How Inequality Affects Urban Wildlife

Mark Altaweel

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We often think of racism or social and economic inequality as something that mainly affects human societies and how some of us experience socio-economic life. However, long-lived patterns of racism or inequality in housing, income, and other aspects of life also affect how wildlife are able to adapt and survive in our urban neighborhoods. This is something ecologists have begun to recently pay more attention to and is now gaining more interest as an area of future policy as well.

Wildlife and open space has been shown to increase our mental health and improve our overall quality of life. Even in urban areas, having access to parks or green space is crucial for our overall quality of life. However, access to these spaces is not equal. Frequently, green spaces and protected areas within urban neighborhoods are found within wealthier parts of cities.

Long-lived practices of favoritism to white neighborhoods, including redlining of city areas where minorities were not sold properties purposely to limit their presence, have also led to unequal infrastructure development as well as development of green spaces. These green spaces tend to have not only more mature trees and plants, but a greater animal biodiversity, even in densely urban areas in the United States.

Wealthier urban neighborhoods tend to have greater wildlife diversity compare to lower income areas

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers from the University of Washington led a review of how systematic racist practices, even from decades ago, affect today’s wildlife distribution in cities. Parks were built in many cities around white and wealthier neighborhoods. This has now, after decades, led to areas in cities that demonstrate greater animal biodiversity.

Residents in these wealthier neighborhoods have greatly benefited from access to parks, with both improved physical and mental health. On the other hand, residents in poorer neighborhoods that have had less access to parks have not benefited and demonstrated much lower qualities of mental and physical health.

Wildlife in parks and green spaces also show much more diversity and are even thriving in parts of urban regions that were protected decades ago. In contrast, animal biodiversity is much lower in poor neighborhoods. The authors argue it is important that environmental justice policies consider these legacies and how this has affected both human and non-human life. Policies should enable more equal access to all residents and offer protection to wildlife.[1]

The positive news is that cities are found to contain a wide range of biodiversity, which is encouraging for conservation policies that have often excluded urban areas in favor of conservation practices in non-urban regions. This demonstrates that our policies of conservation must also consider the relevance and importance of protecting wildlife in urban regions.

Long-lasting effects of redlining affect both humans and wildlife populations

However, policies that have encouraged segregation and gentrification also affects wildlife and this is something urban ecologists must now consider in their research. The era of the New Deal saw many redlining policies that enforced and perpetuated segregation in the United States. Today, two-thirds of these redlined neighborhoods are majority-minority neighborhoods, which show higher rates of poverty, unemployment, health problems, and lost wealth.

Where urban wildlife is found in these areas, animals are also affected by pollution and lack of green spaces. So-called wealthier greenlined neighborhoods, which can be found on Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC)[2] maps established in the 1930s, can be seen to have overall greater and healthier biodiversity in cities such as Los Angeles.

Birds that typically live in forests, such as warblers, wrens and bluebirds, can be found in Los Angeles’ white urban neighborhoods. Hispanic neighborhoods, in contrast, have more so-called synanthropic species, or animals that live around humans often feeding on waste or rubbish. This includes species such as rats, pigeons, and ravens. Effectively, how common given animal species are reflects that types of inequalities built into neighborhoods decades ago based on housing policies that were intended to help ‘improve’ lives during the Great Depression.

In a study that carried out genetic diversity analysis of animal species, it was found that in 268 urban regions in the United States there is greater genetic diversity in white neighborhoods. This demonstrates that habitats were generally healthier because animals could more easily interconnect with different populations of their species, which allowed for greater diversity and overall healthier species. In other words, wealthier neighborhoods were far more likely to create healthier habitats for a more diverse range of wildlife.[3]

Although redlining largely stopped at official levels in the 1960s, it is clear its policies have left a natural, environmental legacy that negatively impacts wildlife and humans alike. Today, urban ecologists have recognized these decades-long inequalities that have affected wildlife. More efforts now try to connect underserved urban regions with local wildlife.

Undoing decades-long discriminatory practices, that still affect housing in urban neighborhoods today, are not likely to reverse urban wildlife distributions anytime soon. Nevertheless, finding new ways to protect and expand various types of birds and small mammal populations within urban regions, even in deprived areas, could be a new goal for an emerging urban wildlife awareness and policies.

References

[1]    For more on a review and study on how urban policies have affected non-human and human life in urban neighborhoods, see:  Schell, Christopher J., Karen Dyson, Tracy L. Fuentes, Simone Des Roches, Nyeema C. Harris, Danica Sterud Miller, Cleo A. Woelfle-Erskine, and Max R. Lambert. “The Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Systemic Racism in Urban Environments.” Science 369, no. 6510 (September 18, 2020): eaay4497. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aay4497.

[2]    HOLC maps can be seen here:  https://ncrc.org/holc/.

[3]    Information about urban redlining and its affect on urban wildlife and inequality in wildlife distribution, including these policies’ effects on wildlife and humans can be found here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/21/science/birds-cities-redlining.html

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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