Chapter 8. Cities and towns

Loss of species and natural ecosystems is inevitable in densely populated cities, but as centres of cultural change cities provide opportunities for biodiversity. This chapter looks at the relationship between cities and biodiversity and ways cities can support biodiversity in coming decades.

Australia's biodiversity: cities and towns: Watch an interview with author Dr Mark Lonsdale (05:12)

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Australia’s biodiversity – Cities and towns]

[Image changes to computerised globe rotating]

[Image changes to night time view of a city and traffic flashing past]

[Image changes to show Dr. Mark Lonsdale – Ecologist]

Dr. Mark Lonsdale: Cities are amongst the great inventions of civilisation, and for the first time in 2007 more than half of the global population was living in cities. That’s the first time in our history that that’s been true. Eighty-seven percent of Australians live in cities.

[Image changes to people flashing past on the screen]

Globally cities occupy 2% of the landscape, but use about 75% of the resources.

[Image changes to a rotating globe and text appears: 2% of Earth’s surface; 75% of the resources]

[Image changes to a city]

[Image changes to artwork and text appears below: I see the beauty in every thing that’s living]

So cities are wonderful crucibles of invention and cultural change, but there’s also an argument that they pose a threat to the environment because of that resource use.

[Image changes to a tram in a city, and people flashing by, and text appears: Cities directly impact biodiversity]

[Images changes to view of a city]

[Images changes to a CityCat on the Brisbane River]

Cities of course occupy land, and often it’s the best land, the land where biodiversity is richest, the land with rich soil and permanent water supplies tends to be occupied by cities.

[Image changes to a bird perched on a pole in the water]

[Image changes to a lizard, and a city comes into focus in the background]

So there’s a direct impact on ecosystems from the presence of cities.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

City populations demand novelty, and so city people will be looking for ornamental plants, often from overseas.

[Images changes to a plant]

Or pets, exotic pets to entertain them.

[Image changes to a picture of hares]

Those kind of organisms tend to enter our country through our cities, and then migrate across the landscape where, as we’ve seen over the last hundred years and more, they have a major negative impact on our biodiversity.

[Image changes to a feral cat eating a bird carcass]

[Image of plant berries]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

So there’s no doubt that cities can be a negative for our biodiversity.

[Image changes to cars on a highway and text appears: Cities may take pressure off the environment]

There’s another way of looking at cities though, and that is that by concentrating people we actually take pressure off the land by having people in cities.

[Text appears: How cities benefit from biodiversity]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

Biodiversity is our life support system.

[Image changes to sun setting behind trees beside a lake and text appears: Biodiversity is our life support system]

Through ecosystem services such as water filtration through our forests clean water is provided into our cities.

[Image changes to an aerial view of an urban landscape and text appears: Biodiversity is our life support system]

[Image changes to cyclists and joggers]

There are apparently measurable benefits to people’s psychological health and wellbeing from the presence of parkland in cities.

[Image changes to people gathered in parkland]

And people generally want to live in cities that look and feel beautiful and well vegetated, and with birdlife around them.

[Image changes to people exercising in a park]

[Image changes to a duck floating on water]

[Image changes to cars rapidly moving on a highway and text appears: Designing better cities for biodiversity]

[Image changes to view of a town]

Within cities we can get better biodiversity outcomes by the way we lay those cities out, so green spaces are obviously important, but the right kind of green spaces with some diversity of tree canopy and so on to encourage birds.

[Image changes to green space]

[Image changes to a parrot perched in a tree]

[Image changes to green space next to a city boundary]

Also encouraging remnant vegetation in cities is a very positive way of getting good biodiversity outcomes, even within a city boundary.

[Image changes to cyclists riding along a path alongside the Brisbane River]

[Image changes to people flashing past on the screen]

In Australia we can expect another ten to 20 million people to be living in our cities by 2050, so we’ve got a big opportunity there to get things right, or get things wrong, as our city populations expand.

[Text appears: A role for people]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

One of the issues with people living in cities is that they become divorced from nature. We talk about an extinction of experience.

[Text appears: Extinction of experience]

People no longer experience biodiversity. So if we can get our cities and the interaction between people and biodiversity in our cities right we can potentially reconnect the urban population to biodiversity and see cities as centres for cultural change, which they have been throughout history, but a cultural change that brings people back into connection with nature, and potentially see them not only as reducing their environmental footprint, but also connecting them back into nature in such a way that they become advocates for our nature and our biodiversity.

[Images changes to a plant growing through a concrete wall]

[Image changes to mangroves]

[Image of Ibis perched on a rock]

[Image changes to artwork]

[Image changes to people gardening]

[Image changes to group of people bird watching]

[Image changes to plants growing on the side of a building wall]

[Image changes to a group of people looking at a tree]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

[Text appears: Where to find biodiversity in cities]

One thing that people can do in cities is to look at a wonderful information tool that they’ve got at their disposal.

[Image changes to webpage views of the Atlas of Living Australia]

The Atlas of Living Australia is an online resource available to everyone that will tell you what species you can expect to find in your area, so you can click on a map and look at all the species that you can expect to find near you. You can also enter data. You can become a citizen scientist. You can enter data that we as scientists can then use in terms of the changing and evolving distribution of our species.

[Image changes to a lizard next to a water lilies in a pond]

[Image changes to a view of the Brisbane River]

[Image changes to a computerised image of the world]

Australian cities are going to expand over the next few decades quite markedly in population.

[Image changes to view of a city]

In doing so our cities are going to have to grow in area and in environmental footprint, but we can still minimise the impact on biodiversity, and indeed potentially benefit biodiversity in the way we manage that growth.

[Image changes to cars travelling over a bridge with a city in the background]

[Image changes to view of a city]

It’s going to need some research to help us to shape how our cities grow and develop.

[Image changes to view of a garden]

[Image changes to group of people in the bush]

It’s going to need the urban population to really get involved in determining how their cities grow and develop and evolve.

[Image changes to show cyclists]

[Image changes to a CityCat on the Brisbane River]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Mark Lonsdale]

But potentially there’s an awful lot of good that we can do as these cities expand. It’s a great opportunity for Australia.

[Image changes to computerised image of the world and text appears: MUSIC – Nicolas Del Pozo; ADDITIONAL FOOTAGE – Welcome to the Anthropocene footage coutesy of |,; ADDITIONAL IMAGES – Liz Poon. Landcare Australia Limited, Fiona Brown Creative Commons images (Flickr): Fernando de Sousa, the weed one, sunphlo, freyapix]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

Hide transcript

Urban biodiversity matters. It connects city dwellers with the natural environment, enhances recreational spaces and serves practical functions like cooling the air and reducing stormwater run-off.

Chapter overview

Loss of species and natural ecosystems is inevitable in densely populated cities. Although some species appear to prosper in cities, their populations are usually too small to have a significant influence on their overall conservation status.

Australia has spent too little effort on the urban environment, thus we lack information on which to base urban biodiversity strategies. However, we know that the status and trends of biodiversity in cities and their surrounding regions can be improved by visionary urban design and by providing urban communities in Australia with biodiversity information and tools to monitor urban biodiversity.

Download the chapter or the whole book [PDF and EPUB versions available]

Chapter authors

Mark Lonsdale and Richard Fuller


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