URBAN JUNGLE- Wilding the City by Ben Wilson (Vintage Books, 2023)

Ring Necked Parakeet in Brussels (Martin Hodson)

Review by Martin Hodson

I began reading Urban Jungle while on a research visit to my archaeological collaborators in Brussels. Their work has shown that in the Middle Ages in the centre of Brussels the people were growing cereals. Moreover there was a large river flowing through the centre which is no longer visible as it was buried underground. Later in the visit Margot arrived and we had a few days holiday. She had recently downloaded the new birdsong Merlin App. which we experimented with. Once we woke up in the middle of the night and heard a strange birdsong. The App revealed that it was a Black Redstart (listen here). Their original habitat is mountain cliffs, but they have recently moved into European cities where they have found the high rise buildings much to their liking. Later in our visit we spotted another bird that looked a bit out of place, and the App identified it as a Ring Necked Parakeet. Large numbers now live in Brussels, and it has established populations in many other cities, including London, that are far from its homeland in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

My experiences in Brussels formed the perfect background for reading Urban Jungle by Ben Wilson. In one of his previous books, “Metropolis”, Wilson looked at the history of the city, and that research led to one of the strands in this book- the environmental history of the city. So we see how cities developed over time, and their many environmental impacts. Cities often had major problems dealing with waste, particularly human waste, and rivers often became very unpleasant, insanitary places. As in Brussels, many rivers flowing through cities were covered over, often being turned into sewers. If the city was on or near the coast it often expanded by filling the surrounding wetlands with rubbish and then building on it. The growing of food was pushed out of the city centres, again as in Brussels, and into the suburbs and beyond.

Urban Jungle begins by looking at the areas on the edge of cities that intergrade with countryside. One example given was the London heathlands which, before the 19th century, were very extensive to the north, south and west of the city. Development pressures have seen this habitat shrink very markedly in size, but there are a few remnants, including Hounslow Heath. The problem for many of these edgelands was that they did not remain on the edge for long before they were swallowed up. Wilson documents the fierce battles fought over these lands between those who wanted to protect these areas from development and their opponents. The latter usually won eventually.

Wilson then moves on to consider parks. The scope of this chapter is vast as it takes in ancient Babylon and Rome, Lahore, London, and modern day New York. Here we see a major conflict develops which goes on to this day. “The British gift to the world was the lawn.” This has been a remarkably successful invention and even now 50-70% of green space in most cities around the world is mown grass. We thought up the idea of landscaped parks with lawns and all the plants in a nice orderly array. Of course this is not exactly great for biodiversity, and maintaining it needs fertiliser, pesticides and water (which is problematic in dry climates). In opposition to lawns and municipal parks are more biodiverse, natural, habitats. Wilson describes the battle for Wanstead Flats in east London, now an SSSI, which was saved by an uprising of working class people in the 1870s. But the conflict between those who prefer municipal parks approach and those wanting more biodiversity continues to this day- a battle often fought out in our churchyards, as many of our readers will know!!

Then there is a fascinating chapter on urban botany. What happens after the devastation of war? Plants rapidly colonised the bomb sites of both London and Berlin, and created their own special habitats. Sadly a lot of these habitats were eventually built on, but some were preserved. Following on from this Wilson has a whole chapter on the place of trees in the city. One is struck, once again, by all of the battles fought by local people to save an aspect of their environment. Sometimes they won, and sometimes they lost (as was recently the case in Plymouth where 100 trees were cut down by the local council against public opinion). Trees in cities have huge benefits, not least in providing shade on hot days.

The next topic is water in cities. We have already mentioned what happened to many rivers and wetlands in the past. Well, the good news is that things are changing, at least in some places. Rivers are being dug up and restored, and wetlands are being restored or created. Why? We have come to realise that not only are such environments beautiful, but they also provide us with a lot of ecosystem services, not least helping to combat the effects of climate change. Think what happened to New York when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. Building on the wetlands destroyed their protective effects against storm surges. Now Oakwood Beach is gradually being restored to something like its former state- soft defences.

There follow chapters on growing food in cities (more battles there!), and animals in cities. As my Brussels experience showed, many animals from rats to foxes to birds have made their homes now in cities. Many cities now hold more biodiversity than the countryside (think of crop monocultures).

This is an excellent book, absolutely packed with interesting information, and very well written. It is also a very positive book which looks to the future with hope- well mostly. The looming threat of climate change pervades the book. There is a recognition that almost whatever we do to green our cities now will only mitigate some of its effects. But if you want to see how rewilding can impact the city this is the place to go. Highly recommended!

Recording: Black Redstart at night in Brussels using the Merlin App (Margot Hodson)