It remains unknown what species caused the spread of COVID-19, and where exactly it was transmitted from non-humans to humans in Wuhan, China, which is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak. Speculations range from bats and pangolins as transmitters at wet markets, to a virus created and born in a laboratory. Discussions shifted when the public realized that a pandemic of global magnitude has always been on the doorstep of our modern society and that scientists and experts have been predicting such an outbreak for decades. The question was never where or how, but when?!
Months into this crisis, following nationwide as well as local lockdowns and subsequent implications, which the current society will have to face for years to come, the awareness of mankind’s frailty has risen significantly. At the same time, the forced slowdown and restrained social opportunities as well as restricted travel prospects offered people a platform to stop their routine and (re-)connect with their immediate surroundings, including nature (or the lack thereof). The perception that humans are set apart from nature has been a dominating belief, particularly in Western culture, for a long period of time. However, the greater picture of the COVID-19 crisis, has reinforced that human health is deeply connected to planetary health. This poses the question whether society will take a turn and utilise the opportunities that have established themselves, or if they will return to the same behaviour as prior to the pandemic.
To seize this opportunity and make fundamental changes, a review of how we coexist with other species needs to be undertaken. What are the roles of urban planners in this scenario and what urban design practices can pro-actively push a revolution of multi-species coexistence?
The uncertainties surrounding the origin and spread of the COVID-19 virus and pandemic have posed questions in almost every industry around the world, including food production and supply, transportation and travel, care and domestic work, to name just a few. Established practices had to be re-examined, not only as a temporary measure but also to assess the possibility of sustainable future change. Instead of determining the source and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, this essay will focus on the greater picture and consider the role of urban design practices in the context of multi-species coexistence. Related to this, it is important to understand how the increasing likeliness of pandemics is inherently linked to multi-species coexistence.
Multi-species coexistence and zoonotic diseases
The immediate proximity of different species living together around the globe is a main contributor to the spreading of diseases. In fact, most microbial pathogens (60%) originate in the bodies of animals. Some are transmitted via pets and livestock, while the majority – more than two thirds – originate in wildlife1.
Human influence is critical in the increase in spreading of zoonotic diseases. Right now, millions of animals are awaiting slaughter in cramped spaces, enabling microbes to turn into pathogens2. Whilst pathogens – as mentioned above – do circulate in wildlife hosts and some potentially can transfer to humans, in undisturbed ecosystems, they rarely do3. Human-made destruction of habitat like deforestation is linked to increased biological contact between different species – i.e., via bushmeat trade – and provides opportunity for cross-species transmissions of diseases4.
Though Sars-Cov-2 dominated the news, several other non-human/human transmissions of diseases occurred in 2020. Examples include a new swine flu strain being discovered in China and classified as a “potential pandemic concern”5. Cases of the bubonic plague were confirmed in Mongolia in July 2020, and authorities issued warnings to neither hunt, eat nor transport potentially infected animals, especially marmots, which are known as carriers of the disease6.
With advancing planetary urbanization and the ensuing habitat loss and climate change, we are creating environments where species are coming together that are unlikely to have ever met otherwise, creating areas of potential contamination and concern.
Biodiversity-loss increasing vulnerability of human health
The three factors mentioned above – planetary urbanisation, habitat loss and climate change – also result in a decrease in biodiversity. This, in turn, is increasing society’s vulnerability to pandemics7. The connections between biodiversity loss and the spreading of diseases are complex and indirect. For instance, in the northeast of the USA, the expansion of suburbs led to habitat loss for opossums, who are known to help control the number of ticks. As the number of opossums declined, the population of ticks increased. This in turn led to a rise of tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease in the area8.
