Recovering urban wildlife isn’t just about protecting a city’s parks and rivers, but also making its streets, homes and skyscrapers greener.

Flowers in meadow with urban buildings in background.

Wild boars roaming Italian towns. Goats on the streets of Wales. Egyptian geese wandering free at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. When humans retreated from busy streets during Covid-19 lockdowns, the wildlife emerged, bringing into sharp focus what conservationists have been saying for decades: In order to repair the environmental damage that we’ve caused, it’s imperative that we allow natural processes to restore damaged landscapes.

In many parts of the world, it’s beginning to. In the United Kingdom, a country that has lost almost half of its biodiversity since the 1970s, rewilding — the term used to describe the process by which parts of land or water are returned to a wild state — has entered the national lexicon.

Until now rewilding, which is by its very nature a large-scale effort, has been concentrated in the countryside and rural areas. More recently, however, there have been a number of projects and local movements pushing for more urban rewilding and at a smaller scale.

Experts call it microrewilding, and harnessing its potential comes at a crucial time.

By 2050 the United Nations estimates that more than two-thirds of the global population will live in urban areas and the resilience of cities will depend on a “fundamental climate transition,” according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme. “For years the story of cities has been a tale of attempting to carve a place for humans outside of nature,” the report notes. “But we are increasingly realizing that smart, sustainable and resilient cities need to harness the power of nature.”

It’s no surprise, then, that an opinion poll commissioned last year by the charity Rewilding Britain showed that 81% of Britons supported rewilding, with 40% strongly supportive and just 5% of people opposed.

“People are talking about rewilding parks and rewilding gardens,” says Richard Bunting, director of Little Green Space, a local nonprofit that helps to create spaces that benefit people, wildlife and the environment. “We’ve lost an awful lot of habits in Britain and many of the remaining have become extremely degraded. By taking more local action — microrewilding, if you will — you start creating connectivity and nature corridors in the landscape.”

Rewilding the City

In 2019 Mayor Sadiq Khan officially declared London the world’s first National Park City, defined as a large urban area that is managed and semi-protected, with the goal of making it wilder, as well as greener and healthier. Last year in May, those plans gained momentum.

Khan — who has described the UK as “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world” — has commissioned a group of rewilding experts to bring nature back to the British capital through new nature reserves, community initiatives, and microparks, which are small unused or underused areas that can be turned into inexpensive green spaces. The group includes Isabella Tree, who reintroduced beavers to her estate in the first large-scale rewilding project in England, as well as Nick Bruce-White from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.

While large-scale urban rewilding projects are increasingly being embraced by city governments around the world, such as the High Line gardens in New York City or the network of six biodiversity parks totaling nearly 2,000 acres in New Delhi, India, what will play a key role in the success of wildlife recovery efforts in cities, is not just protecting a city’s parks and rivers, but making its streets, homes, and skyscrapers greener.

Person walking elevated path surrounded by plants.
The Highline in New York City. Photo: Cristina Bejarano (CC BY 2.0)

Siân Moxon, the founder of Rewild My Street and a climate change expert at UK Universities Climate Network, says microrewilding can offer many benefits such as reducing flood risk, improving air quality, and countering the urban heat island effect, particularly in cities like London. And it’s easily doable even at the individual level.

“It’s about adding greenery and thinking about every surface as a potential host,” Moxon says. “So the roof of a bin store or the wall of a house. Grow a climber up it or put an insect hotel on it.” Water in any form — a bee bowl or a bird bath — is great. So is planting trees or, if there’s no space, growing something in a large pot.

Gardens cover about a quarter of many cities, including London, and rows of gardens can form a habitat corridor, potentially linking up wider green spaces like parks, as well as allotments, school playing fields, cemeteries, and other places that can be of value to wildlife.

But in the UK, where the Victorian attitude of “neat and tidy” still prevails, an attitude shift needs to accompany the efforts. Because nature, as Bunting points out, is messy.

