Cities Build Better Biologists – Scientific American

Since 1970 Earth Day has asked humanity to reflect on the benefits that come from nature and what actions we can take to promote environmental sustainability.

These are noble asks, especially in light of our climate emergency. But frankly it’s not working, and reflection is not enough. This Earth Day, consider how urban settings are rife with wildlife and biological activity. Consider how the cities of the world, touted as essential to climate change solutionscan raise the kind of hyperobservational, complexity-oriented ecologists that will bring us into a more inclusive biological future.

I am a Black wildlife biologist from Philadelphia. The environment where I was trained was vastly different from the environment I knew as a city girl. My presence in ecology has not only challenged what a biologist looks like but also where a biologist comes from. Now that I am an assistant professor at one of the nation’s most prominent environmental schools, I can tell you that my urban background is an asset. Throughout the world, from Dakar to Dallas to Delhi, are city dwellers who can bring diverse, broad-based skill sets that translate to building better biologists.

In my work as an applied ecologist, I travel the world studying the behaviors and interactions of carnivores for their conservation—literally lions, tigers and bears are all animals in my research. I bathe in rivers, sleep in tents, poop in holes, get charged by elephants, jump from helicopters, get stalked by mountain lions, hike 21 kilometers in a day (that is 13 miles!) and more for my fieldwork. The training ground I now provide young scientists interested in the complexity of the natural environment is a far cry from the one I was thrust into when I decided to pursue ecology.

My training sphere was homogenous: white, rural and located in greener landscapes. I stood out among my peers for not having the seemingly obligatory history of camping, fishing, hunting or even hiking shared by my classmates. It seemed, with all they knew about the rural natural world, that they were bred specifically for this career, as defined by their white, rural predecessors. I had yet to recognize that my waterfront hometown, with its four seasons and abundance of squirrels, row homes and festivals, was actually my first ecological classroom. Ecology is about species interactions that are dynamic across space and time. In Philly, I witnessed feral cats eating birds and rats, people shooing bats from their homes and snakes being killed by lawn mowers. This is as much ecology in action as anything we witness in rural fields and forests.

Our geographical narcissism notwithstanding, city dwellers do see the world differently, through the gaze of sharing but also competition. Our perspective of what a neighbor is gets challenged because we are sharing space with other people and wildlife in a way that isn’t replicated in the traditional dichotomy of natural versus built.

But what people sometimes miss is that the urban wildlife thriving with us, in and around our cities, is truly remarkable. Often these creatures exhibit a myriad of varied features and behaviors, compared with their rural counterparts: they are sometimes bigger, eat more diverse food sources, are active at different times of the day, move differently and have different personalities. Some argue they are evensmarterthan their rural counterparts.

All these variations result from balancing an intense ecosystem with a multitude of trade-offs. This means urban wildlife balance more risks with rewards. Risks are abundant with exposure to roads, chemical toxins and diseases from domestic animals. Remember that 80-pound male German shepherds and even our beloved family feline Fifi are predators of urban wildlife.

Some of the rewards for urban wildlife come from us providing food from the mismanagement of our waste and decisions by urban planners on the distribution of our parks and water bodies. Other rewards, particularly for carnivores, are natural resources such as rodents, and these wild predators help with pest and disease management. This dynamic coupled landscape, where nature meets humans, can also dramatically influence human societies.

Our interactions with nature are complex but ubiquitous, with exercise, gardening, bike rides, picnics, basketball games and family barbecues. Increasingly, reports of wildlife sightings are becoming normalized in the daily lives of urbanites and valued by biologists through public science programs such as the City Nature Challenge. Such encounters broaden not only our definition of what is urban but also who studies our environment.

As urbanites, our intuition is sharpened by risks—we know a sketchy street, and we lock our doors. Our spatial orientation is pronounced because of the complexity of our environments and our familiarity with their scale and distribution. Our ability to assess threats and our awareness regarding safety influence our behaviors and choices—this is akin to urban wildlife—meaning it affords us an advantage of understanding through proximity.

In our professional lives as biologists, our exposure to diverse communities initiates cultural sensitivities and a competence that helps promotes inclusivity. We learn a suite of fundamental biological and ecological principles through practical experiences. When you live without air-conditioning or other amenities, you adapt faster to your changing microenvironment. When you experience the scarcity and rationing of resources in a crowded city, you understand resource allocation at a deeply personal level, not just an observational one. We bear witness to evolution and the wealth of nature’s innovation during our walks along city blocks, as we see flowers budding through concrete, and on our drives, as we see birds of prey eating carrion on highways.

Such heterogeneity in cities subconsciously plants seeds of appreciation for diversity, tolerance and empathy that can benefit the natural world. Biologists from cities operate in a boundary space between worlds that enhances connections and impacts among people. Inherent as we work, we serve as environmental advocates, translators, communicators and testaments of nature’s power.

Yet nurturing these skills and experiences requires intentionality within households, in formal and informal educational settings, and in civil society to affirm what should be obvious: urbanites not only belong but are needed in biology.

By framing urban areas as degraded, depauperate and deficient, we are undervaluing its inhabitants—wildlife and people alike. We are missing an opportunity to cultivate the inherent experiences and learned survival skills from city dwellers to promote cultural change within the life sciences. Urbanites, as untapped resources, could transform how science is done with regard to what questions we ask in our studies and what tools we apply to answer them. By training more biologists from urban settings, we are creating a new agenda that has broader societal relevance.

We no longer have to travel “up yonder” to experience nature. For most of the world’s population, access to green and blue spaces, as well as exposure to wildlife, emerges right from our urban neighborhoods. Nature is no longer only pristine wilderness in distant, sparsely populated lands full of birdsongs but includes sounds of human laughter, trash trucks and sirens.

With the growing abundance of wildlife neighbors sharing space in cities and the role of cities in combatting climate change, creating a strategy that builds complementary social capital through a diverse workforce is fiercely urgent. We urbanities are born gritty, born resourceful and imaginative, born with a strategic mindset and born competitive, with a drive to succeed. We are born as change agents, disrupters and visionaries.

Indeed, I didn’t know about salmon runs, elk bugles and warbler migration routes like my classmates did. Instead I possessed skills that enabled critical thinking and creativity for solving problems related to environmental issues and human dimensions, which transferred my informal urban training to my formal university education.

So this Earth Day, if you are compelled (or even coerced) into some performative gesture, why not contribute to transformative potential? We need more capacity, more participation, more energy and more innovation in science to create solutions to combat environmental degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Identifying this talent across cities globally frankly presents an easy remedy. Let your celebration of Earth be an investment in the current and future ambassadors residing and studying in cities that will ensure its protection and function for humans and wildlife alike.

Since 1970 Earth Day has asked humanity to reflect on the benefits that come from nature and what actions we can take to promote environmental sustainability. These are noble asks, especially in light of our climate emergency. But frankly it’s not working, and reflection is not enough. This Earth Day, consider how urban settings are…

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