Words by Nathanael Johnson
Nathanael Johnson is the author of Unseen City — an exploration of the world of “synanthropes”, the plant and animal species that have evolved to thrive alongside city dwellers, whether they are welcome or not
The Possible: How do synanthropes contribute to the functioning of a city? What is the unseen role that they play?
Nathanael Johnson: Their role is to thrive in our footsteps, to make use of the environments we create and turn our waste into life. Now, often we see this as more of an annoyance than a contribution. For instance, pigeons thrive on our food waste and multiply to such huge populations that their poop becomes a real problem and their health begins to suffer because diseases spread at high concentrations. It’s always easier to see the problems, but they are providing services as well. If not for pigeons, rats, and ants we’d have rotting food piled up all over our cities (ants do the heavy lifting here).
But the role that I’m interested in is more spiritual than practical. I want to help people notice that, no matter how urban their environment, they are also in nature. If we can open our eyes to the weeds, squirrels and street trees it can suffuse the walk to the bus stop with meaning.
TP: Synanthropes need humans to thrive, but how do humans need synanthropes?
NJ: The problem is that we mostly don’t. That is, we don’t need them to survive, or keep our kids out of danger. But as you move on to things like the need to belong, to have a meaningful life, to experience aesthetic interest or difference, they become really important. So I wouldn’t recommend worrying about nurturing nature in a refugee camp with scarce resources, but if you are at the stage where you have the privilege to actually care about making life good — rather than just possible — for people they can help a lot.
TP: How has your own relationship with the city changed since you began studying synanthropes?
NJ: It’s made life a lot more interesting! It used to be that I’d sort of switch on my eyes if I was hiking in a national park to look for plants and animals, but I’d switch them off again when I came home. Now I make a point of looking closely at the life around me as I move through the city. I have relationships with the trees in my neighbourhood, I notice when they are doing well, and when they are sick. I know the squirrel who “owns” my backyard, and am familiar with his seasonal dietary changes. I can hear the news about the tilting of the earth from the birds.
TP: What can synanthropes teach us about being better city dwellers?
NJ: I think the main lesson is that life is better when you know your neighbours, be they human or non-human. If we have diversity in our neighbourhoods and form relationships, life gets better.
TP: And about designing and managing cities better?
NJ: Well, I think the skill of paying close attention to the perspectives of a true diversity of neighbours makes for better city policies and more democratic governance. I also think that if we start seeing the wilderness around us we’ll start valuing it, and try to bring more of it into our cities. It turns out that the best way to nurture biodiversity in cities is to set aside a chunk of park and wild land nearby. This range of biomes — city, fields and wild land — makes for much higher biodiversity than any one of them alone.
TP: You talk about upending the ethic that tells us to stop spoiling nature and start using it to support ourselves … How could we use nature positively to make life in cities better and more sustainable?
“Environmentalism really is changing already: it’s becoming much less about saving picturesque places that wealthy people like to vacation in”
NJ: Traditionally environmentalism has been about stopping the bulldozers, but now it has to really be about firing up the bulldozers to build the low-carbon power plants, and transportation, and housing we need. And environmentalism really is changing already: it’s becoming much less about saving picturesque places that wealthy people like to vacation in, and much more about ensuring everyone can have a safe, healthy and beautiful place to live.
I think paying attention to nature in cities can help us make this shift. In our daily lives we recognize that there are trade-offs, we can both cherish nature and seek to control it. For instance, I like having lots of interesting creatures around, but if there are rats in my house I’m going to kill them. Paying attention to nature in cities, particularly with children, can provide lessons about valuing nature in a pragmatic way that allows humans and non-humans to thrive together. Instead of our current irrational binary — ie. nature is sacred and cannot ever be touched, or nature must be extinguished entirely to make way for civilization — we’d be doing the work to figure out how to live together.
TP: Do you think we should consider synanthropes more actively when making decisions about our cities?
NJ: Yes! Instead of only noticing when things get to be pests, we should be figuring out how to manage them so we can live more comfortably side by side. We should be setting aside land near cities for habitat, and make spaces for the movement of wildlife. Planners and architects should be aware that, any time they make an out-of-the-way corner, or rooftop, sooner or later plants and animals will make it their home. Even if you don’t design for it, life finds a way. We might as well be conscious of this fact and design for it.
Nathanael Johnson is the food editor for Grist. Unseen City is published by Rodale