A key theme at The Nature of Cities is the fundamental connection between urban nature and the challenges of creating better cities, particularly cities that are more resilient, sustainable, livable, and just. Cities around the world experience similar challenges related to this theme, and they also may pursue many shared or convergently evolved approaches to them.
Yet, cities are also different, every one. One pattern that emerges in such difference is along a North-South gradient. By this we mean not only geographic north and south (e.g., relative to the equator), but also—and perhaps more importantly—differences in cities currently perched at different stages along a developmental trajectory: that is, as we now say, cities in the Global South versus the Global North. Cities in the Global South, or “developing countries”, may struggle with insufficient resources to address their challenges; they also may have different approaches to planning and environmental management; or maybe not enough study has been applied there; or maybe…and so on. In any case, much of the ecological work and urban thought—and climate-changing economic activity—applied globally emerges from the Global North, and is applied to the South. Or, at least, such a bias is commonly cited. Is this true? Is it a problem?
This roundtable is convened to discuss urban ecology from a southern perspective. Is urban ecology somehow different in the south? Are there cultural or governance nuances that mean that common ecological principles are best modified when applied to urban planning in the south? How might we propel a Global South urban ecology for the design of better cities in these regions? Perhaps the models of the North are not the only, or best, options.
These questions are key for our global future, for it is in the Global South that the majority of rapid urbanization is taking place. Here we convene 15 scientists and thought leaders, mostly from the South, to discuss the ways forward.
Growing global-contributing urban ecologists in the Global South, or: Who lines the walls of fame in urban ecology? Interrogating community and belonging
I was interviewed for my current job in the University of Cape Town’s Science Faculty boardroom. This boardroom, probably like many others around the world, has something of a “hall of fame” line up of framed photographs of past Deans of the Faculty. It’s a classic collection of black and white photographs of somewhat austere looking, heavy-eye-browed men. It is an honourable group of hardworking men who have built up an excellent intuition over the last 100 years. Looking at them, as I sat there, sweaty-palmed, made me feel terribly out of place. I wondered, was this the place for a young female scientist, and could I legitimately make a contribution here?
Of course, my point in telling this anecdote is a straightforward one—one we are all acutely aware of—about representation and belonging. Who has the right to speak? Whose voice is heard? Whose story is valid?
There are enough brilliant minds in this roundtable to put forward clever arguments on how urban ecology in the Global South differs from that of the Global North, and to that end I will focus my energy on a smaller and more delicate issue within this broader debate. What I wonder is: How should we be training young urban ecologists in the Global South? What worries me is that my own students look around at the urban ecology literature and ask themselves a similar question to the one I asked when I looked up at those portraits in my job interview: they wonder if they belong. We constantly tell our students to chime in on the conversations taking place in the published literature, to be active participants in the debates and discussion taking place among the authors publishing in their field. We expect them to draw on ideas and present these in relation to other ideas, and to pit them against their own ideas and findings. But what if, from the very get-go, they do not feel part of the community, or that their experiences and understandings exclude them in some way from these conversations?
There is lots of excellent urban ecology literature emerging from our Global South cities, and I firmly believe there is a lot of excellent literature that is relevant but not always readily flagged as urban ecology literature in the Global South. Sometimes, one has to dig a little deeper to find it. That said, there is no escaping that the bulk of the voices in the urban ecology conversations are from the Global North. I think any seasoned urban ecologist from the Global South can readily engage in healthy and productive debate with these voices and views and can critically engage with them around the numerous points of departure and agreement between the South and North with respect to the urban ecology of our cities. I do, however, worry about growing young students in this space, where the heavy tidal flow of cases and opinions are skewed to the Global North, leaving them feeling that this is not their territory or that their contribution is not legitimate.
Indeed, a student of mine pointed out to me last week that while the case study she had chosen to present in my class was from South America, the authors were from Florida, in the United States. Sometimes, even where the material is Global South in content, the voices retain a Global North tone. These voices are often very confident, from institutions that are globally known, relatively well-funded, and infused with a culture of older cities, cities with different development trajectories, which have no sense of urban informality or devastating inequality, and possibly have a closer proximity to global publishing houses, etc. etc. I think the only way to get around this is to flag these issues, talk about how they have come about, encourage students to critically engage with those circumstance, using such questions as: How might this case have been presented differently if the author was from Bogotá? Did the authors own their positionality? How would you engage with your positionality when writing about your own city?
It is vital to encourage students to publish their own work and to offer whatever support one can to grow the groundswell of literature that reports on and reflects on urban ecology in the cities of the Global South. I think another important bolstering opportunity is engaging with communities of local urban ecologists to grow a sense of belonging and to allow students to find their “voices” in local spaces. To this end, I find fieldtrips and engagement with local practitioners extremely useful. I suppose that just as I got my job, and went on to be part of a Department that is actually dominated by women (the Dean who interviewed me at the time was the first woman Dean of our Faculty, whose picture now also adorns the boardroom wall), so too will this tide turn. It is a question of acknowledging, engaging, and encouraging one’s students (and self) to be part of the movement that sees the growth of urban ecology literature from the Global South.
There are several unifying elements of urban ecology, no matter in which part of the world you live. As humans, we all have similar needs and the differences are tuned by the degree to which we (and cities) have been able to satisfy those basic needs. I think this discrepancy—the lesser degree to which cities have been able to satisfy basic needs in the Global South—is one of biggest differences we can find between the Global North and South, which of course influences the study of ecology in cities and for cities in both sides of the world.
We know urbanization growth patterns have huge implications on nature. Thirteen years ago, Liu and collaborators published a paper in Nature showing a general growth of household numbers globally. The research highlighted the potential consequences this household dynamic would have on biodiversity due to increased rates of consumption of wood for fuel, habitat fragmentation, greenhouse emissions, etc. As shown in their study, which remains valid, household growth was significantly higher in countries with biodiversity hotspots (regions with high diversity and endemism and priority for conservation), which are usually developing countries. How can urban ecology inform what we know and how we address the consequences of losing nature—and the benefits it provides to urban dwellers?
