Thinking of the Urban as Natural

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“Name everything you can think of that is alive.” This was the prompt given to three different groups of children: the Wichi, an indigenous tribe in the Gran Chaco forest, and rural and urban Spanish-speakers in Argentina. It might not surprise you to know that the indigenous children who directly interact with wildlife often named the most plants and animals that lived nearby and were native to the region, and they often gave very specific names. The rural children named a mixture of both native Argentinian wildlife and animals associated with farming. But the urban children were very different from the others. They would name only a few animals in Argentina. Instead, they named significantly more “exotic” animals from forests and jungles in other countries and continents. This result has been replicated in multiple studies on child development. But we shouldn’t be so hard on the urban children.

This reflects a somewhat uncomfortable truth about how we learn. If you live in a city, you mainly learn about nature indirectly, through pop culture and formal science education. In both contexts, it is much easier to find information about “exotic” animals like lions or tigers instead of most of the organisms that make a home in the city. I think this is a symptom of a deeper cultural notion: that somehow cities are “fake” environments divorced from nature. I will argue that this distinction between the urban and natural is not only wrong, but also harmful to our society.

First, we should consider that this notion really only makes sense relatively recently in history. Cities are young in a geological and even anthropological sense, but since we’ve been making them as a species, they have been influenced by nature. We talk about “cradles of civilization” because they were places where the natural environment was well-suited to supporting early, complex social systems and their infrastructure. To use the literal Ur-example, consider the Fertile Crescent region, the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This provided lush soil at several elevations, which supported the growth of a variety of crops and helped with irrigation. And many modern cities can still be traced back to earlier environmental decisions. I am from Louisville, a city by a part of the Ohio River that could not be crossed by boat until the building of locks in the 1830s. The city was founded as a natural stopping point for people before they would go on to the Mississippi River.

Second, it seems incredibly alienating to argue most of humanity is “unnatural”. Since 2008, the majority of humans have lived in cities. By 2050, 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. We should not discourage the growth of cities or devalue them, when their more efficient use of resources and infrastructure is necessary to keep projected population growth sustainable. The smart development of cities recognizes they can help preserve other environments.

Finally, this urban-natural distinction distorts our understanding of the environmental and ecological processes that affect cities and even our broader understanding of the environment. A recent study showed that insects help reduce food waste just as much as rodents in New York City – for every memeable “pizza rat” there’s an army of “pizza ants” getting rid of rotting food. Despite their importance, in New York’s American Museum of Natural History renowned insect collection, they have almost no species native to the city. And since many city-dwellers like the Argentinian children only know about exotic species, it affects animal conservation efforts. Well-known “charismatic” species like pandas or rhinos have support all over the world. Few people are aware of endangered species in urban areas And sometimes scientists don’t even know. For instance, relating to the above, 40% of insect species are endangered, but we don’t know if that number is different in cities.

Instead of rejecting the last few thousand years of our society’s development, we should (re)embrace cities as part of the broader natural world. Recognizing that cities can have their own rich ecological and environmental interactions can help us build urban spaces that are better for us humans, other city-dwelling creatures, and the rest of the world.

(Note: This post is based on a speech I gave as part of a contest at UVA, the Moomaw Oratorical Contest. And this year I won!)

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