Urban Nature – biodiversity in your backyard

We started this project to visit amazing nature around Eurasia. The Danube floodplains, the Carpathians, the Turkish mountains, the Caucasus, the Central Asian Steppe, the rainforests of East Asia. Some of the most impressive natural areas in the world. But nature does not only exist there and biodiversity is also not only threatened there. Nature exists literally everywhere on earth. Nature is the entirety of living beings on this planet and living beings exist in forests, savannas, deserts, oceans, rivers, even the air – and in cities.

So, a few days before starting to cycle, we visited two projects that promote nature and biodiversity in cities. Once more, this was a personal topic for Jonas, as he wrote my bachelor thesis on urban nature. This gave him chance to contribute to the “Stadtnatur in Frankfurt” (urban nature in Frankfurt) initiative of the Senckenberg Society. And now we got invited to the Senckenberg headquarters to see how the institution protects biodiversity right at its front door.

Creating a shared space

As we arrive a few minutes early, we already see the first info board about today´s topic. It explains the ‘wild meter’ in front of us. This is a (actually more 3m wide) strip of vegetation that surrounds the building. It used to be a type of green space that you commonly see in cities: a mixture of bushes and grass, more or less native and maintained. When the project “Wildes Bockenheim” (wild Bockenheim – a district of Frankfurt) started last year, Julian Taffner and Daniela Warzecha, who we are meeting, together with other employees of Senckenberg decided to change that. They removed the old vegetation and planted native meadow flowers. This does not only look beautiful from spring to autumn, but it also creates new habitats for a whole variety of insects and other small animals. And it gives everyone who comes by something to enjoy and learn about. It is also accompanied by nest boxes for birds and insect hotels around the premises.

This little strip of flowers might not seem very ambitious for a project that is part of a project that is part of a German-wide research initiative for the conservation of biodervisity, the FEdA initiative. Everyone who has a garden could do this, right?

Yes! And this is exactly the point. When you think about nature conservation, you might think of Serengeti National Park, the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon. And they all have an outstanding role in protecting our planet and its biodiversity. But everyone can do something for nature conservation, no matter where you live. Even if you don´t have a garden, you can put up a nest box, an insect hotel or a flower pot with native flowers that pollinators feed on – on your balcony, a window or in front of the door.

And this is not only possible, but also necessary. Nature conservation projects are often pilot projects. This means their goal is to research and test which solutions exist and how they can be realized. And this is often more important than you might think. This is where the second project of today comes into play. “Insektenwiesen Hessen” (Insect meadows Hessen – a state of Germany) uses citizen science to research the insect diversity on meadows in Hessen and spread knowledge on how to protect it.

A human-human conflict

So, after showing us the wild meter, the conversation quickly turns to the role of communication in nature conservation. In this context, a sentence from our time at the European Wilderness Society also comes into mind: “[…] is not a human-wildlife conflict, it is a human-human conflict.” This extends to all of nature conservation. The truth is that most of nature conservation is not dealing with nature, but with people. Humans are at the core of nature conservation, as nature conservation is all about the impact of humans on nature. Hence, the task of conservationists is to identify these impacts, find solutions on how reduce them and spread these solutions as wide as possible.

In national parks and other large protected areas, the approach is often to draw a clear line between humans and nature, and shut human activities out completely in strictly protected zones. In cities, a more active approach is necessary. Nature is already so heavily impacted that it must be actively restored. And the space for this is limited and very fragmented between all the concrete. This means small-scale solutions must be replicated many times.

Wildes Bockenheim and Insektenwiesen Hessen try to achieve this by getting as many stakeholders as possible around one table. The most important players are the cities and municipalities as they are responsible for most green spaces in urban areas. But there are fields and forests in and around cities, so farmers and foresters must also be involved. Environmental NGOs like BUND and NABU are important multiplicators and advocates. And maybe most important are interested citizens. They build wildlife-friendly habitats in their gardens and around their houses, set up bird or bat nest boxes and insect hotels. And they are crucial to monitor wildlife in cities, for example Insektenwiesen Hessen relies on them to report insects they find.

All of these aspects create a lot of challenges for nature conservation in cities and urban areas. When Julian and Daniela talk, they mention so many small activities that it is hard to keep track. Rewilding green spaces, insect hotels, nest boxes, sand hills, round tables, press work, newsletters, insect recordings via an online platform in Hessen, city nature challenges, working groups, mowing regimes and educational events are all part of their work.

The upsides to all of these efforts are clear. You can hardly see if another piece of the Amazon does not get deforested. You probably won´t ever see the wolves that are returning to Germany. But you do see the insects in your insect hotels, the birds in your nest box, the hedgehogs in a pile of dead wood. This shows people that biodiversity is not something abstract like carbon emissions, it is something that happens everywhere and thus must also be protected everywhere.

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