Urban ecology research has been extremely scarce in Global South, not to say inexistent in our region (Latin America). For example, in Chile (which is not very different from other Latina American countries), we face challenges associated with a lack of systematized basic information, such as spatially explicit demographics on household dynamics, not to mention urban biodiversity inventories. Although urban ecology studies are growing fast, our research must invest a lot of effort in gathering basic data to answer even elementary urban ecology questions, let alone our more complex sustainability questions. We are ready to focus on the complexities of urban dynamics, even while we are still learning the basics.
What are the consequences of the Global North guiding urban growth and the field of urban ecology in the Global South? Real problems come when decisions are made based on general models without the complexities of particular (local) realities. Problems are likely to arise when we follow the growth patterns of the Global North, knowing they have failed under certain circumstances. Climate change has demonstrated a huge challenge for existing grey infrastructure in developed countries. Nowadays, these countries are moving toward the integration of green and hybrid infrastructure that is expected to provide multiple functions and to be “safer to fail”. Still, our Southern cities yearn to follow the Global North patterns and build monumental infrastructure, neglecting undeveloped land that harbors nature—our unintended green infrastructure—that provides multi-functional ecosystem services.
Rather than relying solely on the urban ecology models from the Global North, we in Latin America should highlight the opportunities we have, in which we can make the best use of existing knowledge while incorporating (and valuing) the singularities and particularities of the Global South.
To achieve this, urban ecologists not only need to generate more research, but also to develop stronger links with society to move our scientific knowledge into action, and ultimately into policymaking.
As an ecologist doing research in a number of countries located in the Global South, my main experiences of major urban centers usually takes place as I transit from the airport, maybe make a few supplies/permit stops, and then head to the forest to catch butterflies. I’m not alone. In a 2012 survey, Martin et al. (2012) found that over 60 percent of ecological research is conducted in protected areas.
According to recent statistics (March 2016), San Salvador has the third highest homicide rate in the world. In this environment, you might not expect a population that would care much for their urban butterfly biodiversity. I ended up in El Salvador myself, largely on a whim, to do PhD research. A friend of mine from high school, Celia, invited me to join her on a visit to see her family and I wound up spending a couple of weeks in a municipality not far (about 30km) from San Salvador. We had running water (usually in the mornings) only about half of the time I was there. Gang violence was a frequent topic of discussion. A variety of other challenges I was not accustomed to as a product of my middle class American experience were readily apparent during my stay there.
In the absence of good urban ecology data from the Global South, one can only speculate as to the similarities and differences regarding urban nature priorities and challenges across the North-South (development) divide. But I suspect it would be fair to say that people in the South have bigger problems on their minds than urban nature, in most cases.
Having said that, I can’t help but think back to my eye-opening first two weeks in El Salvador living with Celia’s family on the outskirts of San Salvador. I brought my butterfly net and decided to run some transects in the small backyard where I was staying. The backyard was on the corner of a somewhat busy street, and it had no fences. I felt strange (and more than a little uncomfortable) at first, swinging at passing butterflies while being watched by confused neighbors. But after a while, I got pretty good at explaining with gestures and (very) broken Spanish that I was hunting mariposas. Pretty soon rumors of my bizarre behavior had made their way through town and I accumulated a following (see photo above). Lots of folks had suggestions on where I should go if I wanted to see some cool butterflies (usually close to where they lived). And on one memorable occasion, a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, came to our house and handed me a very large and very dead sphingid moth as a gift. After a couple of weeks, I had only found about 10 species in the backyard, but I had made a lot of friends.
I went on to spend part of the next three summers/falls of my PhD program working in El Salvador. But like most ecologists, I usually stopped in San Salvador only briefly, to pick up permits or supplies (and to visit my friends/familia) before heading off to the forest to study climate change and butterflies. So, unfortunately, I’ve not been able to do much personally regarding the data gap in urban ecological research in the Global South. The North-South divide is clearly worthy of further investigation and surely our research biases are contributing to inadequate management of nature in urban areas in the South. But I’m also convinced that there are some similarities that unite cities all over the world, based on my personal experience. That is, if you wander a city with a tall butterfly net in hand, as I have, be it in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Yaounde, or San Salvador, you’re likely to get many inquisitive looks…and even a handful of smiles.
Martin, L. J., Blossey, B., & Ellis, E. (2012). Mapping where ecologists work: biases in the global distribution of terrestrial ecological observations. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10, 195-201.
Shwartz, A., Turbé, A., Julliard, R., Simon, L., & Prévot, A. C. (2014). Outstanding challenges for urban conservation research and action. Global Environmental Change, 28, 39-49.
The difference isn’t ecological, it’s cultural
It is seemingly a strange notion that there should be different perspectives on urban ecology, especially when urban areas worldwide exhibit similar characteristics in the broader era that we now commonly call the anthropocene.
It follows, therefore, that if the “Southern” perspective is different from the ‘Northern’ perspective, this distinction must be based on or rooted in something equally fundamental, and that is culture. From this standpoint, the relevance of the “Southern” perspective, or perspectives more correctly, becomes highly significant. The diversity of “Southern” perspectives must then draw on the cultural diversity of the “South”, which in turn is rooted in the natural and/or ecological diversity of this geographical collective.
As Carl O. Sauer elaborated, the cultural landscape of a particular place is a cumulative result of the interactions between the nature and culture of that place. In his words, “The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.” From this perspective, the thoughts that developed in the “South” on urban ecology, or a broader nature-culture relationship, form an extraordinary subject of study.
