Competition to Increase Urban Biodiversity

January 28, 2014

triangle land conservancy

Envision a world where major city mayors are competing, not over their multi-million dollar sports teams, but over which city has more biodiversity, more green space, better butterfly habitat. While we’re not there yet, Richard Conniff in an article for YaleEnvironment360 writes that a fledgling urban wildlife movement may make it possible.

Urban planners and landscape designers are realizing that planting native trees instead of foreign species will vastly improve the level of urban biodiversity. “In contrast to oaks, which accommodate 537 species [of caterpillar],” Conniff writes, “gingkoes, a standard [and foreign] street tree in many cities, host just three.” Not only are native trees better for native insects, birds, and mammals, but certain native trees are better than others at promoting biodiversity in urban settings: “For instance, though tulip trees are undoubtedly majestic, at 160 feet in height, they are stingy with wildlife, hosting just 21 caterpillar species.” City planners must factor in species suitability before they plant trees in order to enhance the urban environment for as much flora and fauna as possible.

If cities want to attract more wildlife, they don’t necessarily need to spend millions of dollars to do it. “You can bring in more birds,” the article continues, “just by breaking up endless lawns with the right kinds of shrubs, to create structure and variety. Mowing those lawns a little less often – not weekly but every two or three weeks – will increase the population of native pollinators.”

Organizations are tapping into tools of citizen science to research which trees are best suited for urban neighborhoods. Using i-Tree, developed by the U.S. Forest Service, and eBird, a favorite product of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allows “researchers to assess not just which trees characterize a neighborhood, but how good they are as bird habitat, and which birds are using them.” Observations from local people are making a direct impact on projects to increase native species in urban environments!

Where does your favorite city rank when it comes to nature? Philadelphia comes in first in biodiversity, followed by Washington, D.C. Sorry New York, you fall behind Philadelphia, D.C., and Boston, but you do beat out Jersey City. Could the legendary rivalry between Boston and New York extend to wildlife and biodiversity? Maybe, and, as Conniff points out, “that would be a competition worth watching.”

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