City in Nature? Can nature and people be good neighbours?
"Smooth-coated gangland mob slaughters defenceless school"
We do not have a tabloid press quite like the United Kingdom or the US, but one detected slightly breathless angst with similar over-blown wording in some very recent Singapore news. What's the issue? Well, a cluster of smooth-tailed otters slipped into the grounds of a residential condominium adjacent to a canal and proceeded to feast on the fish and frolic in the swimming pool. According to one article, children were left crying, parents in shock and residents angered over the loss of fish and the smelly aftermath requiring a clean-up.
Joke and hyperbole aside, is this an opportunity to learn and expand our understanding of nature in the city? Nature species' existence, habits, ecological functions, territorial requirements and impacts, all raise issues for us in the city, the urban environment that is our uniquely human habitat.
Is there a place for nature in the city?
Why might this even be important? In light of the National Parks Board's new public narrative about Singapore becoming a "City in Nature", it may be opportune to consider and evaluate the many aspects of what nature in our cities might mean.
Slogans can only go so far and may sometimes become even counterproductive. First the "Garden City", then "City in a Garden", "Biophilic City in a Garden", and now a "City in Nature". There has been no shortage for Singapore of narratives and public pronouncements over the years, a kind of perennial national marketing campaign. But is the public better informed because of it? Are they more knowledgeable, and hence more realistic and appreciative of a natural heritage that exists in this dense contemporary tropical city?
Of course, it is not only Singapore; for many city dwellers, there may be a feeling that nature is very much separated from us. Either warm and cuddly or freakish and bizarre, we are increasingly just spectators, fed on a diet of internet imagery, documentaries, or occasional visits to the zoo. In dense high-rise cities, particularly in Asia, it is a fact of contemporary life that many people have a more tenuous link to nature and limited significant real outdoor experiences. We are even detached from the cycles of life, the growing of and sources of food, contact with any "wild animals" or their natural habitats or territories.
Defining the Nature of Cities anew
So, what might be a healthy balance for the Nature of Cities require?
Wild animals are their kind and species, independent of humans. We do not own them, but we can take responsibility for the environments we all share and live in.
However, they need habitat and territories to function and thrive. We should preserve significant natural areas and connect water, green corridors, and spaces that enable movement, foraging and breeding.
Resilient and adaptable, flora and fauna of nature find a way to survive even in our dense and often hostile city environment. Any interference or "management" by a human should be carefully considered, and as "light a touch" as possible.
Privacy, please. Undisturbed by and from humans, matting, breeding, and nesting are all crucial to species survival. Respect nature, respect nature's inhabitants. If you must peak, use a long lens!
One side of nature is death! The cycle of life involves predator and prey in a ceaseless dance with death. We have forgotten, since we do not kill our own food (but someone else does, unseen, un-noticed and mostly unappreciated). Animals kill, do not be too sentimental. Accept it; better yet, understand it!
There is no waste in nature. Through death and decomposition, components like tissue, fibre, bacterial transfers, and nutrients are transformed for new life, regeneration, and growth. Ecology, "nature’s economy”, is the biggest, broadest, most circular and efficient of the entire planet. Humans could learn something from that!
Nature’s constantly changing and adapting. We think the city landscape of trees and green is unchanging, but it isn’t. Cutting, trimming and mowing, so much time, human energy and resources are expended trying to keep nature at bay. Maybe we should step back and let it grow?
What is the future of the human habitat?
The human species have clustered together in “settlements” for thousands of years. It is probably over the past millennia that the city has become a significant habitat. Over the past century, the urban environment has become the predominant physical living space for the majority of people. With that change, there has been a growing divergence and isolation from nature.
Increasingly complex, every aspect of this human urban environment that we have created requires constant management. From traffic infrastructure to utility services, metropolitan finances to education, planning regulation and building approvals. So to the physical environment; the green spaces, their ecosystems of flora and fauna and micro-climates, require careful planning, preservation, and management. Even, and perhaps especially so, if that management is principally NOT to disturb or diminish nature’s own dynamic resilient and self-sustaining processes.
Perhaps now is an opportunity for a more sophisticated, positive, unsentimental and mature approach. Could government seriously engage with professional groups, civil society, area experts and academia to develop more sophisticated and appropriate landscape and environmental management based on ecological science, specialist knowledge and contemporary urban design’s green infrastructure principles? To develop a better “Nature of Cities”.
So, are the otters “charming” or a nuisance? Wild boars, a kampong-day nostalgia or dangerous invader? Are macaque Monkeys cute or threatening? Inquisitive hornbills welcome co-inhabitants or surprising pet killers? Saltwater crocodiles, prehistoric curiosities or panic-inducing monsters?
All these feel like sentimental and parochial opinions. In the face of current challenges: climate change, regional migrations, limited resources, pollution and instability, we are often told that our cities need to become smarter, more adaptive, flexible and resilient. Nature, as demonstrated once again with the foraging otters, is already all of those things. Perhaps we as urban dwellers need to develop these characteristics too?
By Simon Morris
Co-Founder Director at Field Labs and SILA Council Member