Five species that have quietly adapted to urban living in London

A peregrine falcon. This one’s probably never been to London, though. Image: Getty.

There’s a weird assumption that cities and wildlife are two completely incompatible entities. That once humans start living together in large numbers, nothing else can stand a chance. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Cities are, in fact, teeming with wildlife, and I’m not just talking about the rubbish animals nobody likes, like rats and pigeons. In London there are some incredible creatures that have adapted to the urban environment and even thrived. Here are five species that have made their home alongside the capital’s eight million human residents.

Peregrine Falcons

That’s right, London has its own bird of prey – the largest falcons in the UK, no less.

In the last 20 years the population has crept back from the edge of extinction, to the point where the capital now boasts over 30 pairs of the birds, which mate for life. The city’s tall buildings offer a suitable exchange for the mountains and cliffs where they would usually nest and with plenty of pigeons around, food is plentiful.

While you’re unlikely to spot one of the falcons unless you’re actively looking, there are live streams available of their various eyries such as those at Merton Civic Centre and Kingston College.

This amazing bird’s revival in London is still in its early stages and relies on the tireless work of a bunch of volunteer organisations. But the situation is improving, and many are hoping for the birds to become a regular feature of the city’s fauna.


Image: screenshot from Falcon 1 Camera stream at Kingston College.

Herons

By the 1950s it was believed that herons would never again breed in the city, thanks to the poor quality of water. Bad water meant less fish, and the birds had been starved out.

As London’s rivers and canals began to be seen as more than just a convenient dump, we cleaned up our act and fish returned – quickly followed by herons. These days, more than 300 nests are recorded each year, and the spindly-legged fishermen can be found alongside many of London’s waterways patiently awaiting a catch.

Muntjac

Muntjacs are miniature deer, meaning they can slip around London’s green spaces in a way that a massive stag probably couldn’t. Native to China, they arrived in the UK around 150 years ago and have been eating everyone’s shrubs ever since.

As Robert Donaldson-Webster of the British Deer Society (BDS), told the Barnet Times: “The North Circular is heaving with deer.”


Ring-necked parakeets

You’ll be well aware of these squawky birds should you live anywhere near a park – or perhaps even just a tree, they nest just about anywhere – because boy are they loud.

Native to Africa and South Asia, they flew onto the avian scene in the 1970s and have gone from strength to strength since, becoming the UK’s only naturalised parrots.

How they ended up in the capital is subject to debate, as is, more importantly, the extent of their environmental impact. The parakeets may be responsible for driving native species out of their nesting spaces and causing significant damage to plants. In their native India, the birds inflict extensive damage on crops, reducing maize yields by up to 81 per cent.

Still, at their current population they are relatively harmless and undeniably add some colour to the city. The brilliant green of these ‘posh pigeons’ certainly stands out among the otherwise muted urban shades.

Foxes

There’s something a little magical about meeting an urban fox on a quiet street late at night. I usually encounter one as I’m stumbling home from the pub, causing the fox to just watch me in a slightly judgey way. Still, I love them.

In London, foxes get quite a hard time; they’re seen largely as a pest responsible for messing up bins. Few have entirely forgotten or forgiven foxes for that awful incident in which one bit off a baby’s finger in Bromley in 2013, and, admittedly, their calls do resemble the dying shrieks of someone who’s lost their voice – but on the whole, they’re pretty great.

They quietly prowl the streets hunting rats, which are by far the worst animal thriving in cities. The old adage goes that you’re never more than six feet from a rat. Maybe, but not if the urban foxes have anything to do with it.

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.