The Elephant in the Room: Addressing Wildlife-Inclusivity in the Design of the Urban Environment
Updated: Mar 20
by Aaishwarya Jain and Madhulikaa. A.S
“Eeb, Allay, Ooo; Eeb, Allay, Ooo;” shout two men riding on a cycle through the broad tree-lined roads of Lutyens’ Delhi, trying to scare away the aggressive monkeys that have become a nuisance of late in the locality. This is wherein the movie Eeb Allay Ooo, the protagonist receives training for the government job of a “monkey chaser” or a “monkey repeller” by imitating the sound of a langur (eeb), the natural predator of the monkey. Reading the word monkey repeller in the subtitles, the co-author was instantly hooked to the story and invested in the inherent absurdity of the situation.
Although the movie was intended to be a satire on the current socio-political state of India, the ‘architect’ in the author couldn’t help but wonder if the strategies drafted while planning the capital city took into consideration the local wildlife. This instantly highlighted the need to include wildlife-inclusive urban design at the planning stage of Indian cities.
While one author was caught up in the trail of thoughts left by the movie, the other discovered the joys of observing and not just ‘looking’ at views from the window while quarantined at home. One such morning, the co-author saw cows bathe in a pool near the dilapidated Otteri canal that runs in the backyard of her home. The cows would be owned by someone who resides nearby as they are regular visitors to this space. This urban space by accident provided a haven to cows.
Envisioning the large diversity of living beings residing in cities, let’s take the case of the canal where the cows bathe. As architects or urban designers, when we imagine the canal being rejuvenated, it typically conjures visuals of steps going down to the canal, space for the water to swell, natural landscapes including trees and shrubs, maybe a playground for kids? But would these 'sustainable city’ visions provide space for the cows to bathe? Similarly, would monkey chasers be necessary for Delhi if urban habitats are designed holistically? These questions further highlight the need to examine the range of relationships Indian cities have with their animals. In this article, we intend to look at this generically, drawing upon examples from India and the rest of the world, and will further zoom in to a human scale to investigate its physical manifestations in India.
Examining the current spectrum of relationships between cities and wildlife
At one end of the spectrum, we can observe an attempt to prevent animals from accessing the built environment. This usually manifests as hostile architecture towards urban animals. Walls topped with barbed wire, glass shards, or pointed metal needles serve as a defence mechanism in buildings in many cities. In the cities of India, non-human actors like the Rhesus Macaques, Bonnet Macaque, Langur, Spotted deer, Common Myna, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Red-Vented Bulbul, Black Kite often fall prey to these “unpleasant” design interventions. Chequered nets and grill structures used to enclose balconies prove as a hindrance for birds navigating through the city. (Chugh, 2020a).
The peak of this “unpleasantness” in design (Savičić and Savičić, 2016) can be witnessed in Bristol, UK where the trees in a parking lot have been installed with metal spikes to prevent birds from perching and nesting on them. This has claimed to be done for the sole purpose of protecting expensive cars from bird droppings. (Ward and Ashcroft, 2017).
At the other end of the spectrum, we find that some animals like pigeons and monkeys (mostly non-domesticated ones that live in the urban setting) have found ingenious ways to adapt to the prevailing conditions to nest, commute and survive in the city. Scientific research shows that, through fierce adaptation, they have evolved into an urban-adapted species, known as “synurbics”, which are significantly different from their wild counterparts. Synurbics have been found to exhibit enhanced rates of productivity, higher life expectancy, faster growth and higher reproductivity rates due to their unique survival strategies in urban landscapes as opposed to the wild (Gonji, 2019).
In cities, certain animals’ needs take precedence over others; especially those of domesticated animals. For instance, there are dog parks and cafes in several cities in India for domesticated dogs while stray dogs are not welcome. In the same cityscape, the needs of other animals like cows and poultry are largely invisibilized.
So how does the nature of this relationship impact humans and how can we improve the relationship cities have with animals? Urban wildlife benefits humans as it helps control the spread of diseases that pass from animals to humans. Animal diversity controls zoonotic diseases without having to use as much pesticide. It also provides immense mental well-being benefits to humans. This is where ecological urbanism enters the picture - one that can incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism.
Adopting an ecological urbanism approach would call for transdisciplinary strategies that look beyond the confines of architecture, urban planning, and human needs to be able to produce “socially just interventions that are sensitive to the environment.”(Mostafavi, 2020). While standard “sustainable city” visions have been propelled by planning, architecture, and centred around energy, waste, and construction materials, the ecological urbanism lens aims to go beyond the myopic definition of “sustainable city” to include interdisciplinary ecological perspectives on urban issues.
Further, Moshen Mostafavi (2020) identifies the challenge of the paradoxical term “ecological urbanism” and thus, urges planners and architects to use “the problems confronting our cities and regions” as “opportunities to define new approaches” to progress towards ecological desirable solutions that cater to ecology as a whole rather than a singular human-centric perspective.
