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Conserving backyard biodiversity

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  • Conserving backyard biodiversity

    Conserving backyard biodiversity
    Tuesday, 15 April 2008
    By Gary Luck

    In 2008, for the first time in human history, more people live in urban compared to rural areas. Population growth in urban centres is almost double the rate of global population growth. By 2030, 5 Billion people will live in a major city or town. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world: over 85 per cent of us live in or close to an urban centre. The negative impact of urbanisation on nature is well recognised. Extreme levels of development result in the loss of many native plants and animals. However, there is a fascinating twist to this tale: in many regions across the globe, human population density is positively related to high native species richness. That is, areas that contain the most people also contain the most species.

    This doesn?t mean you will find a rich diversity of species in downtown Melbourne or Sydney. However, regions around urban centres contain more species than those more distant. It seems that humans and many other species are attracted to settle in similar locations. This is likely related to factors such as the productivity of the environment, access to fresh water and climate stability. Current evidence confirms that intense development disadvantages many species, yet human settlements are nested within regions of high diversity. This leads to a fundamental conclusion: appropriately planned neighbourhoods would greatly reduce the threat human?s pose to species conservation and have enormous potential to support a rich diversity of native plants and animals.

    But why bother with conservation where people live? Surely our focus should be on ?wilderness? areas where human impacts are low? There are many good reasons to promote neighbourhood conservation. Reducing the separation between people and nature can lead to greater empathy for and understanding of the environment. Recent research shows that humans that interact with a diverse natural world show improved measures of psychological wellbeing. Since we spend most of our time at home or work it?s crucial that we improve conservation outcomes in our neighbourhoods.

    This is not only important for human wellbeing ? it may be vital to the future of broader conservation outcomes. Consider this: our most common interactions with nature occur in our local neighbourhood. These interactions help to form our perceptions of the natural world. Since the majority of people now live in urban areas, it is urban nature that has a major impact on these perceptions. And, it?s the urban population that will dictate government conservation policy because that?s where the votes are. It?s crucial then that nature conservation is promoted in urban areas to ensure that appropriate perceptions of the importance of the diversity of nature are formed and translate into support for broader conservation policies.

    If we accept these arguments we?re faced with the problem of how to enhance urban nature and maximise interactions between people and a diverse natural world. This presents a conservation conundrum. High density living is increasingly promoted as the development of the future to reduce our geographic footprint on the environment (i.e. the space we occupy). It may also reduce our ecological footprint through lower per capita environmental impact if we occupy smaller houses or apartments (less energy required to heat and cool), fill our home with less ?stuff? and regularly use public transport (which is more viable in high density cities). However, high density living has the potential to increase the separation of people from nature.

    Conversely, in the sprawling suburbs, people have much greater opportunity to manage their properties to support native plants and animals and directly enhance their interactions with nature. Indeed, various studies of ?rural-urban? gradients show that the number of species peaks at the urban fringe compared to the inner city or relatively undeveloped landscapes. This is a factor of how residents and local government manage these areas (e.g. native gardens and the retention of remnant native vegetation). Yet, urban sprawl leads to a much greater geographic and ecological footprint.

    So how do we maximise nature conservation, and interactions between people and nature, in our neighbourhoods? In high density suburbs, large areas of land (e.g. 10s ? 100s of hectares) must be set aside at regular intervals to allow easy access for all local residents. These areas must be actively managed for nature conservation, but allow human-nature interactions in a controlled environment (Kings Park in Perth is an excellent example of this). Parks should also be connected via vegetation corridors preferably straddling streams or other waterways. Retrofitting our cities with neighbourhoods of nature parks is a challenging prospect, but with community and political will it?s not unachievable. Funding could come from carbon emission reduction schemes (urban parks would act as carbon stores).

    In low density neighbourhoods, residents and local governments should be encouraged to promote nature conservation through retention and restoration of native vegetation in backyards, verges, local parks and conservation reserves. A variable rates scheme (or similar) could be employed to reward landholders who take a nature-based approach to managing their properties. The key challenge in these regions is reducing people?s ecological footprint (geographic footprint is not the major issue for residential areas since land classified as urban covers less than 5 per cent of Australia?s landmass). This can be achieved through incentives that promote smaller house size, less energy use, smaller cars, car-pooling, and subsidised public transport among many others.

    The notion that we need to reduce our impact on the environment is well recognised, but the idea that human-nature interactions might be vital to the future of conservation is not.

    The environmental costs of urban sprawl and low density living are bad and must be addressed, but the conservation costs of completely separating people from nature may be disastrous.

    Gary Luck is an Associate Professor in Ecology and Environmental Management and a Principal Researcher in the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University. His research interests include relationships between human settlements and biodiversity conservation, fauna conservation in highly modified landscapes and ecosystem services.

  • #2
    Re: Conserving backyard biodiversity

    "And, it?s the urban population that will dictate government conservation policy because that?s where the votes are ..."

    The recent estab. off. decision of sterminate a whole big herd of cangaroos instead of capture and moving them in some remote unpopulated areas (which Aussi have plenty of) was very cruel.
    On a trail of some past coalas urban herd stermination wanted because of overpopulation. Very "inventive" indeed.

    Where is this "urban population that will dictate government conservation policy because that?s where the votes are".
    No new resolving methods, only the old extermination way.