“The landscapes that have been so severely damaged by anthropogenic processes as to divert ecological trajectories, and that contain new ecological assemblages that have never been recorded before, might themselves be the most likely places to bring humans closer to nature – ‘new’ nature, but nature all the same” – Sustainability Scientist Marcus Collier (2016)

There is a long history of humans constructing a sharp opposition between ourselves and nature. As an urban naturalist and journalist, Wayne Grady says in his book Toronto the Wild, nature is often perceived one of two ways:

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1. As a threat – the dangerous wilderness that must be beat back in order to protect ourselves from harm, or, god forbid, from our own animal instincts,

or

2. As something artificial

“referred to in inverted commas, as when talking about something ersatz – like calling an orange-coloured, processed, milk by-product ‘cheese’. Not real nature, but nature as an earthly paradise, a pastorale, a green thought in a green shade, far removed from the urban sprawl. Nature as an idea” (1995).

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In recent years, however, it has become harder and harder to sustain either myth. We have beaten back non-human life to such an extent (we have lost 68% of the planet’s biodiversity since 1970) that it has become abundantly clear that we, ourselves, are the true threat, and that pristine landscapes unaffected by human activity are rapidly becoming extinct.

Despite our best efforts to destroy all life on the planet, however, life soldiers on. But with a difference. We have so drastically altered the biosphere, and the individual ecosystems we have come into contact with, that many species have been driven from their original habitats due to a range of factors, sometimes linked. These include overhunting/fishing which can cause disruptions in the food chain, pollution from human industry, the importation (sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional) of invasive species, and climate change. Our impact has been so great that scientists have suggested that we are responsible for initiating a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. But in spite of our egregious negligence  – and often wanton, willful destructiveness – many species have figured out ways to survive, and even sometimes to thrive, in novel environments that are the direct result of the very human industry that drove these species out of their original habitats in the first place.

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Let’s have a look at a few outstanding examples of these novel ecosystems, and see what we might learn from them.

1. Emscher Landscape Park, Germany

Situated in the German Ruhr Valley along the Emscher River, “a watercourse which was degraded to the level of wastewater canal in the industrial age”, Emscher Landscape Park has bounced back in ways that surely no one in mid-twentieth-century Germany ever could have foreseen. This is in part because the landscape was so utterly decimated – and subsequently abandoned – by the coal and steel industries that it would have been difficult to imagine much living there. But partly, also, because many of the species of plants and animals that now populate the area had never lived there before the industrial revolution. Rather, they were brought in with the import of raw materials from warmer places around the globe, along international transport networks. This resourceful set of flora and fauna have made their homes in “rusting pithead towers and steel furnaces, on dusty spoil tips, and within the crushed stones along abandoned railway lines.” They include butterfly bushes from Asia, small-leaved groundsel from South Africa, the sickle-bearing bush cricket – a type of locust originally from Southern Europe, and the hare whose first home was the Steppe.

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Although human industry was responsible for the annihilation of the area’s ecosystems in the first place, it was this leftover abandoned wasteland that made such a suitable home for the displaced species that later populated it, brought in as they were by that same human industry. The result is novel, perfectly functional, and biodiverse ecosystems where human interference and non-human natural processes are inextricable from one another.

2. Ariel Sharon Park, Israel

At one time the Ayalon River drained 850km2 (520mi2) of land from the Judean Mountains to the Mediterranian Coast. It brought water to ancient agricultural communities all year round, and was teeming with life. Then, in 1948, the growing metropolis of Tel Aviv turned the area along the river banks just outside the city into a backyard dump. This mountain of garbage, known as the Hiriya landfill, grew as the city grew throughout the 50s and 60s until it was half a mile long and reached 87 yards above sea level. The smell of the decomposing trash attracted thousands of birds, which in turn became a hazard for the nearby Ben Gurion International Airport. The area became home to the city’s pesticide department, sewage pumping station, and many small-scale industrial plants. The river’s sources became so polluted that all wildlife there was gradually extinguished.

