Why does urban habitat matter?

Eight years ago we reached a tipping point: more people lived in urban areas than not. By 2050 it is projected that 66% of the world’s population will be urban.


Nature has become commodified and fragmented. Mountain valleys and their rivers are dammed as potential generators of power and forests are at once a source of carbon credits and ‘green factories’ producing the raw materials for print and construction.

This fragmentation is challenging for us: it is now accepted that seeing and interacting with nature is important for both our health and happiness. Intrinsically we know this, as evidenced in the recent spate of greenwash flowing through the planning system and yet there is less and less everyday. A few street trees and roof gardens do not a forest make, a point Oliver Wainwright argues well in The Great Garden Swindle

But it is far more challenging for wildlife than for us: fragmentation of their habitat leads to ‘habitat islands’: isolated and unconnected pockets, with no safe way from one to another. Humans are now better connected than ever before, thanks to modern conveniences like highways, jumbo jets, social media and smartphones. At the same time, though, wild animals around the world are increasingly disconnected, trapped in islands of wilderness amid a growing sea of people. 

Why does this matter? Surely a forest, whether used to supply industry or not, is a forest? Certainly we know that mixed stands used for forestry have greater wildlife benefits than single species, but the lack of ancient and petrified wood, glades and thickets, and undergrowth, equates to a lack of shelter and nurture for so many species. Mushrooms that need decaying wood to grow in, bees and insects that need shelter, birds like woodpeckers that hollow out old trees to nest in all require mature woodland.

Small fragments of habitat become fragile ecologies that can only support small populations of plants and animals and small populations are more vulnerable to extinction. Minor fluctuations in climate, resources, or other factors that would be unremarkable and quickly corrected in large populations can be catastrophic in small, isolated populations. Thus fragmentation of habitat is an important cause of species extinction.

Examples of the Habitat Island effect in Finland, the most forested country in Europe: 86% of its land area (a total of 26 million hectares) is covered by forest. Finland is responsible for one quarter of the world's paper exports, and for one sixth of its paperboard exports. Feeding this massive industry is the Finnish forest industry - one of the most intensive in the world. The result is the severe and extensive fragmentation of natural habitat. Above are the results of logging in the northeastern areas of the country. In 1987 the area has a near homogeneous forest cover (green); by 2002 only a few patches, mainly in the protected areas with continuous forest cover remain amongst the tan clearcut areas.

Study of bird species versus park size by Patterson & Atmar in Madrid

If the planet is to remain diverse our cities and countryside will need also to provide species with a rich connected quilt of diverse habitats within their fabric. In recent years many articles about and examples of wildlife corridors have been in the news, though often at eye watering expense. In a recent article, Russell Mclendon suggests an alternative approach, and one that here at Habi-Sabi we have always supported, which is that nature needs to be built into our lives, not added on.

Bat bridge, Cornwall

So as we expand our urban areas, size does matter, and deer can’t read. We need to #actfornature and lobby for cities to prioritize nature at their very heart. A tree for every car parking space, flowering ivy for every bus and nettles, lots of nettles …

Catherine du Toit
Catherine du Toit