“There are often large swathes of areas managed by local councils, for example, that could be doing so much more for biodiversity.” he says. “But in fact, they’ve been over-mowed and sometimes sprayed with chemicals, to the point that they’re almost lifeless ecological deserts. Meanwhile, our insect populations are collapsing, sometimes quite catastrophically.”

Localized Efforts

In recent years a number of projects have not only looked at bringing biodiversity to the urban environment but made an active effort to build them from the bottom up, with community involvement.

The city’s Wild West End is one such project, in which over half a dozen of central London’s largest property developers are working together to create natural pathways in the city through a combination of green roofs and walls, planters and flower boxes, street trees, and pop-up spaces. Already, in heart of Britain’s capital city, sightings of the black redstart — one of the UK’s rarest birds — have gone up.

Graphic by Siân and Jon Moxon/Rewild My Street (with altered photos courtesy of Charles J Sharp, Pau.artigas, Super.lukas, Didier Descouens, Ninjatacoshell, George Hodan, Piotr Siedlecki, Peter Mulligan, Potapov Alexander/Shutterstock).

Elsewhere, London-based Citizen Zoo is trying to bring back the large marsh grasshopper — once a common sight across Eastern England’s wetlands but now locally extinct. The group came up with a “citizen keeper” project called A Hop of Hope, through which volunteers are given a crash course in grasshopper husbandry, helping them breed and rear grasshoppers in their own homes. Keepers can raise a brood every four or five weeks, after which they’re released at two secret locations. The project, which began in Norfolk in 2019, has seen tremendous success with several hundred of these grasshoppers now building self-sustaining wild populations.

When it comes to individual and street-level efforts, however, gardens remain the best bet, since 22 million people in the UK have access to a garden. The most significant thing residents can do for wildlife in their garden is to create a pond.

“Pound for pound, a pond delivers more wildlife than any other type of habitat in your home,” says Alastair Driver, the director of Rewilding Britain, the only countrywide organization in Britain focusing on rewilding. Having a natural pond without fish, he says, will attract all sorts of life — mayflies, water beetles, pond snails, dragonflies, damselflies, caddisflies, newts, frogs and toads. “We used to have millions of ponds in our landscape and we’ve lost the vast majority of them, so by restoring a pond, you are restoring a natural process. You are doing a little bit of rewilding.”

Ponds also help tie into the connectivity that’s essential for the rewilding process to work. When rewilding a bigger area, Driver explains, greater value comes from it being connected through a corridor to another area so that if a habitat is temporarily destroyed, the wildlife can migrate to other areas.

The same principle applies on a smaller scale. If your next-door neighbor also has a pond and you’ve got holes in your fence, you allow things that can’t fly to move through from one site to the other. Hedgehogs are a classic example, needing many acres of land for a viable population. “If you’ve got a whole street full of pockets of wildlife garden, then in effect you are starting to create a much bigger habitat and starting to move up that rewilding spectrum.”

As much as microrewilding is about nature, it’s also about our relationship to nature. In urban environments, largely due to a lack of access, many people have forgotten how to co-exist with wildlife. Through smaller and more local microrewilding efforts, that relationship can be restored. Indeed, studies show that when people are actively involved in restoring and enhancing green spaces, they feel both a connection to, and ownership of, those spaces.

The gravity of the biodiversity crisis underscores the need for big change. But it can start with small actions, too, that can be applied anywhere — no matter how small a space, in how densely populated a city. The declining population of bumblebees, for example, who can only fly for 40 minutes between feeding, can be massively helped by something as simple as a window box. Planting a nectar-rich plant is planting a crucial pitstop.

“These micro actions can be a lifeline to different species,” says Bunting. “And if enough of us do it, then you’re creating a mosaic of habitats for species across the country.”

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Previously in The Revelator:

Why Scientists Are Rallying to Save Ponds

Natasha Khullar Relph

is an award-winning journalist from India who currently lives in the UK and covers the intersection of technology, environment and culture.