When you go to bed at night, do you think of the millions of lives happening simultaneously in your city? Babies and mothers, landlords and tenants, rich and poor… All these lives intertwined to form this big, massive population and communication centre that we call a city.

A city is defined as a “large human settlement”. There is no global agreement over what the size of these settlements should be. Understandably, the standards to be a city in Luxemburg are different from those in China.

Satellite view Berlin

Berlin from the International Space Station (Credit: ISS)

However large, a city is defined first and foremost by its human factor. Cities were made by men, for men. But this is overlooking the other millions of lives happening under our feet, over our heads, and even in our closets…

Humans have created a new type of habitat, and nature did not take look to start seeing some of the benefits these new zones could bring. This is the story of nature, men and adaptation.

Nature fills every niche

It may sound ludicrous to state this at the time of the Sixth Mass Extinction event on our planet, but we’re going to go ahead: life is developing. The destruction of habitats across the board, from forests to coral reefs to peaty wetlands, has driven wildlife away from some of their historical habitats but has also led to a massive, semi-coordinated displacement of species on the map.

Swallows taking a break from migrating

Swallows taking a break from their yearly migration from Africa to Europe (Credit: Jerzy Gorecki)

The same way extremophile species thrive in extra-harsh conditions, some species have evolved in conjunction with human activities. And some of these species are happy they made the change. Cities provide a quantity of waste that only humans call waste. All the other members of nature’s society call it food. Nature even figured out how to digest certain plastics.

The myth of humans being aside from nature is crumbling. Wildlife is part of our game, and we are part of theirs.

The case of bees

Bees are a remarkable case study on that matter. In France alone, production fell from 120,000 tonnes in the 90’s to around half of this today. Similar numbers have been observed in the US, Germany and the bee population has gone crashing down worldwide.

Colony collapse disorder, as it was labelled, is the inexplicable demise of a beehive due to worker bees disappearing, leaving the queen with food and a few nurses to care for the larvae. Although not new, this phenomenon became more and more widespread for reasons that we still ignore to this day.

… But we have a few suspects.

First, the introduction of toxic substances in the air, not least neonicotinoid insecticides which destroys bees nervous and navigational systems, has significantly weakened bees defence systems against external attacks.

Urban bees on top of Berlin roofs

Rooftop beehives are one of the many solutions to bring wildlife back to cities (Credit: Stadtbienen)

Second, climate change and the advent of an interconnected world have driven species out of their original zones and thrown different species into the same competition pit. The varroa mite, who has been creeping up Europe and the US for the last 30 years, has done extraordinary damage to honeybees, effectively invading and drilling beehives like it was a walk in the park.

Third, bees are part of a whole. They are actually quite important to that whole, for about 80% of the flora population relies on bees for its pollination (understand reproduction). If the whole is doing poorly, like all indicators are showing us, well, bees won’t do great either. The changing dates of blooming, the loss of habitat in rural zones and the reduction of “biotic partners” to interact with have considerably weakened the bee population of the world.

Bees are the microcosm where all the drama of Anthropocene happens. Pollution, food production, invasive species, world-threatening danger… All the ingredients of a blockbuster in one story. And you’re the hero of this adventure.

Rethink our relationship with nature

Berlin is known for its eclectic and unexpected wildlife scene. No, we’re not talking about Berghain nights and its party animals, but others that are now calling this city their home. In 2002, a white-tailed eagle was spotted in Berlin after more than a century of disappearance. On the ground, wild boars, foxes and racoons have adapted very well to the new food source that city waste can offer. And in the water, beavers, who are now fully protected, are building their little dams on the Spree once again. Brandenburg (Berlin’s region) zoologists now consider that there are more urban foxes than forest foxes in the region, due to the advantageous conditions in the cities.

foxes in London parks

Cute Cockney fox enjoying London flowers (Credit: Oli Lynch)

Cities can be the citadel to protect species from a whole range of threats, from the aforementioned pollutions or invasive species, but can also be the canvas on which life will form new specificities, new skills and new interactions among species. Urban species of monkeys have also demonstrated superior cognitive skills, but also aggressivity. What did we say about big city life taking a toll out of your patience!

Humans have created a fully-fledged ‘natural’ habitat to their image: bustling, limitless and ever-changing. It is only fair that nature would also enjoy the benefits of such geometric and complex areas to develop some of its magic too.

We need to review our initial definition of cities. They may be man-made, but they are not just human settlements. They are a new ecosystem equipped with shelter, food, water, and even mating opportunities for many species. What is more, they protect from real-world problems like predators, damaging substances, or even harsh weather events. This new synergy, between the number one centres of carbon emission and the most endangered pillar of life on our planet, biodiversity, comes at a perfect time. It’s up to us to plan for them as much as for us in our future urban development.

We already have unicorns, night owls and early birds… Why not dolphins, otters, and bees? There is no Plan B for our Planet