A new breed of eco-towns

© Casarsa / iStock

Joëlle Salomon CavinJoëlle Salomon Cavin is Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability, Faculty of Geosciences and Environment.
Daniel CherixDaniel Cherix is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Ecology and Evolution, Faculty of Biology and Medicine.
Anne-Sylvie Sprenger / Allez savoir!
For the past fifteen years or so, nature seems to have been reasserting its rights in urban areas, which like to rediscover it through vegetable gardens, abandoned lawns and other flashy architectural plant creations. Joëlle Salomon Cavin, a spatial planning specialist, and biologist Daniel Cherix, take stock.

A city rat or a field rat? For a long time, you had to choose sides. Nature lovers often decided to set off to the countryside, while urban spirits went to big cities, leaving their family plot of land for a lifestyle considered more modern.

Today the boundary between town and country is no longer as extreme. While just a few decades ago, nature in towns and cities was confined to a few precisely spaced, flower-bedecked lawns on roundabouts, now towns are falling in love with green spaces galore: embankments are left to grow wild, while urban gardens and other architectural creations beckon the plant to the very heart of their design.

In this respect, the most recent and notable example is none other than the skyscraper soon to be erected in the Swiss town of Chavannes-près-Renens in the neighbourhood of UNIL, a 117 m-high tower with 35 floors, but also 80 trees and 3,000 square metres of shrubs on its terraces! What’s more, this ‘forest-tower,’ which was designed by the architect Stefano Boeri, was voted for unanimously, even up against the projects submitted by famous names like Mario Botta – which goes to show the current craze for green creations of this kind.

‘Real’ nature?

But what can we make of this trend? Does it herald a real return to nature in cities, or should we see in it a purely aesthetic, and thus short-lived appeal?

Joëlle Salomon Cavin, who is a senior lecturer and researcher in Territorial Policies at UNIL, believes it’s important to point out that “nature in cities has always existed, but it’s long been dismissed”. The expert cites as evidence the compelling example of naturalists (biologists, ecologists etc.) who never used to be interested in nature in the heart of cities. “It just didn’t seem worthy of interest to them, at least not like the nature found in the wild could be”.

However, in recent years, notes the researcher, “conservationists have been returning to cities. Stakeholders like the nature conservation organization Pro Natura care about this urban ‘sub-nature’ which they had always considered worthless, either because they saw it as uninteresting in itself or over-modified by man”. Salomon Cavin goes on to mention the pioneers of the urban ecology school in Berlin in the 1980s: “They were the first to be interested in nature in cities and to demonstrate that there was biodiversity in urban areas”. Better still, “cities could even be a refuge for some species of wildlife hunted from the urban fringes by intensive farming!”

The researcher then gives the symbolic example of the peregrine falcon: “This bird hunts field mice, but they have been decimated by farming. So this bird of prey has moved into cities in recent years, where it’s found other small animals to eat. It’s therefore become an urban species”.

A change in perspective

Does this mean that cities may have been underestimated as a host environment for biodiversity? “Totally,” replies Salomon Cavin, who even mentions “the variety of clearly unique mosses and lichens in urban areas”. She concludes: “This realisation has shaken up our imaginary construct of there being no nature in cities, or only a poor kind of nature, and that the countryside is a natural area par excellence. Yet there are extremely polluted and sanitised areas on farms, and real ecosystems in urban areas. The distinction made between supposedly barren cities and the fertile countryside is now completely outdated”.

Indeed, this change in feeling has turned out to be extremely radical, so was bound to change the very approach to managing natural spaces right in the heart of our cities. Daniel Cherix, Professor Emeritus in the UNIL Department of Ecology and Evolution, confirms this: “Many things have changed over the past fifteen years or so, the main one being that we’ve gone from being obsessed with lawnmowers to adopting differentiated maintenance” – i.e. actions aiming at respecting the particularities of each site.

The Territorial Policies expert makes the same observation: “In green area management services, extremely horticultural perspectives have been largely abandoned for a vision which is more focused on ecology and habitat management. New concerns have emerged in connection with nature conservation issues, whereas previously urban green spaces were considered as spaces for development”.

The great return of nature

The Swiss have always loved uniformity when it comes to maintaining green spaces in towns! But this fondness now belongs to the past. Today, urban areas are keen to take into account the particularities of each green space to better support them in what they now call ‘their vocation’. “In practice, and I’m caricaturing a little, a gardener will no longer have to maintain the grass around a swimming pool in the same way and, at the other end of the spectrum, a roadside embankment,” explains – in the clearest terms – the brochure on the subject published by the City of Lausanne, a “true pioneer in the field” according to Professor Cherix.