From the geographically vast and culturally diverse Asian region, a few of these “Southern” perspectives are worth mentioning to illustrate the point.
First is an ancient thought borne out of the culturally rich and fertile soil of India. In Indian thought and tradition, a human being is considered as a part of a larger and nested structure. The individual human being is nested within the wider human society. The dialectic between the human individual and society defines their mutual complementarity. The society (including all individuals) is then nested within nature, and the relationship between the two gives rise to the culture of a specific place. Further, the individual, the society, and nature are nested within the cosmos. These four seemingly are different concepts and identifiable realities. However, they are part of each other, or better to say, identifiable with regard to each other. This underlines each entity’s interdependence and, therefore, interconnectedness. In practical terms, this idea gets translated into the philosophy of “oneness” (Sanskrit: Ekatmata) or “non-duality” (Sanskrit: Advaita) in the entire cosmos, “the world is one family” (Sanskrit: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), and “non-violence” (Sanskrit: Ahimsa). Using this concept, the Indus Valley cities in ancient India, such as Dholavira, had developed elaborate systems of water harvesting and management that helped their citizens to survive in some of the harshest arid environments that nature presented. It is this concept and its understanding in the wider society that leads to the worship of nature and her representations, such as rivers, mountains, trees, and so on.
Second, the idea of “Pratītyasamutpāda” (Sanskrit; Pali: Paticcasamuppāda) or “dependent origination”, which is commonly known as “interconnectedness”, finds a philosophical place and practical application in the Buddhist tradition. According to the principle of “dependent origination”, all things arise with dependence on one another. It follows that, since we, as human beings, are interconnected with nature, it becomes our duty to be compassionate to Mother Nature and all living beings. Therefore, Emperor Ashoka, who adopted Buddhism as the state religion in his reign (from c. 268 to 232 BCE) in India, prohibited the killing of animals and birds. With Buddhism, the principle of “interconnectedness” spread far and wide in Asia. For example, in Thailand, rivers are revered as “mae nam” or “mother river” to the present date. With such rich endowments of thought, tradition, and culture, one would expect that the relationship between Mother Nature on the one hand, and cities and human settlements on the other, would be truly harmonious in current times in these places as well. That is, however, not a widespread practice in urban Asia.
Still, some of these ideas and thoughts are being tested for their practical application in today’s urban Asia. For example, public authorities in Lumphini Park—Bangkok’s oldest green space, have allowed the growth of Bodhi plants that had germinated from seeds contained in bird-droppings (Lai, 2016); Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. In India, the National Ganga River Basin Authority has started the Mission Clean Ganga with a comprehensive approach to champion the challenges posed to Ganga (commonly known as Ganges) River through four different sectors: wastewater management, solid waste management, industrial pollution, and river front development.
But an obvious question arises: Why are these efforts not widespread? A set of interrelated factors causes the present situation to persist, or even worsen in some places.
First is the meaning associated with “development” in the international arena. “Development” is commonly understood as an increase in income and an improvement in the quality of life, which are the derivatives of national economic growth. This is based on the example set by the Global North, which, for historical, geo-political, and economic reasons, “developed” before the South did. Once economic growth became the marker of development in the North, the South started to follow this paradigm, facilitated by international development agencies. And until the late 1980s, the idea of “development” did not include sufficient attention to nature.
Second is the integration of the world economy through the process of economic globalization, which finds spatio-economic manifestation in the cities of the “South” (as well as the “North”). This often allows little space for the inclusion of caring for Mother Nature as a “mother” or “giver of all life”. The concomitant occurrence of urban environmental problems related to poverty, production, and consumption (following Bai and Imura, 2000) in the South confirms this.
Third, the South generally follows the path laid by the North: grow first, clean up later. This has worked for the North as it has had a long gestation period with regard to its economic “development” process. However, this will not necessarily work for the South, where cities are experiencing explosive economic, demographic, and spatial growth, particularly in Asia (see Dahiya, 2014).
Lastly, the neo-liberal economic model crowds out caring for nature even though nature is deemed culturally important. This is because the culture of caring for nature is increasingly being replaced by the culture of accumulation and consumption. Money, after all, matters a lot!
Looking forward, the culture of respect and care for nature will have to be brought back if the cities of the South, as well as those of the North—and, for that matter, humanity and all forms of life—have a chance of survival on planet Earth.
Bai, Xuemei and Hidefumi Imura (2000) A Comparative Study of Urban Environment in East Asia: Stage Model of Urban Environmental Evolution, International Review for Environmental Strategies, 1(1), pp. 135-158.
Bigio, Anthony G. and Bharat Dahiya (2004) Urban Environment and Infrastructure: Toward Livable Cities, Directions in Development Series, The World Bank, Washington DC.
Dahiya, Bharat (2014) Southeast Asia and Sustainable Urbanization, Global Asia – journal of the East Asia Foundation, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 84-91.
Lai, Chieh-Ming (2016) Public Green Spaces in Bangkok: A Case Study of Lumphini Park, M.A. Thesis, Southeast Asian Studies Program, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
Ana Faggi and Sabina Caula
Why should southern and northern cities be ecologically different in this globalizing world? In the end, a city is a complex mosaic of interrelated patches of green, blue, grey, and brown infrastructures that influences the composition and abundance of urban biodiversity. As in the north, southern cities show biotic homogenization trends that have significant ecological, evolutionary, and social consequences.
Studies around the world have shown that in cities, metrics that help us measure ecological health, such as bird species richness and the number of food guilds (organizations of species based on their diets), decrease; meanwhile, the number of exotic species and the rate of nest predation increases with urbanization. In South America, the assemblage of birds is simplifying with increasing urbanization both at the species and guild levels, so that generalist omnivores and seedeaters dominate. Omnivorous birds are common along the urban gradient and seedeaters are also tolerant to urban development. As in the north, specialized insectivores and frugivores are the most negatively affected groups.