Studies have shown that more species mean less diseases9. In this context Richard Ostfeld talks about an “inhibitory effect of high biodiversity on pathogen transmissions”. Species with fast life history traits – such as early maturity, large litters and short longevity – are more resilient to disturbance and can often predominate low-biodiversity areas. Simultaneously, they are more likely to be reservoirs for zoonotic pathogens. In areas with high biodiversity, the effects of these so-called reservoir species become diluted and therefore represent a reduced risk of disease10.
This indicates that lowering the number of species does not insulate humans from diseases, in fact it makes them more vulnerable to them. The same principle of course applies to cityscapes. Animals that generally manage to survive in and dominate urban areas range from rodents like rats to foxes and birds, i.e. pigeons. They classify as the above-mentioned reservoir species and are often seen as unwelcome guests in cities as their presence is symbolically and figuratively charged with pictures of disease and generally unsanitary conditions. Just as described, in high biodiversity areas, the effects of these species would be diluted. To promote biodiversity in cities, urban design can be a key instrument.
Multi-species coexistence and urban design
Against the backdrop of the above, the following will provide a theoretical background in three segments on the topic of multi-species coexistence and urban design. The last section will present animal aided design as an urban design practice that acknowledges and promotes the growing importance of city planning relating to multi-species coexistence and biodiversity.
1. Mitigating impacts of climate change through natural resources, elevating their importance.
Natural resources typically play a key role in accommodating non-human actors in cities. Spaces of natural resources can include forests, parks, cemeteries, allotment gardens, green roofs, waterways and many more. These spaces or resources can be combined under the term green infrastructure, and together be defined as a cohesive network of natural elements that interact with human settlements and the natural and industrial structures they develop11.
Besides providing habitat to non-human species as mentioned above, Demuzere et al. highlight the additional perks green infrastructure offers to humans, which they group into different categories12. The ecosystem services it provides includes carbon storage and sequestration, regulation of local climate and water flows, purification of stormwater and air, in addition to human health services such as spiritual and intellectual aspects. These services then instigate benefits such as reduced CO2; enhanced thermal comfort; reduced energy consumption, flooding, peak flows and drought problems; as well as improved water and air quality. While these factors only describe the physical benefits, the authors also discuss the psychological and social aspects, which include health and restorative assets, enhanced individual social and coping capacities, and the general education natural elements can provide. Demuzere et al. particularly explore these services and benefits in the context of climate change, as they allow cities and urban dwellers to adapt to and mitigate its impacts.
2. Underrated importance of environmental justice.
Underlying the previous point is the aspect of environmental justice. According to Cutter as early as 1995, environmental justice can be defined as “equal access to a clean environment and equal protection from possible environmental harm irrespective of race, income, class or any other differentiating feature of socio-economic status”13. Therefore, it is also an indicator of the quality of life for urban dwellers. Mitchell and Walker state advocates of environmental justice are broadening such viewpoints and seek to include how natural resources are distributed in urban areas14. In this context it is crucial to note that non-humans are not included in the term “urban dwellers” despite forming a significant part of such. According to this logic, would they also not be entitled to environmental justice?
According to Nassauer urban design provides an opportunity for environmental justice to be reflected in cities, as it can assist in the facilitation of local stewardship of biodiversity by using “cues to care”15. This means, in contrast to the traditional landscape approach, design should adapt cultural expectations to include new forms of landscaping, which include a great level of biodiversity. This triggers positive human and non-human interactions, which can address the conflicts that often exist between biodiversity and safety objectives in urban areas16. This indicates that stimulating environmental justice directly connects to human’s vulnerability to disease and in fact has the potential to reduce such, as discussed above. Therefore, environmental justice is also a crucial contributor to promoting coexistence of species in urban areas and ensuring positive health and wellbeing outcomes.
To summarize points 1 and 2, natural resources in cities perform multiple functions, generating extensive and far-reaching benefits. Especially in connection with multi-species coexistence, urban nature, including fauna and flora, creates an environment that fundamentally protects and improves humans and their wellbeing.