The landfill was closed in 1998, and then in 2004 landscape architect and urban planner Peter Latz was hired by the Israeli government to help design an eco-friendly park on the site, and it has since become the largest metropolitan park in the country, three times the size of Central Park. In her paper, Ariel Sharon Park and the Emergence of Israel’s Environmentalism, Tal Alon-Mozes explains the rigorous planning and human involvement that goes into such a restoration project:

The design highlights flood control, preserving surplus soil within the park (8 million cubic meters), planting drought-tolerant vegetation, reducing lawn areas, and basing the planting scheme on dispersed groves and orchards of carobs, olive trees, and sycamores. Agricultural landscapes such as fields of cereals and sunflowers are part of the design. At the eastern entrance to the park, the polluted water of the Ayalon and Shafirim Rivers will pass through a constructed wetland before arriving at the main flooding area of the park (2012).

With the ecosystems in the area restored, Ariel Sharon Park has once again become home to wildlife, including “a diverse range of reptiles, mammals, amphibians and 200 species of birds for which the areas of the park are used as a stop on their migration route.”

But, of course, restore is not the right word, since these are ecosystems that never existed prior to the construction of the park. Rather, this park is the novel result of an ongoing collaboration of humans with wildlife; of humans coming to terms with the environmental degradation we have caused, and paradoxically converting some of its effects (land abandonment, and open space) to ecological advantage.

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3. Freshkills Park, Staten Island

A similar transformation from garbage heap to green space has occurred in New York on Staten Island. The landfill was initiated in 1947 as a temporary solution to the influx of waste that was being produced by New Yorkers during the highly consumerist, post-war “Age of Disposability.” Its inception coincided with the development and mass production of disposable plastics which ushered in a new culture of convenience… and garbage. Before long, it was the city’s main landfill, receiving solid waste from all five boroughs, growing, over its fifty-year lifespan, to be the largest dump in the world until its closure in 2001.

What was once 2,200 acres of sea-level wetland became 2,200 acres of mountainous trash, reaching heights of 200 feet. If those numbers seem a little daunting, let’s just say it was the largest human-made structure on Earth. Staten Islanders tried repeatedly tried to close the dump, complaining of the stench, and of the resulting raccoon infestation.

However, the past twenty years have seen the beginnings of the wetland’s reclamation. Native grasses were planted, and have taken to the landscape exceedingly well. So well, in fact, that they have grown to become one of the largest grassland habitats in the region for a variety of wildlife including rare species of grassland birds. Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds have returned to the area; as have mammals like the red fox. And each year there is a measurable increase in the fish population in the park’s creeks.

Of course, all this thriving biodiversity at Freshkills is anything but natural, if you define nature as ecosystems that are unaffected by human interference. Rather, it is a highly engineered landscape, starting with the rolling hills of garbage that are sealed off with a cap made from layers of soil and geotextiles. Wells, trenches, and pipes comprise an underground system to collect landfill byproducts and send them to nearby treatment plants. Monitoring of air, surface water, and groundwater, as well as of all the various wildlife in the park, is conducted regularly. And yet, with all these highly calculated human interventions in place, wildlife proliferates itself and takes on its own unpredictable course. The effect is a new kind of nature, one where humans and wildlife interact in the creation of ecosystems, to the benefit of all.

4. Chernobyl, Ukraine

The devastation to the surrounding landscape after the explosion of one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is unique in this list in that it was not the product of gradual and cumulative ecological degradation as in the case of mines and landfills, but of one solitary incident on April 26th, 1986 (setting aside, for the moment, the damage done by the mining of uranium to provide the fuel for the reactor.) Humans were ordered to evacuate the following day, however, 31 people died from radiation exposure within three months of evacuation, and nearly 20,000 people living in the area who were under 18 in 1986 developed thyroid cancer between 1991-2005, according to a UN report.

However, all other life in the region paid an even higher toll. Abandoned pets were ordered shot. The high levels of radiation that resulted from the blast soon killed all of the trees in the area, which turned a bright ginger color, earning them the name “the red forest” before they were bulldozed. There is also evidence that the radiation greatly diminished the area’s insect population. Pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies, important herbivores like grasshoppers, and predators like dragonflies and spiders were all seriously affected. Although small in size, these insects play a huge role in an ecosystem, and the effects of their absence on the area’s ecology have likely been significant.

