The MUST project explores our options for counteracting biodiversity loss in urban areas and improve the wellbeing of all creatures living in our cities. One of our main interests is our relations to other species, and how reframing them may open up for more biodiversity-inclusive decision making.

Sometimes other species are directly involved in shaping our shared spaces – if you have tried to eat ice cream outdoors in a seaside city you will know – but the spaces where we make decisions about our joint future are almost always closed to them.

Can we humans make more space for the perspectives and needs of non-human beings in urban governance?

Actually, yes. We can speak on behalf of others – a well-established if not unproblematic tradition of biased representation – or we can mediate, amplify, or make more legible the agency of others, or we can make space for nature to govern itself.

It usually takes a human to engage with human processes, and to be present more thoroughly in the ongoing negotiations of cohabitation the other-than-humans need people to speak to other humans on behalf of them. Advocates of nature conservation take this role, but also many other people in some way speak on behalf of nature, animals, or urban ecosystems. However, this representation does not mirror the diversity of urban inhabitants – it tends to be biased toward charismatic animals or aesthetically pleasing plants – but it has established platforms and structures for making space for others in our human-centric visions of what cities can be.

Sometimes agency lies in visibility – sometimes in the absence of it. We draw some organisms near to be able to enjoy their company – we put out feed and nest boxes for birds, and we install beehives and bee hotels. Attention, lived experience and active stewardship can be seen not as talking on behalf of others, but acting on behalf of others. This extends also to the ways artists, park managers, pedagogues, and many others try to help other people see meaning and value in sharing the city with other species.

But then there are the species that humans do not want to share space with. For example, we have made invasive species ‘illegal’, making it obligatory by law to remove them. Cities are taking action by harvesting garden lupine, hogweed and other plants and arranging events where participants pick and ‘destroy’ Spanish slugs (although using the most ethical ways – slicing in half, crushing, burning, boiling them to death).

Less attention has been paid to more comprehensive discussions of other species’ lived circumstances and their roles in local ecosystems. Active stewardship – people acting more like considerate gardeners in our environments – may help restore ecosystems in ways that maintain the balance between different species and enable thriving, evolving communities. Stewardship has long been a more than human affair; others help graze, browse, dabble, or sow. For example, a Duck Squad – ducks as natural enemies of snails – roaming around the neighbourhood could limit the ‘damage’ caused by Spanish slugs, gastropods and other species living on the surface of the soil.

Finally, there is wilding. Present in the lawn-turned-meadow, the forest garden or the ‘abandoned’ brownfield, we see an increasing trend in terms of making space for nature to govern itself. We humans have a history of trying to control our surroundings. While in part it has allowed us to flourish in relatively safe environments it has also made us poorly equipped to deal with variability and uncertainty, something we will see more of as the world continues to change. Wilding green spaces in cities will not solve this problem, but it may help us think differently in terms of how we try to govern our environment.

From the perspective of multispecies justice, these existing approaches have their constraints. They tend to be controlled by humans, usually far removed from recognising and fairly representing multi-species agency and blunt in their assessment of benefits and harms. How do we move from these conventional approaches to biodiversity conservation and nature-based solutions? What kind of shifts in perspectives, working cultures and decision-making processes would this require?

Cross-sectoral nature-inclusive governance will be a matter of overcoming and working across differences (embracing dialogue and shared future with new audiences), both within human governance and in local ecosystems. Our work in MUST is about exploring just what these solutions could be.

 

Valtteri Aaltonen & Erik Andersson, University of Helsinki

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