Urban Biodiversity y el Cambio Chromatico

Ramón, whose strip Hipo Popo Pota & T@mo runs in Spain's El Pais newspaper, is one of my favourite editorial cartoonists. Through the lives of two precocious hippos, and a cast of other animals, the strip carries a running commentary on current politics as it relates to the environmental crisis we seem intent on digging ourselves into.

This past week, the strip has begun dealing with the impacts that climate change is going to have on biodiversity. For readers who don't read Spanish, I've translated the first strip in the series after the jump (the original is here).

The strip usually runs in full colour, and I have done my best to translate the wonderful play on words that switches "cambio climatico" (climate change) for "cambio chromatico" (chromatic change). As climate change decimates biodiversity, the world is going grey.

Ramón is drawing attention to an alarming situation: plants and animals may be going extinct faster now than at any other time in the planet's history. Factor in the effects of climate change and by some estimates between one third and half of all current species will be extinct by the end of this century.

If you live and work in a city, it's not obvious how cities can help make a difference on this issue. But cities are natural spaces; they are part of local and regional ecosystems. Managed with these connections in mind, they can play an important role in helping plants, animals and humans to adapt to climate change.

In the past, migration was the main way that plants and animals coped with changing conditions. If it got to hot or dry where you were, you went somewhere else. Currently, swaths of urbanized and industrialised land can make migration impossible. Even if there is more habitat available elsewhere, urbanized land acts as a moat cutting off access. But cities can act to address this situation.

Living in Durban, South Africa, I have been in the middle of a biodiversity hot spot with more than 6 thousand species of plants and animals. Here, the municipality's Environmental Management Department oversees a vast system of parks and open spaces. Like a network of green highways, this land provides corridors through which plants and animals can move giving them the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. Where the network is interrupted, the department has been working with private land owners to encourage the planting of indigenous plants that effectively extend the network of wildlife corridors. In a Canadian context, the town of Canmore on the outskirts of Banff national park is trying to strike a similar balance.

Last September Durban-- along with a total of 20 other cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Bonn, Seoul, Seattle, Edmonton and Barcelona -- established the Durban Commitment on biodiversity. Each city committed to monitoring, protecting and raising awareness about biodiversity in their area.

The idea that cities can have a role in preserving biodiversity is hard for some people to wrap their heads around. In Portland (OR) Mike Houck (founder of the Audubon Society's Urban Naturalist Program, and executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute) has devoted his career to preserving urban ecosystems. When I spoke with him earlier this year, he described how difficult it was to get people to see that there was such a thing as nature in the city. Both traditional environmentalists and municipal officials thought that nature was something best protected outside, not inside, urban areas.

Recently that view has started to change. Both municipal officials and residents are coming alive to the value of protecting wildlife habitat, wetlands, rivers and streams. A healthy local ecosystem can have immediate benefits for the city's human inhabitants. Green spaces increase air quality, reduce the sweltering summer heat and make cities more livable. Functioning river and wetland systems offer natural storm water remediation and water purification systems that would cost cities millions if cities had to build them themselves.

Just after the economic crisis hit last fall, an EU-commissioned study used this financial view of biodiversity to compare the two crisis. While the Wall St. had lost $1.5 trillion, they calculated that we are loosing $2-$5 trillion of natural capital every year. While major national and international responses are required, cities also have a role to play in protecting biodiversity.

(If that's too much to think about on a Friday afternoon, more comix are linked to in the openalex footer).


4 Responses to "Urban Biodiversity y el Cambio Chromatico"

Lunatrix said... 14 March 2009 at 03:48

I wondered if you were reading these series of comic strips by Ramón, they're really quite good. Well done translating the dialogues too!!

Yes, this entry is gloomy, like many others in your blog. Don't take me wrong: I totally agree with you. But I sometimes wonder if there's no other way to present the problem, push for solutions, gain people´s attention. Few people enjoy reading about the end of the world, even if they know it's coming. I think it's in our nature to move towards happier stories.

Example: my work is on migration from Senegal to Spain. Most people only know what they see in the newspapers -- namely, that a bunch of poor, black, illiterate, young, and desperate "Blacks" are sworming into the country. So last week, in an interview on the radio, that's all the interviewers wanted to talk about. This time I decided to try to gain empathy not through telling the harsh story first, but the beautiful one, and then go on to talk about some of the problems and some possible solutions. I think they liked it, because they heard things that they didn't know but helped them get in those people's shoes.

That is what Ramón is trying to do, too. Although maybe knowing as much as you do, being positive is not that easy. These issues are too pushing for that, aren't they?

Alex Aylett said... 15 March 2009 at 06:40

Finding the right tone to talk about these issues is difficult. But I think if you read more closely in the rest of the blog you'll see that it's really not all that gloomy. Most of my space is given to new projects and responses, but I'm not going to lie about the problems we are causing.

There are plenty of upbeat sustainability blogs out there focused on flashy new “green” innovations. There are plenty of others dealing with how apocalyptic the future is going to be. They are entertaining. But eco-geek fashion is not going to help us deal with sea level rise, and neither is musing about the end of the world.

I'm trying to do something different here. Optimism keeps me sane, but we need to be optimistic about the right things. The point here is to take an honest look at our understanding of the problems, and then be optimistic about things that actually address them – not some watered down version of what is going on.

In this case specifically, I really think that if we began to be more aware of cities as components of natural systems – potentially beneficial components – we could make a lot of headway.

Lunatrix said... 15 March 2009 at 12:23

Thanks for your response, Alex!! :o)

penny said... 23 March 2009 at 19:43

need more key-word links happening with educated intelligent discrimating readers


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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