When we think of nature we tend to think of big as beautiful. From magnificent mountain ranges, to enormous stretches of conserved forest and the world’s most iconic species, size seems to count for a lot. The scale and complexity of ecosystems is of course associated with higher levels of what scientists and policy-makers call biodiversity: the extent and level of variety of life on Earth in all its forms and interactions. The more biodiversity, the better for our planet and hence the emphasis on the big and beautiful landscapes, habitats, ecosystems and creatures that not only foster biodiversity but also demonstrate that it is alive and well.
Yet new research published last week suggests that we might need to rethink our assumptions that small bits of nature are relatively unimportant. Studying the diversity of species found in urban gardens in the Swiss city of Basel, researchers found a remarkable level of biodiversity, including some species on the ‘red list’ of endangered species as well as “four species of millipede species, which have not yet been found anywhere else in Switzerland.”
Importantly, gardens which included different kinds of nature – from flowerbeds, to bushes, areas of decaying wood and so on – provided the best kinds of habitats for fostering biodiversity. The more diverse the garden, it turns out, the more diverse the creatures that live there. This finding is mirrored in other research which shows that while bees are learning to love the city, it is our abandoned, wild and diverse urban corners they love best.
This growing evidence that small bits of nature can be important too has valuable things to teach us both as urban residents and as policy-makers and practitioners that have a responsibility for urban development. Rather than trying to make our urban nature pristine, we need to create diverse spaces, scruffy edges and space for the little wild things to make their home. Initiatives such as Wild About Gardens and London’s Do Nothing for Nature campaign are starting to promote this approach amongst the public in order to increase the biodiversity value of the urban nature we can find in our backyards.
And of course, as we’re discovering here at NATURVATION, while biodiversity is central to the value nature holds, urban nature can make all sorts of other contributions to forging a sustainable society from enhancing resilience to improving mental health. It may come in small packages, but it seems urban nature could really be worth its weight in gold.
Harriet Bulkeley is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Durham University and Project Co-ordinator for NATURVATION.