In South America, there are two foreign species, native to the Global North, that are nonetheless recorded as common and abundant in most cities: Columba livia (Rock Dove) and Passer domesticus (Sparrow), but they are mainly found in the areas with a higher density of buildings and sealed surfaces (Images 1 and 2).
As in other parts of the world, evidence shows that most of the birds observed in “green” areas are native. From México to Chile, common native urban bird species recorded are: Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata), Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis), Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus), Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Vermilion Flycatcher (Pirocephalus rubinus), and Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulfuratus). From north to south, most of these birds are just generalists adapted to new manmade urban habitats, while sensitive ones disappear.
In cities all over the world, vegetation is the most attractive cover for bird communities. In urban parks, the mixed native and exotic trees and shrubs facilitate generalist birds to make use of the greater plant diversity by offering a higher quantity of food and refuges, especially during ecologically challenging seasons. Because native vegetation and local bird species have co-evolved together, in the breeding season, green remnants rich in native vegetation offer a comparatively large number of habitats available for specialist birds.. Unlike “natural” habitats, the parks in South America often have similar structures in all cities, because they have been designed and planted following European styles. In our globalized world, new fashions imposed by designers, architects, and urban planners have given rise to urban green spaces that suit a particular aesthetic, but which have nothing to do with the local identity and, in many cases, have excluded the native flora and fauna.
Most of these spaces have been developed from French, Spanish, and Italian prototypes, using similar non-native species arranged in a savannah type display, with large grass areas, always neatly cut, as well as granite and asphalt. These parks can be found anywhere in the world, from Sydney to Santiago, and from the historic centers of the city to the periphery. In Latin American cities, seasonally ornamental flowers and exotic trees from different continents prevail: Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.), cypress (Cupressus sp.), acacia (Acacia retinodes), poplar (Populus sp.), willow (Salix babylonica), linden (Tilia cordata), maple (Acer sp.), chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach), sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus), London plane (P. occidentalis x P. orientalis=Platanus x acerifolia) and Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are common in temperate and mountain cities, whereas Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.), pine (Araucaria heterophylla), tree orchid (Bauhinia sp.), yellow flame tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum), Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), Neem (Azadirachta indica), Ficus sp., Flamboyant or acacia (Delonix regia) and Mango (Mangifera indica) are common in neotropical cities.
For birds, these tree assemblages become an environmental filter that excludes many differentiating sensitive species. To birds’ eyes, urban greenery in the South and North is highly similar. As such, plans to create green spaces in the Global South should be adopted by any city to promote local biodiversity and to conserve and restore native vegetation, rather than planting exotics from the North.
The laws of nature are universal, but our understanding of how they can be applied in the Global North and South is constrained by tools and approaches developed in the Global North. Unifying laws that determine how elements of nature operate and relate have been a central consideration in making cities better for human populations and, more recently, in how people can relate with urban nature. Most of the tools and approaches to understanding urban ecology have been developed in the Global North. This no surprise because, again, urban development principles promoting the notion of universality emerged from the Global North. Does the Northern perspective of this framework matter?
The application of science developed in the Global North
Whereas the approaches and tools of the Global North are evident in many cities of the global South, there is also divergence in the form of patterns and processes. Urban development trajectories of the South present differing patterns and processes. In some literature, this has been referred to as “insurgent urbanism”, while in more recent literature, the urban development trajectories represented in the Global South are referred to as “alternative urbanism” with its own theory. We use “insurgent urbanism” to give a perspective on how urban ecology of the South can be described, characterised, and compared. “Insurgent Urbanism” here is understood as alternative urban development trajectories to the Global North experiences. Although the Global South’s Insurgent Urbanism has been perceived as not decent, not up to standards, there is recognition of many good elements of this urbanism.
Based on this Insurgent Urbanism, urban ecology of the Global South differs greatly from that of the Global North. Taking the broader definition of urban ecology as comprising built elements, population and its culture, as well as nature, the configuration of these helps us understand the differences that perhaps unify urban ecologies of Africa and South America more than between Africa and Europe. The foundation of the different urban ecologies in the Global South lies in the terrestrial ecologies on which the urban areas were superimposed. As with many cities in North America and Europe, cities in the Global South were strategically built on river transport ways, strategic inland points (for economic reasons), coastal zones, mountainous areas, and in desert environments (for economic resource extraction). These defined the inherent elements of the urban ecologies on which were weaved built components that determine the green patches; waterways; wetlands; road islands with various forms of configuration as linear objects; circular, discrete patches; and/or corridors of nature that serve various purposes.
The foundation also determines how urban populations and the various cultures relate with natural elements. There are patches that are tethered through urban planning or infrastructure development, but many are remnants of natural areas that form a unique mosaic of urban ecology, including public green spaces, water canals, valued environmental components (such as wetlands, hilltops and urban forests). The tethered patches also include plot-level landscaping and manicuring. An interesting feature of urban ecology is the definition of “public spaces”, which differs between Global North and Global South. Public areas in a state-led tethering of space are often planned, protected, and maintained by the municipal authority. Though these spaces have generated more contestations lately, with expression of civil rights’ views as in the case of Nairobi, for example, and the Wangari Maathai greenbelt movement. On the other hand, “public” in a largely “informal” city is not limited to publically defined spaces, but to all space, including private spaces that dwellers can make use of in any way, even if, by law, such use infringes on the protected rights of the territorial owner, as is largely the case in Kampala. There seem to be various informal rules of utilization of such spaces that differ from in Global North.