But, the negative effects on the landscape that result from the absence of insects may well be outweighed by the positive impact of the absence of another animal… humans. Following the catastrophe, the Soviet Union created a 1,017mi2 (2,634km2) “Exclusion Zone” around the reactor where no one was allowed to live or hunt. Later it was expanded to 1,600mi2 (4,143km2), and what resulted was an eruption of many populations of wildlife. Chernobyl has become a refuge for many different species, including moose, deer, boar, foxes, hares, beavers, wolves, lynx, and bears. According to one study, the population of large mammals on the Belarus side of the exclusion zone has actually increased since before the disaster. And in 1998 thirty-one Przewalski’s horses, a nearly extinct breed of wild horse were introduced to the region, and that number had reached 150 individuals by 2018.

As a result of human industry, the landscape around Chernobyl was so devastated as to become uninhabitable for humans. And yet, in certain marked ways, the ecosystem there has benefitted from that same human recklessness. By forcing ourselves out of the region, we freed the non-human life there from the threat of being hunted or having their habitats ruined by human activity. And so they have thrived. But this is not some case study in a world without humans, as some articles bill it. Rather this is a landscape that bears the radioactive scars of human industry, but whose proliferation of biodiversity is the direct result of that same industry. It is a novel landscape that could only exist in a world where human and non-human life interface.

5. Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, Canada

If it weren’t for the dangerous amounts of radiation in the area, it would be no surprise that the wildlife of Chernobyl is thriving with no humans for miles to impede their progress. But can that kind of biodiversity exist in the downtown of a bustling metropolis? As you might have guessed, the answer is yes. But the more interesting question is “how?” Believe it or not, yet again, it all starts with industrial waste.

The Leslie Street Spit was conceived in the 1950s as a landfill for construction waste that would extend from the mainland of Toronto’s downtown out into Lake Ontario, doubling as a breakwater. The dug-up earth from the construction of subways, along with the concrete, tile, and brick from building demolitions were heaped further and further out into the lake until it reached 3mi (5km).

But then something unexpected occurred. Plants began sprouting out of the cracks in the concrete. Birds arrived and began mating and nesting. Mammals and reptiles appeared. Now the spit is home to five distinct ecosystems. Important native plant species abound there, including dogwood, elderberry, cattails, cottonwoods, bullrushes, and burr reeds. There are turtles, snakes, beavers, minks, muskrats, foxes, and coyotes, and it has become a vital stopover for over 320 species of migratory birds. 

At the spit, among all this biodiversity, it can be easy to get swept up in the illusion that you are in some completely wild place, that you have entered that mythic, pristine nature that is unsullied by human interference. And then you see the massive slabs of broken concrete sprouting messes of wiry rebar that line the shore and you remember that you are standing on the very stuff of human industry. You look up and see the looming Toronto skyline across the lake and you realize you’re in the city, the hub of human activity.

But perhaps this comingling of wild and human life is the very definition of nature in a contemporary context where we have single-handedly altered the entire biosphere – in the Anthropocene. We have intervened in the earth’s processes so much that we have ushered in a new, unprecedented kind of nature. One where our destructiveness and subsequent ingenuity is woven into the ecosystems; where we are part of nature just as it is part of us. And in the wake of our recent decimation of the Earth, this is the only choice left to us. We have actively destroyed too much of our planet not to have to take an active approach to its rehabilitation.

How do we, as individuals, contribute to the conservation effort?

So it’s clear that humans have to play an active role in rebuilding our damaged ecosystems, but how do we, as individuals, help? I put this question to the Toronto Conservation Authority and received this answer: “There are many opportunities including getting involved in citizen-based science monitoring initiatives, undertaking community-based restoration and planting events, public education and outreach opportunities. The list is really endless”.

This idea of there being endless opportunities to help the conservation effort is representative of the endless ways we can interact with ecosystems and in so doing shape them; and, the corollary of that, the infinite forms nature can take. By radically altering the ecology of the earth, we have proved that there is no prescribed trajectory for nature, that our participation in nature – whether inimical or well-meaning – plays an important role in shaping it. There is no certainty what will become of us or of the natural world. What is certain is that we are too bound up with nature’s course to be able to discuss either subject separately. Perhaps the distinction between humans and nature was always artificial, but now it is undeniably so. And contemplating our future as a species necessarily entails the consideration of all other species on Earth.

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