Making Space for Life in the City
Life on Katipunan
Living in Manila has been an almost-constant competition for space. The streets are full, the sidewalks are swarming, and not even the skyline is spared, as steel and concrete crowd each other out, fighting for their place on the landscape. In this press of bodies, buildings and objects, it can be hard to imagine how there can be much room for anything else.
Life, however, is resilient. Put simply (and quotably) in a line now forever immortalized in GIF-form, Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg and Jeff Goldblum remind us that despite most odds, Life finds a way.
To illustrate, along Katipunan Avenue, there is a copse of trees that frames the Barangay Fire Station, the Park 9 Covered Court and blue glass structure of the Regis Building. It stands out in stark contrast to the neighborhood’s University traffic and unending high-rise condominium construction projects, no more than a pocket of greenery against the urban sprawl. I’ve watched no less than a dozen species of birds (counting the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrow (or Maya), and feral Rock Pigeons (Kalapati) that have flown their coops) stray into this grove - no rarities or endemics here, but there is enough variety to keep a beginning birder occupied.
A recent study from the United Kingdom has found that bird abundance in urban neighborhoods can be positively correlated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Others have associated birdwatching with mindfulness, or the practice of immersing fully in the present moment, which can heighten awareness, increase productivity, and foster peaceful and calming emotions. `
This idea of birdwatching as active meditation appeals to me particularly. I am a most uncomfortable city dweller - crowds, heat and noise make me anxious, and then crabby. But then I hear the distinct kilyaw of a Black-naped Oriole, and I am in the moment, in the city, and Life has found a way.
"Cities are Ecosystems"
The health of its urban biodiversity can define today’s sustainable cities. Biodiversity can provide valuable ecosystem services, such as improving air and water quality, mitigating natural hazards and enhancing human health and well-being.
University of Barcelona Professors Marti Boada and Roser Maneja explain how cities can be considered ecosystems in themselves. Aside from cultivated parks and gardens, built structures such as bridges, walls and fountains are also habitats for a variety of organisms that have adapted to the particular conditions of city life. Nature writer Jennifer Ackerman, in her 2016 book The Genius of Birds, notes how sparrows in particular, are opportunistic feeders that have thrived in human environments. The refuse of populated areas have provided these hardy birds with a ready food source to exploit.
Other species, however, have been less adaptable. Birds that rely on particular environments, such as wetlands and small islands, for wintering grounds, feeding and breeding, can be more vulnerable.
Greening Philippine Cities
These critical environments can just as easily be found within large cities. Along the Manila-Cavite Coastal Road, for example, the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA) is a vital pit stop for flocks of migrating birds, while also serving as a natural habitat for resident water bird species.
The LPPCHEA has been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It likewise enjoys additional safeguards as one of the new Protected Areas under the recently passed Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas (E-NIPAS) Act. However, it is still a literal island surrounded by an urban sea, and is under constant threat from reclamation projects in Manila Bay and pollution from nearby communities.
The Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2028 (PBSAP) has recognized the need to enhance urban biodiversity by protecting and improving available green spaces such as the LPPCHEA and the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Nature Center in Quezon City. Despite this plan, similar areas, such as the Arroceros Forest Park in the City of Manila and Burnham Park in Baguio City have been earmarked by local governments for infrastructure projects that would entail considerable changes to any existing ecosystems.
Biodiversity and the Cities of the Future
Cities in other parts of the world have developed indices and other tools to assess and monitor their urban biodiversity. These can provide helpful information for the crafting of environmental policies and sustainability plans.
Ultimately, thinking of biodiversity conservation in the same vein as urban development will doubtless require reflection on the kind of cities that we want to build. Who (or what) are these cities for? Where do these cities fit, in a world where we are both very big, and very small?
The Philippines is a global hotspot for biodiversity, with hundreds of species that can be seen nowhere else. Many of these endemics can still be found in even the busiest of urban spaces and Philippine cities have significant roles to play in ensuring that this wealth of plant and animal lives is not lost.
In the meantime, Life will find a way, as it always has. But perhaps if we helped things along and made a little space, Life could thrive, and so could we.
All photos above are from the personal collection of Nicole Torres and can only be used with permission from the author.