Patterns of change
Another difference is in relation to peri-urban areas that, across the Global South, have undergone tremendous spatial, social, and environmental change. As is the case in Kampala, these areas have the characteristics of spontaneous developments, with a mix of distinct agricultural patches. This change is converting large areas to urban uses, but in a fragmented matter. Peri-urban areas are presenting more theoretical and definitional challenges, with a character that makes it useless to distinguish between “urban” and “rural’ characteristics” in these areas.
The maze of land use activities seems to display configurations of ecological patches of different forms. Thus, urban ecological fragmentation is one feature that both unifies the Global North and South, while simultaneously distinguishing between them. For example, in Kampala, the fragmentation of urban nature is a significant feature of urban development, just as in other cities. The reason for this continued fragmentation is that most urban areas are founded on earlier urban development principles and structures, among which is the separation of “incompatible” land uses. But this process is broken by spontaneous developments that disregard separated “urban uses”, such as industry, residential, and commercial zones aiming to create a mosaic of uses at various scales of development.
To generate solutions, contemporary planning of cities is slowly embracing the “planning with nature” principle, which is motivated by recent discourse on global environmental change. For this reason, any attempt to compare urban ecology of the Global North with the Global South leads to more questions than answers. From a practical point of view, it is important that the differences between the two are recognized and enhancement of urban ecology builds on the nature of urban imprints in the South. Urban ecological planning is one possible approach to enhancing the Southern cities’ ecosystems services and the relations between nature and people. This approach takes the situation, resources, and conditions into consideration while developing contextual solutions, as opposed to superimposing solutions from elsewhere.
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Human beings living both in the Global South and the Global North aspire to live in sustainable, livable, resilient, and just cities. Guiding principles for achieving this include recognizing and studying how cities are both drivers of, and driven by, ecological processes within and beyond their boundaries.
However, the HDI simplifies and captures only part of what human development entails; in particular, it does not reflect on inequalities, poverty, human security, empowerment, access to the decision-making process, and governance in general. Even the Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index (or IHDI), addresses inequalities in the health, education and income dimensions, while falling short of scrutinising governance arrangements. In this sense, the HDI can be viewed as a measure of human development outcome. Notwithstanding the importance of the above, for the purposes of this debate, what is needed is a measure of inputs (e.g. governance arrangements that lead to certain policies) that can produce countries with the same Gross National Income per capita, while nevertheless having very different human development and urban ecology outcomes. The remainder of this short contribution will therefore focus on the effect of urban governance on urban ecology.
Human activity within city boundaries is related to the use, production, and distribution of natural resources including water, land, air, and minerals. This human activity leads to a particular distribution of benefits; exposure to risks; vulnerabilities; and risks and losses due to disasters, climate change, and interaction with the environment in general. Different political systems lead to differences in the 1) mechanisms for decision-making (regarding the human activities above), 2) gate keepers guarding access to new ideas in the decision-making forum, and 3) legal and illegal forms of formal and informal lobbying, amongst others. In weak governance countries, limited debate takes place in the decision-making forum regarding what constitutes a “just” use and distribution of benefits and vulnerabilities. Furthermore, there are few checks and balances in place to prevent one sector (e.g. the banking and real estate sector) to become a dominant sector, driving policies and activities at the detriment of other “pro-poor, job-rich” sectors such as the industrial and agricultural sectors. Hence, in order to understand internal mechanisms affecting the driving forces of interaction between human society and urban ecology, it is necessary to closely examine and scrutinize urban governance.
Another related issue is the effect of globalisation on urban governance, in both weak and good governance countries. While globalisation (in the form of the free movement of goods, services, and capital) exerts pressures on urban governance, countries and cities with good urban governance arrangements are better equipped to resist these pressures, and to ensure transparent and participatory debates in the decision-making forum. Conversely, weak governance arrangements within cities (usually in the Global South) render them ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of globalisation on urban governance arrangements and on urban ecology. Hence, urban ecology methodologies and urban indicators must try to address these differences.
More recently, various international and regional aid agencies are carrying out initiatives for improving the resilience in cities, where Terms of Reference (or ToR) are drafted and international consultancies are selected based on a competitive bid process. While these initiatives are devised based on ToRs that aim to protect the stakeholders’ interests (i.e., the inhabitants of the city under consideration), more often than not, in the context of weak urban governance, the recommendations shift towards representing shareholders’ interests (of both local and international consultancies) leading to a shift in focus to capital-intensive investments in security and major infrastructure in rich urban areas, with limited benefits to the most vulnerable.
Along the same lines, the use, production and distribution of resources beyond city boundaries, at the global level, leads to a particular distribution of benefits, risks, and losses within the city. Due to inter-city, and inter-country governance arrangements, cities in the Global South have very little say in, and limited access to, the decision-making process in the Global North, but are often detrimentally affected by this process (e.g. the issue of climate change on Small Island Developing States, or the role of a particular city in global supply chain economics).
Urban ecology poses challenges to the whole of humanity, which is an opportunity for human societies to unite along good urban ecology principles. However, weak governance intra- and inter- cities and countries acts as a barrier against developing, and/or implementing a unified vision and strategy. The way forward is to develop and refine contextualized good urban governance principles and indicators within and between cities, and then to monitor and lobby for their implementation.
Knowledge of the ecology of urbanization has been missing until recently. Over the past decade, our understanding of the ecology of and in cities has evolved. We’ve never known more than we do now, so how we create resilient and sustainable cities for the future will largely depend on the application and further development of this knowledge.
The North is predominantly, but not exclusively, experiencing a process of de-densification. Shrinking cities are located primarily in Europe, the U.S., and Japan. Whilst population decline is not limited to the North, this is an issue that mainly Northern cities will have to grapple with, particularly in terms of its implications for urban ecology.
If one was to posit a core unifying element of an urban ecology of the Global South and the geographic south, it is that our common challenge of responding to rapid growth trajectories whilst protecting our ecosystems will provide a new paradigm for urban ecology beyond what we have known to date.