3. Hinterlands sustaining cities
Whilst cities determine the shapes and features of urban green spaces and infrastructures, they also strongly affect rural regions: Urban areas cannot be separated from the landscapes that surround them, which has globally led to the degradation of natural habitat and biodiversity. Brenner and Katsikis describe this process as ‘planetary urbanisation’ or ‘hinterlandisation’ and suggest that rural areas are losing their individualism and become increasingly responsible for the functioning of cities. Brenner and Katsikis continue “…‘hinterland’ is used here to demarcate the variegated non-city spaces that are swept into the maelstrom of urbanisation, whether as supply zones, impact zones, sacrifice zones, logistics corridors or otherwise”17. This highlights the increasing function of rural areas to sustain the development and subsequent demand of cities, evidently eroding the natural features of landscapes at the same time. This trend is reflected in cities gaining in their physical appearance and attractiveness, in contrast to their surroundings whose appearance and condition are shaped in response to cities’ needs. In the context being discussed, the most relevant adverse effect of this is the loss of biodiversity and habitat.
As mentioned in point 1, nowadays the level of biodiversity in city spaces is often much greater than that of surrounding rural areas. The Animal Aided Design Brochure published in 2015 supports this and stresses the extent of diversity of animal species in cities most commonly exceeds that of the surrounding rural area in the case of heavy farming or monocultures. This positions cities as becoming increasingly important in protecting species, taking on the role of refuge18. Altogether, urban design does not only affect cities, but creates a ripple effect that shapes their immediate environments and beyond.
Confronted with this knowledge, constrained resources and environmental degradation, cities need to become more resilient to the adverse effects caused by climate change and rapid urbanisation19. However, traditional thinking and planning processes often fail to accommodate species that coexist with humans in cities or would be beneficial for urban ecosystems. Several urban designers and planners have responded to this issue, aspiring to directly address it by, for example, including non-human actors such as flora, fauna and microbiomes as deciding parameters in their design. Their visionary approach displays the pursuit of proactive methods that have the potential to ensure habitat- and biodiversity loss is slowed to a point that may allow non-humans to naturally heal while generating positive effects in – inter alia – urban environments.
Case study: Animal Aided Design
Animal Aided Design (AAD) considers the inclusion of animals as an integral part of open space planning and not just as an afterthought. AAD has been designed specifically to help create or upgrade urban habitats for animals to ensure they survive and thrive in cities, while assisting open spaces in the adaptation to climate change20.
One case study, ‘Berlin at night’, considers the Generalszug, a busy 60m wide and 3.5 km long street interspersed with a series of squares that connects Südstern to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The streetscape is characterized by four rows of trees and a middle strip 18 meters wide. Among other reasons, this urban area was chosen for its potential to be used as green infrastructure.
Part of the Generalszug is Gleisdreieck Park – a disused railway station now converted into a park. It accommodates a diverse mosaic of biotopes with a rich variety of species. Among others, 65 types of wild bees, 28 types of ground beetles, 11 types of locusts and 18 types of birds have been recorded here. While the rest of the Generalzug is inaccessible for those insects and thus unsuitable as habitat, the area appears almost predestined for birds. As a result, the design process paid particular attention to mockingbirds, two kinds of red robins and the common pipistrelle – a type of bat.
The mockingbird served as a central starting point for the design of this project, as it sings at night, a trait specific to this bird. Due to heavy artificial lighting, the red robin also sings at night in cities. Therefore, the idea was to transform the Generalzug into a special nocturnal experience, using the qualities of these animals. To expand this theme, the bat, which is frequently found in urban spaces, was selected as a third animal. Their sounds are within the audible range of humans and their evening hunting behaviour can easily be observed. To maintain these species, and their role within the greater ecosystem, detailed species-portraits were developed. Numerous sections of the design function to serve the animals’ needs. For example, the middle section partly serves as breeding grounds, nutrient stores and bathing areas for the red robin and the mockingbird. Other areas are intended as resting and hunting spaces for bats21 [Image 2].
