High Line in NYC

Do you recall the last time you saw a sparrow chirping on the window, parakeets visiting balconies, or birds playing in the park? In our busy lives, we don’t realize that these sightings have become very rare nowadays. The disappearance of these birds is only an indicator of the loss of urban biodiversity we have witnessed in the last few decades.

Biodiversity is a portmanteau of biological diversity that is built by two main systems working in conjunction—ecosystems and species. Habitats that allow different species to thrive and mature, which in turn lead to the diversity of the habitat itself, create biodiversity. Historically cities have developed along the most conducive landmass—rivers, coasts, and floodplains, or foothills rich in biodiversity but as they have grown their infrastructure, pollution levels and waste dumped on land and in water has broken down biodiversity by destroying habitats.

Urban Biodiversity 

Biodiversity in urban areas can be found in all scales—from neighborhood parks, natural features of a city, and in fringe hinterlands that serve the city. These areas are constantly threatened due to pressure on cities to cater to their ever-increasing population. The scale of urbanization has rapidly been increasing since the 1950s, and it is expected that in the next three decades, about 70% of the population will live in urban areas. It hence becomes necessary to understand the role of biodiversity in an urban ecosystem.

We depend on natural resources for our sustenance. Food, water for our needs, and energy are all derived from nature. It is important for us to conserve and restore natural settings and biodiversity for us to have a sustained supply of these resources. Many fringe areas of cities are destroyed in order to cater to the needs of resources of the city. Cities need to become more self-sufficient to cater to their needs in order to protect these areas.

Biodiversity also has an impact on the health of people. Green open space is great for well-being as it reduces stress; reduced pollution improves health and provides opportunities for physical activity and recreation. Jake Robinson, a researcher at University of Sheffield, explains – contact with a diverse range of microbes in our environment is essential for bolstering our immune system. Microbes found in environments closer to the ones we evolved in, such as woodlands and grasslands, play a major role in “educating” our immune systems.

Fields in Virar, North of Mumbai – Picture credit: Shreyas More

The benefits of biodiversity from manmade urban landscapes can be as significant as natural settings. Lack of access to such green and blue areas with thriving ecosystems leads city dwellers to have poor health, lower nutrition levels, and in turn, lower immunity.

As cities grow to meet the needs of all their people, the growth needs to be carefully planned to ensure that ecosystems are not disturbed but enhanced. This will ensure cities become resilient to changing climates and meet the ever-increasing demand for resources by strengthening natural systems.

Curating Urban Biodiversity

This is where the role of conscious urban design comes in to integrate biodiversity in cities. The UN has included the aspect of protecting land and water life in cities in the Sustainable Development Goals. The New Urban Agenda, which is the delivery vehicle for Sustainable Development Goals in urban settlements, calls for the sustenance of biodiversity in cities as one of the most important measures to tackle climate change and build resiliency.

We recognize that cities and human settlements face unprecedented threats from unsustainable consumption and production patterns, loss of biodiversity, pressure on ecosystems, pollution, natural and human-made disasters, and climate change and its related risks, undermining the efforts to end poverty in all its forms and dimensions and to achieve sustainable development.”

It is important to realize that while urbanization seems as the evil causing these problems, it can be the origin for the solutions too. The science of designing cities needs to be looked at with careful consideration to incorporate aspects like biodiversity which is needed for our own well-being.

1. Stitch, enhance, grow approach. Cities can start by creating green corridors to connect the fragmented biodiversity spots. These areas will become the medium through which species can interact and grow. These areas also help the city by becoming stormwater retention spots, improve air quality, and reduce the heat island effect. The concept of eco-links, as elaborated by Stockholm Resilience Center, is getting popular where underpasses or tunnels are created in places where infrastructure absolutely needs to cut through biodiversity areas.

2. Design to context. The design of our cities is becoming generic, with similar infrastructure being planned in all cities across the world. It needs to focus on the natural systems – land and water available in a city and design to that context. Each region is conducive to certain species, and design needs to be sensitive by providing and enhancing the environment to enrich these habitats. Challenges faced by cities in different regions – floods, droughts, earthquakes and other such disasters call for the need for cities to look for design solutions best suited to them. Cities also need to think of regeneration and adaptive reuse to make the most of the existing urban areas than expand beyond their existing boundaries.

3. Urban farming. The pressure to feed large urban populations leads to large areas of land being used for agriculture. We may not realize that such large-scale commercial agricultural practices in rural and peri-urban areas destroy soil quality and native species. Urban farming – through hydroponics, community and kitchen gardens can go a long way in serving urban food needs. They need to be encouraged and incentivized, so more communities and individuals engage in the activity. Green roofs and terrace gardens also help reduce the heat island effect. These measures help stabilize temperatures and encourage biodiversity to thrive.

Tomato farming in Bavaria, Germany – Picture Credit: Markus Spiske

Cities embracing Biodiversity 

Many cities have started looking at ways to incorporate biodiversity at regional and local scales. The Conservation International, a non-profit environmental organization in the US has identified 34 biodiversity hotspots around the world, and they are all urban areas. Cities like Brussels, Cape Town, Chicago, Curitiba, Frankfurt, Mexico City, New York City, and Singapore are leading the way in enhancing biodiversity in their own urban areas.

A very relevant example of including biodiversity in city planning is that of Sponge Cities. The primary intent of the concept is to harness rainwater through permeable systems and reuse it. It works through native landscape and water strategies to provide resilience against flooding, reduce water pollution and conserve the resource. In doing so, the habitat created is rich, and biodiversity thrives. There are many cities in China like Harbin and others adopting this concept. It is also gaining popularity in the rest of Asia.

Singapore has been looking at biodiversity at various scales. Large parks like Bishan Ang Mo Kyo retain the natural features of the land and bring in native trees, shrubs, and species. Buildings like Woha’s Oasis Hotel and Kampung Admiralty incorporate green strategies and biophilia in design, bringing users closer to green spaces and providing shelter to biodiversity. Both these scales of urban landscape interventions support biodiversity and play an important role in becoming the link to connect biodiversity hotspots within a city.

Bishan Ang Mo Kyo Park, Singapore

Indian cities like Delhi and Ahmedabad are taking up city revival projects to enhance biodiversity and create a destination for recreation. Delhi Development Authority has set up a biodiversity board that has, over the past decade, developed two large parks (Yamuna Biodiversity Park and Aravalli Biodiversity Park) around the National Capital region. This is a commendable step by a city grappling with air quality and pollution issues.

These examples illustrate that cities have the capability to bring back biodiversity. It needs a willingness from all urban stakeholders to prioritize and restore local ecosystems to protect habitats. It is important to understand that humans are a part of the diversity in species and they have a role to play in biodiversity. And as a dominant species on the planet, our role is greater than just being a part of the ecosystem; it in fact goes further to protect and enhance ecosystems where biodiversity can thrive. This will not only be good for other species but, in turn, have a positive impact on the health of people and the planet.

Get Involved

Support Our Work

Learn more about our interdisciplinary network.


Reflections from the 2024 Gala