We need to understand how we curb the negative effects of aggressive urban sprawl on ecosystems. Australia is home to some of the fastest growing cities in the developed world, but over 40 percent of nationally threatened ecological communities and more than 50 percent of threatened species occur in urban fringe areas, which means many of our threatened ecosystems are verging on the brink of extinction. Recent investments in integrated research programs and partnerships will shape and inform Australian urban policy for how we manage this challenge. Our researchers are also working to understand how over 40,000 years of Aboriginal knowledge can inform our approach to urban ecology. How we embrace the cultural and social diversity implicit in the fabric of our cities, particularly indigenous knowledge, to shape a modern urban ecology has the potential to be a defining opportunity for many cities in the Global South and geographic south.
We also need to understand how we can avoid green gentrification of our cities and ensure ecosystem service provision is equally distributed for all urban residents. Ultimately, the urban poor will remain located in the Global South. Minimizing social inequalities will define the resilient city of the future. In South America, we can find some great examples of addressing inequality. Curitiba has approximately 52 m² of green space per capita—the highest urban green space ratio in world. The city was transformed into a global model of sustainability through strong leadership and the revision of land use planning in tandem with a suite of supporting environmental initiatives. Bogotá Humana is Bogota’s local government urban development plan, outlining policies to address climate change and growth in a manner that prioritizes ecosystem services.
As we build the cities for the future, we will spend an estimated US$5 trillion per annum in the coming decades to provide basic levels of infrastructure. The question is, what kind of infrastructures will we provide? Singapore provides a leading example for urban ecology, where green infrastructure is very much on par with grey infrastructure and shows how a city can increase its vegetation cover and minimize biodiversity impacts whilst doubling its population. In 2012, Beijing made a bold investment in green infrastructure, committing over US$4.7 billion to construct 67,000 hectares of trees around the city to minimize air pollution.
Ultimately, city collaboration will provide a unifying framework for urban ecology because, in a time of unprecedented global change, learning from contemporaries will be the key to success. Climatic similarities may take precedence over other similarities as cities adapt to and grow with climate change. Therefore, we may see increased collaboration for urban ecology between cities facing similar climate change impacts.
For now, the lack of common datasets in cities, which would allow for comparative analysis of urban ecologies, remains an issue. This lack of data is even problematic for how we define cities. As digital transformation sweeps our cities, now is the time to unlock the opportunity technology holds for enhancing our understanding of urban ecology.
There is another kind of “south”; biologically special in one way, but disadvantaged in another. This is the “islands versus continents” divide. The vast majority of the world’s ecological literature, as well as conservation philosophy, methodology, and investment is generated from the (affluent) population centres of the northern hemisphere continents and tropics—or continental islands such as the British Isles—with long histories of mammalian and human occupation.
The historic absence of land mammals had a profound evolutionary influence on the vegetation and bird life and, in particular, resulted in a high proportion of flightless creatures. Compared to continentally-honed ecosystems, the NZ native biota is relatively sluggish and some might say drab (we would say endearing). Organisms evolving in NZ had no need for “rapid response” physiology or a competitive edge, adapted as they were to defoliation by herd herbivores, and having poor fight/flight strategies and reproduction rates for dealing with voracious predators.
This dramatic difference between continental and oceanic ecosystems leads to a need for very different management approaches, but NZ is as much colonised by ideas of nature and landscape from the European homeland as it is by thousands of exotic organisms. This is no more so than in cities, where extinction of experience (Miller) is a significant cultural impediment to recognising that there is a problem to be addressed. And in the hinterland, hunters strongly lobby for wild (exotic) game. They are not “seeing” the exponential destruction caused by introduced organisms. Even the recent fashion of “reconciliation ecology” is a continentally derived philosophic construct. It sounds nice, but in New Zealand’s oceanic, evolutionary context, the end point of ecosystems, left to their own devices (without active management), would almost certainly be one indistinguishable from a globalised northern temperate biome dominated in its early stages by pines, willows, Douglas fir, European sycamore, holly, ivy, gorse, broom, prunus, and blackberry, and European passerines, mustelids, rodents, and cats.
In such circumstances, strategic management, and a culture shift among urban arborists, park managers, and landscape architects, will be essential to maintaining an indigenous/natural character through NZ’s city-scapes. Similar circumstances apply to other, old islands, such as Hawaii, Fiji, Noumea, Madagascar, Galapagos, and Sri Lanka. There are a range of indigenous species that can be used in NZ urban settings, but hitherto the palette has been limited due to lack of experience, a dearth of knowledge, and what has become habitual. It’s simply easier to use the conventional, the tried and true! Although NZ doesn’t have a lot of lawn grasses, nor large flowery herbs for borders or deciduous woodlands, we do have flat herbs with fragrant flowers suitable for mowing; divaricating shrubs that make great hedges and lizard forage; ferns, mosses, and forbs with colourful berries for our evergreen broadleaved canopies with emergent native conifers; and species for stormwater treatment trains including green roofs. There needs to be an aware, “horses for courses” approach to urban biodiversity in New Zealand.
The bigger north-south question is one of the world’s “wicked problems”. This is about the West (the Global North) sharing its wealth and power more equitably (within countries and internationally), but also about being more efficient with a smaller footprint. This is going to depend on learning to live and work with nature and being more connected to it. A greater presence of trees, green space, and functioning ecosystems (eco-parks) is critical to produce the well-known calming influences of “green”, but also for providing “living lessons” for how nature works, how we are a part of it and dependent on it—not separate and in control. In the end, we have to obey natural laws.
