Pay attention to the environment on your doorstep

What’s happening? Usharaje High School in the city of Kolhapur, India has begun attaching QR codes to trees to provide students with education on biodiversity. So far, roughly 55 plant species on the school grounds have been fitted with QR codes that can be scanned on a smartphone to display the scientific name, the common name, origin, family, sub-family, genus and uses. (The Times of India)

Why does this matter? In this instance, technology is being used to study the biodiversity of the school’s immediate, local, urban ecology. By allowing students to educate themselves this way, they can develop an appreciation of local biodiversity conservation, viewing it as an urban issue as much as it is an issue in rural areas.

Why should we care about urban biodiversity? Whether in urban or rural areas, biodiversity plays a key role in looking after planetary health. Vast ecosystems with abundant flora and fauna act as carbon sinks to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and keeping species alive in biodiverse systems ensures balance in food chains and that overly-invasive species are kept in check. In terms of direct benefits to us, biodiversity plays an invisible, but incredibly important role in keeping us healthy. Increased deforestation and commercial manipulation of forest systems has been linked to increased risk of infectious epidemics, such as Ebola, malaria and Lyme disease, for example.

This is also the case in urban environments. Microbial diversity, fostered by biodiversity and complex ecosystems, is also under threat. Its loss has been shown by University of Sheffield research to negatively affect mental and physical health in urban populations. Studies have also shown that the presence of green areas in urban settings can make cities more resilient to extreme weather and climate disasters, prevent the development of urban heat islands, and simply be attractive, calm spaces for residents to look after their own well-being.

The risk to urban biodiversity – Despite all of its benefits, conservation of urban biodiversity isn’t always a priority, and unfortunately, urban ecologies in cities around the world face some key threats.

A 2020 study published in Frontiers of Ecology and Evolution highlights that urbanisation is “the most intensive and rapid human-driven factor” in terms of its threat to biodiversity. This doesn’t just mean expanding cities into rural areas, it also includes small scale and unconscious changes within built up regions, like paving over green spaces and increasing levels of air pollution.

Where else is this work being done? Encouragingly, urban biodiversity is a growing topic of interest and innovation, often paired with sustainable living practices.

In December 2020, the city of Melbourne launched an urban farm initiative aiming to boost awareness of sustainable consumption and the importance of biodiversity. In December, Lancaster University released a study suggesting solar farms could be breeding grounds for wildflowers to boost the UK’s bee population.

Additionally, in New York City, a volunteer scheme called “the Billion Oyster Project” launched by the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School has been collecting used oyster shells to seed them with new oysters for growth. The goal is to build a reef wall to protect certain areas of the city from flooding.

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