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

Living with wildlife in cities

Coexisting with wildlife in cities can lead to what is known as “human-wildlife conflict,” or attacks, nuisances, disease transmission, loss of aesthetic value, and economic costs.

For example, foxes, feral dogs, bears and raccoons may tip over and empty out garbage cans onto sidewalks and streets in order to find food. Wild canids and felids may kill people’s pets. It is also common for people with gardens to be upset by moles, woodchucks, deer, or other animals that mess up their lawns and eat their flowers. People may be frightened by the incursion into their gardens and houses of snakes, wasps, spiders, mice, and other species.

Wild animals in cities can also help control other pest animals. Leopards in Mumbai hunt feral dogs that may transmit rabies: Hedgehogs in gardens eat snails and slugs that chew on leaves. Raptors that nest on skyscraper cornices control rat and pigeon populations.

Human-wildlife conflict is largely a matter of attitude, as well as the political costs and benefits of tolerating, complaining about, or actively resisting cohabitation with other species. This is particularly the case for human-wildlife conflicts with species that are protected by NGOs, governments, or other actors. In these cases, the human- wildlife conflict is frequently a “proxy conflict” with the actors seen to be protecting the wildlife, and the root of the conflict is often completely unrelated to the species itself. In urban environments, human-wildlife conflict is less common with protected species, since urban habitats attract generalist species that are good at living in human-modified habitats, and thus are not threatened. Negative attitudes towards urban animals thus have to do with fear or bother. Animals tend not to understand our demarcation of territory into inside and outside, private and public, forest and garden, tidy area and garbage area, and many people find their crossing of these boundaries to be upsetting.

At the same time, contact with nature, including wildlife, seems to have positive mental health benefits for city dwellers. For example, my former colleague Kristine Engemann from Aarhus University has found that childhood exposure to green areas reduces the risk of mental health problems in adulthood: Many people very much enjoy having a close encounter with a deer—if it is not eating their flowers or crashing through their sliding-glass doors—or with birds—if they are not defecating all over the balcony—or with a fox—if it is not trying to bite them or their baby—or with butterflies—almost always. I think that some of our frustration with wildlife comes from our inability to control it, our sometimes poor interspecies communication and our fear of a social relation that can go wrong. Because wildlife indeed is not just something we observe as a spectacle through the window or from within a rowboat or on a path—animals may want to interact with us, or the physical infrastructures we create. Animals do not grasp the division between humans and wilderness, artificial and natural, that present themselves as primal and obvious to most city dwellers. If they stay out of cities, it is because they can’t make a living in urban habitats, not because of some profound difference in our natures that means that they don’t belong there.

Nevertheless, with some creativity many such boundary-crossing problems can be addressed, mitigated and perhaps solved. Architecture and industrial design could be employed to create spaces, infrastructures, objects and information sources to make interactions with wildlife more predictable, mutually desirable and safe, and to make spaces more permeable or less permeable, as the case may be. This is an area that has interested me a lot, and I once published a paper with a design student in which we proposed a set of designs to reduce conflict with sealions at the port of Valdivia, in Chile. We included designs that supported different conceptions of human-animal relations (spatial separation vs. interaction) as well designs that intervened at different scales and by different means—an architectural installation, a temporary mobile fence, an anti-sealion defensive startler, and a flyer explaining how to read sealion body language. These were unfortunately never tested or applied. Yet there seems to be an increasing need for such collaborations between designers, ecologists and animal behaviour researchers in urban contexts.

Another approach to improving cohabitation with wildlife in cities may be to reconceptualise how we use space, in recognition of the fact that cities are places where animals live, and that welcoming them can help secure their benefits to urban ecologies and human well-being. For example, the crows at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris are considered a pest because they dig in and overturn the turf on the lawns (which you cannot walk on), especially in spring when the soil is full of little larvae to eat. The gardeners sometimes put up signs apologizing for the effect, which certainly contrasts with the highly ordered and ornate garden style. My thought was that the gardeners should accept the crows’ intervention as a form of contemporary nonhuman art collaboration, and plant flowers every spring in the random patches of overturned turf. I am still looking for an opportunity to suggest this to someone. What does seem to have happened, though I am not sure if it is on purpose, is that a small section of the lawn has not been turfed this year, and the crows seem to be very attracted to this area. If it keeps them away from the lawns, this might be a good (if slightly unexciting, I must say) solution.


Lowry, H., Lill, A., & Wong, B. B. (2013). Behavioural responses of wildlife to urban environments. Biological reviews, 88(3), 537-549.
Magle, S. B., Hunt, V. M., Vernon, M., & Crooks, K. R. (2012). Urban wildlife research: past, present, and future. Biological conservation, 155, 23-32.
Root-Bernstein, M., Arévalo Rosas, N., Osman, L.P., & Ladle, R.J. 2012. Design solutions to coastal human-wildlife conflicts. Journal of Coastal Conservation 16(4), 585-596.
Soulsbury, C. D., & White, P. C. (2016). Human–wildlife interactions in urban areas: a review of conflicts, benefits and opportunities. Wildlife research, 42(7), 541-553.
Teixeira, C. P., Passos, L., Goulart, V. D., Hirsch, A., Rodrigues, M., & Young, R. J. (2016). Evaluating patterns of human–reptile conflicts in an urban environment. Wildlife research, 42(7), 570-578.

Meredith Root-Bernstein, 4 March 2019