So, to address the questions posed—yes, there are differences between the Global North and South, in many senses: inequity and competition for land in poorer or developing countries, a biogeographic difference between the land and water hemispheres, and a broader distinction between continental and oceanic land masses and their biota. NZ is a bit of an outlier. It is one of the affluent first world countries, but has been colonised both by creatures and a culture that are not conducive to protection of our natural heritage. All three issues need to be addressed and managed according to their historic and material circumstances; urban environments are both the battle and learning grounds.
Harrowing and destructive experiences of nature in cities of the south undoubtedly emerge from the pervasive poverty and elevated exposure to disease and climate change—this cannot be denied and should be urgently addressed. But, nature-based urban “risk” is a simplistic and overly negative entry point for understanding the distinctive ecology of African cities and towns. Whether as a scholar, policymaker, resident, or traveller between African cities, it is striking how dominant and inspiring nature is and how much it defines the lived experience of the city in positive ways.
If you live in an African city that is located in the tropics or south of the Capricorn, your active and direct engagement with nature is rarely entirely mediated by infrastructure designed to insulate people from the vicissitudes of nature, as it is in wealthier northern cities. Unless you are super rich, there won’t be any central heating or air conditioning, but you can open the window and the night stars will be visible in the absence of streetlights. It is possible to clamber down riverbanks to play, wash clothes, or even defecate. Irregular pavements make your shoes dusty and the rainstorms leave puddles and potholes on un-tarred roads—even while they invigorate your senses. Under-spec cheap concrete makes for bumpy surfaces that are tricky for prams or wheelchairs to navigate, but the weakness of the material also allows plants, insects, and small animals to reclaim territory that was once all theirs.
Nature and people do not always compete in the city. The symbiosis that urban greening has reintroduced in northern cities through the post-destruction restoration of nature is often still intact in African cities, leaving the less arduous task of protection and enhancement. Especially in the smaller African towns, embraced by birdsong, it is common to find informal traders or the unemployed sitting under a tree. While far from all produce is locally produced, it is impossible not to notice food being grown along roadsides and in gardens. It is normal for settlement to extend unchecked into a peri-urban fringe where subsistence agriculture provides a precarious livelihood, at least for a few and for some seasons. One characteristic of the southern city, then, is that built and natural systems have not been entirely severed and that nature works for the city dweller.
Nature, despite its power and resilience, cannot escape the realities of weak southern urban governance, which undermine its integrity and may ultimately destroy it. Cocooned in lush, well-tended compound gardens (probably inappropriately planted with water-greedy or invasive alien plants), it is easy to miss the destructive impact of weak government on the apparently nature-loving African urban elite. Excessive consumption (especially of water and power), unchecked sprawl, and pollution are the obvious eco-crimes of the rich across the world, including in the Global South where government is unable or unwilling to curtail excess. In African cities, moreover, there is little effort to mitigate natural damage. Elite resistance to paying city taxes that could improve overall urban ecosystem management, either though basic water and air quality or through more specialized eco measures, such as greening of public spaces or land protection for parks and biodiversity corridors, is widespread across the continent. Possibly the greatest threat to the resilience of urban nature in Africa is the lack of adequate local government power to reign in aspirations of the rich or curtail the unsustainable lifestyles of the elite.
While the disregard of the public good by the rich may be the biggest threat to the integrity of urban ecosystems, nowhere is the impact of the absence of a strong state on natural assets more immediately obvious than in low-income neighborhoods. In the so-called slums or informal areas, such as Phillipi in Cape Town or the infamous Kibera in Nairobi, landlord greed, state neglect, and householder efforts at rodent and insect control have created dystopian urban landscapes that are effectively ecological deserts. Beyond the home, lack of public security and widespread gender-based violence detracts residents from valuing the open spaces on which citywide natural systems depend. Second only to lack of capacity, the southern city lacks public education about the value of nature in the city.
The ecological science of cities and urban regions is still young. As a science, it seeks to both generalize and to apply to specific places and times. This bifurcated aspiration can lead to problems, since much of the urban ecological insight so far has been generated by accumulating empirical examples. Many of the empirical examples come from the Global North, and there is no guarantee that they will hold outside of the situations that produced them.
To the extent that this framing hides assumptions about the link of industrial and urban development, and that it suggests a deterministic succession of cities, it almost certainly fails. The empirical generalizations of urban ecology must rest on more fundamental understanding of the nature of urban processes and structures. When urban ecological science rises to this goal, it will find its roots to be as deep in the Global South as in its Global North birthplace. The science of urban ecology as an approach, as a theoretical structure whose assumptions must be stated and evaluated, and as a body of generalization that is anchored in the diversity of urban processes, should be as much a Southern as a Northern thing.
“Modifying principles” is a tricky phrase. The most general principles we would hope would be invariant. But the models that explain structure and dynamics in particular regions, or even in different parts of a single urban megaregion, will likely differ. Here’s an example. The concept of the urban heat island is one of the most familiar general principles of urban ecology. It posits that urban cores will be warmer than their surroundings due to the thermal mass of such areas, and to additional effects such as atmospheric boundary layers and reduced evapotranspiration. But when this idea was investigated in Phoenix, AZ, a desert metropolis, researchers found that the city was actually cooler than expected relative to the desert. This was because of the massive subsidy of irrigation water in town, which was available for evapotranspiration during the daylight hours when plants were active. At night, when the plants ceased their photosynthesis and transpiration, the city became much hotter than its surroundings, as the empirical generalization of heat island suggests. So the explanation—the locally relevant model—used the same ideas (or equation) that apply to all urban energy budgets, but recognized that the magnitudes of the different processes differed based on the irrigation subsidy and the associated planted vegetation. The deep principle is universal, while the model is particularized.
