When a grey whale was first spotted meandering through False Creek in 2010 by unsuspecting Vancouver residents, it had been one of only a few sightings of its kind in nearly a hundred years. The whale can be seen in the video below, showing us how much excitement a wild animal sighting can evoke from fortunate passersby.
Before the 1900s, hundreds of whales migrated through Burrard Inlet on a regular basis. Whales were so abundant in the area that the little islands around Bowen Island were sometimes called the whale islands. Perhaps this particular whale was just swimming off track, or wandering into our harbour out of sheer curiosity; reports tell us that herring spawned close to False Creek that year. Nevertheless, watching this video made me wonder: can we restore parts of our city to a point where grey whale sightings like this one could occur on a more regular basis?
Recently I attended a presentation at UBC Green College by James MacKinnon – Vancouver journalist, author of the 100-mile diet, and nature writer – who spoke about his recent book “The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be”. The book pays tribute to an idea stemming from conservation biology, the notion of rewilding, or returning a place to a more “natural or wild state”.
MacKinnon started his presentation by showing us the above video as a way of reminding us that as we industrialize our societies, we often lose touch with the natural history of the places in which we live. By 1908, the commercial whale hunt dissipated the grey whale population in the region surrounding Vancouver. Today, the grey whales have recovered to 18,000 in British Columbia, but they still hesitate to swim close to Vancouver’s shores.
Indeed, our experience of Vancouver today is only a glimpse of the city’s natural history. In a recent interview, MacKinnon recounted what he learned while writing about Vancouver’s past, "If we leap to 1792, when Captain George Vancouver explored Vancouver Harbour, the first thing we'd notice is the presence of thousands of people from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. But we'd also see sights that today we associate mainly with remote wilderness: grizzly bears, wolverines, wolves, herds of elk, old-growth trees taller than any that exist in Canada today.” Imagine looking out over the Vancouver harbour and seeing mountain goats scattered throughout the North Shore mountains! MacKinnon also recounted one of his favorite quotes from an early Vancouver resident, “In spring, every morning and night, the whole city thrummed with frogsong."
MacKinnon’s story sparks an awakening possibility: are we planning cities with only one species in mind? And, if city design alienates us from natural history, do we also risk losing touch with a part of our own identity?
There is no doubt that residents of British Columbia have a strong cultural association with salmon. Yet one of the most visible changes experienced in Vancouver today is the absence of the 120 km of fish bearing streams that used to flow throughout the city’s limits. In the past, so many fish spawned in the region that it was said people would fish for them using pitchforks. A map of Vancouver’s lost streams can be seen here.
Most of these streams have been lost to development: diverted through pipes, plastered by concrete or buried beneath sewers and culverts. Only three remain above ground. It is perhaps this strong affinity to salmon that has empowered the locals in East Vancouver to embark on the restoration efforts of Still Creek, one of the few remaining streams in the city that has not been completely diverted or paved over. Led by the local organization Evergreen BC, locals are now trying to restore the natural flow of Still Creek, reduce soil erosion and downstream sedimentation, and protect the stream-side and aquatic habitats. In 2013, restoration efforts finally paid off as salmon have finally returned to spawn. People from the neighbourhood continue to celebrate the area. Hundreds of locals come out to the Annual Lantern Festival put on by Still Moon Arts Society in Still Creek, which has become a community tradition.
There are also examples of rewilding in other cities, where local projects are aiming to make cities more wildlife friendly. Joyce Hwang’s Bat Cloud at Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo, is an eco-sculpture that provides a habitat for bats and brings attention to an illness that is decimating the bat population. “Buildings and other structures are typically designed and constructed in ways to prevent animal inhabitation,” Hwang explained in an interview, “just look, for example, at all of the artifacts that are produced just to keep birds off of buildings: spikes, wires, netting, etc.” Bat Cloud proposes a way to create structures that support bat (and other urban wildlife) habitation.
Organizations like the Urban Wildlife Working Group are actively tracking urban coyotes in Chicago to better understand their behaviour. Staff capture, collar, and monitor coyotes in order to understand how they live in urban areas as well as interact with other wildlife and domestic animals. Through their efforts, the group hopes to “initiate the first step of coyote management – educating the public and untangling facts from myths." Ultimately, Urban Wildlife Working Group would like people to become aware of coyote signs and understand the differences between true threats and coexistence.
Projects that make cities more inhabitable to wildlife do raise some interesting questions. Which animals do we want to welcome into our neighborhoods? Can we favour one species versus another for rewilding projects? Can rewilding compete with other lifestyle priorities – how will the public react to rewilding coyotes, for example, if they are pet owners?
The challenge is that the term ‘wildness’ itself appears to be negotiable. The attitudes of humans towards wild animals are both complex and unpredictable, depending upon the ‘reputation’ that a species has. Racoons are commonly viewed as urban pests, despite being part of Canada's natural history. (For examples of pests in other countries see: baboons in Cape town, where “Baboon Proofing Your Home” is a local news story). Clearly, there are a lot of value judgments involved with rewilding and what this would mean for local residents.
I would venture to take the concept of rewilding as proposed by James MacKinnon (returning a place to a more “natural or wild state”) and extend the application of the term to include a conscious effort to be more connected to nature within our cities. In acknowledging that we have shaped the natural environment in a way that is perhaps irreversible on some fronts, the concept of rewilding can serve as a tribute to the historical natural past of the places in which we live.
Putting up a birdhouse can be a simple act of rewilding. The Still Moon Arts Society’s twilight bike ride, which draws locals to a crow roost that houses up to 20,000 crows during the fall and winter, can be considered rewilding – a way of making people more aware of the surrounding wildlife. Rewilding can mean we start small, such as the Urban Bug Gardens project in Douglas College, which examines insects in community gardens to see how they impact greenhouse pests and migratory birds.
Whichever way we decide to carry forward conservation of urban wildlife, I will leave you with a quote from MacKinnon's Rewilding Exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver:
"The history of nature is not always and only a lament; it is also an invitation to envision another world." – James MacKinnon