Tour des cèdres Lausanne

The Tour des cèdres, a 117 m-high ‘forest-tower’ will sooon be erected in Chavannes-près-Renens, not far from the UNIL campus. This project was voted for unanimously. (© Stefano Boeri Architetti)

“Besides now mowing its embankments later in the year to preserve the biodiversity of their flora and fauna, the capital of the Canton of Vaud has also undertaken to stop any use of pesticides,” says the biologist. “On top of this,” he says, “is the city’s involvement in European programmes such as ‘Urban bees’. This involves developing ‘hotels for wild bees,’ which play a key role in the pollination of all sorts of plants, wild or cultivated, and also fruit trees. This action obviously marks real progress in terms of biodiversity. All the more so that community initiatives are combined with genuine awareness in the population, which is turning out to be increasingly concerned about these issues”.

“All the studies show that people today, if they have the choice, always opt for a more natural design,” says the biologist. “There’s real awareness which means that most of the measures taken by the various environmental services will be well received”. Better still, more and more people are engaging in projects related to this return of nature to towns and cities. Urban gardens and other community gardens are rapidly expanding in this direction in cities. “People today want nature on their doorsteps,” says Salomon Cavin. “These gardens and urban gardening habits are, for many people, a way of finding a connection to the land and the seasons, which they didn’t used to have”.

Biodiversity between fantasy and reality

So are cities and nature now back together again for the best? “It’s not all as rosy as that,” says Cherix; while biodiversity conservation is the main advantage of this revolution, “people still need to get used to the consequences of these changes,” he stresses. “A flower-covered embankment might naturally seem very nice, the change is harder to accept in terms of parks and other recreational areas”.

Admittedly, according to various studies, Cherix tells us, the vast majority of city-dwellers support efforts to protect the environment. But the fact is that they often idealise nature and will reintegrate it into daily life at any cost. “Take the example of the wolf,” explains the biologist. “In towns and cities, two thirds of the population are in favour of the wolf, against only just 2% in the countryside This particular case is certainly extreme, but it is a good example of the difference in attitudes between urban and rural dwellers, who are doubtless more aware of the problems which nature can bring too.

The biologist cites a more common example to illustrate his point: the trend in the 1980s when people created what they wrongly called habitats, i.e. a small pond in their garden. “In theory, these initiatives were the most successful because in Switzerland, almost 70% of wetlands have disappeared in under a century”. Yet the expectations of these garden owners were different from reality. “They imagined themselves with dragonflies and water beetles, and didn’t for one moment stop to think about the frogs that would sing in the spring under their windows”. He adds: “So they then decided to fill their ponds with goldfish and turtles which don’t belong in this kind of environment at all. The fact is that people adopt a nature-oriented attitude, but aren’t prepared to accept the consequences that come with it. They do want to a pond in their garden but don’t want the local species which will pay a visit, because they make noise or at least cause disruption in a way which is intolerable to them”.

Cohabitation problems

Mankind and wildlife may not be doing that well together, whatever utopians think. “Some problems with this cohabitation have clearly not been resolved,” says the biologist, “specifically mentioning the extensive damage caused by certain species such as starlings, crows and even stone martens: excrement stains, gnawed cables, unearthed seeds etc. And the problem also exists the other way round: the arrival (or proliferation) of certain species in cities does not necessarily mean that they’ll find a habitat there which benefits them”.

“We mustn’t forget that in towns and cities, we’re still in a partly artificial ecosystem,” points out Cherix. “Light and noise are significant stressors on certain populations, especially sparrows: if there’s light, this means that there may be a predator. So birds will sleep with just one eye closed and this will have negative repercussions on their physiology”.

Another urban problem is the overly greasy food swallowed by sparrows in urban areas. “This excessive fat factor in young birds will affect their ability to lay eggs as adults. This will ultimately lead to a decline in the urban population,” the biologist adds.

So what can we ultimately deduce from this convergence of grass and concrete? “Cohabitation has its limits. We still haven’t resolved quite a few problems”. And above all: are we ready to implement the required solutions? “There’s scope for limiting light in cities for instance, as with the system tested in the town of Yverdon-les-Bains where the street lights turn on only when people walk past”. Will we give ourselves the resources to do so? Time will tell. As for the annoyances of wildlife, the biologist remains realistic but confident: “There’s still quite some work to do in terms of explaining to people that you can’t expect a natural garden without mosquitoes or spiders. It’s hard for older generations to change their mentality, but our children are growing up with these ideas. We’ve taken the first step, and they’re bound to make the next one”.

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