Biodiversity and urban cultural fabric


It’s easy to take for granted the biodiversity of our towns and cities, though “urban ecology” has become a buzz phrase within the subject and there’s lots of research groups working on this topic, as I’ve mentioned previously in relation to Muzafar Hussain‘s work on solitary bee diversity within Northampton.  Muzafar is currently analysing his data and writing up the results, and I hope to share some of his exciting findings with you at some point in the future.

However another aspect of urban “biodiversity” has hardly been researched at all, as far as I’m aware:  the way in which elements of the natural world have been incorporated into the physical fabric of urban landscapes. The use of flower and animal figures around doorways and windows, and in the metalwork, of Victorian town houses in Northampton, for example.  Some of the most impressive are to be found on a couple of houses in the Barrack Road Conservation Area, where the iron railings around street-side balconies have been cast to resemble botanically accurate Epihyllum cacti in full flower.  There are many others, including birds incorporated into boot scrapers, and flowers and trees used for house names  (“Holly Cottage”, “Lonicera House”, “The Lindens”).  Much of the housing and commercial architecture in Northampton dates to the back end of the 19th century and the use of such motifs possibly reflects the influence of the iconic Natural History Museum in London, Alfred Waterhouse’s cathedral of biodiversity a century before the term was coined.

The names of pubs and inns may sometimes reflect our fascination with the natural world (“The White Elephant”) or with agricultural biodiversity (“The Cock Hotel”), a topic that I’ve written about in the past.  I was therefore unhappy to read that a pub in Northampton town centre is to be renamed, despite the fact that its old name of The Fish Inn reflects a history of that part of town which goes back to at least the 16th century and was included in a town heritage trail.  Why do councils allow this to happen?  It devalues the cultural fabric of the town ever further.  

Oxford, I’d like to think, might treat its local history a little better, regardless of whether one can spin a loose link to biodiversity.  It’s always a pleasure to return to the city which turned me into a professional scientist so I was happy to make the almost two hour early morning car and bus trip to attend the first day of the Biodiversity Resilience symposium.  I was teaching on the second day so had to miss it, but the first half of the symposium was interesting and thought provoking.  Highlights for me included:

  • Sam Turvey‘s analysis of whether or not human range expansion over the past several thousand years has driven the extinction of large mammals.   In some cases the evidence is clear cut, in others it’s not.
  • Lydia Cole on using the fossil pollen record of tropical forests to estimate recovery times of forest vegetation following disturbance; it appears that whilst all forests can recover, not all regions do so equally quickly, with time scales varying from around 150 to 350 years.
  • Graham Stone describing his group’s work on  how the history of interactions between oak gall wasps and their parasitoids in Europe can be reconstructed using molecular genetic data.
  • Guy Woodward on the effects of stressors such as pollution and drought on freshwater food webs.
  • John Dearing linking social science with natural science in an analysis of how population growth and exploitation of natural resources might lead to environmental problems in some parts of China in the near future.

These should give you a sense of the diversity of topics covered and that was the overwhelming impression that I came away with at the end of a long day: the study of biodiversity is as broad as one can imagine, from genes to ecosystems, interactions to extinctions.  Notions of what is meant by “resilience” were equally wide, with each presenter having a subtly different take on a slippery concept.  This illustrates the value of conferences such as this: it brings together a community of individuals who might work in complete ignorance of one another’s work, even though it could inform and challenge their own studies.  If day two was as stimulating as day one, then the organisers can count it a success.

3 thoughts on “Biodiversity and urban cultural fabric

  1. sueantrobus

    Very thought provoking Jeff, very interesting in the links between cultural and natural heritage, which the more you look the more you find, and sometimes in unexpected places


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