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

What does it feel like to be an urban animal?

Analogies from a city in chaos

Last week I travelled to Chile for a conference on socio-ecological transformations (https://transformations2019.org/en/), and to carry out fieldwork in the countryside for several research projects. I arrived just in time for the major protests about inequality and quality of life that started on Friday the 19th and continue more than a week later as I write this. I was obliged to stay in Santiago longer than I intended because all the buses in and out of the city were cancelled for several days. There is a lot to say about the protests that is not really relevant to this blog about urban biodiversity. Here, I only want to reflect on an analogy to urban biodiversity that occurred to me while I was in Santiago.

I have experienced protests in Santiago before, but this one was bigger: it took up more space in the city and lasted much longer. There was also relatively more destruction of property and sacking of chain stores than is usual. Santiago is a city built around a single axis, the Alameda which runs east-west and connects the old and poor downtown with the uptown malls and wealthy neighbourhoods. There is a striking gradient inequality up and down the Alameda, but what is also striking is how hard it is to get anywhere without at some point travelling up and down it, either walking, by taxi, by bus, or along the main line of the metro. Although Santiago is nominally laid out on a grid, many of the streets within the grid form disconnected zigzags or come to dead ends. The Alameda is also a critical artery to get on and off the highways that provide direct paths between various commercial and residential parts of the city (while also sometimes cutting off neighbourhoods from one another). Shutting down parts of the Alameda thus inconveniences everyone and is a classic protest tactic in the city.

Several times, I crossed the Alameda in the morning to go to a park, a museum, the zoo, or a café, and then had difficulty getting back across it to get to where I was staying. Nearing the Alameda from a couple of blocks away I would hear people shouting or chanting, or yelling ‘f—the police’ and screaming, or see smoke from something on fire, or see streams of people with their noses covered walking away from the Alameda, or running, or feel the tear gas myself. I walked away from these signs. I often walked along a pedestrian street many blocks downtown, since the protests usually moved uptown. On the first Friday, I caught a glimpse of the Alameda, empty and quiet on my side of the street, full of trapped buses on the other side. I decided to cross, but as I was crossing the street, a tank spraying tear gas appeared out of nowhere, bearing down on me and 3 other people crossing the street. I ran away. Another time, I found a pedestrian undercrossing that used to be for cars. It was painted in cheerful colours and allowed me to pass under the tear gas and whatever action was going on on the Alameda above. Even on the south side of the Alameda, where I was staying, the protests extended much further south than I expected, all along Parque Baquedano, which runs north-south, and I often had to walk very far south to avoid crowds, police, and uncertainty. The crowds weren’t necessarily dangerous, but sometimes they had erected barriers from road signage and infrastructure and started bonfires, so it seemed best to walk around that. Getting home every day became an exercise in sensing the position, movement and mood of crowds, the sounds of police sirens and the feeling of tear gas, judging which way to go to get around barriers and bonfires, where to cross major roads and when. It was challenging (thought by no means really difficult) to move around in a city in chaos. Many small shops as well as almost all chain stores were closed as well by the weekend, meaning that finding food and other supplies also became a guessing game. In some areas, everything was closed, while in pockets both near the protests and farther away, shops and cafés were open and life in general went on almost normally.

It occurred to me that for animals like moths, bats, butterflies, bees, songbirds, crows, raptors, rats, mice, hedgehogs, foxes, and all the other animals that try to cross over and move around in cities, life in the city must feel like this every day.

• Urban buildings, cement surfaces, streets and highways are to other animals what Santiago’s public spaces blocked by crowds, blockades and bonfires were to me. That is, they are dynamic and uncertain barriers, spaces of possible risk and discomfort.

• Sometimes the only path somewhere crosses these areas, or sometimes there is an animal underpass or green corridor, just like the pedestrian underpass I found.

• Urban pollution, sound pollution and light pollution are to other animals like the tear gas I felt and tried to avoid.

• Parks and gardens are like the neighbourhoods I found where the neighborhood shops were still open, which were nice even if I had to buy Instant Noodles and canned tuna for dinner instead of a hot meal at a restaurant.

• Maybe abandoned lots are like the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants where I found tres leches cake (a Chilean classic), hotdogs covered in avocado and mayonnaise (another Chilean classic), or Venezuelan arepas.

• There were even treats to be found: street vendors continued to sell freshly pressed orange juice and fried sopaipillas: maybe this is equivalent to an animal finding just the right plant or space it was looking for to forage, lay eggs, or make a nest.

Indeed, ecologists find that urban animals often need to be more behaviourally flexible than their peers in order to survive in cities (Lowry et al. 2013). One might also expect urban animals to experience more stress, as measured for example by cortisol levels, than individuals of the same species outside urban areas. However, chipmunks, blackbirds and tree lizards show lower overall stress levels and stress responses than non-urban ones (Partecke et al. 2006; French et al. 2008; Lyons et al. 2017). The chipmunks moved and explored less, groomed less (which can be a sign of stress), and were plumper. I would interpret this not as the urban environment being stress-free and great for chipmunks, but that it has selected for chipmunks who are placid and stay put in small comfortable pockets rather than risking it in uncertain matrix habitat. Making a similar argument, French et al. (2008) suggest that "urban tree lizards may have suppressed overall corticosterone concentrations possibly from down-regulation as a result of frequent exposure to stressors, or increased access to urban resources". Ultimately, selection for indifference to stressors and lack of exploratory behaviour might have negative outcomes for urban animals as it may make them less, rather than more, behaviourally flexible in the face of novelty (such as changes in urban climates, management regimes, or infrastructure).

I have visited many cities, including chaotic ones, but what I think made me feel a bit like an anxious hedgehog or a stressed owl was the feeling of a city I knew how to navigate that had become non-functional. The city, suddenly, was no longer organised for people’s normal life. This jolt of non-recognition, of having to learn to re-navigate urban space, gave me this feeling of how it must be for non-human animals to survive in cities that are not designed to meet their needs, and which they can do little to shape.

Note: the image of the magpie and starling is from an artwork in the show about dioramas that was at Palais de Tokyo a few years ago. Unfortunately I don't have a note of the artist.

References:
French, S. S., Fokidis, H. B., & Moore, M. C. (2008). Variation in stress and innate immunity in the tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) across an urban–rural gradient. Journal of Comparative Physiology B, 178(8), 997-1005.

Lowry, H., Lill, A., & Wong, B. B. (2013). Behavioural responses of wildlife to urban environments. Biological reviews, 88(3), 537-549.

Lyons, J., Mastromonaco, G., Edwards, D. B., & Schulte-Hostedde, A. I. (2017). Fat and happy in the city: Eastern chipmunks in urban environments. Behavioral Ecology, 28(6), 1464-1471.

Partecke, J., Schwabl, I., & Gwinner, E. (2006). Stress and the city: urbanization and its effects on the stress physiology in European blackbirds. Ecology, 87(8), 1945-1952.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 26 Oct 2019

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