Can we combine conservation and agriculture to create a truly biophilic city?

Research shows that, despite our poor track record, humans can have a profoundly positive impact on natural habitats. With cuts to local authority budgets putting our green spaces at risk, Bioregion Birmingham founder, Andrew Walton, explores how we might embrace this gift to breathe life back into urban spaces while building community resilience.

It is often assumed that humans are at the top of the food chain. In fact, according to a measurement of animal diets called 'trophic levels' this isn't the case. That's because, on average, the human diet is more plant based than animal.

In ecological terms, however, we may be at the heart of the food web by virtue of being what biologist, Bob Paine, termed a 'hyperkeystone' species. Paine is famous for coining the idea of a 'keystone' species following his research into the effect of starfish populations on marine biodiversity. When he removed starfish from their natural habitat on the shore of Makah Bay in Washington, he noticed that biodiversity levels halved. In the same way that removing the keystone of an archway would cause it to collapse, removing keystone species has damaging consequences for ecosystems. Without a top predator in the microclimates he observed, mussels thrived, becoming a monoculture and crowding out other species such as algae and limpets.

This cascade effect has also been observed on land. For instance, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park has helped to revitalise the ecosystem; increasing populations of numerous species including birds of prey, pronghorn and trout, and improving river banks by keeping grazing animal populations in check.

It was only later in his career, however, that Paine stepped back from his research and realised something was missing: he'd failed to observe the effect that human beings have on keystone species. Of course, the wolves disappeared from Yellowstone in the first place as a result of human interference. This, for Paine, elevates humans to hyperkeystone status.

Earth's destroyers or creators?

Pristine forests can survive for thousands of years. They harbour more biodiversity than any other landscape on Earth. Below ground mycorrhizal networks connect individual plants together and transfer nutrients and chemical information in exchange for sugars. The trees above regulate temperature through their evaporation and transpiration cycles. They hold water in the ground, keeping soil nourished. They also clean the air.

Forests are so successful because they are the product of billions of years of evolutionary tinkering. Nature has taken her time to perfect them. When left to develop fully, even European forests harbour magnificent apex predators such as wolves and bears, or even giant herbivores like bison. As a hyperkeystone species, we are currently the main thing preventing this from manifesting.

Recognising that our actions can both enhance and diminish ecosystems has important moral implications. For students of ecology this awareness suggests humans have a greater purpose, beyond the material consumption that currently defines us, and that is to literally help life thrive.

How do we do this? Dr Daniel Wahl is a specialist in regenerative design. He says: "I believe that this reconciliatory step of acknowledging our participatory agency in the complexity of nature is absolutely crucial if we hope to create a regenerative human presence on planet Earth.

"Whether you call it biomimicry, ecological design, permaculture, green chemistry, industrial ecology, or creating a circular economy, if you are engaged in any of these fields, chances are you are already contributing to the rise of the Regeneration and the redesign of the human presence on Earth."

In other words, we can choose to be Earth's destroyers or her creators; the latter enabling a symphony of life to play out in all its complexity. Re-wilding is one such way in which we might do this, recognising the positive impact that beavers, lynx, pine marten and birds of prey, for instance, could have on British ecology.

Thinking of urban environments, it could be by helping smaller existing predators to succeed; creating habitats for bats, foxes, hedgehogs and heron. That means protecting and enhancing our green spaces, using lessons from Nature to inform designs that will increase biodiversity.

Using agroecology as a creative hyperkeystone species

We currently import around 40% of our food here in Britain. This means a nation that recently voted to leave the EU and take control of its affairs presently doesn't even have control of its own food supply. Instead of selling our green spaces to the highest bidder, why not use them for food growing initiatives to build self-sufficiency and resilience in communities?

Taking a permaculture approach, we could design systems with multiple benefits, creating habitats that are good for both wildlife and us. Agroecology, in which ecological processes are applied to agricultural production systems, serves as a great example of how we might do this. Emulating the conditions found in forests, for instance, creates resilient, stable ecosystems that can also provide food, fibres and medicine for the people living within them.

If we dare to think big, green spaces needn't be a problem to solve but instead the fertile ground from which to grow our city anew: a truly biophilic place with Nature at its core. We face numerous challenges in the face of biodiversity and habitat loss, but the answers to our predicament may lie in a deeper understanding of our role as a hyperkeystone species. The emergence of design based philosophies, such as permaculture and agroecology, give us the tools to help life thrive while creating an economy of meaningful civic roles.

Andrew Walton


Andrew Walton is the founder and project co-ordinator for Bioregion Birmingham. He has a Certificate in Permaculture Design and a Diploma in Public Relations. He is also project co-ordinator for Bordesley Green Forest Garden, an urban food forest and community project based at Bordesley Green Allotments. 


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