The Accidental Ecosystem By Peter S. Alagona — Review

This book tells the unlikely story of America’s cities — the ecosystem that was never supposed to exist — and how they went from being bereft of native wildlife to being populated by wild creatures

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You may not know this, but historically, cities were home to an abundance of wildlife. This is because most big cities were built on biodiversity hotspots. For example, Seattle and San Francisco are located next to estuaries; Washington DC, Chicago, and New Orleans were built on top of wetlands; New York City and Boston are situated on the mouths of rivers. All of these areas once were homes to rich and thriving multi-species communities of wild animals and many were major resting and refueling stopovers for migrating birds.

Of course, this was before humans moved in and destroyed these places, and either killed or drove out the native wildlife. But surprisingly, despite the dramatic decline in wildlife across the country, many cities in the United States are now home to more wild animals than they have been during the past 150 years. Why? And what does this mean for human city dwellers as well as for our wild neighbors? The recently published book, The Accidental Ecosystem: People and Wildlife in American Cities (University of California Press, 2021: Amazon US / Amazon UK) provides some insights. This is the second book by Peter Alagona, an Associate Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and it shares the overlooked story of how modern American cities are unexpectedly providing homes to wildlife.

In his accessible book, Professor Alagona starts by discussing the history of how cities have changed since the 1700s up through today. In the early days of urban growth, which were in the 18th or 19th centuries for many American cities, native species were still common in many of these increasingly populated areas, Professor Alagona notes. But these wild creatures subsequently disappeared due to a variety of causes, ranging from hunting to pollution and habitat clearing. It didn’t take long before almost all of the animals that remained in a given urban area were conglomeration of domesticated and invasive exotic species: either a collection of non-native rodent species, mangy abandoned dogs, or semi-feral housecats — which were hard at work murdering any native songbirds that dared to remain behind.

But even as cities had been transformed into concrete jungles filled with despair and desperation, urban planners were rethinking and changing their ideas about cities and began to make them more welcoming for their human residents. Parks were built. Trees planted. Urban pea-patches and gardening spaces became more common, and waiting lists of a decade or longer for one of these highly coveted spots sprung up. Local wildlife also benefitted: beginning in the 1970s, wildlife began to reappear in cities throughout the world. Deer, alligators, bears, seals, rabbits, hawks and eagles suddenly could be regularly spotted as they went about their daily business. This wildlife-as-neighbors scenario is happening in most cities across the country, and indeed, around the world.

Modern cities are a new ecosystem that brings together wild creatures in novel arrangements and associations. “These spaces are so new that no species that lives in them is truly adapted to them in any deep, evolutionary sense,” Professor Alagona explained. “Cities bring together diverse creatures in new ways.”

Professor Alagona then discusses how the field of ecology is changing to incorporate this new, emerging discipline of urban ecology. He provides case studies focused on specific urban wildlife, such as pumas, coyotes, and — his favorite — black bears. He explores why some species thrive in urban areas and discovers that these reasons are much like traits and behaviors that we see in city dwelling humans.

Throughout the book, Professor Alagona argues that wilding our urban centers is a good thing, that our lives are more intertwined with those of animals than we think, and that decisions that benefit urban wildlife will, in most cases, be good for people, too. Further, he argues that living peaceably and sustainably alongside wildlife is our responsibility:

“Diverse philosophies, religions, and wisdom traditions — from utilitarianism to Buddhism — agree that, all else being equal, we should seek to reduce the amount of pain and increase the amount of happiness in the world among all sentient beings. We all have an obligation to treat individual animals humanely, even in cases when there is no reasonable choice other than to kill them”, Professor Alagona said. “I believe we also have an obligation to our communities. Most of us now live not only among groups of people, but also within diverse multispecies communities. It is our duty to do what we can to foster health, wellbeing, and even joy in the ecosystems we inhabit, because doing so increases the happiness of individuals and because communities are more than just the sums of their parts. We’re all interconnected.”

But how should we live alongside urban wildlife? Aren’t wild predators, like coyotes, for example, dangerous? Won’t they eat our babies?

“Wild animals that are acting normal, avoiding people, and minding their own business are usually best viewed at a distance and left alone”, Professor Alagona said. “It is also important to remember that animals like coyotes help people by preying on rodent pests, and that most animal-related human injuries are inflicted by insects, arachnids, and other smaller, less charismatic creatures.”

Overall, this highly readable and relevant book presents an important topic that is, in my opinion, mostly overlooked by the ecology community. It provides a perspective that, while cities can damage the environment, they also represent their own unique ecosystem that can and should be managed humanely, sustainably and fairly for the good of people and of wildlife. Highly recommended.


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