If one were to successfully adopt an ecological urbanism perspective in the case of the canal rejuvenation and the employment of ‘monkey chaser’ mentioned earlier, it should ideally result in a space that integrates the uses of humans, animals, and prioritises the symbiotic nature of the landscape. Although the definition of ecological urbanism needs to be applied at multiple levels, this article tries to understand its application in the heart of cities and densely built-up areas.
Most often, we categorise animal conservation to ease its applicability and avoid complexity. Existing wildlife conservation practices in urban areas focus predominantly on the protection of specific habitats (e.g. wetlands, marshlands), which are usually isolated from the densely built-up areas of cities. Despite sharing the same natural environment where interventions and policies come to life, urban design and conservation are rarely seen embracing each other to reach biodiversity goals (Weisser and Hauk, 2017). Incorporation of ecological design elements like green infrastructure, biophilic design for human benefit is understood as mandatory for visions of urban sustainability. They are automatically assumed to have a positive effect on wildlife without much practical testing (Filazzola, Shrestha, & MacIvor, 2019).
Towards an inclusive urban environment by application of ecological urbanism
Thus, the translation of ecological urbanism concepts must remain all-encompassing, taking into account the complex relationships present in the urban environment. In this perspective, the wildlife-inclusive urban design aims to establish a conservation continuum for wildlife. It focuses on “areas that are generally not prioritised for wildlife conservation” (Apfelbeck et al., 2020) and aims to propose strategies that develop new possibilities for wildlife conservation within dense built-up areas of cities.
The following section details out existing and proposed methodologies involved in the pertinent translation of ecological urbanism and wildlife-inclusive urban design in the real world.
Strategy for an inclusive design process:
After a thorough, critical analysis of several applications of wildlife-inclusive urban design, Apfelbeck et al., (2020) propose that the features of such successful projects are:
Interdisciplinary design teams that involve ecologists early on,
Consideration of the entire life-cycle of target species,
Post-occupancy monitoring and evaluation with feedback to communicate best practices, and
Stakeholder involvement and participatory approaches.
Felson et al., (2013) also urge urban ecology researchers to “use the design process as a framework for engaging with cities” and advocate for the inclusion of ecology research at the earliest stage (design) possible.
Similarly, the idea of Animal-Aided Design strives to “include the presence of animals in the planning process, such that they are an integral part of the design” to enrich the urban design with species conservation (Weisser and Hauk, 2017). This would involve taking into consideration a species’ life cycle at the beginning of the planning process to avoid conflict during it. The ultimate goals of Animal-aided Design can be summarised as 1) providing space for a species in an urban environment that would otherwise be lost due to development plans and 2) an opportunity to create new habitats for these species.
For Animal-aided Design to be successful, we have to reflect on the socio-political status of wildlife in the urban landscape. Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011), introduce political legitimacy into the idea of integration of wildlife into the urban landscape. In their seminal book, Zoopolis: A political theory of Animal Rights, they study the roles of different types of animals in human society. They classify them into domesticated, liminal, and wild animals and align them with citizenship rights to aim for the protection of animals’ rights and hope to create a “mutually-enriching, respectable and non-exploitative environment for animals and humans” (Abney, n.d).
Additionally, citizen science has proved instrumental in establishing social-ecological connections, thus creating a new meaning of place while deepening social, personal, and environmental attachments (Toomey, Strehlau-Howay, Manzolillo and Thomas, 2020). This further serves as a motive for investing greater time in the conservation of urban wildlife.
Integrating the above-mentioned methods into the current urban planning/design process ensures a greater chance at success as opposed to it existing as a separate procedure or in addition to the existing one. Post-implementation, the continuous assessment and evaluation of the wildlife-inclusive urban design interventions become vital for its long-term sustainability and success. Apfelbeck et al., (2020) have such a solution at hand; a planning cycle to incorporate wildlife needs at every stage of the planning and design process.
Image: Depicts a planning cycle for successful integration of wildlife-inclusive urban design into urban planning and design process from Apfelbeck et al., (2020). The green text indicates the wildlife needs and the blue font highlights stakeholder requirements at each step.
Wildlife-inclusive urban design has to be mainstreamed to create a socially just and inclusive environment for urban animals. On the other hand, it is crucial to ensure that these interventions do not make animals dependent on humans for their survival, but rather create spaces where all kinds of urban animals and humans can coexist.
Research by urban ecologists states that the over-dependence of monkeys on the residents for their daily food requirements have led to them being more aggressive; especially when they are not able to access resources with the same ease. The peculiar case of monkey groups wandering around Luyten’s Delhi causing havoc to residents serves as a cautionary tale, urging humans to be mindful of the way they interact with urban animals.
Though knowledge and awareness form the first step towards the implementation of wildlife-inclusive urban design, transparency and political will are cornerstones to turn this knowledge into a successful transformative capacity and actionable policies.
Image: Repurposing green roofs into green corridors to cater to a greater degree of biodiversity while also protecting birds/animals from vehicles. Based on New York architecture firm DLANDstudio’s discussions. Source: Author