Overall, this concept combines an attractive and multifunctional urban space meeting the needs of numerous species, which each have their function within the urban environment and the greater ecosystem. Simultaneously, this case study also highlights how urban design can address coexistence of species in urban areas. Not only do these types of urban design projects create visually attractive urban spaces, they also make them more resilient to the effects of climate change, promote environmental justice and allow the city to take over some of the functions that the hinterlands have increasingly lost. This establishes a connection between points 1, 2 and 3 thus emphasises how crucially important the widespread implementation of this urban design approach is.
The aim of this essay is to show that whilst zoonosis does exist, and in fact predominantly in wildlife, the separation of humans and non-humans does not shield humans from bespoke diseases. Nature protection and preservation of biodiversity, however, protects planetary and hence human health.
Human society and its planning of the urban environment is not detached from ecological realities! The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a clear reminder of this fact, being a reflection of human-made conflicts in the context of urban as well as rural environments and natural systems.
2020 also marks a decade of the United Nation’s 20 biodiversity objectives, which were published in their Global Biodiversity Outlook report and include targets in connection with protecting ecosystems and promoting sustainability. Regrettably, none of these have been fully met with only six being considered as “partially achieved”22. The failure in meeting these targets is exceptionally relevant this year, which previous points have highlighted. The UN supports this and states: “The study acts as a wake-up call, and an encouragement to consider the dangers involved in mankind’s current relationship with nature: continued biodiversity loss, and the ongoing degradation of ecosystems, are having profound consequences of human wellbeing and survival”23. In this context the Global Biodiversity Outlook report further stresses: “The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of the relationship between people and nature, and it reminds us all of the profound consequences to our own well-being and survival that can result from continued biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems”24. Taking a speculative approach, this quote may signal that the extent of the impact the current pandemic is having globally, could have been mitigated if any of these 20 objectives would have been realised.
Whilst cities are built to serve humans, they also provide habitats for other non-human lifeforms. The mentioned AAD case study clearly indicates that urban design has the potential to create environments that are responsive to the needs of both human and non-human lifeforms, providing the capability to address mentioned biodiversity targets and creating highly liveable spaces.
Although this essay has highlighted the important role urban design can play in nature reservation and restoration on a local scale, it is crucial to acknowledge that singular practices, however visionary, are only of minor impact in the context of world affairs. They are, however, generating valuable know-how and pioneer projects to push-start a broader societal progress. To achieve profound change, increased dialogue between ecologists, urban planners, biologists, architects as well as other leaders and decision-makers is necessary. In this context, cities need to be looked at as an evolving and dynamic process, whose systems and networks need to transform to accommodate the challenges of planetary urbanisation, climate change and environmental inequality. Urban design considering and accommodating other-than-human-lifeforms in sensible and sustainable ways need to be standard procedure – and not the exception.
In order to realise this, the current paradigm of human-centred urban design needs to be questioned. In this context it is critical to pick up on point 2, where it was asked whether non-humans should be entitled to environmental justice. Ideally, they should be! Life forms that are perceived to generate such benefits to urban life should be entitled to the same rights as those that gain from their qualities. As Houston et al emphasise in “Make kin, not cities!”, the ontology exceptionalism of humanism has not yet been challenged in planning. Current planning practises are guided by modes of thought that put themselves above the “physical constraints of nature”, thus regard themselves as places where human value comes first. Instead, as demonstrated in the discussed case study, animals and flora need to be “considered as part of the life and spirit of the city” and as crucial and valuable participants in the planning and designing of urban spaces25.
1. Shah, S. (2020). Accelerating habitat loss behind COVID-19: The microbes, the animals and us [online]. Le monde diplomatique. Available from: https://mondediplo.com/2020/03/05coronavirus [Accessed 21 August 2020].
