“Animals that do well in cities do things that, in a lot of ways, resemble what people do.” Peter Alagona, author of The Accidental Ecosystem – a new book about how wildlife makes habitats out of cities – is talking about one of his favorite creatures: bears. He’s explaining how, in part, they thrive in our cities because they resemble us so well. “I love bears – they’re intelligent, they rear their young, they learn, they have culture. They’re a lot like us.”
As The Accidental Ecosystem explains, bears have made a comeback from the verge of extinction in no small part because they’ve thrived in urban areas – a tract of land in an urban area can support 40 times as many bears as the same amount of space in the wilderness. Figuring out what to do with these bears hasn’t been simple, as they’ve freaked out urbanites and wreaked havoc. Alagona recounts the LAPD’s record of shooting them dead, and he also discusses how desperate southern Californians turned into a low-grade celebrity named Steve Searls, a so-called bear whisperer. (While Searls managed to leverage his notoriety for taming bears into his own reality TV show, he has a disappointing record on actually getting the bears to listen to him.) Alagona reports that nowhere people have done particularly well at figuring out how to address to the bear issue.
This is all to Alagona’s point – that as wildlife like bears have more and more come to thrive in urban areas, we’ve created “accidental ecosystems” that we are still figuring out what to do with. Unaccustomed to thinking of cities as spaces where wide varieties of animals coexist alongside us, we’ve mostly maintained the old-fashioned idea that these creatures live strictly in the wilderness. But Alagona argues that this view is both factually incorrect and harmful. “In the US, there’s a cultural idea that nature exists apart from us and that real nature exists in some place like a natural park,” said Alagona. “This view is problematic in a whole lot of ways.”
One of the problems with this way of thinking of things is that, while nature has come to us, we’ve been slow in accepting this; Consequently, we haven’t yet updated our urban practices and cultural beliefs to better align with the fact that these animals are here to stay. “Although immigration has declined around the world,” said Alagona, “more people are living closer to immigration than ever before. So conservationists are spending a lot of time on this question of conflict and coexistence. But it’s hard to find out how to coexist when there’s not a long tradition of that.”
In The Accidental Ecosystem, Alagona delves into how we can build a tradition of coexistence by examining, chapter by chapter, many of the animals that have found natural niches in cities – among them deer, squirrels, wolves, bats, seals and eagles. He brings together a rich collection of cautionary tales and teachable moments, while also writing a history of how cities habitats became for wild animals.
When Europeans originally came to the Americas, they chose to situate their settlements on remarkably biodiverse areas. In order to build cities, they wiped out much of this biodiversity, then created settlements that were rich in domesticated animals under the control of humans. Biodiversity continued to decline as cities morphed into enormous urban centers around the turn of the 20th century, becoming more de-populated of wild animals then ever. But after the second world war, as the great urban theorists began to create new concepts of cities, the exact things that humans did to make them more liveable for us also made them enticing to animals. As cities reinvented themselves, the animals came back.
“We now have more wildlife than we’ve ever seen before in these cities,” said Alagona. “They’re weird but rich ecosystems.”
Going back to the 19th century, The Accidental Ecosystem charts out exactly how cities developed from nature-free zones – for instance, in the 18th and 19th centuries, trees were outlawed from many urban centers as fire threats – to entities that became much more connected to the nature around them. Notably, this happened unintentionally, and humans have been slow to take note. Because we have sleepwalked our way into creating urban ecosystems where nature thrives, Alagona argues, it’s now important that we recognize this and become more thoughtful and purposeful about development going forward.
Alagona is quite clear that the wilding of urban centers is a good thing, going so far as to claim that “the recent explosion of wildlife in American cities one of the greatest ecological success stories since the dawn of conservation.” He argues that our collective existence with animals is more entwined than we think, and thus decisions that are good for wildlife will generally be good for people. Prereaching care, not control, he wants us to let go of the idea of managing urban wildlife via private “pest control” enterprises and instead consider city animals from the perspectives of the common good, cultural humility, and flourishing together.
These are still relatively new ideas. As a field of study, urban ecology is still emerging and is only just beginning to produce research and practical applications. “One of the things I’ve really learned is that coexistence with wildlife is something that’s hard and that takes time,” said Alagona, “particularly if the species that people live with are new to them. We’re still trying to figure out culturally appropriate ways of living with animals.” Part of that is coming to see that, while cities may not look like our idea of pristine wilderness, that doesn’t mean they’re not places of nature and natural processes that we now share with wild animals, like it or not. “Coexistence is like a long term relationship,” Alagona said. “It takes work, but I think it’s worth it.”