If ecologists and practitioners don’t separate the principle from the specific model, we are in danger of transferring empirical generalizations from a place where they work to places where they don’t work. So it is crucial to recognize the deep, process-based differences among cities and urban regions—whether in or between the Global North or South. Science can illuminate how urban social-ecological systems operate and change under any circumstances. But the diversity of circumstances must be better and more consciously incorporated in our models and into our framing of urban taxonomies and trajectories. With such increased subtlety, I would expect urban ecological science to become a trustworthy partner to urban design in the Global South. Thoughtlessly transporting empirical generalizations or even specific ecological models from North to South won’t help either the science or design.
When I was invited to join in this roundtable, I start thinking about the possible causes that make countries in the Global North and South different in terms of urban ecology. First, as a tropical investigator, I remembered that the diversity in our region is higher than in the North, that the majority of Southern countries are developing countries and were colonies in the past, and that work and study opportunities are limited in the majority of Southern countries.
The dichotomy between the development of natural areas and urban areas is probably one of the common unifying elements of urban ecology in the majority of countries in the Global South. This may be driven by the land use change that all the developing countries previously experienced, when the natural forest was changed into agricultural lands (plantations and grasslands) next to or in between the main towns. Several generations of city dwellers’ lack of contact with large tracts of forest has made people more open to changing the agricultural lands and the remains of natural habitats into urban developments, especially if the changes contribute to increasing their quality of life. For example, inhabiting a part of the city with limited streetlight and a lot of vegetation makes me insecure and is synonymous with poor development for the majority of people that live in the cities. Consequently, in cities, the lack of green areas (natural or artificial) is not perceived either as a problem or a benefit because people have lost appreciation for those land uses.
Recently, however, the wave of incorporating nature inside cities, with more friendly developments to increase people’s wellness, which started in Northern countries, has permeated Southern countries. This permeability changes country to country and city to city, in relationship to government laws and government interests. Therefore, it is vital that urban ecologists in Southern countries start to generate information on how the lack of green areas (and native species) in cities affects people’s wellness and begin to publicize their findings in a language style that non-scientists understand. This step is essential because if studies show that animal and plant species may be used as indicators of urban ecosystem health, and people know this, they are likely to want to contribute (e.g., change small things) to protect the area. If studies demonstrate that green spaces have cooler temperatures and this saves money in temperature control for houses and buildings, they will plant more trees or avoid cutting the trees that are present in the first place. Additionally, it is key for studies to incorporate citizen science; in this way, people feel more related to habitat and start to create and increase awareness about the importance of one species or remnant habitats.
Countries in the Global South need to start to generate information about the importance of natural and green areas around cities and distribute that information between city residents and governments. Additionally, we must educate the younger generation, as they will influence how countries and cities change to be “greener” in the future.
Discontinuous metabolic configurations and ungovernable ecologies
Cities are complex metabolic systems sustained by energy and materials that come from elsewhere and whose consumption generates waste. The configuration of cities’ metabolisms is contingent on local politics, resources, technology, and know-how. The configuration of metabolic systems determines what materials and energy are used (e.g. coal, renewable energy, nuclear power), who has access to services and resources, and who is exposed to waste.
Cities in the South tend to have metabolisms that differ in quantitative and qualitative ways from cities in the North. Gray infrastructure tends to extend throughout Northern cities and most residents enjoy access. In addition to being inclusive, there is typically a singular way in which urban residents are connected to urban systems. This does not necessarily mean that every Northern city offers universal access to high-quality resources and services, but access does tend to be uniform (although people of color are disproportionately exposed to waste). For example, residents of Flint, Michigan, were uniformly exposed to lead-contaminated water from an inclusive and extensive public water system.
In contrast, formal infrastructure systems in Southern cities tend to be incomplete and limited to central business districts and historically privileged neighborhoods. These limited systems exclude a significant number of city residents, and people are forced to access resources and dispose of waste in a range of creative ways. For example, people living beyond the limited reach of piped water systems must dig borewells, purchase water from formal- or informal-sector entrepreneurs, harvest rainwater, or fetch it from nearby bodies of water. Similarly, many municipal governments in the South have a poor track record when it comes to solid waste management. While only a fraction of solid waste is collected, the remainder is dumped illegally, recycled informally, or burned openly. My point here is not that there is an ideal-type metabolic configuration of Southern cities—on the contrary, there is tremendous diversity with regard to the ways in which material and energy course through Southern cities.
The diversity exhibited by the metabolic configurations of Southern cities inhibits interventions favored by technocrats and city planners in Northern cities (e.g. initiatives that make cities “smart”). Given the limited reach of formal infrastructure, the technological fixes meant to make metabolic systems more efficient or reduce the throughput of energy or resources can only affect a small fraction of a city’s metabolism. Energy and materials that do not move through formal channels escape regulation, and the diversity of ways in which people obtain resources and dispose of waste produce a kaleidoscopic patchwork of localized ecologies.
This cityscape of localized ecologies is not a mirror image of the socio-spatial inequality that characterizes most Southern cities because ecologies will not respond to the disciplinary repertoire used by states to produce populations and maintain their separation (e.g. Apartheid). In spite of efforts to produce particular ecologies, diverse localized ecologies will affect and “contaminate” one another in unpredictable ways. Take, for example, Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, which happens to be the site of a number of events in the 2016 Olympics as well as the destination of immeasurable amounts of pollutants. A number of rivers traverse neighborhoods that lack sewerage infrastructure, picking up excrement and waste along the way, which ultimately flows into the bay. The point is that while authorities focus on policing and the “pacification” of favelas, they have yet to devise an effective strategy to govern the city’s ecologies. Indeed, the dream of controlling “nature” is nowhere as inconceivable as in the cities that are representative of our urban future.
Tan Puay Yok
My immediate reaction to this question is that urban ecological principles about how cities function in relation to sustainability, resilience, and liveability, and how cities respond to socio-ecological drivers, should be the key means to unifying our understanding of the urban ecology of and in the Global South and geographic south, and, for that matter, of the north.