seem to be a modern phenomenon. Rats were also not common in cities until they arrived from Asia via trade ships—arriving in York in the 9th C. By contrast, mice, voles, shrews, hedgehogs, weasels, frogs, and toads would have lived in urban ditches and abandoned houses and gardens. . The night soundscape of cites would have included croaking! Ravens, eagles and kites would have fed on this wildlife. Cats also lived off these animals and human food waste. Feral dogs, curiously, were apparently not an issue in European cities until the end of the medieval period.

In peri-urban areas, sheep were often in conflict with orchard and crop farmers. When shepherds brought sheep into town for market, this could cause huge traffic jams. Increasingly, the messy and inconvenient aspects of animal life, food production, and processing of other animal products (e.g. in tanneries), were moved to city edges or outside city walls. This led to a constant exchange between the city and its surrounding countryside.

Finally, cities were also places where one might be lucky enough to see exotic animals collected by elites, such as the polar bear in 12th C London or the tiger in 15th C Torino (Italy). Bears for baiting and performing monkeys were also displayed in cities.

Medieval cities were swarming with animals, whether domestic, tamed or wild. While the modes of coexistence sound much more chaotic than anything a modern European city dweller would expect today, this coexistence was a response to problems we still face: access to land, access to food, and issues of urban planning. Today, while there are very few large animals in European cities, plant biodiversity is coming back as a response to these issues, in the form of urban allotment gardens and urban agriculture.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein

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