The Wild Side of Cities: Urban Nature

Yes, there are ways to experience awe of God’ in creation while living in a city. Read on! Photo by Ed Brown.

Have you ever thought that growing a native plant garden or nurturing a few container plants on the balcony of your apartment would actually be a way to love your neighbors?  Close your eyes and imagine your “happy place”–somewhere you experience peace, calm, and feel most connected to God.  For most of us, that happy place is directly connected to God’s creation, whether it be a secluded beach, a forest, a mountain vista, or underneath a big oak tree.  Plenty of studies help explain what we already intuitively know: green spaces of nature are places where people let go of their stress and slow down from the busyness of today’s hectic lifestyles.  And the more diverse the number and kinds of species (biodiversity), the more beneficial the environment is on the mental health of people utilizing that space¹.  Your landscaping or mini container garden contributes to the health and well-being of your neighbors.

Environmental stewardship is increasingly important as the entire world becomes more urban.  Cities are growing and expanding especially in the majority world, but the concrete jungle of metropolitan areas should not swallow up all green spaces².  Gardens, parks, and reserves are really crucial for the mental and spiritual health of all people, in addition to providing homes to plants, insects, and birds.  

An apartment balcony in Hong Kong
An oasis of life on an apartment balcony in Hong Kong.
CC license 2.0 Photo by Himbeerdoni “Some like it green…me too”

You can (and probably already do!) contribute to the “wild side” of urban nature by planting trees, setting up bird feeders, and even converting your monocultural lawn into a butterfly garden of native wildflowers.  Your choice of plants and how you steward the living space you have is significant, even if you can only fit a few potted plants on your apartment balcony.  You are adding to the mosaic of mini-habitats that birds and insects can utilize to thrive in the urban setting³.  Here’s the link to a guide for native plants that are tailored to your location (USA and Canada).

An example of urban nature
From a wee caterpillar...
From a wee caterpillar…

I love the monarch butterfly, and we’ve covered this amazing creature in several other posts (here, here,  oh and here!).  The monarch is threatened by the loss of its homeland, the prairie, and the milkweed plant.  Thankfully, milkweed is spunky.  It can grow in a range of places, from a container on the front porch to a mostly-shaded backyard. I planted milkweed in a container alongside a tomato plant and set it outside in my front yard.  Then, in mid-July, I saw a monarch butterfly traipsing through the neighborhood.  She was in search of a place to lay her eggs, and she delicately flitted to my milkweed.  

…to an adult butterfly! (Photos by Brittany Ederer)

A week later, I found this tiny monarch caterpillar on the underside of a leaf, and brought it inside to raise by hand (it’s really easy to do, and is a great teaching tool for kids and adults alike!).  A little while later, it became a chrysalis and then a beautiful adult monarch butterfly.  

The future: more, bigger cities…and more urban nature?

According to Cohen, most (61%) of all people on the planet are going to be living in urban areas by 2030 (we’re at 53% right now, according to the World Bank), much of that shift from rural to urban happening in the developing world².

Sustainable use of resources, especially when considering food security, is already a complex problem facing cities and countries today; what about when there are 2-3 billion more people and fewer and fewer of us are growing food?  As part of maintaining green space in the urban environment, we must also consider how we can also make sure that everyone has access to healthy, affordable food. The following research question captures the hope and the struggle of the unknown that we will face together over the next 15 years as we watch cities grow before our eyes:

Given that most urban residents live in developing countries where private green spaces within cities are often lacking, how can we best design cityscapes and engage communities in the developing world to maximise urban biodiversity globally? Can urban agriculture provide both increased food security and biodiversity conservation benefits in cities worldwide? ³

In conclusion…

We can rejoice that cities have a “wild side,” whether it’s an arboretum, a park, or a neighbor’s backyard garden.  God’s creation can be found and cultivated in city settings.  We, as Christians, may choose to practice our faith by cultivating green spaces wherever we can, even if it’s on a tiny balcony on the 20th floor of our apartment.  And, we can be part of conserving God’s creation and contributing to feeding our cities by joining the conversation on food security and urban gardening.  Many, many people are really passionate about agriculture in the city.  With a little research, I bet you can find an organization or church in your area doing this very thing!  Lastly, if you are a city planner or designer, consider how green spaces can harbor the wonderful biodiversity of life AND increase reliable access to food.

In-text links:

  1.  Fuller, R. A., Irvine, K. N., Devine-Wright, P., Warren, P. H., & Gaston, K. J. (2007). Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology letters, 3(4), 390-394.
  2. Cohen, B. (2006). Urbanization in developing countries: Current trends, future projections, and key challenges for sustainability. Technology in society28(1), 63-80.
  3. Goddard, M. A., Dougill, A. J., & Benton, T. G. (2010). Scaling up from gardens: biodiversity conservation in urban environments. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(2), 90-98.