3. Vidal, J. (2020). Pandemics: Humans are the culprits. Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies [online]. Available from: https://www.caryinstitute.org/news-insights/media-coverage/pandemics-humans-are-culprits [Accessed 9 August 2020].
4. Davis, M. (2005). The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. New York: The News Press.
5. Jenco, M. (2020). CDC: New swine flu strain in China a ‘potential pandemic concern’. AAP News & Journals Gateway [online]. Available from: https://www.aappublications.org/news/2020/07/08/swineflu070820 [Accessed 9 August 2020].
6. Rettner, R. (2020). Bubonic plague case confirmed in China’s Inner Mongolia. Live Science [online]. Available from: https://www.livescience.com/bubonic-plague-inner-mongolia.html [Accessed 22 August 2020].
See also: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (2020) Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. Montreal [online]. Available from: https://www.cbd.int/gbo/gbo5/publication/gbo-5-en.pdf [Accessed 22 August 2020].
7. Shah, S. (2020). Accelerating habitat loss.
9. Vidal, J. (2020). Pandemics: Humans are the culprits.
10. Ostfeld, R. (2017). Biodiversity loss and the ecology of infectious disease. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1(1), E2 – E3. p.1.
11. Young, C. K., Symons, J., and Jones, R. N. (2014). Investing in Growth: Understanding the Value of Green Infrastructure. Climate Change Working Paper No. 21. Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.
12. Demuzere, M., Orru, K., Heidrich, O., Olazabal, E., Geneletti, D., Orru, H., Bhave, A., Mittal, N., Feliú, E., and Faehnle, M. (2014). Mitigating and adapting to climate change: Multifunctional and multi-scale assessment of green urban infrastructure. Journal of Environmental Management [online]. 146, 107–115. Available at doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.07.025 [Accessed 1 August 2020].
13. Cutter, S. (1995). Race, class and environmental justice. Progress in Human Geography [online]. 19(1), p. 115. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/030913259501900111. [Accessed 1 August 2020].
14. Mitchell, G. and Walker, G. (2007). Methodological issues in the assessment of environmental equity and environmental justice. In: Deakin et al, ed. Sustainable Urban Development: The Environmental Assessment Methods. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 447-472.
15. Nassauer, J. (1995). Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal 14(2), p.167.
16. Ikin, K., Le Roux, D., Rayner, L., Villasenor, N., Eyles, K., Gibbons, P., Manning, A. and Lindenmayer, D. (2015). Key lessons for achieving biodiversity-sensitive cities and towns. Ecological Management & Restoration, 16(3), pp. 206-214.
17. Brenner, N. and Katsikis, N. (2020). Operational Landscapes: Hinterlands of the Capitalocene. Architectural Design, 90(1), p. 24.
18. Hauck, T., and Weisser, W. (2014). AAD Animal-Aided Design [online]. Freising. Available at: http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb06/fileadmin/datas/fb06/fachgebiete/LandschaftsarchitekturLandschaftsplanung/Freiraumplanung/Forschung/AAD/AAD_Web_10MB.pdf [Accessed 15 August 2020].
19. Young, R. (2011). Planting the living city: Best Practices in Planning Green Infrastructure – Results from Major U.S. Cities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 77(4), 368–381 [online]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/01944363.2011.616996 [Accessed 1 August 2020].
20. Hauck, T., and Weisser, W. (2014). AAD Animal-Aided Design.
22. Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, (2020). Global Biodiversity Outlook.
23. United Nations (2020). UN report highlights links between ‘unprecedented biodiversity loss’ and spread of disease. UN news [20 September] [online]. Available from: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/09/1072292 [Accessed 18 December 2020].
24. Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, (2020). Global Biodiversity Outlook.
25. Houston, D., Hillier, J. Maccallum, D. Steele, W. and Byrne, J. (2017). Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and ‘becoming-world’ in planning theory. Planning Theory, p. 3 [online]. Available at: DOI: 10.1177/1473095216688042. [Accessed 1 August 2020].