The Accidental Ecosystem: Behind the Emergence of Urban Wildlife in American Cities | Wrote

“aAnimals that do well in cities do things that are similar, in many ways, to what people do.” Peter Alagona, author of The Accidental Ecosystem—a new book on how wildlife is making habitats out of cities—talks about one of his favorite creatures: bears. It explains how they thrive, in part, in our cities because they are so similar to us.” I love bears—they are smart, they raise their young, they are educated, they have culture. They look a lot like us.”

As the episodic ecosystem demonstrates, bears have come back from the brink of extinction in no small part because they thrive in urban areas—a piece of land in an urban area can support 40 times as many bears as the same area. in the wild. Figuring out what to do with these bears was not simple, as they panicked the city dwellers and caused havoc. Alagona recounts the LAPD’s record of shooting them, and also discusses how desperate Southern Californians turned into a famous A-lister named Steve Searles, a so-called bear whisperer. (While Searles was able to capitalize on his notoriety to tame bears on his reality TV show, he has a disappointing record of actually making bears listen.) Alagona reports that nowhere has people done a particularly good job of figuring out how to address the bear issue.

That’s all Alagona is referring to – that as wildlife like bears thrive more and more in urban areas, we’ve created “accidental ecosystems” that we’re still thinking about what to do. Unaccustomed to thinking of cities as spaces where a wide variety of animals coexist alongside us, we have mostly preserved the old idea that these creatures live strictly in the wild. But Alagona argues that this view is factually incorrect and harmful. “In the United States, there is a cultural notion that nature exists far from us and that true nature is somewhere like a natural park,” Alagona said. “This view is problematic in many ways.”

A raccoon walks in Central Park in Manhattan.
A raccoon walking around Central Park in Manhattan. Photo: Johannes Eisel/AFP/Getty Images

One problem with this way of thinking is that while nature has come to us, we have been slow to accept this; Thus, we have not modernized our urban practices and cultural beliefs to better align with the fact that these animals are here to stay. Alagona said: “Although wildlife around the world has declined dramatically, more people are living near wildlife than ever before. So conservationists spend a lot of time discussing the issue of conflict and coexistence. But it is difficult Knowing how to live when there is no long tradition of it.”

In The Accidental Ecosystem, Alagona delves into how to build a tradition of coexistence by examining, chapter after chapter, the many 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 became home to wild animals.

When Europeans originally came to the Americas, they chose to place their settlements in remarkably biologically diverse areas. In order to build cities, they wiped out much of this biodiversity, and then established settlements that were rich in domestic animals under the control of humans. Biodiversity continued to decline as cities transformed into massive urban centers at the turn of the 20th century, becoming more wild at the time. But after World War II, when the great urban theorists began creating new concepts for cities, the subtle things that humans did to make them more relevant to us also made them attractive to animals. When cities reinvented themselves, animals come back.

“We now have more wildlife than we’ve seen before in these cities,” Alagona said. “They are strange but rich ecosystems.”

boston hare
boston hare. Photo: Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press

Going back to the nineteenth century, The Accidental Ecosystem shows exactly how cities evolved from areas without nature—for example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trees were banned from many urban centers as fire threats—to entities which became more connected to the nature around them. Notably, this happened unintentionally, and humans were slow to take notes. As we have walked our path to creating urban ecosystems where nature thrives, Alagona argues, it is now important to recognize this and become more thoughtful and purposeful about moving forward with development.

Alagona is quite clear that the displacement of urban centers is a good thing, going so far as to claim that “the recent explosion of wildlife in American cities is one of the greatest environmental success stories since the dawn of conservation.” He argues that our collective existence with animals is more intertwined than we think, and therefore good decisions for wildlife will generally be good for people. By preaching care, not control, he wants us to abandon the idea of ​​managing urban wildlife through private “pest control” institutions, and instead view city animals through the prism of the common good, cultural modesty, and prosperity together.

These ideas are still relatively new. As a field of study, urban ecology is still emerging and has only begun to produce research and practical applications. “One of the things I have really learned is that coexisting with wildlife is difficult and takes time, especially if the species people live with are new to them,” Alagona said. “We are still trying to figure out culturally appropriate ways to live with animals.” Part of that is that while cities may not sound like our idea of ​​pristine wildlife, that doesn’t mean they aren’t natural places 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.”