Now is our chance to examine nature on our own urban doorstep, and to think ahead to what kind of nature we want to encourage and bequeath to our children, write James Beattie and Bruce Clarkson

Across the globe, millions of people have been interacting with nature on their doorstep, whether they like it or not. Recently, we  have rediscovered our local nature in the garden, counting birds, grubbing for insects with our children, and exploring wastelands, parks, tree-lined streets and many more places besides.

As many commentators have pointed out, if there’s any good to come from the current pandemic, it seems to be environmental. Pollution levels have dropped. Production from polluting industries has tailed off. People are hardly travelling. But this is only in the short term. Long term, the financial stresses of the global recession caused by Covid-19 may well mean people are not willing or able to absorb extra environmental taxes. Globally, do we now have a brief breathing space in which to take serious long-term action to curb our profligate lifestyles?

In our own backyards in Aotearoa, as biologist Margaret Stanley noted on Newsroom, under lockdown, it seems nature was bouncing back in cities. Reduced traffic flows as well as lower rates of noise and air pollution were benefiting many indigenous birds. Longer lawns favoured higher biodiversity, while fewer pets on the loose helped local birdlife.

A range of websites is available to help us identify plants and animals, contribute to bird censuses and generally find out more about urban nature. During lockdown, a number of New Zealand cities participated in the global BioBlitz, which “focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time”. The idea is everyone works together to provide “a snapshot of an area’s biodiversity”.

Such initiatives are fantastic examples of citizen science, enlisted in a global cause, but also benefiting local nature. While the current crisis focused our attention for the moment on local nature, what about the longer term? Now is the time to be talking about what kinds of nature (and cities) we want, and how we can achieve our aims.

Let’s start with some of the mistaken assumptions with our view of nature from lockdown. As Stanley noted, we may have mistakenly thought urban nature was thriving under lockdown because we finally had the time to observe it, not necessarily because it was doing well in any measurable ecological sense. We were witnessing a snapshot of nature in time, not a long-term, measurable view of ecosystem functioning.

Some also hold a rose-tinted view that all species colonising a now quiet and near-abandoned city was desirable. Another assumption we need to quash is that a new interest in accessing and utilising greenspace in suburbia will have no detrimental impacts on habitat and wildlife. This more than ever is important to quash, given all the ‘shovel ready’ projects lining up for funding. We in New Zealand know the impact of weeds, garden escapees and losses to indigenous biodiversity.

So what can we do?

While Bioblitzes or City Nature Challenges are important for citizen engagement and initial inventory or snapshots of biodiversity in cities, they are only the first steps in a process of understanding the complex forces shaping urban ecologies.

Just like informed decision-making for flattening the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to build up a strong evidence base of natural science. Alongside science, we need perspectives from mātauranga Māori, the arts and social sciences to understand people, their wants and the barriers to taking up more sustainable ways of living. We can then use this to inform decision-making about the kinds of nature we value in cities, and how we go about protecting, enhancing and restoring it. In short, we need to better understand the societies, values and ecological systems that make our cities work.

Already, there are signs we are quickly reverting from lockdown to our earlier modus operandi without considering how we might do things better. An example might be how we design the many new subdivisions in the pipeline supported by the Government’s housing infrastructure fund. We certainly need housing. But, with the pressure to make up for lost time, will environmental considerations fall further down the priority list? And will the new subdivisions be designed with future pandemics in mind?

In Hamilton, some months before lockdown, the Amberfield subdivision consent hearing took place. It clearly exposed the need for good science to safeguard the local and wider rural population of the long-tailed bat from the effects of a proposed housing development. While some scientifically useful information was revealed, was it really sufficient to establish critical thresholds to prevent local or subregional extinction of the bats?

For too long, most research needed to protect and enhance our unique indigenous nature has been undertaken well away from the urban environment in which almost four million New Zealanders live. The American environmental historian William Cronon argued that, rather than thinking of nature as being “somewhere out there” – say, in national parks – we actually need to start by looking at local nature. This, then, is our chance to examine nature on our own urban doorstep, and to think ahead to what kind of nature we want to encourage and bequeath to our children.

Associate Professor James Beattie is an award-winning environmental historian who edits the International Review of Environmental History. He works at The Centre for Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka...

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